Thursday, September 26, 2019

North Mecklenburg Park

I have every faith that we're going to get some temperatures that match the calendar season any day now. And when that delicious fall weather arrives, here's a fun, local place to enjoy it.

North Mecklenburg Park is located in the Town of Huntersville, about 20 miles north of uptown. We like it most for the trails, but this 98-acre park offers baseball, softball and soccer fields; tennis and basketball courts; two playgrounds; picnic benches and shelters; and restroom facilities.

If you're up for a hike or some mountain biking, you'll find a beautiful, shady, 3.5 mile single-track loop perfect for escaping into nature. This trail is well maintained and offers mile markers every half-mile.

Another super fun feature of the park is the pump track, a small, packed-dirt circuit of rolling hills and banked turns. I'm sure this is fun for "real" BMXers, but even our youngest enjoys taking laps on her pedal-less balance bike. The pump track is located at the trailhead of the mountain biking/hiking trail. Here's a park map.

When the heat breaks (and one of these days it is bound to!), North Mecklenburg Park is a great nearby option for deep breathing and crunchy leaves.

How to get there:
North Mecklenburg Park is located at 16131 Old Statesville Rd., Huntersville, NC, 28078.

Don't forget to take:
  • Comfortable shoes
  • Bikes and helmets
  • Water and snacks
  • Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Charlotte Liberty Walk

In its formative years, Charlotte was at the crossroads of some of the most pivotal moments in the American Revolution. The city and surrounding area were home to four major battles that helped turn the tide of war and led to victory at Yorktown, Va. Though relics of those events are long gone, folks can revisit history by taking a stroll along Charlotte's Liberty Walk uptown.

A little more than a mile long, the Liberty Walk is similar to Boston's Freedom Trail, with educational markers and monuments that memorialize how Charlotte's citizens participated in and influenced that significant time in our nation's history.

There are19 stops along the route, which starts near the corner of South Tryon St. and East Stonewall St. The trail follows Tryon St. north several blocks to Trade St., where it takes a left and makes a lollipop loop around Church St., 5th St., and College St., ending back at The Square (the official center of town, at Trade and Tryon). Check out the interactive map for directions and information about each stop along the way. The trail is marked by Liberty Walk sidewalk pavers.

Whether you're a lifetime local, a recent transplant, or a visitor passing through, the Liberty Walk is a compelling way to spend an hour or two uptown.
You'll learn about the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence, which preceded the U.S. Declaration of Independence by a year. And about Ishmael Titus Marker, one of 5,000 African Americans (many from North Carolina), who served among the front-line troops on the American side of the war. And about the inn where President George Washington spent the night in 1791.

One of the most moving stops on the Liberty Walk for me is Settlers Cemetery. In it lie the remains of many of the leading figures in the founding of our city. It's remarkable to spend time quietly learning about these people and seeing their grave markers, which date back to the 1700s.

Before you go, take a minute to read the brochure for a full list of destination descriptions so that you know what you're looking for and can familiarize yourself with a bit of the history you'll discover.
This activity is good for all ages, including -- and maybe especially -- kids (taking the walk and searching for markers along the way feels a little bit like a scavenger hunt). And, the Liberty Walk is a wonderful companion to the Trail of History along Little Sugar Creek Greenway, which pays tribute to key figures in Charlotte's historic growth and development.

How to get there:
Charlotte Liberty Walk begins near the corner of South Tryon St. and East Stonewall St. The trail follows Tryon St. north several blocks to Trade St., where it takes a left and makes a lollipop loop around Church St., 5th St., and College St., ending back at The Square (the official center of town, at Trade and Tryon).

Parking is available nearby in metered spots on the street or in one of the surrounding parking decks. You might also consider parking elsewhere and riding the Lynx Blue Line. Or ride your bike!

Don't forget to pack:
  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • Your smartphone for following an interactive map or a printed copy of the Liberty Walk route and stops
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen
  • Money for parking and/or a bite to eat

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Waterfalls and Apple Picking

Fall is around the corner and apple-picking season is here. Harvest periods for different varieties will be staggered through the end of October, but it's not too early to grab a basket and a wagon and head out to an orchard now. Charlotte offers a number of options close to town, but consider making an adventurous day of it.

Here's how:

Start with a hike at South Mountains State Park, a little under an hour and a half west of Charlotte and less than 20 minutes away from the Apple Hill Orchard and Cider Mill in Morganton, NC.

I recommend the 2.7-mile-long High Shoals Falls Loop trail, which starts in the Jacob Fork parking area. The trailhead is in the last parking lot you come to when you use the Jacob Fork entrance to the park.

The High Shoals Fall Loop trail is rocky and super steep in areas, which makes it both challenging and exciting. But it is definitely worth the climb as the trail traverses the Jacob Fork River and swings by the High Shoals Waterfall for an up-close viewing. Follow the blue circle blazes. (See park map)

On the way up, you'll climb natural and man-made steps, bordered by railings in the more treacherous areas. The back stretch on the way down is wide, gravel surface, still steep in areas, but less technically challenging. In the quiet of the morning, we spotted a handful along the pathway.

You'll find water, bathroom facilities and shaded picnic tables at the South Mountains State Park parking area. You can also easily access the Jacob Fork River there for rock-hopping and exploring.

When you've finished your  hike, jump in the car for a short drive to the apple orchard. Apple Hill Orchard is headquartered in a classic red barn with a country store. The rows of apples are easily accessible and the folks running the orchard are friendly and very helpful. There's plenty of parking and clean restrooms at the orchard.

And, bonus: Apple donuts and cider slushies! A lovely way to end a day of fresh air and fall fun.

How to get there:
The Jacob Fork parking area of South Mountains State Park is located at 3001 South Mountain Park Ave., Connelly Springs, NC, 28612. Follow the entrance to the last parking lot you come to to access the High Shoals Falls trailhead.

Apple Hill Orchard and Cider Mill is about 20 minutes away, located at 5205 Appletree Ln., Morganton, NC, 28655. NOTE: The turn from Pleasant Hill Ave. to Appletree Ln. is easy to miss! The road runs through a church parking lot. Keep an eye out for the Apple  Hill Orchard sign that notes the turn.

Don't forget to take:

  • Water: Stay hydrated! You can refill at the facilities at the trailhead parking lot.

  • Snacks: It's a challenging trail; don't run out of steam! Also consider packing a picnic lunch.

  • Backpack or bag: Something lightweight and comfortable to carry your essentials.

  • Bug spray: There are still some mosquitoes hanging around. Plus, ticks are always a threat.

  • Shoes: Comfy sneakers or hiking boots. Or, if you want to get your feet wet in the creeks, consider Keen sandals.

  • Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses: The hiking trail is fairly shady, but he orchard is not.

  • Wagon: The orchard has some, but invites you to bring your own if you don't want to wait for theirs to become available on a busy day.


Thursday, September 5, 2019

Why Nature

I was around a bend and a few paces ahead of our 5-year-old when I heard her exclaim "I hear joyfulness ahead!"

Evidently, she'd heard my gasp of delight at the vista that had just unfolded before us. After a 2-mile hike up the mountain, I was, indeed, feeling joyful at the sight of the ocean of blue mountains rolling majestically to the horizon.
I've been thinking about our daughter's comment ever since then. It was a simple observation, but a profound one.

At a very basic level, I think we all know that nature is good for us. Fresh air, physical activity, sunshine. Healthy stuff.

But, lately, I've become more mindfully appreciative of the benefits of being outdoors, benefits that transcend the obvious.

I recently stumbled on a new (to me) podcast from Outside magazine. And, very specifically, a couple of episodes that simultaneously validate some of my instincts and transform my thinking on just how important time in the wilderness is to our overall wellbeing.

I highly recommend a quick listen to both What Awe in Nature Does For Us and The Radically Simple Digital Diet We All Need. (And then put your phone down and heed the podcasts' wisdom!)

The take-home messages of these podcasts boil down to this:

First, we get the greatest benefits from nature when we experience awe. And -- surprise! -- awe very often happens in the quiet, reflective moments. That is to say, not during the thrilling, rolling whitewater portions of a rafting trip, but in the calm between the churn.

And, second, the buzzing in your head that comes of being willfully and artificially tethered to your smart phone is real. And it’s not good for you. But relearning to use the phone as the simple, helpful tool it was first intended to be, and going outside (without your phone in your hand . . .or on your mind) can help restore your natural state of mental health.

Our minds are not built to constantly process feedback and social stimulation and we suffer when we get trapped in that loop. The synapses in our brains are meant to flow like streams, not relentlessly fire in a million directions. We need to restructure our relationship with technology. We need to hear birdsong and wind-tousled leaves.

When I think our family needs a reset, we plan a trip, even just for an afternoon, into the woods. Nothing to distract us, other than each other and whatever interesting things we find on the trail. And I swear we come out happier and healthier, individually and as a family unit. And the cool thing is (and science backs this up), the positive effect lasts well after we've returned to the demands (both real and manufactured) of daily living.

Our youngest kid probably won't remember all of the hikes we've taken or the breathtaking views we've seen, but I'm thrilled she already recognizes -- and I pray she will remember -- that there is, indeed, joyfulness to be found in nature.