Raven Rock Loop Trail at Raven Rock State Park

Raven Rock Loop TrailIn mid-January we headed to Raven Rock State Park for a morning hike and picnic. Raven Rock State Park is located about an hour south of Raleigh along the Cape Fear River in Harnett County. The underlying rocks in the area formed nearly 400 million years ago through heat and pressure. High winds and rushing water gradually shaped the huge crystalline rock where ravens perched. River captains relied on the outcrops until hurricanes permanently damaged the locks and dams in 1859. Railroad transportation soon replaced river travel, and the state established the park in 1969. The old Northington lock and dam are visible from the park.

We parked in the southern section of the park near the Visitor Center at 3009 Raven Rock Rd in Lillington. Newly built in 2010, the Visitor Center is a great first stop before heading to the trails. Inside the center we explored the exhibits with the topography map, animal scat samples, and history of the the dams. The ranger was friendly and helpful when guiding us to the trailhead. After making a last-minute stop in the clean restrooms, we walked along the left side of the road to access the Raven Rock Loop Trail.

The Raven Rock Loop Trail is about 2.6 total miles. We walked clockwise around the loop, so the beginning of the trail was wide and gently sloped. The back half of the trail was slightly steeper, making the girls push harder at the end of our trip. About a mile into the hike, we arrived at the overlook above the Cape Fear River. The overlook provides beautiful views of the river and surrounding forests.

DSC_0086Then, we walked a little further until we arrived at the steep zig-zag stairs leading to the Raven Rock outcrop. We carefully walked down the windy stairs, stepping to the side to allow others to pass us. At the bottom we reached flatter ground with easy access to the river and the enormous Raven Rock outcrops. The girls loved climbing around the huge rocks and over the tree with the tangled web of tree roots. Portions of the rocks were large enough to crawl under and around, making for fun hiding spots. We also enjoyed listening to the trickling springs dripping from the moss-covered rocks overhead. 

DSC_0096After climbing around the main Raven Rock attraction, we ascended up the windy stairs and finished the steeper part of the loop trail. We crossed the stream a few times and enjoyed looking for wild animals through the bare forests. Lastly, when we returned to the trailhead we passed picnic tables, a large pavilion and the entrance for the American Beech Trail featuring the Kids in Parks Track Trail. Though we didn’t have time to hike it, this easy 0.5 mile hike features fun adventures such as Nature Hide ‘n Seek to excite kids about hiking. We also passed signs with information about the canoe-in camping.

Though hiking can be tricky with small kids, the more you hike together the less whiny easier and more fun it can be. For hikes longer than 1 mile, we still bring our hiking backpack for our 3 1/2 year old. We always pack lots of snacks and/or picnic lunch and started letting the girls use our older cameras to capture sights along the way. The girls started melting down towards the end of this trail because we unknowingly saved the steeper portion for the end. Next time, we’ll hike this loop trail in reverse order and visit in warmer months to take advantage of playing in the streams!

Thumbs up: friendly park staff, informative visitor center, steady foot traffic along trail, beautiful views over river, interesting rock outcrops

Thumbs down: nothing to report

Forest Hill Park (Richmond, Va)

forest hill parkLast fall we headed to Richmond for a little man’s 1st birthday party. Before the big party we headed with friends and all our littles to Forest Hill Park in Richmond, Va. Forest Hill Park is located south of the James River at 4021 Forest Hill Ave. It features an amazing farmers market open during the summer and fall months, paved walking trails, playgrounds, a pond, unpaved bike trails through the woods, wide open fields, picnic shelters and tennis courts. If you’re looking for a fun morning outing for the family, this is the place!

Once an estate owned by different families and then an amusement park, the City of Richmond bought the land in 1933 and turned it into the present-day urban park. They preserved some of the old stone buildings including the circa 1840s Stone House and old stone gazebo with fire pits by the pond that once served as a warming hut for ice skaters.

DSC_0163Farmers Market, Trail Walking & Pond

During our visit we parked at the northern entrance along New Kent Ave and first walked through the farmers market. We visited with the woolly sheep, watched a short acrobatic demo, bought coffee and donuts, and admired the local artisan’s goods. We enjoyed our breakfast goodies at the old brick shelter near the entrance and then walked down the adjacent paved loop trail.

The loop trail starts off wide and downhill, and surrounded by dense forest. The beautiful morning sun casted warm glows and soft textures – perfect for documenting our walk with the little babes and friends. The kids enjoyed watching mountain bikers hit the trails in the woods. We walked to the hexagonal stone shelter (formerly a warming hut for ice skaters) near the pond so the kids could feed the ducks. After exhausting our bread supply, we continued walking along the flat trail that soon shifted uphill. Near the top of the hill the trail narrowed as it opened to large rolling fields. We meandered along the trail passing picnickers and large, sparse oak trees until we arrived at the playground.

Playground

DSC_0222The playground features two play structures divided by age group and swings for all ages. The younger child playground contains slides, a spiral ladder, and nearby teeter totters. The older child playground contains steeper slides, arched ladders, double “racing” slides, monkey bars and zipline. The kids loved racing each other down the slides and swinging across the monkey bars. The playground’s hardwood mulch surface lessened the monkey bar falls. The original 1840s Stone House, picnic tables and tennis courts are also just a short walk away. 

After a long time on the playground, we continued on the trail back to the parking lot. Though we walked about 1.5 miles, the full loop trail is about 3.2 miles. The northern section of the trail connects to the Reedy Creek Trail and feeds into the much larger James River Park System. The James River Park System contains acres of shoreline for fishing, biking, running, walking, rafting, and canoeing. I’m excited to explore the river during my next trip to Richmond and see first-hand its importance to the large biking and running community of Richmond.

Thumbs Up

beautiful scenery, open fields, playground features, variety of vendors at farmer’s market, wide trails, preserved stone buildings

Thumbs Down

lack of restrooms near playground

Sassafras All Children’s Playground at Laurel Hills Park

DSC_0106Writing escaped me this fall and winter. As I tried writing, my head jumbled and I lost my writing motivation. Writing is something that can only get better with practice, and I’m hoping in the early months this year, I’ll become more motivated and write more frequently.

Last fall we visited the newly opened Laurel Hills Sassafras All Children’s Playground in West Raleigh. The playground is located at 3808 Edwards Mill Rd, convenient to Crabtree Valley Mall, I-440 and I-40. If you’re looking for unique climbing structures and play areas to exhaust excite your kids, this is the place! The new playground features over 3.5 acres of multi-level swinging, climbing, running and sliding fun. It features several “tree house” play structures connected by wide, low-grade ramps with lots of climbing and sliding options for getting on and off the playgrounds. My girls loved the more challenging ladders, tree trunk steps, and rope nets – “bring on the heights and danger” is their motto! The connected play structure contains some shorter climbing areas with tunnels, balance beam, and a rolling slide – perfect for toddlers. The smaller tot play area features tethered rope swings and a small climbing sphere.

DSC_0120The far end of the playground contains swings (tot swings, tire swing, regular swings, and handicapped-accessible swings) and basketball court. Tall grasses arranged in a fun maze provide a textured separation from the rest of the playground. The large sandbox area features a handicapped-accessible sand table and wall seating for grown-ups. The girls also loved the zip lines, which feature about 20 yards of fast-flying fun on cables; one zip line contains a bucket seat for added safety.

Park benches installed around the perimeter and interior of the playground provide lots of options to rest and monitor children. With so many features this park can be overwhelming to keep track of multiple children. We still managed to lose track of our kids, despite having Bill with me. An elevated grassy spot helps alleviate those concerns, but with my busy kids we still had trouble. Unfortunately, there’s not an outdoor bathroom facility within eyesight of the playground; however, the community center has several bathrooms and an outdoor facility is located down the paved trail across from the small pond. The main entrance of the playground contains picnic tables and a nearby large pavilion available for rent. 

While we’ll all miss the old all-wooden castle playground at Laurel Hills, the unique play areas of the new playground provide thrilling play for all ages and abilities. With the recent warm February weather, I’m excited to visit the playground again, knowing we probably overlooked some play spots during our first visit.

Thumbs up: thrilling slides, uncommon play features such as zip lines, variety of swings for all ages and abilities, unique sand box equipment, rubberized surface, landscaping

Thumbs down: bathrooms aren’t within eyesight, it’s difficult to keep track of multiple children

A Tribute to Ripken

IMG_7506Losing a furry friend never gets easier, especially when he becomes a part of your kids’ memories. A week ago Ripken suffered from uncontrollable seizures and we said goodbye to our sweet friend. Unlike our first Boston, Jerry, who also suffered from seizures, Ripken’s seizures started intensely and suddenly on Friday night, so we had little time to prepare for saying goodbye. The ER vet at Quail Corners was so compassionate and I felt so taken care of as he shared personal stories about his Boston Terrier who also recently passed away from seizures. The similarity in our stories was very scary.

IMG_2225.JPGRipken was special to say the least – his tongue always hung out of his mouth, he was wall-eyed, had one prosthetic eye with forthcoming cataract surgery in the other, and had disproportionally large private parts. And, to say Ripken wasn’t full of behavioral issues is just straight up lying. All who met Ripken over the years know his crazy – if he never peed on your blankets, humped your dog, chewed up your grill cover, projectile vomited in your backyard, or dined on your cat’s poop, then you didn’t really experience Ripken.  But, what Ripken gave us in craziness he made up for in sweetness and love. He relished snuggling and head scratches, tolerated the girls as they nearly pulled his legs out of socket during hand shakes, loved walking in the neighborhood, and worked hard years ago to pass his Canine Good Citizen test (really, that happened). As we looked through old Ripken pictures this week, we’re reminded of all the fun and silly times we had with him. Thank you to all our friends and family who let him into your lives and romp with your pups.

Just this side of heaven is a place called Rainbow Bridge.

When an animal dies that has been especially close to someone here, that pet goes to Rainbow Bridge. There are meadows and hills for all of our special friends so they can run and play together. There is plenty of food, water and sunshine, and our friends are warm and comfortable.

All the animals who had been ill and old are restored to health and vigor. Those who were hurt or maimed are made whole and strong again, just as we remember them in our dreams of days and times gone by. The animals are happy and content, except for one small thing; they each miss someone very special to them, who had to be left behind.

They all run and play together, but the day comes when one suddenly stops and looks into the distance. His bright eyes are intent. His eager body quivers. Suddenly he begins to run from the group, flying over the green grass, his legs carrying him faster and faster.

You have been spotted, and when you and your special friend finally meet, you cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again. The happy kisses rain upon your face; your hands again caress the beloved head, and you look once more into the trusting eyes of your pet, so long gone from your life but never absent from your heart.

Then you cross Rainbow Bridge together….  

– Author unknown

South Holston Dam (Bristol, TN)

Last fall, Bill and I headed to Bristol, TN to watch the highly-anticipated Virginia Tech vs. Tennessee football game. Wanting to make a big weekend out of it, we arranged a mini kid-free (thanks grandparents) college reunion with old Tech buds where we rented 3 RVs between 18 of us. The weekend was amazing to say the least, and the perfect kick-off to an amazing Hokie football season.

South Holston DamDam, Plant & Reservoir

Before everyone arrived to town on Friday, Bill and I explored the nearby South Holston Dam (918 South View Dam Dr), which consists of a reservoir, dam, hydroelectric plant, and weir. The TVA began construction of the South Holston Dam in 1942 as part of the Unified Development of the Tennessee River System plan, which set out to improve the poverty-stricken, often-flooded parts of the Tennessee Valley. Construction halted during World War II and the dam began operation in 1951. The dam is unique in that it’s an earth and rock-filled dam built in 30ft sections called berms to hold the massive potential energy of South Holston Reservoir. The dam is about 1600 ft across and 285 ft high with paved roads leading to an information center and parking lots at the top. The reservoir is huge – it has 168 miles of shoreline across two states and is a very popular recreational lake.

We parked at the top of the dam and walked across the paved section to catch the amazing views of the lake on one side and the downstream river on the other. As mentioned above, the dam helps with flood control, but also serves to generate hydroelectric power for the region. The dam regularly releases water –  a loud siren blares about five minutes before alerting folks downstream and then the large turbine and generator crank. 

DSC_0144Osceola Island

When water comes out of the dam it flows through weir dams and forks around Osecola Island before merging near the intersection of Holston Dam View Rd. In 1991 the TVA built weir dams south of the dam to increase oxygen in the water when the hydroelectric plant isn’t running. The extra oxygen improves the habitat for fish and vegetation. When we arrived early, the morning fog provided a beautiful backdrop for the fisherman wading in the river. We crossed the footbridge and walked the easy one-mile loop trail on Osceola Island where we saw beautiful herons, ducks, fish and more fisherman. The water level around Osecola Island is shallow, providing great spots for fly fishing.

We felt so grateful to spend quality time with old college buds in a beautiful part of the country. Being my first visit to Tennessee, I look forward to coming back and exploring more of the mountains and lakes.

Thumbs up: beautiful views, massiveness of earth and rock-filled dam, interesting information center at top of the dam, unique weir dams, convenient parking areas at top of dam and near Osceola Island

Thumbs down: nothing to report

2017 First Day Hikes

2017 First Day HikesLace up your hiking boots and head outside on New Year’s Day for an organized hike in a local park.  Every state park in NC (city parks are catching on, too) organizes 2017 First Day Hikes to encourage fitness and reconnecting with nature in the new year. Last year we visited Murrells Inlet, SC for the first time, but this year we’re staying close to home and hope to discover something new (weather forecast at publication: a little chilly and dry)! 

List of organized First Day Hikes at parks and greenways within an hour of Raleigh:

  • Durant Nature Preserve – enjoy a family-friendly guided nature walk (at least 1 mile) followed by hot chocolate and discussions with staff about what you saw; 2-4pm; start location: 8305 Camp Durant Rd (north entrance); pre-registration is suggested but not required; prepare for natural surface walking; non stroller-friendly; event information
  • Walnut Creek Wetland Center – enjoy a family-friendly guided nature walk (at least 1 mile) followed by hot chocolate and discussions with staff about what you saw; 2-4pm; start location: 950 Peterson St; pre-registration is suggested but not required; wheelchair and stroller-friendly; event information
  • IMG_5058Falls Lake State Recreation Area – scavenger hunt with hike along Rolling View Track Trail (0.75 miles); start times at 10am, 11am, 12pm, 1pm; pre-registration is required; prepare for natural surface walking; event information; my 2015 First Day Hike review
  • Jordan Lake State Recreation Area – 2.7 mile hike of Blue Loop along New Hope Overlook trail; start location: New Hope Overlook by boat ramps; 9am start time; event information; my 2012 review of New Hope Overlook trail
  • img_4160Umstead State Park – 1.3 mile hike along Pott’s Branch Trail; start location: small parking lot by Pott’s Branch trailhead (Hwy 70/Glenwood Ave); 9am start time; event information; my 2014 review of Pott’s Branch Trail
  • Eno River State Park – options of 2 mile or 4 mile hikes; start location: Fews Ford Access; 2pm start time; arrive early as this is a popular event and parking can be hard to find; event information
  • Raven Rock State Park – 2.5 mile easy hike along Raven Rock Loop Trail to the park’s centerpiece, Raven Rock; start location: picnic shelter at Raven Rock Loop trailhead; 2pm start time; event information
  • Kerr Lake State Recreation Area – 1 mile nature hike; start location: park office (6254 Satterwhite Point Rd); 1:30pm start time; event information
  • First Walk Cary at Morris Branch Greenway – bring the family for a walk along Cary’s Morris Branch Greenway; parking location: 115 Allforth Pl and follow signs for walk start; 10am start time; stroller-friendly; event information 

If the above times or distances don’t work with your schedule, visit a park and explore on your own. Check out my list of previously reviewed trails in the area.

Yosemite in a Day with Young Kids

Yosemite with young kidsWho’s up for a last minute visit to Yosemite with young kids during the super busy summer months? We are! Capitalizing on our successful Norther Ca trip, we rolled the dice on our final full day and drove our family two hours west to explore Yosemite for the day. With plans to rendezvous at my uncle’s rural 1910s family cabin situated on original Yosemite roads, we left early in the morning with a full tank of gas, fully charged iPads, open minds, and lots of food.

Yosemite National Park spans nearly 1200 sq miles in Eastern Ca, making it about the size of the state of Rhode Island. It reaches across the Sierra Nevada mountain range and is mostly known for its mammoth granite cliffs, waterfalls, giant sequoias, and diverse plants and animals. The geology of Yosemite National Park is a result of a combination of volcanic activity, uplift, erosion, exfoliation (responsible for the dome-shaped granite areas), and glaciation that happened over 25 million years ago. Starting in the 1850s, explorers, artists, and writers advocated for preserving Yosemite Valley and slowly expanded the protected area to include nearby forests and mountains. Yosemite switched from a state park to a National Park shortly after the National Park Service was started in 1916. We visited 100 years later!

Getting There

IMG_6941Since the Yosemite trip was last minute,  intermittent cell service limited my mobile-friendly research as we drove through harrowing switchbacks and rural towns.  Following my aunt and uncle’s advice, we headed to the popular Valley area of Yosemite in hopes that we could catch glances of El Capitan, Half Dome and some of the waterfalls. Driving from Sonora, Ca we drove along 120 East through Groveland and the Big Oak Flat Entrance.  The drive through Yosemite starts out hilly with dense conifers and then becomes hillier with sparse shrubs, dead underbrush, sand, rocks and old dying pine trees. Then, suddenly before crossing into the big tunnel, the massive granite rocks explode before your eyes. You catch really quick (yet far away) views of El Capitan and Half Dome before going through the tunnel. After the tunnel you wind through switchbacks catching different views of the granite formations. Yosemite is enormous – it takes at least 40 minutes to drive from the main entrance to the bottom of the park.

Bridalveil Fall Trail

IMG_6947Knowing the park would be busy, we aimed for short hikes easy in difficulty and with easy access. Using the simple Yosemite Valley day hike chart, we hiked the 0.5 mile (round trip) Bridalveil Fall Trail on our way into the park. We parked at the trailhead and follow the paved path to the 620 ft waterfalls. Since we visited in late summer, the waterfalls trickled, but I imagine in spring time after snow melts the falls are quite a spray. Other visitors climbed along the large boulders to the bottom of the light waterfall. Even though the waterfall spray was barely visible, it was amazing to look up at the massiveness of the rocks and feel so tiny.

After Bridalveil Fall Trail, we parked in the main parking areas near the Visitor Center/Museum so we could scope out the center and easily hop on the free shuttle buses. In my little research, I learned the shuttle buses were key to getting around busy Yosemite Valley. The trailheads and points of interest are spread out so we either walked along the wide bicycle paths or rode the bus. Wishing for more time in the museum and to see the short Spirit of Yosemite film, we pushed on and walked about a half mile along the bicycle path to access the Lower Yosemite Falls Trail.

Lower Yosemite Falls Trail

IMG_7088Lower Yosemite Falls Trail is a one mile paved trail with little elevation change making it an easy walk for everyone. The path is mostly shaded with giant sequoias and huge slabs of granite rock making for nice photo backdrops. About half mile into our walk we arrived at the observation bridge of the falls.  Lower Yosemite is the bottom waterfall section of the three-part Yosemite Falls. Unfortunately, with it being late summer the waterfall sprayed a mere trickle, but we tried to imagine the command it carries in spring after the snow melts. Before leaving the falls we admired, in jaw-dropping fashion, as pea-sized rock climbers scaled the mountain.

 

Views of Half Dome

IMG_7016Wanting to get closer to Half Dome I quickly researched places within the valley to catch a glimpse. I learned the meadows behind the Majestic Yosemite Hotel (formerly known as the Ahwahnee Hotel) provide good views of the massive mountains, so we rode the shuttle bus to stop #3 outside the hotel. The hotel was built nearly a century ago with the design influences of Art Deco, Native American, Middle Eastern, and Arts & Crafts Movement. We walked to the back of the hotel, through a small path and turned left on the pedestrian path. Before crossing over the pedestrian bridge we arrived at the best spot we could find with a good glimpse of Half Dome (elevation 8800ft) in the background. Even from so far away it’s amazing to imagine people (including my crazy aunt) hike the 16-mile round trip.
After capturing a few pictures with Half Dome in the background, the girls and I splashed around in the crisp, cool Merced River that flows behind the hotel.  We were hot and tired from the long day and we felt refreshed after a quick dip.

Driving out of Yosemite Valley, we followed my aunt’s handwritten directions for meeting them at my uncle’s rural cabin. After a harrowing 7 mile drive up original access roads into Yosemite, we arrived at the cabin. I immediately relaxed after enjoying a beer on the hammock and we took in the beautiful sites of the meadow from the back deck. My aunt and uncle planned a delicious steak dinner with all the trimmings – it made for a very memorable early birthday celebration! After a restful night’s sleep, we left for San Francisco the next morning feeling very accomplished as a young family of four and thankful to experience Yosemite! We can’t wait to return to Yosemite and spend an entire week camping and exploring the different trails – maybe one day we’ll even hike to the summit of Half Dome!

Looking Ahead & Tips For Young Families

Having spent only about 5-6 hours in Yosemite, we definitely maximized our visit with seeing a few waterfalls and catching a glimpse of Half Dome and El Capitan (on the way out). The girls pushed through the early afternoon hour when they’re usually quietly relaxing, but felt refreshed with our backpack snacks and a quick ice cream treat. 

  • Plan ahead and stay for a few days – camping spots in the park fill up months in advance, so plan your trip early or stay outside the park
  • Less is more – bring a small backpack to carry around the park with essentials and snacks; visit the convenience stores and restaurants to refill with snacks and treats
  • Bring a good camera – I’m kicking myself for not having my big camera with me
  • Park & ride – park your car in one of the main lots and ride the bus as much as you can
  • Do some swimming – there’s lots of options for cooling off in the creeks and Merced River
  • Visit in late spring when the waterfalls are at full peak
  • Wear your patience pants – if visiting in summer be aware of the large crowds and take breaks accordingly

Additional Resources:

Thumbs up: breathtaking views, massive rock formations, free shuttle bus rides, bike/pedestrian path connecting many points of interest, paved trails provide accommodations for everyone

Thumbs down: little time for planning on my part, drier waterfalls in summer mean less dramatic views, busy summer crowds

Columbia State Historical Park (Columbia, Ca)

Columbia Historical State ParkFor part two of our northern California park visits we visited the Columbia State Historical Park. Columbia is a real working town that was restored to its 1850s gold-rush business district. Visitors travel back in time to the gold-rushing days where business staff dress in period clothing so visitors can experience stage coach rides, mine for gold, and much more!

Columbia State Historical Park is located at 11255 Jackson St, off highway 49 in Tuolumne County, Ca. Columbia has seen its ups and downs since its cry of “Gold” in 1850 – it survived multiple fires, water supply troubles, and population decline. In 1853 Columbia was one of the largest cities in California with a population of nearly 30,000. When the town became a state park in 1949, restoration efforts preserved the buildings and history.

IMG_6899Strolling down Main Street, we first stopped at Parrott’s Blacksmith Shop to watch the workers forge iron into handmade goods. They make interesting outdoor art, decorative indoor items, horseshoes, unique furniture and more! Then we visited the museums, including the interactive old-fashioned bowling alley. The dentist office exhibit gave us lots of “eeks” as we glimpsed into some of the old fashioned tools and supplies used to clean and pull teeth.

Then we visited Nelson’s Candy Kitchen, a fifth-generation owned and operated candy store. My aunt and uncle are personal friends with the current owner, Janice Nelson, who was extremely kind and patient to give us a personal tour of the candy making.  Needless to say, the girls’ bright eyes didn’t miss a moment of this tour! The shop uses a lot of the same recipes and equipment from when Janice’s family opened the store in the late 1800s. During the tour we talked to some of the candy makers who prepped milk chocolate chocolate turkeys for the busy Thanksgiving season. They dressed in period clothing and hand mixed all of the milk chocolate. The smells were priceless!

IMG_6908Janice showed us how they mixed and rolled the jelly candies, candy canes, and ribbon candies.  The process is very exact and relies on the mechanical workings of old machines, molds, and ovens. We were so grateful for Janice’s personal tour of her beloved candy shop – it was so neat to learn about candy making and hear her personal stories about the shop. No candy store visit would be complete without buying some nibbles. The girls loved gawking at all the sparkly candies and squealed in delight while tasting the different jelly candy and chocolates. My personal favorite was the salted chocolate almonds while the girls loved the flavored jelly candies.

To come down off our sugar high we continued walking down Main Street towards the old Wells Fargo building. Sadly we didn’t have time to pan for gold or ride the old-fashioned stage coach, but we did quickly walk through the old Wells Fargo office that features original scales, maps of stage coach routes, and other banking exhibits. If you’re looking for a fun way to spend an afternoon or a few overnights exploring the gold-rush days, be sure to visit the small town activities and special events of Columbia. I only wish we had more time to explore the local businesses, especially the saloon!

Thumbs up: uniquely restored businesses, museum exhibits, kid-friendly activities/exhibits, town’s friendliness

Thumbs down: nothing to report

Historic Murphys Park (Murphys, Ca)

IMG_6879And so begins my multi-part series on public parks we explored in Northern Ca.  At the end of the summer we took the girls on a huge adventure to visit my aunt and uncle in Northern California.  It’s unfortunate we waited so many years before visiting them – we made amazing memories this trip and I’m so glad we shared it with our kids.

My aunt and uncle live in the small town of Sonora, Ca., and one morning they drove us over the dramatically high New Melones Reservoir bridge into Calaveras County and the small town of Murphys, Ca. to explore the small city park and have lunch downtown.  Historic Murphys Park is located at 505 Algiers Street in Downtown Murphys, a mid-1800s gold mining town turned charming Main Street with upscale retail shops, an inn, yummy restaurants and bars, and 20+ local winery tasting rooms.  Here’s a side note about Murphys: the town narrowly escaped the too-close-to-home Butte Fire, a fast moving wildfire that spread during the 2015 California wildfire season.

img_1773Murphys Park is a true community park – built by the people, for the people.  The all-volunteer, non-profit Murphys Community Club opened the park in 1948 and maintains the park for the public through membership dues, donations, and use fees for special events.  Upon entering the park your eyes are immediately drawn to the white wooden gazebo – perfect for photo ops, picnics, and outdoor music.  I was shocked to see rotisserie spits, presumably for hosting the exciting summer concerts that were advertised on big banners throughout the park. The shallow Murphys Creek runs through the park creating a relaxing and water recreational aspect. We splashed in the creek to cool off and enjoyed watching other park-goers gently tube the creek. Picnic tables and benches also align both banks of the creek.

After splashing in the creek the girls played in the playground area. The smaller-age playground contains a slide, interactive spin toys, and climbing stairs.  The playground for older children features several tall slides, monkey bars, climbing ladders and walls, tunnels and shade sails. Two tot swings, two traditional swings and picnic tables are adjacent to the playgrounds.  Family names are carved into the nearby fence pickets, probably signifying park donors.

IMG_6924After exploring the park we visited retails shops in downtown Murphys and ate a yummy lunch at Firewoods. Before leaving Murphys, we visited the tasting room of Villa Vallecito Vineyards, which is owned by dear friends of my aunt and uncle.  The vineyard is a 20 minute drive from Murphys and features amazing views of the rolling hills and overlooks the New Melones Reservoir.  The owners treated us to the most delicious wines and snacks and gave the girls the most sincere hospitality. You can even rent the casita at the top of their property. If you’re heading to the Northern California area, include Murphys on your stop for wine, food, and community feeling – I can’t wait to come back with my wine glass in hand!

More Resources:

Thumbs up: small-town feel, seating options, splashing in the creek, Villa Vallecito Vineyards wines and property views,

Thumbs down: nothing to report

Marla Dorrel Park (Cary, NC)

IMG_6770Over the past few years I’ve continually heard about the amazing “dragon” park in Cary with great play areas for all kids.  Well, we finally ventured to the super popular Marla Dorrel Park, which features the Kids Together Playground at the end of summer with friends.  With its unique play areas for graduated levels of difficulty, variety of wheelchair-accessible play equipment, nicely landscaped areas, and abundance of seating it makes a great park for everyone!

Marla Dorrel Park is located near Tryon Rd/Cary Pkwy at 111 Thurston Dr in Cary.  It features a basketball court, access to MacDonald Woods Park via Henshaw Greenway, covered pavilion, and the Kids Together Playground, a playground inspired by two girls whose sisters have special needs where kids of all levels of physical and mental ability can enjoy fully-integrated play. There’s a longer walk to the playground from the parking lot than most parks so make sure you have everything you need when get out of the car.  As you walk towards the park your eyes are immediately drawn to the beautiful crape myrtles and flowering plants near the pavilion. The large pavilion provides a great meeting spot for birthday parties and picnics and an easy place to spot the restrooms, which even has shorter toddler-level sinks.  Just past the pavilion is the infamous climbing dragon sculpture, Katal, resting in full sun while the kids run up, down and all over it.  Heading in the other direction, follow the widely paved sidewalks where you’ll pass interactive purple whisper benches on the way to one playground area full of tunnels, arched ladders, fire poles, shade sails, and more.

IMG_6761Beyond this playground is another play structure with graduated levels of difficulty that feature wheelchair ramp access, twisty slides, arched ladders, a fun rolling slide, interactive play items and so much more.  Tot swings, traditional swings and chair swings are also located nearby including a swinging platform with wheelchair accessible ramps.  The playground surface is mostly sand so bring your sand toys or enjoy the diggers; but wide paved sidewalks wind throughout making it easy to access all areas.  They even have wheelchair-accessible sand tables along the pathways!

After exhausting a lot of time on the bigger playgrounds, we visited the partially fenced-in toddler area, which features a playhouse, river of sand, water sources, sand table, and small climbing structures.  While our girls felt they have mostly outgrown this area, the shaded benches made for a nice place to stop for a snack.  And everyone enjoyed walking through the misting fountains.

This park is loaded with a variety of play structures and picnic spots – we played and snacked for over 2 hours.  And, while it may be a super popular park (parking lot was almost full on our way out) it is so big and has so many play areas it doesn’t feel overflowing with people.

Thumbs up: variety of play equipment for all ages/abilities, lots of shade, abundance of swings, well-maintained landscaping, great picnic areas

Thumbs down: lush landscaping can be hard to see over when trying to keep watch on more than one child!