Pittsboro-Chapel Hill Outdoors: Children's Wonder Garden at the NC Botanical Garden
I'll admit I wasn't thrilled with the North Carolina Botanical Garden the first few times we visited. The paths are overgrown (by design, not neglect), and it's confusing to get around if you aren't familiar with it. I preferred to take the kids to Duke Gardens (Durham) or the JC Raulston Arboretum (Raleigh) any day over the Botanical Garden, and here's why. The low visibility made me afraid the girls would step on snakes, and we also returned home with tons of mosquito bites each time we visited. And if they ran ahead at all, they were immediately out of sight due to the foliage.
But we recently discovered that a few newer (to us) and improved features near the Education Center make visiting the Botanical Garden with kids fun and low stress.
If you're standing in the parking lot looking at the Education Center, the Children's Wonder Garden sits on the left side of the building. It offers short paths through wildflowers, a fairy mailbox and letter writing station and a little natural playground. This portion of the garden is small, but when the kids are ready to move on, you can access the Piedmont Nature Trails from the gate at the end of the path for a short, shaded hike. I wrote about these trails in my last outdoors series post.
When you return from your hike, don't miss the stick sculpture by Patrick Dougherty, which you can walk (or run, in our case) through. It's located in the courtyard area in the middle of the Education Center complex.
Parking logistics & hours: There is a large parking lot in front of the Education Center. Check out garden hours here.
Strollers: A jogging or all-terrain stroller is a must for getting around the garden, though some of the paths other than those I described may be too narrow and overgrown for a stroller. The adjacent Piedmont Nature Trails are not suitable for strollers.
Bathrooms: There is an outdoor entrance to the restrooms at the Education Center next to the Children's Wonder Garden.
100 Old Mason Farm Rd.
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
Looking for more family-friendly outdoor activities in and around Pittsboro and Chapel Hill, NC? Click here for more Pittsboro-Chapel Hill Outdoors series posts. Click here to learn more about the series.
Pittsboro-Chapel Hill outdoors: Pizza, music and wandering the farm at Fearrington
Sometimes I get funny looks when I tell people we spent the morning or evening wandering around Fearrington Village in Pittsboro, NC.
Then they ask: "Isn't that a retirement community? Or a wedding venue?"
Well, yes and no. It's home to a lot of retirees and does host weddings, but it's also a pleasant and family-friendly place to relax. Fearrington Village was built on an old farm. It has a variety of restaurants and shops, which you can learn more about here. But I'm just going to focus on a few things we like to do there in the summer. It's the kind of place you could spend 10 minutes or a few hours milling around.
Pizza night: First things first. Let's talk about wood-fired pizza, wine and music nights at Roost Beer Garden. The pizza is cooked in a tiny house, then a server grabs it through an open window and delivers it to your picnic table on the patio. Locals bring their dogs, kids play around the garden, a low-key band jams on the porch. And did I mention the wine? Because there's always wine. Yes, it's as idyllic as it sounds. And yes, you should check it out before Roost shutters its doors for the season. (Be sure to look at their Facebook page or call before you go: 919.542.2121. Pizza and music may be canceled for inclement weather, but they are typically open April-November during the evenings on Thursday-Saturday "when music is playing.")
Barnyard: The kids love to check out the black and white belted cows, fainting goats and chickens in the barnyard right at the entrance. When we visited last week, there was a young calf in the front pasture with its parents and a brand-new baby goat across the driveway. Beware: much of the fencing is electric, so keep those little ones close.
Walking: We are walkers. Or, more accurately, I'm a walker and I force my family to walk with me or ride in the stroller while I walk. When we lived in Cary, I felt very safe walking alone on just about any trail in Raleigh and Cary. Since we moved out here, I feel a little uneasy alone on some trails; I'm just not as familiar with the area yet. Walking around Fearrington feels safe. There are friendly people out and about, but it's never crowded.
There are sidewalks throughout the village, so you can take a nice long walk if you meander around. They pass through neighborhoods and around pastures, where there are often cows and donkeys grazing. (If you're standing facing The Goat, turn left, walk past Roost, then turn right and follow the sidewalk on either side of the parking lot/street to head toward the neighborhoods.) There is also a gravel trail around a pond, which is suitable for a jogging or all-terrain-type stroller. (To get to the pond, which also has some random sheep statues to play around, walk past Roost, cross the parking lot at the crosswalk, turn right and follow the sidewalk until it hits the park and pond area.) The grounds of The Fearrington House Restaurant and barn are also usually open unless an event is taking place, so you can wander through the gardens.
Coffee: I'd be lying if I said I didn't always stop at The Goat for an iced mocha before setting out on a morning walk around Fearrington. It's still considered exercise if you're drinking a coffee the size of your head, right? The Goat has signs up indicating there may be nuts in their goodies, so we haven't tried any of their pastries or gelato (peanut allergy here!). But you should.
Books: Just next to the animals near the entrance, McIntyre's Books is a small, quaint, independent shop that hosts a lot of book readings and also offers a children's story hour. They have a cute children's nook filled with picture books and toys, but it's not large enough to hold the kids' attention for long.
Playground: Fearrington does have a small playground across the road, Village Way, from the main village. Because it has signs saying the playground is for residents only, I'll leave it up to you to find it if you're so inclined.
Bathrooms: Fearrington has nice, clean, indoor bathrooms. You can access them from a separate door between McIntyre's Books and The Granary restaurant.
Parking logistics: Parking is abundant and obvious. There are several paved parking areas around the village as soon as you drive in, and we've never had trouble finding a spot at any time of day. We have, however, witnessed some "interesting" driving antics. Please watch out for drivers who may not be as attentive as they should at crosswalks.
2000 Fearrington Village Center
Pittsboro, NC 27312
Map of village area (does not include neighborhoods or the path around the pond).
For more photos of Fearrington, check out Nora's 4-year-old lifestyle portrait session.
Click here to learn more about the Pittsboro-Chapel Hill Outdoors series. Click here for more series posts. The next installment will feature the Honeysuckle Tea House in Chapel Hill.
Adventures: Rocky Mountain winter
In December Jeff had a business trip to Colorado, so the rest of us tagged along to enjoy some time in the mountains before my travel ban set in. The altitude of our usual stomping grounds is a bit too high for my nauseated state, so we explored new territory in the Grand Lake area, which borders the western edge of Rocky Mountain National Park. Let me tell you: 8,500 feet feels so much better than 9,500 feet and above.
Lucky for us, one of my sisters and her family live in Denver and joined our adventure. We rented a cute little cabin together, which worked out well...once the neighbor came over to help us thaw the frozen pipes. The girls were quite taken with my nephew, Theo, whose 1st birthday is approaching more quickly than I'd like to believe. (Remember his birth announcement? Wasn't that just yesterday?)
Since downhill skiing wasn't exactly an option for some of us (me) this year, we spent the weekend snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, hiking and building snow forts. And drinking a lot of coffee. And eating a morning-long brunch at the legendary Fat Cat Cafe, where the cinnamon rolls sit firmly on the entree table, not the dessert table, so they don't count as treats. My only regret of the trip was not capturing a photo of the brilliant red fox we watched bounding through the snow outside the cabin one morning.
We might try to squeeze in another day trip or two this winter—a beach visit, perhaps—but mostly I'm hunkering down now, fixing up the nursery and trying to accomplish those challenging tasks like taking a full breath and fitting food into my stomach.
I'll admit it. All the snowy photos from the Rockies that are filling my Instagram feed this week are making me a bit heartsick for the West. But I can't complain, because we've got it pretty good here too; fall goes on forever. We spent a cozy, drizzly Halloween in Asheville with my sister and her family. One of the best parts of the weekend was having an entire apple orchard to ourselves the morning after Halloween, which we deemed "the introvert's dream activity." What could be better than bright leaves and a silent, misty, mountainous apple orchard?
The girls' favorite part of apple picking? Finding the tiniest apples.
The Blue Ridge Parkway wasn't looking too shabby this time of year either. I love to drive it while the littlest one is napping in the car.
I couldn't get enough of this gorgeous amaranth in my sister's yard either.
I'll admit I'm happy (overjoyed?) to say goodbye to this summer and welcome a fresh season, my favorite one. The humidity is waning, the temperatures are, hopefully, finally down from the 90's for the year and we're settling into our new house. It doesn't quite feel like home yet, but with every box we open and picture we hang, we're getting closer.
My blog has suffered big time this summer, and I regret not documenting our five weeks of travel here. I love having a record of our year, so I may backtrack a bit and post some trip photos this fall. Or maybe I'll just move on and start showing you the new house. Now that the girls are back in school a few mornings each week, I have some creative time back on my hands and I'm just going to see where it goes.
In the meantime, here are a few snaps from June in the Outer Banks (which will be forever known as our own personal shark week). You won't often find me in front of the lens, but I took some portraits with Jeff's side of the family and snuck in one just of our little crew (thank you tripod and Triggertrap—love this device). These people make me happy.
As we've been dying eggs and prepping for brunch, I've been thinking about last year's Easter in Asheville and can't believe I never got around posting these photos. They capture something magical; my sister, niece and I woke up early, drove up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and watched Easter sunrise over the mountains. Whether you're celebrating this weekend or not, I think you'll enjoy these landscapes. They remind me: always we begin again.
Fog over the French Broad River with moon still in view.
And then, out of the fog, emerged...cows.
I snapped this photo of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church in Hillsborough, NC, on Good Friday as we randomly drove by. I couldn't believe the sun was catching right on the cross at that moment.
When we're planning outdoor adventures in North Carolina, we tend to think about the beach and mountains. But, oh my. We've been missing out on something else that's been just under our noses this whole time. The Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula is the piece of land that juts out toward the Outer Banks, bordered by the Albemarle Sound to the north and the Pamlico Sound to the south. It consists mostly of pocosin marshlands and is divided between soggy farmland and several wildlife refuges. We drive through the northern edges of Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge and Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on our way to the Outer Banks every summer, but had only stopped a few times at the visitor center at Pocosin Lakes to stretch our legs along its boardwalk.
Then Jeff and I read "The Secret World of Red Wolves" and got sort of obsessed with the idea of exploring this area. The peninsula is the only place in the world where red wolves live in the wild; they became functionally extinct and were reintroduced here through a captive breeding program. It also sits along the Atlantic Flyway and hosts hundreds of thousands of birds that migrate south for the winter in some of the state's largest natural lakes, called Carolina bays. And it has, depending on the source, the highest concentration of black bears either on the East Coast or in the Southeast. Plus the landscape is amazing and unique.
There aren’t really places to eat or stay on the peninsula, so we decided to pack a cooler and take a long day trip.
Above: The Mattamuskeet Lodge. This structure was originally a pumping station, then a hunting lodge and now it's uninhabitable but listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If the state can ever find enough money, they may convert it back to a lodge.
Below: First we stopped in the old fishing village of Swan Quarter (where you can catch a ferry to Ocracoke), poked around the harbor and made friends with a group of cheerful 10-year-olds who surrounded us and asked, "Are y'all from out of town?!"
(These photos are a mix of iPhone and Canon 7D images.)
This is what all the farmland on the peninsula looks like: super soggy and carved with drainage canals. Those white dots in the background are tundra swans.
We made several stops for walks and photos at Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge. This place is so lovely. The entire lake is no more than "a swan's neck" deep—best expression ever—though it's 14 miles long and 5 miles wide.
We were thrilled to watch this beaver swimming around right next to us...until it climbed up on the bank...without a beaver tail. It turns out it's actually a nutria, or river rat, which is an invasive species of rodent from South America. Nora kept trying to drag me over to pat it. Umm, I think I'll stay clear of those giant orange teeth, thank you.
Tundra swans in the distance in one of the many canals around the lake.
Tundra swans swimming in Pungo Lake at Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.
Swans over Lake Mattamuskeet.
Swans above, swans below. Lake Mattamuskeet.
Adventures in mud
Just a quick note to say hello and Happy New Year from a warm and muddy North Carolina. We've been a bit cooped up over break with various ailments, so enjoying this morning's unseasonably warm weather felt especially lovely. I'd say these girls are ready to jump back into the routine, wouldn't you? Good luck getting back to reality this week.
Adventures: Chilly Carolina Beach
Where I grew up, ski team practice was in full swing by this time of the year and the neighborhood ice skating rink was calling to us during every other waking moment. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss an almost-guaranteed white Christmas or a community that thrives on snow and all the adventures it blows in.
But as unfamiliar as a temperate holiday season still feels after all these years, I really can't complain. What's better than the North Carolina coast in the summer? The North Carolina coast in the fall and winter, when the beaches are deserted, the sand is still warm and the surfing is good.
On our most recent trip, I did Cricket's 4-year photo session on the beach at sunrise. And, since we hadn't taken a family portrait in more than a year, I decided we should give it a go...Let's just say the first attempt wasn't pretty, but I dragged everyone out again later in the afternoon and got a few photos that make us smile.
Above: The girls in their natural state: running circles around us.
Below: The girls and Jeff being bribed into sitting still and smiling by their Papa waving a bag of Skittles behind the camera.
Beach portraits: She turns 4
I'm still in disbelief. Cricket just turned 4! Our late fall beach weekend provided the perfect backdrop for her portraits. Since I usually associate the beach with warm weather, I wanted to make sure something about these photos screamed fall. What I didn't account for, and didn't plan for when I pulled her outfit together, was that the photos really should have screamed winter; it was unseasonably cold for North Carolina (30 degrees with biting wind) when we woke up in time to catch sunrise over the water. The brave girl lasted upwards of one minute during our first attempt, but we got some lovely shots just the same.
And with that, we headed inside. Later that afternoon I grabbed my camera and captured a few more moments back to the beach to play. The sun was warm, and I could barely convince Cricket not to strip down and dive into the water.
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I'm Julia Soplop, writer and photographer. I believe there is something profound in bearing witness to moments of joy and pain in others’ lives. My husband, three girls and I live outside of Chapel Hill, NC. You can read more about me here.
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