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

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

Robertson Millpond Preserve

Robertson Millpond PreserveOne Sunday at the end of April we headed out to Wake County’s newest park, Robertson Millpond Preserve for some fishing.  Not knowing what to expect from this new park, we quickly discovered that Robertson Millpond Preserve is a local natural refuge for recreation and relaxation.   Its main attraction is the blackwater cypress-gum swamp, making you feel transported to the lowcountry!

Robertson Millpond Preserve is an 85-acre park located 25 minutes outside of Raleigh at 6333 Robertson Pond Road in Wendell, NC.  The millpond dam was created in the 1820s when the Avera family owned and operated a 600-acre farm and gristmill on the property.  They lived in a federal-style home, which they re-located to a new site on Robertson Pond Rd that still exists today.  The Robertson family, for which the pond and road are named for, bought the land in the late 1800s/early 1900s and probably operated the mill until the 1940s.  After the mill stopped operating in the 1950s, recreational fishing and boating became the focal point.  Decades later, the mill was removed, and in 2013 the land was purchased through the Wake County Open Space Program and the park opened in late October 2015.

IMG_4859This particular Sunday we enjoyed the park all to ourselves for several hours.  We explored the boat ramp (only non-motorized boats are allowed) down to the pond where we heard and saw a variety of birds and insects.  Sitting on the boat dock, we gawked over the large cypress trees that envelope the pond.  The park staff have installed numbered buoys in the water to created a 1/2 mile paddling trail through the pond.  Since our visit, Paddle Creek has started offering hourly kayak rentals on Saturdays only at the pond.

Then we walked over to the small shore area to set up for fishing.  Before heading out that morning, the girls and I collected live worms from our backyard for bait, but our bait didn’t stand a chance.  Bill and the girls had a few nibbles and saw some tadpoles, but this morning was more about just having fun, which everyone did!  After fishing we walked closer to the dam, which is about 20 yards wide and sits in front of Robertson Pond Road.  You can’t get very close to the dam, but the sounds are amazing and future projects include adding a short boardwalk and an interpretive display near the mill’s old foundation.

In addition to the pond’s recreational activities, the park also features a picnic shelter, open space area and nonpotable water station for cleaning your boat.  After this past weekend’s canoeing and kayaking adventures down the New River in West Jefferson, NC, I can’t wait to return on a Saturday and take the girls kayaking!

Additional Resources

Thumbs up: gorgeous views, boating options, preservation of pond and history of area, on-site station for cleaning your boat

Thumbs down: lack of weekday hours

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

Blue Jay Point County Park

IMG_2125Blue Jay Point County Park is an outdoor mecca for people of all ages!  We visited Blue Jay Point County Park about a month ago after hearing so much great news about the new Go Ape Zip Line & Tree Adventure course.  Even though this park visit was more for the little ones, I can’t wait to head back here for some adult time on the adventure course.

Blue Jay Point County Park is a peninsula located at 3200 Pleasant Union Church Rd in North Raleigh.  It is surrounded on three sides by Falls Lake and just south of the intersection of NC-98 and Six Forks Rd.

We first drove to the back of the park and scoped out the playground area, which was huge!  The ages 5-12 playground has at least 8 slides in total, long ramps for running up and down, monkey bars, climbing ladders, tunnels and more.  The ages 2-5 playground has several shorter slides, an arched climbing ladder, and nearby teeter totters and standing sand tables.  There is a restroom area, small covered pavilion, benches and picnic tables near the playground.  Most of the playground area is in full sun, but we were able to score a little shade on the benches under the trees.

IMG_2124After some playground time, we headed towards the covered pavilion where the Laurel Loop nature trail begins.  This was such an ideal walk for young kids – it is a well maintained unpaved trail with lots of shade, has several benches and picnic tables throughout, is only 0.2 miles, allows for a short walk by adjacent Falls Lake, and loops you back to the playground area.  All of the girls from ages 18 months to 4 years old loved exploring this trail, especially finding the dozens of caterpillars along the trail.

After our hike, we got back in our cars and headed to the front of the park to explore the main building’s Nature Discovery Room.  After recently visiting Rockwood Nature Center in Richmond, VA where we saw several live animals, the girls seemed disappointed they didn’t have any live creepy, crawly native animals to gawk at.  However, they did enjoy learning about the water cycle at Falls Lake and playing with some of the interactive tree and plant exhibits.

IMG_2139We then headed outside to the nearby fenced-in garden area for a much deserved picnic lunch.  After our lunch we walked all throughout the gardens learning about the different herbs, flowers and vegetables they’ve planted.  The biggest highlight for me was the “pizza garden” where they planted lots of basil and tomatoes.  The biggest highlight for the girls was spotting butterflies and checking out the resident turtles and water snake in the small pond area.

Even though we spent about 3 hours at Blue Jay County Park, I feel as if we barely scratched the surface of this park.  With so many nature and hiking trails (some that connect to Mountains-to-Sea trail), a natural play area, a tree-top adventure course, lots of open space, and tons of educational programs I can’t wait to come back very soon!

Thumbs up: nature trails with varying lengths for all ages, gardens, playground area, proximity to Falls Lake, so many outdoor activities to do

Thumbs down: signage around park

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

More Resources

Neuse River Trail: MP 0 to 1.5

IMG_9816.jpgFor the few days it’s been sunny and above 40 degrees this winter you could easily find us at a park or greenway soaking up the fresh air.  Even though we’ve explored a lot of the southern end of the Neuse River Trail, we hadn’t run along the northern portion (aka Upper Neuse Greenway) until this winter.  It’s a great location to get some exercise and then have a picnic along the shores of the dam.

The Neuse River Trail is nearly 28 miles long and officially starts just south of the Falls Lake Dam.  We parked in the lot adjacent to the dam, which is near the intersection of Old Falls of Neuse Rd and Pleasant Union Church Rd.  From the parking lot, walk along Pleasant Union Church Rd and bare left onto the paved trail that goes under Old Falls of Neuse Rd.  As another parking option, turn right onto the service road before crossing the bridge over the Neuse River.  Follow the road 100 yards to the greenway parking lot, which has space for about 30 cars and is across from the canoe launch.  I prefer to park in the dam parking lot because it offers amazing views and has picnic tables for post-run picnics.

IMG_9828.jpgOn this particular day the water level was elevated, so it was relaxing to hear the rushing water flow over a screaming 18-month old (yes, she screamed for about 95% of our run).  Regardless, this trail is great in that it parallels the river offering great water views and glimpses of the native flora and fauna.  We saw herons, beautiful budding red berry bushes (maybe winterberry shrubs) and tall native grasses.  We passed under Falls of Neuse Rd and over small bridges.  We also passed by the Bedford at Falls River neighborhood with greenway access to Falls River Ave and then turned around at the 1.5 mile mark, which is by the fork in the trail; keep left to stay on the greenway or stay straight for another access point to Falls River Ave and a greenway parking lot.  The steady stream of foot traffic and proximity to made me feel secure about returning on my own and the relatively flat, wide trail might make it ideal for kiddo balance biking!

After finishing our run we enjoyed a picnic lunch near the dam and then walked down to the shore line for some good ol’ rock throwing.  If you’re still looking for something do after exploring the greenway and dam, hike up the nearby unpaved trail to the top of the dam for more gorgeous views and some playground time.

Additional Resources:

Thumbs up: safety of trail, beautiful views, relatively flat trail, abundance of parking lots

Thumbs down: nothing to report

Falls Lake Dam

IMG_4949This fall we wanted to further explore Falls Lake so we set off with intentions to start closer to the dam and finish Day Hike A of the Mountains-to-Sea trail.  Falls Lake Dam is on the eastern side of the lake (see map) and has helped control flooding from the Neuse River ever since its completion in 1981.  Having previously hiked a portion of Falls Lake starting at Raven Ridge Rd we wanted to start closer to the dam in hopes of actually seeing it before the kiddos got too tuckered.

Unfortunately the main entrance gates to Falls Lake park were closed on this Sunday morning so we had to park in the small parking lot near Falls Center Management Rd/Falls of Neuse Rd intersection.  After a long walk into the park on the paved trail that parallels the road, the little ones in the group were restless for any trail hiking so we explored the areas around the dam including the (surprise!) playground instead.

IMG_4938The playground is designed for ages 5-12 and includes a few slides, climbing structures, tic-tac-toe, and several nearby picnic tables and benches.  It’s a small playground, but the perfect size for a park with so many more activities.  After taking in the views from the top of the dam, we walked down the unpaved trail adjacent to the playground where we got up close and personal with the beginning of the Neuse River.  The girls enjoyed throwing rocks in the water while we saw fishermen and birds.  There’s also a small parking lot, canoe launch, restrooms, information map, picnic tables, and access to the start of the Neuse River Trail greenway at the bottom of the dam.

Even though we didn’t make it to our planned trail that day, everyone had a fun time whether it was on the playground, along the river bank, or finding furry caterpillars.  I look forward to attempting Day Hike A again sometime soon where we’ll park in the lot closest to the dam!

More Resources:

Thumbs up: views from top of dam, playground, considerable amount of picnic tables

Thumbs down: signage in park, nc state park information online lacks details (no mention of gate closure, playground, parking near dam)

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!

More Resources:

Thumbs up: Wee Walkers program, variety of hiking trails

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

Neuse River Trail: MP 13.25 to 15 & Suspension Bridge

IMG_7529

While I’ll be at the beach over Labor Day week, I wanted to share a must-do item for exploring Raleigh over the holiday weekend.  If you’re looking for some exercise, flora, fauna and beautiful scenery, this portion of the Neuse River Trail is it – it has a suspension bridge, croaking frogs, majestic herons, and an old dam!

Most recently we explored the Neuse River Trail from milepost 13.25 to 15.  We parked in the small paved residential lot at 2894 Abington Ln in east Raleigh.  After a short run down to the trail, we came to the compass in the greenway and decided to head north for a bit in search of the huge suspension bridge (by looking at the online greenway map, it looks like you cross the river just north of here).   Within 1/4 of mile we came upon the suspension bridge at milepost 13.5, which seems to come out of the middle of nowhere!  It seems so unique and breathtaking to me to have a suspension bridge on the greenway; I’m pretty sure I got goosebumps (granted it was 100+ degrees outside) and felt very sentimental for my city!

IMG_7513

We ran another 1/4 mile north until milepost 13.25 and then turned around and headed south.  We ran back over the suspension bridge where we saw some fisherman casting lines.  Further along we passed residential homes to the west and wetlands to the east with several overpasses in between and white barn fencing in certain areas that gave this trail a farm-like feeling.  There are more stretches of sunny parts along this trail than what I’m used to, I think mostly due to the neighborhood developments; it added some intensity to this hot summer run so don’t forget extra water!

We ran south until the Milburnie Dam, which we have explored in the past.  Again, it’s amazing to see what parts of Raleigh you’ll miss if you don’t get on foot!  So get out and explore this weekend!

More Resources:

Thumbs up: beautiful views, wetlands with information signs, suspension bridge, parking lot with access to trail, mile markers

Thumbs down: nothing to report