Tom’s Creek Falls & Roaring Fork Falls

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir

Roaring Fork FallsFor our next Winnie adventure we headed to the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains near Marion, NC. We stayed at the Mountain Stream RV Resort off Hwy 80 at 6954 Buck Creek Rd. After making a wrong turn down a one-lane gravel road (Little Buck Creek Rd) we drove a white-knuckling 3 miles to the road’s end. This was not how I expected our first big Winnie adventure to begin. After several deep breaths, I jumped out of the car to instruct Bill on turning around. Easy Peasy!

Nothing will test your marriage’s communication skills like trying to make a 3-point turn with a 20-foot trailer. Cue the Austin Power’s 3-point turn parking scene! Luckily, our family has previous experience driving down harrowing gravel roads (see my Yosemite post), so we tried to remain calm and go back on course!

Mountain Stream RV Resort

DSC_0071The Mountain Stream RV Resort was the perfect spot for camping. They have 40 camp sites situated around a loop gravel road with a grassy median. A cool, clear mountain stream runs behind more than half of the campsites. We stayed in one of their prime spots near the back of the campsite with easy kid-friendly access to the stream. We loved splashing in the water, walking upstream, and sitting at the campsite listening to the babbling stream.

Despite some big thunderstorms that came through during the weekend, we really enjoyed our time in the Winnie. The girls made friends with the neighbors, rode bikes around the gravel loop, and played in the stream. During the daytime downpours, the girls also had downtime playing cards and watching movies. We tried to go fishing, but big floods from past years pretty much wiped out the fish habitats.

We grilled yummy steak tips, broccoli, and potato wedges one night and chicken quesadillas the other night in honor of Bill’s birthday weekend. For Father’s Day breakfast, I made homemade biscuits with my new pie irons. Though they didn’t rise completely, they still tasted delicious smothered with steak, eggs and cheese. The girls gobbled down the Bisquick Shake ‘N Pour pancakes. When we weren’t eating, sleeping or playing at the campsite, we were hiking.

Tom’s Creek Falls

DSC_0115We spent all day Saturday hiking waterfalls in the Pisgah National Forest and exploring interesting places off the Blue Ridge Parkway. First, we explored the Tom’s Creek Falls, located about 20 minutes northeast of our campsite. Tom’s Creek Falls trailhead is about 1.3 miles from the intersection of US-221 and Huskins Branch Rd. This trail is about 1-mile roundtrip hike with wide gravel paths, lush green forest, and spots along the way for splashing in the creek. It’s an easy, shaded hike with gentle switchbacks towards the top. It even has benches near a clearing to rest. Along the way we spotted a lot of mica (from old mining days), ferns, and mountain laurel.

We climbed to the overlook area and then followed a narrow path to the right to access the water. Wanting to get a closer look at the falls, both girls scurried up the rocks (with our help) to the bottom of the falls, reaching an elevation of approximately 1800 ft. The water flows at three different levels before dumping into Tom’s Creek. We loved splashing in the water and being so close to the falls. 

Roaring Fork Falls

07402233-DCCE-443C-B72F-47997007596EAfter leaving Tom’s Creek Falls, we drove about 45 minutes northwest to the Roaring Fork Falls trailhead. Roaring Fork Falls trailhead is located near the intersection of S Toe River Rd and State Hwy 80. Follow the signs for about 1/2 mile until the road dead ends into a small parking lot.

Roaring Fork Falls is a 1.5 mile out and back trail, despite the “Falls .5 miles” sign near the parking lot. With the forecast calling for heavy rains, we booked it up this trail. The trail begins on an old logging road in a heavily wooded forest. The trail is slightly uphill and mostly shaded with pockets of sunlight throughout. After crossing a small wooden bridge, we climbed over roots and small stones to reach the falls. The falls cascaded down several levels creating the large roaring effect.

Ashley and Bill climbed down to the bottom of the falls while Claire and I waited on the trail. The heavy rain caused the rocks to become very slick, so we stayed safe on the trail. After a quick dip in the water, they carefully climbed back to the trail and we all rushed to the car. The rain started pouring heavier on our hike back to the car, but carrying Claire on my shoulders kept my back dry! 

The girls changed into dry clothes at the car and we enjoyed a much-deserved picnic lunch. After lunch, we hopped onto the Blue Ridge Parkway and visited the NC Minerals Museum (MP 331) and Linville Caverns. After driving at least 100 miles around mountains all day, we returned to our campsite hungry for food and thankful for nature. Watching, touching and listening to the waterfalls made us appreciate the mountains even more.

Hike Info

Thumbs up: little traffic along hikes, beautiful views, exciting waterfalls, easy family hikes, comfortable campsites

Thumbs down: no cell phone reception (although I’d put this in the thumbs up column)

Jordan Lake State Recreation Area: Poplar Point Campground

For our maiden voyage in the Winnie, we headed to Jordan Lake State Recreation Area for a quick 24-hr overnight trip. We wanted to get a small sample of camping while staying close to home. Jordan Lake State Recreation Area is located about 30 minutes west of Raleigh off US-64. Whether you’re going for a short trip or several days, Jordan Lake has lots of outdoor experiences and recreational activities to offer.

Camping

A few weeks before our trip we reserved a campsite online with electric and water hook-ups at Poplar Point Campground. The entrance for Poplar Point Campground is located at 558 Beaver Creek Rd in Apex. Jordan Lake State Recreation Area is enormous with over 1,000 RV and tent campsites scattered over five different areas. We chose Poplar Point Campground because it has many waterfront campsites available with water and electric hook-ups and a recreation beach at Loop E. We reserved spot 58 at Loop H, which is a back-in spot, like most at the park. The NC State Park registration system is very useful. You can search by amenities, whether you need a pull-through spot, and length of site. Similar to hotel room booking systems, it also shows multiple pictures of each campsite.

We arrived early on a Saturday morning and checked-in at the Poplar Point front gate. The ranger confirmed that we could switch our spot for the more popular first-come, first-serve spots at Loop E if we wanted. Loop E features a beach area, playground and more waterfront sites. But, after driving by our site at Loop H, we decided to stick with our original plan. We were anxious to set-up the Winnie and explore the campground. 

IMG_2418Our partially shaded campsite featured a flat gravel pad, picnic table and grill. There’s a short walk to the water, which we were hoping to use for fishing access, but unfortunately there was more poison ivy than we wanted to dodge. We found another access to the water, but the low-lying trees made casting difficult for the girls. Surprisingly, we didn’t have any neighbors during our entire stay. Though the girls were sad because they couldn’t play with new friends, it also meant they could run around like maniacs without worrying about traffic.

We spent about 45 minutes setting up camp by rolling out the rug, organizing the outdoor food station, hooking up the water and electric, and making sure the party lights hung perfectly. This park (and most state parks) features a dump station near the entrance, which we used on the way out to empty our gray and black tanks. For lunch, we quickly cooked hot dogs and grilled deli sandwiches on the griddle before heading to the beach. 

Recreation Area

4After lunch we headed to the recreation area to cool off in the beach. The recreation area at Loop E features a large sandy shoreline with designated swimming area. The water was refreshing and the boats racing by made fun waves for the girls. The girls loved catching the waves with their inner tubes and building sand castles on the shore. They enjoyed racing into the water and diving into the calm water. Even though the water was a little murky, they didn’t seem to mind.

The recreation area has a narrow forested area near the parking lot with picnic tables and benches. We spotted several fishermen fishing further down the shoreline. We also saw a pontoon boat selling shave ice and snacks on the shoreline. Even though we just missed the shave ice, we watched the boat motor to the recreation area on the opposite side of the lake.

Unfortunately we left several of our beach essentials (beach chairs, umbrellas, sand toys) at home, placing greater attention on our camping items. We bought inner tubes at the convenience store off US-64, which proved crucial beach toys. Despite not having all our regular beach things, we spent over two hours at the lake beach having a fabulous time.

Dinner Camping

IMG_2425After playing at the beach we headed back to our campsite for showers and dinner prep. The girls helped shuck corn for grilling on the fire pit while I made mac n cheese on the trailer range. We grilled chicken sausages, corn on the cob, hot dogs and cinnamon sugar filled apples for dessert. 

After cleaning up dinner we settled in for puzzles and Uno. I also taught the girls how to play the card game, War, which immediately became their favorite game! Once the sun went down, we chased fireflies around the loop and used our campfire to make s’mores. Then, we read a bit of Wind in the Willows around the campfire before tucking the girls into their bunks.  

Though it took the girls a little longer to fall asleep, they slept soundly until morning. Bill and I enjoyed some music around the campfire while listening to insects chirp near the water. Overall, our first overnight trailer trip was a big success! Camping in the trailer was an exciting, but relaxing experience while Jordan Lake offered lots of fun at a quick drive away. 

Thumbs up: campsite space, large beach recreation area, affordable family camping, 

Thumbs down: poison ivy down to the water near campground

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

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

Canoeing the New River in NC

New RiverLast month good friends invited our family to their mountain cabin along the South Fork of the New River near West Jefferson, NC.  Though this was my first time on this river in NC, being back on the New River reminded me of past trips whitewater rafting through West Virginia or lazily tubing the New River Junction near Blacksburg, VA.  We made those trips before we had kids so it was fun to share this trip with our kids and new friends we’ve met since having kids.

The New River is unique in that it flows south to north and is believed to be one of the oldest rivers in North America, and maybe the world.  This ancient river begins in the mountains near the TN-NC border, flows north through NC, VA and WV where it joins with the Gauley River (I’ve always wanted to raft during the fall release dates) to become the Kanawha River and eventually flows to the Gulf of Mexico via the Ohio & Mississippi Rivers. Portions of the New River in NC flow through different access points to the New River State Park where you can camp, hike, canoe, kayak, fish, or any combination of those.  While we spent a lot of our weekend exploring the private area around the cabin, wading in the family-friendly river, or teaching the kids to kayak, my friend Annie and I got out for a few hours on Saturday afternoon for a relaxing canoe trip.

IMG_5566After an exhilarating drive down one-lane gravel roads in an old Chevy truck with a canoe in tow we arrived at a small put-in near the intersection of Dog Creek Rd and Joe Little Rd.  The bank is steep and the pathway to the water is narrow and overgrown on the sides, but it made for a quick water entrance.  Joe Little Rd is a narrow one-wayish road, so use caution when driving.  It was a beautiful day to be on the river so we passed quite a few tubers, kayakers, and fishermen.  The water was pretty brisk, so it felt good to be dry in the canoe.  Along our way we passed Wootens Mill on Dog Creek Rd, which is no longer in service but dates back to the 1770s.  We also passed the Wagoner Access portion of the New River State Park on the south side of the river.  We saw lots of tents set up for weekend camping and canoe put-in areas.

We made a quick pit stop back at the house to refill our cooler before heading further upstream (remember, the river flows south to north).  We made our way over a few mini rapids and shortly passed the River Bend campsite area of the New River State Park that features primitive canoe-in only camping.  With the exception of the flowing water and birds (and our girl talk), the river is void of any other sounds as it snakes through the Blue Ridge Mountains.  After awhile we pulled the canoe out near a shallow rocky area to take a break.  The river rocks feature those smooth, round shapes so we easily laid down in the water to chill.  After a few more minutes of deciding we needed to start a yoga retreat on the river we paddled some more to a popular swimming hole.  We pulled the canoe out near a small island and swam to the large rock to jump into the deep water below.  It was heavenly!

After paddling a bit more we called our ride home as we reached the take-out spot near Absher Rd/Gentry Rd Bridge.  It was late afternoon when we got out, so we had to wait a few minutes before we could pull out the canoe.  With stops, it took us about 3 hours to go about 6 miles on the river. With its gentle, shallow waters and tranquil rapids the South Fork of the New River offers so many family-friendly or beginner adventures.  The river’s beauty is something to experience first-hand and I can’t wait to get back here again!

Additional Resources:

Thumbs up: lots of shallow wading spots for little ones, camping/canoe options at New River State Park, beautiful scenery along river, river’s beauty and tranquility, gentle and mild rapids are great for families and beginners

Thumbs down: nothing to report

Pilot Mountain State Park: Ivy Bluffs Trail

Ivy Bluffs trail in Pilot Mountain State ParkOn day 2 of our Pilot Mountain State Park adventures, we headed to the Ivy Bluffs section of the park to check out the sites along the Yadkin River.  The Ivy Bluffs access point is located along the southern part of the Yadkin River in Yadkin County (northern side of river is in Surry County) off Shoals Rd at coordinates 36.25315, -80.50842.  This section is about 20 miles from the main mountain but offers some gorgeous views of the Yadkin River.

We arrived early on a cold Saturday morning and had the trail to ourselves.  There is a looped parking lot with a helpful map of the river/trail near the trailhead.  We started on the 1.3 mile moderate Ivy Bluffs trail, which began on a steady 1/4 mile decline down to the river level.  Along the way we saw gorgeous views of the wide, but fast-flowing Yadkin River through the barren trees from the bluffs.  The cliffs were high but nowhere as dramatic as the ones around Jomeokee Trail. When the trail flattened out near the river we passed a canoe put-in and large camping area complete with picnic tables and designated camping spots.  We continued on the trail, which parallels the river for 1/2 mile and circles back around near the large camping area.  Before looping around we stopped near a sandy spot by the water for a short picnic break.  After we got going again, we spotted several animal footprints and checked out the rocks and moss along the backside of the looped trail.

IMG_4189This trail is about 1.3 miles in total length and is marked as being moderate.  The only moderate part of the hike was heading up the bluffs on the way back.  The parts along the river were flat and quiet, the only sounds coming from the river and wee ones.  In the future when the kids are much bigger I’d love to explore this area further by canoe and camping!

Thumbs up: gorgeous views of river, great trail for hiking with kids, future canoeing/camping opportunities

Thumbs down: nothing to report

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

Eno River State Park – Cox Mountain Trail

IMG_5361This summer we explored Eno River State Park in Durham over Memorial Day weekend.  Despite a 40 minute drive and a lot of preschooler crying when we first arrived because there was no playground in sight, we enjoyed the short hike across the swaying footbridge and to the river.

Eno River State Park has several different access areas and we chose the Few Fords access area at 6101 Cole Mill Rd so we could be close to the river and explore an old cabin.  After a short drive through the park the road dead ended into a circular parking lot with nearby restrooms and several picnic areas.  We ate a quick lunch in the shaded picnic area, admired the large pavilion (great for group picnics), and set off on the Cox Mountain Trail towards the river.  The first 1/4 mile of the hike was a rather steep descent, but it was mostly graded with steps for an easier hike.  With two little ones in tow, I held Ashley’s hand most of the way to prevent her from tripping over roots or steps while Claire enjoyed the scenery from sitting high in the backpack.

IMG_5355After we reached the bank of the river, we followed the trail over a narrow suspension footbridge that seemed like a much, much less dramatic version of the foot bridge Indiana Jones crossed in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  It’s less than a 15ft drop to the river, but with large openings in the sides of the bridge I walked Ashley slowly across the bridge, trying to reiterate the importance of no jumping on the bridge.

After we crossed the bridge we turned left and continued along the trail and passed shallow swimming holes and small sandy “beach” areas where several families and dogs were enjoying the bank of the river.  We continued on until we came to the wilderness cabin.  There was a strange bikini photo shoot going on the deck of the cabin so we explored the inside rooms where the girls ran around and examined the window openings and log walls.  After leaving the log cabin, we walked to the nearby gazebo and made it a short while longer on Cox Mountain Trail before turning around.  Even though the whole loop is 3.75 miles and connects to more trails, we only made it about 3/4mile in before turning around.

IMG_5383On our hike back we stopped in one of the several swimming holes to splash around a bit, promising to bring the girls back again soon with bathing suits in tow.  Other than over 25 miles of hiking, Eno River State Park offers fishing, camping, canoeing, educational programs, the annual Eno River Festival and more.

Thumbs up: river access with kid-friendly swimming holes and shallow flowing water, fun swinging bridge, shady picnic areas

Thumbs down: nothing to report

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Durant Nature Preserve

IMG_8283In early Fall we headed out to Durant Nature Preserve with some friends to enjoy their weekly Wee Walkers program (Thursdays from 10-11am).  Having never visited Durant Nature Preserve before I’m glad I attended an organized program that guides you and the kiddos on a short walk through the park because this nature park is huge!  Durant Nature Preserve is located at 8305 Camp Durant Rd in North Raleigh (north entrance is located off Camp Durant Rd and south entrance is located off Spottswood St).  According to the COR’s website, this park was originally known as Camp Durant and was the headquarters for the Occoneechee Council of the Boy Scouts until 1979 when the City of Raleigh purchased the land from the scouts and turned it into a nature park.  We parked in the parking lot near the park office at the north entrance.  Once everyone arrived (about 10-15 moms/kids total), we set off on our nature walk with our super friendly and knowledgeable guide.  For those with babies or early walkers, I’d recommend wearing the babes in a carrier as most of the trails are unpaved.

IMG_8271We hiked along the eastern side of the park following the Pine Ridge Connector, Pine Ridge Trail and Lakeside unpaved trails.  Our guide stopped several times along the trail to point out a variety of flora and fauna.  We saw a little bit of everything: wasp nests, leaf poppers, water striders, water frogs, mushrooms, mosquito fish, poplar tulip leaves, muscadine grapes, dogwood berries and a real turtle!  The kids (ranging in ages from under 1 to 5 years old) were most impressed by the turtle walking along the trail, but it’s been fun to see how Ashley gets excited when she sees dogwood berries in the backyard!  The neat part about the Wee Walkers program is that each program is different because it’s based on what’s going on in nature that week and it’s FREE…what a deal!

After the Wee Walkers program we explored the playground area and had a picnic lunch.  The nearby shelters were very muddy due to the recent heavy rains, but we made do.  The playground is for ages 2-12 and has a few slides, monkey bars, climbing ladders, a large sandbox with teeter totters and diggers, two tot swings, and two regular swings.  Also close to the playground area is sand volleyball, basketball and the public restrooms.

This post simply scratches the surface of all there is to explore at Durant Nature Preserve.  If you want more than just hiking, this seems to be a great park for camping, biking, birding and so much more.  I look forward to coming back again soon!

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Thumbs up: Wee Walkers program, variety of hiking trails

Thumbs down: signage throughout park (we got lost heading back to our cars)

Jordan Lake State Park: New Hope Overlook

img_2178With Fall in full swing, it’s a great time to do some hiking in Raleigh’s backyard.  Months ago we visited Jordan Lake State Park for some hiking and a picnic and with the leaves changing colors now it’d be a perfect time to go back.   Having survived Profile Trail in western NC we wanted to try one of Jordan Lake’s more challenging trails.  After researching the NC Parks website we decided on the blue trail at New Hope Overlook.   Jordan Lake has several hiking trails across many entrances so be sure to research ahead of time which one to go to.  New Hope Overlook is located off WH Jones Rd and has a cash-only entrance, where the fee is $6/car.

The parking lot at the trail head is shared with the boat ramps, so there should be plenty of parking for all patrons.  Before heading on the trail we scoped out the path again at the on-site map.  Needing to be home for a 1pm naptime we opted for the 2.7 mile Blue trail instead of the 5.4 mile Red trail.  The trail is heavily wooded and follows the perimeter of the lake through much of the trail.  Being so close to the water made for some great photo ops and a chance to see a lot of wildlife, such as ducks, herons, turtles and frogs.  It also gave us a chance to take a few breaks and let Ripken enjoy a cool dip in the water.

img_2183The Blue trail had a moderate difficulty with some gradual hills and tree stumps along the path.  It was well cleared and easy to follow.  It took us about 1.5 hours to finish the hike, making it a great mid-morning outing with Ashley and Ripken.  After the hike we headed over to the shore line near the boat ramps for a yummy picnic lunch.  Unfortunately there weren’t any picnic tables so we roughed it on the shore line.  We all had a great time and can’t wait to head back to Jordan Lake soon for some more hiking and perhaps some camping!  Visit the NC Parks website for more information about the features of Jordan Lake.

Directions from Raleigh: follow 64 west and turn left on Beaver Creek Rd before crossing over Jordan Lake, turn right on Pea Ridge Rd, and then a right on WH Jones Rd.

Thumbs up: scenery, shady trail, clearly marked paths, lake views, moderately challenging trail

Thumbs down: lack of picnic tables near parking lot