Thursday, December 26, 2019

Romare Bearden Park

If they gave awards for Charlotte’s local parks, Romare Bearden Park would easily earn “Most Compelling.” This 5.4-acre city pocket park gets its name from the Charlotte-born artist. And its planners were intentional in their artistic design of all of the park’s features.

When our oldest was a toddler, we’d come watch the trucks move dirt around this fenced-in city block and I’d wonder what could possibly take so long to construct a park. But one stroll around today will offer an appreciation for both its artistry and dynamism.

To start, Romare Bearden Park is situated at the foot of our burgeoning skyline. The view of the towering buildings here is exciting and impressive. I dare you to resist taking at least one picture.

But the true vibrancy of the park lies in the details. Its footprint is divided into six distinct sections that all flow elegantly from one to the other.

From the east end of the park (which borders Church St.) to the West (which borders Mint St.), there’s the Paris Memory garden and seating area, the Formal Oval, Madeline’s Garden, Maudell’s Garden, the Childhood Muse Plaza, and the Big Moon Green. At the heart of the park is a stunning, multi-level waterfall fountain.

The space we’re drawn to first – and where we usually linger longest – is the Childhood Muse Plaza on the north end of the park (which borders West MLK Jr. Blvd.). It is situated in front of the fountain and offers spray towers, rocks for climbing and jumping, several musical features, and one of the best city-scape views in the park.

We also enjoy the large, open green spaces, tiptoeing through the meticulous gardens, and walking along the walls that tie the park together.

Romare Bearden Park is a perfect gathering space for large, public events (see a line-up of formal activities offered through the year), a family picnic or a solitary lunch-break stroll. One of our favorite things to do there is get pizza from a nearby restaurant and eat on a wall by the fountain.

If you’ve not been to Romare Bearden Park, treat yourself to a visit. If you have been, take another trip with an appreciative eye for its compelling layout and design. If not an official award, Romare Bearden is most certainly deserving of locals’—and visitors’ – admiration and intrigue.

Note: Bathroom facilities are available at the park.

How to get there:
Romare Bearden Park is located at 300 S. Church Street, Charlotte, NC 28202. You can find parking on the street or in a nearby lot. Or, consider taking the light-rail train into town. The nearest stop is just a few blocks away.

Don’t forget to take:

  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen: Shade is limited here.
  • Water and a snack or picnic lunch: Plan to spend some time exploring.
  • Swimsuit and towel (seasonal): Playing in the water fountains is allowed.
  • Camera: You will want at least a photo or two.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

George Poston Park

File this under the category of “How Have We Not Been Here Yet?!” That’s exactly how I feel about George Poston Park, which someone casually mentioned to me not long ago. We recently checked out this Gaston County park, about 22 miles west of Charlotte in Lowell, NC, and are already looking forward to going back.

The appeal for us lies very specifically in the state-of-the-art asphalt pump track, one of only 10 of its kind in the whole United States. A pump track is a closed bicycling loop that gets its name from the way users are meant to pump the bike, rather than turn the pedals. The idea is that one can ride around the entire track by using momentum to maneuver the bike up and down the slopes and around bends without pedaling.
And I’m sure that’s a very fun challenge for “real” bike riders, but we very happily pedaled our way around and around the track for well over an hour on our visit, and enjoyed every minute. Taking a spin is kind of like riding your own personal roller coaster. As long as you’re following the flow of traffic, riders can choose the level of difficulty, bypassing some of the more technical turns by opting for the flat ridges.
The George Poston Park pump track is 10,000 square feet which can accommodate 20-30 users at one time, though it’s probably most enjoyable if you can visit at a non-peak time. The pump track is free and open to the public from 7 a.m. to sunset. It can be used for any non-motorized wheeled sport, like rollerblades and skateboards.
And while the pump track is definitely the reason we’ll go back, George Poston Park offers several other draws, including 10 miles of mountain biking/hiking trails, a small playground, an easy kid’s bike trail, picnic areas and restroom facilities.
For a short, pleasant hiking option, I recommend the 0.6-mile paved River Trail. This loop swings by the South Fork of the Catawba River, with a bench at an overlook.
At just under 30 minutes from uptown, George Poston Park is a wonderful option for active, family-friendly outdoor fun. After just one visit, we’ll go ahead and file this under “We’ll Be Back.”
How to get there:
George Poston Park is located at 1101 Lowell Spencer Mountain Road, Gastonia, NC 28056. The paved lot offers plenty of parking.
Don’t forget to take:
  • Bikes and helmets: Or any riding toys if you want to enjoy the pump track
  • Comfortable shoes: Hike or bike any of the 10 miles of trails
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen: The park is only partially shaded
  • Water: Keep hydrated; refill at the restroom facilities
  • Snacks or a picnic lunch: Picnic shelters and benches are available

Thursday, December 5, 2019

Go West, and Be Jolly

Here we go. Time to do Festive Things. I know. There's decorating and shopping and planning and entertaining and events and performances. . . But may I gently suggest that the most productive use of your time during this hectic holiday season might be doing something that yields no tangible results, offers nothing to check off of your "to do" list, and may (gasp!) gratify only you and some of the people closest to you.

Go ahead, block off a few precious hours and spend them doing something Simply Delightful with family or friends. If it's outside and gets you moving, all the better, I say.

Need ideas? Here are some you might not have considered -- all just west of uptown in and around neighboring Gaston County.

McAdenville Lights. . . On Foot!
For the month of December, McAdenville, NC, a quintessential small town about 15 miles west of Charlotte, transforms into a twinkling holiday wonderland. Every house, building, light post and tree is draped and wrapped in sparkling lights and Christmas trimmings.

Starting December 1, you can drive through “Christmas Town, USA.” But for the full sensory experience, consider walking instead.

Here’s what you get when you opt for a stroll: Enjoy the fresh air. Linger at your favorite displays. Hear the church bells and holiday music. Stop for hot chocolate at the town fire station. Share a friendly greeting with fellow revelers. And take advantage of abundant photo opportunities.

Here’s how to discover the magic of McAdenville on foot.

Charming Belmont
Downtown Belmont, NC, is postcard picturesque, complete with shops, restaurants, and an old city hall. This time of year, it is bedecked with lights and decorations for the Festival of Trees, which fill Main Street and adjacent Stowe Park. Grab dinner and take a stroll.

Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden Lights
The exquisite grounds at Daniel Stowe become even more magical at night when draped in the Mile of a Million Lights. Holidays at the Garden, complete with music, a fire, children's activities and model train displays, will delight revelers of all ages. Simply enchanting.

King's Mountain Trains
The Kings Mountain Museum is nestled in an old post office. Their collection -- free and open to the public -- showcases this tiny town's storied history. During the holiday season, the museum is filled with model train displays that wind their way through miniature snow-covered villages. This cozy exhibit will evoke joy and wonder for young visitors and maybe a touch of nostalgia for the rest.

U.S. National Whitewater Center Winter Wonderland
New this year at the U.S. National Whitewater Center are ice skating and a lights display. This sprawling outdoor adventure center is fun on any given day of the year, offering everything from whitewater and flatwater paddling, to hiking and biking, to ropes courses and ziplines. But, with the new seasonal activities, it's a particularly spectacular venue for some winter fun.

Here's what to expect if you go.

Want more ideas? Here are some closer to home.

Whatever you have on your list of things to do, go ahead and squeeze in -- or, better yet, prioritize! -- meaningful time together with family and friends doing something delightful this holiday season. When we get to the other side of December and all of its demands, this might just be the memory that lingers brightest.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

U.S. National Whitewater Center Dazzles and Delights

The verdict is in: The winter wonderland at the U.S. National Whitewater Center (USNWC) is every bit as cool as it sounds. This sprawling outdoor adventure center is fun on any given day of the year, offering everything from whitewater and flatwater paddling, to hiking and biking, to ropes courses and ziplines. But, with the new seasonal ice skating rink and lights display it's a particularly spectacular venue for some winter fun.

Unlike other commercial holiday pop-up attractions, the USNWC ice skating activity and lights display have a more enduring appeal. Nestled in the woods under an open sky against the backdrop of zipline towers and ropes courses, the rink offers a rustic vibe. With the wooden guardrails (devoid of billboard advertisements), the simple lights strung over the ice, the iconic Airstream refreshments truck, and glowing real-wood firepits, there's something decidedly different and more genuine about this winter sports experience. Kudos to the person on the concept planning team who made the refreshing decision to softly and subtly pipe in Mumford and Sons-genre music, rather than blasting sugar-sweet Christmas pop classics on repeat.

If you're considering a trip, here's what to expect.

The USNWC operates 365 days a year, with grounds and trails (weather permitting) open from dawn until dusk. There are dozens of activity options, many of which are available year-round (check the activity calendar for schedules). While some activities are free, like mountain biking and hiking, others require a pass. You can purchase single activity passes or all-access day passes. Activity costs vary.

A single-activity pass for ice skating costs $20, which includes skate rental. When you arrive, you'll be asked to fill out a waiver for each participant before you can purchase your pass, so plan in a few minutes for that.

The rink is located on the upper pond of the whitewater course. It offers 17,000 square feet of ice, featuring a skating track, a freestyle area, and a contained kids' space. The skate-up Airstream beverage cart, which serves hot and cold drinks, is located in the middle of the rink. Ice skating is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.

The light display is a half-mile walking trail through a series of nature-themed light installations by local artist Meredith Connelly. Designs include things like honeycombs, cocoons, crystals and mushrooms. The trailhead is adjacent to the skating rink. This activity is free and open to all ages. The lights run from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

I would suggest timing your visit for late afternoon. Skate until the sun goes down, then take a hike on the light trail to end the evening. Magical.

The whole experience is well organized and staff are noticeably friendly and helpful. I highly recommend a visit.

How to get there: The U.S. National Whitewater Center is located at 5000 Whitewater Center Parkway, Charlotte, NC 28214. NOTE: It is free to visit the USNWC, but parking is $6 per car.

Don't forget to pack:
  • $6 for parking
  • Tall socks
  • A childlike sense of glee and wonder

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Hidden Parks: Midwood Park

I've never been to Plaza Midwood without getting at least a little bit lost. While part of the neighborhood's charm lies in its tilted, looping and rolling street grid, it does make a visit there a kind of maze-like adventure. Which is why I always breath a little sigh of relief when we manage to find the park, located in the heart of the neighborhood. It's a fantastic little secret, and I sometimes wonder if the city planners conspired to keep it that way.

Midwood Park has a little something for everyone. The large, recently renovated playground caters to kids of all ages. Between the swings and the climbing structures, it'll keep them busy for hours.

There's a nice, covered picnic shelter that can be reserved for groups and parties, or serves as a nice place for a snack break on a hot, busy day.

At one far end of the park is an outdoor amphitheater, where concerts and events are frequently held. At the other end is a small, quiet community garden. And up the hill and along the perimeters of the park are a soccer/multipurpose field, tennis court and basketball court.

The parking lot is small, but there is plenty of space on nearby streets. Here's a park map.

I'd wager you're not likely to stumble on Midwood Park if you're not looking for it, but it is worth taking the time to find it when you want to try something new.

How to get there:
Midwood Park is located at 2100 Wilhelmina Avenue, Charlotte, NC, 28205.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Comfortable shoes
  • Tennis, basketball or soccer gear
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen
  • Water and snacks or a picnic lunch

Sunday, November 3, 2019

100 Charlotte Hikes

Welcome to the 100th blazeCLT post! In recognition of this milestone, I thought it would be fun – and, I hope, helpful – to compile 100 Charlotte hikes.

We’ve been on the majority of these and I’ve written about many. Most are within a relatively short distance from town, and all are close enough to make a day trip of it.

Charlotte and the surrounding areas offer so many opportunities to explore and enjoy nature. Perhaps this list will give you some ideas for your next outdoor adventure. And if you’ve got some recommendations of your own, please pass them along. We love to discover new places!

Happy Trails!

Nature Preserves
  • Big Rock Nature Preserve: A short, easy hike around giant, school-bus-sized boulders, nestled in the South Charlotte suburbs.
  • Chantilly Ecological Sanctuary: Informal dog-walking paths crisscrossing and looping a recently restored natural area with two large ponds.
  • Evergreen Nature Preserve: Several short loop options in an urban oasis just off Independence Blvd. in East Charlotte.
  • Latta Plantation Nature Center and Preserve: An easy loop through the forest, starting and ending at the Carolina Raptor Center.
  • McDowell Nature Center and Preserve: Seven miles of trails through woods and alongside Lake Wylie, including the Kingfisher Trail, which will take you to a waterfront deck. (Park website)
  • Reedy Creek Nature Preserve: Miles of easy, groomed trails with features such as a nature center, two ponds and several playground areas.
  • Ribbonwalk Nature Preserve: A hidden gem that offers several miles of flat, natural surface trails around ponds, through woods, and even over a small covered bridge.
Local Parks
  • Colonel Frances Beatty Park: An easy, 4-mile loop good for hiking and beginner mountain bike-riders.
  • Idlewild Road Park: An easy, 1.5-mile nature trail with several side spur trail options.
  • Independence Park: A 1-mile sidewalk trail winding through this historic pocket park. (Trail website)
  • Jetton Park: An easy, 1.5-mile paved loop walking trail through the park and by Lake Norman.
  • Latta Park: A very short, quarter-mile nature trail through the park and by the creek.
  • McAlpine Creek: A surface, gravel and paved greenway path that stretches three miles, and several miles of non-greenway nature trails.
  • North Mecklenburg Park: An easy, shady, 3.5-mile single-track loop through the woods.
  • Park Road Park: A loop walking path around the park’s duck pond and ball fields. (Park map)
  • Purser-Hulsey Park: A 1.5-mile natural-surface, gently undulating loop with two add-on loop options.
  • Renaissance Park: Six miles of hiking and mountain biking trails twisting through the park. (Park website)
  • Sedgefield Park: Approximately one mile of wide, paved walking trails that wind around the playground, across a bridge, past the basketball and tennis courts, and along the Dairy Branch Creek tributary.
  • Windsor Park: A short nature trail featuring 16 fitness stations.
Urban Excursions
  • Backyard Trail: A network of trails off Tyvola Rd. primarily used for mountain-biking (with some features and obstacles), but also good for an easy, urban escape into nature by foot.
  • Charlotte Rail Trail (Art Walk): A stroll south of uptown showcasing funky, urban art.
  • Charlotte Rail Trail (SouthEnd): An easy, flat paved trail from uptown to SouthEnd, good for strollers, bikes, scooters and feet.
  • Liberty Walk: A one-mile loop around uptown highlighting Charlotte’s historical role in the American Revolutionary War.
  • Trail of History: A 1.5-mile stretch of the Little Sugar Creek Greenway displaying a collection of bronze statues of key figures in Charlotte's historic growth and development.
  • Treasure Trees: A 2-mile loop in the heart of Myers Park featuring some of Charlotte's oldest, most impressive trees.
  • UNCC Botanical Gardens: A lovely, looping stroll through manicured natural areas in the middle of the college campus.
City Greenways
  • Briar Creek Greenway (Eastover): A short, paved 1-mile stretch running along the creek from the Mint Museum Randolph alongside the Eastover neighborhood.
  • Briar Creek Greenway (Myers Park): A 1-mile gravel nature trail off Colony Rd. behind Myers Park High School.
  • Clarks Creek and Mallard Creek Greenway: An easy, 5.7-mile (one way) paved, gravel and natural surface trail through the University area north of town. (Trail website)
  • Campbell Creek Greenway: A quiet, 1-mile paved greenway – great for bikes and strollers – at the northern end of the popular McAlpine Creek Greenway in East Charlotte.
  • Four Mile Creek Greenway: A 2-mile (one way), paved Matthews trail that threads its way along the creek between and through neighborhoods.
  • Little Sugar Creek Greenway South: A six-mile, traffic-free southern stretch of the Little Sugar Creek Greenway that runs from Tyvola to I-485.
  • Little Sugar Creek Greenway (Cordelia Park to 12th Street): A 1-mile paved section that provides connectivity between 12th Street/Alexander Street Park and Cordelia Park just north of town. (Trail map)
  • Lower McAlpine Creek, McMullen Creek & Four Mile Creek Greenways: A horseshoe-shaped asphalt, gravel, and boardwalk-surfaced greenway that runs 5.8 miles through south Charlotte. (Trail map)
  • Six Mile Creek Greenway: A 1-mile trail in the Ballantyne area that parallels the county’s southern border. (Trail map)
  • South Prong and West Branch Rocky River Greenways: Four miles of greenway trails and 5.17 miles of Overland Connectors along the South Prong of the Rocky River. (Trail map)
  • Toby Creek Greenway: A paved greenway that extends from Mallard Creek Greenway to University City Boulevard , providing connection to and through the UNC Charlotte campus. (Trail map)
  • Stewart Creek and Irwin Creek Greenways: A combined 2 miles of paved trails that wind through gorgeous, historic neighborhoods west of uptown.
  • Torrence Creek Greenway: A 2.3-mile paved trail that passes through stands of mature floodplain forest as well as dense thickets of shrubs and wildflowers. (Trail map)
  • West Branch Rocky River Greenway: A short, 0.8-mile greenway connecting Abersham Park to Fisher Farm Park in Davidson. (Trail description)
  • Andrew Jackson State Park (Lancaster, SC): An easy, 1-mile (one way) gravel/natural surface trail. (Trail website)
  • Anne Springs Close Greenway (Fort Mill): A number of easy-to-moderate trail options, including one over a swinging bridge.
  • Avon/Catawba Creek Greenway (Gastonia): A 2.4-mile paved trail lined with mature trees and winding alongside Catawba and Avon Creeks with a few small bridges crossings along the way (Trail website)
  • Baker’s Creek Greenway (Kannapolis): An easy, paved greenway loop that runs through residential areas, the business part of town, and Village Park.
  • Baker’s Mountain Park (Hickory): Nearly six miles of trails through 189 acres sporting the highest elevation point (1780 feet) in Catawba county.
  • Broad River Greenway (Shelby): A flat, natural surface trail that hugs the banks of the Broad River for about 4 miles.
  • Buffalo Creek Nature Preserve (Mount Pleasant): An easy, 2.1-mile (one way) natural surface trail covering an interesting mix of terrains.
  • Cane Creek Park (Union County): Several loop trail options around and on either side of Cane Creek Lake. (Park website)
  • Carl Spangler Trail (Shelby): A 1.2-mile (one way) gravel/paved trail along the First Broad River. (Trail website)
  • Catawba Indian Nation Greenway Trail (Rock Hill): A 2.5-mile natural surface trail that winds its way along the Catawba River through the Catawba Indian Nation Reservation.
  • Dan Nicholas Park (Salisbury): An easy, 2-mile loop trail beginning and ending at the park’s amusement attractions.
  • Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden (Belmont): A number of easy, flat trail options around the perimeter of the gardens.
  • First Broad River Trail (Shelby): A 1.5-mile natural surface trail that follows the First Broad River under a historic wooden railroad trestle and over the First Broad River via a 120-foot-long suspension bridge. (Trail website)
  • Founders Trail (Rock Hill, SC): A 2.3-mile natural surface trail along the Catawba River with a sidewalk connection to the Riverwalk: Piedmont Medical Center Trail and River Park. (Trail website)
  • Goat Island (Belmont): A short, wide, paved footpath that runs through the heart of Goat Island.
  • Historic Gold Hill: An easy 2.2-mile (one way) natural surface trail built on an old rail line that runs through the park and by historic structures.
  • Hornet’s Nest Council Trail (Statesville): A 2-mile (one way) natural surface trail that weaves through a 358-acre preserve protected by Catawba Lands Conservancy. (Trail website)
  • Lake Norman community trail: A mostly flat, 2-mile (one way), natural surface trail hugs the shore of quiet stretch of the lake.
  • Lake Norman State Park (Troutman): Several hiking options of varying lengths, including the easy, 3-mile Lake Shore trail. (Park website)
  • Lake Whelchel Trail (Gaffney, SC): A 6.7-mile, gently rolling, natural-surface loop trail along the banks of the lake.
  • Landsford Canal State Park (Catawba, SC): An easy, 1.5-mile (one way) trail along the banks of the Catawba River that passes by remnants of a 19th century canal system.
  • Lyle Creek Greenway (Conover): A 1.6-mile natural surface trail that follows the Lyle Creek and features both wooded and open field areas. (Park website)
  • Mineral Springs Greenway (Waxhaw): A 1.7-mile (one-way), natural surface trail that hugs the banks of a tributary Lee Branch of Twelve Mile Creek.
  • Mountain Island Lake Trail: A 1.5 mile trail along the Catawba River just below the Mountain Island Dam (Trail website)
  • Murray’s Mill Trail (Catawba): A 1.4-mile natural surface trail running along a farm on the south side of Murray's Mill. (Trail website)
  • Overmountain Victory Trail: Cowpens National Battlefield (Gaffney, SC): An easy, 1.6-mile (one way) rural trail through the historic Cowpens National Battlefield. (Trail website)
  • Pharr Family Reserve Trail (Midland): A 1.7-mile (one way) out-and-back walking and biking trail located on 66 acres of forested land preserved by the Catawba Lands Conservancy. (Trail website)
  • Reed Gold Mine (Midland): Two short loop trails that skirt the mining grounds.
  • Riverbend Farm Trail (Midland): An easy, 0.8-mile (one way) natural surface nature trail. (Trail website)
  • Riverwalk (Rock Hill): A paved three-mile (one way) trail that meanders (with some gentle undulation) along the banks of the Catawba River.
  • Rocky Creek Trail (Great Falls, SC): A 1.6-mile natural surface path that winds through land protected by the Katawba Valley Land Trust. (Trail website)
  • Seven Oaks Preserve (Belmont): A 2.8 mile (one way) flat, natural surface trail that hugs the banks of Lake Wylie, winding through hardwood forests and wildflower fields.
  • Sherman Branch Trail (Midland): Nearly 12 miles of twisting single-track trails good for hiking or mountain biking. (Trail website)
  • Stuart Cramer High School Trail (Belmont): A 1-mile (one way) trail that passes through a high school, wetland, playing fields and forested area. (Trail website)
  • South Fork Trail (McAdenville): A 2-mile out-and-back, natural-surface trail along the South Fork of the Catawba River.
  • US National Whitewater Center: 45 miles of single-track trails through hardwood and pine forests and alongside rivers, creeks, and ponds. (Facility website)
  • Waterford Trail (Rock Hill, SC): An easy, 1.5-mile natural surface wooded trail that follows Manchester Creek and the Catawba River. (Trail website)
Art Loeb Trail: Starts at Davidson River Campground in Brevard and stretches 30+ miles through Pisgah National Forest.
Carl Sandburg National Historic Site: Offers a number of trails, including the moderate, 1.5-mile (one way) Glassy Mountain Trail.
Catawba Falls: A 2.7-mile (round trip) forested trek to a series of Catawba River waterfalls.
DuPont Forest: 86 miles of trails, including the popular 3-mile Triple Falls Loop.
Frying Pan Mountain Lookout Tower: A moderate, 1.5-mile hike along a graveled service road to a 70-foot lookout tower.
Gorges State Park: Nearly 20 miles of trails of varying lengths and difficulty.
Graveyard Fields: A moderate, 3.5-mile loop trail through forest and meadow to several waterfalls.
Julian Price Memorial Park: Home to the 13.5-mile Tanawha Trail.
Lake James State Park: 25 miles of trails through the park and around Lake James.
Linville Falls: Approximately 5 miles of trails with several overlook options and one hike that ends at the bottom of the falls.
Mount Mitchell: Several trail options, including one to the pinnacle of the highest point on the East Coast.
Mount Pisgah: A challenging 2.3-mile (round trip) hike to the top of Mt. Pisgah off of the Blueridge Parkway.
South Mountains State Park: A challenging, 2.7-mile loop featuring steep inclines and a waterfall at the mid-point.
Stone Mountain State Park: 18 miles of trails, including the 4.5-mile Stone Mountain Loop Trail that traverses the summit of Stone Mountain and passes by a 200 foot waterfall.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Been There, Loved It: Our North Carolina State Parks Tour

Let me let you in on a couple of secrets: North Carolina is rich with beauty and intrigue beyond your wildest imaginings, and one of our state's greatest assets is a park system that preserves and showcases its natural splendor for all to enjoy.

I share this insight with the eager authority of a zealous, nature-loving tourist and outdoor enthusiast who, along with the family, has now visited all 41 of the North Carolina State Parks over the course of a year that took us to every corner and deep into the heart of our fair state.

After our family hike challenge in 2018, we wanted another goal and decided it would be neat to say we'd covered the state park circuit. Now, with every page of our park passports stamped, I'm even crazier about the natural wonders of the Tar Heel state and our time spent together exploring it.

Every step of our journey uncovered something new and exquisite.

Whether we were at the pinnacle of Mount Mitchell, the highest peak on the east coast at 6,684 feet, perched above an ocean of mountains as far as the eye could see, or at the tippy top of Sugarloaf Dune, just 55 feet above sea level at Carolina Beach, overlooking the Intercoastal Waterway, the views were magnificent.

Whether we were breathing the thick, sweet, salty air along the boardwalk trails through dense, lush, moss-draped swampland in the Coastal Plains, or the crisp, fragrant Frasier firs along mountaintop trails, the whole-body experience was stimulating.

Whether we were treading on hallowed territory that once played a role in the Underground Railroad, gaping at a 471-year-old longleaf pine, or touring any one of the impressive visitor center educational exhibits, the exposure was enlightening.

On our quest, we found ourselves kayaking through salt marshes, running along vast sand dunes, tubing down broad and winding rivers, paddling on shimmering lakes, traversing swinging bridges, hiking moss-carpeted trails, summiting mountains, and pausing in awe at thundering waterfalls. And, let me tell you, there was something fantastic, something magical about every state park that made each visit meaningful and worthwhile.

Of course, the destination is only part of the journey, and, with parks scattered from mountains to sea, taking this tour introduced us to back roads, small towns and slices of the state we hadn't visited, and probably otherwise wouldn't. There's a lot to be said for spending time together outside of our big-city bubble.

And, as was the case with our family hike challenge, this experience gave us an excuse to work toward a goal as a unit, to learn to be open to surprises and possibilities, to be present with one another, and to bond over shared experiences. That's perhaps, the greatest gift of it all.

Though, the kids would probably say that the passport prizes were a fun incentive, and I wouldn't disagree. This wonderful program rewards visitors for every 10 park stamps they get. And the gifts are cool: field journals, bandanas, hiking socks, backpacks, shirts and outdoor store gift cards. . . Another bonus feature of a solid park system.

So, the secret's out. North Carolina is spectacular and our state park system offers exceptional opportunities to experience its beauty. Now the question is which park will you visit first? This new North Carolina State Park super-fan now has 41 enthusiastic recommendations. Wanna go for a hike?

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Ridgeline Trail

A while back, I wrote about what I called the "other" Crowders Mountain trail. Most folks who visit the park are familiar with the hike to the top of Crowders, whether you take the long way or the short. But our trail of choice has been the Pinnacle Trail, which offers just as impressive (if not better) views along a beautiful, but slightly less popular (read: crowded) hike.

Today, I commend to you another "other" Crowders Mountain trail: The Ridgeline Trail. This Carolina Thread Trail is actually 12-miles long and runs from Crowders Mountain State Park to Kings Mountain State Park.

But, by no means do you have to do the whole thing to enjoy what the Ridgeline Trail has to offer. In fact, here's a wonderful, family-friendly option for a peaceful, moderate hike with a couple of fun features and overlooks along the way.

Start by parking at the Boulders Access parking area at the southern end of Crowders Mountain State Park, near the S.C. line (Note: There are three access points for Crowders Mountain State Park: Linville Road, Sparrow Springs and Boulders Access. Make sure you're explicit with your GPS.) The drive to Boulders Access is approximately 45 minutes west of uptown.

At Boulders Access, there's plenty of parking in a paved lot, a small visitor's center with bathroom facilities, and a picnic area. There's also a registration box and map kiosk at the trailhead. For your safety, fill out a registration form and leave a copy in the box before you begin your hike.

The trailhead is just beyond the picnic tables behind the visitor's center. From here, there are two good out-and-back hiking options, both of which follow the same trail and will reward you with a view and place to take a rest break at the turnaround point. The first is 3 miles (~1.5-miles one way), the second is 5 miles (~2.5 miles one way).

The first stretch of the hike is a 0.25 spur trail that will intersect with the Ridgeline Trail where you can take a left to head toward South Carolina and Kings Mountain, or a right to head north toward Crowders Mountain.

For this hike, take a right.

This gravel/natural surface trail is rated moderate, alternating between gentle undulation and a steady, gradual climb. Follow the red triangle blazes and look for half-mile markers along the way.

At the 0.8 mile mark, you'll have to cross a road. Use the crosswalk and caution to cross safely.

About a mile and a half from the trailhead, you'll reach Buzzard's Roost, a giant outcropping of boulders. This area offers several overlook options and a landing for taking a rest. Kids will enjoy exploring the big rocks and you might catch a glimpse of some rock climbers.

Turn back here, or continue along the Ridgeline Trail for another mile through Piedmont hardwood forest to another overlook (especially impressive in fall/winter). This turnaround point is a large, open area marked with a bench for taking a snack break.

Of course, you can continue on for many more miles, or head back to the parking lot from here.

If you're planning a trip, note that the leaf forecasts call for peak color in this area by early- to mid-November, which will make the hike particularly rewarding.

However far you care to hike and no matter when you plan to go, you'll find the Ridgeline Trail to be a pleasant option for a refreshing walk in the woods.

How to get there: The Boulders Access Area of Crowders Mountain State Park is located at 108 Vandyke Rd., Kings Mountain, NC 28086.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Comfortable shoes: Hiking boots or something sturdy to traverse rocky terrain and short climbs.
  • Water: Refill at the restroom facilities.
  • A day pack: With snacks or a picnic lunch.
  • Hiking stick: Optional, but helpful.
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen: The hike is shady, but there are open areas along the way.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Yes, please!

Did someone say more funding for parks?

Yes, please! . . . But, what’s the deal?

In the upcoming election, voters will decide whether to support a quarter-cent local sales tax increase. This would generate $50 million a year to be split between arts, parks and public schools.

At a glance, these strike me as important causes and a worthwhile investment. But I know there are consequences to raising taxes, folks who oppose doing so, and many more areas that could use additional funding.

So, I’ve been doing some homework. I’ve talked to community leaders and elected officials. I’ve studied the arguments for and against this referendum.

Here’s why I plan to support it.

The basics 
In a nutshell, if the referendum passes, about $22.5 million a year would go to support and expand access to arts and cultural programs; $17 million would go to updating and enhancing the parks and greenway system; $8 million would go to providing public schools greater financial support for teacher assistants, school counselors and psychologists; and $2.5 million would go to arts and parks projects for smaller towns outside of Charlotte.

The sales tax increase from 7.25% to 7.5% would amount to an extra nickel for every $20 spent.

Quality of life
I love my hometown, but goodness knows Charlotte has a mountain of needs. We don’t have enough affordable housing. There are far too many high-poverty schools and not enough equality within our school system. And, economic mobility – or lack thereof – remains a critical challenge for many of our citizens.

Will spending more on the arts, parks, and schools solve these problems? No, not directly.

But it’s because of these problems, not despite them, that we should provide greater access to these valuable resources. An investment in arts, parks and schools is an investment in what invigorates the human spirit.

Consider the poignant example of our friend who, with his young son, experienced homelessness for a time not long ago. Reflecting on that period of instability in his life, he mentioned to me how the two of them would spend hours at the baseball field playing catch and hitting balls. The local park was where he could provide some semblance of normalcy for his son, gain a sense of balance for himself, and enjoy some precious moments of unencumbered time together as he worked to get back on his feet.

Or consider the perspective of local immigrants. According to an article in the Charlotte Observer, Banu Valladares, executive director of the Charlotte Bilingual Preschool, told county commissioners that more education and arts funding provided by the sales tax increase would help give immigrants a sense of belonging in their new neighborhoods.

“Our communities are afraid to get out,” she said. “Some of them can’t drive, and if you’ve got parks in your neighborhood and opportunities through your parks to get out and do things, you actually can get healthier. Our children are not moving as much as they need to be.”

Arts programs, recreational facilities and well-resourced schools provide opportunities for all of us to enjoy what it means to be fundamentally human. They can be a refuge, a creative outlet, an escape, a stepping stone, a safe space.

Diversity and inclusivity 
In addition to enhancing our personal mental and physical wellbeing, robust arts, parks and school systems are important to the vitality of our greater community. The wonderful thing about each of these entities is that they are meant to be places where anyone is welcome and everyone belongs.

Parks are where our family most naturally experiences diversity. At parks we get to enjoy the company of folks who speak a different language, or who live in a different part of the city, or whose ethnic heritage is different from ours. What a gift.

But not everyone has the same access to parks and greenways in town. A study has shown that only 36% of Charlotte-Mecklenburg residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park, compared to a nationwide average of 72%. The money generated from the referendum would help secure land for a more equitable distribution of park space and enhance recreational programing.

It would also eliminate barriers to participation in arts, science and history programs, reduce racial disparities, and deepen reach into neighborhoods across the county to ensure residents have access regardless of where they live or what they can afford.

When I think about how fractured and polarized society feels today, all of these enhancements seem like valuable, worthwhile investments in inclusivity and a sense of community. I can’t imagine money better spent.

Investing in Charlotte
From a business and development perspective, arts, parks, and schools are the types of things that keep Charlotte competitive and thriving. They are the amenities that attract businesses and families, and that make our city the place we’re proud to show off and call home.

But, right now, we’ve got one of the most underfunded park systems in the country (our local government spends just $48 per person per year for parks, compared with the national average of $78), an increasing number of field trips to local museums and cultural attractions are being canceled, and there are too few teaching assistants, school counselors and psychologist across our school system.

Without funding, none of this is going to change.

Ok, but. . .
While quality of life, inclusiveness and economic development are all well and good, I know that, for some, this referendum is more a matter of pragmatics and practicality. Here’s where I land on some of the points of contention:

Is it fair?
There’s an argument that the sales tax is unfair because it is regressive, meaning that it takes a higher percentage of income from low-income earners than from high-income earners. This is true.

However, it’s helpful to know that basic necessities, such as gas, groceries and medicine, are exempt from this particular tax, so folks for whom most every penny goes to essentials would not be excessively burdened. In fact, this tax would capture dollars spent by people who are visiting or passing through.

Why more taxes?
Some people bristle at raising taxes in general. Why not include this money in the annual budget process?

My understanding from talking to county commissioners is that it all comes down to a resource limitation. The annual budget process has provided some funding for the areas represented in this referendum, but not enough funds to meet growing needs.

But you, I, and our neighbors all across town would benefit from this spending. Considering the positive impact these resources could have on the wellbeing of our community as a whole, I’d boldly suggest that $0.25 on every $100 spent is a remarkable return on investment.

Can we trust the process?
Some are concerned (and I was one of them early on) that there’s no guarantee that the money we vote on would go to the items proposed in the referendum. My conversations with county commissioners have given me confidence that it would.

Here’s my understanding of how it would work:
County commissioners have adopted a resolution on how the sales tax revenue would be allocated. Under the resolution, tax proceeds are separated from operating funds, which ensures that new revenue doesn’t reduce budgets.

The resolution calls for the parks commission to prepare a detailed spending plan, with input from citizens, that aligns with the parks master plan and addresses land acquisition, youth and senior programming and maintenance.

The arts portion of the sales tax revenue would be managed by the Arts and Science Council (ASC), which serves as the central hub for cultural resources for Charlotte and surrounding areas. To ensure more transparency and accountability from the organization, the ASC Board would comprise more county and city elected officials and an equal number of their appointees. There would be a contract between county commissioners and the ASC and regular reports on how the money gets spent.

All programs receiving funding would be subject to standard audit and operational procedures under the accounting and reporting guidelines defined by the Mecklenburg County Commissioners and the N.C. Local Government Commission. There would be annual reporting on the use of the sales tax proceeds to provide transparency and accountability, no matter who serves on the county commission at a given time.

In the end, voters will be responsible for holding commissioners, whoever they may be, accountable for maintaining the funding allocations established by this referendum.

It's no secret that I love our local parks and greenways. We’re also patrons of Charlotte’s arts and cultural scene. And our kids attend public schools here. So maybe I’m not the hardest sell on this sales tax referendum. After all, we absolutely stand to directly benefit from it.

But I also firmly believe that our individual welfare is contingent on the welfare of the communities to which we belong. It’s compelling to think of how beneficial this referendum could be for everyone in our city and for our city as a whole.

That’s why I’m for the sales tax referendum. I hope you will take some time to consider what your support of it would mean for you and for and this place we call home, too.