Kid-Friendly Day Trips from Columbia

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Two hours to the mountains, two hours to the beach – Columbia’s famous for its easy getaways. But beyond sitting on a beach or climbing a mountain, there’s lots to do within a three hour drive of the capital city. No week-long vacay plans for spring break? No problem! Columbia has plenty of day trip options for kids and adults. Here’s some of our family’s favorite quickie road trips sure to make memories – at a distance short enough to keep you sane.

Charlotte

Discovery Place

Yes, you’re spoiled by Edventure. But Charlotte’s downtown children’s museum, Discovery Place boasts an Imax Theater and an in-house aquarium. It tends to skew a bit older than Edventure as well – ten year olds will find plenty to do. The KidScience exhibit is geared specially towards children under seven, but younger kids will also enjoy other parts of the museum (including their Build! architecture feature).  There’s enough to “make and do” that kids and adults will stay busy for half a day or more.

Open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 1 p.m.-4 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $10-15 a person, plus parking

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US National Whitewater Center

Improbably, the river-less city of Charlotte is home to the country’s competitive whitewater hub. The US National Whitewater Center offers an artificial river with a changeable water level, for paddling anything from flatwater to Class V rapids. Kayak, whitewater raft, or flatwater paddle; try your hand at obstacle courses, zip lines, and canopy trails. Younger children can enjoy the vast walking and hiking trails, and an on-site restaurant and outfitter help complete your adventure. Half the fun is watching others, though, so plan some time to stick around in the stands and watch people fall out of their boats (and shoot rapids. But mostly fall out of boats).

See website for hours of operation and activity costs; free entry

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Tiger World

Located on the outskirts of Charlotte, Tiger World is a big-cat sanctuary and rescue open to the public. Over 70 lions, tigers, and bears – along with cheetahs, ligers, leopards, and other sundry exotics – call this patch of North Carolina home. The enclosures allow you to come remarkably (read: sometimes startlingly) close to big cats. Don’t be surprised to see some natural prey behavior; a cheetah and a tiger both clearly wanted to nosh my small sons for lunch. While the conditions aren’t what you’re used to at Riverbanks, Tiger World rescues animals from dire situations and funds itself without recourse to tax dollars. It’s worth a couple hours of time.

Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; closed Wednesday.

Admission: $10-12, children under 2 free. Carnivore tour and cub encounter extra.

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Carowinds

Carowinds opens March 29th! Adults and kids alike love the area’s biggest theme park. Carowinds has several roller coasters and thrill rides, along with the standard amusement park fare (the scrambler, the swings, etc.). While all but one ride have a height minimum of 40 inches, tiny kids can enjoy Dinosaurs Alive!, the 30-creature animatronic dino walkthrough, built to current paleontological knowledge. Note that Boomerang Bay doesn’t open ’til May.

Check website for hours of operation.

Admission: $46.99 online

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Ikea

Let’s get real. You planned this trip to Charlotte so you can snag some guilt-free hours perusing Swedish furniture. The in-house restaurant runs daily specials – pulled pork! meatballs! – and you can ditch potty trained kids in Smaland for an hour at a time. Total win. Just make sure you left room in the car for that impulse buy couch.

Monday – Saturday 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.

Admission: Free. You’re gonna buy a lot of well designed stuff you never knew you needed. Try to remember your big blue bag this time, huh?

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You know you want it.
You know you want it.

Atlanta

Georgia Aquarium

Y’all, the hype is real. The Georgia Aquarium has the largest open-ocean tank in the world, and it’s home to the only two whale sharks on display outside of Japan – the largest fish in the world, by the way. Groupers the size of a VW Bug cruise above you; manta rays wave by like God’s own water kites. There’s also a dolphin show (extra), octopi, a touch tank, and all that standard aquarium fare. But you came for the whale sharks. Kids sensitive to noise might bring some headphones; the underwater tunnels get loud. Go early or late to try to beat the crowds (mostly futile, but worth a shot). And yes, it’s expensive. But whale sharks.

See website for hours.

Admission: $29.95-37.95, under 3 free. Parking $10; $9 if ordered online.

Extras include behind-the-scenes tours, dives, and swims. Once-in-lifetime experiences worth the price; age and height limits apply.

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Fernbank Museum of Natural History

Another mainstay of an Atlanta trip, the Fernbank Museum’s renowned for its dinosaur exhibits. It boasts one of the few gigantosaurus skeletons in the world, and a world-famous shell collection. There’s an Imax, a natural history of Georgia exhibit (giant sloth!), and more. Good for a few hours, though the dino-obsessed may take longer.

Open Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sunday noon-5 p.m.

Admission: $16-18, two and under free. Imax extra.

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World of Coke

You sort of have to learn the history before you can indulge. Coke and the Olympics! Coke and Norman Rockwell! Coke’s secret formula! Then finally get to the part where you try all the different formulations of Coke sold in different countries, which was what you were waiting for anyway. Good for an hour or two; small children will ingest artificial dye and caffeine.

Check website for hours.

Admission: $12-16, but they already own your soul. Two and under free. Parking will cost you.

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Six Flags over Georgia

Six Flags re-opens on weekends starting March 15th. It’s on the far side of Atlanta, so plan on some more trip time, but it’s still doable as a day trip. Many of the rides have only a 36 inch height restriction, and some have none at all, so small kids can still have a blast. Older kids will find roller coasters, thrill rides, and the same stuff you’d get in any park. Bring sunscreen, and plan on a long day.

Check website for hours.

Admission: $39.99-59.99, two and under free. Parking not included.

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Imagine It – The Children’s Museum of Atlanta

This is a lovely gem of a museum with a big open floor plan, geared towards children from about one to seven (older children may be bored). Standard children’s museum fare of a grocery store, a farm, costumes, etc. The sand sculpting will mesmerize kids, adults, and especially anyone under the influence of psychedelics. The water play will delight kids and terrify mamas, because you forgot extra clothes again, didn’t you? Plan on 2-3 hours of fun.

Open Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Wednesday.

Admission: $12.75; under 1 free

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Charleston/Low Country

South Carolina Aquarium

No, it’s not as grand as Georgia’s, but the South Carolina aquarium in Charleston, SC still has lots to offer, including an otter exhibit, a walk-through salt marsh, jellyfish, and yes – the ubiquitous gator (inexplicably, there are also lemurs). For an extra fee, tour the sea turtle hospital or see a 4-D movie: choose from a SpongeBob flick or a National Geographic film. Plan on about two hours, extras aside.

Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. 

Admission: $14.95-24.95, three and under free.

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Children’s Museum of the Low Country

This museum’s geared to the imagination, with play stations that push children to pretend. A grocery store, a castle, a raceway and a market offer chances to role-play, and a art station gives kids the opportunity to get messy. Worth a trip if you’re already in Charleston, but since we’ve got Edventure locally, it’s not a great focal point for a two-hour drive.

See website for hours. Closed Monday.

Admission: $10, $8 for SC residents. Under one free.

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Botany Bay

Edisto State Park’s cooler cousin, Botany Bay is 3500 acres of undeveloped coastline on the edge of  Edisto Island. The last surviving residents deeded it to the Bureau of Land Management, and it opened to the public in 2009. Ruins of several plantations dot the land; gators and birds abound. But the real gem is the untouched beach, where a maritime forest falls into the ocean. It’s beautiful, windswept, and serene. Removal of any shell, fossil, driftwood or plant is strictly forbidden – warn the kids beforehand – so enormous shells litter the sand. While the beach is a quarter-mile walk, the path winds through salt marsh and over tiny islands, and is worth the trip in itself. Pack a lunch and plan a day, but be forewarned: Botany Bay makes no concession to visitors, so there are no bathrooms, and the only food and water available is what you bring yourself.

Open daylight hours. Closed on Tuesdays and for special hunts.

Admission: Free; obtain day pass at kiosk.

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Yes, it really looks like this.
Yes, it really looks like this.

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Edisto State Park

Want something a little less rustic? Edisto Beach boasts the best shelling in the state, and since the beach is fossiliferous, you may even find some shark teeth. Hang out on the beach (bathrooms and changing facilities available), or drive inland and hike the trails through the maritime forest. The nature center has some neat fossils and a bitey squirrel in a cage; feeding time for the resident fish is 3 pm. The Native American shell mound, a short walk from the dock,  is one of the few left in the US.

Open 9 a.m.-6 p.m., hours extended during daylight saving time.

Admission: $3-5, under 5 free.

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Edisto Island Serpentarium

Serpentarium is a word, and it’s awesome. This snake and reptile zoo’s chock full of venomous and non-venomous asps, adders, boas, constrictors, cobras, and everything else snake. There’s a gator farm, tons of turtles, and several islands of local poisonous snakes; don’t miss the snake and alligator shows. Sure to delight those without a phobia.

See website for hours.

Admission: $10.95-14.95, under three free.

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August gestures at a gator that looks way too close for comfort.
August gestures at a gator that looks way too close for comfort.

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Low Country Fossil Excursions

Located outside of Charleston, Low Country Fossil Excursions is a one-man operation. For a fee, Sean will take you to various sites that virtually promise you’ll find fossils – usually marine life from the Eocene to late Miocene. In a drainage ditch in Summerville – I’m not telling where – we sieved a creek for megalodon teeth, shark vertebrae, whale skeletons, and more shark teeth than you can keep. A must-do for science buffs, and even the smallest kids can usually find something to make the trip worthwhile. Sean’s a fount of information and a great guide; your kids will never forget what it’s like to dig up their own fossils. Total, epic win. Dress for a mess.

Make reservations via the website (yes, it looks like it was made on geocities in 1996, but go with it). Excursions are $60 a person for three hours, which is more than enough to utterly exhaust even the most manic children.

Do you have a favorite day trip location that wasn’t on our list?  Please share!

4 COMMENTS

  1. In addition to Discovery Place in Charlotte, there’s also Discovery Place Kids, which is just a little farther north of Charlotte in Huntersville. We took our boys last spring and they had a blast. Clean, intact places for them to interact. And certainly a day trip from Columbia.

    • Sounds like fun! Thanks for sharing! Who knew there were so many kid-friendly places within close driving distance from Columbia?!

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