Carolina Beach State Parks+ Fort Fisher State Recreation Area

Having realized that Sarah and I hadn’t been to a North Carolina beach since before we were married, we decided that we had to fix that. Carolina Beach was the obvious choice, as it is host to it’s own State Park, as well as Fort Fisher State Recreation Area down the road.

Simple put, we had a fantastic time as a family.

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It was perfect fall weather for outdoor time at the beach. Carolina Beach State Park exceed our exceptions, with beautiful sandy white trails and towering pines. Fort Fisher State Recreation though, was one of our favorite hikes we’ve ever done in the state. The Basin Trail was a one mile out a back through the coastal marsh area between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean. The trail was largely comprised of boardwalks and the views and were stunning.

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The highlight of the trip, though, was watching the sunris over the Atlantic Ocean. There was serenity, gratitude and humility in that moment, I often struggle to find in the day-to-day hustle and bustle of what our everyday lives have become. In the days since we have returned from the trip, I keep coming back to that moment and spot and thumbing through the photos. Memories like those are why we love to explore new things and in particular the great state of North Carolina in which we live.

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We will no doubt be back very soon!

Hike Info – Carolina Beach State Park – Flytrap Trail + Sugarloaf Trail

  • Strava Link
  • Starting Point: B Road, Carolina Beach State Park
  • End Point: Same
  • Length: 4 Miles
  • Approximate Hiking Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Hike Info – Fort Fisher State Recreation Area – Basin Trail

  • Strava Link
  • Starting Point: 1000 Loggerhead Rd, Kure Beach, NC 28449
  • End Point: Same
  • Length: 2.5 Miles
  • Approximate Hiking Time: 1 hour

Other Activities:

  • North Carolina Aquarium
  • Southport Ferry
  • Good Hops Brewery
  • Carolina Smokehouse

Carver’s Creek State Park

 

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Carver’s Creek State Park is one of the state’s newest parks – opening in 2013. Long Valley Farm, the main park attraction, was formerly a vacation residence owned by James Stillman Rockefeller. We took the .5 mile hike from the car to the house in the blazing heat (be warned there is no shade!) and were intrigued to see the old 1930’s farmhouse. It was disappointing to see the house had really fallen into disrepair – hopefully they will restore the house one day as is the plan. There had previously been a mill pond on the grounds which allowed for fishing and canoeing as well, but the dam keeping the pond in place was totally wiped out by Hurricane Matthew. Crews were working to get the pond back in place in the near future. Let’s hope so!

img_1439Earlier this year, the park opened a section section known as the Sandhills Access, which boasts over 11 miles of trails. This part of the park was a little better shaded, but still not great. The trails were sandy and landscape was moderately hilly and filled with long leaf pines. It reminded us a lot of Weymouth Woods. Overall the trails were good, and you could tell it was a newer park. Apparently word has not gotten out yet, because we did not see many other people! We did hear a lot of artillery fire (Fort Bragg was just down the road) and one of the themes of the trip was Sarah continually commenting how so much of what we were seeing an hearing was bringing back memories of her early childhood living on a military base. We also saw a snapping turtle on the trail, keeping our wildlife spotting streak alive. img_1442.jpgHarvey particularly liked the trail we did (Wiregrass Loop Trail) because he loves pointing out all the blazes, and was really into the blue Hexagons (he pronounces (Eck-a-gons). We also spent a lot of the hike teaching him about North Carolina’s 3 regions (Mountains, Coast and Piedmont), and was a fun memory for us all.

After the hike, we drove a few miles down the road to downtown Fayetteville, which I think the last I had been to was a G-Unit concert in 2003. We love old NC downtowns, and it was clear like so many, Fayetteville has had quite the resurgence in downtown businesses recently. Lake Gaston Brewery (weird name choice, yes), had some decent beers and the food was quite good. We loved their downtown space!img_3735.jpg

Hike Info:

  • Strava Link
  • Starting Point: 995 McCloskey Road Fayetteville, NC 28311
  • End Point: Same
  • Length: 1.8 Miles
  • Approximate Hiking Time: 45 minutes

Other Activities:

Lake James State Park

IMG_3592(Edited)Not all parks are created equal. Within 30 second of entering Lake James State Park, I said to Sarah, “Wow this looks like an exceptionally nice park”. Sarah replied, “You literally stole the words out of my mouth”. Our first reaction would prove to be true. IMG_3583The park was exceptionally clean, trails well-maintained and facilities very up-to-date and sleek. We did a 3.0 mile out and back that included Paddy’s Creek Trail and Holly’s Discovery Trail (an interactive trail for little kids). Though there were a lot of folks enjoying the park along with us, we were one of the few hikers. Most people were either kayaking or swimming in what was the nicest looking water for a reservoir I can remember seeing in the state. We will definitely be back someday soon, and this time we will definitely bring our bathing suits!

 

IMG_1159(1)Just a couple miles down the road from Lake James is Fonta Flora Brewery’s relatively recently opened brewery and farm operation. This has been on our list to check out since it opened and I’m so glad we did. The brewery itself sits on a farm where some of the ingredients used in the beers are grown – we could literally see employees harvesting corn during our visit. There is a permanent food truck on site and a huge open space to roam – it is one of the best brewery locations we have ever been to. Fonta Flora is known for their unique beer offerings and use of local ingredients – the tap list is truly unlike any other you have ever seen. We sampled several of the more unique beers and enjoyed them for what they were, though must confess we were happiest with the Hop Beard IPA.

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Hike Info:

  • Strava Link
  • Starting Point: Park Office (Lake James State Park, 7321 NC-126, Nebo, NC 28761)
  • End Point: Same
  • Length: 3.0 Miles
  • Approximate Hiking Time: 1 Hour, 30 minutes

 

Other Activities:

Maine (Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park)

When Sarah announced (during our Summer 2018 vacation) that we’d be going to Maine for our Summer 2019 vacation, I probably responded with an unenthusiastic something along the lines of “I’m not ready to think about that” or “whatever you say”. Now that it’s come and gone I can say that I’m so glad she chose this spot, and that it was the perfect location for this summer.

The past few months have been quite hectic and trying at times. With two kids, especially with a rather fussy infant, it can feel like a challenge just to get through the basics of each day, never with enough sleep. That coupled with an extremely busy time at work, while I’m not normally the type of person to say “I need a vacation”, I found myself saying it quite often in the couple weeks leading up to it. Even while saying it, I knew this wouldn’t be a “vacation” in the sense that it wouldn’t be totally relaxing and care free. That’s really not what I was looking for, because we knew going into it with a 4 month and 3 year old in tow, that would not be possible (even if we were lucky enough to have my Mom, Dad and sister Ellie join us!) Instead, what I hoped, was that it would be an opportunity to have fun, enjoy my kids, see and do new things in a serene environment away from the daily checklists and duties that can be all consuming. I’m so happy to report that Maine delivered.

IMG_3087The flights both ways were a dream as far as flights with kids go – Della is young enough that she mostly slept and Harvey is finally old enough that he can entertain himself for the most part and sit still. The one time he did get a bit restless, Sarah pulled out her makeup bag and gave him a little makeover for entertainment. The green eyeshadow was his favorite! We had a 3 hour drive once we arrived in Maine from Portland to Bar Harbor. The kids slept, the scenery was lovely (including Fort Knox), we talked, listened to podcasts – it was great! Once we arrived in Bar Harbor and got acquainted with our Airbnb, we knew we had stumbled upon an amazing place to make memories and enjoy each other for the week ahead.

IMG_3117And that’s just what we did.  When we arrived, we had exactly one thing explicitly planned for the week – something very rare for any Cain vacation. This worked because everything was so close – definitely why this trip will be hard to beat. Bar Harbor, the primary town situation on Mount Desert Island, approximately half of which is Acadia National Park provided so much fun and entertainment within itself, but going to the park was just a short 5-10 minute drive away. And unlike other towns close to National Parks we’ve visited, Bar Harbor was not overtly touristy or corny. It was simply a beautiful quaint little town. IMG_0783(1)

I won’t go through everything we did each day (some of our favorite activities are bulleted below), but I can’t speak enough to how great the trip was. There were young families everywhere, which both surprised us and made us feel right at home. I mentioned before how Della has been a bit of a challenging baby, but she really came into herself this week. For the most part, she was very smiley, easy to please, eager to move and curious about her surroundings! I felt more connected to her than I ever have so far in her life. We went during the busy time of year and were prepared to fight crowds, but were extremely pleased that the crowds were not near as bad as other national parks we’ve been to, and we never had an issue parking. We all felt like we did everything we wanted to do, but that we easily could have stayed another week and never been bored or run out of things to do.

96AF0582-4CD6-4657-9C46-750EBD8D893EThe only negative things about the trip I can think of are 1) Heat – Bar Harbor was experiencing a heat wave our first couple of days (highs in the low 80s), and being that air conditioning wasn’t a thing on the island it got a little hot, but we survived with fans. 2) Euchre – tempers flared, reneges happened, old grudges emerged, Dad got euchred on a loner – it got a little ugly! 3) ER – Harvey busted open his chin on the coffee table… yes I called 911, yes that was not necessary, yes I am very thankful Sarah is so good in those emergency situations! Fortunately we were staying a block from the one Emergency Room on the island, and they were able to glue Harvey up quickly. It was very gross and scary but we didn’t let it put a damper on the trip.

Growing up I had heard that my parents traveled to Bar Harbor Maine while she was freshly pregnant with me. I never thought much of it. With more years I notice my perspective on such things change and I can’t help but wonder about connection and meaning. This was my first trip to Maine, but a part of  what would be me had been there before, 34 years ago. Is that why I connected with the place so much? I wonder if Della will share such a connection with California – her first adventure last summer as just a little pea in her mom’s belly. It would be impossible to believe if it wasn’t staring me in the face each day, but now, merely a year later, here we are as a family of four on our first big adventure – on the complete opposite side of the country as last year. We’re a lucky bunch.

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Hikes, Food, Entertainment & Adventures

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Cadillac Mountain. The high point of the island and you can either hike or drive to the top! We opted to drive (several times), the best being at dawn where we can say we were the first people in the United States to see the sunrise that morning.

IMG_3174(Edited)Diver Ed. This was a one-of-a-kind amazing and unique trip where we went out on a boat, and a diver takes videos of sea creatures below and also brings some aboard for everyone to see and hold. It came highly recommended by the SODU posse and we saw why! Harvey was just old enough to get some enjoyment, but I would say 5-10 is probably the best age. We were about 15 minutes into the 2 hour trip when Della starting screaming… Sarah and I both looked at each other like uh oh, what were we thinking, because there was no escape on the boat. Fortunately, she fell asleep soon after and we were all able to relax and enjoy the trip!

IMG_3140Land Bride to Bar Island. At low tide a huge land bridge opens up where you can walk to what is an island during high tide. Was very cool!

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Shore Path – A ½ Mile path along the coastline of Bar Harbor with spectacular views. Great for running or having a morning coffee stroll.

 

IMG_3196Ocean Shore Hike –  An out-and-back hike (4 miles total) that is one of the most popular in the park because of the gorgeous views. It started at Sand Beach and went to Otter Cliff. Since most of the beaches are rocky, Sand Beach was a rare spot where it was easy to go for a dip, but even in August, the water was way too cold for anything more than a quick jump-in.

IMG_3150Jordan Pond Loop – This was a beautiful 3 mile loop around a scenic pond. Probably my favorite hike of the trip. We even tried to make it up to the top of bubble mountain, but accidentally picked the most treacherous route and sadly had to turn around just shy of the summit as there was no way to make it carrying kids. Acadia has some INSANELY tough trails, so I would definitely recommend looking at the difficulty level prior to hiking.

IMG_0806Beech Mountain – A moderate 2 mile loop – great for hiking with kids. At the top is an old fire tower you can climb up if the ranger is there (which he was). We also discovered loads of wild blueberries on the trail, which contrary to what I would have thought, is totally allowed by the Park.

IMG_0858(1)                                      Eagle Lake Loop – This was a 6 mile loop on part of the carriage trail system the park is known for. There were definitely way more bikers than hikers on this trail. If you wander onto the hiking path closer to the water be prepared for some huge rocks and boulders to walk across – we discovered this the hard way!

IMG_0908Thurston’s Lobster Pound – This was 100% the food highlight of the trip. We saved for our last day, and it was worth the wait. In the town of Bernard on the “quiet side” of the island, here you pick out your lobster (alive), watch them throw it in a boiler, and then eat it just minutes later. We had a 3 pounds lobster and once I was fully convinced it wasn’t still moving, had an amazing adventure eating ever part of it we could.

IMG_3247Quiet Side Café – Probably our second favorite spot was also on the quite side, in Soutwest Harbor. We had lobster pizza, blueberry pie and blueberry ice cream. All unbelievably delicious.

 

Reel Pizza Cinerama – In downtown Bar Harbor, this place is a movie theater that also servers delicious pizza, beer and other food. Harvey and I went here for dinner the day of his accident to do something chill and saw The Lion King. I wasn’t prepared that this remake was line for the line the same as the original (a movie I watched during my youth probably 50 times on VHS), and to see Harvey so into it and singing the songs, (and perhaps the beer play a role) but I found myself welling up multiple times.

Side Street Café – This place had the best happy hour in Bar Harbor! Drafts were $3 off, so we actually hit this place up twice during our stay. Very kid friendly too!

Jordan House – This place has been open since the 1800s and was sort of an obligatory stop after hiking the Jordan Lake Trail. Food was good and the views of the Bubble Mountains were even better!

Jordan’s Restaurant – Breakfast place in Bar Harbor. Blueberry pancakes were a hit.

Allagash – Located in Portland, this was one of only a couple of Maine brewery’s we had heard of, so it was neat to visit in person. They didn’t serve any IPA’s so wasn’t my favorite, but the sour that tasted like gym socks was a hit with some of our group apparently.

Finback/Blaze – Sister restaurants serving Blaze beer, which we all really enjoyed, the Zip IPA being the favorite. If you go to Finback, get the fish and chips!

Bar Harbor Beerworks/One Off – Great spot with good beer! My mom even found one on her beer bucket list – Sip of Sunshine.

Jalapenos – Ellie who has a seafood aversion and was a serious sport all, just wanted to get some Mexican food for her birthday dinner. They had some good tasting margarita’s and my lobster quesadilla was quite good also!

This is super low quality, but we did a quick upload of some videos from the week!

Raven Rock

IMG_0181(1)Raven Rock is one of the better state parks we’ve been to – particularly being less than an hour from all parts of the Triangle. It has a great, new visitor’s center, copious trails, intriguing scenery, and the Cape Fear River. Sarah and I actually came to Raven Rock in November of 2014. At this point in my life, 5 years does not seem like that long of a time on the one hand – we both totally remembered the hike, and how we discussed/argued about wedding planning for most of it. On the other hand, life couldn’t be more different now than it was then though – two rings and two kids later.

IMG_2810The most memorable moment of the trip happened before we even got out of the parking lot. I had put Harvey sitting upright in his pack and turned away from him to rummage through the car, while Sarah readied Della and we both heard a thud and a cry. I’d forgotten to adjust the bar frame out so Harvey wouldn’t be able to teeter, and he had fallen straight back onto the concrete and hit his head and elbow.

IMG_0195(1)Though he quickly stopped crying, and we started the hike, I was so awash with guilt and dread that he might have a concussion (though in retrospect it was clear right away he didn’t) I didn’t really take in as much of the hike as I would have liked. But I remember enough to know we descended about a dozen flights of stairs in order to visit the park’s namesake, “Raven Rock” rock-cliffs just off the shore of the Cape Fear river. I have a feeling if we visit again in 5 years with a couple of elementary kids, life then will seem as different as life now seems to our last visit.

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IMG_2831Hike Info:

  • Strava Link (For some reason the last half mile didn’t register)
  • Starting Point: Park Office (3009 Raven Rock Rd, Lillington, NC 27546)
  • End Point: Same
  • Length: 3.0 Miles
  • Approximate Hiking Time: 1 Hour, 30 minutes

 

Other Activities:IMG_2818

  • Vicious Fishes Brewery (Fuquay-Varina Location)
    • Neat brewery and restaurant in downtown Fuquay
    • White Russian Strong Ale tasted exactly like a White Russian – it was a little freaky. Sarah was a huge fan.

 

 

 

Our story from the day!

William B. Umstead State Park

Having grown up just a few miles from Umstead, and having driven past it literally thousands of times, it is a bit odd to think I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve actually visited the park in my life. I will say, it does have a bit of an “ITB” vibe (will only make sense if you are from Raleigh), and we were definitely a Falls Lake family growing up.

IMG_2556On this Memorial Day, 33rd Birthday, been getting our ass kicked by two kids, weekend – finding something new, but close to home felt like the perfect choice. The thing that struck me first was just how huge the park is, being in the heart of the Triangle. I looked it up and it is nearly 7 square miles. As Raleigh and the Triangle have grown over the last few decades, this park which was once just a forest among forests and farms now stands out a reprieve from concrete and civilization. What an important reminder so close to home of the importance of conservation!

As expected, the park was very busy as compared to almost any other state park we’ve been to – but I was pleasantly surprised that it didn’t feel crowded. We chose the 2.8 mile Sal’s Branch loop (part of 20 miles of trails within in the park) and while the trail was heavily traveled, it was also very well maintained and a very pleasant, shaded hike. We were lucky to be joined by our friends Pete and Lindsay, with their little guy Luke! Della slept on her momma the whole time and Harvey rode on my back and took advantage of having a friend by singing and yelling for most of the hike.img_2581edited.jpg

We will no doubt be back again!

 

Hike Info:

  • Strava Link
  • Starting Point: Park Office – Highway 70 Entrance (8801 Glenwood Ave, Raleigh, NC 27617)
  • End Point: Same
  • Length: 2.8 Miles
  • Approximate Hiking Time: 1 Hour

 

 

Other Activities:

  • Namu
    • A new Durham spot (in the location that formerly housed Straw Valley Cafe) we have been meaning to check out and finally made it happen.
    • This place is a coffee shop, beer bar (looked to be over 40 beers on tap) and Korean BBQ restaurant with both an awesome (and contained) indoor and outdoor space.
    • We loved the food, the space, the drink and will most definitely be back soon and often!
    • The only down sides are the location is a bit difficult to get to, and they aren’t open Sundays.

 

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Weymouth Woods – Sandhills Nature Preserve

For our first new state park adventure as a family of four, we wanted to find a place that wouldn’t be too far of a drive, but a also a place that felt new to us. We landed up Weymouth Woods, a Nature preserve in the heart of North Carolina’s sandhills, a little over an hour away from us.

 

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A place like this is a perfect example of the geological diversity our state has to offer. Much of the trails were comprised of crisp white sand, with a view of towering pine trees. Watch out for the roots though – we all almost took a spill more than once!

The park has a nice visitor center, connected to 4.5 miles of trails. In all we hiked about 3.5 miles, a nice loop surrounding the park. We would highly recommend this park. It’s unique views and terrain stood out, and the trails were very well marked.

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Hike Info:

  • Strava Link (For some reason the last half mile didn’t register)
  • Starting Point: Park Office (1024 N Fort Bragg Rd, Southern Pines, NC 28387)
  • End Point: Same
  • Length: 3.5 Miles
  • Approximate Hiking Time: 1 Hour, 30 minutes (2 kids slowed us down a bit!

 

 

We also found some other fun activites to do in the area! We would definitely recommed a visit to the Sandhills! (Pinehurst, Southern Pines, Aberdeen)

Other Activities:

  • Pinehurst Track Restaurant (NC Weekend recommendation).
    • This was a cool restaurant on a racetrack, which Harvey loved. Food was fine – would compare it to a wafflehouse! Cash Only.
  • Railhouse Brewery
    • This place had more beer offerings than we were expecting, neat spot in an old warehouse in downtown Aberdeen. Favorite beer was the FCA IPA. Don’t miss out on the cheese curds!

Our story from the day!

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