Forest Hill Park (Richmond, Va)

forest hill parkLast fall we headed to Richmond for a little man’s 1st birthday party. Before the big party we headed with friends and all our littles to Forest Hill Park in Richmond, Va. Forest Hill Park is located south of the James River at 4021 Forest Hill Ave. It features an amazing farmers market open during the summer and fall months, paved walking trails, playgrounds, a pond, unpaved bike trails through the woods, wide open fields, picnic shelters and tennis courts. If you’re looking for a fun morning outing for the family, this is the place!

Once an estate owned by different families and then an amusement park, the City of Richmond bought the land in 1933 and turned it into the present-day urban park. They preserved some of the old stone buildings including the circa 1840s Stone House and old stone gazebo with fire pits by the pond that once served as a warming hut for ice skaters.

DSC_0163Farmers Market, Trail Walking & Pond

During our visit we parked at the northern entrance along New Kent Ave and first walked through the farmers market. We visited with the woolly sheep, watched a short acrobatic demo, bought coffee and donuts, and admired the local artisan’s goods. We enjoyed our breakfast goodies at the old brick shelter near the entrance and then walked down the adjacent paved loop trail.

The loop trail starts off wide and downhill, and surrounded by dense forest. The beautiful morning sun casted warm glows and soft textures – perfect for documenting our walk with the little babes and friends. The kids enjoyed watching mountain bikers hit the trails in the woods. We walked to the hexagonal stone shelter (formerly a warming hut for ice skaters) near the pond so the kids could feed the ducks. After exhausting our bread supply, we continued walking along the flat trail that soon shifted uphill. Near the top of the hill the trail narrowed as it opened to large rolling fields. We meandered along the trail passing picnickers and large, sparse oak trees until we arrived at the playground.

Playground

DSC_0222The playground features two play structures divided by age group and swings for all ages. The younger child playground contains slides, a spiral ladder, and nearby teeter totters. The older child playground contains steeper slides, arched ladders, double “racing” slides, monkey bars and zipline. The kids loved racing each other down the slides and swinging across the monkey bars. The playground’s hardwood mulch surface lessened the monkey bar falls. The original 1840s Stone House, picnic tables and tennis courts are also just a short walk away. 

After a long time on the playground, we continued on the trail back to the parking lot. Though we walked about 1.5 miles, the full loop trail is about 3.2 miles. The northern section of the trail connects to the Reedy Creek Trail and feeds into the much larger James River Park System. The James River Park System contains acres of shoreline for fishing, biking, running, walking, rafting, and canoeing. I’m excited to explore the river during my next trip to Richmond and see first-hand its importance to the large biking and running community of Richmond.

Thumbs Up

beautiful scenery, open fields, playground features, variety of vendors at farmer’s market, wide trails, preserved stone buildings

Thumbs Down

lack of restrooms near playground

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

Update: Annie Louise Wilkerson Nature Preserve Park

Annie Louise Wilkerson Nature Preserve ParkOn a cloudy summer day we headed to Annie Louise Wilkerson Nature Preserve Park to explore the nature playground and do some light hiking.  It’d been awhile since we’d last visited this park, and now that both girls are becoming more able to hike short distances on their own without losing their minds, it’s been more fun to take them along.  This park is especially great for little ones because all of the hiking trails are short (less than 1 mile each) and several are shaded!

Annie Louise Wilkerson Park is located north of I-540 at 5229 Awls Haven Dr just off Raven Ridge Rd. Upon arriving, we visited the main park office to check out the Explorer Backpacks they lend out to children.  Both girls were super pumped about having their own hiking backpacks to use on the trails.  The friendly park staff showed us everything in the backpacks, which included binoculars, compass, nature journal (to take home), bug collection jars, park maps, and laminated animal/insect ID cards.  After suiting up with the backpacks, we visited with the park turtles outside the park office and then headed towards the pond to walk the 1/2 mile turtle pond trail.  We followed the mowed path and turned left on the trail to head clockwise around the pond.  Along the way, we walked closer to the pond to spot the turtles and have a snack on the bench.  The girls also spent some time drawing in their nature journals. After a quick stop we continued on the loop trail, which meanders through full-sun meadows around the pond.  The girls enjoyed seeing the wildflowers along the way and were impressed that the grasses on both sides of the trail are almost as tall as they are!

IMG_5356After our short hike we walked through Dr. Wilkerson’s former home, which has been renovated into an Education Center for the purpose of being a nature park research center.  The front room is a mini museum of Dr. Wilkerson, highlighting her career and time she spent on the farm.  We didn’t visit the other parts of the center, but the COR website notes it has science labs, classrooms, and kitchen area.  The girls also enjoyed playing with the working old well pump outside the center.

Then we headed back towards the front of the park and played in the natural play area, adjacent to the bathrooms and pavilion.  The full-sun play area features a teepee, natural twig tunnel, stump stepping area, and tall grasses.  Just down from the full-sun play area is a continuation of the natural play area in the wooded area featuring a large sand box, bamboo sticks for building, bamboo chin-up bar, sticks and dirt for miles, fairy house supplies, and short fairy and troll trails through the woods.  The girls went nuts for the fairy and troll trails and loved walking the trails and trying to find the next “fairy or troll” character or house along the way.  The trails are short, narrow paths through the lush green forest.  After walking the trails the girls proceeded to make fairy houses on their own for over an hour. It was one blissful hour where a 5 year old and an almost 3 year old played together and on their own with ZERO fighting.  I felt like I hit the jackpot! I just sat back on the bench or in the sandbox and watched their little minds work – asking each other for help, digging through sand and dirt to find fairy house supplies, exploring the trails for ideas.  They created and it was so much fun to watch.

We had so much fun creating fairy houses at the park that we also went to Michaels craft store to buy our own supplies and purchased the Fairy Gardening: Create Your Own Magical Miniature Garden for decorating ideas. We spent the next day at home building and designing our own fairy gardens, which was a lot of fun! Visiting Annie Louise Wilkerson Park really helped transition us from preschool to summer and I’ll always remember the fun memories we made that morning at the park!  We didn’t even have time to explore the free activities inside the park office, which we’ll plan to do for another day!

Additional Resources:

Thumbs up: short hiking trails great for preschoolers, friendly park staff, shaded nature playground, convenient outdoor bathrooms, Explorer Backpack lending program, enchanting fairy/troll trails and houses

Thumbs down: shorter weekend park hours

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

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

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

E. Carroll Joyner Park

IMG_4982With our red wagon and balance bike in hand, we headed out on a clear, sunny winter day to explore E. Carroll Joyner Park in Wake Forest.  E. Carroll Joyner park is located about 20 minutes from Raleigh, just off Rte. 1 at 701 Harris Rd.  Upon arriving into the park you immediately notice the expansive rolling fields and stone ribbon wall.  Follow the main road towards the back of the park where you’ll find the parking lot.

After parking we studied the information board to better understand the park’s layout.  With over 100 acres, this park has a lot to offer: three miles of paved trails, grass amphitheater, a pecan grove, farm buildings, a perennial garden, and a performance garden.  We spent most of our time walking and biking on the paved trails, which proved to be great balance bike practice for Ashley; the rolling trails are wide with gradual declines and park benches and swings along the way for resting.  The trails have great visibility, which is necessary for inexperienced young bikers who swerve all over the trail.

IMG_4994Along our walk/ride we passed several beautiful settings including the refurbished farm buildings.  This park was originally a working farm as recently as the 1940s, owned by the Walker family who grew produce to sell to local merchants.  It was sold to E. Carroll Joyner who raised cattle until the 1990s and then bought by the Town of Wake Forest in 2003 and opened as a public park in 2009.  The original farm buildings include a tobacco barn, log cabin, chicken coop and mule barn.  The girls had a fantastic time exploring the different buildings, especially the chicken coop.  Several of these buildings and the nearby settings also offer great photo opportunities.

After exploring the old buildings we followed the trails south around the pond.  We continued along the greenway past the pond, but after consulting the GPS we turned around since it was going to take much longer to get back to the parking via the greenway.

Before heading to the car we stopped for a short picnic at one of the bench swings and then stopped for a quick bathroom break in the very clean and comfortable public restrooms.  Make this park a must-visit for 2015 – whether walking, biking, running or out for some photography this park is your setting!  It’s also part of the Kids in Parks Track Trails program which encourages kids to have fun outdoor adventures.

Thumbs up: trails, photo ops, farm buildings, gardens, beautiful settings

Thumbs down:  greenway signage

Prairie Ridge Ecostation

img_5501

A few weeks ago Claire finally got her own special park day where we took advantage of an early Spring day and headed to the Prairie Ridge Ecostation, which is NC Museum of Natural Science’s outdoor learning space.  Even though the science museum is located downtown, this outdoor gem of 45 acres is located down the street from the NC Museum of Art at 1671 Gold Star Drive in Raleigh.

The Prairie Ridge Ecostation is an outdoor oasis of walking trails, play spaces, nature programs, animal habitats, gardens, and more!  This particular day we spent the morning with friends listening to the storytime program, walking the trails, and exploring the outdoor buildings/gardens.  After parking, we headed on the paved trail (with the small signage) through the woods and eventually found the outdoor storytime spot at the amphitheater.  I love the idea of outdoor storytime, but with the noise from the nearby road and a novice story teller, it did not make for optimal conditions. So, even though several of the smaller kids lost interest, there is plenty of adjacent natural play areas: tunnels and slides, sifting, digging, stacking, balancing, jumping on tree trunks and more!

img_5519Next, we passed by several picnic tables and open spaces on our way to the grassy walking trail.  The trail follows along the stream and then crosses into the lowland forest and piedmont prairie areas.  Near the piedmont prairie area is a building that overlooks the pond that is made for bird watching.  The kids had a great time looking for birds and playing in the building.  After we arrived back at the beginning of the trail (about 1/2 mile total) we visited the Green Building, which is used mostly for educational programs but also has restrooms and a back deck great for picnics. Since we didn’t pack a picnic we continued to explore the grounds and settled in the Nature Neighborhood Garden.  The garden features NC native plants, dry stream beds for collecting run-off water, a koi pond and more.  Claire and I enjoyed some quiet time on the benches under the pavilion before heading out.

This outdoor expansion to the science museum is a must-explore spot for any family; wear old clothes, pack a picnic lunch, bring a carrier for any non-walking children and plan to get dirty!

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Thumbs up: outdoor learning opportunities, play space, picnic spots, bird watching

Thumbs down: story time program is in its infancy

Three Bears Acres

img_3495A few months ago we headed north with a friend and her daughter to Creedmoor to visit Three Bears Acres, an outdoor recreational park for kids.  We thought it reminded us of summer camp on crack!  Three Bears Acres is located at 711 Beaver Dam Road in Creedmoor.  Even though it was a bit of hike from North Raleigh, we arrived right when they opened and happened to go on a Thursday when adults are free and kids are only $10.

The girls started off playing on the giant jumping pillow, which was super fun for them once they figured out how to climb up.  Toddlers under 2 might have trouble walking up, but parents are allowed to assist them.  After the jumping pillow we headed over to the graffiti wall where they finger painted on a giant white wall.  They have stencils for the more sophisticated artists, but our toddlers loved dipping the paint brushes in and out of the various colors and sweeping them across the wall (and themselves).  Next up was the water garden where the kids pour buckets of water into various funnels and watch the water makes its way to the ground.  This would be a fun activity for toddlers who are taller, so our girls more or less splashed in the water buckets.

img_3502One of the biggest hits of the day was the mud kitchen.  Having a two year old means they are just starting to play pretend and I felt like this was a great introduction to mimicking what mommy and daddy do in the kitchen.  The mud kitchen area has stoves, fridges, baking supplies, counters, sinks, and a large bath tub of dirt for the kids to mix with water.  They enjoyed stirring mud batter, making mud pies and cooking them in the oven.  Parents, not to worry – there is a water supply nearby for cleaning up.  After the mud kitchen, we headed over to the picnic area for a yummy lunch.  Food is not available for purchase at the park, so be sure to bring lots of water, snacks and a lunch.  The picnic area is nicely shaded with plenty of tables and nearby bathrooms that were in great condition.  The sling shot area is also close to the picnic spot, but we didn’t venture over there knowing the girls would be a bit too young for it.

After lunch we walked to the other side of the park where the toboggan and tree house playground are located.  Tobogganing was amazing!  All you do is grab a plastic toboggan, choose a ramp, and fly down the slide.  A staff member works the top of the ramp to help push you down the detergent-soaked slide.  We did the toboggan slide twice and Ashley would’ve kept going all day if I hadn’t nudged her towards the playground area.

Our last stop before leaving for naps was at the enchanting tree house playground area.  The girls had a fun time walking from one end to the other and going down the slides, but really enjoyed being pushed on the various swings below.  The tire swing and spider-looking rope swing were the big hits for them.  They also spent quite a bit of time swinging on the bear tot swings nearby.

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to explore the large pond for fishing and paddle boating, but it gives us something to do next time!

Thumbs up: outdoor fun, unique recreational activities, creative play, picnic areas, bathroom facilities, play equipment, shady playground and toboggan areas

Thumbs down: rather pricy so try to go on Thursdays when they have discounts, lack of shade on one side of the park so don’t forget sunscreen and hats

Brookhaven Nature Park

img_2210Fall is prime time for hiking, enjoying the great weather and taking in the leaves changing colors.  We recently visited Brookhaven Nature Park in the Brookhaven neighborhood at 5125 Berkeley St near Crabtree Valley Mall.  Brookhaven is a city park, but the Jr Woman’s Club of Raleigh helps maintain and beautify it.  After arriving at the park we explored the pavilion area and then headed off on the Main Trail, which is a narrow, unpaved path that criss-crosses several streams.  Part of the trail is labeled wheelchair-accessible, but the paved trail seemed rather uneven and the decline was rather steep (imho).  This time of year the trail was covered in rust-colored leaves so we took extra caution when hiking, especially with Ashley in the backpack.

For being in a North Raleigh neighborhood the trail is actually pretty hilly, so we were surprised by how much actual “hiking” we did.  Its peacefulness should also be noted, especially with its close proximity to so many busy Raleigh roads.  Along the hike we came across a small pond with a deck for taking in the views and scouting for fauna.  On this particular day the reflections on the pond made it look like the trees were sprouting from the water…it made for great pictures!  The deck also featured a few informational signs about the fauna in the area, snapping turtles and mallards.

After leaving the pond we followed the Main Trail some more and then took the Pine Tree Loop and Upland Forest Trails to increase our hiking distance, which actually only totaled about 1 mile.  Even though the hike was short overall it was a fun, quick way to explore a naturally hilly part of Raleigh.  Be sure to bring another adult with you to this trail and all trails; this park is not staffed and the trails are not heavily traveled with other visitors.

Thumbs up: photo ops, good hiking workout, peacefulness, proximity within city, shadiness

Thumbs down: confusing signage near end of the trail