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!

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

Crabtree Creek Trail MP 4.75 to 7 & Lockwood Park

IMG_2172Before summer ended, we explored a new section of Crabtree Creek Trail via bike.  With the hot and humid weather, we knew pushing a double stroller would be tough, so why not pull the girls by a bike trailer?!  The girls were super excited about the prospect of riding in a bike trailer and despite having to cut our trip short because of a busted bike chain we had a great morning ride and even stumbled upon a new park.

After borrowing a friend’s bike trailer, we parked along the street at 2497 Ratchford Dr near the intersection of Capital Blvd and hopped on the nearby Crabtree Creek Trail at milepost 7.5.  We turned left onto the wooden boardwalk heading south east along the trail.  After a short ride on the boardwalk we biked under Capital Blvd and under the train tracks before coming to another long boardwalk stretching over a large pond near the intersection of Raleigh Blvd.  Along this long stretch of the boardwalk are a large gazebo and marsh lands, great for stopping to check out the turtles, frogs and insects inhabiting the water.

After crossing over the pond we arrived at the busy Raleigh Blvd/Crabtree Blvd intersection.  It was a bit hairy with the bike and the trailer, but we survived and crossed at the cross walk near milepost 7.  Continuing on we followed the paved trail, which was mostly flat with a few hills scattered throughout.  Around milepost 5 we stumbled upon a neighborhood park, Lockwood Park, at the intersection of Crabtree Blvd/Remington Rd.

IMG_2198Lockwood Park is small fenced-in park designed mostly for ages 5-12.  It has a large climbing rock boulder, sand box with diggers, swings, and large playground with slides and various climbing structures.  The playground has a rubberized surface with a picnic table and benches and a nearby open grassy field.  The girls loved climbing on the boulders the best, but were also excited to get back into the bike trailer to continue on our ride.

We weren’t 5 minutes back into our ride before Bill’s bike chain completely broke in half going up a steep hill.  Luckily we weren’t far from the playground, so we walked the bike and trailer back to the playground while I booked it 2.75 miles back to retrieve the car and rescue them.  Despite having our bike ride cut short, we had a fun time on our first bike trailer excursion and look forward to doing it again soon!

Thumbs up: having a playground along the greenway, scenery along boardwalk over pond

Thumbs down: busy Crabtree Blvd/Raleigh Blvd intersection, lack of signage at Lockwood Park

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

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

MacDonald Woods Park in Cary

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We had a jam-packed spring break staycation this year with trips to local parks, dance class, and a visit to Fearrington.  The beautiful weather stayed around all week and one day we met some dear friends in Cary at MacDonald Woods Park.

MacDonald Woods Park was our second choice for a park after we learned that Marla Dorrel Park was closed for renovations; lucky for us, MacDonald Woods Park was a short 2 mile car ride from Marla Dorrel.  MacDonald Woods Park is located at 1601 Seabrook Ave and is connected to Marla Dorrel Park via the Hinshaw Greenway, which is part of the pedestrian bridge that crosses US-64 highway. This park has on-street parking and sits below the road so it seems rather hidden at first, but based on the amount of people it’s a popular spot!

img_6008MacDonald Woods Park has playground areas for the 2-5 and 5-12 age groups with two swings for both groups. The 5-12 age playground is rather large with several ladders and slides, monkey bars, and climbing wall with rope. The loop-shaped ladder was by far a challenging favorite for this duo. The younger playground is very small with only 2 slides, steps and a platform ladder. There are a few bouncy rides and a small low-to-the-ground structure for early walkers. A small elevated sandbox is located between the two playground areas. But, by far, the best feature of this park is the merry-go-round. Yes, that’s right…they have a merry-go-round! Go Cary! Of all the parks we’ve been to this was a first so you can imagine the confusion when the girls first saw it. Having never been on a merry-go-round they watched several groups of people get on and off before getting on with a group of toddler girls. These sweet maniacs quickly caught on as to why you hold on to the bars but also moved into more challenging feats such as dangling their feet over the edge. That proved to be rather anxiety-ridden for us but they had fun and no one went flying off the thing, so it was a success!

After some playground time we had a picnic in the grassy area near the basketball court and then explored the nearby paved trails to the bridge and open grassy field. After some more trail exploring the girls were pretty exhausted so we headed home. I’m not sure if it was the fact that kids were out for Spring Break but I’ve got to think this park is naturally popular with its fun features and entrance to Hinshaw Greenway.

Additional resources: Hinshaw Greenway, MacDonald Woods Park

Thumbs up: merry-go-round, nearby creek to explore, landscaping
Thumbs down: small tot playground, few picnic tables

Lions Park

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Despite Lions Park being located in a transitional east Raleigh neighborhood, we found it safe, full of friendly people, and lots of fun!  Lions Park is located at 516 Dennis Ave in the east Raleigh Woodcrest neighborhood.  This park has several entrances, which provides easier access and parking to whichever activity you’re looking to try; and this park has a lot going on.  Besides the main playground area, there are four baseball fields, two full-size basketball courts, a dirt BMX track, a community center, eight tennis courts, and a large pavilion for rental.  While we didn’t have much time to capture the details about everything we did spend a lot of time on the playground.

The playground area at Lions Park is easiest to access from the Dennis Ave entrance that spills into a large parking lot area near the community center.  This park has two playground areas for the different age groups 2-5 and 5-12, which are both have a rubberized surface.  The 5-12 age group playground is one of the largest I’ve seen in Raleigh.  It has multiple levels of playing with several slides, climbing structures, monkey bars, tethered rope swings, and bucket chairs for spinning.  Ashley spent most of her time on this playground and even tried the curved ladder structure by herself for the first time (eeks)!  Even though she’s much younger than the recommended age for this playground I felt comfortable with her exploring on her own since there were very few high openings within the structure.  The big kid swing set and sandbox are also located nearby.

img_5324The 2-5 age group playground is a short walk from the bigger playground.  It has a fun climbing wall, a few slides, twisty toys, the dreaded butterfly shaped ladder which is too young for a 2-year old in my opinion, a seesaw, tot swings,  and bongos.

After a short jaunt on the tot playground we sat down for a picnic lunch.  Even though the playground areas are newer, the picnic spots and pavilion are showing their age (and a mossy roof).  Nonetheless, we found a sunny spot (it was January) in the moderately wooded pavilion area.  Adjacent to the pavilion are horseshoe pits, which had also seen better days.

Despite this park’s older age and its location, it has pockets of great features such as the playground, BMX track, and tennis courts. We even recently went to a birthday party here and it was super convenient to have the pavilion next to the playground.  I look forward to going back for a visit where we can scope out the BMX track, which should provide fun entertainment for Ashley and maybe get her excited to practice on her balance bike some more!

For more information about Lions Park, visit City of Raleigh website.

Thumbs up: playground areas, unique BMX track feature, spinning bucket seats, tot climbing wall, convenient benches scattered throughout playgrounds, wooded playground area would be nice for hotter weather

Thumbs down: condition of pavilion area

North Cary Park & Black Creek Greenway

img_5029This past winter has been one of the longest I’ve seen since moving to Raleigh over 11 years ago so when the temps hovered above 45 degrees in January we headed to North Cary Park with a friend and her girls for a short run and playground time.  North Cary Park is located at 1100 Norwell Blvd in Cary off of Cary Pkwy.  It’s a very large park situated along the northern end of Black Creek Greenway.  Before having kids we used to bike through Umstead Park on the Reedy Creek Trail and connect to Black Creek Greenway at Lake Crabtree.  This was a fun way to extend our mileage and explore the Town of Cary greenway system.

But, back to our recent trip.  After arriving at North Cary Park we winded through the park’s slightly confusing trails and eventually met up with Black Creek Greenway where we headed south.  The trail itself is a paved 7.1 total miles and winds between various neighborhoods and the creek.  We passed several bikers and runners along the way so we felt very safe.  We ran until the 2.25 mile mark of the greenway and then headed back.  The creek will make for some fun water playtime in the warm summer months.

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After running, we had some sweet, patient toddlers who needed to get exercise on the playground.  This playground area has a large sandbox area, several slides built into the small hills, a rock climbing area, tot swings, regular swings, a jungle gym for ages 5-12, and a small rubberized area great for the crawlers and early walkers.  With the dense landscaping and so many park features that are spread out, it made it harder for us to keep track of the toddlers while also tending to the babies.  After lots of toddler wrangling we were able to enjoy some time in the sandbox area, which has several benches along the perimeter.  Claire even enjoyed her first tot swing and Ashley was able to practice her potty training at the nearby restrooms, complete with a toddler-height sink.

Other than the playground and greenway, this park also has a large pavilion with a dozen tables overlooking 4 sand volleyball courts named after Julie Robison, 2 basketball courts, and a soccer field.  Benches and picnic tables are scattered throughout the playground area and before heading down to the greenway.  With so many friends with kiddos who train for running races, this is a great place to run solo or with kids combined with a playground visit!

More resources:

Thumbs up: variety of park features, safety of greenway, rubberized option for infants/early walkers, running/playground combo for those with strollers and kids

Thumbs down: confusing signage leading down to greenway trails, playground features being so spread out making it harder to keep an eye on independent toddlers

Knightdale Station Park

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We are fortunate to have a great group of moms and kiddos through Stroller Strides of Midtown Raleigh to explore local parks with and a trip Knightdale Station Park last fall is no exception.  Knightdale Station Park is located at 810 North 1st Ave just outside 540 and south of US-64 business in Knightdale.

This park has a bit of everything – walking trails, large playground areas for kiddos under 2, ages 2-5 and ages 5-12, a dog park, and athletic fields.  We spent most of our time exploring the various playground areas, where all boast a farming/barn theme.  The playground area designed for ages 5-12 has a large play silo with a steep enclosed slide.  A spiral staircase is enclosed in the play silo, so if you have adventurous younger children, make sure they use extra caution.  Other than the play silo, this large playground has monkey bars, wide wheelchair-accessible ramps, smaller slides, and other climbing structures.  The nearby tot playground for ages 2-5 is a train with tunnels, slides and climbing structures.  It’s rather small for a tot playground, but the adjacent corral with bouncy horses and spinning cups provides some more activities for the young ones.

img_4530Ashley’s favorite play structure at this park was the play chicken coop designed for ages under 2.  She loved throwing mulch down the egg shoot for her friend to catch at the bottom.  This play area is covered and great for early walkers as kids can access it by a small ramp or short steps.

Scattered around the playground areas are benches, tot swings, regular swings, a large faux tire swing, mushroom stools, twirling structures, and sandbox with large tractor tire.  The different playground areas are joined by concrete sidewalk paths and covered with shredded bark.  A large pavilion with picnic tables and separate restroom building are also near the playground as is a walking/running trail.  Finally this park also has several athletic fields and an off-leash dog park with separate small and large dog areas.

For more information about this park and future plans visit the Town of Knightdale website.

Thumbs up: unique farming themed play areas, all ages incorporated into play areas, walking trails adjacent to playground

Thumbs down: climbing enclosed staircase in silo is a bit scary for little ones, young landscaping yields little shade

Longstreet Dr Playground

img_3737The week after Claire was born we had lots of family helping keep us sane while adjusting to life with two sweet girls.  My sweet mother-in-law, Janet (aka Gaga), came to visit for several days and for one outing we explored Longstreet Dr. Playground, which is less than 10 minutes from our house.  Longstreet Playground is a neighborhood park located off Six Forks Rd, just north of Lynn Rd at 7334 Stuart Dr.

Longstreet Playground was a pleasant surprise of a nearby park!  It’s on the small side, but just perfect when you just want to pull up to the park and be there.  This was especially crucial with having a newborn because I had to truck back to the car a few times to get things I had forgot to bring with me.  The park is fenced-in 3/4 of the way and has one main picnic table, which was great since we packed our lunch (big surprise, I know).  It has two different playground areas – one for the 2-5 ages and one for the 5-12 ages.  The 2-5 age playground has several slides, a low bar for hanging from, and a small climbing structure.  There are some nearby springy rides and a very small sandbox with diggers.

The 5-12 age playground has a climbing wall up to the main play structure, several slides, monkey bars, many climbing structures, and a play steering wheel and drama scene.  At first, I was hesitant to let Ashley climb up the wall to the playground, but she quickly proved to be a pro!  There are a few openings in the playground that lead down to more advanced climbing structures, so I really had to caution Ashley on them.  Next to this play area are the swings – one tot swing and one regular swing.  There are a few benches scattered throughout the playground and the surface is mostly rubber with some concrete sidewalk.

Ashley had a great time exploring this new park while Gaga enjoyed some special time with her girls.

Thumbs up: small park with lots of features

Thumbs down: litter surrounding park