Jack Smith Park (Cary, NC)

Jack Smith Park splash padBack in June, my sister and niece visited the same weekend we planned a trip to Jack Smith Park with our Raleigh Jaycee friends. Jack Smith Park is located at 9725 Penny Rd and opened towards the end of last summer. If you’re looking for a one-stop shop for outdoor fun, this is the park!

Jack Smith Park features a splash pad, multiple playgrounds for all ages, a rock climbing structure, walking trails, and a dog park. We arrived at the park at 10am when the splash pad opened. Luckily, some friends saved a table under the pavilion for our group to stash our gear while out playing. The splash pad features tall buckets that dump, gentle water fountains, circular misting fountains, and maneuverable water guns. Picnic tables with umbrellas, clean restroom facilities, large pavilion, and half-walls for sitting are adjacent to the splash pad. 

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After my kids tired of the splash pad they played on the playground areas and rock climbing structure. The smaller kid playground features several slides, a small rock climbing wall, sails for shade, and a curved climbing ladder. The bigger kid playground features a tall spider web climbing net, challenging curved climbing ladders, gyro spinners, slides, and stepping stones. The regular swings, baby swings, and tire swing are located near the perimeter of the park. When I wasn’t poking my head around parents and play things to keep an eye on the girls, I was pushing the girls on the tire swing. Boy, do they LOVE a tire swing!

And, my oldest daughter loves rock climbing! She’s pretty fearless and persistent, and loves the challenge that rock climbing presents. The park’s rock climbing structure is at the far end of the park. Large natural rocks surround the structure which sits upon a rubbery surface. She tried multiple times to climb the hardest section of the rock before trying her hand at the flatter sides. Though she didn’t climb up very far, she enjoyed climbing alongside the bigger kids.

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The Town of Cary parks always impress me with their attention to landscaping, public art, and availability of public restrooms. Young trees surrounded by half-walls create nice sitting areas for parents. The park features several ornamental grasses, flowering shrubs, and a large open grassy field down from the playground. Many benches and shaded picnic tables also scatter the perimeter. Vollis Simpson’s folksy art sculptures take center stage as you park near the playground. Finally, the restrooms are very clean and roomy, and have water fountains and a nearby hand shower for spraying off the treated water.

Despite being super busy on a weekend morning, I look forward to bringing the girls back here one day. Splash pads offer a quick water alternative to cooling off in the pool. And, with so many other activities at this park, it makes for many fun-filled hours!

Thumbs up: one-stop shop for fun, rock climbing structure, mixing water play with dry activities, outdoor art, natural climbing rocks, nice landscaping, lots of seating options

Thumbs down: very crowded, can be difficult to manage multiple small kids

Umstead Park: Oak Rock Trail

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

Historic Murphys Park (Murphys, Ca)

IMG_6879And so begins my multi-part series on public parks we explored in Northern Ca.  At the end of the summer we took the girls on a huge adventure to visit my aunt and uncle in Northern California.  It’s unfortunate we waited so many years before visiting them – we made amazing memories this trip and I’m so glad we shared it with our kids.

My aunt and uncle live in the small town of Sonora, Ca., and one morning they drove us over the dramatically high New Melones Reservoir bridge into Calaveras County and the small town of Murphys, Ca. to explore the small city park and have lunch downtown.  Historic Murphys Park is located at 505 Algiers Street in Downtown Murphys, a mid-1800s gold mining town turned charming Main Street with upscale retail shops, an inn, yummy restaurants and bars, and 20+ local winery tasting rooms.  Here’s a side note about Murphys: the town narrowly escaped the too-close-to-home Butte Fire, a fast moving wildfire that spread during the 2015 California wildfire season.

img_1773Murphys Park is a true community park – built by the people, for the people.  The all-volunteer, non-profit Murphys Community Club opened the park in 1948 and maintains the park for the public through membership dues, donations, and use fees for special events.  Upon entering the park your eyes are immediately drawn to the white wooden gazebo – perfect for photo ops, picnics, and outdoor music.  I was shocked to see rotisserie spits, presumably for hosting the exciting summer concerts that were advertised on big banners throughout the park. The shallow Murphys Creek runs through the park creating a relaxing and water recreational aspect. We splashed in the creek to cool off and enjoyed watching other park-goers gently tube the creek. Picnic tables and benches also align both banks of the creek.

After splashing in the creek the girls played in the playground area. The smaller-age playground contains a slide, interactive spin toys, and climbing stairs.  The playground for older children features several tall slides, monkey bars, climbing ladders and walls, tunnels and shade sails. Two tot swings, two traditional swings and picnic tables are adjacent to the playgrounds.  Family names are carved into the nearby fence pickets, probably signifying park donors.

IMG_6924After exploring the park we visited retails shops in downtown Murphys and ate a yummy lunch at Firewoods. Before leaving Murphys, we visited the tasting room of Villa Vallecito Vineyards, which is owned by dear friends of my aunt and uncle.  The vineyard is a 20 minute drive from Murphys and features amazing views of the rolling hills and overlooks the New Melones Reservoir.  The owners treated us to the most delicious wines and snacks and gave the girls the most sincere hospitality. You can even rent the casita at the top of their property. If you’re heading to the Northern California area, include Murphys on your stop for wine, food, and community feeling – I can’t wait to come back with my wine glass in hand!

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Thumbs up: small-town feel, seating options, splashing in the creek, Villa Vallecito Vineyards wines and property views,

Thumbs down: nothing to report

Marla Dorrel Park (Cary, NC)

IMG_6770Over the past few years I’ve continually heard about the amazing “dragon” park in Cary with great play areas for all kids.  Well, we finally ventured to the super popular Marla Dorrel Park, which features the Kids Together Playground at the end of summer with friends.  With its unique play areas for graduated levels of difficulty, variety of wheelchair-accessible play equipment, nicely landscaped areas, and abundance of seating it makes a great park for everyone!

Marla Dorrel Park is located near Tryon Rd/Cary Pkwy at 111 Thurston Dr in Cary.  It features a basketball court, access to MacDonald Woods Park via Henshaw Greenway, covered pavilion, and the Kids Together Playground, a playground inspired by two girls whose sisters have special needs where kids of all levels of physical and mental ability can enjoy fully-integrated play. There’s a longer walk to the playground from the parking lot than most parks so make sure you have everything you need when get out of the car.  As you walk towards the park your eyes are immediately drawn to the beautiful crape myrtles and flowering plants near the pavilion. The large pavilion provides a great meeting spot for birthday parties and picnics and an easy place to spot the restrooms, which even has shorter toddler-level sinks.  Just past the pavilion is the infamous climbing dragon sculpture, Katal, resting in full sun while the kids run up, down and all over it.  Heading in the other direction, follow the widely paved sidewalks where you’ll pass interactive purple whisper benches on the way to one playground area full of tunnels, arched ladders, fire poles, shade sails, and more.

IMG_6761Beyond this playground is another play structure with graduated levels of difficulty that feature wheelchair ramp access, twisty slides, arched ladders, a fun rolling slide, interactive play items and so much more.  Tot swings, traditional swings and chair swings are also located nearby including a swinging platform with wheelchair accessible ramps.  The playground surface is mostly sand so bring your sand toys or enjoy the diggers; but wide paved sidewalks wind throughout making it easy to access all areas.  They even have wheelchair-accessible sand tables along the pathways!

After exhausting a lot of time on the bigger playgrounds, we visited the partially fenced-in toddler area, which features a playhouse, river of sand, water sources, sand table, and small climbing structures.  While our girls felt they have mostly outgrown this area, the shaded benches made for a nice place to stop for a snack.  And everyone enjoyed walking through the misting fountains.

This park is loaded with a variety of play structures and picnic spots – we played and snacked for over 2 hours.  And, while it may be a super popular park (parking lot was almost full on our way out) it is so big and has so many play areas it doesn’t feel overflowing with people.

Thumbs up: variety of play equipment for all ages/abilities, lots of shade, abundance of swings, well-maintained landscaping, great picnic areas

Thumbs down: lush landscaping can be hard to see over when trying to keep watch on more than one child!

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