Thursday, January 25, 2018

New Bike Playground is Worth a Visit

As soon as I heard about Charlotte's new Bike Playground, I was hooked on the concept. It's both simple and innovative.
Dreamed up by Mecklenburg Public Health and Safety, funded by a grant from the Knight Foundation and brought to fruition in partnership with Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation, this miniature replica of real city streets offers a truly fun, protected place to ride and learn about bike safety.

We made it a priority to visit the Bike Playground, located at the Arbor Glen Outreach Center in West Charlotte, on ribbon-cutting weekend. And it was a hit.
The kids, who often create sidewalk chalk cities in the driveway, were tickled to be able to cruise around on realistic roads in their own pint-sized town. The legitimate road markings on a closed course are an way excellent to teach children -- and adults! -- about traffic safety. It's also just a really convenient and fun place to ride -- wide-open and unencumbered by vehicular traffic.
The course, which was built on and around basketball courts, sports about 0.25 miles of paved "roads" with virtually all of the street markings you might encounter on a drive through uptown. The space is set back from Clanton Rd., behind the Outreach Center. The surrounding park area includes an impressive playground, a half-dozen basketball courts and restroom facilities.
It's also adjacent to the Irwin Creek Greenway, which is a lovely, protected 2-mile riding, walking or jogging option if you get tired of riding in circles on the Bike Playground.
If you or someone you know is interested in learning to ride a bike, the Bike Playground will serve as a Learn to Ride workshop location. Information on the space will be available through the Arbor Glen Outreach Center and, soon, groups will be able to reserve it for classes and events through Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation.

The Bike Playground is free and open to the public from sunrise to sundown everyday. Make a trip to check it out; you'll be glad you did.
How to get there:
The Arbor Glen Outreach Center is located at 1520 Clanton Rd., Charlotte, NC 28208.
Don't forget to pack:
  • Bikes and helmets: Kids and adults will both enjoy the ride.
  • Water and snacks: It's easy to work up a sweat and an appetite on the course.
  • Sunscreen and sunglasses: There is no shade on the Bike Playground.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Find Serinity on the Broad River Greenway

I'm usually able to achieve some measure of serenity on even the most strenuous of trails. After all, that's part of what makes hiking fun for me: Getting away from the noise and stumbling on the kind of peace that only lives in nature.

A couple weeks ago, we discovered a trail where tranquility embraces you from the first step.

The Broad River Greenway, located in Boiling Springs, NC, just past Shelby about an hour west of Uptown Charlotte on US 74, is a natural surface trail that hugs the banks of the Broad River for about 4 miles. There are also a number of spoke and loop trails accessible from the main stretch.

The Broad River is wide and calm. It flows soothingly, punctuated by rock outcrops that stir up gentle whitewater here and there. The sounds of the water are a perfect complement to the easy terrain that ushers you along the greenway. Flanked by woods on one side and the river on the other, the path is flat, bright, and clear, adorned with benches and picnic tables along the way. There are several small beach areas, providing unobstructed access to the river.

From the parking area (which is equipped with bathroom facilities), you can access the Cottonwood Trail (1.8 miles, one way) by taking a left at the river, or the River Trail (2.2 miles, one way) by taking a right. Here's a trail map. Both are part of the Carolina Thread Trail.

I suggest taking the Cottonwood Trail (start at the information board next to the restroom in the parking lot), which begins with an interpretive trail and takes you by a kids' play area and historic homestead. Going that direction will also take you to a fishing pier.

It's worth noting that mountain bikers and horseback riders are welcome on the trails as well.

All together, this is a lovely outing from the word go. I highly recommend it if you're looking for some fresh air and serenity.

How to get there:
The Broad River Greenway parking area is located at 126 Broad River Dr., Shelby, NC 28152. The trailhead to the Cottonwood Trail is next to the information board beside the restrooms.

Don't forget to take:
  • Water: Stay hydrated on your hike. There are restroom facilities to refill.
  • Snacks: Throw in a granola bar, trail mix or crackers.
  • Backback or bag: Something lightweight and comfortable to carry your essentials.
  • Bug spray: Fend off mosquitoes and ticks.
  • Shoes: Comfortable sneakers or hiking boots.
  • Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses: The river is bright and the trail is only partially shaded.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Other Crowders Trails

I haven't written about Crowders Mountain State Park, yet, because it seems to me most folks have discovered it on their own, thank you very much. Given its proximity to Charlotte, Crowders Mountain is a super accessible -- thus, super popular -- destination for hitting some trails that end with a spectacular summit view. It's a great, local alternative to a trip to Western North Carolina when you have a hankering to be adventurous in the great outdoors.
Make no mistake, we love Crowders Mountain, and we visit its peak frequently. More often these days, though, we opt for other equally (if not more!) enjoyable trails and impressive summit views, also within Crowders Mountain State Park.
If you're familiar with the geography of the area, which is about 30 miles west of uptown Charlotte, you might know that Crowders Mountain is at the northern end of a small range that is bookended by Kings Mountain further south. In between is the Ridgeline Trail, an eight-mile (one way) natural surface trail that connects the two.
Leaving the Sparrow Springs Access parking area of Crowders Mountain State Park (as opposed to the Linwood Rd. Access parking area, which is closer to the peak of Crowders), you can hop on the first leg of the Ridgeline Trail by way of the Pinnacle Trail (orange circle blazes), a two-mile (one way) trail that takes you to the top of King's Pinnacle, which, at 1,705 feet, is the highest point in Gaston County.
The Pinnacle Trail is one of our favorites for three of reasons.
1) The Pinnacle Trail tends to be less crowded than the more popular Crowders summit routes. On a pretty spring day, you'll still need to arrive early to grab a parking space, but the trail meanders such that you're not stumbling on fellow hikers' heels at every step. Plus, there's more space at the summit to find an unpopulated spot to enjoy the views, take a picture and have a quiet moment of rest.
2) The trail itself, which is designated as "strenuous" thanks to the rocky terrain and stretches of steep ascent, is challenging and fun. It starts flat and smooth, providing a nice warm-up. Around a mile in, you're greeted with a large crop of boulders, perfect for climbing, exploring and rock-hopping. There are a few of these boulder-strewn sections over the course of about a half-mile. Then the terrain flattens as the trail steepens. The last section includes a few switch-backs and steep climbs over rocks and roots. The trail dead-ends at a wall of rocks you get to scale before you're rewarded with a remarkable 360-degree view.
3) Compared to the top of Crowders Mountain, the King's Pinnacle summit is spacious and sprawling. The landing area you first come to is sandy and ringed by rocky crags. This is a great place to stop for a spell, get a picture and have a snack. But don't settle in too long; there's more to explore. There are unofficial pathways to both the left and right of the main summit area. It takes some climbing and maneuvering, but going either way, you'll be rewarded with beautiful views and a sense of discovering uncharted territory. (NOTE: Always use extreme caution at the top of the mountain. Take your time. The ledges are steep and can be dangerous.)
On the way back down, we like to branch off of the Pinnacle Trail about 0.7-miles from the summit and take the Turnback Trail (white triangle blazes) back to the visitor's center and parking lot. The Turnback Trail is the same two-mile distance, but a little wider, gentler and less steep, which is a nice change of pace after the climb. Plus, it's fun to cover different ground.
When you're up for a mountain hike, Crowders Mountain State Park is a fantastic option. Consider taking the trails less traveled. You'll be glad you did.
How to get there:
The Sparrow Springs Access parking area is located at 522 Park Office Ln., Kings Mountain, NC 28086. The Pinnacle Trail trailhead is just to the left of the visitor's center. You'll start on the Crowders Trail (white diamond blazes) before turning left on to the Pinnacle Trail (orange circle blazes). To take the Turnback Trail back to the parking lot, follow the Pinnacle Trail back down the mountain, but veer right at the trail intersection to take the white triangle blazes. The Turnback Trail will bring you back to the southeast corner of the visitor center parking lot.
Don't forget to take:
  • Water: Keep hydrated. You can refill at the restroom facilities in the main parking lot.
  • Snacks: You'll enjoy a chance to re-fuel at the top.
  • Comfortable hiking shoes: Hiking boots or something supportive are preferable.
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen: It's especially wide open at the peak.
  • A light-weight bag: To carry your phone, camera and supplies.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Our Favorite Trampoline Park

The Charlotte area does not lack for indoor trampoline parks. Over the past five years or so, the bouncing warehouse phenomenon has taken root in the Queen City. Now, you can have your pick between a number of venues, from Sky High to Sky Zone, and Urban Air to Big Air.

Our favorite, though, is Defy Gravity in the University area. Here's why:

1) Its easy to get to. From Uptown, it's a straight, 15-minute trip up I-77 North to I-85 North. Take exit 43 for University City Blvd. toward NC-49/Ikea Blvd. After the exit, Defy Gravity is a little over a mile ahead on your right. The streets in that area are built for heavy traffic flow to accommodate Ikea and the surrounding big-box stores.

2) It's clean and simple. There are plenty of options for play in Defy Gravity, but it's not overwhelmingly loud, dingy, dark, irritatingly flashy or over-stimulating. You won't find arcades or a snack bar or extra-fee amenities -- which I think makes it a much more enjoyable experience.

3) What you will find at Defy Gravity is a football field's worth of trampolines, a ninja obstacle course, a dodgeball area, two basketball hoops and several large foam pits with a number of launching-off options (including a trapeze bar). There's also a 6-and-under corner reserved for the youngest bouncers that includes several trampolines and a small foam pit area. You pay one fee and get access to it all. There's also no waiting in line for harnesses, amusement games or junk food.

4) The staff is attentive. There are several "flight crew" members, as they are called, monitoring the trampolines and foam pits at all times. They keep an eye out for unsafe behavior. Plus, the staff at the check-in counter are friendly.

5) The prices are reasonable. And they run specials. You pay by the hour, 1.5 hours or 2 hours. See prices and hours.

6) What really keeps us coming back is the Kid Jump hour from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. weekdays where only kids 6 and under are allowed and adults jump free (adults also jump free with a paying child through noon weekdays). It's a good deal, especially since this tends to be a much less crowded jumping experience for the whole family. If you've got kids 7 and over, getting there right at 10 tends to be manageable from a crowd standpoint, too. Keep in mind that rainy days and school holidays can be more popular than others. In the summertime, there are often camp groups as well.

A couple of things to note:
As of recently, Defy Gravity requires visitors wear their grippy socks (socks from other trampoline parks are not allowed), so you'll have to purchase a pair for each jumper the first time you go. Those cost $3. Make a note to pack them the next time you go so that you don't end up with more pairs than you need!

I recommend filling out the online waiver before you go. This will save you time at check-in. And it's good until the kids turn 18. You can also purchase tickets online, but I find it's just as easy to do so at the desk when you arrive. That way, you don't have to pay the online fee -- and you don't miss out on jump time if you happen to be running late for the slot you purchased.

I also recommend aiming to get there at least 15 minutes before the hour. That gives you time to get through the ticket line (which can be long, depending on when you go) and take a quick restroom break before stashing your shoes and hitting the trampolines. Your time starts on the hour (or half hour) so might as well make the most of it.

I haven't been to all the trampoline parks in town, but I don't feel the need to explore much. We're quite happy with our experience at Defy Gravity. I think you will be, too.

How to get there:
Defy Gravity Charlotte is located at 8116 University City Blvd., Charlotte, NC 28213 next to a Target shopping center.

Don't forget to take:
  • Your Defy Gravity socks!: After you've purchased them the first time, you won't want to have to buy more.
  • Water: You're allowed to keep a water bottle on the side of the trampoline area.
  • Snacks: When you're done, you'll find you've worked up quite an appetite.