Tuesday, July 28, 2020

McDowell Creek Greenway

Another day, another greenway. It's looking like we might make it to all the county greenways over the duration of the pandemic. Because, as long as we're practicing responsible social distancing, they provide such a nice option for getting wiggles out and enjoying some fresh air.

Recently, we visited McDowell Creek Greenway, about 20 minutes north of uptown. Located in the Birkdale Village area, the paved 1.5-mile trail connects the towns of Huntersville and Cornelius. Part of the Carolina Thread Trail and the Lake Norman Bike Route, this is a great option for walking, biking, scooters, skates and strollers. 

Though it is sandwiched between I-77 and several suburban developments, McDowell Creek Greenway offers a pleasant dose of nature and wildlife. It also borders Westmoreland Athletic Complex, which has bathrooms, a playground (both currently closed), ball fields and picnic areas. (See trail map.

While there are a number of neighborhood entrances, the main trailhead is located next to the Birkdale Regal parking lot, which provides plenty of spaces for parking these days.

From the trailhead, take a left to go under a pedestrian overpass and follow the greenway past a pond, over a bridge, and through nicely protected green space. Along the route, you'll find an abundance of plants (including a number of species milkweed), animals (keep an eye out for a variety of birds and listen for the calls of a few different types of frogs), and insects (at times, this is home to around a dozen species of butterflies).

This trail is relatively flat, somewhat shady, and very family-friendly. For those in north Charlotte, especially up the I-77 corridor, McDowell Creek Greenway is worth a visit.

How to get there:
The McDowell Creek Greenway trailhead is located next to the Regal Birkdale at the intersection of Cranlyn Rd. and Townley Rd. The parking lot is across Cranlyn Rd. from Dick's Sporting Good's at 8825 Townley Rd., Huntersville, NC, 28078.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • Bikes and helmets (or other riding toys)
  • Hats sunglasses and sunscreen
  • Water and snacks

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

5 Aquatic Adventures to Beat the Heat

Mercy, it is hawt. And many of our go-to summer cooling solutions are COVID-closed. Melting sigh. . .

But, good news! Not every water play option is off limits. We've just got to be a little more creative about finding them this year. Below are some suggestions.

First, what's closed:

As of when this post was published, Mecklenburg County public spraygrounds (including fountain features at places like First Ward Park) are turned off. Ray's Splash Planet and other municipal aquatic centers are closed, though a few pools, including the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center and some of the area Ys are open with limited hours for lap swim and programs. Most public lake beaches, like Ramsey Creek Park at Lake Norman are also closed, as are inland swim areas and beaches at NC State Parks.

Now, here's where you can still find some refreshing water recreation:

Emerald Hollow Gem Mine: The big summertime draw here is creek mining, which means wading in the blissfully cool water while you search for treasures. Other options include classic sluicing at a table or digging in a nearby pit. But I say put on some sandals and opt for the creek, which is a pleasant, short hike from the parking area and offers plenty of space for social distancing.

U.S. National Whitewater Center: Water activities include rafting, flatwater paddling, and deep water solo climbing. Of course, there are other fun things to do there, too, like ropes courses and ziplining All of the above require passes, but you can hike or mountain bike for just the cost of parking ($6/day or $50 for an annual pass).

Carrigan Farms Quarry: Take a dip in a deep, natural quarry. They have implemented a number of coronavirus safety measures. Bonus: They also have a snack bar. You must register in advance due to capacity limits.

Tubing: Enjoy a leisurely trip down a lazy river. Good for most ages and one of the more relaxing water adventures you can take. There are lots of fun options within a two-hour drive towards the mountains. Here's one we recommend: Wilderness Cove. If you have your own tubes, you can go closer to home. Here's one option in York County, SC.

Waterfalls: Of course, you're going to find the most spectacular waterfalls around here in Western North Carolina, however, you might be interested to know there are two local waterfalls within about an hour of uptown. One is at Forty Acre Rock Heritage Preserve in Kershaw, SC and the other is along the Rocky Creek Trail in Great Falls, SC. Neither will necessarily cool you down, but both have creeks for wading in and sometimes just the sight and sounds of a waterfall can be refreshing.

Got any other fun water play suggestions? We'd love to find more creative cooling adventures to make the most of the sweltering dog days of summer. I hope the recommendations above will help you do the same.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Twelve Mile Creek

A 170-foot suspension bridge and the novelty of standing in two states at once. Pretty cool, right? But those aren't the only compelling reasons to visit Twelve Mile Creek, a Catawba River subbasin near the North Carolina/South Carolina border, about 45 minutes from uptown.

Two conjoining Carolina Thread Trails border the creek, offering about five miles of mostly natural-surface, wooded hiking and biking options.

I recommend starting at H.C. Nesbit Park in Waxhaw. There, you'll find plenty of parking, restrooms (currently closed) and a connector trail to the Twelve Mile Creek Greenway--Town of Waxhaw segment.

The greenway trail is 1.4 miles (one-way) end-to-end, but the park entrance starts you about mid-way through. You'll find the trailhead at the back of the parking lot, just past the soccer and baseball fields. Follow the trail -- which for a stretch offers both a paved and gravel option -- south (veering straight/right) and continue on for about a quarter of a mile to find the suspension bridge at the state line.

This bridge is impressive. It's long and it soars over the creek. It's sturdy, but sways playfully. There's a well-marked spot where you can stand with one foot in North Carolina and the other in South Carolina. Even if you turn around here, you'll have gotten your money's worth from the outing.

But I recommend journeying on.

It is worth noting that the north bridge entrance is ground level, but to get off on the southern end, there's a steep set of about a dozen steps. This may be of particular interest to folks who choose to ride bikes. Be prepared to heft your bike down and then up again.

Just on the other side of the bridge, the Twelve Mile Creek Trail--Walnut Creek Park segment begins. This is 3.5 miles (one-way) end-to-end. The trail is well marked with Carolina Thread Trail blazes and there are are mile-markers every half-mile.

One of the remarkable things to me about this trail is how nicely it is tucked into a natural setting out of view of the surrounding development. There are some sections where you'll find yourself in open grassy meadows, in folks' backyards or at street-crossings. But, for the most part, this gently-rolling, natural surface trail is shaded and meanders through quiet woods along the banks of the creek. There are also a handful of boardwalks and foot bridges.

The trail ends at Walnut Creek Park in Lancaster, SC (10521 Walnut Creek Parkway), where you'll find a giant sports complex, playground and ponds with fountains.

In all, Twelve Mile Creek is a peasant destination, great for hiking and biking, with some fun, novel features thrown in.

Note: This area is subject to flooding after heavy rain.

How to get there:
To start near the swinging bridge, use the trailhead at 1304 H.C. Nesbit Park Rd., Waxhaw, NC, 28173. There's a map kiosk at the trail entrance in the back of the parking, just past the soccer and baseball fields.

Don't forget to pack:

  • Comfortable walking shoes: Sneakers will do
  • Bikes and helmets: This is a good trail for beginners
  • Water: Pack extra for after your outing since restrooms are currently closed
  • Snacks: There is a lovely bench for a rest and refuel break on the south side of the suspension bridge
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen: The trail is mostly shaded, but there are open stretches
  • Bug spray: Particularly in warm summer months 

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Charlotte Shared Streets

Editor's Note: This post has been updated to reflect the opening of additional Shared Streets. 

My hat's off to the City of Charlotte for innovative thinking. Much respect for the folks in the brainstorming room who came up with the concept of Shared Streets. As the pandemic shifts the way we do everything from shop for groceries to educate our kids, one constant is the need for fresh air and exercise to support mental and physical health. Shared Streets give residents another great option for healthy living.

Shared Streets are low-speed neighborhood roads throughout the city that have been temporarily closed to through-traffic to allow citizens to use them for outdoor exercise, like walking and biking, with a comfortable cushion for safe social-distancing.

The streets remain accessible to residents and people performing essential services (like emergency workers, garbage pick-up and street-sweeping), and on-street parking is not impacted.

Shared Streets are marked with special signage that reads "Road Closed to Thru Traffic," placed at key intersections.

These protected spaces provide more recreational areas in proximity to more Charlotteans. Folks can also continue to use parks, greenways and nature preserves run by Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation, which are all open, though the department is operating at a limited capacity due to COVID-19 (restrooms, recreation centers and playgrounds remain closed).

Shared Streets are opening in phases. As of the end of June, the following Shared Streets are open (click on the links for maps):

Folks using Shared Streets for recreation and exercise should obey pedestrian signals and watch for traffic. Bike riders should wear helmets and use hand signals to indicate turns. Residents should not view this as an invitation to gather on Shared Streets for social purposes.

Motorists using Shared Streets must always yield to pedestrians and give them the right of way.

This is a pilot program that will be monitored and adjusted as public health officials provide ongoing guidance.

I'm genuinely impressed by this simple, yet innovative concept. We look forward to enjoying these new designated corridors for protected, enjoyable outdoor time together. Shared Streets will give us an opportunity to explore different parts of the city as we chart bike routes to them and plan to visit parks or other open spaces near them. Kudos to the City of Charlotte for a creative and nimble move to provide more safe spaces for citizens to enjoy fresh air and keep mentally and physically fit.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Take a Placemaking Project Street Mural Tour

You’ve probably heard about the giant Black Lives Matter mural on Tryon St uptown (if you haven’t been, make time to go; it’s compelling). Did you know there’s another mural movement quietly hitting the streets (quite literally) this summer?

In June, the City of Charlotte's Urban Design Center and the Office of Sustainability had local artists from the city's Placemaking Artist pool install street murals that capture the impact of COVID-19 and the resiliency and sustainability of Charlotte in 15 locations across town.

Charlotte launched the Placemaking Program in 2018 with the goal of using urban design to transform underutilized public spaces into vibrant places.

This summer's Placemaking Project is one of many creative ways that the Urban Design Center is working to enhance public spaces and promote community collaboration. Some of the other programs they facilitate include Adopt-a-Street, community gardens, decorative signages, and cabinet wraps.

We discovered our first Placemaking Project mural, marked with a yard sign, on a greenway near our house. Then another next to our neighborhood playground. Curious, I did some research and found a super handy interactive map of all fifteen projects. The next day, we took a bike tour of some of the other nearby murals.

While the murals are easily accessible (all are located on Shared Streets, greenways or low-traffic neighborhood roads), there's an exciting scavenger hunt element to finding them, which makes it especially fun for kids. And the artwork is remarkable. You can learn more about the pieces and their artists on the map as you go.

We found it fun to make a tour of this new public artwork, but I'd argue it's worth your while to pick one or two pieces to find when you're out. Each tells its own story and represents a piece of what makes Charlotte a place we can all feel proud to call home.

How to get there:
You'll find mural addresses as well as information about the artwork and artists on this interactive map. Many are located within a few miles of each other. Create your own tour, or pick one nearby.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Comfortable walking shoes or your bike and helmet
  • Sunscreen, hats and sunglasses
  • Water