Pilot Mountain State Park: Ivy Bluffs Trail

Ivy Bluffs trail in Pilot Mountain State ParkOn day 2 of our Pilot Mountain State Park adventures, we headed to the Ivy Bluffs section of the park to check out the sites along the Yadkin River.  The Ivy Bluffs access point is located along the southern part of the Yadkin River in Yadkin County (northern side of river is in Surry County) off Shoals Rd at coordinates 36.25315, -80.50842.  This section is about 20 miles from the main mountain but offers some gorgeous views of the Yadkin River.

We arrived early on a cold Saturday morning and had the trail to ourselves.  There is a looped parking lot with a helpful map of the river/trail near the trailhead.  We started on the 1.3 mile moderate Ivy Bluffs trail, which began on a steady 1/4 mile decline down to the river level.  Along the way we saw gorgeous views of the wide, but fast-flowing Yadkin River through the barren trees from the bluffs.  The cliffs were high but nowhere as dramatic as the ones around Jomeokee Trail. When the trail flattened out near the river we passed a canoe put-in and large camping area complete with picnic tables and designated camping spots.  We continued on the trail, which parallels the river for 1/2 mile and circles back around near the large camping area.  Before looping around we stopped near a sandy spot by the water for a short picnic break.  After we got going again, we spotted several animal footprints and checked out the rocks and moss along the backside of the looped trail.

IMG_4189This trail is about 1.3 miles in total length and is marked as being moderate.  The only moderate part of the hike was heading up the bluffs on the way back.  The parts along the river were flat and quiet, the only sounds coming from the river and wee ones.  In the future when the kids are much bigger I’d love to explore this area further by canoe and camping!

Thumbs up: gorgeous views of river, great trail for hiking with kids, future canoeing/camping opportunities

Thumbs down: nothing to report

Pilot Mountain State Park: Jomeokee Trail

pilot mountain state parkTwo months ago our family headed west to Dobson, NC to visit old neighbors and friends whose son was having a first birthday.  Wanting to extend the trip so we could explore more of the Yadkin Valley area, we made it a three-day trip so we could visit Pilot Mountain State Park, the nearby towns, and vineyards.  Having passed Pilot Mountain dozens of times via US-52 on our way to Blacksburg, VA we had always wanted to explore this area.

We tried our luck with Airbnb and rented Stony Knoll Vineyards Wine Lodge from the Coe family, a really interesting pre-Civil War log cabin that was renovated in 2007 with all the modern necessities.  The cabin sits across the street from Stony Knoll Vineyards, also owned by the Coe family.  The cabin, which has been in the Coe family ever since 1896, was the perfect blend of rustic and coziness for our family. It’s a two-story cabin with a king-size bedroom and loft with twin bed upstairs; full bath, double bed, TV/sitting area and fully-equipped kitchen on the first floor.

Big PinnacleAfter a restful sleep on Thursday night we got up early and headed for Pilot Mountain State Park.  We made a beginner’s mistake by going to the Bean Shoals Access of Pilot Mountain and after a 20 minute detour we found the main entrance to the park (1792 Pilot Knob Park Road) and winded our way up the 2 mile curvy, paved road past the visitor center to the parking lot at the summit.  Pilot Mountain has a uniquely shaped mountaintop, Big Pinnacle, with bare rocks on the steep sides and vegetation covering the top.  This mountain is part of the ancient Sauratown Mountains. Big Pinnacle served as a landmark for Indians and pioneer settlers back in the days.

The parking lot area has several overlooks for catching beautiful views of the valleys below and Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance.  It was a super chilly yet sunny morning so we quickly made our way to the trailhead by following the path behind the bathrooms.

Rocks on Big PinnacleJomeokee Trail is a short 0.8 mile looped hike around the base of big pinnacle sitting at 2400 ft elevation.  To the Saura Indians, the earliest known inhabitants of the area, the mountain was known as Jomeokee, the “Great Guide” or “Pilot.” We headed around the trail counterclockwise, climbing up and down rock steps.  There was little up and down terrain on the trail, but the cliff views were impressive to say the least.  The trail can get rather narrow and offers some really up close views of the 200 ft Big Pinnacle.  After making it about halfway around the base, our crew decided to call it a success and head back, given the cliff views were getting a little too hairy and too close for comfort (there are no railings).

So, we walked back down the main path passing the trailhead to Ledge Spring (1.8 miles, strenuous trail) and Little Pinnacle Overlook (0.1 miles, easy trail).  We took the easy, short 0.1 mile walk to the Little Pinnacle Overlook so we could get another great view of Big Pinnacle across the way.  Amazed at the massiveness of Big Pinnacle and the valley below, we took in the sights a few minutes more and then sat on a bench near the kid-friendly TRACK trail for lunch.

The kid-friendly TRACK trail follows the moderate 0.3 mile Sassafras Trail along a fire-based ecosystem with great views of Big Pinnacle.  It leads to an overlook inhabited at the time by hungry-looking vultures that we avoided!  We saw deer and lots of different vegetation along the way.  TRACK trail is part of the Kids in Parks initiative that was started in 2008 as a way to encourage families to get outdoors and explore.  This regional network of trails has proved so successful it’s expanded to 7 states and DC and includes more than just hiking trails.

After a day of hiking we visited the nearby town of Elkin, NC where we walked around the busy main street area and had a delicious dinner and craft beers at 222 Public House.

Stay tuned for my next post highlighting a different section of Pilot Mountain State Park!

More Resources

  • Pilot Mountain State Park map
  • History of Pilot Mountain State Park
  • Kids in Parks network of family-friendly adventures

Thumbs up: beautiful views, family-friendly trails, access to overlooks, having public bathrooms at top of mountain, well marked trails and maps

Thumbs down: nothing to report

Honeycutt Creek Trail: Strickland Rd to Honeycutt Park (MP 2.25 to 3.5)

honeycutt creek trailAfter exploring the northernmost section of East Mine Fork Trail, we crossed Strickland Road via the pedestrian access near West Millbrook Middle School to catch up with Honeycutt Creek Trail.  Heading east on Strickland Rd, we shortly passed mile marker 3.5 for Honeycutt Creek Trail.  Honeycutt Creek Trail was part of the 2003 & 2007 bond referendum that opened about a year ago and features 5.6 miles of greenway, some of which is unpaved.
Continuing on Strickland Rd, we followed greenway signs and turned left onto Carriage Tour Ln, which offered some great views of the gorgeous homes in the neighborhood.  Following the signs, we turned right on Chatterson Dr and found the official entrance to Honeycutt Creek Trail at 305 Chatterson Dr.  The beginning of the trail starts in dramatic fashion along a tall concrete walkway built between the homes of the Bent Tree neighborhood and forest that backs up to I-540.  The concrete walkway then leads into a slightly inclined wooden walkway that sits high off the ground offering great views of the nearby creek, residential homes and neighborhood pond.

pedestrian tunnelAfter running along the walkways we crossed under the I-540 pedestrian tunnel near the 2.75 mile marker.  I was pretty out of breath pushing the double stroller up the small hills we’d run so far, but I was definitely not prepared for the long, steep hills on the other side of the pedestrian tunnel.  Holy hills, Batman! Thankfully, Honeycutt Park (our destination) was only 1/2 mile away.  Honeycutt Park seems to be one of the lesser visited parks, yet it has great playgrounds with fun features for kids of all ages.  It also holds a special place in my heart as it was the last park our then family of 3 visited before little Claire was born (I have vivid memories of sweating it out in the full July sun).  The playground is in full sun, but there is a large nearby pavilion along with other park features including sand volleyball courts, basketball courts, and baseball fields.

After some playground time and a picnic lunch at the pavilion we headed back the way we came.  I was thankful the route was downhill, but had to work hard to control the heavy stroller down the steep hills.

If you wanted to continue north along Honeycutt Creek Greenway, follow the trail through the park and along Honeycutt Road to the Durant Rd intersection where it transitions to an unpaved trail.  According to the map, it continues north to Raven Ridge Rd where it connects with the South Shore Trail (part of Mountains-to-Sea Trail).  A note of caution: a portion of the unpaved trail between Durant Rd and Raven Ridge Rd is managed by the NC Wildlife Refuge Commission, which allows seasonal bow hunting.  According to the website, brightly colored vests are available for temporary use and signs display making it obvious of the game lands you’re entering.

Additional Resources:

Thumbs up: connectivity to Honeycutt Park and beyond

Thumbs down: steep hills

First Day Hike 2015 – Falls Lake Rolling View

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

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

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

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

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

Additional Resources:

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

Thumbs down: nothing to report

Falls Lake Dam

IMG_4949This fall we wanted to further explore Falls Lake so we set off with intentions to start closer to the dam and finish Day Hike A of the Mountains-to-Sea trail.  Falls Lake Dam is on the eastern side of the lake (see map) and has helped control flooding from the Neuse River ever since its completion in 1981.  Having previously hiked a portion of Falls Lake starting at Raven Ridge Rd we wanted to start closer to the dam in hopes of actually seeing it before the kiddos got too tuckered.

Unfortunately the main entrance gates to Falls Lake park were closed on this Sunday morning so we had to park in the small parking lot near Falls Center Management Rd/Falls of Neuse Rd intersection.  After a long walk into the park on the paved trail that parallels the road, the little ones in the group were restless for any trail hiking so we explored the areas around the dam including the (surprise!) playground instead.

IMG_4938The playground is designed for ages 5-12 and includes a few slides, climbing structures, tic-tac-toe, and several nearby picnic tables and benches.  It’s a small playground, but the perfect size for a park with so many more activities.  After taking in the views from the top of the dam, we walked down the unpaved trail adjacent to the playground where we got up close and personal with the beginning of the Neuse River.  The girls enjoyed throwing rocks in the water while we saw fishermen and birds.  There’s also a small parking lot, canoe launch, restrooms, information map, picnic tables, and access to the start of the Neuse River Trail greenway at the bottom of the dam.

Even though we didn’t make it to our planned trail that day, everyone had a fun time whether it was on the playground, along the river bank, or finding furry caterpillars.  I look forward to attempting Day Hike A again sometime soon where we’ll park in the lot closest to the dam!

More Resources:

Thumbs up: views from top of dam, playground, considerable amount of picnic tables

Thumbs down: signage in park, nc state park information online lacks details (no mention of gate closure, playground, parking near dam)

Durant Nature Preserve

IMG_8283In early Fall we headed out to Durant Nature Preserve with some friends to enjoy their weekly Wee Walkers program (Thursdays from 10-11am).  Having never visited Durant Nature Preserve before I’m glad I attended an organized program that guides you and the kiddos on a short walk through the park because this nature park is huge!  Durant Nature Preserve is located at 8305 Camp Durant Rd in North Raleigh (north entrance is located off Camp Durant Rd and south entrance is located off Spottswood St).  According to the COR’s website, this park was originally known as Camp Durant and was the headquarters for the Occoneechee Council of the Boy Scouts until 1979 when the City of Raleigh purchased the land from the scouts and turned it into a nature park.  We parked in the parking lot near the park office at the north entrance.  Once everyone arrived (about 10-15 moms/kids total), we set off on our nature walk with our super friendly and knowledgeable guide.  For those with babies or early walkers, I’d recommend wearing the babes in a carrier as most of the trails are unpaved.

IMG_8271We hiked along the eastern side of the park following the Pine Ridge Connector, Pine Ridge Trail and Lakeside unpaved trails.  Our guide stopped several times along the trail to point out a variety of flora and fauna.  We saw a little bit of everything: wasp nests, leaf poppers, water striders, water frogs, mushrooms, mosquito fish, poplar tulip leaves, muscadine grapes, dogwood berries and a real turtle!  The kids (ranging in ages from under 1 to 5 years old) were most impressed by the turtle walking along the trail, but it’s been fun to see how Ashley gets excited when she sees dogwood berries in the backyard!  The neat part about the Wee Walkers program is that each program is different because it’s based on what’s going on in nature that week and it’s FREE…what a deal!

After the Wee Walkers program we explored the playground area and had a picnic lunch.  The nearby shelters were very muddy due to the recent heavy rains, but we made do.  The playground is for ages 2-12 and has a few slides, monkey bars, climbing ladders, a large sandbox with teeter totters and diggers, two tot swings, and two regular swings.  Also close to the playground area is sand volleyball, basketball and the public restrooms.

This post simply scratches the surface of all there is to explore at Durant Nature Preserve.  If you want more than just hiking, this seems to be a great park for camping, biking, birding and so much more.  I look forward to coming back again soon!

More Resources:

Thumbs up: Wee Walkers program, variety of hiking trails

Thumbs down: signage throughout park (we got lost heading back to our cars)

Hobbit House & More at NCMA Museum Park

IMG_7013A few weeks ago, Bill planned a fun Sunday outing to explore the outdoor Cloud Chamber for the Trees & Sky exhibit (aka Hobbit House) at the NC Museum of Art’s Museum Park.  Between trips with out of town guests and regular Stroller Strides workouts, we’ve been to this museum a TON, but never to see the Cloud Chamber exhibit or hike the corresponding unpaved trails.

We parked in the large parking lot off Blue Ridge Rd and headed down the paved trail towards the infamous Gyre exhibit (the three huge concrete ellipses).  After passing the Gyre and Chairs in the Trees exhibits, we made a right onto the Blue Loop and then a left onto the unpaved trail that starts by the Crossroads/Trickster I exhibit.  The unpaved trail starts out as gravel, but then we made a slight right towards the Cloud Chamber and the path became grassy and then a very narrow dirt trail in the wooded section.  We made the mistake of bringing a BOB Revolution SE Stroller and should’ve brought a carrier for Claire and let Ashley walk.  Having two adults made it easier to maneuver the stroller over the bridges, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

IMG_7015So, after a short walk through the wooded section we found the Cloud Chamber house, which looks like a replica of Bilbo Baggins’ house.  It’s a short, circular house built into the side of the hill with large stones, some criss-crossed logs, and a green plant-based roof.  It has a concrete floor and a heavy wooden door and the house’s neat feature is that it acts as a camera obscura.  After entering the house, close the door and wait for your eyes to adjust to the darkness and you’ll see faint views of the sky as light is projected through an opening in the roof onto the floor of the house.  Bill took Ashley into the house by themselves but didn’t stay long and then I went in by myself and witnessed puffs of sky inverted on the floor…it was neat to be able to look “down” onto the sky!  And, I don’t think we’ll ever forget our trip to the Hobbit House with Ashley asking where are the “wobbits” every minute; poor girl was expecting to see some real life hobbits.

IMG_7027We then continued our walk along the loop trail where we also saw the Untitled exhibit by Ledelle Moe, which looked like a small concrete person concrete curled into a ball.  After completing the loop trail we headed back to the gravel path and turned right.  We headed downhill and came across the Whisper Bench exhibit, which was a fun interactive piece of art for Ashley.  It’s two steel benches on opposite sides of the trail that are connected by an underground sound pipe.  Ashley and Bill enjoyed talking back and forth to each other and I loved hearing the toddler giggles!  After the Whisper Bench we continued on the very sunny gravel path that led us uphill and back to the paved trail near Lowe’s Pavilion.  Finally, we stopped for a quick picnic lunch inside the pavilion before heading home for naps.

It was such a fun morning filled with fresh air, science and art and I didn’t have to plan any of it… #besthusbandever!

Additional Resources:

Thumbs up: interactive pieces of art, beautiful outdoor setting

Thumbs down: nothing to report

North Wake Landfill District Park

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A playground at the landfill…say what?!  Yes, the North Wake landfill closed in 2008 and local residents worked with the county to repurpose the closed landfill into a park which now features paved trails, mountain biking trails, a large playground area, pavilion, and access to Abbotts Creek Trail (part of Neuse River Greenway).  North Wake Landfill District Park is located at 9300 Deponie Drive off Durant Rd in north Raleigh.  When you first turn off from Durant Rd, it’ll feel like the landfill is still open because you have to wind through some of the old parts of the dump, but follow the signs for the park.

We spent most of our time exploring the playground area and paved trails that access the nearby greenway. While the playground area has many unique features, I strongly disliked the layout where it is adjacent to a steep hill that my adventurous 3-year old decided to conquer at great speeds, despite strict instruction NOT to do so. So, after recovering from a near heart attack when she sprinted down the steep hill (and received a short timeout) we had a nice time exploring the play areas.

The playground has two areas – one for ages 2-5 and one for ages 5-12. In my opinion this park is definitely more of a “big kid” park. The younger playground area has several climbing structures that are more appropriate for an older and more confident 2-year old. It also has a few slides, two tot swings, and a music feature but it’s a taller playground with little room for playing on.

img_5596The bigger kid playground is any young climber’s dream.  There are huge spider web ropes that connect to the playground along with a sideways rock wall.  The playground also has several monkey bars, slides, twisty ladders, climbing stepping stones and more!

Both playground areas are covered in a thick wood chip surface and are adjacent to several picnic tables, the public restrooms and water fountains.  Also nearby is the large Sycamore pavilion with seating for up to 100, according to the Wake County website.

Descend along the paved trail from the playground to reach access to the western side of Abbotts Creek Trail.  Inside the park there are also several mountain biking trails, a mountain biking skills area, and paved walking trails.  I’d like to come back and walk or bike the short Top of the Hill trail, which takes you 469ft above sea level for great views of the surrounding area.  There is little shade at this park, so plan accordingly!

For more information about this park, visit the Wake County Parks website.  I found the park brochure with map to be very helpful.

Thumbs up: repurposing a landfill into a useable recreation space, variety of climbing activities for older kids, proximity and plethora of picnic areas

Thumbs down: steep hill near playground area, lack of park map inside park (didn’t know about most of the walking or bike trails until going online after getting home)

Prairie Ridge Ecostation

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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!

Resources:

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

Thumbs down: story time program is in its infancy

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