Y'all. When I tell you I stumbled across a true hidden gem, I am not exaggerating. But before I get ahead of myself, let me back up.
I have been wanting to visit Stone Mountain State Park for a hot minute now. Located just under two hours from my home in South Charlotte, North Carolina, Stone Mountain State Park presents the perfect day trip for those living in the Queen City. An easy drive up interstate 77, Stone Mountain offers scenic views, picture-perfect picnic spots, and even a little bit of history to be learned from the 19th century restored Hutchinson Homestead. From horseback riding to fishing, climbing to camping, visitors can do it all.
The 600 foot granite dome that the park is named after offers a truly unique and impressive landmark. A 4.5 mile strenuous loop trail takes visitors past a large waterfall and ultimately to the summit of the dome. After deciding to visit Stone Mountain on a Saturday, and upon pulling into the lower trailhead parking lot and seeing that cars were parked in overflow areas, I knew it would be crowded. I also knew I had to pick a less popular trail. I like hiking and I like people (for the most part) but I don't like seeing (a lot of) people on my hikes. The Stone Mountain Loop Trail was out.
After studying the map for a bit, I decided on the Wolf Rock Trail. 1.5 miles one way, this trail starts in the same place as the Stone Mountain Loop, but eventually tapers off on its own. After about a mile, you will come to an intersection with the Mountains-to-Sea (MST) State Trail. Keep going another half mile or so and the trail will start to flatten out, winding through a small thicket before opening up to what was not only a complete surprise but one of the best mountain views I've had on my hikes. Now, I'm sure if I had done a bit more research (guilty) I would have known this was part of the hike. However, the fact that I was not expecting this at all made it that much more amazing!
Even more amazing was the fact that I had the whole rock to myself. A hiker's dream come true. Now, it was a big rock, and a few groups straggled through while I was up there, but none lingered. Maybe that was what was even more surprising to me. When I come across a view like that, I am going to stop and enjoy it. The others I came into contact with stopped, snapped a few pics, and kept on moving, but I'm not complaining.
When I was finally ready to move on, I felt refreshed and full of energy. I kept going in the direction I had been heading, joining the Black Jack Ridge Trail, another 1.5 mile trail that would eventually connect to the Cedar Rock Trail, then back to the Stone Mountain Loop trail and back to the starting point, essentially creating my own loop totaling 4.64 miles. One thing I really loved was the diverse landscape and vegetation at various points throughout the trail. Going from lush rhododendrons and bubbling creeks to dry, rocky, hardwood patches was incredible.
To summarize, I hiked a big old loop that was comparable in difficulty and distance as the Stone Mountain Loop Trail, had AMAZING views, and saw only a handful of others on the trail. People! This is the way to do it. And of course, if you were interested in a bit of a shorter hike, another option would be to take the Wolf Rock Trail back down after making it to the summit, for a 3.0 mile trip in total.
I broke up my hike into two segments, the 1.5 miles to Wolf Rock, and then 3.2 miles from there back to the start. Read about the significance of the 3.2 miles in my last blog post here.
NEED TO KNOW:
3042 Frank Parkway
Roaring Gap, NC 28668
November - February: 7am - 6pm
March, April, September & October: 7am - 8pm
May - August: 7am - 9pm
Closed Christmas Day
Entrance Fee: None
The year 2020 gave me a lot of time to change up my hobbies. I've always been an outdoor-lover and hiking enthusiast but after moving to Charlotte, it took me several years to really feel comfortable seeking out and participating in hikes alone.
I'm thankful for the push I felt during 2020 to hike more and explore more of the Carolinas. And, as someone who really likes to cross things off as a count down to a goal, I was pretty stoked to find that both North and South Carolina State Parks offer a program for visiting all of the parks.
While I live in NC, I have found that many of the SC parks are actually within a closer driving distance to me, and therefore set out on a journey to visit all of them. The SC program revolves around the Official Guide. Bring this guide with you to all of the 47 state parks, and get it stamped at each location. Each park features a unique stamp design that you can add to your guide. Once you have visited every park and have gotten each page stamped, you can get a Park Ranger to sign your book and you'll receive a commemorative t-shirt, thus officially titling yourself an Ultimate Outsider!
Visit the SC State Parks page for more information. You can print your own copy of the guide, or pick up a free copy in the visitor's center at any of the parks.
Below are all 47 of the South Carolina State Parks. I will update the list as I visit with * - be sure to check back for posts on my experience of each one!
Aiken State Park
* Andrew Jackson State Park
Baker Creek State Park
Barnwell State Park
Battle of Musgrove Mill State Historic Site
Battle of Rivers Bridge State Historic Site
Caesars Head State Park
Calhoun Falls State Park
Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site
Cheraw State Park
Chester State Park
Colleton State Park
Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site
Croft State Park
Devils Fork State Park
Dreher Island State Park
Edisto Beach State Park
Givhans Ferry State Park
*Goodale State Park
H. Cooper Blac Memorial Field Trial and Recreation Area
Hamilton Branch State Park
Hampton Plantation State Historic Site
Hickory Knob State Park Resort
Hunting Island State Park
Huntington Beach State Park
Jones Gap State Park
* Keowee-Toxaway State Park
* Kings Mountain State Park
Lake Greenwood State Park
Lake Hartwell State Park
Lake Warren State Park
* Lake Wateree State Park
* Landsford Canal State Park
Lee State Park
Little Pee Dee State Park
Myrtle Beach State Park
Oconee State Park
Oconee Station State Historic Site
Paris Mountain State Park
Poinsett State Park
Redcliffe Plantation State Historic Site
Rose Hill Plantation State Historic Site
Sadlers Creek State Park
Santee State Park
* Sesquicentennial State Park
Table Rock State Park
Woods Bay State Park
Visiting the Equator is somewhat of a novel idea and a fun activity to do, but it especially makes sense to do so in Ecuador, which actually translates to equator.
Ecuador's capital city of Quito is one of the highest capital cities in the world, located at 9,350 feet above sea level, and is the closest capital city to the equator. Ecuador takes great pride in having such a strong claim to the equator and has gone to great lengths to ensure a satisfying experience when visiting this imaginary line.
The Mitad Del Mundo monument is a 100-foot tall building created in dedication to the location of the equator. Surrounding this monument is somewhat of a small village, filled with shops, food, and even a museum. All of this was built to celebrate Ecuador's proud relationship with the equator, but what's truly ironic is that this structure and small town were actually constructed about 800 feet off of the actual coordinates of the position of the equator. While the reasons for the slightly askew monument are a bit unclear, the immense pride of the Ecuadorian people and their love for the equator remains stronger than ever.
Visiting Mitad Del Mundo, or Middle of the World, whether it is the true equatorial location or not, is a cool experience. From balancing eggs on nail-heads to getting your passport stamped, browsing through the museum and learning about the history of Ecuador, and grabbing some delicious ice cream (remember it's hot at the equator), there is something for everyone! If standing in two different hemispheres at once really excites you, you do not want to miss this.
If you do want to visit the other equator, just walk a few blocks, roughly four minutes, down the road to Museo Intiñan. Unfortunately we were not able to enter as we arrived too late, but it look pretty fascinating from the outside.
In my last post I discussed the amazing hostel that is the Secret Garden Cotopaxi. I briefly mentioned that included with your stay is a free guided hike to some of the nearby waterfalls, but I wanted to share more about what that was like.
For me, it wasn't that great.
While this was a fantastic opportunity to explore the area and see some amazing scenery, I highly recommend allowing yourself to acclimate to the altitude before attempting any type of physical activity. I personally arrived in Quito the night before, slept for about six hours, and then headed straight to the mountains. I do not recommend doing this.
I somehow managed to make it through the hike, which was quite honestly not terribly difficult. I was just very sleep-deprived from traveling and not at all adjusted to the higher elevation.
If you enjoy hiking, waterfalls, and trudging through knee-deep water uphill in gigantic rubber boots, this is the activity for you. The hostel will provide you with the boots needed, and while they may be uncomfortable and awkward to walk in, I cannot stress enough how much I recommend that you wear these and not whatever pair of hiking shoes you brought with you. It. Is. Muddy. And wet and slippery and messy.
The part that I vividly remember the most is scaling a low all over the river, arms stretched out in front and behind me along a ledge, muddy and wet, when the girl behind me suddenly exclaims, "Oh my gosh your ring is GORGEOUS!" She was referring to my engagement ring, which at that exact moment was streaked with mud and I probably should not have been wearing. Forgetting the position I was in, I of course responded, "oh wow that is SO nice thank you SO much."
The entire hike was made worth it when we caught a brief glimpse of the volcano peak for which the park is named after. That sight with the sun shining after a quick rainstorm was the cherry on top. Of course, getting back to the hostel and enjoying a nice dip in the jacuzzi was an added bonus.
Horses? Check. Mountains? Check. Adrenaline-pumping blood in your veins as the wind whips across your face? Check!
Horseback riding through the foothills of the Andes Mountains in scenic Ecuadorian countryside is not only a descriptive mouthful, but a fantastic way to spend a Saturday. Parque Nacional Cotopaxi, or Cotopaxi National Park, occupies over 82,000 acres in the Cotopaxi Province of Ecuador and sits roughly 30 miles south of the capital city of Quito. Gaining its name after the Cotopaxi volcano that sits within its borders, the park also features two other volcanoes. Cotopaxi volcano is the second highest summit in Ecuador at 19,347 feet and one of the most active volcanoes in the region. Cotopaxi can be seen from Quito on a clear day and is one of the most commonly depicted landmarks in Ecuadorian art and culture.
Now- back to the horses! If you have never been horseback riding before- this experience is for you. If you are a seasoned pro- this experience is for you! No matter what you experience or comfort level when it comes to horses is, this is guaranteed to become a memory you will never forget.
Upon arrival, you will likely have a bit of waiting to do as the guides saddle up your horses. During this time you can shop the small market for any urgent goodies- in my case, I ended up buying socks, a hat, and gloves, as it was quite frigid, and I knew it would only get colder as we sped along on our mighty beasts. Remember, the elevation is high and the air is thinner- it gets cold!
Once the horses are geared up and ready to go, things start to move pretty quickly. You will be paired with a horse and assisted in getting on and getting situated. And then you're off! This was such a fantastic way to see the park because you will cover substantially more ground than if you were to hike or bike. At the halfway point, we stopped for snacks and tea, and then mounted back up and headed back out.
We were lucky and got to see a small herd of wild horses on our return journey. Wild horses are found throughout the park and being able to watch them run through such untouched beauty was a truly majestic sight.
The small town of Mindo, Ecuador is nestled tightly in the Andes Mountains cloud forest, one of the richest bio-diverse ecoregions in the world. Mindo is a well-kept secret and has no shortage of fascinating attractions, but its reputation and popularity as an adventure destination is growing rapidly.
Just a block or two off the main square, you will find a tall building looming over the trees. Featuring on-site chocolate making, a delicious cafe, locally roasted coffee, and rooms with a view, El Quetzal is THE destination for chocolate lovers and adventure seekers the world over.
After you grab a bite to eat at one of the many delicious cafes in town, you can check into your room at the chocolate factory! Located up a few flights of stairs, we choose the room that features a balcony, swinging hammock, and amazing views of Mindo and the surrounding mountains.
Because we were guests in the lodge, we were permitted free entrance into one of their world-famous tours. You can follow along as a guide walks you step by step through the bean-to-bar chocolate-making process. Starting with the cacoa bean, you will learn about the ins and out of how modern-day artisans have turned this amazing bean into one of the most lusted after flavors across the world. You'll even get to sample a batch of fresh chocolate brownies and experience for yourself the rich flavors grown right in the Ecuadorian valley!
Breakfast the next day was the cherry on top! We woke up and were treated to special seating on the veranda, surrounded by beautiful foliage and the sounds of the town waking up. Choose from a selection of cooked-to-order meals and fresh coffee-there's really no better way to start your day!
Staying at El Quetzal was more than just finding a room on Airbnb- we got to experience part of the amazing chocolate-making culture of Mindo. The secluded atmosphere allowed us to observe Mindo life from above, taking it all in.
Need to Know:
- Chocolate tours are offered 7 days a week, from starting each hour on the hour from 10:00am-5:00pm
- Cost $10/person (*Free entry if you are staying in one of their Airbnb suites!)
- You can book a stay in the lodge here
new to airbnb? use my referral code here and get $55 off your first booking
Visiting the Mariposario de Mindo, or butterfly gardens, is a must-do activity during your time in Mindo, Ecuador.
Located on the grounds of Hosteria Mariposas de Mindo, a full-service hotel, the gardens offer a highly interactive and vibrant experience for visitors. Whether you're interested in learning more about the lifecycle of butterfly species native to the region, or you simply want to witness nature's beautiful kaleidoscope, a visit is well worth your time.
Be sure to check out the rest of the grounds, including the observation tower and hummingbird feeding platform. Take in great views of the surrounding cloud forest and enjoy up close and personal experiences with some of Ecuador's amazing flying species.
Need to know:
Hours: Monday- Sunday 9:00am-4:00pm
Address: Mindo Sector La Yaguira- 2km from town of Mindo
Best time to visit: 10:00am-12:00pm- the butterflies are most active during this time
Don't use insect repellant before entering
Check out their website for more information:
The small town of Mindo, Ecuador, is located where two of the most biologically diverse areas of the world, the Chocoan lowlands and Tropical Andes, converge together, creating an ecoregion like no other.
As the most popular tourist destination in Ecuador, with nearly 200,000 visitors a year, Mindo has quickly become known for its wide offerings of adventurous activities, including rafting, hiking, tubing, mountain biking, canyoning, zip-lining, and more. If high-speed adrenaline-rushing activities aren't really your style, Mindo also offers many opportunities for connecting with nature through bird-watching, butterfly and orchid gardens, and learning about the Andean chocolate-making process.
Roughly a two-hour bus ride from Quito, Mindo makes for the perfect day-trip or weekend getaway. Full of color, adventure, and raw natural beauty, you will love everything that this charming town has to offer.
Follow along as I share my favorite things to do in Mindo and how you can see a different side to the beautiful country of Ecuador!
I like hidden gems, hole-in-the-walls, and offbeat destinations