With gas and groceries eating at your pocketbook, you may be looking for ways to have fun with the family this summer that don't require big bucks. There's lots to do and see for free with kids in the Charlotte area. Here are 10 ideas to get you started:
Airport Overlook Park. Pack a lunch and come here to watch the planes take off and land at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport. Off Old Dowd Road near the intersection with Besser Drive.
The Mint Museum of Craft + Design. It's free on Tuesdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Pick up the family guides and scavenger hunts at the front desk, and don't miss the kid-friendly, hands-on activities on the mezzanine level. Also, from 10 a.m. to noon on the second Tuesday of the month, parents and children ages 1 to 4 can drop in for a free art-making experience. 220 N. Tryon St., 704-337-2000, www.mintmuseums.org.
Crowders Mountain State Park. About 25 miles west of Charlotte, this park will challenge the experienced as well as the novice climber. It offers 12 miles of scenic, and somewhat strenuous, hiking trails with a view at the top that's worth the climb. Spacious picnic areas are also available within the park. 522 Park Office Lane in Kings Mountain. 704-853-5375. www.ncparks.gov.
P ublic spraygrounds. Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation's five spraygrounds feature nozzles and spouts that spray water for children to run through and frolic under. Open seven days a week in the summer, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Locations: Nevin Park, 6000 Statesville Road; Cordelia Park, 2100 N. Davidson St.; Latta Park, 601 E. Park Ave.; Veterans Park , 2136 Central Ave.; and West Charlotte Recreation Center, 2400 Kendall Drive. (704) 336-3854. www.parkandrec.com.
ImaginOn. This uptown magnet for family fun is part children's theater/part library and it's always free. The Children's Theatre of Charlotte's shows at ImaginOn require tickets, but in other areas kids can put on their own puppet shows, play with trains, try on costumes, play computer games and, of course, check out books. The facility has lots of free storytimes each week, as well as changing hands-on exhibits in its lobby. 300 E 7th Street. 704-973-2780.
Family Day Sundays at the Charlotte Museum of History. The museum, which is always free on Sundays, offers a glimpse into local colonial life and has changing exhibits. Its “Toy Time” exhibit, which runs through July 27, features 16 giant wooden folk toys that are interactive and engaging, a nice change from plastic toys that beep and blink. 3500 Shamrock Drive. 704-568-1774. www.charlottemuseum.org.
The Energy Explorium at Lake Norman. Located at McGuire Nuclear Station, the Explorium features hands-on exhibits and interactive games designed to introduce kids to the wonders of electricity and nuclear power. They can even use the power of a treadmill to operate a TV. The explorium also offers a mile-long nature trail, a picnic area, and a large deck that overlooks Lake Norman and the Cowans Ford dam. No admission fee. 13339 Hagers Ferry Road in Huntersville. 704-875-5600. www.duke-energy.com/visitor-centers/energyexplorium.asp.
Wing Haven Gardens & Bird Sanctuary. Connect with nature at this nationally recognized, three-acre sanctuary in the heart of the city. Pick up the children's activity book at the front desk, then stroll the shaded paths and help your kids look for birds, rabbits, turtles and chipmunks. Admission is free, though a $5 donation per adult is suggested. 248 Ridgewood Ave. 704-331-0664. www.winghavengardens.com.
Northlake Mall kids' play areas. At Northlake Mall's Warner Bros. Looney Tunes Play Area (across from Dick's Sporting Goods on the lower level), kids can climb, crawl and jump on their favorite Looney Tunes characters. The mall also has a kids' activity area in the middle of its food court. They'll have fun with distorted mirrors, tic-tac-toe and tabletop sand art while you relax at a nearby table. 6801 Northlake Mall Drive. 704-921-2005. www.shopnorthlake.com.
Mecklenburg Park and Rec Programs. From fishing to birding, kayaking to outdoor movies, Mecklenburg's Park and Recreation Department has dozens of fun, free programs and festivals for kids and adults alike. www.parkandrec.com. Click on the “Get Going Guide.”