Top 3 Parks for Summer Adventures...and they’re free!

JOHN D. SIMMONS - jsimmons@charl

Summer can cost a fortune. There are camps to pay for, swim clubs to join, Carowinds passes to purchase. Sometimes, you just have to do something free. Which is where a park comes in.

Mecklenburg has a 210 (!) parks, and a lot of them are perfectly fine for a picnic or a go at the playground. But we’ve found three (plus one new one we haven’t gotten to but that the Observer has reviewed) that are genuine adventures:

Freedom Park’s Play 360: I can honestly say it’s hard to outgrow the pleasures of Freedom Park. There are basketball and volleyball courts, a fantastic playground and bikes to rent. The people and dog watching make it fun for me. But for my two boys, the NFL Play60 KidZone is tops.

Located over by the big playground and train car, the Play60 KidZone is a Panthers -themed space with a 40-yard timed dash, a climbing apparatus that is surprisingly hard to summit despite my weekly boot camp classes and a photo booth to bring out your inner star. Last time I went, I took my 13-year-old niece and we stayed for over an hour, reluctantly leaving because it was getting dark.

Cool mom tip: Wear your sneakers. The 40-yard dash is irresistible.

Reedy Creek: We went through a very short Frisbee golf stage a year or so ago, which led us to Reedy Creek Park. The course winds through hilly forests and small ravines, criss-crossing the creek every now and then. I think we only made it for about 5 of the holes because it was so hot, but it felt we had been transported to a mountain adventure.

We then went to the nature center, which was perfectly fine for a bit of air conditioning, but the playground right outside of it was the real treat. There’s a tree house accessible by a rustic bridge, charming in that Pippi Longstocking sort of way. You can build forts or play in the sand pit. And some of the playground equipment plays music. It was a delight.

Planner mom tip: We thought we’d pick up lunch on the way out to Reedy Creek, but unless you like Hardee's, the pickings are slim. Pack a lunch.

McDowell Nature Center and Preserve: If you don’t live in southwest Charlotte, McDowell is a bit of a haul - it’s practically on the NC/SC state line. But it offers a solid morning of fun on the shoreline of Lake Wylie.

The Nature Center offers plenty of experiential learning; check out its events calendar for bonus fun. There’s a great short hike that takes you right down to a small beach in a cove. My boys have a blast taking off their shoes and trying to scoop up little fish and tadpoles. When they get tired, we stake out a picnic table or bench and watch the boat traffic.

Budget mom tip: Head just another mile or so south on Tryon and get cheap gas in South Carolina at the QT while the kids choose from something like 10,000 slushy flavors.

Bonus park: Multigenerational Play Park: We haven’t checked out this park off of Tyvola’s Marion Diehl Center, but the Charlotte Observer recently did. In essence, this is a park where you can work out while your kids play.

According to the O, the stuff for kids is pretty nifty, ranging from an electronic game that requires children to climb and react to flashing lights to a giant rope-climb with several levels.

The stuff for grownups is pretty cool, too. There’s outdoor cardio and resistance machines you can use while watching the tykes play. So, you can burn calories while the kiddies exhaust themselves. Win!