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

South Holston Dam (Bristol, TN)

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

South Holston DamDam, Plant & Reservoir

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

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

DSC_0144Osceola Island

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

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

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

Thumbs down: nothing to report

2017 First Day Hikes

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

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

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

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

Yosemite in a Day with Young Kids

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

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

Getting There

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

Bridalveil Fall Trail

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

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

Lower Yosemite Falls Trail

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

 

Views of Half Dome

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

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

Looking Ahead & Tips For Young Families

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

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

Additional Resources:

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

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

Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge (Outer Banks, NC)

pea island national wildlife refugeWhen we were in Nags Head last month we spent the last full day exploring Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge, which is located on a barrier island of the Outer Banks in NC.  The Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge is part of a larger national wildlife refuge system with more than 500 units that was founded by President Teddy Roosevelt in 1903 to conserve the nation’s natural living treasures.  The Pea Island Refuge was established in 1938 to provide a resting and winter habitat for migratory waterfowl. It features a visitor center, the North Pond Wildlife trail (which is part of the larger Charles Kuralt Trail), and 13 miles of beaches.  We did a little bit of everything just before the big storms rolled in, making the trip a perfect last day adventure!

Before exploring the hiking/walking trail in the refuge, we stopped at the Pea Island Visitor Center.  It is located a few miles south of Oregon Inlet along NC 12 (not to be confused with the National Wildlife Refuge Center main complex located on Roanoke Island). Volunteers run the visitor center and it’s free to explore.  It features a few exhibits detailing the refuge’s history and animals in the area, a gift shop, scavenger hunts for kids, and telescopes for viewing into the marshes.  Pea Island received its name because the migratory snow geese that frequented this area ate plants with peas in them.

IMG_6261After exploring the visitor center we headed to the North Pond Wildlife trail, which is a 1 mile total walk to the observation deck and back to the visitor center.  We first walked along the boardwalk and scoped out the turtles in the “turtle pond.” Continuing on, we walked along a partially paved/boardwalk path between North Pond and New Field Pond where we glanced through fixed binoculars towards North Pond.  The trail then became narrow and sandy, but continued to offer beautiful unobstructed views of the ponds.  At the end of the trail, we walked up the double decker observation deck, where we could see for miles and identified egrets and turkey vultures.  Butterflies were plentiful this day, too.  The observation deck features some informational plaques about animals in the refuge and fixed binoculars for viewing.

IMG_6265The North Pond Wildlife Trail is part of a larger grouping of trails that make up the Charles Kuralt Trail.  It was established to encourage people to enjoy the wild lands and recognize this great NC native broadcast journalist who loved exploring remote places.  The Charles Kuralt Trail consists of 13 refuges or hatcheries along eastern NC and southeastern VA, offering interesting places to explore.

It was a really hot day, so we quickly walked the 1/2 mile back to the visitor center parking lot (although more adventurous hikers can complete the 4 mile loop around North Pond).  After a short bathroom break, we grabbed our picnic lunch and beach bag and walked across highway NC-12 for more beach time.  The Atlantic Ocean was beautiful this time of year and the water was relatively calm despite the large thunderstorm that popped up an hour later.  Don’t forget to catch a glimpse of the remains of the Oriental, a Federal transport during the Civil War, which shipwrecked in 1862.

Additional Resources:

Thumbs up: beautiful pond views, light foot traffic,

Thumbs down: Bathrooms near trail head

Glen Burney Trail (Blowing Rock, NC)

Glen Burney TrailWhile we were in the NC mountains, Bill and I scooted out for a day date hike and beers in Blowing Rock.  We hiked the Glen Burney trail located just off Main St at 229 Laurel Ln in Annie Cannon Gardens.  The Glen Burney Trail is 1.6 miles long (3.2 total miles out/back) and parallels the New Year’s Creek, which eventually flows into the Catawba River Basin.  The trail is unlike others I’ve ever hiked because it starts at 3,920 ft in elevation and drops 600 ft to the base of the falls.

The hike started off moderate as we crossed a few gentle streams and walked along even ground.  Then we hiked by dramatic backyard views of a private home and ruins of a former sewer plant that was in use until 1929.  Soon thereafter, the trail became more strenuous as we crossed large roots, steep hills, and fallen logs.

IMG_5763We arrived at the first waterfall, the Cascades, a little past halfway down the trail.  The creek water gently flows over these moderately sloped rocks, allowing hikers to cautiously climb up the rocks to higher ground.  We stopped to take in the sights and sounds before moving farther down the trail. On our next stop we hiked to the base of the trail at Glen Marie Falls.  We climbed up large boulders sandwiched between small streams to get higher views of the mountains in the distance.  Again, we stopped for several minutes to take in the quiet sights and sounds.

After Glen Burney Falls, we started our ascent back up the trail and stopped at the Glen Marie Falls.  We had passed the sign for these falls on the way down the mountain. We hiked a short ways off the trail to the reach the falls, and it was well worth it.  I walked along the creek rocks to enjoy cooling off in the waterfall where water gently flows from a 30+ft boulder.

We then continued our ascent up the mountain, which was much shorter than our hike down; walking down we focused a lot of our time on our footing.  Overall, the hike took about 1 1/2 hours and was strenuous, so we were right to hike this trail without kids.  Judging by the little foot traffic, it’s a hidden gem of a hike even though busy Main St is a few blocks away.  After our hike we wandered around Annie Cannon park, which features several spots for quiet reflection, a small creek, an amphitheater, and beautiful landscaping.

Thumbs up: beautiful views, little foot traffic, easy access to waterfalls, unique hike down and then up

Thumbs down: nothing to report

Blue Ridge Parkway: Moses Cone Memorial Park & Linn Cove Viaduct

IMG_5696We were very fortunate to spend a few weekends in the NC mountains this summer.  On our second mountain trip we met up with my in-laws and stayed in a beautiful mountain cabin near the Appalachian Ski Mountain between Boone and Blowing Rock.  On a tip from friends, we headed out to the Blue Ridge Parkway and visited the Moses Cone Memorial Park & the Linn Cove Viaduct.

The Moses Cone Memorial Park is located along the Blue Ridge Parkway at MP 294, just a short drive from Blowing Rock.  Moses Cone Memorial Park preserves the country estate of Moses Cone, who was a textile businessman and conservationist in the late 19th century.  The park features 25 miles of hiking and bridle trails and Flat Top Manor, which is a 13,000 sq ft Colonial Style mansion.  The bottom floor of the manor houses the Parkway Craft Center, which features handmade crafts by regional artists and a souvenir shop.  We also had the pleasure of watching a pottery demonstration, which the craft center regularly schedules.

After the pottery demo and catching some breathtaking views outside the manor overlooking Bass Lake, we headed left of the house to walk the Figure 8 trail.  This short 0.7 mile hike is great for families with small children or grandparents as it is well shaded and flat.  Originally created by Moses Cone for his daily walks, this unpaved path meanders in a figure 8 shape through the property, making it a perfect walking trail to explore the variety of trees and flowers.  Informational signs highlight the hickory, oak, maple, mountain laurel and black cherry trees along the trail.  If you’re craving a longer or more strenuous hike, check out the map of trails around the park.

IMG_5732After spending over an hour at the park, we turned left out of Moses Cone Memorial Park and headed 10 miles south to the Linn Cove Viaduct (MP 304).  At an elevation of 4,100 ft, the Linn Cove Viaduct is a concrete bridge engineering marvel snaking around Grandfather Mountain; it is over 1,200 ft long and consists of 153 concrete sections weighing 50 tons each.  Construction of the Linn Cove Viaduct was completed in 1983, cementing the final link of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Coming from the north, we drove over the viaduct and then turned left into the Linn Cove Viaduct Visitor Center parking lot.  We hiked the short 0.2 mile walk along the Tanawha Trail to the Linn Cove Viaduct observation deck.  Along the short walk we saw several mountain springs and a variety of mountain flora. Walking underneath the viaduct gives you a sense of the bridge’s massiveness – each bridge segment spans several arm-lengths in width, and has enormous amounts of concrete supported by large piers.  We then walked higher up the Tanawha trail to get an eye-level view of the viaduct and mountains in the distance.  Though our trip to the viaduct was quick, everyone in our group (not just the engineers) really enjoyed and appreciated seeing such an engineering feat up close.

Additional Resources:

Thumbs up: beautiful views from Moses Cone Park overlooking downtown Blowing Rock, access to close-up views of viaduct, infinite outside experiences along Blue Ridge Parkway

Thumbs down: manor house in desperate need of painting and renovations, bathroom facilities at Moses Cone Park

Summit Trail: Mount Jefferson State Natural Area

IMG_5612On the way home from our mountain trip in West Jefferson we decided to take advantage of the close proximity to Mount Jefferson and pay a visit.  Mount Jefferson State Natural Area is located just east of US 221 at 1481 Mt Jefferson State Park Rd in West Jefferson (elevation 3000ft).  It lies along the drainage divide between the north and south forks of the New River, which influenced the size and shape of the mountain. Mount Jefferson and its nearby peaks are remnants of a once lofty, mountainous region but weathering and erosion over millions of years wore away the softer, less resistant rocks. The more resistant rocks, amphibolite and metagraywacke of Mount Jefferson, were slower to erode.  The mountain received its name in 1952 in honor of Thomas Jefferson and his father, Peter, who owned land in the area and surveyed the nearby North Carolina-Virginia border in 1749.  In 1956 the mountain became an official state park.

The main access road up the mountain is easy to navigate and offers two beautiful overlooks.  The small parking lot at the top of the mountain provides quick, easy access to the mountain’s trails, large pavilion, and picnic tables.

IMG_5615We walked through the picnic area and followed the short Summit Trail (0.3 miles) up the mountain.  Although the website lists this trail as strenuous, we felt it was more on the moderate side.  Due to our haste planning half of us wore flip flops, but could easily walk the gravel trail.  The gravel path is wide and shady giving a cool mountain feel to the hike. Along the way we saw butterflies, rhododendrons, mountain laurel and red-starred flowers; though stop by the park office for official plant and animal checklists. We visited the bathrooms along the way, which were super convenient and an easy walk from the main path.  We passed access to the Kids TRACK trail, which is part of the longer Rhododendron Trail (1.1 miles).  Near the top we turned left to the Mount Jefferson summit, which has an elevation of 4683 feet.  I climbed out a little further to catch the beautiful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Even though this is a smaller state park in size, it offers 5 moderate to strenuous hikes that are great for quick hikes with beginners or young families.  It would also be a great spot for a quick picnic if you’re out and about in West Jefferson or on the way home like we were.

Additional Resources:

Thumbs up: quick, easy access to hiking trails from the parking lot, easier hikes for beginners and families, beautiful views of mountains from Mt Jefferson summit, picnic spots are plentiful

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

Update: Durant Nature Preserve Park

Durant Nature Preserve ParkWith mild weather in the forecast and more nature parks on our mind, we headed to Durant Nature Preserve Park (8305 Camp Durant Rd
in North Raleigh) to attend the Wee Walkers program with friends, play in the natural playground, and explore the butterfly and bird garden.  We’ve attended the Wee Walkers program several times over the years and the girls (and I) always have a great time.  The program is a fun way to get out and explore nature with a knowledgeable guide, the program is FREE and doesn’t require registration (although it helps for their planning purposes), and you learn about and see different animals and parts of the park each trip.

This Wee Walkers program focused on birds and we hiked along the White House Road trail that meanders through the shaded forest on the northern side of the park.  Staff Ranger Jack kept us moving at a steady pace for such a large group while pointing out several flora and fauna along the way: skinks, bluebirds, lots of centipedes, frogs, centipedes, robins, spiders and more.  He spotted eggs in one of the bluebird houses, which was a big hit for all the parents and kids, and he also talked about some of the migratory birds that we’d find in the park.

After the hiking program, the girls played in the natural play area that sits near the painted shed in the north entrance parking lot.  The natural play area features a rock garden, small fish pond surrounded by native plants, fairy house building, bird houses, sandbox, and fort building supplies.  The girls have had so much fun playing in Raleigh’s natural play areas lately that we’ve tried to incorporate several of them in our own backyard with fairy garden building, dinosaur fossils and other small treasures hidden in a dirt box, and a painted rock garden.

IMG_5419Once the girls finished in the natural play area, we walked across the parking lot and open field area to the bird and butterfly garden.  The butterfly garden has a short trail surrounded by natural butterfly habitats of lilac, Queen Anne’s Lace, daylilies, eastern blue star and more.  The butterfly garden leads into the shaded bird garden that features a mulched trail with several feeders, bird houses, and informational guides.  We heard and saw a lot of birds flying in and around the gardens, but my bird identification skills are pretty pathetic – maybe some adult birding classes are in my future!

On our way back to our car we spotted a large doe along the perimeter of the park, so you never know what you’ll see at the park.  The next Wee Walkers program is Thursday, July 7 at 10am and maybe we’ll see you there!

Additional Resources

Thumbs up: guided Wee Walkers program, natural play area, bird and butterfly garden, shaded trails for hot summer days

Thumbs down: nothing to report