Thursday, September 28, 2017

Books in Parks: Brilliant and Fun!

Genius. A combination of fresh air, reading and a stroll (or hop, skip and jump) through the park. All the perfect ingredients for a fun, engaging and enriching activity with the kids. This is StoryWalk, a collaboration between the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation and Read Charlotte, which debuted at Independence Park this week.
The concept is both brilliant and simple: A children's book is displayed page-by-page on laminated posts along a paved walking path. To read the story, you follow the trail. And each sign offers Active Reading techniques to help improve vocabulary, language skills and reading comprehension. There's a scavenger-hunt element that keeps the kids on their toes.
The inaugural book on display is Wolfie the Bunny, by Ame Dyckman. Younger kids will enjoy hearing you read the story as they bound between the signs. Beginner readers will enjoy the challenge of reading it themselves. And older kids, along with their younger peers, can engage with the Active Reading prompts that accompany each page.
New StoryWalks will be added in November 2017 and March 2018.
It's a novel and delightful way to enjoy reading as a family. As an adult who loves to read but also sometimes struggles to sit still, now I wish they'd make a StoryWalk for grown-ups!
How to get there:
Independence Park is located at 300 Hawthorne Lane, Charlotte, NC, 28204. The StoryWalk starts at the playground and winds its way along the walking path toward Hawthorne Lane away from town and ends back at the playground. Here's a park map.
Don't forget to pack:
  • Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses: Independence Park offers little shade, especially along the walking path.
  • Water and snacks: There's a great playground at the park if you want to stay and make an afternoon of it.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Like a Kid in a Cotton Candy Factory

Spin-your-own cotton candy. A gumball machine as big and bright as the family Christmas tree. Saucer-sized lollipops. A kaleidoscope selection of confections from wall to wall. That's what you'll find at the Cotton Candy Factory, a bright and cozy candy shop on the idyllic small-town Main Street in historic downtown Belmont, just over 20 minutes from uptown Charlotte. And the cherry on top? It's all for a good cause.

We don't frequent candy shops, but the signboard out front welcoming us in to spin our own cotton candy was too intriguing to pass. Inside, we found a magic sugar wonderland, complete with a cloud of pink cottony goodness we made ourselves.
You'll find the cotton candy machines and someone eager to help you use them at the check-out counter at the back of the store. It costs $3.50 per cotton candy cone you spin yourself. There are also shelves of prepared cotton candy containers in all shades of the rainbow that make for good gifts.

The Cotton Candy Factory was established by Holy Angels, a non-profit that provides specialized care for children and adults with mental, physical and developmental disabilities. The shop's profits go to support Holy Angels' mission. It also employs some of the people Holy Angels serves.

Why cotton candy? Not only is it a fun treat for kids of all ages. Holy Angels chose the theme to pay homage to the cotton industry that helped build Belmont for many years.

The store is open from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Saturday and closed on Sunday. You can park in one of the on-street spots on Main St., or in a municipal parking lot just across the street (access the lot from Glenway St.).

Once you've indulged, run off the sugar high at Stowe Park right next door. The park sports a playground, bathroom facilities, a walking path, picnic tables and a gazebo. The park is adjacent to two railroad tracks -- one active and one retired. There's a parked train car on the retired track that is fun to explore up close. And if you're there a while, you're likely to see a real train roll through town on the active track.

If you're feeling especially adventurous (or hopped up on sugar), take an urban hike on the Carolina Thread Trail Belmont to Cramerton Sidewalk Connector. This easy 1.3-mile (one way) sidewalk trail connects the towns of Belmont and Cramerton within Gaston County. It runs along S. Main St. and Eagle Rd. You'll see a Carolina Thread Trail sign just past the train tracks between the Cotton Candy Factory and Stowe Park.

This is a fun, novel excursion, sure to delight both kids and adults looking to get out and do something a little different.

How to get there:
The Cotton Candy Factory is at 21 N. Main St., Belmont, NC 28012. Park on Main St. or in the municipal parking lot just across the street from the Cotton Candy Factory by the train tracks. Access the parking lot from Glenway St.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Your inner child. Or a kid you know.
  • Money: Candy starts as low as a quarter for the gumball machine. A spin-your-own cone of cotton candy is $3.50.
  • Water: To take the edge off your sugar high. And to stay hydrated while you play.
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen: Stowe Park does offer some, but not complete shade. The sidewalk connector trail will leave you exposed as well.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Kings Mountain State Park

Fall is in the air! Which means it's an awesome time to get out the door on a crisp morning for an invigorating hike in the woods. But, let's be honest. It's also football season and there are games that need watching and teams that need cheering come afternoon. This is when it's nice to take a fun morning outing and be back in time to settle in with your favorite team.
Kings Mountain State Park is a great destination for doing just that. A few miles down I-85 from Crowders Mountain, it takes less than an hour to get there. And when you're there, you have a number of fun options for exploring.
I recommend starting at the Living History Farm, a replica of a mid-19th century Yeoman Farm. The farm has a two-story farmhouse, barn, smokehouse, carpenter/blacksmith shop, sorghum mill and cooker, weave shop, corncrib, cotton gin and several other small dwellings -- all situated in a large field, making it easy to meander from one relic to the next. There are also live horses, a donkey, roosters and a very friendly farm cat. Bring change: You can feed the roosters and horses with feed from a gumball machine!
It's fun to wander around the buildings and imagine life there during the revolutionary era. There are also bathrooms on site.
From the farm, you can hop on the easy 1.5 mile, out-and-back natural surface Living History Farm Trail. The trailhead is on the opposite side of the street from the Living History Farm parking lot. Follow the yellow diamond blazes. The shady, rolling trail meanders down to a small lake with an impressive stone dam you can walk beside, then rock-hop in the nearby creek.
After heading back to your car, if energy levels and time allow, I highly recommend taking a short drive to the Kings Mountain National Military Park adjacent to the State Park. It's all connected by the same road; if it weren't for signs, you wouldn't know you'd left one for the other. (See the National Park map)
Park at the Visitor Center, where you can watch a short film and see an exhibit about the site, which is called the "turning point" of the Revolutionary War in the South, where, on October 7, 1780, Patriots won an hour-long battle that changed the course of the war.

From the Visitor Center, hop on the 1.5 mile Battlefield Trail. The trail is paved and easily accessible to all skill levels -- though it is on Kings Mountain, so it's got some steep hills to climb. The trail is well marked with information signs along the way that do an amazing job of taking you back in time to the day of the battle. I'm not a history buff, but standing on the site where this significant event in America's history occurred was captivating for me. I think you'll find it to be the same.
Overall, a fun way to spend the morning outdoors. And, you can be home in plenty of time for kickoff!

How to get there:
Kings Mountain State Park is located at 1277 Park Rd., Blacksburg, SC 29702. From Charlotte, take I-85 south to exit 8. Turn left onto Hwy 161. Go across the NC/SC state line and the park entrance will be on the right. Follow Park Rd. past the State Park Headquarters (a small wood cabin on your left) and take the first left onto the paved Group Camp Rd. There will be a sign at the turn directing you to the Living History Farm and another sign at the Living History Farm parking lot, which will be on your left. Access the Living History Farm trailhead across the street from the parking lot.

To continue to Kings Mountain National Military Park, return to Park Rd. and take a left. Follow Park Rd. a few miles. The National Park Service Visitor Center will be on your right.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Cash: There is a $2/adult (16 and older) fee for visiting Kings Mountain State Park. Pay by putting your money in an envelope in the kiosk at the Living History Farm parking lot and hang the punch tag on your rearview mirror. Also, take a couple quarters to purchase rooster and horse feed from the gumball machines. There is no fee for Kings Mountain National Military Park.
  • Shoes: Comfy sneakers will do.
  • Water: Stay hydrated. You can refill at the Visor Center.
  • Snacks or a picnic lunch: Take some fruit, trail mix or crackers to keep your energy up for exploring.
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen: The Living History Farm is wide open and bring on a sunny day. The Living History Farm trail and Battlefield trail are somewhat shady.
  • Bugspray: We didn't see any mosquitoes, but ticks are always a risk.
  • Backpack or small bag: Something lightweight and comfortable to carry your essentials.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Evergreen Nature Preserve: An East Charlotte Delight

Growing up, going to east Charlotte meant a trip to the ice skating rink at Eastland Mall. Not since then have I found such a delightful reason to visit the spaghetti junction of Central Ave., Sharon Amity and Albemarle Rd. Until now.

Tucked magically behind the Eastway/Sheffield Park neighborhood off Independence Blvd. is the Evergreen Nature Preserve, land protected and managed by Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation. This urban oasis offers the peace and tranquility of a national forest, just a short drive from uptown and a stone's throw from one of the city's major thoroughfares.

A hiking trail through the preserve is accessible from both the Sheffield Neighborhood Park, where there's also a playground, picnic shelter, and basketball and tennis courts, and the Norland Rd. entrance. From either trailhead, you can do a loop just over 1.25 miles long.

The natural surface trail is flat and easy. The tree canopy is thick and the shade is refreshing. Along the way we saw two box turtles, butterflies and caterpillars. We also enjoyed the hum of cicadas, the music of songbirds and the general sounds of nature insulated by the preserve from the den of city living.

Eastland Mall and its ice rink are long gone, but, thanks to Evergreen Nature Preserve, I've discovered a fun reason to delight in a trip to this particular area on the east side of town once again. I highly recommend you check it out, too.

How to get there:
Sheffield Neighborhood Park is located at 3100 Winterfield Pl., Charlotte, NC 28205. The trailhead is located behind the lower basketball court. To do a loop, take a left to follow the yellow blazes, then a right to follow the orange blazes back toward the park. (See trail map.)

The main Evergreen Nature Preserve parking lot (with restrooms) is located at 1336 Norland Rd., Charlotte, NC, 28205. Take the short paved trail to access the natural surface trail.

Don't forget to pack:
Shoes: The terrain is friendly; comfy sneakers will do.
Bug spray: We saw a handful of mosquitoes and ticks are always a risk.
Water: It's a relatively short hike, but stay hydrated. There are no facilities to refill at the park.
Hats, sunscreen and sunglasses: The tree canopy on the trail is thick, so you might not need them for your hike, but you will if you stop at the playground.