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.