Thursday, February 25, 2021

Girl Scouts, Hornets' Nest Council Trail

Sunshine! Sweet sunshine and warm breezes. Spring is in the air and it's got me feeling energized, especially after such a long, wet, grey stretch of winter. 

This past weekend, we seized the opportunity to spend the whole afternoon outside and cover new ground. And we discovered an outing that I'd highly recommend when you're ready to emerge from hibernation, too.

The Girl Scouts, Hornets Nest Council Trail is located in Statesville, NC, about 45 minutes north of uptown. This natural surface, 2.2-mile (one way), out-and-back trail, a segment of the Carolina Thread Trail, is nestled in a 359-acre conservation easement and hugs the banks of the South Yadkin River. 

It's quiet, peaceful and perfect for all ages and skill levels. The trail is hard-packed dirt, making it a great option for beginner mountain bikers. Wide, winding and not-very-crowded, we also found it to be good for running the dog. 

The trail begins with a handful of moderate hills, but flattens to gently rolling for most of the rest. It's well marked with CTT blazes, there are a few footbridges throughout, and you'll find a rocky knoll overlooking the river at the turnaround point (helpfully marked with a "End of Trail" sign). 

What I enjoyed most (besides the sun on my back!) was the immersive nature experience -- lots of frogs chirping, birds fluttering, and the river bubbling gently by. Ahhh. Yes, please and thank you. 

: The trailhead parking listed on the Carolina Thread Trail page gets you close, but not exactly to the lot. There's a designated gravel parking area, marked with a Carolina Thread Trail sign and map kiosk here

How to get there:
The Girl Scouts, Hornets Nest Council Trail trailhead is located in a gravel lot off US 21-N near (but not at!) 1763 Turnersburg Hwy, Statesville, NC 28625. From I-77 N, take exit 54. Turn right onto US 21-N and go approximately 3.5 miles. There's a designated gravel parking area, marked with a Carolina Thread Trail sign and map kiosk here

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

Friday, February 19, 2021

Martha Rivers Park

Dear parents of young kids, here's a recreation destination that's sure to dazzle your little ones.

Martha Rivers Park in Gastonia, about 40 minutes west of uptown, is home to a 1-acre playground castle, complete with turrets, slides, ladders and bridges. It's got places to climb and places to hide. It also has swings and a sand pit for digging. Even the tiniest of visitors have their own designated play area.

The magical playground sits within a 58-acre park that also boasts playing fields and restroom facilities.

There are also about 2.5 miles of paved walking paths. We didn't take riding toys when we visited, but it occurred to me that this would make an excellent place to skate, rip-stick and scooter. (Here's a trail map.

In light of the pandemic, I recommend going on an off day at an off time. When we went on a Wednesday afternoon, there were only a handful of other friends there. (But none of them were wearing masks.)

Martha Rivers Park is open dawn til dusk year-round. 

I noted a Pelican SnoBalls within a short walking distance on the way out. It was closed for the season, but I'm already imagining a warm-weather outing to play at the castle and get a sweet treat. Magical, right?

How to get there:
Martha Rivers Park is located at 1515 Neal Hawkins Rd., Gastonia, NC 28056. The castle playground is at the center of the park, between ball fields. You can't miss it. 

Don't forget to pack:
  • Water and snacks
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen
  • Comfortable shoes
  • Riding toys and helmets

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Mountain Island Lake Park and Trail

We had the most refreshing outing the other day. Partly because the sun finally came out after a cold, gray stretch, and partly because we stumbled on a new-to-us destination with a little bit of something for everyone.

Mountain Island Lake park and trail, located about 30 minutes northwest of uptown near Mount Holly, NC, are nestled along the Catawba River next to the hydroelectric station and dam at the southern end of Mountain Island Lake. 

(As a point of interest, Mountain Island Lake, the smallest of the three man-made lakes that border Mecklenburg County (the other two are Lake Wylie and Lake Norman) provides drinking water for much of Charlotte, Mount Holly and Gastonia.) 

This recreational perch along the river offers water access for boaters, piers and accessible shoreline for fishers, a playground for young explorers, and several miles of trails for hikers and mountain bikers.

We visited with bikes and took to the trail system, which includes a 1.5-mile, easy, gravel out-and back stretch of the Carolina Thread Trail. Along the way, we discovered some side loops, built and maintained by the Tarheel Trailblazers, with fun bridges, boardwalks and features for more technical mountain biking.

The main trail is good for all ages and skill levels. It's mostly shady and well-marked with Carolina Thread Trail blazes. There are also map kiosks every 0.5 miles, and several footbridges and benches along the way. I can't find a trail map online, but this is the yellow trail on the maps posted at the park.

The mountain bike trails -- mostly single-track -- loop their way along either side of the main trail. To navigate them, follow the red arrows. We enjoyed the 0.4-mile Boardwalk loop. This trail is green on the posted trail map. Other options include the 0.6-mile inner loop (purple) and 0.8-mile outer loop (blue), and I understand there are more in the works.

We also spent some time on the playground equipment, which wasn't too crowded on a weekday afternoon.

Next time we go, we plan to take fishing gear and set up camp for a while along the large, handicap-accessible fishing pier situated near the base of the dam. I hear this is a good area for catching catfish and bass.

There's plenty of parking in the main lot, but no restroom facilities, so plan your visit accordingly. 

There's something very pleasant about spending time along the water and, with so much to do here, we plan to visit Mountain Island park and trail again soon. 

How to get there:
The Mountain Island Lake park and trailhead are located at 400 Mountain Island Rd, Mt Holly, NC 28120.
Don't forget to pack
  • Comfortable walking shoes (sneakers will do)
  • Water and snacks
  • Mountain bikes (and helmets) 
  • Fishing gear 
  • Hats, sunscreen and sunglasses

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Hector H. Henry II Greenway - Moss Creek Village Segment

Here's a fun, flat, paved, 1.3-mile (one way) stretch of greenway for folks looking to explore the great outdoors in the Concord, NC area, about 30 minutes north of uptown.

The Moss Creek Village segment of the Hector H. Henry II Greenway, named for a long-time city council member, is part of the Carolina Thread Trail. It begins at Odell Elementary School and winds its way through peaceful wetlands, over boardwalks, and by a pond with a perfect perch for observing wildlife.

One day, this developing greenway will cover 14 miles along the banks of the Rocky River, connecting Kannapolis and Davidson to the Charlotte Motor Speedway, Harrisburg and Charlotte's University area. Already, though, this segment is a great destination for walking, running, skating, and riding bikes and scooters. There are educational signs along the route providing interesting information about the wetland ecology. You'll also find a few benches for taking a break. 

Our favorite part is the large observation deck overlooking the pond about mid-way through. There, we were greeted by geese and other birds.

For those who live north of Charlotte, or others looking to cover new territory, the Hector H. Henry II Greenway is a pleasant, family-friendly destination.

Note: There are no restroom facilities along this greenway; plan accordingly.

How to get there: The trailhead is next to the Odell Elementary School parking lot, located at 1215 Moss Farm St. North West, Concord, NC, 28027. During school days most parking is reserved for school personnel, but there are a handful of spots, marked with painted lizards, designated for greenway parking.

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

Thursday, January 28, 2021

Catawba River Greenway

In 2011, Mount Holly, NC, was named a Playful City USA, a nod to active recreation amenities and accommodations for everyone in the community. Just 20 minutes west of uptown and nestled along the banks of the Catawba River, directly across from the US National Whitewater Center, this small, historical town remains a draw for outdoor enthusiasts and folks looking to explore.

In Mount Holly, you'll find a number of parks and trails as well as a charming downtown with food and retail. Recently, we visited the Catawba River Greenway, which offers a nice combination of all of the above.

The paved Catawba River Greenway is 1.2 miles and runs from Tuckaseege Park at the south end to the Mount Holly Municipal Complex at the north.

Tuckaseege Park offers a bunch of fun amenities, including a skate park, dog park, playground, playing fields, picnic shelters and riverfront access. There's also a paved 0.7-mile walking trail around the park that connects to the greenway. The park also has restroom facilities.

The greenway meanders peacefully along the river and then into town, where, 0.3 miles from the trail trailhead, you can find downtown dining and shopping.

For the most part, the greenway borders natural areas, though it does make its way behind and between some industrial buildings at points. Also, getting to town requires you to cross a couple of pretty busy streets, but there are ways to do it safely.

We found the greenway to be quiet, pleasant and not too crowded. It's great for walking, biking, strollers and other wheeled toys. Given its proximity to town, it's also pretty convenient. We'll be adding the Catawba River Greenway -- and other "playful" Mount Holly amenities -- to our excursion rotation. It's a fun place to explore.

How to get there:
You can find parking for the Catawba River Greenway at Tuckaseege Park, located at 165 Broome St., Mount Holly, NC, 28120, or the Mount Holly Municipal Complex, located at 400 E. Central Ave., Mount Holly, NC 28120.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • Bikes, skates, scooters and helmets
  • Water and snacks
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen
  • Fishing gear (you can throw a line in along the river)

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Love Valley Trail

Saddle up, friends, and let me put a little bee in your bonnet about a most unusual outing.

In 1954, Charlotte businessman Andy Barker left his general contracting career at 29 years old to fulfill his childhood dream of living in an authentic Western town. But, instead of heading out West, he packed up his family and moved just past Statesville, about an hour and 15 minutes north of Charlotte.

Here, in the foothills of the Brushy Mountains, he founded the town of Love Valley, creating an authentic replica of an old Wild West movie setting, complete with a dirt main street open only to pedestrian and equine traffic, a saloon, a general store, a post office and a leather smith.

Today, Love Valley still stands, boasting a population of just under 100 people, and offers visitors a bona fide glimpse of a rugged, quaint Wild West existence. And, bonus for hikers and bikers looking for new frontiers, it's home to a section of the Carolina Thread Trail.

Intrigued by the novelty and lore, and seeking a new-to-us trail, we recently visited Love Valley and, as the cowboys would say, I could yarn the hours away about what we found. It was hands-down one of the most unusual outings we've taken. This tiny, anachronistic town is interesting, bizarre, surprising, and, to me, a little bit uncanny. Here's what you can expect if you go:

There's a large gravel public parking lot at the corner of Henry Martin Trail Rd. and Tori Pass Ln., across the street from Ms. Kitty's B&B. Leave your car here; "downtown" is closed to vehicular traffic.

From the parking lot facing the street, the main stretch is a block to your left. You can't miss the large, soaring, ranch-style "Love Valley" entrance sign. Amble this way to see the historic buildings and to find the trailhead, which is at the dead end, marked with a Carolina Thread Trail sign.

On a weekday afternoon, save for a local or two (and the specter playing piano at the saloon. No, really.), we were the only ones around. Which lent some authenticity to a ghost-town vibe. I never felt unsafe, but I definitely muttered "this is so weird" more than a handful of times.

The 2.7-mile natural surface trail is great for horses if you have one, decent for feet, and not at all ideal for bikes. We tried two-wheelers first, but quickly determined it would make for a better hike. And even then we only got so far.

The trail was muddy and trenched in many places with steep inclines. Total, it's 2.7 miles (one way) and might have become more passable farther along, but I can confirm that the first mile or so is tough and not-so-pleasant going, particularly if it's rained in, say, the past week. (Also, look out for horse droppings and yield to equestrians.)

When we went, the town was still adorned with Christmas decorations, which leads me to believe it had been alive with events and merriment a few weeks ago. But it was hard to tell otherwise whether any of the old shops and restaurants are currently in operation. The town website says they are primarily open on weekends. If you're interested in a social outing, it's probably worth a call to some of the local establishments in advance.

If you're feeling pioneering and interested in taking a step back in time, get a wiggle on (cowboy for "hurry") and mosey up to Love Valley. It's a lot of things, but most especially, something you can't find anywhere else in these parts. Giddy up, pardner.

How to get there:
A public parking lot for downtown Love Valley is located at 152 Henry Martin Trail, Love Valley, NC, 28625. The Carolina Thread Trail sign and trailhead is at the dead end of the main stretch.

Don't forget to pack:
  • Comfortable walking shoes: Boots are a good choice for the trail after a rain.
  • Water and snacks
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen
  • Bugspray: Particularly in warmer months
  • A sense of adventure

Thursday, January 14, 2021

McDowell Nature Preserve

McDowell Nature Preserve, the oldest preserve in Mecklenburg County, is a treasure trove of outdoor adventure amenities. Home to a nature center, campground, fishing piers, boat ramps and hiking trails, McDowell offers something for everyone any time of year.

When I was a kid, my dad would take us camping at McDowell, and, though the 1,132-acre preserve is less than 30 minutes from uptown, it always felt like a grand outdoor adventure to another part of the world. In many ways, it still does.

We most recently visited for fishing and enjoyed a pleasant hike through the woods while we were there. There are seven miles of trails within the preserve. If you go, I recommend you choose one of the routes that swing by the Lake Wylie waterfront (see park map). The large dock is a particularly pleasant place to pause.

The nature center at McDowell Nature Preserve, which features live animals and a discovery exhibit, offers a number of educational programs and activities for all ages and interests as well as information about the park's ecology. Self-interpretive trail guides are available in the nature center for miles of hiking trails. 

One fun feature of the Preserve is Copperhead Island, a 20-acre island with hiking trails, fishing docs, boat ramp and group camping facilities.

At McDowell, you'll also find shaded playgrounds, picnic areas, restroom facilities and lots of wildlife, including dozens of species of birds, reptiles and amphibians. 

Any time of year, whatever your outdoor excursion interests, McDowell Nature Preserve offers a wonderful place to escape into nature close to home. 

How to get there: McDowell Nature Preserve is located at 15222 South York Rd., Charlotte, NC 28278.

Don't forget to pack
  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • Fishing gear (optional)
  • Snacks and water
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen
  • Bug spray (particularly in the warmer months)   

Thursday, January 7, 2021

Day Trip: Congaree National Park

Magical treehouse meets enchanted forest. That's what you'll find at Congaree National Park

Located an hour and a half south of uptown, just past Columbia, SC, this is a beautiful and worthwhile destination for a day-trip from Charlotte.

Congaree National Park, nestled in the floodplain of the Congaree and Wateree Rivers, is home to the largest expanse of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern U.S. And it is gorgeous.

For an pleasant and rewarding excursion, you can chose from a number of trails, but I highly recommend the Boardwalk Loop trail, an easy, 2.6-mile hike that starts and ends at the visitor center. This remarkable trail, good for all ages and abilities, is built almost entirely on boardwalks, some low, some elevated, and all offering an impressive, immersive trek through lush marshlands and towering old-growth trees.

We especially appreciated the 20-stop self-guided walking tour, which provides valuable insight into the Congaree's cultural history and ecological importance. Along the tour, you'll learn fascinating facts about the native plants and observe signs of ecological transformation over the years. You'll also spot an old still, left over from the days when moonshiners found refuge in the hard-to-reach floodplain during the days of prohibition.

We visited for a hike, but the 26,276-acre park, open 24 hours a day, year-round, also offers camping  and canoe/kayaking adventures.

I found our time in these lowland woods, rich with bald cypress, water tupelo and loblolly pines, to be almost mystical -- and we were there on a rainy winter day. I'm already looking forward to a return visit to experience the magic of this natural wonderland as the seasons change. 

Note: Mosquitoes can be unpleasantly prevalent here in warmer months; plan your visit accordingly. 

How to get there: Congaree National Park is located at 100 National Park Rd., Hopkins, SC, 29061

Don't forget to pack:
  • Comfortable walking shoes
  • Water and snacks
  • Bug spray (especially in warmer months!)
  • Hats, sunglasses and sunscreen