Family fun in North Carolina: See the universe, ride the rails or shop and play

Pisgah Astronomical Research Institute 

Who knew NASA had a toehold in the Pisgah National Forest? It’s a well-kept secret, but one visitors can ferret out with a little planning. The one-time satellite tracking station on 200 acres is now home to a nonprofit dedicated to researching the universe through its powerful telescopes. Exhibits of the NASA days remain. The most popular are several tires, tiles and satellites that flew on various space shuttle missions. Hands-on exhibits, hiking trails and a nature center are part of the property. One of the institute’s biggest draws is its public stargazing sessions that give visitors a glimpse into the universe through one of the massive telescopes.

1 PARI Drive, Rosman 28772. 828-862-5554,

Great Smoky Mountains Railroad

Long before there were interstates and HOV lanes, steam and diesel engines got people where they wanted to go. Now this form of transportation is a quaint reminder of an era when things weren’t quite as fast-paced, and it’s a perfect fit for the bucolic countryside of western North Carolina. Head to the historic depot in Bryson City and board this scenic rail line that meanders through mountains, across meadows and over bridges. Riders can kick back in the 1940s restored passenger cars, including a first-class section; open-air “gondolas” built from former baggage cars, and a cafe that serves food, beer and wine in the conductor’s car. Premium seating includes lunch and drinks; boxed lunches can also be ordered for the four-hour excursions. Seasonal events are staged around Snoopy the Easter Beagle, the Wizard of Oz and the Polar Express; other options include private parties in the caboose and wine-tasting dinners.

45 Mitchell St., Bryson City 28713. 800- 872-4681,

Concord Mills

Yes, it’s an outlet mall with more than 200 stores, making it the biggest of that kind in the state. But there’s much more than just shopping at this attraction just a short drive from Charlotte. Score some game time at Dave & Buster’s, the eatery/recreation center that offers bowling, billiards and arcades ( The Speed Park provides a different set of challenges, from go karts for kids and adults to miniature golf, bungee jumping and a 110-foot slide ( For a bit of educational fun, head to the Sea Life Charlotte-Concord Aquarium where only thick glass walls separate gawkers from the sea horses, octopuses, sharks and stingrays – just a few of the more than 200 species in residence. Interactive exhibits let kids get their hands on live crabs, sea urchins and starfish. Feeding times are daily at 2 p.m., when everyone gathers to watch the frenzy ( And if none of those options hold an appeal, there’s always the 24-screen AMC Theater.

111 Concord Mills Blvd., Concord 28027. 704-979-5000,

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