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.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Idlewild Road Park

The fall scramble is catching up with me. School is in full swing, this season’s sports are well underway, and our downtime is dictated by extracurricular schedules. The other day I found myself studying the planner longingly, searching for a block of time — even just an afternoon — for the whole family to escape into the quiet playfulness of nature.

We’ve blocked out a whole weekend later this month and I’m already mentally packing our bags.

Meanwhile, though, I’m thankful for urban oases — parks and preserves, fields and trails, greenways and green spaces — where we can escape from city living without leaving town.

And the wonderful thing is, Charlotte has a bunch of them.

If you, too, are itching to get out and stretch your over-scheduled mind and body for an hour or two, you might consider Idlewild Road Park.

About 10 miles south of uptown in Matthews, this 125-acre park offers a number of amenities.

We're big fans of the 1.5-mile nature trail, which is wooded and shady. It's an easy trail, good for hikers of all skill levels.

There's also an 18-hole disc golf course, which makes for another nice walking path, even if you don't play.

Kids will enjoy the large, relatively new playground. This area is encircled by a paved path, good for walking or riding on rolling toys.

There are also several picnic areas, some of which are covered; a couple of baseball fields; and well maintained restroom facilities.

With a little bit of something for everyone, Idlewild Road Park is a nice nearby escape into nature.

How to get there:
Idlewild Road Park is located at 10152 Idlewild Rd., Matthews, NC, 28105.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Comfortable shoes: For hiking or playing
  • Water and snacks: Or a picnic lunch
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen: While it's mostly shady here, there are some open spaces
  • Bug spray: Fend of mosquitoes
  • Frisbees: If you want to play disc golf