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.


William B. Umstead State Park - Raleigh

An inviting fireplace greets you at the visitor's center


        In my quest to see most of the state parks in the Triangle area, I made it to Umstead on a gorgeous and cool day. We started out at the Visitor's Center, which is the nicest one I've seen yet in any of the Triangle area state parks. There are lots of interactive exhibits in the Center that even my young children could enjoy. There is also a replica of a grist mill wheel in the Center.

        I was told by one of the rangers that the trail down to the boathouse would probably be the most scenic option for my kids. It's a short trail that provides a view of Big Lake (seriously, that's what the lake is called) very soon after you begin your trek.The trail is easy for a stroller; there are a few spots where pieces of recycled fire hose cross the trail as an erosion control but you can easily ramp the stroller over these. Once you get to the end of the trail, you can then take the bridge over the spillway or turn right and go towards the boat house. There were several people fishing on the other side of the lake when we were there.

      Once we finished the trail to the lake, we tried to do some more exploring on the Sycamore Trail but we had to go home because my preschooler was hungry and storm clouds were approaching anyway.

      The part of the Park that I had heard about and really wanted to see - the old grist mill ruins - were not close to the entrance of the park that we came in (route 70). Apparently those ruins are on the Reedy Creek side of the park which is best accessed from Interstate 40. I was told by the ranger that I could have gone back to 70 and taken Ebenezer Church Road to Duraleigh and accessed the Interstate 40 entrance from there.

      Umstead is a bustling park with plenty of joggers, bikers, and sightseers. There are campsites at the Park as well which make it a great place to introduce your kids to camping without going too far from home. I definitely plan to go back. It's a very beautiful woodsy landscape even if you just take a drive through the park on its' roads.

2nd Trip (2 days later) Reedy Creek Entrance

     This trip had MISTAKE written all over it. Both of the kids hadn't slept well the night before. My preschooler's dance class was going to begin in less than two hours after we arrived at the park. And the trail we took - Loblolly - was definitely not stroller accessible. To top it all off, we weren't even on the right trail to see the mill ruins.

     First, let's talk about the trail - a nightmare for a small wheeled stroller like mine. The trail crosses over hills and down into ravines and has a lot of switchbacks. But the surface of the trail is the worst part - it's loaded with above ground tree roots and large protruding rocks that make using a stroller almost impossible. If my toddler were any younger I would have worried about the ride giving him Shaken Baby Syndrome. You might be able to manage the trail with a large wheeled jogging stroller but I think even that would be strenuous. I wish the NC State Parks Department would start giving their trails a stroller accessibility rating or at least adapt their existing rating system to indicate stroller accessibility.

    I was disappointed that I misread the map and didn't get on the right trail to see the mill ruins. What we did see was an old family cemetery a couple of yards to the right of the trail. The cemetery is pretty close to the trail head so you'd be able to see it without venturing too far down the trail. All of the legible headstones have the surname of 'Young' on them and the oldest legible stone sports a date of 1832. There are smaller and, what appear to be, older stones in the cemetery but age has all but erased their markings.


    There is no visitor's center on the Reedy Creek side of the park but there are clean bathrooms at the trail head. If you're going follow I-40 west and get off at exit 287. There is no sign to tell you, but once you get on the exit ramp you need to prepare to turn right at the stoplight at the end of the ramp.

    I would still like to see the mill ruins but I wouldn't plan to bring my kids to this side of the park again until both of them are old enough to walk the trails.


Sandling Beach - Falls Lake State Recreation Area


         If you're like us and live in a subdivision that doesn't have a pool, there's a place in the Triangle for good swimming - Sandling Beach in Falls Lake State Recreation Area. To get to the Beach, take a left at the sign off of  route 50 North as you're traveling towards Creedmoor.

        The Beach has bathrooms, a foot washing spigot, and several shaded picnic tables and grills.There is also a small playground at the beach for kids ages 5-12. It's a sandy beach and the water is clear so you can see where you're stepping. Every once in a while you can see tiny, dime-sized fish swimming near the shore. The swimming area is roped off and protected by a floating barrier. Although I didn't venture out to the end of the swimming area, by watching other folks, I would guess that it only reaches a maximum depth of four feet. The Park provides and encourages you to use life vests if you go swimming.

       Interspersed along the water's edge are life-sized flat silhouettes of dogs set on poles that turn and twist in the wind. I'm not really sure what their purpose is but my kids enjoyed them, especially my toddler who liked to pretend that they were real dogs.

       At the Visitor's Center, a mile before you get to Sandling Beach, you can get a map of the park and see some animal displays.There is an entrance fee to Sandling - $6 a car - but it was waived on the weekday that we were there. Typically the park charges on the weekends after Easter and begins charging on weekdays after Memorial Day.

       If you've never seen Falls Lake you should make the short trip (20 minutes from the intersection of 540 and Capital Blvd.). The Lake is huge - it stretches from Wake Forest and Raleigh towards Durham and Butner. The area around the Lake is quite scenic and there are several recreation areas of which Sandling is only one. The day we came we weren't expecting to get in the water so we weren't really dressed for it, which didn't stop my preschooler from falling in and soaking herself to her neck.We plan to come again on another day with our swim trunks and make a day of it.


Museum of Life and Science - Durham


         This Museum is IMPRESSIVE! I would put this at the top of my list of places to go in the Triangle. Imagine a kids' museum combined with a science museum and throw in a theme park for good measure. This complex is bigger than Marbles and the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. There is something here for every age group. When we walked in, my toddler got out of his stroller and ran around to check everything out and he never stopped. My preschooler cried when we had to leave - after five hours - and we still didn't see everything.

        There are indoor exhibits and outdoor exhibits. The first floor has interactive exhibits on weather, geology, paleontology, and aeronautics. My favorite part of the first level was an exhibit with live owls, alligators, turtles and snakes native to NC. The second level has exhibits exploring human health and safety. The upstairs exhibits were mostly for kids older than mine, but there was a hand washing experiment that involved a black light and some germ-simulating lotion. I wish I had brought some motel bedsheets.

       Another building houses the tropical butterfly collection and insectarium. The butterflies are unbelievable and mostly from Central and South America. The insectarium has some really interesting specimens, including some huge spiders hanging from webs that are not behind glass. My preschooler was freaked out by them until the keeper came to throw live bugs in their webs, then my daughter surprised me by getting as close as she could to watch the action.

       The outdoor activities are just as impressive. Check out the:
  • huge play structure
  • water experiments
  • drumming setup
  • farm animals
  • life-size dinosaur replicas
  • wild animal habitats
The Ellerbe Creek Railway
      My favorite, and my toddler train enthusiast's favorite, of the outdoor activities was the light gauge railway. There is a separate fee to ride the train ($2.75) but it is well worth it. Along the ride you get to see the dinosaur replicas, woodlands, go through a tunnel, and feel the breeze when the train goes downhill. Your ticket buys you two loops around the track. The engineer/conductor we had made it a lot of fun just by enjoying his job.

     We didn't make it to the "Explore the Wild" outdoor animal habitats or the "Catch the Wind" outdoor exhibit because the kids were just too tired. It's hard to see everything at this Museum in just one day. My only critique of the Museum is that I wish it had an earlier opening time than 10am so we could see more before it got to be nap-time. There is a cafe on the campus which you will need because you can easily devote a day here. The Museum is in the middle of a residential neighborhood so there aren't a lot of other nearby options for food. There are picnic facilities, however, if you wanted to bring a lunch.

     The admission is high - 12.95 per adult and 9.95 per child age 3-12 - but you get a lot for your money and it was definitely worth it. If you plan on going several times during the year you might want to check into a Museum membership that would pay for itself in about 3 visits.

A pig getting a pat at the farm animal exhibit.