Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Rocky Branch Park Revisited

In the short time since I first wrote about Rocky Branch Park, located about 25 minutes west of Uptown in Belmont, NC., this recreational destination -- already remarkable for a number of reasons -- has been renovated and transformed, making it even cooler and all the more worth a visit, especially if you enjoy trail riding. 

Last spring, the City of Belmont, the Town of Cramerton, Carolina Thread Trail, the Tarheel Traiblazers and Gaston County Schools created a remarkable partnership to develop the first inter-municipal park in our region. The result: An evolution of the 55-acre Rocky Branch Park, which now connects the Town of Cramerton and the City of Belmont and offers a beautiful, dynamic urban trail system (good for hikers, bikers, runners and walkers) in between. (Here's a park map.) 

The centerpiece of the newly designed park is a 1.25-mile natural surface greenway (part of the Carolina Thread Trail system), which runs from one end to the other. This hiker-prioritized gravel trail is easy and accessible to folks of all skill levels. 

Off to either side of the greenway trail are a number of biker-prioritized, single-track mountain biking trails of varying lengths and difficulty. Our favorite is the Canopy Trail (green blazes), a 1.15-mile loop featuring jumps, boardwalks, berms and other relatively simple technical options. This loop is good for beginners, but fun for all ages. 

The entire park is shaded and, (bonus!) trailheads at either end are located near other fun destinations. In Belmont, you're a mile from historic downtown, full of fun shops and restaurants (including the Cotton Candy factory!). In Cramerton, it's a short hop to visit Goat Island, the River Link Greenway, Riverside Greenway and South Fork Catawba River Blueway. You could easily make a day of exploring your way from Cramerton to Belmont and back with plenty to do (and no driving!) in between. 

If it's been a while since you visited Rocky Branch Park, you'll be impressed by its transformation. And if you're visiting for the first time, I think you'll enjoy discovering a fun new place to play. 

Note: Before you go, please check the trail status on the Tarheel Trailblazers website and observe the open/closed entrance signs. Some of the trails within Rocky Branch Park are all-weather, but not all of them. Please be a good steward and don't damage the trails by riding on them when they are wet. 

How to get there:
The Belmont trailhead is located at 103 Sacco St, Belmont, NC 28012. The Cramerton trailhead is located at the Gaston County EMS Station (700 Eagle Rd, Belmont, NC 28012). Note: There are no restrooms at the trailhead; plan accordingly. 

Friday, September 10, 2021

Andrew Jackson State Park

On our way to check out the Lindsay Pettus Greenway in Lancaster, SC, over the summer, we decided to tack on a visit to Andrew Jackson State Park. I'm glad we did. As far as State Parks go, this one feels bite-sized, yet satisfying. 

Andrew Jackson State Park, which is located a little under an hour south of Uptown, is relatively small, but is beautiful and full of history and educational and recreational options. 

Home to the birthplace of the seventh president of the United States, this park has a museum of Revolutionary War artifacts, an 18-acre lake for boating and fishing, two one-mile hiking trails (one of which is a Carolina Thread Trail), and 25 campsites.
 
The park often hosts living history programs and the museum offers interactive exhibits. (Check out the calendar of events.) One of our favorite stops was at the 18th century replica schoolhouse. We also enjoyed running around the large, open field at the main entrance. Nearby is an amphitheater and Meeting House for community events.
 
Andrew Jackson State Park is a lovely destination for a short, quick hike with some educational opportunities sprinkled in. Here's a park map.

You might consider pairing it with a visit to Lindsay Pettus, like we did. It's a short, 15 drive between the two. Ride the greenway, then enjoy a quiet picnic under the shade of the old-growth forest at the state park. 

Andrew Jackson State Park is open 8:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. daily from November 1 through March 31, and 9:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. daily from April 1 through October 31. The Museum is open Saturdays and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. and Monday-Friday by appointment. 

Admission is $3/adult, $1.50/senior, $1/children 6-15, and free for children 5 and younger. 

Andrew Jackson State Park makes for a simple, but enjoyable nearby outing, and something different worth checking out, especially if you haven't been before.  

How to get there:
Andrew Jackson State Park is located at 196 Andrew Jackson Park Rd, Lancaster, SC 29720. You'll pay for admission ($3/adult, $1.50/senior, $1/children 6-15, and free for children 5 and younger) at a kiosk on your way in. 

Friday, September 3, 2021

Here Comes the Train: Get to Know the CityLYNX Gold Line

This week, the CityLYNX Gold Line streetcar opened for service. This development has been many years in the making, but it's all worth the wait. Not only are streetcars fun to ride, but they provide environmental, social and economic benefits for our community. Here's why you should get to know the Gold Line. 

Something to do
My guess (hope!) is Gold Line ridership will really take off when more folks return to their uptown offices following the pandemic. But riding the streetcar is an excellent outing on it's own, even if you've got no reason to commute or no place in particular to be along the train route. 

The 2.5-mile track now runs through uptown, connecting the Historic West End to the Elizabeth neighborhood. All along the way, there are a number of things to do. Start with a tour of the Historic West End. Hop off in Center City for a bite to eat or a stroll around uptown. Take a short walk from the Elizabeth terminus to enjoy a beautiful view of uptown from the Elizabeth Ave. overpass bridge or to get ice cream from Two Scoops Creamery

The Gold Line runs from 5:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. daily. Since it is a streetcar (versus light rail), it stops at lights and follows the flow of traffic. End-to-end, depending on the time of day, it's about a 30-minute ride. There are 11 stops, all fully accessible. And, like all CATS services, you can rack-and-ride with your bike. Bonus: From now though the end of the year, it's free to ride! 

Good for the environment
According to SustainCLT, in 2011, Charlotte commuters released 296,000,000 pounds of carbon dioxide and consumed 14,599,000 gallons of excess fuel while sitting in traffic. Gasp! Cringe! The more folks who leave their gas-guzzling cars at home and opt for public transit, the less pollutant emissions and better air quality for Charlotte. Fewer cars also means less congestion and healthier commute times. Win win win, if you ask me. 

Good for the community
Streetcars provide equitable, and affordable transportation and help connect neighborhoods. They are also a draw for the next generation of young, talented workers who favor public transit as a solution to climate change. And (bonus!), studies have shown that folks who ride by rail are fitter than the average American. Community goodness abounds. 

Want more information? Check out this helpful video on how to ride the CityLYNX Gold Line. Enjoy the ride! 

How to get there: 
There are 11 stops along the Gold Line street car line, running from French St. at Beatties Ford Rd. in the west end to Sunnyside Ave. at Hawthorne Ave. in the east. Don't live near the rail line? Ride your bike! Rack-and-ride is available on all of the cars.

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Wing Haven Gardens and Bird Sanctuary

Let us take a minute to celebrate the local nature lovers who came before us. Maybe most especially today, Anne Springs Close, conservationist, philanthropist and benefactor of the beautiful, sprawling eponymous greenway and nature preserve, who died last week. 

The Anne Springs Close Greenway is a gift to the environment and to everyone in our community, given by a beautiful soul with an appreciation for the virtues of our natural surroundings. 

Same with the McGill Rose Garden, dreamt up and brought to life by Helen McGill in the 1950s, and the public gardens at the historic Duke Mansion, cultivated by James B. Duke in the early 1900s. 

Add to those Wing Haven Gardens and Bird Sanctuary, the legacy of two women named Elizabeth who created a sanctuary for wildlife, plants and Charlotte neighbors in the heart of Myers Park during the first half of the 20th century. Ten houses apart on Ridgewood Ave., Elizabeth Clarkson and her husband Edwin and Elizabeth Lawrence built magnificent gardens that live on for visitors of all ages for miles around to enjoy today. To visit is to be taken back in time and immersed in a natural oasis. 

For younger visitors, a more recent addition is the SEED Wildlife & Children’s Garden with beautiful, whimsical features and activity centers for a hands-on experience. 

We love to stroll through the labyrinth of garden trails, sit and listen to birdsong on benches under the sprawling tree canopy, read the quotes hidden in and among the plants, and study the beauty of all the living things that call Wing Haven home. 

Wing Haven, which is open to the public Wednesday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., hosts tours and other events. (Face masks are currently required inside Wing Haven's buildings). Admission is free for members, $10 for adults and children over 10, and free for children 10 and under. Tickets are available, at the door, online or by phone.

Thank you, Anne, Helen, James, Elizabeth, Elizabeth, and many others who, with foresight and love of community and nature, left us the gift of green space. May we honor your legacy through our own conservation efforts and shared appreciation for the great outdoors. 

How to get there: 
Wing Haven is located at 248 Ridgewood Ave, Charlotte, NC 28209. Out of consideration for neighbors, visitors are strongly encouraged to park in the lot at 260 Ridgewood Ave.

Friday, August 13, 2021

Get to KnowCLT: Brooklyn

Fellow Charlotteans, stop what you're doing, find your "to do" list, and add this to the top of it.

Levine Museum of the New South recently launched a free new app called KnowCLT. Take a minute to download the app, then make some time to use it. 

Here's why (and how):

It's educational

KnowCLT provides a GPS-based, immersive, self-guided walking tour of what was once Brooklyn, a large, vibrant, Black neighborhood located uptown that was erased in the name of urban renewal in the 1960s. Brooklyn was a beautiful, thriving community and this experience tells the story of the area, its architecture, and the people who lived there. Recognizing the tragedy of the demolition of Brooklyn is uncomfortable, but also important for all citizens of our city.

It's engaging

I've never used virtual reality technology before, so I was blown away by how easy it was to use and what an incredible experience the program provides.

Simply head uptown and situate yourself inside of the parameters of the tour on the map within the app. Your exact location will appear as a blue dot, which moves with you as you make your way toward each stop. The app notifies you when you're getting close and when you've arrived. In real life, you're looking for a large green circle mounted on the sidewalk at each location.

Stand in the circle (feet facing the way the white footprints tell you to. Really, could it be any easier?). Hold your phone in the direction the app instructs you and, like magic, an augmented reality image of what used to be will appear. Each stop includes an audio explanation and interesting background information.

There are seven historic sites and two informational stops located within a 4-city-block radius. You can begin anywhere, go at your own pace, and choose your own route to visit them. Check out this brochure for more information about what to expect before you go. 

This makes for a great outing for kids, who will find the technology and scavenger-hunt aspects of the outing exciting. Plus, this glimpse of history can be a very eye-opening experience for even very young participants.  

It's entertaining

If it's been a while since you've been uptown, KnowCLT provides the perfect reason for an urban excursion. Since the pandemic began, we've not had as many excuses to head to Center City as we once did. This is a good one, though. And I recommend you pair the virtual tour with a visit to the exhibit Brooklyn: Once a City within a City (and/or any of the other engaging exhibits) at Levine Museum of the New South (200 E. 7th St.).

As a bonus, KnowCLT gives you an option to earn rewards to redeem at local, Black-owned businesses. Fun for now and later!

More to come
I understand the museum plans to add experiences to the app in the future. For now, take this opportunity to journey to the past and get to know the beauty of Brooklyn. I think you'll be glad you did, and I know you'll be a better informed citizen for it. 

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Into the Woods: A Local Guide to Tent Camping

Think camping might be fun, but not really sure where to begin? When I posted a guide to gearing up for a day outing, a number of folks told me they'd find an overnight packing list handy, too.

As our family prepares to embark on a handful of camping trips over the next few weeks, packing is top of mind for me. It's been a good excuse to dust off my lists and spend some time putting together a comprehensive guide to the basic necessities (as well as some nice-to-have accessories) for tent camping excursions.

Checklist 

Here's what I came up with. Of course, this checklist can (and should) be personalized according to your needs and preferences, but I think it's a solid place to start for both novices and seasoned-but-it's-been-a-while campers alike. 

Equipment

If you're just dipping your toes into the experience, renting gear (REI is a good place to start) or borrowing it from a friend might be the way to go. Or, I commend to you Goat Gear XCHG (824 Lamar Ave, Charlotte, NC 28204), an outdoor gear consignment shop where you can get the basics for a fraction of new purchase costs (bonus: upcycling helps save money and the planet!)

Another tip: We pack everything — from food to clothes — in stackable, clear plastic containers. Makes it easy to keep things organized, clean and dry. I also recommend taking a large cloth or mesh drawstring bag for storing dirty laundry (Walmart has a great selection) throughout the trip. 

Destinations

Now, where to camp. If you'd feel more comfortable sticking close to home, McDowell Nature Preserve (15222 York Rd., Charlotte, NC, 28278), a Mecklenburg County park about 30 minutes southwest of uptown Charlotte, might be just the right destination for you. 

A little farther out, we like Lake Norman State Park (759 State Park Rd., Troutman, NC, 28166), about 45 minutes north of town, and Cane Creek Park (5213 Harkey Rd., Waxhaw, NC, 28173), an hour or so south.

Our favorite excursions take us to Western North Carolina. High on our list of favorites are:
If the coast is more your thing, you might enjoy:
You can find lots of other wonderful options at North Carolina State Parks and Recreation.org

Reservations 

While some campgrounds offer first come/first-serve sites, it's generally best to secure a reservation. As we emerge from the pandemic, this can be challenging, but not impossible! 

I recommend spending some time familiarizing yourself with the campground map before you search for dates and sites. On loops, we find that the outside sites tend to be preferable to inside (more privacy) and, while it's nice to have the restroom nearby, a site adjacent to the bathhouse can be high-traffic. Think about what you want out of a space before you decide when and where to go.

Happy campers
As with day outings, getting started can be the biggest hurdle. Planning, preparation and packing takes time and energy. But I always find it's well worth the effort. A night or two in the woods with very few distractions can do wonders for your mental and physical health -- a restorative boost that can last well after you've returned to modern living. 

If you've been considering a wilderness getaway, consider this an invitation to give it a try. Got questions? Message me; I'd love to help. 

Happy camping! 

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Lake Corriher Wilderness Park

On the way to see the Eccentric Cycles Exhibit at the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer, N.C. (fascinating and worth a visit!), we decided to check out a new-to-us park and trail. Which is how we discovered Lake Corriher Wilderness Park, located in China Grove, NC, about 40 minutes northeast of uptown Charlotte.

Lake Corriher Wilderness Park, located in the Lake Corriher Wilderness Area and run by the Town of Landis Department of Parks, is home to Lake Corriher and the old town reservoir. The park offers fishing (by permit), camping (by reservation), boating, disc golf (a nice, 12-hole course) and, of course, hiking. The park office provides passes and gear rentals (kayaks, discs, etc.) and is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. April through September and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. October through March.

We found Lake Corriher easy to get to, full of wildlife, and pleasant for a water-side stroll. From the parking lot, you're a stone's throw from the first of the two lakes. There's also a map kiosk near the entrance, which is worth a glance before you set off to explore.

We did this hike, which hugs the banks of both lakes, following the red blazes on the first stretch and blue on the back half. A third of a mile in, there's a large picnic area with fire pits and large rocks for climbing on. While the start of this hike is pretty flat and easy, there's a reason for the "rough terrain" warning sign father in. Lots of rocks and roots make for a more challenging excursion. It's navigable, though, and one of our favorite parts was the boardwalk bridge crossing the tip of the second lake.

Another shorter, simpler hike is this Carolina Thread Trail around the first lake. It's less than a mile and good for all ages and abilities.

A word of warning: There's a spaghetti network of well-worn spur trails that are not all well marked. This makes it easy to get off track if you're not paying attention. Here's a park map to help you get the lay of the land.

If you're in the China Grove area, Lake Corriher is a nice place to visit. If you're looking for a reason to head up that way, the N.C. Transportation Museum is worth a trip in and of itself (go see the eccentric bikes if you get a chance, but, hurry, it only runs through early September 2021!). Pairing the Lake Corriher hike with a museum tour was a lovely day-outing for our crew and I'd recommend it to you as well.

How to get there:
Parking for Lake Corriher Wilderness Area is located at 955 Kimball Road, China Grove, NC 28023.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

Gaga for GaGa Ball

Yes, GaGa Ball is a real game. No, we did not make it up. This summer, GaGa Ball has become one of our family's favorite pastimes. And we often get questions about it. If you've never heard of this sport, you're not alone.

GaGa Ball is like dodgeball, but in a fenced-in hexagonal (or sometimes octagonal) pit, and the goal is to knock out your opponents by striking them with a bouncy ball below the knee. There are a few more rules, but that's the gist of it. It's a simple, fast-moving game, fun for all ages and group sizes.

We enjoy pairing GaGa Ball sessions with a bike ride on the greenway (it makes for a fun destination activity) and sometimes ice cream or Slurpies after.

While the origins of GaGa ball are a bit of a mystery (it's thought to have debuted in the United States in the 1950s, having originated in Israel and been introduced here by Israeli counselors working at summer camps. Gaga in Hebrew means "touch touch.") there's no denying it's grown in popularity in recent years. Local kids are likely to have played it in school, at camp, or with friends in the neighborhood.

The beauty of the game is that, besides the pit, all the equipment you really need is a light, bouncy ball and some supportive, comfortable shoes. I do recommend throwing some water bottles in your gear bag; it's easy to work up a sweat when you get to playing.

We've found a few public pits in and around Charlotte (they're often at schools or churches). Our favorite is in the corner of the soccer fields at Dilworth Elementary School (405 E. Park Ave., Charlotte, N.C., 28203) because it's large, flat and shaded. And there are public restrooms and water fountains at the adjacent Tom Sykes Recreation Center

Some of our other go-tos are:
  • The playground at St. Patrick Cathedral (1621 Dilworth Rd. E., Charlotte, N.C. 28203, just down the street from Dilworth Elementary)
  • Beside First Baptist Church Uptown (301 S. Davidson St., Charlotte, N.C., 28202)
  • In the far corner of the track across the street from Eastover Elementary School (500 Cherokee Rd., Charlotte, N.C., 28207)
Know of other GaGa pits around town? I'd love to hear about them. A quick search for a local directory came up empty. Maybe we can create one here.

I know GaGa Ball sounds newfangled. Or maybe made up? But, when it comes to schoolyard games, this one's a classic. And I recommend giving it a try. Go on. Go gaga. It's fun for the whole family. 

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Polly's Garden at UNCC Botanical Gardens

Been a while since you’ve visited UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens? There’s a fun new reason to make a trip to campus, just 20 minutes north of uptown.

The Polly Rogers Memorial Sensory Garden recently opened to the public. This beautiful new space, created in honor of a UNCC student who was studying to be a Special Education teacher when she passed away in 2018, offers a beautiful space for both peaceful contemplation and playful whimsy.

The entrance to the Polly's Garden is at the southern end of the Van Landingham Glen (here's a map), a 7-acre garden featuring rhododendrons and native plants of the Carolinas. (There's also the Susie Harwood Garden, well worth a visit, too)

As soon as you enter Polly's Garden, you're greeted with stimulating things to see and do. On your right is a music area, full of brightly colored cymbals and pipes. Beside the music station is an installation of river stones full of colorful rocks to play with. Nearby is a small library of nature-related books to read during your time in the gardens. Just beyond that are fun little fairy garden diorama blocks. All around are vibrant totem poles, each decorated with a different theme.

The center of the garden features an infinity path with gorgeous stonework, including mosaics. The stone bench along the edge of the path is a perfect place to pause and listen to the adjacent bubbling stream.

The garden is designed to be accessible for all and offers lots of opportunities for people of varying ages and stages to connect with nature.

If you get a chance, visit the nearby McMillan Greenhouse (currently closed for COVID-19). Among many other cool features (like a dinosaur garden and orchid room), this is home to a rare Titan Arum (meet Rotney the Magnifiscent, II), one of the world's largest flower structures when it blooms. They can reach 10-feet tall. Interestingly, they also smell like rotten meat, which is why they are sometimes called the corpse flower (hence Rotney's clever name).

Parking information for the gardens is below, but might I suggest you make an adventure of it and ride the light rail trail to campus (here's how!).   

The gardens are free and open dusk to dawn daily. 

How to get there:
Free public parking for the Botanical Gardens and Greenhouse is available behind the greenhouse in lot 16A, located at 9090 Craver Rd., Charlotte, NC, 28262. The entrance to the Polly's Garden is at the southern end of the Van Landingham Glen portion of the Botanical Gardens. You can access it through the trails in the Glen, or at the Bonnie Cone gated entrance on Mary Alexander Rd. Here's a map that will help you navigate.

Keep in mind, this trip is doable by light-rail and foot if you're up for an adventure! Here's how