Neuse River Trail Beach – MP 4.5

IMG_6510Last summer Bill and I biked by this “beachy” section of the Neuse River Trail and vowed we’d make it back with the kids on a bike ride someday.  That someday was this summer, with Ashley leading the pack on her big girl bike and Claire chomping on snacks in the bike trailer.    The Neuse River Trail is our favorite spot for family bike rides with young kids because the trail is relatively flat and wide with several parking spots along the way making it easy to break your ride into small chunks.

For this bike ride we parked at the trail parking lot in the Bedford neighborhood at 10888 Bedfordtown Dr, biked down the access path and turned right onto the Neuse River Trail heading south.  We followed the greenway for about 2 miles before coming to milepost 4.5 where there’s an oxbow in the river that has created a wider sandy spot along the river bank.  Note: if you don’t want to bike/run the 2 miles, you can park closer to the oxbow at 6100 Thornton Rd and bike/run 1/2 mile. We parked and locked our bikes in a grassy spot off the greenway and walked down to the beachy area with our picnic supplies and towels (everyone already had
bathing suits on).
splashing in the neuse river beachIt hadn’t rained recently so the beachy area was actually wider and longer than I’ve seen it at other times and the river flowed slowly.  The water was pretty warm except in the middle of the river, which was over our heads in several spots.  We didn’t bring life jackets with us and the water wasn’t very clear so the girls mostly played near the shore line looking for tadpoles, playing in the sand/mud, or splashing in the water with the other young family that was there.  While we were there a few paddle boarders passed by including a father and young daughter out for a ride (next summer’s bucket list goal).

After playing in the water for awhile we enjoyed our picnic lunch on the beach before heading back to the car.  The bike ride north was a bit more uphill than the ride out, but the girls kept their cool and did great.  I look forward to returning to this secret spot again next summer!

Helpful Hints:

  • Wear shoes good for getting wet in the river
  • Bring life jackets for little ones
  • Be conscious of recent rains before coming out; river levels may be too high to safely play
  • Bring towels and small sand buckets
  • Parking options: 10888 Bedfordtown Dr (2 miles away) or 6100 Thornton Rd (1/2 mile away)

Thumbs up: fun bike ride/swimming activity, exploring the shore line for tadpoles and fish, lots of shady spots, very private area where you can’t see the beach from the greenway

Thumbs down: water was murky so be careful when swimming

Huntington Beach State Park in Murrells Inlet, SC

IMG_3652Over New Years we spent time with dear friends at their parent’s new home in Murrells Inlet, SC. I’ve known Jennie since 6th grade and Bill and Jennie’s husband, Gary, became fast friends over a decade ago when we first met Gary. With growing families and distance (they’ve been in Columbus, OH) our time spent together has been few and far between. Lucky for us they are moving to the Greater Raleigh area this Spring so our families will get more time together, which is great news for us and our kids, as they’ve all become fast friends too!

IMG_3662The weather was unusually warm around New Years so shortly after arriving we took advantage of the remaining sun and made the short drive to Huntington Beach State Park, located at 16418 Ocean Hwy in Murrells Inlet. This park is named after Anna Hyatt & Archer Huntington who lived on the land and the adjacent Brookhaven Gardens (more on this in an upcoming mini-post).  After paying a small daily per person fee at the gate, we followed the road over the saltwater marshes to the main parking lot area near the Education Center (more on this below). This state park offers amazing beach access, an Education Center with live animals, fishing, hiking, camping and much more. With it being close to sunset we headed straight for the beach with kites. We parked in the large lot in the back of the park and within a short 50-yd walk we were on the beach. The beaches at this park are pristine and expansive, about 3 miles long and offer lots of space to plop down beach chairs, fly kites, or go for walks. The kids loved chasing each other around, running into the calm surf, and taking turns with the kites.  Before leaving we washed our feet off on in the convenient outside showers.  The 1930s Moorish-style winter home the Huntingtons lived in, Atalaya, is still standing near the back parking lot and offers regular tours.  Maybe we’ll catch a tour next time we’re in town!

IMG_3688The next day we returned to the park to explore the Education Center, which is only open during daytime hours and offers daily feeding times where you can watch and learn how they feed several of the animals.  With about two dozen animals to look at and learn about, we spent well over an hour in the center.  They have a touch-tank with a horseshoe crab and stingray, a star fish, baby alligator, terrapins, snakes, turtles, and some hands-on exhibits about the nearby environment.  The tanks are at perfect heights for little ones to get in on the action. After we exhausted the Education Center, the kids enjoyed a snack on the outdoor benches and we ran along the boardwalk overlooking the saltwater marshes.  We learned about the numerous inhabitants – spider crabs, stone crabs, snapping shrimp, oysters, alligators, and lots of birds.  Even though we didn’t see any of the 50-100 alligators living in the park we saw several oysters and lots of birds up close!

Speaking of oysters, this town is the place to enjoy oysters.  Both nights we visited we went to fabulous restaurants and had some of the freshest seafood.  Murrells Inlet is a jewel of a small town with a happening Marsh Walk area of live music, bars and restaurants.  Located about 15 minutes south of Myrtle Beach, it seems worlds away from the busy beaches to the north.

More resources

Thumbs up: beautiful beaches, super kid-friendly Education Center and variety of animals to see, easy access to beach area

Thumbs down: nothing to report

Sweetgum Swamp Trail in Nags Head, NC

IMG_5624Believe it or not, Nags Head has hills and I’m not talking about the sand dunes near the beach or at Jockey’s Ridge State Park.  During our annual end-of-summer Nags Head beach trip we decided to break up our beach days with a hike in the Nags Head Woods Preserve.  We also make an annual trip to the Nags Head Woods Preserve every May for the Yuengling 5k race, but we’ve never had time to explore the woods other than the gravel race trail we run.  I should’ve remembered how hilly that race can be and then better prepared myself (and family), but what fun would planning be?!

Nags Head Woods Preserve is located at 701 West Ocean Acres Dr on the sound side of US-158.  We like to use the local dive bar, Mama Kwans, as a reference point for where to turn from the main road when heading to the woods area.  And, turning by Mama Kwans makes us reflect on crazy silly late-night bar stories that involve Bill ordering a bottle of Veuve Clicquot because, “I’m getting a raise next week!”  But, I digress!

Follow West Ocean Acres Dr through a small residential area until you arrive on a gravel path, which you’ll continue on for 1/4 mile.  You’ll then see a sign for the Nature Conservancy and a small parking lot for the woods.  The Nature Conservancy owns and operates the Nags Head Woods Preserve, which is over 1100 acres of wetlands, dunes, ponds and marshes.  According to their website, “Working with the towns and other partners, The Nature Conservancy has succeeded in protecting this fragile ecosystem, overseeing both terrestrial and marine research and monitoring programs and providing trails for visitors to enjoy.”

After unloading in the parking lot, we walked up the boardwalk and the little ones scoped out the murky ponds while we decided on a trail to hike.  Being overly optimistic we decided on Trail #2 – the 2.25 mile Sweetgum Swamp Trail; with three little people (and only one carrier) and five big people we figured we could handle the trail.

IMG_5631So, we set off on the trail and before you knew it we were in a dense forest just minutes from the beach.  The unpaved trail is covered in pine needles, but well marked; Ashley was even able to follow the trail markings to stay on the path.  After heading straight for awhile, we climbed steps up a steep hill to what felt like the ridge of a mountain – the trees were shorter and all of a sudden we were walking down a sandy hill.  I quickly learned that kids love sand unless they have to hike through it.  After several moments of juggling kids on shoulders and in carriers and distractions of the colorful flowers, berries, and butterflies, the sandy trail base was replaced with the preferred compact pine needle trail.  We took a right to stay onto the looped portion of the trail.  Along the way we passed by several swamps (complete with croaking frogs), more steep hills with steps, spooky Charleston-like trees, and several different plant communities.  Halfway around the trail loop is access to Trail #3 (Blueberry Ridge), but we decided to save that trail for another time.

The second half of our hike consisted of more kid juggling on shoulders and in the carrier just so we could make it back to the parking lot in one piece.  There was a lot of kiddo melting down, but in their defense it was a hot morning and we had walked almost 2 miles by this point.  When we got back to the sandy portion of the trail (that was downhill on the way in), all I could do was laugh because I knew the kiddo melting down was headed to a new level as they had to climb the steep sandy hill.

But, we all survived and cheered enthusiastically when we saw the Visitor Center signs.  It really only took us about 1 1/4 hrs to complete this hike.  After getting very hot and sweaty from our hike we rushed over to the Bonzer Shack for a hearty lunch and much-deserved beers and milks!  Despite this hike being too strenuous for our girls, I look forward to coming back to explore other trails in the future – bring on the beach hikes!

Additional Resources:

Thumbs up: adventurous hike with lots of plant and pond life to see, contrasting landscape at beach, signage, well-maintained trail

Thumbs down: better suited for older children, hilly hike for toddlers

JT’s Grommet Island Park in Va Beach

img_3096A few months ago we headed to Va Beach for a fun girl trip with my sis, mom and aunt who had flown in from CA.  I rarely get back to that area, but have lots of fun memories with trips when we were young, high school field hockey state championship games, and the Wicked 10K race a few years ago.  Even though the weather was super chilly and a bit rainy we still found some time to explore a nearby park, which happened to be oceanfront.

JT’s Grommet Island Park is located at 100 2nd St just before you reach Rudee Inlet.  Parking in this area is always a challenge especially during the high season.  There is a full day pay parking lot adjacent to the park, but if you’re just planning to stay for an hour or two it’s best to park on the street and pay by the hour.  JT’s Grommet Island Park is a special playground in that it gives everyone, regardless of their abilities, a place to play at the beach.  The park opened in 2010 and is 100% handicap accessible – the surface is made of hard rubber to allow wheelchairs to easily maneuver, the ramps on the jungle gyms are wide enough for wheelchairs, the sandbox play areas are unique and accessible for all folks, and there is a wheelchair accessible teeter totter.

Despite the rain, Ashley had a fun time jumping and bopping around the playground.  Knowing that Ashley has a short attention span when playing at the beach, having a playground at the beach would make for happier kids (and parents)!  For more information about this playground, visit Grommet Island.

Thumbs up: unique play features for everyone, ability for everyone to play on the beach, variety of slides and climbing areas, ability to install shade sails during summertime

Thumbs down: rubber surface had too much sand on it

Cape Hatteras Lighthouse

img_2050So, last September (yes, I’m super slack) we headed on our annual trip to Nags Head with family and friends.  This trip was super special because my aunt, who used to live in Charlottesville and now lives in CA, made a trip back east to spend the week with us.  Being that she used to be the one taking us on adventures to the beach when we were young it was nice to experience it with her again.

Since an 18 month old has a “beach” attention span of two entire hours, we realized we needed some other daytime activities to keep her occupied.  And, being that the last time I visited Hatteras was in 1989 when my family vacationed there before being evacuated due to Hurricane Hugo, it seemed a good time to explore the area again.

Driving south on NC 12 with the telephone poles and beach immediately to the east and marsh to the west brought back old memories of taking that trip with my family in our Dodge Caravan.  Luckily, Hatteras is only about 45 minutes from Nags Head, not the grueling six hours I remember when coming from VA.

After passing through all the small towns and coming into Hatteras we headed to the Cape Hatteras National Light Station and then the seashore nearby.  With this area once being nicknamed the “Graveyard of the Atlantic” it’s easy to imagine the importance of lighthouses for ships in the 1800s and 1900s.  The first Cape Hatteras lighthouse was constructed in 1803, but due to poor design and ineffectiveness a new lighthouse with the current black and white paint pattern was built in 1870.  The history of the lighthouse is vast, but since then it’s been a victim of sand erosion (compare being 1500ft from the shoreline in 1893 to just 70ft from the shoreline in 1980) and despite best efforts to “control” the erosion, the lighthouse was moved inland about 1500ft from the ocean in 1999.

img_2065The lighthouse is operated by the National Park Service and open to the public for walking tours during the summer months so for only $7 I climbed the 240+ spiral staircase steps while Bill and Ashley scoped out the grounds and toured the light keeper’s quarters.  As you can imagine, the stairway in the lighthouse is very narrow and rather steep, making two-way traffic crowded.  At each “floor” there is a landing pad to rest with windows providing great views.  But, the real views are when you get to the top of the lighthouse and skirt along the balcony.  The railing is about 4ft high, allowing for great picture taking and breath-taking views for miles, which reminded me of views from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  The park ranger at the top was helpful in answering questions and pointing out the old location of the lighthouse.

After leaving the lighthouse, we headed over to the beach access nearby to let Ashley out to play in the water.  The beach around Hatteras is much quieter and seemed to have much softer sand than at Nags Head.  In general, the area is fit for folks looking for a quieter beach trip.  On this particular day we thoroughly enjoyed the calmness of the beach and watching the shore fishing (especially the friendly guy who brought over his latest catch for Ashley to touch)!  In all, the Cape Hatteras trip was a perfect half-day trip and provided fun memories for our little growing family!

Thumbs up: Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, beautiful views, beach, quietness, peaceful drive through small towns

Thumbs down: Burger Burger in Hatteras was less than desirable for lunch

Visit to Nags Head & Roanoke Island

img_2019A few weeks ago we headed to Nags Head for our annual trip with friends for the Yuengling 5k Race. It’s my favorite trip we take every year and I love how we recounted old trips that weekend and were able to trace our first visit back to 2005. We’ve gone every year since except for a hiatus in 2009. Over the years the group has grown making it a lot of fun, but a few things remain the same: 8am race on Saturday followed by Yuengling beer truck, a trip through Brew Thru for CLs, orange crushes at Mulligans, time on the beach with the dogs, great local seafood, and hot tub time machine!

Here are a few pics of us on the beach on Saturday and just after the race:

Before we headed home on Mother’s Day Sunday, Bill and I explored Roanoke Island, home to over 400 years of amazing history.  We first drove through the small town of Wanchese and visited a local park, Ernest A “Pigum” Walker.  Then, we visited the other side of the island at Fort Raleigh and walked around the town of Manteo.  Roanoke Island is best known for being the place of the first English settlement and where the first child of English parents were born.  In addition, this was also the home to where escaped slaves lived during the Civil War.  The town of Manteo is a wonderful small town to visit with lots of great, local food, local breweries, and beautiful views of the sailboats on the water. I can’t wait to visit again and try the Full Moon Brewery, more local restaurants, a festival, and sailboat ride in Manteo and the Elizabethan Gardens near Fort Raleigh.

Thumbs up: large playground area, small shady spot under playground, history of Roanoke Island, shops and stores in Manteo, photo ops, views of the sailboats

Thumbs down: fire ants/mosquitoes at Walker Park, very slow service at Poor Richard’s sandwich shop in downtown Manteo