I know how hard it is to get young kids out of the house to go somewhere - even quick outings require you to pack enough snacks, diapers, and toys to make you think you’ll be gone for a week. And who wants to wrestle kids in and out of carseats just to find out that your destination isn’t kid-friendly? That’s why I’ve decided to visit Triangle area sites to see if they’re worth your trip. I won’t use a rating system but I’ll try to describe what you’ll see well enough for you to decide if your kids would find it interesting. I’ll also give you the heads up on bathrooms, stroller accessibility and any other SNAFUs I encounter.


Little River Park - Zebulon


     We decided to take advantage of the 60 degree temp yesterday and check out a small attraction that I found by accident. Little River Park is a small park off route 97 in Zebulon. It consists of a breached dam on the river with two major waterfalls and several little waterfalls. According to the Zebulon Parks website, at one time there was a mill and ice house on the site and the dam itself generated electricity for Zebulon.The park has picnic tables, trash cans, a swing set with a baby swing and two standard swings, and the tallest playground slide I've ever seen. Be careful when driving into the park - the driveway is only wide enough for one vehicle so if someone is trying to exit you'll need to wait your turn.

     If you walk up the hill you'll not only enjoy the shade of many large pines, but you'll also get a good view of the river. While we were there I spotted two Canadian geese standing on a rock in the middle of the river. Towards the larger waterfall, there are also some old bridge pylons that are good for a climb.

     Again, the two different dispositions of my children was evident. My preschooler would rather play on the playground equipment, while my toddler prefers to explore and attempt to get in the river. My eco-warrior preschooler noticed a Wal-Mart bag on the ground and said: "Somebody littered. Let's pick it up." And so I found myself picking up a stranger's trash.

     Little River Park is a sweet find even if you don't have kids. The romance of this spot did not go unnoticed, as I saw many parents walking hand-in-hand towards the waterfall while they're children played elsewhere. It would be a great place to sit and read under the pines, with the rushing water as your soundtrack. I would imagine that it's also a great place to get wet and stay cool in the summer. Little River Park is definitely one of my favorite finds in the Triangle.

UPDATE  6/26/2013

     I just recently learned that Wake County and the City of Raleigh have been working with the Army Corps of Engineers to develop plans to dam the Little River in order to create a reservoir that would supply the eastern communities of Raleigh with drinking water. The plans have been in the works for several years and the project is currently in the environmental impact review process which will conclude in 2016. Construction could begin in 2022.

     Based on the very generalized map made available by the City of Raleigh it appears that the scenic beauty (if not the entire existence) of Little River Park could be affected by such a dam. The dam is very controversial and many groups are lobbying to stop it including American Rivers,  Wake Up Wake County and the Neuse Riverkeeper Foundation.

     The growth of Knightdale (my current location) and other eastern towns has been identified as the reason for creating a new source of drinking water. Honestly, I would rather observe mandatory water restrictions than see a beautiful habitat disturbed by a dam and its' accompanying water treatment plant. Although the public comment period is over, Monte Matthews with the Army Corps of Engineers is listed as the contact for feedback on the proposed dam. If you've been out to Little River Park and enjoyed the sound of rushing water let Mr. Matthews know before the rush is decreased to a dribble.


Morehead Planetarium and Science Center - Chapel Hill


    This was my second, and finally successful attempt, to go to the Planetarium (see my blog on the Ackland Art Museum). Since my wife, a school teacher, is tracked out, I had an extra person on my team for this trip. We parked in the public lot in front of the Planetarium. It is a pay lot so you will spend $1.50 an hour. We arrived right when the show was starting and the attendant was nice enough to let us go into the theater and pay for the show after it was over - he also helped by lighting the way for us as we entered the very dark theater.

      Don't try to see this attraction on the cheap. In other words, pay for the tickets to see one of the shows. You can see the exhibits for free, but they're really not the main attraction here and would probably not be worth the drive on their own.It turned out that the "Zoom In" exhibit was closed the day we visited so we wouldn't have been able to see it anyway. School field trips are often scheduled during the week and this was the case on the day we were there. We were able to benefit from the show that was already scheduled for the school group because there were still enough seats in the theater for us.

    We saw the show Magic Treehouse Space Mission which is based on the Magic Treehouse book series for children http://www.magictreehouse.com/#.  My four year-old is familiar with the series which made this film more enjoyable for her. The film is very kid-friendly. Usually my four year-old constantly asks questions when she sees a movie for the first time, so the fact that she was silent during the whole thing was a good indication that she was completely engrossed. Even my 18 month-old sat still through the whole film and didn't feel the need to wander - which is a minor miracle.There was a part where it became completely dark in the theater, and another part where the sun flew into view that spooked my 18 month-old a little, but he quickly recovered. Other younger children in the theater cried at various times in the movie so I guess it all depends on the temperament of your child. If you are prone to motion sickness, as I am, seeing the stars pass by all around you (the projection screen is a huge dome surrounding you) may force you to look away at times to avoid nausea. Even my wife and I learned something from the film about the different space probes that have visited other planets in our solar system.

     After the film, the theater attendant projected what the night sky looks like right now in NC and pointed out some constellations for us. This was my favorite part of the visit and I wish more time would have been spent on it. Did you know there is a bunny rabbit constellation?

     The gift shop is large and is the first thing you see upon entering.Kids will find plenty of attractive things in it - my 18 month-old liked the stretchy rubber aliens. The prices of things in the gift shop are reasonable. We bought both of the kids a book on outer space and astronauts to help us answer the questions they would have later. According to my wife, the bathrooms are clean and well maintained. The planetarium shows are a little pricey - $7.25 per adult and $6 for children 3-12 - so I had to pay for my four year-old.I guess it's a little less than going to the movie theater.

      On the other side of the building, is the UNC Welcome Center. You can get to it by walking around the right out-side of the building or by going downstairs in the Planetarium and then walking up another flight of stairs. In the rotunda of the Welcome Center, is a life-size statue of President James K. Polk - an alum of UNC and NC resident. There are also oil portraits of famous Americans that line the wall. A pendulum clock originally designed for the rotunda is housed in a panel on the wall. The clock has its' own mechanism that keeps it wound.

      Getting my four year-old introduced to the solar system was well worth the trip and the planetarium show price.

statue of President Polk


Ackland Art Museum - Chapel Hill


   I took the kids to Chapel Hill, originally intending to go to the Planetarium, but apparently they don't reopen until late in January. So, having driven all the way out to Chapel Hill from Knightdale I looked for anything else to do with the kids. Luckily, we passed by the Ackland Art Museum and having never been there I decided to try it.

    First, know that parking for this specific Chapel Hill attraction is non-existent. There is no parallel parking on the street in front of the museum. There are no parking lots anywhere close to the museum. I parked at a nearby shopping center and hiked over with the stroller (I know that's a no-no and there were "customer only" parking signs). The Museum opened at 10am. The main doors are a little hard to get through if you have one of those long, double strollers like I do. The day we were there the museum was installing exhibits on the second floor so we didn't get to see anything up there. The staff, specifically the security guards, were some of the nicest people I've ever encountered. I told them I had never been there before and they hooked me up with a map. But the best part is that they had activity packs for the kids! They give you these clipboards with activity sheets and colored pencils in them. My kids' job was then to identify details in works of art they liked and try to sketch them out inside little squares on the paper. The idea, of course, is to break down a work of art into small, appreciable quadrants or zones for the kids - a good art skill. My 4 year-old daughter wasn't quite able to do this, but she loved the chance to just draw. They gave one of these activity packs to my 18 month-old son too. He wasn't quite able to do anything with it but he liked holding it and he appreciated them making it equal for him.

     It's a small museum but there is a lot of cool stuff to see that I have never seen in other art museums. There is a whole room showing artifacts from the Silk Road. There's a large (about 2.5 feet) ancient Chinese sculpture of a horse, Roman coins, and a calligraphic piece of a Mosque doorway. In another room there is a sampling of medieval and Byzantine Christian artwork, including a bust of the Virgin Mary with very life-like eyes and some original Albrecht Durer prints.The temporary exhibit we saw was of North Carolina pottery. There were some very large pots in this exhibit and some fun face jugs. One of the face jugs has hands reaching up out of the top and a face with its' tongue sticking out on the inside bottom of the jug.

    When we left, the guard gave my kids stickers and was again, very kind. I would definitely go back. It's a great intimate art museum with eclectic objects and best of all..... it's FREE.

Prairie Ridge Ecostation

classroom facility at Prairie Ridge


     This is a satellite site of the NC Museum of Natural Sciences located near the RBC Center. The site is all outdoors which makes it a mistake to visit in 43 degree weather with overcast skies and a slight wind like today. The ecostation is a research facility of the NC Museum where they have recreated what early settlers to NC would have seen in terms of Piedmont prairie vegetation. When you stand on the ridge of the prairie you can almost imagine you're in an untouched wilderness, that is if it weren't for the I-40 noise and an unsightly high-rise office building marring the skyline.

      The site contains a bird blind by a pond, a photovoltaic solar panel, windmill, garden, weather station, and a classroom facility which is built entirely of recycled materials. The trails are nice but you will get a workout pushing the stroller up and down the rolling landscape. A special note concerning strollers: use a jogging stroller or off-road type of stroller with large wheels since the trails are just flatened grass. My stroller, with its small wheels, treated the kids to every little bump in the trail which the kids made the most of by humming while they rode so that they could enjoy the staccato quality of their voices. Also, take it from me, it's a mistake to go here after there's been a lot of rain - unless you like getting your shoe stuck in the mud.

      Getting to the Ecostation can be tricky. Immediately when you turn onto Reedy Creek Rd., start looking on the right for the small sign that looks more like an office park sign directing you to Prairie Ridge. Once you turn at the sign, be on the lookout again for another small sign on the right at the entrance to the Ecostation. Prairie Ridge is directly across the road from a US military facility.When you park your car don't bother going into the office building directly in front of you. It's a laboratory facility for the researchers that is not open to the public, as I found out. There is a trailer at the trailhead where Ecostation Guides can answer your questions.I would suspect that Prairie Ridge is really something to see in the Spring through the Fall when the prairie grass is in bloom and lots of critters are about.

     This excursion taught me a little bit about my preschool-age daughter as well. She is not as outdoorsy as I thought she was. She prefers the creature comforts of climate control and, even at four, would probably have been happier to go to the mall than the Ecostation.  


Raleigh State Capitol and Legislative Building

      I took the kids to the State Capitol building and the Legislative Building two weeks before Christmas.
I guess I should have known my kids (preschooler and toddler) were too young to get anything out of these two landmarks, but I figured since it was Christmastime there would be some impressive Christmas decorations.

      We started out at the Legislative Building. Visitors are allowed to tour the first floor and the third floor, but not the second. The first floor houses the offices of North Carolina legislators.There are two wings on either side that look very much alike with labyrinth-like hallways so it's very easy to get lost. There are unimpressive fountains in each wing of the first floor that are not much different than shopping mall fountains. There was a decorated Christmas tree in the main lobby of the first floor that looked very ordinary. There is a very celebrated mural on one of the walls of the first floor that depicts landscapes from North Carolina. You can have some fun getting your children to identify various features like the state bird and all of the North Carolina lighthouses, but it's hardly worth a visit just to see this mural.The third floor has access to the galleries for the General Assembly meeting room and the Senate meeting room. An older school group was in the galleries the day we were there so we could only look through the glass doors.

       The old State Capitol Building is not all that interesting for young children either. The hallways on the first floor are narrow. The greeter in the lobby did give my kids State Capitol stickers. The greeter recommended we explore the first floor and then the second floor. Although there are restored offices on the third floor, the greeter recommended we not visit those, if for no other reason then there was no elevator access to the third floor for our stroller. The only thing to see on the first floor is the famous statue of George Washington. The original statue was destroyed in the fire that decimated the entire building. The present statue is made of a cast of the original. I'm not really sure why the North Carolina State Capitol's most celebrated artifact is a statue of Washington - it's not like he ever lived here and he might have made only one trek through the state.

      On the second floor are the old General Assembly and Senate rooms which were used right up until the 1960s. They are restored to their colonial appearance. You can walk into the first few feet of each room before you're blocked by barriers.There were also Christmas trees, each decorated by various elementary schools in the state, lining the outer walls of the rotunda.

     Overall, these are two sites that are best visited by parents with older children, even during the holiday season.