Saturday, August 26, 2017

Best Kept Secret Garden

Let me tell you a secret. One of Charlotte's greatest outdoor treasures is hiding in plain view.
The stately historic Duke Mansion, built in 1915 and owned by and named for one of Charlotte's greatest industrialists and philanthropists, James B. Duke, stands in grandeur in the heart of the Myers Park neighborhood. The manor is an inn and venue for meetings and events, but you don't have to be an invited guest to enjoy the extraordinary grounds outside.

In 2015, in celebration of its 100th anniversary, the Duke Mansion opened its gardens to the public. If you've not visited the estate, I highly recommend you lace up your sneakers and stroll on over. You will be amazed.
The 4.5 acre property, once neglected, bursts with splendor. Amble along manicured pathways. Smell the flowers or a sprig of peppermint in in the planting boxes. Say hello to Peter Cottontail. Marvel at the mansion's architecture. Relax in a plush seat on the portico. Play on the playground. Frolic in the fairy garden. Make a wish in the fountain.
Take a trip to check out this Charlotte treasure. You will not be disappointed!
How to get there:
The Duke Mansion is located at 400 Hermitage Rd, Charlotte, NC 28207. To access the gardens, park on Ardsley Rd. Enter the grounds through a gated footpath on Ardsley.
Don't forget to pack:
Shoes: Something comfy for strolling.
Sunscreen, hat and sunglasses: The grounds are mostly shaded, but some spots are not.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Morrow Mountain State Park: Hattaway Mountain Trail

On a hot summer day, it can be a welcoming treat to take a hike in the cool of the woods shaded by a thick canopy of trees. Even better than that? A refreshing swim when the hike is done. School is starting and the slightest hint of autumn may be in the air, but there's still time to indulge in this summer rite. And let me tell you the perfect place to go.
Morrow Mountain State Park lies in the Uwharrie Mountains just over an hour east of Charlotte near Albemarle. It sports a number of trails suited for hikers of all skill levels. And, bonus: It has a large swimming pool, complete with restrooms, changing rooms, showers and a kiddie pool.

Start your adventure with a two mile hike on the Hattaway Mountain trail, a natural surface loop that starts and ends at the pool parking lot. This is a challenging trail thanks mostly to its areas of steep ascent and rocky terrain. But it's also relatively short, and manageable if you take your time and enjoy the scenery along the way (you'll find dry, rocky ridges covered in chestnut oaks and sourwoods and an impressive vista before your descent). Plus, it's motivating to know that a dip in the water awaits your return!

The day we went, the pool was closed for maintenance, but a kind park ranger saved the day with her recommendation to check out the Badin Lake public beach access, just 10 minutes away. This was a fun alternative to our original plan and something to keep in mind once the pool closes for the season (from Labor Day to Memorial Day) and if you prefer a natural swimming hole to a swimming pool.
Note: The pool is now open weekends only and on Labor Day from 10:00 a.m.-5:30 p.m. Kids three and under are free, ages 4-12/$4, and 13 and older/$5. Badin Lake beach access is free and open year-round.

Another bonus stop is a milkshake stop on the way home at The Sundae Shop in Midland, just over 20 miles outside of Charlotte.
How to get there:
Morrow Mountain State Park is located at 49104 Morrow Mountain Road, Albemarle, NC 28001. To hike the Hattaway Mountain Trail, park in the swimming pool parking lot, which is on your left just past the park office when you come through the main park entrance. The trailhead is to the left of the pool house, marked with a sign. Follow the orange square blazes to complete the loop.

To get to the Badin Lake public beach from Morrow Mountain STate Park, head west on Morrow Mountain Rd. toward Valley Dr. Turn right onto Valley Dr. Continue onto Henderson St. Turn left onto Nantahala St. Turn right onto NC-740. In just over a half mile, the public beach will be on your right.
Don't forget to take:

  • Water: Stay hydrated on your hike. You can refill at the pool facilities.

  • Snacks: Throw in a granola bar, trail mix or crackers. It's a strenuous hike so you'll need good energy.

  • Backback or bag: Something lightweight and comfortable to carry your essentials.

  • Bug spray: We saw some mosquitoes and gnats. Plus, ticks are always a threat.

  • Shoes: Comfortable sneakers or hiking boots.

  • Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses: Always keep them handy.

  • Swim suits, towels and a change of clothes: Plan to enjoy a dip in the water after your hike.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Prepare for Takeoff

I don't love to fly, but I do marvel at flight. The physics of it both baffle and impress me. No better place to admire the beauty and brilliance of airplanes taking to the skies than the Charlotte Douglas Airport Overlook park -- and especially the nearby trail we just discovered. 

Open every day from 8:00 a.m.-10:30 p.m., this official viewing spot is perfect for watching take-offs and landings against the backdrop of the uptown Charlotte skyline. You can pop your trunk and tailgate or grab one of the dozens of park benches to enjoy the show.

Even better, though, is checking out the easy, paved trail that starts at the Overlook parking lot and hugs a section of the perimeter of the airport. Take it just over a half-mile and you find yourself directly under the flight path of planes coming and going on one of the runways. Talk about exciting!

How to get there:
The Charlotte Airport Overlook park is located at 7300 Airport Overlook Drive, Charlotte, NC, 28208. To get there, take Wilkinson Blvd. approximately 5 miles away from town and turn left on to Marshall Dr. Take a right on Old Dowd Rd. and then your first left onto Airport Overlook Drive. To access the walking trail, park your car and leave the parking lot through the entrance gates. The trail runs along the fence on your right.

Don't forget to take:
  • Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses: There is no shade in the parking lot and very little of it on the walking trail.
  • Shoes: Comfy shoes for walking paved surface.  
  • Water and snacks: Take a quick hike then enjoy a snack or picnic lunch on the benches in the Overview parking lot.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A Hike Back in Time

The Catawba Indian Nation Greenway Trail is beautiful, mystical, and moving. The 2.5-mile natural surface trail starts at the Catawba Culture Center in Rock Hill and winds its way along the Catawba River through the Catawba Indian Nation Reservation. To hike the trail is to take a step back in time.

Trailhead behind Cultural Center
The first leg – the Culture Center Trail, or Yehasuri Trail – which runs from the Culture Center a half mile down to the Catawba River, literally walks you through history as you follow the same paths Catawba Indians have traveled since 5,000 B.C.; read the interpretive signs about the importance of the land to the tribe’s culture; and observe a Catawba dwelling, bark house, dugout trees, a story circle and an active archeological dig.
The next part – the Catawba Indian Nation Greenway Trail, also part of the Carolina Thread Trail – puts you in dense forest hugging the banks of the river, which is undeveloped on both sides. To gaze at the quiet, but mighty river, undisturbed by modern life, is to take a trip to a simpler time. I found it to be mesmerizing and enchanting.

We hiked about half of the out-and-back trail before turning back. The going is easy – just a few rolling hills and rocks and roots to contend with. Along the way we stumbled on all sorts of natural treasures – from turtles to butterflies to snake skins and a critter skull. Also, as is our modus operandi, we sought out and spent time rock-hopping in the creek.

I will say the spider webs along the trail were abundant. Which is just to say proceed with a keen eye and carry a stick to clear them as you walk. There are benches along the way to take breaks. Also of note, bathrooms are located in the Cultural Center along with a gift shop and historic exhibits. Definitely swing through the culture center as it has some really neat artifacts on display. Entrance is free of charge.

All in all, a lovely morning retreat. We will certainly do this trip again.

To get there:
Park at the Catawba Nation Culture Center, located at 1536 Tom Steven Road, Rock Hill, SC 29730. To get there, take I-77 S to exit 79 and turn left onto Dave Lyle Blvd. There are plenty of signs to the Culture Center once you get off the highway. Park at the Culture Center. Swing through to look at artifacts and begin the trail out back. The first leg takes you down to the river. When you reach the story circle with rows of benches facing the river, take a left through some gate posts to join the Nation Greenway Trail, which is 1.6 miles from end-to-end. To end at the Catawba Government Center, take the Loop Trail west .3 miles.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Water bottle: A must-have for any hike. You don’t need to pack extra; you can refill at the visitor center when you finish your hike.
  • Snacks: Throw in a granola bar, trail mix or crackers. It buys you time on the trail when your tank starts running on empty.
  • Backpack or bag: Something lightweight and comfortable to carry your essentials.
  • Bug spray: We didn’t see many mosquitoes, but ticks are always a threat.
  • Shoes: If you plan to do a little rock-hopping, consider Keen sandals water shoes you can hike in. Otherwise, comfy sneakers will suffice.
  • Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses: I pack ‘em everywhere we go, though the canopy was thick enough on this hike we didn’t need any of them. 

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Urban Excursion: Latta Park

I sometimes find that very rewarding adventures can take place close to home and without covering a lot of ground. Today’s “urban excursion” is anchored at Latta Park in the Dilworth neighborhood, close to uptown.

We loaded our bikes and drove over, parking in the spaces across from the picnic pavilion at the west end of the park. We hopped on our bikes and bypassed the playground to follow the paved trail through the natural area that hugs the creek.

This easy stretch is about a quarter-mile long and includes some clearings with easy access to the creek bank, where we stopped to rock-hop and search for critters.

We continued toward Dilworth Rd. and the big, yellow trolley track sculpture. You have to weave around the intersection, but there are ramps and a designated crossing area that take you to a continuation of the trail on the other side of Dilworth Rd. Follow the trail up behind St. Patrick Cathedral where there’s a gaga ball pit and more playground equipment.

After a round of gaga ball, we cruised up to Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt for a quick treat just a few blocks away on a fairly protected route. To get there, take Pierce Street, the road that dead-ends at the start of the paved trail behind St. Patrick’s, to Kenilworth, where you take a right and go two blocks to the Kenilworth Commons shopping center. Pull in the driveway and Menchie’s is at the back of the parking lot to your left. We’ve also done this route with a donut stop at Duck Donuts, also in the same shopping center.

Refreshed, we headed back to Latta Park the same way we came, stopping this time to play on the playground equipment and in the sprayground, which runs from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. from Memorial Day to Labor Day. The park also has restroom facilities.

All in all, a fun way to spend the morning!

How to get there: Latta Park is located at 601 East Park Avenue, Charlotte, NC 28203 in the Dilworth neighborhood just a couple miles outside of uptown.

Don’t forget to take:
  • Water and snacks: You’re not going far, but keep the essentials handy.
  • Bikes and helmets: It’s an easy, pleasant ride, but also doable by foot if you’d prefer to stroll.
  • Ball: Bring your own bouncy ball if you want to play a game in the gaga ball pit.
  • Shoes: If you plan to do a little rock-hopping, consider Keen sandals water shoes you can hike in. Otherwise, comfy sneakers will suffice.
  • Ice cream money: A little sweet treat can be very refreshing!
  • Swim suits and towels: In case you want to take advantage of the sprayground.
  • Bug spray, sunscreen, hats and sunglasses: I pack ‘em everywhere we go.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Landsford Canal State Park: Frogs, Lilies and an Old Canal

Someone recently asked me for my thoughts on Landsford Canal State Park. We hadn’t been – hadn’t heard of it, actually – so I put it at the top of the list for our next outing. And I’m glad we did. It was well worth the easy hour drive down I-77 and we were rewarded with a number of fun discoveries.

This South Carolina State Park is situated along the banks of the Catawba River. Directions are well marked once you get close, with a big welcoming sign at the entrance. There’s plenty of parking, along with bathroom facilities, a visitor center and gift shop. I’m sure it gets crowded on pretty weekends – or when the spider lilies are in bloom (more on that in a minute) – but we had the place almost to ourselves on a weekday summer morning.

There is an old-school playground just in front of the parking area, which was convenient for letting the kids get the car-ride wiggles out while I packed our hiking bag with water bottles, snacks and other necessities. 

The river is impressive from this vantage point – wide, but relatively shallow and dotted with huge boulders. There are three hiking trails: Canal Trail (1.5 miles one way), Nature Trail (0.6 miles one way) and Eagle Point Trail (0.2 miles one way). All are flat, natural-surface, easy trails. The biggest obstacle is a root here and there.

We chose to start on the Nature Trail, which hugs the river until it meets up with the Canal Trail about three-quarters of a mile in. We were impressed by 1) the number of frogs we saw (some as small as a fingernail to some as big as a baseball . . . and colors ranging from yellow to red to brown) and 2) the opportunity to climb down the banks in certain spots and rock-hop in the shallow water.
At the end of the Nature Trail is an overlook that allows for an impressive display of the largest known stand of the rocky shoals spider lily, a flower species found predominantly in the Southeast. Though they weren’t in bloom when we were there (peak bloom season is May and June), the waterscape was breathtaking.

After a quick break at the overlook, we joined up with the Canal Trail, so named because it follows the route of the Landsford Canal, which was built in the 19th century to bypass the rocky rapids of the Catawba River. Along the trail are well-preserved remains of the canal system that made the river commercially navigable from 1820 to 1835. It is fascinating to see the remnants – including bridge foundations, culverts and locks – up close, and to read the information boards explaining their functionality throughout the hike.

On the way back, we stuck to the Canal Trail to cover some different ground and give us the opportunity to see the canal remains we missed on the Nature Trail on the way out. With river playtime, frog-chasing and vine-swinging stops along the way, we spent a little over two hours on the trail.

We opted to eat the lunch I packed on the way home because we were hot and a little worn out, but I noted more than a dozen picnic tables, some under shelters, in the playground/parking area that would make for a fun extension to the day’s excursion.

Now I can report back to my friend that we found Landsford Canal State Park to be a fun trip worth taking!

How to get there:
Landsford Canal State Park is located at 2051 Park Dr., Catawba, SC, 29704. Take I-77 South to exit 77 onto US-21. Take a left on S. Anderson Rd. and go 10 miles. Turn left on Landsford Rd. You’ll see the park entrance signs just under two miles down the road.

Don’t forget to pack:

Cash: South Carolina state parks charge an entry fee for guests. You’ll need $5/adult, $3.25/S.C. senior, $3/children 6-15, and children under six are free. Bring cash for the self-serve envelope kiosk at the entrance. Just drop your money in the box and hang the punch-tag from your rear-view mirror.

Water bottle: A must-have for any hike. You don’t need to pack extra; you can refill at the visitor center when you finish your hike.

Snacks: Throw in a granola bar, trail mix or crackers. It buys you time on the trail when your tank starts running on empty.

Backpack or bag: Something lightweight and comfortable to carry your essentials.

Bug spray: We didn’t see many mosquitoes, but the gnats were relentless. Plus, ticks are always a threat.

Shoes: If you plan to do a little rock-hopping, consider Keen sandals or water shoes you can hike in. Otherwise, comfy sneakers will suffice.

Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses: I pack ‘em everywhere we go, though the canopy was thick enough on this hike we didn’t need any of them.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Lake Norman Gem

You know the feeling of finding a dollar in your pocket or a perfect shell on the beach? That’s how I feel when I discover a new trail. I get excited at the prospect of expanding our Charlotte playground. Recently, we sought out a trail on Lake Norman in Cornelius that a friend from church had mentioned, and were exceedingly pleased.

The mostly flat, two mile (one way), natural surface trail hugs the shore of quiet stretch of the lake behind the Victoria Bay neighborhood. The biggest obstacles were roots here and there. It was perfect for three beginner mountain bikers and me hiking along beside.

The shady trail felt secluded and peaceful as we enjoyed song birds and the hum of cicadas. There were several breaks in the trees where we could stop to explore the banks of the lake, as well as a couple of benches to enjoy a rest if needed.

Since there’s no parking at the trailhead or along the trail, we parked at the Lake Norman Y, just a few blocks away. Which meant we could also go for a swim at the outdoor Y pool to cool down when we returned!

The out and back was lovely and, to cap it off, there’s Carolina Cones conveniently located blocks from the Y for a quick stop on the way home!

How to get there:

Bike path to from the Y to Church St.
There’s no parking at the trailhead or along the trail, so to get there, park at Lake Norman YMCA. Looking at the front of the Y, there is a short, paved walking/biking trail to the left at the back of the parking lot. Take that to join Church Street and take Church a few blocks to Washam Street, where you’ll take a right. Shortly after Washam Street curves sharply to the left, you’ll see the trailhead on your right (it starts at a wooden footbridge 20 yards into the woods). Coordinates are 35 degrees 29’17”N 80 degrees 51’ 46” W if you want to plug it into GPS. From the Y to the trailhead is just over half a mile.

Don’t forget to take:

Bikes and helmets and/or comfortable shoes: The terrain is easy; wheels or sneakers will do the trick.

Water and snacks: Always keep the essentials handy. You can refill water at the Y.

Swim suits and towels: Consider timing your hike such that you can take a dip in the Y pool when you’re done.

Ice cream money: A little sweet treat can be very refreshing!

Bug spray: Mosquitoes and gnats weren’t bad, but ticks are always a threat.

Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses: I pack ‘em everywhere we go, though the canopy was thick enough on this hike we didn’t need any of them until we went swimming.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Hopscotching Dutchman’s Creek

Like creek-crossings? Our 6-year-old thinks they are exciting, and so do I. Traversing rocks through a gentle trickle of water adds an element of challenge and intrigue to a good hike. With that in mind, I searched the catalogue and decided on checking out part of Dutchman’s Creek trail, an 11-mile, natural surface, out-and-back hiking trail at the southern end of Uwharrie National Forest, about 90 minutes east of Charlotte, near Albemarle. 
Early Saturday morning, we grabbed breakfast, packed the car and headed out for our adventure. The ride is easy: Just hop on Albemarle Road. Once you get past the Charlotte city stoplights, it’s a fairly open cruise through the small towns of Midland, Locust, and Red Cross (see "How to get there” below).
About a mile after you cross the Pee Dee River, there’s a gravel parking lot on your left, marked with a Uwharrie National Forest sign. The main lot holds about a dozen cars, but you can make your own space in a clearing beside the lot if it’s full.
Grab your water bottle and snacks. There is an information kiosk and a sign marking the trailheads. Follow the yellow blazes (spray-painted on the trees) to take the Dutchman’s Creek trail.  
The trail is well-worn and well-marked. It winds through a gorgeous, dense green forest. For the most part, it is flat, with a few rolling hills, but no serious climbs. There are a few rocky traverses, but mostly the path is packed dirt. There are mile-marking signs every half-mile.
About three-quarters of a mile in, we encountered our first creek crossing. It’s no more than 4-feet wide where the trail hits the creek, and there are plenty of rocks to form a “bridge.” But the creek makes a serpentine curve at the crossing, making it perfect for exploring a stretch of its banks for frogs, fish and treasures. We spent about 30 minutes jumping in, over and around the creek before marching on. We even found an “abandoned” turtle shell!
Over the next mile and a half we enjoyed shaking smaller trees to shower ourselves with cooling raindrops left from storms the night before. There are a number of large fallen trees with massive exposed root structures that make for exciting exploration. We counted a number of bugs, spiders and beetles along the way.
Then, just after the 2-mile mark, we were rewarded with a stretch of trail that hopscotched back and forth across a handful of creek crossings. Again, none were more than 6-feet wide and all were easily passable for our three-year-old when we held hands. We spent time here looking for critters and also scoping out some rugged campsites that look to be used regularly by folks passing through.
This is where we turned back, though the trail went on for 9 more miles and I hope to explore more of it next time we visit. We love to do loops because you’re not covering the same ground twice, but there was enough to see and do along this trail that it was equally enjoyable on the return stretch.
Altogether, we spent about three hours on the trail. We had packed a picnic lunch for the ride home, but rewarded ourselves on the drive with a stop at The Sundae Shop in Midland, just over 20 miles outside of Charlotte, for a well-deserved and wonderfully delicious milkshake.
This was a fun hike, good for all ages, and especially kids (and kids at heart) who enjoy a good creek-crossing.

How to get there:
The trailhead is in a Uwharrie National Forest parking lot just east of Albemarle. To get you to the general direction, enter Dusty Rock Drive, Mount Gilead, NC 27206 in your GPS. You’ll take NC-27 (Albemarle Road) most of the way, with one right turn onto Main Street (Highway 24/27) about 7 miles before your destination. Dusty Rock Drive will be on your right after you cross the Pee Dee River. Go another mile and the parking lot will be on your left.
Don’t forget to pack:
Water: Take filled water bottles for the hike and a supply of water to refill when you return to the car. There are no water sources at the trail head.
Snacks: Throw in a granola bar, trail mix or crackers. It buys you time on the trail when your tank starts running on empty.
Backpack or satchel: Something lightweight and comfortable to carry your essentials.
Trail map: This is a well-marked trail, but it's always good to have one to reference when you get there. Here's one you can print.
Bug spray: We didn’t see many mosquitoes, but the gnats were relentless. Plus, ticks are always a threat.
Shoes: Keen sandals or hiking boots are best. You don’t have to get your feet wet crossing the creeks, but you may find you want to!
Small hand towel or handkerchief: Handy for wiping sweat from your brow.
Change of clothes and shoes: You may not get wet crossing creeks, but it can be still in the dense forest and, depending on the heat and humidity, you may find you’re soaked in sweat coming out.
Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses: I pack ‘em everywhere we go, though the canopy was thick enough on this hike we didn’t need any of them.

\ˈblāz\ verb: Mark out a path or route; pioneer

We're a family of 5 native Charlotteans who love fresh air and discovering fun, active things to do in and around the city we love to call home. Here, we document our adventures with helpful tips to take the guesswork out of blazing trails to new destinations. Join us in enjoying all that Charlotte and the surrounding area has to offer. Blaze a new trail today with our first adventure review of Dutchman's Creek Trail.

Happy trails!