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

Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserve

IMG_2812One Sunday morning at the end of October I took the girls to the newly opened Horseshoe Farm Nature Preserve.  The park is located at 2900 Horse Shoe Farm Rd in Northeast Raleigh and contains about 146 acres of property on an oxbow of the Neuse River.  The city purchased the property in 1994 as a future park site, and it is now being developed in multiple stages.  According to the city’s website, Phase I development included improvements to the entrance drive and dam, parking, signage, soft surface walking trails, connection to Neuse River Greenway, picnic shelter and restroom facility. Future phases include developing an educational center, playground, amphitheater, and canoe launch while promoting sustainability and enhancing the land’s natural characteristics.  We’ve been keeping an eye on this park ever since we explored the nearby Neuse River Trail so it’s nice to connect to a nature preserve along the greenway!

IMG_2819After parking in the main parking lot, we headed toward the large pavilion and then to the large open space to run and kick the ball around.  Down from the large pavilion is an old red farm house  and white picket fence leading to a rustic barn, all perfect for an outdoor photo op (which we witnessed while there).  In looking at future phases, the farm house looks to be used for the education/art center.

Hoping to take advantage of energetic little ones we kicked the ball across the field to the other side of the tree line in hopes of finding the nature trail.  Luckily I looked at the park’s website before coming out to the park to know a 0.5 mile natural walking trail runs along the tree line in a horseshoe shape.  There were no signs within the park indicating such trail exists, but that’s probably because of the park’s infancy.  So we headed to the tree line where you can barely make out the river through the woods and started our short walk.  The girls really got into collecting berries and learning about plants in nature this fall so they really enjoyed this walk.  Along our way we saw lots of berries, colorful leaves, tall and fuzzy grasslands, pine cones, moss, and sticks.  The main parking lot and large open fields aren’t visible from a few sections of the path, but for the most part you can see the whole park from anywhere.  The path horseshoed around toward the old farm house and barn where we saw a one year old’s cake smashing photo session going on, which was a lot of fun!  The photo op motivated me take a few pics of the girls under the beautiful maple trees, which were just starting to show their color.  I had to bribe them with the promise of chocolate once we got home!

IMG_2843After our walk we rested under the pavilion with snacks and water and then used the compost restroom facilities before heading home.  I look forward to coming back to this park over the years to see new developments and to hopefully better time the changing of the colors of the leaves.  Check out their list of upcoming park programs including a New Year’s Day 2016 Hike!

Thumbs up: connection to the greenway, open land for endless running and playing, easy 0.5 mile nature trail, future park developments, photo opportunities, compost restrooms, native landscaping

Thumbs down: lack of signage about nature trail inside park

Greater Richmond ARCpark

IMG_0039In mid-October we headed to Richmond to celebrate our old college roommates surviving the first year as new parents and their sweet daughter’s first birthday.  On the morning of the party we met up with several college friends and all our kids at the Greater Richmond ARCpark to get the wiggles out before the big party later that afternoon.  There’s something so sentimental about reconnecting your kids with your college friends’ kids and this weekend visit was no exception.

The ARCpark is located at 3600 Saunders Avenue, near the intersection of highways I-64, I-95 and 195.  This park is designed for kids of all ages and features mostly wheelchair-accessible play areas.  The tot playground features several slides, a small rock climbing wall and stumps for hopping on.  It also has nearby handicap-accessible swings, all located on a rubbery surface.  Adjacent to the tot playground is a stage area and greenhouse with flower planting beds.  IMG_2722Beyond the tot playground is another playground area built into the side of a hill with rocks and tree stumps for steps and slides for sliding down the hill.  There’s also a small play house, two large disc swings (which were the crowd favorite), bench swings, water tables, musical instruments, and a wheelchair-accessible tree house nearby.  The littlest ones in the group loved making music with their hands and mallets while the older ones loved running and exploring the tree house.  A paved walking trail leads to basketball courts and other fitness equipment behind the main building.

IMG_2745After some tree house play, the kiddos gathered throughout the largest playground, which features several long ramps connecting the smaller-age play structures with the taller ones.  The big kids ran up ramps, flew down slides, and climbed up nets and walls while the younger ones crawled between stumps and held on to nets.  Everyone also made time for the cool sensory wall featuring brightly colored mirrors, shiny rocks, spinning wheels and more. Claire and I also took time to walk through the small flower garden area.  She loved climbing on the benches and stopping to smell the flowers.

The ARCpark was a great way to kick off the first birthday celebrations.  It’s always such fun to watch the kids play together while the parents can catch up (as much as one can while wrangling kids)!

Thumbs up: so much to see and play with, large disc swings, playground built into the hill, variety of activities for kids of all ages and abilities, tree house with long ramp for running

Thumbs down: with so much to see and play with it can be hard to wrangle multiple kids

Powell Drive Park Update

IMG_2142Before preschool started, we headed to Powell Drive Park to check out the playground renovations finished earlier this year.  I first visited Powell Drive Park about 4 years ago and remembered this park for being an easy one for parking and playing, which was exactly what my dear friend and new mama (third time around), Katie, needed on this hot August morning.

Powell Drive Park is located at 740 Powell Drive in a southwest Raleigh neighborhood.  The same old community building exists, but the layout of the playground and sidewalks around the park are new.  The new partially fenced-in playground area features a rubberized base with tot swings, regular swings, oval swing, ages 2-5 playground and ages 5-12 playground.

IMG_2152The ages 2-5 playground features bright neon colors with two small ladders, musical drums, slide, tunnel, water/sand table and stepping stones.  The playground’s height is short, making it the perfect size for early explorers.  Nearby is the ages 5-12 playground with a large spider web rope climbing ladder, curved metal ladder, and tall slide.  The big girls loved climbing to the top of the spider web rope and everyone squealed in delight while being pushed on the large, oval swing.  The old tennis courts and basketball courts are adjacent to the playground area.  There are some large shade trees near the tot swings, but little shade around the ages 2-5 playground.  A few benches surround the perimeter of the play area and several moms with small babes had the right idea by bringing a breakfast picnic to the park!

After exploring the playground we took a short walk by the pond to the small pavilion with picnic tables.  Everyone enjoyed a picnic lunch and then the bigger girls headed off to the large open field for running and hide and seek.

Overall, it was a simple morning for entertaining little ones while the mamas got some chatting done.  The big downside to the morning was having to make do with “natural” bathroom areas when nature calls for little ones.  The neighborhood center isn’t open on a regular basis, so I had to schlep both girls to hidden areas when they needed to use the bathroom.  I love the City of Raleigh parks and we frequent them a ton, but they have to make some improvements with the access to public restrooms.  I’m not asking for anything fancy, even a pay-by-use porta-potty or these nice public Portland loos (suggested by friend, Carter) will do.

Thumbs up: bright playground colors and design, unique oval swing, easy access to park, pond/picnic/playground features all nearby

Thumbs down: access to bathrooms

Rockwood Park in Chesterfield, VA

IMG_1594If you live around the Richmond, VA area you have to check out Rockwood Park in Chesterfield County.  While visiting Tech buddies in Richmond at the end of June we set out for Rockwood Park Nature Center’s annual Honeybee Festival and everyone (kids and adults) fell in love with this park!

Rockwood Park is located at 3401 Courthouse Road in Chesterfield County near the intersection of Hull Street Rd.  While the festival vendors were setting up outside, we stepped inside the park’s nature center and got to see a whole lot of slithering, crawling, squirming and buzzing animals.  The kids got to see several types of snakes (including a copperhead and corn snake), turtles (including a gigantic snapping turtle), bull frogs, a large iguana, and a live bee exhibit.  All of the permanent exhibits were at levels great for little ones to see all the action.  With the Honeybee Festival going on outside there was a very knowledgeable and friendly bee expert who described bee keeping to us and pointed out the queen bee in the hive exhibit.  This center also has a great reading nook with nature books and kid-size table with coloring activities.

IMG_1604After spending at least 30 minutes in the center, we headed outside to enjoy the bee festival activities.  The friendly staff helped the kids make pipe cleaner bee crafts and plant flowers.  Then they enjoyed listening to bee themed stories and having bees painted on their hands.  After exhausting the storyteller’s books we headed out across the field to explore the playground area.

IMG_0113The playground area is made for kids mostly 5 years and up, but that didn’t stop these almost 2-year olds and 4-year old from playing.   The playground has a small slide for younger kids that is connected to higher play areas by monkey bars.  There are several more climbing areas connected by ladders with access to twisty and straight slides.  With the recent rains the kids happily discovered the large mud puddle at the bottom of the twisty slide.  Tot swings and regular swings are nearby and several benches and picnic tables are also located in the playground area.  The entire area is mostly shaded by tall, mature trees and there are several more amenities (such as a dog park, pickleball courts, baseball fields, tennis courts, basketball courts, pavilions) adjacent to the playground.  As someone who has spent a lot of time visiting family and friends in Chesterfield, I am excited to explore more parks in this area.

For a complete list of the amenities at Rockwood Park, see the County of Chesterfield website.

Thumbs up: live animals at nature center, friendly staff, variety of activities for young kids, shady playground area

Thumbs down: poor drainage near playground

Spring Forest Road Park

IMG_5429At the end of May family visited us for the weekend so we headed out on Sunday morning with my aunt, sis-in-law, and niece to explore a new park in northeast Raleigh, Spring Forest Road Park.  I’d been wanting to check this place out ever since I heard earlier this year that it was going to be one of the parks to host the Hot Air Balloon Festival.  With such a massive open area surrounded by a walking trail and shade trees it’s no wonder it was chosen for such a festival.

Spring Forest Road Park is located at 4203 Spring Forest Road, east of Capital Blvd, near a fire station, and not far from Triangle Town Center.  After arriving in the parking lot, we took a short walk along the trail to the nearby playground.  The playground is in a very sunny location and has a sandy base.  It has several slides, monkey bars, and climbing areas that are all connected, making this a playground for ages 2-12.  The first few steps lead to a small slide for the younger ages and a big step leads to a jumpy suspension bridge, two twisty slides, a covered “castle” area (deemed so by Ashley), and a curved ladder.  After the girls exhausted my aunt on the playground they settled in with some sand toys that we brought from home.  Being that the sand and playground area was so sunny, we enjoyed a quick snack on the nearby benches before taking a walk around the loop trail.

IMG_5447We passed several small groups of folks walking that morning and noticed signs advertising walking programs held through the City of Raleigh/Wake County on their information boards.  They also advertised several zumba and kickboxing evening classes held here, which sound like a fun place to meet up with neighbors and friends in the evening.  The paved trail is 1/2 mile loop with a few small hills and passes through some shady spots.  The surrounding open space must be one of the largest open fields in the whole park system, especially if it was large enough to house a hot air balloon festival.  We also passed a baseball field before returning to the parking lot where the large pavilion with restrooms and tennis courts with backboards are located.  Several types of flowers were in bloom and the trees were full of leaves throughout the park making you forget it’s just a short distance from busy Capital Blvd.

Thumbs up: large open space, great walking trail, community walking group/activities, landscaping

Thumbs down: very sunny playground area

Curtis Memorial Park in Stafford, Virginia

IMG_0455After my mom’s sudden passing in March, my sister, brother and I immediately went into triage mode when it came to making sure her staffing business ran as usual and getting her personal affairs in order.  Before her funeral, we needed a break from all the new terminology we learned and responsibilities we acquired, so we set out with all the cousins and my aunt Jeanne to a special hometown park that meant a lot to our mom and was a big piece of our childhood, Curtis Memorial Park, in Stafford, Virginia.

Curtis Memorial Park (aka Curtis Park) is located at 58 Jesse Curtis Ln in the rolling hills of Hartwood’s farm country (more and more of that area is being developed now).  Growing up, we spent a lot of our time here; whether it was attending summer camp or the annual Easter Egg Hunts, taking swimming lessons, being on the swim team, going on spooky Halloween nature walks, having my birthday party, attending my senior year picnic, helping with soccer camp, or working at the front gate, we made a lot of memories with great friends and family.

IMG_0395Curtis Park features an olympic-size outdoor swimming pool with a large baby pool with splash umbrella and zero-depth entry, 18-hole Gauntlet golf course, nature trails, pavilions, sand volleyball, tennis courts, skateboard park, fishing lake, playground, baseball fields and large open fields.  As you drive into the park, you pass a beautiful tree-lined entrance road that leads to open fields adjacent to the tennis courts, skateboard park and playground.  Turn left before the open fields to access the Gauntlet golf course and small to medium-sized pavilions.  The playground features several slides, climbing structures, bridges, teeter totters, tot swings, regular swings and a sliding bar.  It is adjacent to a small pavilion and the tennis courts and backs up to a nearby nature trail.  The girls loved climbing all over the playground and spent a lot of time swinging together!

IMG_0441Past the open field is a large parking lot with access to the pools, nature trails and large pavilion on top of the hill overlooking the pool.  Further down the main road is the large lake for fishing and boating and more nature trails.  The main fishing pier and boat ramp is accessible from the other side of the lake on Stony Hill Rd (you must exit the park). After our playground time we picnicked on top of the hill, which offers the best views of the park. The girls enjoyed chasing each other while taking in the site of the drained pool below.  The Olympic-size pool has depths of 3ft and 4ft in the shallower end to 12ft in the deep end.  The baby pool features a zero-depth entry and splash umbrella.  The deep end has two diving board blocks, but with it being out of season when we visited I’m not sure if they actually allow diving.  I have very vivid memories of jumping off the since removed 3-meter springboard and 5-meter platform boards during off hours.  Being the daughter of the Aquatics Director had its perks!

While the kids were busy picnicking I ventured over to the nearby grave site of the Curtis family where about a dozen family members are buried.  According to the Stafford Parks & Rec website, the Curtis family donated land from their farm to the county to be used for recreational purposes.  The park opened in 1975 and is getting ready to have a big 40th anniversary celebration this weekend on June 20th.  We’re excited to come back for the big celebration and swim in the pool I grew up in!

My mom worked tirelessly to implement new amenities and improvements to the pool and programs, which created positive publicity in the local media.  Here are just a few of the fun ideas she implemented over the years:

  • She updated the baby pool to include zero-depth entry and water splash umbrellacurtispark 8
  • In 1990, she brought a 3-meter inflatable slide to the deep end, which was a huge hit with patrons but a big pain to her staff.
  • With scorching temperatures in 1991, she dropped in five 300-pound blocks of ice to try to cool things off.
  • In 1992, she organized meet and greets at the pool with local swimming and diving Olympians, Jeff Rouse and Mark Lenzi.  She went on to organize Olympic watching parties at the pool so folks could cheer on the local Olympians as they went for the gold (see local news stories from July and Aug 1992)!

My mom worked as the Aquatics Director of Stafford County from 1981-1993, where she managed the area pools and Aqua Po Beach, but was most proud of teaching swimming lessons to the area’s youth.  She met life-long friends and gave several teenagers their first jobs as lifeguards; we were honored to see some of those same teenagers and former coworkers again at her funeral service.  I am forever grateful for the memories I have at this park and can’t wait to come back this weekend for the 40th anniversary celebration, which happens to coincide with my mom’s birthday.

Thumbs up: beautiful pool and picnic settings, fun nature trails, one park with EVERYTHING

Thumbs down: I remember little shade around the pool

First Day Hike 2015 – Falls Lake Rolling View

IMG_5058On New Year’s Day 2015 we visited the Rolling View section of Falls Lake State Park to participate in the NC State Parks First Day Hike.  The First Day Hikes are organized hikes designed to encourage folks and little ones to get exercise and explore nature in the great outdoors.  We decided on the Rolling View hike because there were several scheduled on the hour, leading me to believe the hike would be a short one – perfect for a restless toddler in a backpack.  After a 35 minute drive northwest to the Rolling View entrance of Falls Lake in Durham, we followed the main road to the back of the park before turning left into the large parking lot.  This part of the park is also where the recreational swimming area, playground, and picnic shelter 12 are located.

IMG_5080Once the families gathered at the trail head, the park rangers explained more about the short .75 mile hike and gave each child a scavenger hunt brochure of things to look for along the way.  Ashley was a little too young for the scavenger hunt, but the older kids had a great time.  They also explained the Kids in Parks Track Trail initiative that several parks are doing throughout the country as a way to encourage kids to experience the outdoors through a network of family-friendly adventures; this trail happens to be one of those adventures!

IMG_5074In the past our hiking experiences with our kids have mostly been self-guided with very basic objectives: 1) survive (Grandfather Mtn Profile Trail & Calloway Peak were the ultimate test), 2) limit the crying (adults included), and 3) have fun (no brainer, that’s why we do it)!  With the Rolling View hike being a guided tour by a park ranger, I wasn’t sure if Ashley was too young to feel engaged, but the park rangers were amazing at interacting with all the kids.  They kept the hike going while pointing out really neat nature things on/off the trail, answering questions, prompting the kids with questions, and giving some history about the park.  We definitely experienced things in nature we wouldn’t have had we been on the hike by ourselves; we saw animal footprints in the puddles and streams, learned about the importance of controlled burns, discovered deer bones, gained appreciation of decaying stumps as a food source, and so much more!

After our short .75 mile hike, which took less than an hour (of which Claire screamed most the way) we headed to the nearby playground.  The playground is designed for those ages 5-12 and has several climbing ladders, swings, a tire swing, and bridge.  It is very close to the swimming recreation area, bathhouse, and picnic tables, making this a great spot for warmer weather.  The recent rains caused the lake water levels to come very to the playground so after our short playtime we headed home for some much needed grub.

Check out the Kids in Parks Track Trail website – the search and filter features make it easy to find outdoor adventures close to home!

Additional Resources:

Thumbs up: friendly and knowledgeable park rangers, guided hike, nature experiences for kids

Thumbs down: nothing to report

Hill Street Park

IMG_8997We took advantage of another clear, sunny day this winter and stumbled upon Hill Street Park in east Raleigh.  Never having been there before we set off with hopes of having a picnic after burning some energy on the playground and that’s exactly what we did!

Hill Street Park is located at 2307 Hill St at the bottom of a relatively steep hill.  It has a very colorful community center that is mostly open for after-school programs and an adjacent pavilion with picnic tables and terraced landscaping to the nearby partially fenced-in playground.  The playground area has a playground with slides, climbing ladder, steering wheel and nearby tot swings for the younger kids (ages 2-5).  There is also a large play structure for the older kids (ages 5-12) that features a half-moon rope climbing structure, monkey bars, balance beam, spinning bars, climbing rings, slide and more.  Both kids had a great time playing on both playgrounds and Claire had a fabulous time sitting in the dog-height water fountain bowl.  Claire went down the small slides at least a dozen times and Ashley enjoyed climbing her way through each rope obstacle on the bigger kid playground.  The bigger kid playground reminds me a lot of the indoor play structure at Greystone Community Center on crack.  With so many climbing areas it’s nice any falls will be lessened by the rubberized surface.

IMG_9010After a lot of running around we picnicked on the nearby benches by the playground.  The playground has little morning light so we huddled on a lone sunny bench to stay warm.  We had the park to ourselves this particular weekday morning and look forward to sharing this hidden gem with friends next time!

Thumbs up: unique climbing structures, close proximity of pavilion to playground

Thumbs down: no access to restrooms when community center is closed

Kelly Glen Park in Apex, NC

IMG_8927This winter we braved a cold, but clear day for new adventures in Apex, NC. After exploring a new (to us) park we heading to downtown Apex for a delicious lunch at Anna’s Pizzeria.  It was the perfect combination of fresh air, exercise and comfort food!

We originally set out to visit the wooden playground at Kelly Road Park, but with the road detour on Olive Chapel Rd/Kelly Rd it looked like the park was going to be closed, so we instead stumbled upon the smaller Kelly Glen Park not too far away.  After some super helpful back and forth tweeting  with the Town of Apex (they even tweeted me a hand sketched map, must’ve known I was not from these parts), we learned that Kelly Road Park was open so we’ll definitely be back to Apex soon!

IMG_8896Kelly Glen Park is located at 1701 Kelly Glen Dr near a neighborhood cul-de-sac just outside I-540 in Apex.  There is a lot of construction along the nearby Kelly Rd bridge so parking is available in the cul-de-sac.  After parking, we followed the short, winding paved path past the pavilion to the playground.  The playground is designed for ages 5-12, but only has one opening at a tall height and Claire did a good job climbing around with my assistance.  The playground has several slides and a tall ladder and features several hand crank-operated marble games.  There is also a pair of nearby low-to-the-ground tot swings that both girls really enjoyed.  Even though Ashley is way TOO big for these swings, she loved running for a “take-off” while sitting in the swing.  Before leaving the park the girls spent quite a bit of time watching the nearby construction from the fence.

After the park we headed back towards Raleigh with a stop in downtown Apex for lunch at Anna’s Pizzeria.  I’ve been wanting to try Anna’s for awhile now and I’m so glad we did.  Despite the busy lunch crowd, we had attentive service and a great lunch of pepperoni pizza and garlic knots.  With so many restaurants and shops in downtown Apex I look forward to returning soon!

Thumbs up: helpful tweets from Town of Apex staff, tot swings, exploring downtown Apex

Thumbs down: in-your-face road closed signs made Kelly Rd Park seem closed even though it wasn’t, noisy construction