Dowdy Park in Nags Head, NC

DSC_0057In May, we travelled to Nags Head for our annual trip with friends (and family this year, too) to run the Nags Head Preserve Yuengling 5k race. This year the race weekend coincided with the grand opening of Dowdy Park, located at the intersection of S Croatan Hwy & E Bonnett St. Near MP 12, the park sits on land that was once the home of Dowdy Amusement Park. Over the years, I remember driving by the abandoned theme park wishing someone would do something to clean up that area. It’s wonderful to see how land once used for fun and recreation has come full circle.

As a Raleigh resident, we are spoiled with parks and playgrounds around every corner. Though Nags Head has beautiful natural recreational areas (the beach, the dunes, the nature preserve), to say it needs more playgrounds is an understatement. Dowdy Park’s grand opening celebration and Artrageous Kids Festival was bustling with families, echoing the excitement for more outdoor parks.

DSC_0056Dowdy Park features several play areas where kids can jump, run, swing, climb and slide until their hearts are content! The older kid playground has wide wheelchair-accessible ramps to musical and periscope play items. The ramp connects to stairs for climbing higher along a net bridge or to the ground via a rock wall. The other side of the net bridge features challenging ladders, a climbing tree stump and a fast, twisty slide. A colorful climbing hill with curved bars, musical instruments, balance beams, surfboards, bench swing, and merry-go-round are also located nearby. With the large festival and park attendance, it was overwhelming to keep track of multiple kids bouncing between so many activities.

DSC_0074The smaller kid playground features short steps up to ramps connected to a double slide. All the kids thoroughly enjoyed the nearby rolling slide. They loved making rattling noises as they slid down the bumpy slide. Across from the small kid playground is a wheelchair-accessible ride. It allows folks in wheelchairs to reverse their chair onto a ramp and swing. And, a playground near the beach wouldn’t be complete without a little sand – just follow the sea turtle flipper prints! Short pier pilings line the sandbox area, which has a large climbing sea turtle in the middle.

DSC_0079Also near this area are hopscotch and twister games, checkers tables, another climbing hill, picnic tables and benches. On this particular day vendors lined the perimeter of the open green space area. Park-goers filled the open green space area watching the performances under the covered pavilion. Throughout the park you’ll find pieces of art, such as the nautilus stamps shells, temporary art pole exhibit, and wooden paintings. Even though Dare County is mostly known for its beaches, I’ve always been impressed with the local art scene. We’ve enjoyed local art galleries, shopping and art walks when they’ve overlapped with our vacation times.

Currently, small dunes, a split-rail fence and 20 yards of undeveloped park land separate busy the US-158 and sandbox area. According to the Town of Nags Head, phase 2 of development starts this fall for a garden, multi-use courts, restrooms and bocce ball court. It’ll be interesting to see how this area evolves over the years. And, I look forward to returning on a day that isn’t quite so busy.

Thumbs up: unique play areas, incorporating beach details into the park, accommodations for all ages and abilities, fun climbing hills and slides

Thumbs down: lack of shade

James Mill Scottish Factor Store & 1755 John Mitchell Map (Urbanna, Va)

With Fourth of July a week away, it’s only apropos that I recount last month’s trip to the historic Middle Peninsula area of Virginia. Not only is it full of small port towns vital to early trade, it’s also the home of the “most important map in American history.” But, before I get ahead of myself, I have to provide some background on why and how we visit that area.

About five years ago my mom visited my uncle’s permanent waterfront trailer at the Grey’s Point RV resort in Topping, Va. Grey’s Point is the last stop before crossing the mammoth bridge over the Rappahannock River into Irvington and Kilmarnock. The river is extremely wide at this point and is close to where it joins with the Chesapeake Bay. Grey’s Point sits high above the river bank, offering amazing sunsets and views of the river. Needless to say, my mom fell in love with the area and idea of having a low maintenance waterfront retreat. So, she bought a permanent waterview trailer where my siblings and our kids made fun memories with her before she passed away. Since her passing, we still try to visit a few times each year, especially during the summer. The kids fell in love with the pool and golf cart rides, while Bill and I fell in love with the views and slower pace of life.

Town of Urbanna, Va

When we visited the area back in May, we took a day trip to the nearby town of Urbanna. Urbanna is a historic colonial port town with unique shops, art galleries, and marinas. In 1680, the House of Burgesses ordered Urbanna to be set-up as a port town for trading. The town was officially named Urbanna in 1705, meaning the “City of Anne” after England’s Queen Anne. We parked near the intersection of Cross St and Virginia St and walked around town checking out the shops. I purchased a handmade mortar and pestle at If It’s Wood & More before we walked to Urbanna’s Museum & Visitor Center. 

James Mill Scottish Factor Store

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Urbanna’s Museum & Visitor Center, officially called the James Mill Scottish Factor Store, was built in 1766 and once served as a tobacco warehouse. Tobacco planters exchanged tobacco at the store for cash or credit towards imported European goods. They stored the tobacco in large barrels called hogsheads that weighed about 1,000 pounds. When the English ships arrived, men gently rolled the full hogsheads down the adjacent road to the port below. Imagine standing at the bottom of the road making sure the hogsheads didn’t fall into the water? Uh, no thank you!

Starting in the 1960s a preservation group renovated the James Mill Scottish Factor Store. Then, in 1997, the Town of Urbanna bought and refurbished the building. The museum exhibits highlight the town’s historic tobacco ties, its booming oyster industry, and the 1755 John Mitchell Map. The museum is small and not very kid-friendly, but the girls enjoyed touching the oyster shells, standing next to life-size colonial men cutouts and admiring the port and warehouse diorama. The diorama truly captured the tobacco trading operation!

1755 John Mitchell Map

DSC_0072The friendly museum worker shared her personal upbringing in Urbanna and the importance of the 1755 John Mitchell Map. John Mitchell was born in 1711 in Lancaster County, and went on to study medicine in Scotland. He practiced medicine in the Urbanna area for a few years before relocating to London. According to The Unlikely Story of the Map that Helped Create our Nation, the Earl of Halifax commissioned Mitchell to create a map of the British and French North American territories. Mitchell finished the map in 1755 (after the start of the French and Indian war), thoroughly detailing territories, colonies, forts, geography, distances, and towns. Though the map had a slightly British view, it became known as the “most important map in American history” after the American Revolution ended. During the 1783 Treaty of Paris, negotiators used the map to determine boundaries between Canada and the United States.

The Town of Urbanna purchased this first edition map in 1979 for $7,500 not fully realizing its importance. Later valued at more than $500,000, the town properly restored and safeguarded this national treasure. Preserved behind glass, visitors can closely inspect the map details or take in all 24 sq-ft from a nearby bench.

Lunch on the Water

DSC_0080We worked up an appetite after taking in so much history, so we drove a few minutes away for fresh seafood on the water at Shores & Roark Seafood. Bill enjoyed freshly caught fish tacos, while the girls and I shared a dozen steamed local crabs and oysters. The food tasted fabulous and the restaurant’s waterfront atmosphere provided amazing views of the river. The restaurant is part seafood company, so you can watch your live catch before it reaches your plate!

I’m looking forward to spending my first Fourth of July weekend in our Winnebago in such a historic area. The towns of Urbanna and Irvington organize annual parades and celebrations and Grey’s Point will be busy with fun activities, too.

Later down the road I’d love to visit the nearby National Historic Register colonial plantations of Ralph Wormeley’s Rosegill and Christoper Robinson’s Hewick, and attend the Urbanna Oyster Festival.

Thumbs up: breathtaking river views, small-town charm, area’s rich history, local seafood, beautiful places to stay

Thumbs down: nothing to report

Bryan Park (Richmond, Va)

Bryan ParkOver Spring Break we vacationed with friends and family in Virginia. We initially wanted to visit the newly renovated Maymont Park (see my 2012 park review) in Richmond, but opted for the quieter Bryan Park instead. With its granite archways, expansive rolling hills, recreational areas, and natural spots Bryan Park is the perfect crossroads of Virginia’s history and nature!

History of Bryan Park

Bryan Park is located on the Northside of Richmond at 4308 Hermitage Rd between I-95 and US-64. According to Richmondoutside.com, the history of Bryan Park dates back to the late 1700s when the Young family owned the 600 acre Westwood Estate. In 1800, Young’s Spring served as a meeting spot for a planned slaved rebellion (formally known as Gabriel’s Rebellion) that went awry. Rosina Young inherited half of the estate, which is most of Bryan Park today, after her father’s passing in 1832. During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers setup a defense line near the Rosewood farmhouse on the property. Following the war, Rosina (and her daughter) continued to farm Rosewood until her death in 1906. 

With the booming development of Richmond’s Northside at the turn of the century, prominent Richmond businessmen, Lewis Ginter and Joseph Bryan (publisher of Richmond Times at the time), created large residential neighborhoods. After Bryan’s death in 1908, his widow, Belle Stewart Bryan, purchased Rosewood at a public auction. Then, she donated the land to the city as a memorial and for use as a public park. 

Then over the years, the Richmond City Council transformed the farm into a park.  The park’s condition deteriorated over the years until the mid-1990s when concerned citizens organized the Friends of Bryan Park (FoBP) group to improve and preserve the park. Today the park is a joint effort between the City of Richmond Parks & Rec and FoBP.

Our Visit – Playground

For our visit to Bryan Park, we drove through the main Hermitage Rd entrance passing under the massive granite archways. I stayed straight, relying on map memory (not the signage), to park in a small gravel lot near the playgrounds. The kids jumped out and ran across the field to the playground area. 

The playground features fun climbing structures, a large shaded teeter totter, tot swings, regular swings, and a large jungle gym. The jungle gym features a tree-themed design with unique climbing ladders, rock wall, and twisty and straight slides. The kids loved alternating between the twisty slide and climbing areas.

Hiking & Creek

After exhausting the playground, we consulted Google Maps to find a sandy splashing area along Jordan’s Branch. Thinking we had the spot realized, we hopped into our cars and drove up the street closer to Shelter #1. We walked along the left side of Shelter #1 on Young’s Pond Ln and turned left onto a trail opening at the bottom of the small hill. The narrow trail meandered through the woods with the creek to the right. We wanted to find an easy access point to the creek with sandy areas on the opposite side. After 1/2 mile hike through the woods we succumbed to hungry voices and picnicked on the trail. While little people ate lunch, a few of us ran ahead to find the easy creek access. We stopped a little too soon – the easy creek access was less than 50 yards ahead. 

Following our picnic lunch, we headed to the easy access and crossed the shallow parts to the sandy banks. The kids loved splashing in the creek, looking for tadpoles, and walking in the sand. It was a really warm day, so the cool water was very welcoming.

After splashing, we headed back across the bank to brush off dirt and walk back to the cars. Unbeknownst to us, we happened upon a shortcut on the way back and came out at the trailhead on Jordan’s Branch Ln. We quickly walked to the parking lot and then drove to Ardent Craft Ales for some much deserved beer and snacks (New England IPA was my fave).

I always enjoy discovering a new (to me) Richmond park because of its ties to the area’s rich history. Even though Bryan Park was a little overgrown, it’s nice the great citizens of FoBP and community partners support the park’s preservation. Be sure to check out their events page for how to volunteer or attend a program! I’d love to return to the park (sans kids) and follow the self-guided tour map or admire the azaleas in full bloom.

Additional Resources:

Thumbs up: park’s rich history, beautiful rolling hills and old trees, unique natural features, variety of recreational activities, fun playground area

Thumbs down: overgrown areas, poor signage

Durant Nature Preserve: White House Road & South Lakeside Trail

This past Spring we took advantage of warmer days and met friends at Durant Nature Preserve for easy family hiking (about one total mile), playground time and a picnic at the nearby Compass Rose Brewery. Durant Nature Preserve is a quiet, woodsy park with hiking trails, lakes for fishing, playgrounds, a nature play space, butterfly garden, open fields, great engaging programs, and more. We’ve explored this park several times in the past, and love discovering something new each time. For this visit, we drove to the park’s north entrance at 8305 Camp Durant Rd and parked near the small open field to access White House Road Trail.

White House Road Trail is a wide, unpaved trail in a heavily wooded section of the park. Leaves and pine needles covered most of the trail, and its flat surface made it easy for kiddo running. The kids enjoyed sprinting ahead to find flora and fauna. Most of their findings consisted of moss, sticks, and listening for birds. Then, we crossed over the small gravel path that separates the lakes and turned left towards the South Lakeside Trail. 

South Lakeside Trail is a narrow dirt trail that meanders up and down along the south side of the Lower Lake. The kids enjoyed crossing small streams, finding pine cones, and throwing rocks into the lake. The trail’s gentle banks make it easy for younger children to access the water’s edge. After finishing our half mile hike along South Lakeside Trail, we walked across the lake to the playground. Finally, we finished our morning outing with a quick drive to Compass Rose Brewery for beers and a picnic lunch. 

Additional Resources:

Thumbs up: quiet outdoorsy park, easy family hiking, variety of activities to do, easy access to water’s edge

Thumbs down: lacks helpful trail signage

2017 Summer Bucket List

Over a decade ago, my mom dubbed Bill and me as the traveling gypsies (she had a unique way with words). Having moved away from home after college, we travelled more weekends than not, and she routinely asked, “Where are the traveling gypsies headed this weekend?” We visited friends and family in VA and MD, and explored exciting new cities across the US and Western Europe. Bill and I still have the traveling gypsy bug (let’s call it wanderlust to sound more romantic) and want our kids to experience it with us. And, we want to create adventures that are more outdoors and immersed in nature.

So, we bought a small pull-behind Winnebago (cue up the Randy Quaid Christmas Vacation quotes) and planned out several weekend family trips around NC this summer. It might sound a little crazy, but the girls seem super excited, and we think we’re in the sweet spot of traveling with them right now – high curiosity, good sleep patterns, and easily distractible. We want to keep things simple, yet comfortable and imaginative – similar to the gypsy caravan from Wind in the Willows:

 

He led the way to the stable-yard and there, drawn out of the coach-house, they saw a gipsy caravan, shining with newness, painted a canary-yellow picked out with green, and red wheels. “There you are!” cried the Toad, straddling and expanding himself. “There’s the real life for you. The open road, the dust highway, the heath, the common, the rolling downs! Here today, and off somewhere else tomorrow! The whole world before you! And mind, this is the finest cart of its sort ever built.” The mole followed him eagerly up the steps and into the caravan. It was very compact and comfortable. Little sleeping-bunks – a table that folded up against the wall – a cooking-stove, lockers, bookshelves and pots, pans, jugs and kettles of every size and variety.

– excerpt from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Even though our Winnie isn’t a canary-yellow caravan with green and red wheels, we’re excited to hit the open road. Finally, whether we’re out on the open road or back in Raleigh, we still have some summer bucket list items for 2017:

  1. Enjoy a low country boil (Memorial Day weekend)
  2. Survive having two kids on summer swim team
  3. See some waterfalls (Tom’s Creek & Roaring Fork in western NC)
  4. Swim at a lake (Jordan Lake recreation area)
  5. Discover new & easy campfire recipes
  6. Go blueberry picking
  7. Discover new hiking trails on our travels
  8. Catch fireflies (Jordan Lake campsite and backyard)
  9. Try a new ice cream place
  10. Visit a new museum
  11. Perfect my mojito making
  12. Start composting
  13. Have a water balloon fight
  14. Read a long book together as a family
  15. Enjoy Winnebago camping as a family

 

Mingo Creek Trail MP 0 to 2.25

IMG_8407Looking for a fun family bike ride over the holiday weekend? Discover the Mingo Creek Trail of Knightdale where it features flat rides, long causeways and interesting creek life!

We love finding new (to us) greenway sections to explore, so we headed to Anderson Point Park to access the Mingo Creek Trail. Mingo Creek Trail is part of the Town of Knightdale’s greenway system that connects from the Neuse River Trail. We parked in the large parking lot (just outside the main entrance to Anderson Point Park) and biked north on the Neuse River Trail.

We shortly passed MP 17 for the Neuse River Trail and then turned right, following signs for Mingo Creek Trail. Then, we winded up a paved path before biking across the Neuse River. The trail eventually led to a clearing with residential homes on one side and railroad tracks on the opposite side. Around MP 1, the trail’s gradual hill leveled out to the Princeton Manor neighborhood at the Hodge Rd intersection.

IMG_8426We maneuvered through the neighborhood sidewalks and carefully crossed Hodge Rd to continue on Mingo Creek Trail. Shortly after, we biked along the half-mile causeway, which was sandwiched between marshy areas and residential homes. We stopped on the causeway to watch the turtle and duck families sunning in the water. A great heron (or egret) also caught our eye.

Eventually we biked under the I-540 bridge and turned around at the Lynnwood Rd Connector at MP 2.25. Knowing we’d have a 2.25-mile return trip, we enjoyed a picnic on the side of the trail before calling it a successful ride. I hope to bring the girls back to finish biking this trail over the summer where it ends at Mingo Creek Park.

Thumbs up: easy to read Town of Knightdale greenway map with incremental markings and mileage table, connection to the larger Neuse River Trail for longer rides, interesting wildlife viewing in marsh, great family bike ride, sunny bridges and causeways make for great photo ops

Thumbs down: lack of signs made maneuvering through neighborhood near Hodge Rd confusing

2017 Mother’s Day Reflections & Raleigh Events

water lilies at NC Art MuseumOver the past two years, I’ve learned that Mother’s Day is all about the balance for me. After losing my mother so suddenly in 2015, I realize I yearn for more reflection and relaxation (aka alone time without kids) to counter my natural tendency for wide-open family fun and adventure. I’ve consciously let the reflection and relaxation needs run their course because I know later that day, that week, or that month I’ll be a less crazy better mom and wife. 

After our traditional Nags Head trip with friends last year (aka the fun and adventurous side of things) I walked solo around the NC Museum of Art’s Museum Park while listening to music and my favorite parenting podcast, Atomic Moms. It helped me clear my head, process things, and feel grounded. This year, I’ll probably head to a similar place after getting home from our Nags Head trip. 

So, if you’re around in Raleigh this week/weekend and are looking for a special way to celebrate the special wife or mom in your life, look no further than this list of upcoming organized events in the local parks and my personal mix of outdoor outings to balance adventure with relaxation.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there and cheers to making memories and searching for finding balance.

Organized Programs

  • You are my Sunshine Mother’s Day Craft at Buffalo Road Athletic Park (Tues., May 9 at 11am) – Join the super fun Fit4Mom Midtown Raleigh Stroller Strides group after class for a Mother’s Day footprint craft. All ages welcome & all supplies will be provided. Meet by the playground and we’ll make sunny feet under the shade at the picnic tables; all ages welcome; FREE
  • Dorothea Dix Guided Walking Tour at Dorethea Dix Park (Tues., May 9 from 5:30-7:30pm) – Take a 2-hour, 3.5 mile tour that covers the history of the buildings, land, and legacy of Dorothea Dix, the current use of the area as the headquarters of the Department of Health and Human Services and the steps the City will take in planning a future park; pre-registration required; FREE
  • Moonrise Stroll at Falls Lake State Recreation Area (Tues., May 9 from 7:30-8:45pm) – join an easy 1.2 mile hike to watch the nearly full moon rise over Falls Lake; start location – Beaver Dam Recreation Area, Duck Cove Trailhead; all ages; FREE; hikers are encouraged to pre-register
  • Birds & Nests at Annie Louise Wilkerson Park (Wed., May 10 from 10:30-noon or Sat., May 13 from 10:30-noon) – go on a bird hunt, make a craft, and meet Mama and Papa bluebird and take a peek in their nest box; $3; ages 3-5 with parent; course # 205486, 205487
  • Gifts for Mom at Worthdale Community Center (Wed., May 10 from 10-11am) – Make a special gift for Mom; $8; ages 2-5; course # 207187 
  • Mother’s Day Crafts at Hill St Community Center (Wed., May 10 from 5-6pm) – create a special Mother’s Day Craft; ages 5-12; FREE; course # 197397
  • Mother’s Day Tea Party at Greystone Community Center (Thurs., May 11 from 10-11:30am) – do you want to make Mom feel special? Come and enjoy time with your mom/caregiver at our Mother’s Day Tea Party. This workshop will give children an opportunity to create a special gift for their mother. Enjoy tea/juice and cookies; ages 18 months to 4 years with parent participation; $9; course # 205695
  • Photography walk at JC Raulston Arboretum (Thurs., May 11 from 2-3pm) – let mom explore the close-up world in the garden and achieve strong compositions and fun abstracts; $10 members/$15 non-members 
  • nature play space at Durant Nature ParkNature & Sensory Play Day at Durant Nature Preserve (Fri., May 12 from 10-noon) – come check out Durant’s Sensory and Nature Play Garden! Enjoy self-guided activities to delight the senses and encourage nature play. Although registration is not necessary, it is helpful for preparation; all ages, with parent participation; FREE; course #205363 
  • Wee Wetland Walkers at Walnut Creek Wetland Center (Fri., May 12 from 11am-noon) – this program is designed to move at a toddler’s pace: Run. Stop. Pick dandelions. Run. Climb on a rock. Find an interesting leaf! Join others for an easy-paced hike around the greenway, accompanied by one of our naturalists. Registration is not required but is helpful for planning; FREE; all ages; course # 203539
  • Parents’ Evening Escape at Millbrook Exchange Community Center (Fri., May 12 form 6-8:30pm) – Mom and Dad deserve a night out! Let your child join us for a fun-filled night of games, activities and pizza. Participants will create a Mother’s Day gift while you’re out; $15; ages 5-10; course #205154
  • Nature Scavenger Hunt at Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserve (Sat., May 13 from 1-2pm) – Exploring the preserve, and learn about nature while uncovering the hidden nature-themed treasures! Make an afternoon of it and bring a picnic lunch to enjoy before or after the hunt; ages 4 years and up with adult participation; $1; course # 206618
  • Weekend Family-Friendly Tours: Bon Voyage at NC Art Museum (Sat., May 13 or Sun., May 14 at 10:30am) – Discover all the places art can take you as you travel the world without leaving the Museum walls; FREE; half-hour tours for ages 5-11 with their adult companion
  • Are you my Mama at Blue Jay Point County Park (Sat., May 13 from 1-2pm) – Create great Mother’s Day cards while learning about different styles of mothering in the animal world; $1, all ages but most appropriate for ages 5 years+, pre-registration required  
  • Mommy & Me Tea Party at Eastgate Park (Sat., May 13 from 2-4pm) – Celebrate Mother’s Day with a spot of tea at an afternoon tea party for mothers and daughters of all ages. We will enjoy tasty treats while sipping steaming cups of tea or ice cold lemonade. Mothers, grandmothers, daughters and other significant women in your young lady’s life are all welcome; $10 per person; all ages, course #205100

Home Grown Adventure & Relaxation

Umstead Park: Oak Rock Trail

In January we headed with friends to Umstead Park to explore the super kid-friendly Oak Rock Trail, which is only 1/2 mile long. This is a great hike for young families or large groups with young kids. The trail has easy access to clean restrooms and picnic tables, and shallow stream access for water fun in the warmer months. It’s also part of the Kids in Parks TRACK Trails program that provides self-guided brochures for outdoor adventures.

We accessed Umstead Park from the Highway 70/Glenwood Ave entrance at 8801 Glenwood Ave. Recalling the mobile map, we drove past the Visitor Center and then parked in the first parking lot on the left. Unfortunately there weren’t signs from the main road directing you to the trail. After parking, we walked straight, following the signs for Oak Rock Trail and Kids in Parks.

Since it was wintertime, the leaves covered the ground making it a little tricky to notice tree roots. Luckily, the girls heeded our suggestion for walking slowly. We zig-zagged over the small creek several times, throwing sticks and stones into the water and looking for tadpoles. The girls also enjoyed hopping on large stones to cross the streams.

Even though the trail is short, we spent extra time listening and looking for birds, picking up leaves, and finding moss. The girls enjoyed looking at the tangled tree roots coming out of the ground near the creek and the fallen trees along the way. At the end of the trail we enjoyed a picnic lunch while the girls traversed a large fallen tree. The nearby restrooms were clean and easily accessible. 

Thumbs up: easy family hike, great for young kids, self-guided scavenger hunt brochure, plenty of picnic tables, creek for splashing

Thumbs down: poor signage to trail from main park road

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.

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

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lack of restrooms near playground