Dowdy Park in Nags Head, NC

DSC_0057In May, we travelled to Nags Head for our annual trip with friends (and family this year, too) to run the Nags Head Preserve Yuengling 5k race. This year the race weekend coincided with the grand opening of Dowdy Park, located at the intersection of S Croatan Hwy & E Bonnett St. Near MP 12, the park sits on land that was once the home of Dowdy Amusement Park. Over the years, I remember driving by the abandoned theme park wishing someone would do something to clean up that area. It’s wonderful to see how land once used for fun and recreation has come full circle.

As a Raleigh resident, we are spoiled with parks and playgrounds around every corner. Though Nags Head has beautiful natural recreational areas (the beach, the dunes, the nature preserve), to say it needs more playgrounds is an understatement. Dowdy Park’s grand opening celebration and Artrageous Kids Festival was bustling with families, echoing the excitement for more outdoor parks.

DSC_0056Dowdy Park features several play areas where kids can jump, run, swing, climb and slide until their hearts are content! The older kid playground has wide wheelchair-accessible ramps to musical and periscope play items. The ramp connects to stairs for climbing higher along a net bridge or to the ground via a rock wall. The other side of the net bridge features challenging ladders, a climbing tree stump and a fast, twisty slide. A colorful climbing hill with curved bars, musical instruments, balance beams, surfboards, bench swing, and merry-go-round are also located nearby. With the large festival and park attendance, it was overwhelming to keep track of multiple kids bouncing between so many activities.

DSC_0074The smaller kid playground features short steps up to ramps connected to a double slide. All the kids thoroughly enjoyed the nearby rolling slide. They loved making rattling noises as they slid down the bumpy slide. Across from the small kid playground is a wheelchair-accessible ride. It allows folks in wheelchairs to reverse their chair onto a ramp and swing. And, a playground near the beach wouldn’t be complete without a little sand – just follow the sea turtle flipper prints! Short pier pilings line the sandbox area, which has a large climbing sea turtle in the middle.

DSC_0079Also near this area are hopscotch and twister games, checkers tables, another climbing hill, picnic tables and benches. On this particular day vendors lined the perimeter of the open green space area. Park-goers filled the open green space area watching the performances under the covered pavilion. Throughout the park you’ll find pieces of art, such as the nautilus stamps shells, temporary art pole exhibit, and wooden paintings. Even though Dare County is mostly known for its beaches, I’ve always been impressed with the local art scene. We’ve enjoyed local art galleries, shopping and art walks when they’ve overlapped with our vacation times.

Currently, small dunes, a split-rail fence and 20 yards of undeveloped park land separate busy the US-158 and sandbox area. According to the Town of Nags Head, phase 2 of development starts this fall for a garden, multi-use courts, restrooms and bocce ball court. It’ll be interesting to see how this area evolves over the years. And, I look forward to returning on a day that isn’t quite so busy.

Thumbs up: unique play areas, incorporating beach details into the park, accommodations for all ages and abilities, fun climbing hills and slides

Thumbs down: lack of shade

Bryan Park (Richmond, Va)

Bryan ParkOver Spring Break we vacationed with friends and family in Virginia. We initially wanted to visit the newly renovated Maymont Park (see my 2012 park review) in Richmond, but opted for the quieter Bryan Park instead. With its granite archways, expansive rolling hills, recreational areas, and natural spots Bryan Park is the perfect crossroads of Virginia’s history and nature!

History of Bryan Park

Bryan Park is located on the Northside of Richmond at 4308 Hermitage Rd between I-95 and US-64. According to Richmondoutside.com, the history of Bryan Park dates back to the late 1700s when the Young family owned the 600 acre Westwood Estate. In 1800, Young’s Spring served as a meeting spot for a planned slaved rebellion (formally known as Gabriel’s Rebellion) that went awry. Rosina Young inherited half of the estate, which is most of Bryan Park today, after her father’s passing in 1832. During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers setup a defense line near the Rosewood farmhouse on the property. Following the war, Rosina (and her daughter) continued to farm Rosewood until her death in 1906. 

With the booming development of Richmond’s Northside at the turn of the century, prominent Richmond businessmen, Lewis Ginter and Joseph Bryan (publisher of Richmond Times at the time), created large residential neighborhoods. After Bryan’s death in 1908, his widow, Belle Stewart Bryan, purchased Rosewood at a public auction. Then, she donated the land to the city as a memorial and for use as a public park. 

Then over the years, the Richmond City Council transformed the farm into a park.  The park’s condition deteriorated over the years until the mid-1990s when concerned citizens organized the Friends of Bryan Park (FoBP) group to improve and preserve the park. Today the park is a joint effort between the City of Richmond Parks & Rec and FoBP.

Our Visit – Playground

For our visit to Bryan Park, we drove through the main Hermitage Rd entrance passing under the massive granite archways. I stayed straight, relying on map memory (not the signage), to park in a small gravel lot near the playgrounds. The kids jumped out and ran across the field to the playground area. 

The playground features fun climbing structures, a large shaded teeter totter, tot swings, regular swings, and a large jungle gym. The jungle gym features a tree-themed design with unique climbing ladders, rock wall, and twisty and straight slides. The kids loved alternating between the twisty slide and climbing areas.

Hiking & Creek

After exhausting the playground, we consulted Google Maps to find a sandy splashing area along Jordan’s Branch. Thinking we had the spot realized, we hopped into our cars and drove up the street closer to Shelter #1. We walked along the left side of Shelter #1 on Young’s Pond Ln and turned left onto a trail opening at the bottom of the small hill. The narrow trail meandered through the woods with the creek to the right. We wanted to find an easy access point to the creek with sandy areas on the opposite side. After 1/2 mile hike through the woods we succumbed to hungry voices and picnicked on the trail. While little people ate lunch, a few of us ran ahead to find the easy creek access. We stopped a little too soon – the easy creek access was less than 50 yards ahead. 

Following our picnic lunch, we headed to the easy access and crossed the shallow parts to the sandy banks. The kids loved splashing in the creek, looking for tadpoles, and walking in the sand. It was a really warm day, so the cool water was very welcoming.

After splashing, we headed back across the bank to brush off dirt and walk back to the cars. Unbeknownst to us, we happened upon a shortcut on the way back and came out at the trailhead on Jordan’s Branch Ln. We quickly walked to the parking lot and then drove to Ardent Craft Ales for some much deserved beer and snacks (New England IPA was my fave).

I always enjoy discovering a new (to me) Richmond park because of its ties to the area’s rich history. Even though Bryan Park was a little overgrown, it’s nice the great citizens of FoBP and community partners support the park’s preservation. Be sure to check out their events page for how to volunteer or attend a program! I’d love to return to the park (sans kids) and follow the self-guided tour map or admire the azaleas in full bloom.

Additional Resources:

Thumbs up: park’s rich history, beautiful rolling hills and old trees, unique natural features, variety of recreational activities, fun playground area

Thumbs down: overgrown areas, poor signage

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!

More Resources:

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!

Abbotts Creek Park

IMG_3448Before Christmas we headed to the newly opened Abbotts Creek Park, which is adjacent to Abbotts Creek Community Center and Abbotts Creek Elementary School.  Abbotts Creek Park is located in northeast Raleigh at 9950 Durant Rd, just down the road from North Wake Landfill.

The playground area is fenced-in and has brightly colored play features similar to the playgrounds at Greystone Community Center, Hill Street Park, and Powell Drive Park.  The smaller age playground features a slide, climbing ropes, and a planet-like climb-through structure.  Just a few steps away is the older age playground which features several connected rope climbing structures, climb-through rings, bouncy stepping stones, a tall slide, and a spinner.  The park also has a few benches, tot swings, regular swings, and shade canopies.

IMG_3445Outside the playground is a large concrete area with a large painted circle (presumably for playground games), four 100-yd dash lanes, a large grassy area, and rear access to the community center and elementary school play areas around the corner.  The outside spaces have lots of room to hopefully add picnic tables in the future.

We spent over an hour on the playground where the girls imagined treasure hunts, pretended the rubberized surface was hot lava, and hid in the castle (aka the top of the tall slide).  We couldn’t visit the community center because it was closed while we were there, but according to the City of Raleigh website it features a, “two story community center houses a gymnasium with a real wood floor, fitness room, multipurpose classrooms, a fitness studio, lockers and dressing rooms, and office areas.”  Even though it’s a small playground area, there’s a lot to do; but if you run out of fun here be sure to visit Durant Nature Preserve or North Wake Landfill District Park down the street.

Thumbs up: shade tarps for hot days, easy access, brightly colored play structure with interesting rope climbing features

Thumbs down: nothing to report

Update: Western Regional Park in Howard County, MD

IMG_3222Over Thanksgiving we headed back to Western Regional Park in Howard County, MD to explore the playground that was under construction the first time we visited.  The playground did not disappoint – the girls spent at least an hour running up and down the playground and playing hide and seek with new park friends.

The playground at this rural park is fenced in with a rubberized surface and has a little bit of everything – swings for all ages, climbing walls, balance beams, slides, tunnels, and plenty of benches.  The younger age playground boasts several straight and winding slides, steps with helpful railings, a bouncy bridge, and challenging climbing spots for younger ones. Tots swings and a short climbing wall are also nearby.

The playground for older ages has similar features, but at higher and more challenging levels for the big kids.  There are several balance beams, tall slides, climbing walls, a very tall climbing ladder, tunnels, and long walkways – great for running.  There is also a tall, volcano-shaped climbing wall nearby, perfect for hide and seek games.  This park is great for having multiple younger-aged children as you have good sightline of the whole fenced-in playground.

After exploring the playground area be sure to check out the rest of the park with its soccer fields, spider-web climbing structures, walking trails, and more!

Thumbs up: lots to do, good sightline of playground making it easy to keep track of multiple kids, variety of climbing features

Thumbs down: in windy weather, you’ll catch some interesting smells from nearby farms

Canal Path/Heritage Trail & Old Mill Park in Fredericksburg, VA

IMG_2283Before summer came to an end we headed back up to VA for a final party at my mom’s house before turning it over to new owners.  To counteract the bushel of crabs (and beers) we were going to eat that weekend, we headed into downtown Fredericksburg on Saturday morning for a run and some playground time.

We parked at Old Mill Park (2410 Caroline St) along the Rappahannock River in downtown Fredericksburg.  We walked up towards Caroline St and turned right on the Heritage Trail, heading towards Route 1. Heritage Trail is a 1.6 mile paved path that parallels the Rappahannock River, offering gorgeous views of the flowing river through the city.  We quickly passed under Route 1, then followed along Riverside Dr before turning right along Fall Hill Ave.  We passed by the entrance to Virginia Outdoor Center and then turned left onto Canal Path trail.

IMG_2309The Canal Path is a paved 1.8 mile trail that parallels the canal until Princess Anne St where it then connects back with the Heritage Trail making a loop through downtown.  The Canal Path is mostly shaded, making it a great way to escape the summer heat.  We passed behind Mary Washington Hospital, ran under Route 1 again, ran by the Wetlands at Gayles Pond, and passed the Fredericksburg Dog Park on our way back to Old Mill Park.  Both trails display mile markers and informational signs throughout the paths related to historical aboriginal culture, Civil War battle action and current-day wetlands.

After our 3.1 mile loop run we ended back at Old Mill Park, which was a great place for the little ones to get out and stretch their legs.  Old Mill Park has a large playground for ages 2+ nestled under large trees.  It has several slides, climbing structures, built-in games for littles one to manipulate, nearby swings with tot swings, and several teeter totters.  Old Mill Park also has several large open fields (used mostly for soccer), pavilion with picnic tables, restroom facilities and riverfront views.  After all our running around we headed to the nearby Mason Dixon Cafe for brunch and mimosas.  And, no downtown Fredericksburg visit would be complete without walking next door to Carl’s for amazing ice cream!

Additional Resources

Thumbs up: beautiful river views, accessibility to running/walking loop in downtown Fredericksburg,  historical markers of information, picnic spots, playground along running loop, felt very safe with all the foot traffic

Thumbs down: nothing to report

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

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