Thursday, October 26, 2017

Carolina Raptor Center: Whoooo knew?

Did you know it's a bit of a myth that owls are wise? Though majestic in their physique and really good at hunting, owls have relatively small brains and aren't all that good at problem solving. I learned that and some other really interesting facts at the Carolina Raptor Center. If you've not been, I recommend you check it out.

The Carolina Raptor Center is located at the Latta Plantation Nature Center and Preserve, which is home to some fun trails and activities (including the Historic Latta Plantation). It is a rehabilitation facility dedicated to the conservation of birds of pray. There you'll find more than 30 species of birds and the largest eagle aviary in the Southeast.

I suggest you start your adventure with a short hike in the Latta Plantation Nature Preserve. The 1.6-mile Shady Trail is a lovely, flat, gravel trail that loops the Carolina Raptor Center. You can access it by parking in the Carolina Raptor Center parking lot. The trailhead is a stone's throw from the Carolina Raptor Center entrance (see "How to get there" below). It's a beautiful, easy, peaceful walk through the woods that centers your mind on the natural habitat of many of the raptors you'll encounter.

Back at the Carolina Raptor Center, you'll enter through the education building to pay for admission ($12/adults; $10/seniors, teachers and military; $8/students 4 and older with student ID; free/children 3 and under and members). It may seem a bit expensive, but I believe it's worth the ticket price -- not just for what you'll encounter in the exhibits, but because the Raptor Center is a non-profit that relies on the generosity of individuals, corporations and foundations to advance its mission.

Once you're in, you'll follow the Raptor Trail, a fun, engaging and educational self-guided tour through the cages and exhibits. Over the course of about a half mile, the trail loops and winds its way around each species with informational placards along the way. The trail starts and ends at an activity area for kids.

There are also volunteers stationed throughout the center to offer demonstrations, hands-on activities and fun facts about the birds.

Between the nature hike and the raptor trail, this is a fun few hours out exploring the world with some exciting up-close encounters with some very impressive animals.
Visit the Carolina Raptor Center website for hours. They change seasonally.

How to get there:
Latta Plantation Nature Center and Preserve is located at 5226 Sample Rd., Charlotte, NC, 28078. To park at the Carolina Raptor Center, follow Sample Rd. about half a mile past the Latta Plantation Nature Center at the entrance of the park (on your right) and the maintenance building and raptor medical (center on your left). The Carolina Raptor Center will be on your left. You can't miss it; there's a large bronze raptor statue out front.

To get to the Shady Trail trailhead, take a left on Sample Rd. by foot from the Carolina Raptor Center parking . Go 0.2 miles and the trailhead will be on your left. Follow the orange triangle blazes.The trail loops the Carolina Raptor Center, so on your return, take a left on Sample Rd. to return to the parking lot.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Comfy shoes: Both the Shady Trail and Raptor trail are easy and flat.
  • Snacks and water: Stay hydrated and keep your energy up. You might also consider packing a picnic lunch. There are picnic tables at the Raptor Center.
  • Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses: The trails are mostly shady, but some stretches are not.
  • Bug spray: Mosquitoes weren't bad when we went, but ticks are always a threat.
  • Bag or backpack: Something light-weight to carry your supplies.
  • Park maps: You can get a Raptor Trail map at the Center, but may find it handy to have a copy of the Latta Plantation Nature Center and Preserve park map for your hike.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

2-Wheelin’ in the Queen City

Been a while since you’ve dusted off the bicycle in your garage? Consider this your invitation to find your helmet, pump up your tires and rediscover the joy of bike riding.

I know the challenges – especially with kids – of taking a two-wheel excursion. But, thanks to some visionary and innovative work by the City of Charlotte and awareness-raising organizations like Sustain Charlotte, it’s getting easier and safer.

In May 2017, the Charlotte City Council adopted the Charlotte BIKES plan, a blueprint for becoming an increasingly bicycle-friendly city by both expanding the city’s network of bicycle infrastructure and creating  culture that recognizes and welcomes the bike as a means of transportation for all.

Charlotte BIKES is a long-range plan (for example, it calls for the city to complete an additional 50 miles of bikeway facilities by 2020 and 200 more miles by 2040). But there are a number of bike-friendly options to help you hit the road today.

One example? Greenways.
By far the most family-friendly option, there are currently 37 miles of developed greenways in Mecklenburg County, and the network is growing. Paved greenways, like the Briar Creek and Irwin Street Greenways, offer safe, traffic-free, bike-friendly pathways through and around town.

If you’re up for venturing beyond the greenway system, there are a number of great resource to help you chart a safe course.

The City of Charlotte offers an interactive Charlotte bicycle map that identifies all of the greenways, off-street paths, bike lanes, signed bike routes and suggested bike routes. (Note: This can take a minute to load, but it's cool when it does.) 

And the Charlotte Center City website offers a page dedicated to biking in Charlotte. At the bottom, you can access maps of the best of suggested routes into and around uptown from different neighborhoods.

Beyond quiet neighborhood streets, I’m not ready to let the kids take to the open road just yet. However, the City of Charlotte is creating safer ways for bikes and cars to share the road.

You may have seen the bike lane-sharing road marking (also unofficially known as a “sharrow” due to the logo’s use of wide arrows combined with a bike symbol) that indicates where people should cycle and reminds cars to be mindful of bicyclists.

Or, a cycle track, which is a bike lane protected by a physical barrier from cars, parked cars and sidewalks. A completed cycle track block can be found at 12th Street between Brevard and Caldwell. A pilot cycle track is currently planned for 6th Street and along John Belk Freeway.

If you don’t have a bike, consider Charlotte B-cycle, one of the largest urban bike sharing systems in the Southeast. Register and rent one of more than 200 bikes from 24 stations strategically placed throughout Uptown and surrounding neighborhoods.

Once you’re geared up, Charlotte offers a number of fun programs and events throughout the year designed to encourage bicycling and make it fun, family-friendly and accessible.

One is Open Streets 704, which opens a car-free length of streets in a particular area of town for an afternoon for people-powered transportation, like walking and riding.

Or Bike! Charlotte, a couple weeks of bicycle-related events and promotions meant to encourage families, friends and colleagues to break out the bike and integrate it into their daily routine.

Or, Biketoberfest, an event that helps show how easy it is to bike places around town. Biketoberfest 2017 kicks off this Sunday, October 22 with the launch the Uptown protected bike lane demo. From October 22 to October 29, an entire lane of 6th Street from McDowell Street to Ray’s Splash Planet and Irwin Creek Greenway will be designated for bikes only. The demonstration will give you a chance to try commuting by bike through town the way city planners hope will someday be possible.

Riding bikes is not only fun, it’s good for you and good for the environment. It’s encouraging to see so many efforts toward making the bike a safe and accessible option. If it’s been a while, rediscover the joy of riding. We plan to check out the demo lane this weekend and hope to see you there, too.    

Don’t forget to pack
  • Helmets: Always wear one when you’re riding. Same goes for your kid. Always.
  • Bike lock: In case you want to park somewhere and wander for a while.
  • Reflectors and bike lights: Especially if you’re riding early in the morning or late in the afternoon.
  • Water: Stay hydrated
  • Before you go: Pump your tires and make sure your brakes are in good working order.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Down by the River: South Fork Trail

If you've been in Charlotte during the holidays, you've probably heard of McAdenville, otherwise known as Christmas Town, USA. For the month of December, the quintessential small town -- about 20 minutes down I-85 south from uptown Charlotte -- is wrapped and draped in millions of lights and Christmas decorations. For many folks, it's an annual holiday destination.

But I recently discovered a reason to visit McAdenville year-round. The South Fork Trail, part of the Carolina Thread Trail system, starts behind the McAdenville YMCA and hugs the bank of the South Fork of the Catawba River, connecting Christmas Town to the similarly quaint town of Lowell two miles away.

There are a number of things that make the South Fork Trail a compelling destination, including the trek under I-85 to start the hike.

The out-and-back, natural-surface trail, good for both hiking and biking, was first used by Native Americans. Then, in the mid-1800s, two mills were built along the same path. One was Pinhook Mill, so called because mill workers used bent textile pins to fish for lunch out the building's windows.

During the Civil War, Pinhook Mill produced cloth for the Confederacy. When a group of Union soldiers was dispatched to burn down the mill, mill superintendent William Sahms ran out to meet the troops. When he discovered they were led by his childhood Pennsylvanian neighbor, Sahms convinced the soldiers to spare the mill. The soldiers burned the nearby bridge instead. The stone pillars of that bridge remain in the river today.

Leaving the trailhead, you'll immediately sneak under the highway overpassing the South Fork of the Catawba River, which you'll skirt for the duration of the hike. Next comes an impressive train trestle, also straddling the river. From then on, it doesn't take long for the den of the highway to fade, giving way to the sounds of songbirds, crickets, the breeze in the trees and your own footsteps pounding the trail.

The trail is marked at the 0.5, 1.0, and 1.5 mile points and ends near the cul-de-sac of a residential neighborhood.

A mile in, you'll find Cable Point, a lookout area dedicated to Dave Cable, a former Catawba Lands Conservancy Executive Director and visionary.

The trail is also part of North Carolina Wildlife Federation's Butterfly Highway, a statewide network of native flowering plants meant to help restore native habitats to butterflies, bees, birds and other pollen- and nectar-dependent wildlife. The project is aimed at conserving and restoring areas impacted by urbanization and land-use change across North Carolina. 

While the trail is relatively flat, it is prone to flooding during heavy rainfall, so use caution after storms and showers pass through. The trail is also relatively remote. For your safety, walk with a friend.

Bonus tip: After your hike, consider treating yourself to something sweet at The Cotton Candy Factory in nearby Belmont.

How to get there:
Parking for the South Fork Trail trailhead is at 119 Willow Dr., McAdenville, NC, 28101. The parking lot and trailhead are well marked. Of note, the trailhead is adjacent to the R.Y. McAden River Access if you're interested in doing some paddling along the South Fork River Blueway.

Don't forget to take:
  • Shoes: Comfy sneakers will do.
  • Water: Stay hydrated. And bring a refill to leave in the car. There are no facilities along the trail.
  • Snacks: Keep your energy up.
  • Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses: The trail is relatively shady, but there are open areas.
  • Bugspray: Ticks and mosquitoes are always a threat.
  • Bikes and helmets: This trail is good for beginner mountain-bikers. There are a few roots and rocky traverses, but nothing too technical.
  • Canoe or kayak: There's a launch for the South Fork River Blueway at the trailhead parking lot if you want to do some paddling.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Get Lost! . . . On Purpose in a Corn Field

Corn mazes are a special kind of fun. They test your problem-solving skills (and patience!). They strengthen your team (or family) bond. They happen during a beautiful time of year, giving you a great excuse to get out and walk around in the fresh air. And, they give you a sense of accomplishment and bragging rights.

Ever thought of doing one, but not sure what to expect? Here's one recommendation.

This is the second year we've visited the Rural Hill Amazing Maize Maze. It's less than 30 minutes from uptown and easy to get to. They are offer both daytime and nighttime maze hours. Admission ranges from $8 (day maze for a child age 5-12) to $16 (night maze age 13+). (Visit the Rural Hill Amazing Maize Maze webpage for ticket prices and hours.)

When you arrive, you'll park in a well-marked field adjacent to the corn maze. Follow the signs to the ticket tent where you'll pay admission for the maze. They also sell refreshments (snacks and candy) and tickets for a hayride ($3/person). With your admission, you'll get a maze game board and golf pencil.

Make sure to take a bathroom break before you begin. The only restrooms are porta-potties, but they are clean and well maintained. There's also a hand-washing station available. They also have two large, covered picnic areas perfect for lunch or snack during your visit.

When you're ready, meet a guide at the maze entrance, where you'll get an orientation. Here's how it works: The maze is broken into a grid. Each square section has a numbered mailbox. When you find the mailbox, you'll get a piece of the puzzle to tape to the corresponding grid section on your map. The completed puzzle will show a picture of the maze, on which you can use your pencil to map out your escape. This year's maze is in the shape of a log cabin, similar to the real one you can find on the grounds of the Rural Hill farm.

At the start, you'll get a tall flag to carry with you. Staff members are always monitoring the field from a bridge over the maze. The flag enables them to follow your progress. If at any point you need help (even just a clue!) you can wave the flag and they'll send someone down to assist.

A few things to note . . . You don't necessarily have to find all the puzzle pieces to find the finish line. It's technically possible to make your way to the end without stopping at any mailboxes.

Also, throughout the maze, the pathway is marked with colored tape. The tape corresponds to the part of the picture (in this case, the log cabin) that you're in. For example, the door and windows may be marked by blue tape, while the cabin walls are marked by orange tape. This is only marginally helpful in finding your way to the finish line!

If you need a clue, you can make your way to the bridge and ask for help. You may also run into a staff members out on the course. Everyone there is very friendly.

During the course of the challenge, you'll probably swing from excited, to stumped, to encouraged, to frustrated, to motivated, to exasperated. But when you reach the finish line, you'll feel a well-earned sense of accomplishment. It is especially satisfying to ring the bell indicating you've done it!

So, give it a try. There are other corn mazes in town, but Rural Hill is a good, family-friendly place to start.

How to get there:
Historic Rural Hill is located at 4431 Neck Rd., Huntersville, NC, 28078. The entrance to the farm is well marked and it will be immediately obvious where to park when you arrive.
Don't forget to take:
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen: There's no shade out on the course.
  • Water: They have refill stations throughout the maze course. . . if you can find them!
  • Snacks or lunch: You might want to have a small snack on hand while you're in the maze. There are also lots of shady picnic tables for a picnic lunch when you're done.
  • Shoes: Comfy sneakers will do.