Thursday, August 27, 2020

Mazeppa Park

Just when I thought we'd covered most of the mountain-biking trails around town, someone mentions one I've never even heard of. Mazeppa Park in Mooresville, N.C., about 40 minutes up I-77 from uptown, offers a relatively new (opened late 2018) 5-mile loop maintained by Tarheel Trailblazers. This trail was built explicitly for trail riding, but also makes for a pleasant hike, which is also permitted (both riders and hikers should follow directional signs at all times to avoid collisions).

This single-track, natural surface trail, good for beginners, is mostly smooth and relatively flat with some switchbacks, bridges, berms, bumps and swoops. There are also some technical features for advanced riders, but there's an alternate route around each of these. The trail is mostly shady, winding through a young-growth forest setting. (See trail map.)

The trailhead is in the parking lot of Mazeppa Park across from the soccer fields. During normal times, there are bathroom facilities available here (for now, there are some porta-potties). Take a left at the trailhead to access the mountain biking loop.

A fun discovery for us was a go-cart race track just off the eastern side of the loop, which can be accessed by a service road a short hop off of the trail. While we tend to like to escape into nature during our outings, it was novel for the kids to take a minute to watch a race or two on the Saturday morning that we went.

NOTE: The trail is closed for 24 hours after rain. Also worth noting is that the trail is heavily lined with poison ivy during the summer. Be mindful.

If you're looking for a new place to ride -- or hike -- Mazeppa is definitely worth checking out.

How to get there:
Mazeppa Park is located at 645 Mazeppa Rd, Mooresville, NC 28115.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Bikes and helmets: Or comfortable walking shoes
  • Water: Refill at the restroom facilities next to the soccer fields
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen: The trail is mostly shaded, but not entirely
  • Bug spray: Especially during summer months
  • Snacks: You might be out there for a couple hours

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Day Trip: Fonta Flora Trail

Friends, doesn't a quick, easy day-trip sound good right about now? Let me tell you about one of our new favorites.

Last week we took a camping trip to the Highlands of Roan in eastern Tennessee. We always like to find new places to explore en route to our destination (the AllTrails app is great for this). Our drive from Charlotte took us through Morganton, NC, which is only about an hour and a half from uptown. There, we decided to check out the Fonta Flora County Park Loop Trail.

This 3.7-mile, double track, natural-surface loop is part of the larger Fonta Flora state trail system, which will someday connect downtown Morganton to downtown Asheville. Ultimately, the trail will form a 29-mile loop around Lake James. As of last year, more than 20 miles of this project have been completed. The County Park is on the northeastern side of Lake James, directly across the lake from Lake James State Park.

Here's why the Fonta Flora County Park Loop Trail makes for a perfect day trip.

It's easy to get to
. This trail is a very doable 1.5-hour commute from uptown Charlotte. When you get there, there's a large parking area complete with bathrooms and water fountains. From the parking lot, you can't miss the trailhead, marked with a beautiful Fonta Flora trestle. The trail is obvious, well maintained, and offers directional signs and blazes from start to finish.

It's pleasant
. The gently rolling terrain is suitable for all ages and skill levels. We hiked, but would consider coming back with mountain bikes for a good family/beginner ride. The trail is interesting and peaceful, whether you're an avid outdoorsperson or an occasional adventurist.

It's beautiful
. Our favorite part (you might call it the "payoff") was the spectacular view of mountain-rimmed Lake James about midway through the hike. But the entire trek through the forest, over creeks, and by the lake was gorgeous.

It's versatile
. While this was our first and only visit, it occurs to me that this will be an excellent destination any time of year. During these hot summer months, the trail offers blissful shade and some chances to take off your shoes and dip your toes in the water if you want. During fall, the foliage will be invigorating. Winters might be cold, but since Morganton straddles the foothills and mountains, its temperatures are somewhat milder than the highlands of Western North Carolina. And I can imagine this is a bountiful playground for all the plants and wildlife in the spring.

It's near other fun things to do. Burke County's motto is "Nature's Playground." So if you're up for more outdoor exploration, there's plenty to choose from nearby. But might I suggest you also check out historic, picturesque downtown Morganton, NC. Grab a bite to eat or (in normal times), plan your trip around events or activities. Or, here's a fun idea if it's apple-picking season

As an aside, when we went, we had our fishing rods handy and the kids thoroughly enjoyed fishing along a trail-side cove. If you're a fisherperson or have little ones who enjoy tossing a line in the water, this is a good place to do it.

The Fonta Flora trail is open hikers and bikers year-round and we look forward to checking it out again -- and not just when our travels have us passing by. Whether you do the County Park Loop or check out another segment (see trail map), I think you'll find this to be an excellent daytrip (or longer!) destination. 

How to get there: The trailhead for the Fonta Flora County Park loop is located at the Fonta Flora County Park located at 126 NC-126, Morganton, NC, 28655.

Don't forget to take: 
  • Comfortable walking shoes: Sneakers will do. 
  • Water: You can refill bottles at the parking area. 
  • Snacks: There are a number of benches to take a break along the trail. 
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen: The trail is mostly shaded, but not entirely. 

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Rocky Creek Trail

Waterfalls are both beautiful and mystifying to me (how come the water never runs out?!). Of course, I think some of the the most spectacular ones can be found in the North Carolina mountains. But, turns out, there are a few cascades closer to home. One is in Great Falls, S.C., about an hour south of uptown Charlotte.

The waterfall is a fun feature of the Rocky Creek Trail, a 1.6-mile (one way) Carolina Thread Trail good for hiking and biking. The trail, which is flat and alternates between sandy, gravel and natural surfaces, follows the banks of Rocky Creek, a tributary of the Catawba River.

The trailhead is in a gravel parking lot just off a small highway and is marked with a Carolina Thread Trail sign. There are no restroom facilities, so plan accordingly.

From the parking lot, there's a short, steep spur trail that leads to a wide, sandy beach area, which serves as a canoe and kayak access point and launch.

At the beach, taking a right will lead to the western end of the trail, which is about a mile away. About 0.7 mile in, you'll come to a gate indicating private property. Hikers are welcome to continue on, but be mindful of the electric fence marking the boundaries. It's around here that the trail becomes more interesting, offering plenty of opportunities to stop and hop on the large creek rock formations and play in the water. This stretch is peaceful, mostly shady and, though there are no trail-markers, easy to follow.

One observation worth noting is that the trail follows a sewer line, which is not remarkable, other than to suggest not visiting on a particularly hot, still day.

This section of the trail ends somewhat abruptly at a fence. From here, retrace your steps and head east to take in the waterfall, which is about 0.2 mile past the beach area at the parking lot trailhead (taking a left where you took a right before).

Following the trail in this direction, the waterfall will be on your left. There's an option to take a bridge straight to remain on the main trail, but opt for the detour, marked with a sign, to reach the cascade. You can walk all the way to the base of the waterfall, but be careful doing so as the wet rocks are slippery. There's also a social trail that leads to the top of the waterfall, but I do not recommend taking it, especially with young kids, as the drop-off is steep and dangerous.

If you want to complete the trail, continue on for another 0.3 miles, where you'll run into a fence at the edge of a water treatment facility. At this end, the creek is wide and flat, offering a contrasting vista to the rocky, fast-moving water upstream.

Between the large, playful rocks at one end of the trail and the waterfall at the other, this outing offers a number of fun features. It's an easy outing for hikers of all ages and skill levels. And a nice option for beating the sweltering heat these days. Next time you're looking for someplace new to explore, Rocky Creek is worth your consideration.

How to get there:
The Rocky Creek Trail trailhead is located at 1030 Chester Ave, Great Falls, SC, 29055. The gravel parking lot is marked with a Carolina Thread Trail sign.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Comfortable walking shoes: And consider shoes that can get wet if you want to rock-hop
  • Bug spray: Especially during summer months
  • Water: Bring plenty for during and after the hike
  • Snacks: Consider a picnic on the beach or rocks
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen: This trail is mostly shaded, but not entirely

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Catch Some Timeless Fun

When the pandemic brought our family's daily scramble to a screeching halt, I found myself wondering if this pause on "normal" would have felt so dramatic several generations ago. In my mind, those days, for kids in particular, were less extracurricular, more free-range; less scheduled playdates, more impromptu playtime; less commuting in cars, more exploring on bikes; and most certainly less time plugged in, more time outdoors. 

When the coronavirus shut things down, we, like many families I know, were in full stride, leapfrogging from this practice to that lesson, from this meeting to that game. When suddenly our calendar was wiped clean, it felt a little disorienting. And we not only had nothing scheduled, but we couldn't even take unnecessary shopping trips or visit commercial amusement venues to fill the void. 

What to do? The only thing we could: (Re)discover a simpler time. This summer we've been enjoying some old-fashioned (I prefer "timeless") fun. If your creative entertainment bank is running on empty, consider these ideas: 

Catch June Bugs
: June Bugs, or June Beetles, are the green metallic bugs you find hovering in open grassy fields during the hottest parts of the day this time of year. Fun fact: You can tie a string to one of their legs and they'll fly around you like a tiny pet on a leash. Seriously. I thought my husband was making that up to keep the kids busy for a while, but then one of them actually succeeded and I was amazed. Try it. It's not easy, but it is possible.  

Catch lightening bugs: What's more classic than running around the yard as the day softly comes to an close, chasing these magical glowing treasures? Barefoot, if possible. And with a jar handy. 

Catch frogs
: We spend a lot of time at the pond in the field near our house. All of the kids have gotten quite good at spotting the tiny green tree frogs hiding in the fronds of the arrowhead bog plants. Even if you don't like touching frogs (me!), there's something exciting about finding them. And something especially pleasant about simply listening to their songs. 

Catch a breeze
: Why not make a paper boat? Or a boat made from nature. If there's not a stream or pond nearby, sail it in your bathtub. Fold up yesterday's newspaper or find some sticks and weave them together with monkey grass. This activity is really more about the journey than the destination. 

Catch crawfish and salamanders
: This is a fun way to cool off in refreshing ankle-deep water as these critters like to hide under rocks in small streams. They are quick and sometimes hard to spot, but entertaining to study when you find them. Mountain creeks are best, but around here, crawfish and salamanders can be found in streams running through county parks and nature preserves

Catch up on reading
: There are so many good books we never seem to have time to get to "in real life." Power down each night reading aloud as a family. Charlotte Mecklenburg Library has made it easy to discover new favorites. Choose something using their app and pick it up at a branch near you. Or, Imaginon, the children's library uptown, has a wonderful selection waiting at their entrance. Librarians have picked books suitable for all levels. And they are eager to offer suggestions based on what you're looking for and fetch some from the selves for you to check out at the front door. 

Some of our favorite books this summer have been Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, by Robert O'Brien; From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E.L. Konigsburg, and the "Ramona Quimby" series by Beverly Cleary. 

As we've adjusted to the new normal, I find I'm none too eager to return to our pre-pandemic rat race, whenever the day comes that we can. There's something to be said for yawning, obligation-free weeknights and weekends. Simpler is nice. And timeless is timeless for a reason.