In January we headed with friends to Umstead Park to explore the super kid-friendly Oak Rock Trail, which is only 1/2 mile long. This is a great hike for young families or large groups with young kids. The trail has easy access to clean restrooms and picnic tables, and shallow stream access for water fun in the warmer months. It’s also part of the Kids in Parks TRACK Trails program that provides self-guided brochures for outdoor adventures.
We accessed Umstead Park from the Highway 70/Glenwood Ave entrance at 8801 Glenwood Ave. Recalling the mobile map, we drove past the Visitor Center and then parked in the first parking lot on the left. Unfortunately there weren’t signs from the main road directing you to the trail. After parking, we walked straight, following the signs for Oak Rock Trail and Kids in Parks.
Since it was wintertime, the leaves covered the ground making it a little tricky to notice tree roots. Luckily, the girls heeded our suggestion for walking slowly. We zig-zagged over the small creek several times, throwing sticks and stones into the water and looking for tadpoles. The girls also enjoyed hopping on large stones to cross the streams.
Even though the trail is short, we spent extra time listening and looking for birds, picking up leaves, and finding moss. The girls enjoyed looking at the tangled tree roots coming out of the ground near the creek and the fallen trees along the way. At the end of the trail we enjoyed a picnic lunch while the girls traversed a large fallen tree. The nearby restrooms were clean and easily accessible.
Thumbs up: easy family hike, great for young kids, self-guided scavenger hunt brochure, plenty of picnic tables, creek for splashing
Thumbs down: poor signage to trail from main park road
In 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.
Then, 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.
After 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
For part two of our northern California park visits we visited the Columbia State Historical Park. Columbia is a real working town that was restored to its 1850s gold-rush business district. Visitors travel back in time to the gold-rushing days where business staff dress in period clothing so visitors can experience stage coach rides, mine for gold, and much more!
Columbia State Historical Park is located at 11255 Jackson St, off highway 49 in Tuolumne County, Ca. Columbia has seen its ups and downs since its cry of “Gold” in 1850 – it survived multiple fires, water supply troubles, and population decline. In 1853 Columbia was one of the largest cities in California with a population of nearly 30,000. When the town became a state park in 1949, restoration efforts preserved the buildings and history.
Strolling down Main Street, we first stopped at Parrott’s Blacksmith Shop to watch the workers forge iron into handmade goods. They make interesting outdoor art, decorative indoor items, horseshoes, unique furniture and more! Then we visited the museums, including the interactive old-fashioned bowling alley. The dentist office exhibit gave us lots of “eeks” as we glimpsed into some of the old fashioned tools and supplies used to clean and pull teeth.
Then we visited Nelson’s Candy Kitchen, a fifth-generation owned and operated candy store. My aunt and uncle are personal friends with the current owner, Janice Nelson, who was extremely kind and patient to give us a personal tour of the candy making. Needless to say, the girls’ bright eyes didn’t miss a moment of this tour! The shop uses a lot of the same recipes and equipment from when Janice’s family opened the store in the late 1800s. During the tour we talked to some of the candy makers who prepped milk chocolate chocolate turkeys for the busy Thanksgiving season. They dressed in period clothing and hand mixed all of the milk chocolate. The smells were priceless!
Janice showed us how they mixed and rolled the jelly candies, candy canes, and ribbon candies. The process is very exact and relies on the mechanical workings of old machines, molds, and ovens. We were so grateful for Janice’s personal tour of her beloved candy shop – it was so neat to learn about candy making and hear her personal stories about the shop. No candy store visit would be complete without buying some nibbles. The girls loved gawking at all the sparkly candies and squealed in delight while tasting the different jelly candy and chocolates. My personal favorite was the salted chocolate almonds while the girls loved the flavored jelly candies.
To come down off our sugar high we continued walking down Main Street towards the old Wells Fargo building. Sadly we didn’t have time to pan for gold or ride the old-fashioned stage coach, but we did quickly walk through the old Wells Fargo office that features original scales, maps of stage coach routes, and other banking exhibits. If you’re looking for a fun way to spend an afternoon or a few overnights exploring the gold-rush days, be sure to visit the small town activities and special events of Columbia. I only wish we had more time to explore the local businesses, especially the saloon!
And, just like that, I have a 5-year old daughter! Lately, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the past 5 years and this birthday is hard to accept. This birthday means the kindergarten milestone is just around the corner in August and it’ll be her first birthday I can’t share with my mom. My baby is really growing up and it’s hard to put into words what this birthday means other than I’m just so proud of the smart, independent, fun, and crazy lego-building-tutu-wearing-acrobatic girl she has become.
Speaking of acrobatics, Ashley has fallen in love with bike riding. We went the balance bike to two-wheel bike route and it really worked for her. She was highly motivated to keep up with the bigger girls on our street and loves to ride in the nearby culdesac. With intentions of taking her on the greenway soon, we’ve been exploring different parks in the area to get her more comfortable with riding (and most importantly, braking)! Here are our top 5 favorite local parks for bike riding:
Isabella Cannon Park (central Raleigh, ITB) – has a great 1/4 mile loop with nearby playground for younger ones to enjoy; I feel safe letting her ride by herself on the loop because I’m close enough to run to her on foot if she falls while also keeping an eye on Claire at the playground
Anderson Point Park (east Raleigh) – has a mix of flat and gentle hills in a 2/3 mile paved loop; great biking spot to teach them about being alert and staying on the right side of the trail because there is steady bike/foot traffic; provides a great family bike ride option where you can pull younger children in the bike trailer and/or connect to the nearby Neuse River and Crabtree Creek greenways
E. Carroll Joyner Park (Wake Forest) – fun advanced spot for little bike riders! This park has lots of gentle rolling hills and open trails offering clear views of the traffic ahead. With nearly three miles of paved trails, there are different loops of varying distances and scenery to practice riding and enjoy. The trail that follows the perimeter of the park crosses the main entrance road into the park, allowing for good practice at stop signs. Pack a picnic lunch and kite and enjoy the park all day.
Brier Creek Park (northwest Raleigh) – has two connected flat paved loops (1/3 mile total) surrounding open fields and toddler playground area; kids have easy views of the traffic in front of them, but paths are narrow; bathrooms are nearby for pit stops
Walnut Street Park (Cary) – has a twisty 0.4 mile paved trail that loops through wetlands, sparse forest, open fields, and two playground areas; with the high popularity of this park, this could be a good place to practice bike safety skills
Over 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!
The 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!
The 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.
Why not celebrate Valentine’s Day by exploring a park or program with a loved one? Whether it’s a spouse, friend, or special little one these ideas are sure to entertain and provide fun memories:
Paint Your HeART Out at Sertoma Arts Center – Saturday, February 6 from 10:30am-noon; create your own Valentine-inspired artwork on canvas; for all ages; $6 and up; for more info
Valentine Surprise Arts & Craft at Abbotts Creek Community Center – Monday, February 8 from 10-10:30am; make a Valentine-themed arts and craft project with playtime on the playground afterwards; ages 0-12; $2; program barcode 189906
Valentines & More at Pullen Community Center – Tuesday, February 9 from 10-11:30am; read books, make crafts and have Valentine-themed fun; ages 2-5; $5; program barcode 182523
Valentine Card Making at Greystone Community Center – Tuesday, February 9 from 4:30pm-5:30pm; use supplies to make original Valentine’s Day cards; ages 6-10; $7; program barcode 188526
Mosaic Heart Art at Sanderford Road Park – Thursday, February 11 from 5-6pm; make a Valentine’s Day inspired arts and craft; ages 5-15; FREE; program barcode 182872
Valentines for Everyone at Optimist Community Center – Friday, February 12 from 12:30-1:30pm; participate in a Valentine-themed arts and craft project and edible creation; ages 3-5; $6; program barcode 183486
Creative Crafts at Hill St Community Center – Friday, February 12 from 5-6pm; create a Valentine-themed project; FREE; ages 5-12; program barcode 180959
Kidz Crafty Cooking at Chavis Community Center – Friday, February 12 from 5-6pm or 6:15-7:15pm; cook a Valentine-themed treat; $5; ages 5-6
Hot Dogs & Ice Cream at the Park – for a super casual day, grab some hot dogs and ice cream from Snoopy’s on Hillsborough St and then walk over to Pollock Place Playground for a picnic and some playground time with the kids
Shopping & Exercise – do some shopping at North Hills with a run, bike or walk along Crabtree Creek Trail near Lassiter Mill Park
Sunday mornings in Raleigh with little ones require creativity! The few indoor play places that are open are usually crowded so that’s when we escape to the outdoors. One summer Sunday morning we decided to re-visit Historic Oak View Park in search of their vegetable garden and newer nature walking trails.
As (bad) luck would have it, we parked on the side of the parking lot that is not adjacent to the hiking trails so we set off on the only trail we saw – the paved trail near the pear trees. It took us behind the nearby office buildings and towards the front of the park where we saw grape vines before crossing the main entrance road and following the main trail through the pecan grove and by the tenant house under construction and the main house. Even though we hadn’t planned to follow the brick path through the main part of the park, it was nice to revisit familiar buildings, see the progress on the tenant house renovation, and admire the newer copper drain pipes on the main house. Unfortunately we couldn’t access any of the buildings because they were either under construction or didn’t open until 1pm on Sundays. The areas near the vegetable garden were also blocked off because of the nearby construction on the cotton gin building. When we arrived back to the car we luckily spotted the nature trails we originally set out for. After a quick toddler potty break down the street (restrooms in park aren’t open until 1pm) we came back to the nature trails.
We headed down the main trail path, which has a small gravel base, making it doable with a Bob stroller. After a short 100yd walk we came to the small pond, amphitheater, and gazebo. After playing in the gazebo we walked around the Hunnicut Trail, which is a 0.4 mile loop through the woods. It was a nicely shaded and flat gravel path making it an easy walk for little ones. The forest was alive with noises from hundreds of insects and birds. We passed an old vehicle gate, presumably evidence of the old working farm’s history. After we returned to the main path we walked over the old stone bridge, which led to the back of the nearby office park. A short while later we walked back up the path towards the parking lot. We look forward to returning to Historic Oak View Park this fall to see the progress on the renovations and to explore the other short nature trail, Jones Creek Trail (0.7 miles).
This 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.
After 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.
On 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
A few weeks ago, Bill planned a fun Sunday outing to explore the outdoor Cloud Chamber for the Trees & Sky exhibit (aka Hobbit House) at the NC Museum of Art’s Museum Park. Between trips with out of town guests and regular Stroller Strides workouts, we’ve been to this museum a TON, but never to see the Cloud Chamber exhibit or hike the corresponding unpaved trails.
We parked in the large parking lot off Blue Ridge Rd and headed down the paved trail towards the infamous Gyre exhibit (the three huge concrete ellipses). After passing the Gyre and Chairs in the Trees exhibits, we made a right onto the Blue Loop and then a left onto the unpaved trail that starts by the Crossroads/Trickster I exhibit. The unpaved trail starts out as gravel, but then we made a slight right towards the Cloud Chamber and the path became grassy and then a very narrow dirt trail in the wooded section. We made the mistake of bringing a BOB Revolution SE Stroller and should’ve brought a carrier for Claire and let Ashley walk. Having two adults made it easier to maneuver the stroller over the bridges, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
So, after a short walk through the wooded section we found the Cloud Chamber house, which looks like a replica of Bilbo Baggins’ house. It’s a short, circular house built into the side of the hill with large stones, some criss-crossed logs, and a green plant-based roof. It has a concrete floor and a heavy wooden door and the house’s neat feature is that it acts as a camera obscura. After entering the house, close the door and wait for your eyes to adjust to the darkness and you’ll see faint views of the sky as light is projected through an opening in the roof onto the floor of the house. Bill took Ashley into the house by themselves but didn’t stay long and then I went in by myself and witnessed puffs of sky inverted on the floor…it was neat to be able to look “down” onto the sky! And, I don’t think we’ll ever forget our trip to the Hobbit House with Ashley asking where are the “wobbits” every minute; poor girl was expecting to see some real life hobbits.
We then continued our walk along the loop trail where we also saw the Untitled exhibit by Ledelle Moe, which looked like a small concrete person concrete curled into a ball. After completing the loop trail we headed back to the gravel path and turned right. We headed downhill and came across the Whisper Bench exhibit, which was a fun interactive piece of art for Ashley. It’s two steel benches on opposite sides of the trail that are connected by an underground sound pipe. Ashley and Bill enjoyed talking back and forth to each other and I loved hearing the toddler giggles! After the Whisper Bench we continued on the very sunny gravel path that led us uphill and back to the paved trail near Lowe’s Pavilion. Finally, we stopped for a quick picnic lunch inside the pavilion before heading home for naps.
It was such a fun morning filled with fresh air, science and art and I didn’t have to plan any of it… #besthusbandever!
With the holidays quickly approaching, I wanted to compile a list of all the kiddo-friendly activities taking place at nearby Raleigh parks. The events below are either organized through the Wake Co Parks & Rec, City of Raleigh Parks & Rec or JC Raulston Arboretum. Some of the events require pre-registration so be sure to follow up for more information and let me know which ones I’m missing! And be sure to visit TriangleExplorer.com to see a complete list of Christmas parades, concerts and more.