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At the entrance to South Mountain State Park, just north of Charlotte, two young brothers stare up at a colorful sign adorned with playful animal illustrations that reads “Welcome to the TRACK Trail.” A series of brochures in clear boxes on the sign’s posts catch their eyes. “That one’s Animal Athletes,” reads the oldest. “That’s Nature’s Hide and Seek. Ooh, this one’s Bug Out!”
“Let’s do Bug Out!” his younger brother shouts, grabbing a copy and running toward the trailhead. Their parents follow close behind.
If you’re looking for ways to plan an electronics-free outing, check out two types of trails created specifically for children. Sprinkled at parks throughout the state, TRACK Trails and StoryWalks are designed to inspire kids and families to spend time together in the great outdoors.
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The Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation’s Kids in Parks program opened its first TRACK Trail in 2009. Today, 40 of its 133 trails wind through North Carolina state parks.
Jason Urroz, the director of Kids in Parks, says brochures like Bug Out! “turn an ordinary hike into a fun-filled, discovery-packed adventure.” Children might hunt for insects or identify trees based on bark and leaf shape. All the while, they practice noticing the natural world surrounding them.
As an added incentive, kids who register online with TRACK Trails and log activities earn small prizes that encourage more hikes. Read on for a few destinations around the state.
South Mountains State Park includes elevations up to 3,000 feet, as well as an impressive 80-foot waterfall. photograph by Craig West/NC DNCR
One of the park’s less traveled paths, the River Trail crosses two footbridges over Jacob Fork River on a level, half-mile ramble. “It follows the river, so there are lots of opportunities to hop in the river and look for critters,” Park Ranger Mary Griffin says.
Your young companions might learn about the park’s amphibians with the Salamander Safari brochure and may even spot one on the forest floor. If your group wants to continue hiking after the trail ends at the Jacobs Creek Parking Area, the 0.3-mile flat Hemlock Nature Trail continues along the river.
At Merchants Millpond State Park, bald cypress trees create winding paths for both turtles and kayaks. photograph by Craig West/NC DNCR
Merchants Millpond State Park — Gatesville
Coleman Trail, the TRACK Trail at Merchants Millpond State Park, winds through woodlands before it becomes a boardwalk that crosses sections of Lassiter Swamp under towering bald cypress and tupelo gum trees laden with Spanish moss.
In the early 1800s, inhabitants dammed Bennett Creek to create the 760-acre pond in this Gates County Park. It soon became a center of commerce with a sawmill, gristmills, and farm supply store.
Using tips from the Let’s Explore brochure, kids can photograph flora and fauna in the park’s unique ecosystem on the 2-mile loop. For example, at the edge of the millpond, yellow-bellied sliders often sunbathe on logs emerging from blankets of bright green duckweed.
Families can also rent canoes from the visitor center to paddle through the tannic brown waters of the coastal pond and ancient blackwater swamp. When the duckweeds and water ferns part on its surface, dark water reflects a leafy canopy of cypress and gum trees. Drifting through this stillness, past the bright orb-like blooms of yellow cow lilies, you might glimpse local wildlife, like egrets wading in the shallows, or an alligator lounging near the shoreline.
Look for well-preserved Native American fish traps, as well as leftover relics from local textile mills at Mayo River State Park. photograph by Craig West/NC DNCR
Mayo River State Park — Mayodan
Several distinct accesses comprise Mayo River State Park, providing multiple gateways to the northern Piedmont river. At the Mayo Mountain Access, a half-mile TRACK Trail loops through the shady hardwood forest.
After your fellow adventurers choose a brochure, venture into the woods beyond the TRACK Trail sign. Keep watch for mushrooms and creeping creatures like centipedes among the running cedar and ferns along the forest floor. Eventually, the path follows a trickling creek that feeds the ponds near the park office.
After your hike, drive to the Deshazo Creek Access to visit Fall Creek Waterfall. It’s a short walk to see creek waters tumbling over a stone ledge. Wade in the pool below to cool off, then walk along the creek until it merges with the wide Mayo River.
StoryWalks also encourage families to be physically active in the fresh air, with a different objective: promoting literacy. More than a decade ago, Anne Ferguson of Montpelier, Vermont, had the simple idea of displaying the pages of a children’s picture book along a path. Now these StoryWalks are found in every state.
“StoryWalks are an important way to bring books and literacy skills to where children are every day — at the park!” says John Russell, the Lincoln County Public Library’s youth services coordinator.
At Rock Springs Nature Preserve, both the StoryWalk and TRACK Trails are easy to reach from the wide-open, sunny playground. To find the StoryWalk at the preserve, follow the sidewalk beyond the green slides, swings, and picnic shelter until you see a row of signs lining a path that disappears into the trees.
Each sign holds the page of a book to read and enjoy with your young trail mates.
Since opening in 2017, this trail has featured books like Bear Wants More, How I Became a Pirate, and How Do Dinosaurs Go to School? In addition to book pages, stops along these walks also suggest activities that tie into the stories and offer literacy tips for parents and caregivers.
“Children are invited to explore each page of the story and interact with them by finding objects, talking like different characters, and pretending to be an animal as they move to the next page,” Russell says. “This creative play helps children learn and make new connections while having fun.”
The preserve’s TRACK Trail leads from the parking lot to a 0.4-mile loop. You’ll walk along a paved route until you reach the preserve’s outdoor classroom, where the path changes to gravel. As your little ones search for snails or try frog hops along the path, you’ll weave under oaks and hickory trees together.
Vance Street Park — Waynesville
In the far western part of the state, the StoryWalk in Vance Street Park follows part of the town’s greenway along Richland Creek. “Books here are generally changed with the seasons,” says Caroline Roten, the assistant library director at Haywood County Public Library.
The walk starts at a picnic shelter, and the greenway’s paved surface means easy going for families with strollers and those with mobility challenges. After you and your child enjoy the story, use the accessible fishing pier to peek over the creek’s rushing waters. Then walk farther down the greenway to Recreation Park where children glide on zip lines, climb through tunnels, and gently spin together on a lime green saucer at the traditional and all-abilities playgrounds.
The 75-foot-tall Ocracoke Lighthouse is our state’s shortest lighthouse, but the oldest still in operation. photograph by Jeff Yount/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Robbie’s Way — Ocracoke
Tucked between rental properties on a strip of land known as Robbie’s Way, Ocracoke Island’s StoryWalk leads to the Pamlico Sound. As you walk the sandy footpath through the trees, you’ll come across the book pages on display.
Sundae Horn, branch manager for Ocracoke Community Library, selects books with ocean, beach, or marsh themes and switches out the titles every few months. Since its opening in late 2021, titles have included An Island in the Sun, A House for Hermit Crab, and The Sheltering Cedar, which has a special connection to Robbie’s Way. At one time, Charles and Robbie Runyon, the parents of its author and illustrator Anne Marshall Runyon, owned the 15-foot-wide sliver of land.
When you reach the path’s end, you’ll face the sound on a narrow beach. “If people want to swim there, it’s a nice safe place to paddle around in the water because there are no waves,” Horn says.
Without parking at Robbie’s Way, most visitors reach the trail on foot or on bicycles, which limits the number of visitors. A short walk takes you to the closest lot, on Lighthouse Road, which also offers proximity to Ocracoke Lighthouse and Springer’s Point Preserve. And at The Slushy Stand, you can give your fun-filled day a sweet ending.
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