Thursday, June 27, 2019

Hidden Parks: Windsor Park in Matthews

Sometimes green space can be tucked in the most surprising places. Case in point: Windsor Park in Matthews, a little more than 20 minutes south of Uptown Charlotte.

This 5-acre park is situated unassumingly behind one of the many big-box-store-strip-mall complexes lining Independence Blvd.

For its size and location, Windsor Park boasts a surprising number of fun features. There's a trail system with 16 fitness stations, two large playground sets with swings and a zipline, a pond and creek with stepping stones and a pedestrian bridge for crossing, open play space, and picnic tables with a shelter. A large climbing tower and rope spider web also sit invitingly in the woods.

Despite the highway noise a stone's throw away, Windsor Park is quiet. And shady, which is a bonus on hot summer days.

This is a fun option for mixing up your playground routine.

Note: Porta potties are the only bathroom option.

How to get there:
Windsor Park is located at 10140 Northeast Parkway, Matthews, NC 28105.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Comfortable shoes: Enjoy the walking trail, among other features.
  • Water: Note that there are no facilities to refill.
  • Hats, sunscreen and sunglasses: Though the park is quite shady, protect yourself in open spaces.
  • Bug spray: In warmer months, fend off mosquitoes and ticks.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Are We There Yet?

When we hop in the car to set out to our adventure destination, I try to control for as many variables as possible. Do I have snacks? Has everyone used the restroom? Do I know our route so that there aren't any trip-lengthening detours? Is everyone wearing comfy clothes? Have I timed the ride for the kids’ rest time? The list goes on. And if all goes according to plan, drives with the kids can mean meaningful and enjoyable family time.

That said, it helps to have some tricks up my sleeve for when things turn south. One trick: Wow in the World, an NPR podcast designed especially for kids. Each episode takes a fun dive into an interesting topic, usually on science or technology.

We discovered Wow in the World when it launched at the beginning of the summer and look forward to new episodes every Monday and Thursday. What I like about the podcast is that it is both entertaining and educational. It may be targeted at grade-schoolers, but I find myself every bit as engaged in the show as our 6-year-old.

The episodes are short -- 15-20 minutes -- which is good for the kids' attention span. And also just long enough to reset the mood in the car when bodies get wiggly and the end of the ride is not yet in sight. Then we can get back to “I spy. . .” and “I’m thinking of something. . .”

You can subscribe to Wow in the World though Apple Podcasts or listen on the NPR One app. In honor of eclipse day, I recommend you start with the August 14 episode ("When the moon photobombs the sun"). Happy driving!

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Mineral Springs Greenway

When I was growing up in Dilworth, the Arboretum was Charlotte’s suburban frontier and Ballantyne was but a twinkle in a developer’s eye. Which is to say we had few compelling reasons to venture much farther from town than SouthPark.

But when I moved back to Charlotte after college and began long-distance cycling, I joined group rides that introduced me to the beauty and wonders of Indian Land, Weddington, Waxhaw, Wesley Chapel and Mineral Springs – all towns about 20 miles south of uptown.

Rich with history, these areas offer long, rolling stretches of single-lane highway winding through expansive farm fields and under old-growth tree canopies. We put in many enjoyable miles crisscrossing the area.

But we abandoned the road bikes after we had our first kid and haven’t spent much time down that way since. Until recently, when we visited Mineral Springs Greenway.

It was fun to return to our old “rolling grounds” – still as pretty as always, even with the noticeable uptick in traffic. And delightful to discover this 1.7-mile (one-way), natural surface stretch of the Carolina Thread Trail, part of the Catawba Lands Conservancy.

Mineral Springs Greenway is open to hikers, bikers and horseback riders. The trail begins in a gravel parking lot and hugs the banks of a tributary Lee Branch of Twelve Mile Creek. It's fully shaded, quiet and peaceful. The trail is marked with yellow blazes with mile-markers posted every quarter-mile. (Here's a trail map.)

The path is well-worn, but rolling, with some short, steep climbs in places. There are several bridges and stream-crossings along the way. And lots of roots that make trail riding challenging, but not impossible for beginners.

The overgrowth at the far end of the trail seems to indicate folks tend to turn around before they hit the full 1.7 mile mark, but it is still passable.

There are no restrooms at the parking lot, but there is a very nice picnic area along a paved walk just beside the trailhead. Note: Bike riding is not permitted 24 hours after rain to protect the trail.

I'm pleased to have discovered a new reason to visit an old favorite part of our area. If you haven't been to Mineral Springs Greenway, consider discovering it, too!

How to get there:
Parking for the Mineral Springs Greenway is located at 6214 McNeely Rd., Waxhaw, NC, 28173.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Comfortable shoes: No need for boots, unless it has rained recently and you don't want to get your good shoes muddy.
  • Bike and helmet: This is a great, short beginner trail if you want to ride instead of walk.
  • Water: Enough for your adventure, and consider leaving a refill in the car.
  • Snacks or a picnic lunch: Take a break along the trail or at the picnic area by the parking lot.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Charlotte Cycle Track 101

Charlotte has a cycle track! If that doesn't immediately excite you, read on to find out why it should.

What's a cycle track?
A cycle track is protected bike lane. And not just a white strip of paint politely suggesting that cars give a bike rider some breathing room. It's its own two-way mini-road, set apart from traffic by physical barriers.

Where is it?
Charlotte's new cycle track runs from the Little Sugar Creek Greenway on 7th St. to the Charlotte Rail Trail on 6th St. uptown.

So, what's the big deal?
Now, folks can safely commute on two wheels (pollution-free and with some fresh air and exercise thrown in) to and from uptown to work or play. This is great news for all Charlotteans, even non-bike riders. Fewer cars means less traffic and cleaner air for the city. Win, win, win.

How do I try out the cycle track?
I recommend starting at the 7th St. end of the track and heading west, into town. The cycle track trailhead starts where the Little Sugar Creek Greenway trail ends behind CPCC's Philip L. Van Every Culinary Arts Center (425 N. Kings Dr.).

To get to this trailhead, you can follow any number of bike-friendly routes from whichever part of town your traveling. Or, you can park in the Elizabeth Park parking lot at 1124 E. 4th St. and follow the Little Sugar Creek Greenway a short stretch toward 7th. St.

The cycle track will take you over and under I-277 as you make your way to McDowell St. Take a left at McDowell (this stretch is on the sidewalk), then a right a block later onto 6th St. Follow 6th St. to where the cycle track ends at the Lynx light rail track, which is where the Charlotte Rail Trail begins.

From one end to the other, the cycle track is 0.75 miles.

Any tips on navigating the cycle track?
Yes. Start by checking out this safety video. I think the most important tip is to follow pedestrian signals. Especially on your way back out of town, where, on 6th St. (a one-way street), the traffic signals are facing the other direction. It's harder to anticipate what cross-traffic is doing as you approach an intersection.

You should also yield to oncoming cyclists and pedestrians when making turns. And when you're waiting to cross 6th St., position yourself in the green "bike box," an area marked by paint where cars ought to give you safe space.

Drivers, it seems like it should go without saying, but, please, do not park in the bike lanes. Seriously. Also, watch for bikes in green zones (at intersections and places where there are no physical barriers) and yield to pedestrians and cyclists when turning right.

So, what's there to do along the cycle track?
Lots! At the east end, you're on the Sugar Creek Greenway, which most immediately puts you in proximity to all of the shops and restaurants at the Metropolitan. It's also where the Charlotte Trail of History begins.

The west end of the cycle track puts you just behind Imaginon, the 7th Street Public Market, and First Ward Park.

Why a cycle track?
There are 34 lanes for cars running east/west through uptown, and zero dedicated bike options. The Charlotte Department of Transportation teamed up with Charlotte Center City Partners to develop the Uptown Connects study, which identified challenges of bicycling in Uptown Charlotte and provided a series of recommendations to make cycling more comfortable and safer. The cycle track was one of those recommendations. The cycle track route was chosen because it has the least impact on traffic. A pilot project showed it added only 5 minutes to a car commute along the same route, and I'd be surprised if it's even that much on a typical day.

Anything else?
Yes. The inbound ride will remind you why we call it "uptown" in Charlotte. But it's a gentle climb. And worth the effort for a lot of reasons. Also, there's more cycle track coming! There are plans to extend the current stretch to Irwin Creek Greenway by 2021.

So, there you have it. Charlotte cycle track 101. I'm excited. I hope you are now, too.