Sketch book in one hand and colored pencils in the other, my daughter strolls McGill Rose Garden with a look of near enchantment. Typically more of a swirling, twirling, whirling
Sketch book in one hand and colored pencils in the other, my daughter strolls McGill Rose Garden with a look of near enchantment. Typically more of a swirling, twirling, whirling 7-year-old, even Claire seems lulled with wonder as we slowly meander around the perimeter, admiring the way this urban oasis tucks right into the industrial terrain of Charlotte’s NoDa Arts District.
Around one bend, Claire stops to draw a pot of succulents while I admire the other folks drawn to this sunny space: There’s a couple beaming for engagement photos, a group of friends catching up over a picnic, even two suited businesswomen enjoying a respite from the office. Birds call, a train whistles, and the juxtaposition just works.
Seeking this kind of solace for yourself? Charlotte has long prioritized the benefits of the great outdoors. Read on for our guide to five pockets of Queen City paradise.
In Charlotte, you’ll discover a lot. From thrilling adventures to moving artistic performances, family play dates and magnetic nightlife, the Queen City holds something for everyone. North Carolina’s largest city is what’s now and what’s next.
McGill Rose Garden
It was six decades ago that Helen Moffat McGill began planting these rose bushes along the fence lines of the coal and ice work yard of her husband’s shop, the Avant Fuel & Ice Company. Nurturing and adding to her plantings each year, McGill eventually opened the garden for the public on Mother’s Day 1962. When it was sold in the ’70s, the property was designated a city park for all to enjoy. Today, the All-American Rose Selections Public Garden brims with a thousand roses in more than 200 varieties.
Rosie’s Coffee & Wine Garden is adjacent to the property and adds the perfect pairing — coffee, tea, or wines by the glass or bottle — for a lingering visit. And while the roses are at peak beauty in May and October, other annuals, succulents, and herbs, as well as sculpture art, gravel paths, benches, and quaint tables, make the property a year-round destination for outdoor enthusiasts — and a wildly popular weddings space, too.
On our way out, we pause at a memorial plaque lauding “The Rose Lady.” McGill’s vision, the marker reads, was to show that beauty can exist anywhere — even in a coal yard. “Mommy, she did it,” Claire says, pointing to the words as she nods toward the garden. “Mrs. McGill achieved her goal.” Indeed.
Fewer than three miles south, tucked in the historically grand Myers Park neighborhood, a winding driveway crests, revealing the stately Duke Mansion. Built in 1915 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the century-old Colonial Revival property is operated as a nonprofit bed and breakfast these days, with 20 luxurious guest rooms and a packed calendar of events.
A perfect complement to the impressive abode, the property’s four and a half acres of immaculately kept grounds are free and open to the public during daylight hours most days. The Mary D.B.T. Semans Gardens — named after James B. Duke’s niece, a philanthropist, civic leader, and garden enthusiast — were designed to mark the mansion’s 100th anniversary.
Here, you’ll find majestic trees and year-round blooms among 12 picturesque gardens, which include a woodland fairy area, a prayer garden, small playground, fountains, and ferns, as well as a flowering walk, spring meadow, sunny terraces, and more. Complimentary guided tours are available for groups, or you can make the outing all the more magical by ordering a chef-prepared picnic — which can come complete with a bottle of bubby — to be enjoyed in a scenic, shady spot.
Wing Haven Garden & Bird Sanctuary
Nearby in the same neighborhood, Elizabeth and Edwin Clarkson set to work on what would become their much-celebrated garden upon returning from their 1927 honeymoon. For 10 years the visionary couple purchased parcels, ultimately growing the garden to three acres. The Wing Haven Garden & Bird Sanctuary, developed with feathered friends in mind, boasts formal areas, woodlands, and herb gardens that still serve as food and nesting sites to nurture birds. The Clarksons also helped found the Mecklenburg Audubon Society in 1940 and, to date, more than 150 species have been spotted at Wing Haven.
Purchase a ticket and a comprehensive visitor guide and enjoy the self-guided tour through rich Southern horticulture, including arbors, fountains, pools, and small statuary. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for quips and quotes posted on signs and walkways throughout the grounds.
At the back of the property, beyond the rose garden, the SEED Wildlife Garden & Children’s Garden includes hands-on spaces for kids to enjoy some dirty work, including an outdoor classroom, climb-in bird’s nest, and the chance to observe active bee hives. Ten houses down, The Elizabeth Lawrence House & Garden is the site of the world-renowned garden writer’s living laboratory. Admission is included, and it’s a don’t-miss addition to your Wing Haven visit.
Megan Carmilani and her 8-year-old daughter began visiting weekly last fall. “I was first attracted to Wing Haven because it felt like a secret garden,” Carmilani recalls, adding that she appreciated the garden’s pandemic protocols. The chance to explore, dig, and climb, while also enjoying the serenity of the plants and trees, was what kept the family coming back, she says. “Nature just seems to make everything better.”
Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden
For textile executive and nature enthusiast Daniel J. Stowe and his wife, Alene, the largest garden in town, Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden, was the fulfillment of their dream to help people reconnect with nature.
Located southwest of Uptown, on 380 acres on the banks of Lake Wylie in Belmont, Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden opened in 1999. Since then, its sweeping visitor pavilion featuring a 100-year-old stained-glass dome has greeted guests in grand fashion, welcoming them to explore 110 acres of exhibits.
There’s something for all levels of garden enthusiasts here, and paid admission includes the Four Seasons garden, Ragan Canal Garden, a medieval-inspired Lost Hollow: The Kimbrell Children’s Garden, Magnolia Allée, a five-story glass Orchid Conservatory, and an anything-but-average perennial garden.
Set off on your own pace to enjoy the well-marked nature trails, whimsical statues, and wonderful fountains, or sign up for a guided group tour or expert-led horticulture or birding walk. Pick up a gift from The Garden Store — think art and decor, honey and candles, and even wine and jewelry — and don’t forget to check the website for upcoming seasonal happenings. Past events have included the ever-popular Holidays at the Garden, as well as a Chinese Lantern Festival and a concert series.
UNC Charlotte Botanical Gardens
Choose your own adventure on the rolling campus of UNC Charlotte, where a gravel entrance leads to two distinct gardens. Fifty years of curation have gone into the compact but abundant Susie Harwood Garden, featuring paths, ponds, and a show-stealing Asian Garden. Follow your nose to such gems as the Fragrant Paperbush, and pack a picnic to enjoy at the pond’s gazebo.
Or you can opt to start at the Van Landingham Glen, a more informal woodland garden highlighting plants native to the Carolinas within seven acres of oak-hickory forest. More than a mile of trails wind through upwards of 1,000 species of trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and ferns, plus an impressive collection of rhododendrons and azaleas. Want to hang? Pack a portable hammock and enjoy hooking into the designated Hammock Zone posts. In May, the Polly Rogers Memorial Sensory Garden will open in The Glen, designed especially for children as it stimulates the senses through plantings and interactive elements.
Both outdoor gardens have seasonal brochures with maps located at the entrance. Admission is free, but donations are greatly appreciated. Want to learn more about what you see? The UNCC website catalogs its plants and offers helpful maps. Be sure to check the calendar, too, to learn about educational programs for all ages.
Worth a venture inside, the McMillan Greenhouse (currently closed to the public due to Covid-19) hosts themed collections and eight greenhouse rooms, including orchids, a Carnivorous and Bog collection, a Dinosaur Garden, and Tropical Plants collection.
Christen Hoover, marketing manager for UNCC Botanical Gardens, says the University is proud to have a truly four-seasons gardens. “There’s always something in bloom, be it witch hazels or tropicals,” Hoover says, adding that the gardens are open to the whole family, including pets on leash. “Our mission is to share the world of plants. We believe nature is therapeutic and it’s medicine to be outdoors.”