Living Here Guide

Region’s natural spaces make it easy to get out and play

RibbonWalk includes woodland and wetland habitats with several miles of nature trails and a variety of native flora and fauna. An extraordinary grove of old-age beech trees designated as a "treasure tree grove" stands out a one of the most impressive features of the forest.
RibbonWalk includes woodland and wetland habitats with several miles of nature trails and a variety of native flora and fauna. An extraordinary grove of old-age beech trees designated as a "treasure tree grove" stands out a one of the most impressive features of the forest. Staff Photographer

Even in this sprawling city of skyscrapers and endless pavement, a walk in the woods is never far away.

Here are five of my favorites:

RibbonWalk Nature Preserve

The 188-acre urban forest is where I go with family and friends when we don't have much time – traditionally Christmas Day while the turkey cooks. The preserve is located just a few minutes from the city center, a mile north of the intersection of Interstates 85 and 77.

The three miles of trails wind lazily past two ponds, through former loblolly pine plantations and beneath “one of the oldest American beech tree groves in the region,” according to the RibbonWalk website.

Like the city, the name of the preserve is associated with Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III of England. Her mother-in-law owned a garden with paths that “ribboned” through the woods.

We occasionally cross paths with other hikers, and sometimes find ourselves beneath the flight path of airplanes, but most often we have the peace and solitude all to ourselves.

Crowders Mountain State Park

When we have at least five hours, we make the 45-minute drive south to Crowders Mountain in Gaston County. It’s a treasure of a state park with 11 trails, ranging from easy to strenuous.

Our favorite is the Rocktop Trail (strenuous) because it’s a good workout and never crowded. One of the most popular trails is the two-mile Pinnacle Trail (also rated strenuous) that takes you to highest point in Gaston County at 1,705 feet.

For the less adventurous, there are easier trails, including one around a lake.

Crowders has grown so popular that it’s often difficult to find a place to park on weekends and holidays when the weather is nice. So go early. Our favorite day of the year is first thing on Jan. 1 when only a few other hardy hikers show up.

Latta Plantation Nature Center and Preserve

When the kids were younger we spent many a weekend afternoon hiking on the easy trails through the woods at Latta Plantation park. Our favorite destination was Wash Rock. You can get there by several different trails.

Legend has it that early settlers washed their clothes on the rock. There’s an overlook across Mountain Island Lake, a perfect spot for a picnic.

The preserve takes its name from James Latta, who bought the land in 1799. His home is open to visitors.

Another fun stop within the park is The Raptor Center, home to eagles, vultures, hawks and falcons.

U.S. National Whitewater Center

We went mountain-biking there long before the center existed.

Now, 20 miles of trail extend along the Catawba River, both for biking and hiking.

If you’re hiking, you have to share the trials with those biking.

Mecklenburg County greenways

There are 35 miles of greenways now and more planned.

I’ve spotted deer on the Mallard Creek greenway in the University area, and regularly see great blue herons and turtles along Little Sugar Creek by Carolinas Medical Center.

My favorite time: Early in the morning. You’ll likely see more animals than humans.

Other nearby getaways

And that’s only to name a few. Other places we’ve enjoyed hiking a little farther away are: Lake Norman State Park (45 minutes away), Uwharrie National Forest (80 minutes), South Mountain State Park (90 minutes) and Stone Mountain State Park (90 minutes).

Elizabeth Leland is an enterprise reporter for The Observer but prefers to be outdoors hiking.

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