Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Take a Hike in Your Local Botanical Garden

We can't all live in the San Francisco Bay Area or Santa Fe, New Mexico. We don't all have easy access to hiking trails with awesome mountains, redwoods, or coastal views. However, that doesn't mean we have to stay inside and play video games or watch television all day. Most cities (especially if there is a university near by) have botanical gardens.

I'm posting pictures from some of the incredible gardens I've been to for two reasons.

1. Because I've been pouting about living in a place where I don't have 12,000 foot peaks within 20 minutes of where I live (like we did in Santa Fe), and I needed a reminder that there is still natural beauty to be had in urban places (or other places where the highest "peak" within a 60 mile radius is 867 feet).

2. Because it's already grey and wintery here and I'm in need of some color today.

One of my favorite gardens is Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Philadelphia (also the mushroom capital of the world!). Unfortunately, admission is on the expensive side for a garden, but it's worth a visit. Students and seniors get a great discount and children ages 4 & under are free). Often when I visit my dad, we make an afternoon of it and get a lot of walking and talking in while enjoying the beautiful grounds.

 I'm already anticipating spring. It's going to be a long winter!

 The cool thing about Longwood Gardens is you can go all year. They have lights and special holiday events in the winter. They also have a ton of greenhouses, and they rotate exhibits. 

 For all you Lost fans out there...

Some other gardens that I have been lucky enough to visit or live close to are:

Sarah P. Duke Gardens at Duke University (Durham, North Carolina)
Free admission; parking is reasonable. If you live in the area or are here in the summer, make sure you check out their Music in the Gardens series. Some great bands come and play outside for I think $15 a ticket (cheaper for Duke students). Shows are usually during the heat of the summer, so you will sweat, but it's so much fun. Bring a blanket and snacks and a bottle of wine or a couple cold beers, and enjoy your evening!

Getty Museum Gardens (Los Angeles, California)
Admission is free; parking is $10. They occasionally have concerts (we happened to be there for one and it was awesome!) and one of the best views of West Los Angeles can be had from the cactus garden.

So don't let the winter get you down! Spring will be here before we know it! And until then....find a local garden (or move to California, where you can find pretty flowers somewhere all year round).

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Apple Picking in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Last fall, Allyson and I spent a terrific weekend up in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Hendersonville, North Carolina. A former colleague of Allyson's owns a small cabin on Lake Summit, which is about 20 minutes south of Hendersonville or 40 minutes south of Asheville. This quiet lake got very little traffic (at least in the fall when we were there), so the dirt road around the lake made for a great place to walk or go for our morning run.

 The water was really low when we were there. Not sure if it is higher in the spring, but I would think so. I would've liked to have some kayaks to explore the lake by water. I recall seeing some rental houses that had kayaks, so it would be worth looking into that if you are planning a trip here.

The highlights of the trip, besides just hanging out at Lake Summit and in the precious cabin, were apple picking and our quick stop in the little town of Saluda. 

We went apple picking at Sky Top Orchard in Flat Rock, North Carolina. The Henderson County Tourism website has a list of all the apple orchards in the area. Our goals for our apple picking excursion were to pick our own apples and get donuts and warm apple cider. I have vivid memories from childhood in Michigan of our family heading up to Uncle John's Cider Mill for apples, cider, and donuts. This is what I wanted at Sky Top, and we definitely could have had this. Picking our own apples was super fun. Also, they had a store with bushels of apples already picked and lots of other food items, like apple butter. 

My only complaint about Sky Top was how crowded it was. It was like Disneyland in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Yes, this activity is a perfect one for little kiddos, so I understand why so many families chose to do this on a Saturday in late September. And we didn't get as early of a start as we could have, so we didn't get there until 11am or so - prime time for apple picking apparently. However, we easily lost the crowds because we were willing to walk farther than 400 feet down the rows of apples. The issue came when we wanted apple cider and a donut. The line was at least 50 deep when we were ready for our long-awaited snack. We were both really hungry, so we decided to head to Hendersonville for lunch and then we planned to go to one of the many other orchards in the area for our cider and donuts. 

The town of Hendersonville is a cute, historic town with several restaurants and some little shops along Main Street. We spent a couple hours in town for lunch and kept ourselves occupied with the wide variety of candy and toys in the general store while it totally dumped rain outside. 

On one of the streets in Hendersonville

Unfortunately, our search for apple cider and donuts was unsuccessful. We drove to two different orchards and a store, and they were either closed (the orchards) or didn't have cider or donuts (the store). We were bummed, but at least the drive was beautiful and it took us through Saluda on our way back to Lake Summit. 

Saluda is tiny. It is a few historic buildings along a Main Street that parallels the train tracks. We got here in the late afternoon when the sun was shining and the town was quiet. We found a little general store that had ice cream (always a reasonable alternative when plans don't go exactly right) and found some packaged apple cider to take home with us. 

All in all, this trip was exactly what we aimed for heading up to the Blue Ridge Mountains, except for the donuts.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Hiking at Hanging Rock State Park (North Carolina)

The nice thing about Hanging Rock State Park is its close proximity to the Triangle area. From Durham, it takes about two hours to get there. Although the first part of the drive is on Interstate 40, the last half is through cute, historic towns and on winding roads with little traffic.

I've only been to Hanging Rock State Park in the fall, and I do think it is a lovely time to visit. However, I'm guessing it is also the busiest time. Both times I've been here, the number of people at Hanging Rock itself took away from the experience. It's just impossible to get that magic feeling you can get in nature with 25 kids running around on cliffs they could easily fall off of and plunge to their deaths.

Hanging Rock State Park is in the Sauratown mountain range and Moore's Knob (the first hike I describe) is the highest "peak" in the range at 2,579 feet.

I'm going to describe three of the hikes I have taken at Hanging Rock State Park. One could easily do all three in a day. None of them are mind blowing, but it's a lovely way to spend a fall day.

Hike 1: Moore's Knob Fire Tower (Moore's Wall Loop)
Hike Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
Hike Distance (Round Trip): 4.2 miles
Time (Round Trip): We did this earlier last year, so I don't remember.
Elevation Gain: about 880 feet (highest elevation: 2,579 feet)

Parking for this hike is by the lake. Continue on Hanging Rock Park Road past the signs for the Visitor Center and the campground until you reach the parking lot by the lake. The trail begins down by the bathhouse and beach.

Unfortunately, I did this a year ago and don't remember it well enough to recount my every step. I don't recall it being very difficult to follow the trail. We had our Falcon Guide: Hiking North Carolina with us, but I don't think we really needed it.

The hike was nice. I am spoiled and it isn't the West. It isn't even Western North Carolina. But it is lovely to walk in the woods and have some pleasant views in the sunshine while eating lunch. If I were choosing between Stone Mountain and Hanging Rock State Park, I'd go with Stone Mountain. However, both are nice and probably your best day trip options from the Triangle area.

Hike 2: Hanging Rock Trail 
Hike Difficulty: Easy/Moderate
Hike Distance (Round Trip): 2.6 miles
Time (Round Trip): 1 - 1 1/2 hours (if you take some time at the rocks)
Elevation Gain: about 590 feet (highest elevation: 2,070 feet)

Parking for Hanging Rock Trail is at the visitor center. After entering the park on Hanging Rock Park Road, turn left at the sign for the visitor center. There is a trailhead sign on the opposite side of the parking lot from the visitor center. No way to get lost on this trail. Hike out and up and then hike back. The trail is marked by orange circles, but we didn't really need to pay attention to these markers.

Like I said before, this is a really pleasant 2.6 mile hike. There is some climbing, but it's manageable for even children. I'd keep my kids close to me at the rocks though. There are a lot of people up there, and not a lot of room for error. I kept my distance from people while up there. I would love to be up here without all the people, because I can see it being a very quiet and meditative spot. However, both times I've been here, I've just been worried I was going to watch someone fall to their death.

A little past peak on the colors this weekend, but still pretty. 

My friend and I coincidentally have matching shoes. Super cool.

The next three photos are from our previous trip to Hanging Rock, last fall. 

I'm much happier back here, away from the crowd (and the ledge!) 

Hike 3: Lower Cascade Falls 
Hike Difficulty: Easy
Hike Distance (Round Trip): 0.8 miles
Time (Round Trip): 30 minutes to 1 hour

We had to drive out of the park's boundaries to reach the trailhead for Lower Cascade Falls, but it was very easy to find. We did this hike last. We drove from the visitor center back to the entrance of the park, and then made the first left on Moores Spring Road. Then we took another left on Hall Road, and the parking lot for the trail was within a 1/4 mile on the right hand side. This trail is another well-marked and well-maintained trail. No chance of getting lost here! 

We lucked out on this trail and got to the falls when only a couple of people were there. We planned to eat lunch at the falls, and within 20 minutes there were several people. The falls are pretty and worth the short hike down and back up.  

Lower Cascade Falls

We couldn't have had a more beautiful fall day both times I visited Hanging Rock State Park. It's a great option for an easy day trip from the Triangle Area.