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.


Pullen Aquatic Center - Raleigh


      Pullen Aquatic Center is another swimming option for those who don't have a pool in their neighborhood. The Aquatic Center is still open even though Pullen Park is closed for renovations. The admission price isn't too bad at $3 per adult and $1 per child for Raleigh residents. You don't even need cash, you can pay the admission price with a debit or credit card.Open swim is from 12:30 pm to 8pm on weekdays. There are also open swim hours on the weekends.

      Swimmers enter the pool area through the locker rooms. Since my wife was with me on this trip, we used the family locker room. The family room worked great for us but there is no stall around the toilet so you  need to be comfortable going potty with your whole family as an audience.

the main pool

      The pool itself is huge. There are actually two pools - the main pool and a teaching pool. The main pool is graded from a 4ft depth to a 10ft diving area. The teaching pool is actually a little bit warmer than the main pool, but if your kids are over 4ft. 6in. they need to swim in the main pool. As the name implies, the teaching pool is where lessons take place so it may be closed to swimmers during class times. Life vests in different sizes are provided for kids, we were even able to find one to fit our toddler.

      Pullen is equipped to accommodate physically challenged swimmers as well. There is a ramp that leads into the teaching pool which allows for a water-proof wheelchair, made of PVC pipe, to access the pool. A hydraulic lift allows physically challenged swimmers to enjoy the main pool.

     My only complaint with the Center is that the lifeguards are young and they are inconsistent in their enforcement of the rules. For example, the Center provides kickboards but they only want adults using them. We didn't know that the boards were only for adults so we let our preschooler use it. No one informed us of the rules until finally one lifeguard told us our daughter shouldn't be using it. So of course my daughter had a major meltdown because she had already been using the board for a while and having fun with it. A similar thing happened with my wife - one lifeguard told her and my daughter that they needed to move into a lane only to have another lifeguard come by a minute later and tell them they needed to be in the undivided area of the pool. So if you're going to Pullen with your kids, bring your own pool toys and be flexible when dealing with the lifeguards.

     Even though it wasn't close to our house, Pullen was a good place to enjoy swimming without worrying about the oppressive heat and the glaring sun. If you want to take a dip at Pullen you should go soon, the Center will be closing on August 8 for maintenance and reopening a week later on its' winter schedule.


Atkinson's Grist Mill - Selma

photo courtesy of Atkinson's Mill website


      Visiting Atkinson's Mill is quite a different experience than seeing Yates Mill. Atkinson's is still a commercially operating grist mill - it's actually the last operating commercial, water-powered grist mill in eastern NC. The Mill operates 24 hours a day, four days a week. So instead of the peaceful, wooded surroundings you'd find at Yates Mill, Atkinson's looks more like an industrial site. There's a weigh station for tractor trailers at the gate and plenty of giant grain hoppers.

     The other big difference between Yates and Atkinson's is the kind of mill they are. Yates is an upright water wheel mill, whereas at Atkinson's, gates are opened to allow water to turn gears and these gears are mostly hidden underneath the structure. A small upright water wheel was installed on the outside of Atkinson's to satisfy tourists who expected the traditional wheel. Even though Atkinson's original structure was built in the mid-1700s, the current structure is circa 1950 and the dam was built in the 1930s. It's not a bad idea to visit these two mills consecutively because they provide such a stark contrast to one another and you will be able to remember what you learned from the first one to ask questions at the second one.

    On one of the hottest days of the summer, I was looking for something to do that didn't involve a lot of time spent outdoors. Unfortunately, the Mill wasn't the best idea because it's definitely not air conditioned. On the bright side, because it was so hot, the mill workers stopped work early and we had the whole Mill to ourselves to see with our personal tour guide, Andrew. Ownership of the Mill runs through Andrew's grandfather and father so getting a tour from Andrew is like getting the insider's perspective.

     After we stopped at the office, Andrew met us down by the actual mill building. He led us through the process of turning corn into meal. Atkinson's makes several mixes for hushpuppies and seafood breading. They even have a warehouse on site where they store their frozen food products. Andrew showed us the high water mark on the wall of the Mill when Hurricane Floyd brought the Little River inside of the facility. The damage caused by Floyd got the Mill's proprietors thinking about moving their grinding operation away from the river. Andrew says that even if they moved the operation they would still grind corn by stone and they would turn the existing mill structure into a museum. 

     My toddler was enthralled with the workings of the mill and Andrew's presentation. I didn't know he wanted to be a miller's apprentice. He liked the fact that there was a fine, white dust on everything that he could run his hands through. My preschooler was less impressed; she just wanted to go home. I hate to think their difference in interest has something to do with the difference between males and females.

   If you're on the eastern side of Raleigh, the Mill is a short trip and the tour takes a half hour. I would recommend seeing it if you have an interest in commercial grist milling.

   To get to Atkinson's from 64 or 264, take the NC 39 exit and go South for 13.2 miles. At the intersection with NC 42 take a right to go west for a half mile. The Mill site will be on your right, before you cross the Little River bridge.


Historic Yates Mill County Park - Raleigh


      Yates Mill is one of those rare gems where there is enough history to keep adults intrigued and enough fun to keep little kids interested.This is the second Wake County Park I have found that caters to young children as well as adults (Oak View is the other one). I would even go so far as to say that these two Wake County Parks outshine most NC State Parks and Raleigh City Parks.

      Yates Mill is a functional water-driven grist mill that was built before the Revolutionary War. It's obviously been renovated and preserved since then, especially after Hurricane Fran did a number on it. Severe weather still has a significant impact on this park as the recent tornadoes in the late spring of 2011 have closed the Creekside Trail indefinitely.

      The Mill itself is open on Saturdays and Sundays for tours. It just so happened that we were there on a weekday while a private tour was going on and we were able to see the water wheel turning. We also got to see local area teachers working on an archaeological dig.

an excavation in progress

     After seeing the Mill, we took the Millpond Trail, a mile long circuit that skirts the edge of the pond and at one point crosses the pond via a boardwalk. It's an easy hike over easy terrain, even with my small wheeled stroller. Along the way we saw butterflies, lizards, and lots of odd shaped and brightly colored fungi.

    The visitor's center is huge and looks very new. A video in the center shows how the machinery in Yates Mill grinds corn.There are lots of hands-on activities for little kids in the center that focus on grinding corn and grain. There is also a dress-up area where little ones can try on colonial clothes. All of this fun allows adults to peruse the many placards about the Mill's history and about milling in general. You can even read about a Civil War era murder mystery surrounding the Mill.

    All of the necessary amenities can be found at the Park including picnic tables, clean restrooms, and a water fountain inside the visitor's center. The Park also conducts educational programs for children and adults. There is a fee to tour the Mill which you can find out about on the website.

    Even if you come on a weekday when the Mill isn't open, the scenery, the educational material, and the wildlife make Yates Mill a worthwhile trip - one that I would put at the top of my list.

Mill Pond


Laurel Hills Park - Raleigh


     Laurel Hills is a Raleigh park and recreation center near Crabtree Valley Mall. I wanted to see this place because it boasts of having a 'playground for all children.' After seeing the playground myself, I will admit that it is extensive and reminds me a bit of the playground structure outside of the Durham Life and Science Museum, but it wasn't quite what I expected.

    A 'playground for all children' made me think it was going to be a playground especially designed for children with special needs - you know, completely flat and wheelchair accessible with maybe some equipment designed for wheelchair-bound kids. My children don't require such an adaptive environment but I was taking them because I thought it would be good for them to see a playground built with special needs children in mind.

     It's now apparent that the label 'for all children' refers to the playground's appeal to children of all ages. There were certainly enough structures for both my toddler and my preschooler to enjoy, as well as plenty of fun for older kids too.The structure functions almost like a maze where kids can get just out of reach of their parents, especially when it's time to leave the park. I hit my head pretty hard trying to wrest my toddler out of a small opening so I could take his sister to the bathroom.

    Plans are in the works to renovate the playground at Laurel Hills and rename it Sassafras Playground For All Children. It will be a more ADA compliant playground with structures specifically designed for special needs children. Until all of the money is raised to begin renovations, the existing playground will remain open.

     The Laurel Hills recreation center has a gym, classrooms, ball courts, and restrooms. When we were there, it looked like they were having an active summer camp session. There is also a basketball court and a baseball field at Laurel Hills. There's a pond too, but we didn't get a chance to see it. If you're in the Crabtree Valley area, Laurel Hills is a good place to let your children run off some energy.