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
Crowder's Mountain State Park sits roughly 30 miles to the west of Charlotte, North Carolina and offers a wide variety of hiking trails. With 11 trails ranging from easy to strenuous, visitors can enjoy summit peaks or lakeside strolls, Crowder's Mountain is one of the most popular hiking destinations for visitors from Charlotte.
With two main summits, Crowder's Mountain and the Pinnacle, hikers have the opportunity to witness sprawling views of the Piedmont region, including the Charlotte skyline 25 miles away.
I have visited Crowder's Mountain twice. The first time I went alone, on a Friday in November. It was a beautiful, sunny day, but the trails were quiet and I only encountered a handful of people at the summit.
The second time I went was yesterday, the first sunny day after a week of rain, and a Saturday, in February. I knew it would be crowded, but I was not prepared for the hoards of people I saw in the parking areas. Families, couples, individuals, dogs. Everyone was accounted for. This has become my experience more and more as the pandemic continues. These are the things that people are doing now, which is great! I highly encourage people to get outside, take their families or pets, and explore their communities. However, if you prefer quiet trails, check out this park on a weekday and save the lesser know parks for weekends.
During my first visit, I hiked the Pinnacle Trail to the Pinnacle summit. My second visit I wasn't looking to summit because 1. I had done it before, and 2. the aforementioned crowds. I hiked about a mile on Crowder's Trail to Rocktop Trail, where I hiked another quarter mile or so until a came to a rock scramble. I took some time to enjoy the views and get some water, then hiked back down. From there I drove to the overflow parking area and did two short loop trails, Lake Trail and Fern Trail, each about 1 mile long.
Let me know what your favorite trail at Crowders has been! And if you're from Charlotte, let me know your favorite hiking spots!
Need to Know:
I highly recommend visiting the park on a weekday. On nice weekend days, the park is extremely crowded, with cars filling up the overflow parking areas.
Use the Sparrow Springs access point to check out the Visitor Center, get information on trails, and pick up a sticker for your North Carolina State Parks Passport
Sparrow Springs access and visitor center
522 Park Office Lane
Kings Mountain, NC 28086
Linwood Road access4611 Linwood Road
Gastonia, NC 28086
If you're familiar with the Outer Banks, North Carolina, or anything aviation-history related, you are probably aware of Jockey's Ridge (read my post about this amazing North Carolina State Park here). However, despite having vacationed in the Outer Banks for decades, we had never visited, much less even heard of this slightly smaller, but equally amazing natural area composed of just over 120 acres of sand dunes. Established in 1995, Run Hill State Natural Area exists just a few miles up the road from Jockey's Ridge to the north, and just south of the Wright Brothers National Memorial, which can actually be seen from the dunes on a clear day.
With no visitor center, no designated parking lot, and no identifying information other than a somewhat obscured sign, Run Hill is certainly considered off the beaten path, which makes it so worth a visit. While we visited during the off season, you can bet that even during the busiest of summer months, you won't encounter many other people here.
After parking and setting foot on the trail, you will be immediately greeted by a steep slope. It's short, but lots of loose sand can make getting up this little hill quite difficult. Once at the top, you will be able to spot the Wright Brothers Memorial. With no officially marked trails, you are free to wonder the area as desired. Along the way, you will encounter open spaces of sand dunes, deciduous trees, patches of ground cover and even some freshwater ponds. Keep an eye out for wildlife, including many bird species, turtles, snakes, raccoons, foxes, and more. Nags Head Woods Ecological Preserve is adjacent to the area, and stretches all the way to Jockey's Ridge, providing a continuous tract of natural land for plant and animal species in the area.
With close to 2 million visitors a year at Jockey's Ridge, I guarantee you'll want to check out this spot that remains a secret amongst the locals.
How to Get There:
Located just behind First Flight Middle School, the area can be access by parking at the school and hiking towards the dunes.
However, the easiest way to get there is to turn onto Landing Street from S. Croatan Highway. If you're coming from the south, turn left, and turn right if coming from the north. Drive to the end of Landing Street and turn right onto 10th Ave. At the end of the road is a small shoulder where you can park, across from the sign.
Because there are no designated paths or trail markers, it could be easy to get disoriented while you are exploring. Make a note of certain landmarks, such as the Wright Brothers Memorial or the large electrical lines that cross the middle of the dunes. The Memorial is located to the north and the lines run north to south.
The Kitty Hawk Woods North Carolina Coastal Reserve, located in the town of Kitty Hawk in the Outer Banks, comprises over 1,800 acres of wooded area surrounded by the waters of the Currituck Sound to the west and the Kitty Hawk Bay to the south.
As I mentioned in my last post about Jockey's Ridge, my family has been vacationing in the Outer Banks for decades. This is the first time we've visited the Coastal Reserve, and to be honest, we were (pleasantly) surprised at this find. Being from Virginia, we are well experienced with trails in the woods, and were shocked that there was such a large, heavily wooded area in the region.
With hiking, biking, and even horse back riding trails, the woods offers activities for many outdoor enthusiasts. The trails are easy and would be perfect for families with small children, however it would be difficult for those with mobility issues due to muddy or flooded patches and thick ground cover. It's also important to note that there are private properties scattered throughout the area, as well as designated bow and gun hunting regions.
I highly encourage a visit to the reserve. We decided to go on a cloudy, windy day and it turned out to be the perfect activity for the day as we were heavily shielded from the wind. I recommend downloading a copy of the reserve map to carry with you- while the trails are marked, there are some cross overs, as well as areas on paved road. Keep an eye out for the covered bridge- another happily received surprise that we never expected to find in the Banks.
My family has been traveling to the Outer Banks for decades. After so many years of visiting the same place, we have developed a list of favorites and must-dos for each trip. While that list may vary from year to year, one thing remains the same: visit Jockey's Ridge.
Jockey's Ridge State Park, located on the Outer Banks of North Carolina's eastern shores, is the tallest living sand dune on the United States East Coast and a popular spot for locals and visitors, families and adults. The perfect place to fly a kite or watch the sunset, the fun that comes with a visit to the dunes easily invokes a sense of childhood simplicity, reminding you of how easy it is to have fun, no equipment needed.
While some may see the park as a glorified sand box, and it can certainly feel that way, Jockey's Ridge has played a major part in the history of the Banks and forms a part of a complex living ecosystem. Believed to have formed between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago, the dunes are constantly shifting as winds blow in different directions, resulting in an ever-changing silhouette.
Lined with sea grasses and small shrubs, the sand does support some plant life. You'll find thicker pockets of live oaks, wax myrtles, and red cedars near the parking area. Small mammals can also be found within the park boundaries, including rabbits, foxes, raccoons, oppossums, and dozens of bird species. Check out the Visitor Center museum to learn more about the history and ecology of the area. Visitors can also participate in hang-gliding lessons on the dunes.
Need to know:
Entry fee: None
300 W. Carolista Drive
Nags Head, NC 27959
Visitors with mobility restrictions can call 24 hours in advanced to reserve a ride to the top of the dunes-- 1-877-722-6762
Jason and Carolyn Roy opened their first Biscuit Head location in Asheville, NC to share their love and passion for southern cooking and local ingredients. With features in the New York Times, Food and Wine, USA Today, and more, Biscuit Head was an immediate success. They have since opened three additional locations, two in Asheville and one in Greenville, South Carolina. All locations have a strong commitment to maintaining a low carbon footprint and partnering with local vendors- we love to see it.
I had been wanting to grab breakfast at Biscuithead for the past several years, but we always ended up heading somewhere else every time we visited Asheville- check out my post here and you'll know I'm not complaining. However, I do like to try new things so I was thrilled when we finally got to check it out this past August. I was even more thrilled when I saw their social distancing procedures. Outdoor seating, touchless menu and ordering. It was all great.
Now, my husband is one person that you would not, in fact, call a biscuithead. He grew up in the South alright. South Jamaica that is. Biscuits aren't really their thing. Me however, I am a born and bred true biscuithead. Gimme a biscuit drizzled with honey, layered with jam, topped with a piece of salty ham and cheese. Whatever, I really don't care. I just appreicate a good biscuit, and therefore, I appreciate the fine eating establishment of Biscuithead.
We visited the Biltmore Ave, location, just a few minutes outside of downtown. It was doing a pretty steady business for a random late Tuesday morning. With a menu that features just a plain regular biscuit, or a gravy flight for those who like it all, Biscuithead even has gluten-free and vegan options, making it a place your entire party can dine at. Whether you're a biscuit purist or an innovative eater, you'll find something guaranteed to satisfy. In case you love your meal so much, you can order meal kits to go, as well a cookbook featuring all of their signature dishes.
I don't know about y'all, but tacos are one of my favorite foods. I mean, we served jerk chicken tacos at our wedding, so we will let that speak for itself.
I believe the main reason for most peoples' love for tacos, besides from the general deliciousness, is that they are so versatile and have the option to be completely customized. And the thing is, no matter how you change up a taco to fit your personal preferences, and no matter what theme you're in the mood for, you can always make a taco work.
This is why the White Duck Taco Shop (WDTS) in Asheville is one of my favorite local places to get tacos. The menu is so diverse in the types of tacos offered, with a range of flavor palettes and something guaranteed to meet the tastes of everyone! They standby their claim that "if you like food you will love us!"
My personal favorites have been the buffalo chicken taco, as well as the pork belly with pickled watermelon rind. Honorable mentions are the black bean and Bangkok Shrimp (you might need a few extra napkins for this one).
Now, WDTS has several locations throughout NC, as well as a few in South Carolina and Tennessee, including one in my very own Queen City of Charlotte. However, I have only ever visited the Asheville locations because everything is just better in Asheville. The original location is located in the River Arts District (RAD) and is the first location I visited. They have since moved a block over from their original setting, but the atmosphere hasn't changed!
During our most recent trip to Asheville, we visited the downtown location as it was within walking distance of our hotel. Now, it is COVID time, so things were a little different, but with plenty of outdoor seating and the same delicious menu, the tacos were as good as ever!
Need to know:
Location: View the map here
Menu can vary by location/season- view here
What's your go-to taco order? If you've ever been to White Duck Taco Shop, or any other honorable mentions, let me know in the comments!
If you've ever strolled the streets of downtown Asheville, you may have noticed a bright red double-decker bus. It would be pretty hard to miss, after all, and may even make you do a double take, as these buses are a bit of a rare sight this side of the world.
Double D's Coffee and Sweets is located within this particular bus, nestled in a shady corner on Biltmore Avenue, right in the heart of the city.
While you first feel a bit of surprise, you will quickly feel enchanted as you step into the unusual world of a coffee bus. From the bus people themselves, the experience has an effect on children and adults alike.
Stepping onto the Double Decker Bus has a very distinct effect on people. For children, it makes them feel like grown-ups. They get to be the captain of a vessel that only encourages their imagination. For people who are already grown up, it makes them feel like kids. However, regardless of age, the Bus ignites something special in every customer who walks through those red doors, and the result is always positive. A cozy red Bus nestled into a cozy, quaint town makes everyone feel at home. The vintage surroundings paired with organic coffee roasted locally by Notorious Coffee Roasting Company and local desserts made with love is the recipe for Asheville's Landmark Coffee Bus.
With a menu featuring classic coffees, hot or iced, as well as flavored lattes, chais and frappes, there is something for everyone at this one of a kind coffee shop. Needing a little bit more than a coffee? Try a smoothie or even one of their milkshakes! They also have an assortment of pastries and other sweet desserts. My personal go-to anytime I see it on the menu is a lavender latte, and the Double D's Lavender Honey latte did not disappoint!
Need to know:
41 Biltmore Ave
Asheville, NC 28801
Double D's Coffee & Desserts has reopened with an extensive safety system in place. We are confident that the level of safety precautions we have provided will protect our customers and our employees. We require 6 ft. distancing, face coverings at all times, except when seated at a table. We consistently sanitize all tables and high touch areas. All employees have temperature checked before they start their shift.
With 30 local breweries, Charlotte has a booming craft beer scene. One particular spot has decided to stand out by taking their brew skills to the next level. In addition to traditional ales and lager, Lenny Boy Brewing Co. has expanded their beverage menu to include sours, gluten-free wild ales, and organic kombucha. With a wild flavor list including Lost Rose, Lavenderade, and seasonal Sweet Potato Pie, Lenny Boy is actually the only certified organic kombucha in the entire Southeast. This wide variety of options mean that drinkers and non-drinkers alike are sure to find a new favorite brew.
Featuring a bright, spacious taproom adorned with greenery and views into the brew warehouse, Lenny Boy puts a strong emphasis on their slogan “Culture Matters.” How does a brewery build culture, one may ask. Aside from providing an opportunity for groups large and small to gather, Lenny Boy loves local. By partnering with local groups and organizations to host art shows, weekly fitness classes, non-profit events, trivia, and more, Lenny Boy connects people with culture. Real, local, culture that builds community.
Oh, and there’s always dogs.
What more could you want in a brewery?
Lenny Boy has it all.
Do you ever find yourself in a situation when you have a friend coming to visit and you know you want to spend some time catching up, but all of a sudden you feel like you just moved to the city you’re in and can’t think of a SINGLE decent place to go for drinks? Or coffee or breakfast or dessert? You spend weeks or months making mental notes of all the new places you want to try but when the opportunity arises to go somewhere, it’s as if everywhere you’ve ever heard of vanishes, leaving you panicked as your quickly do a Google search of “good restaurants in…” or “best place to eat near me.” Maybe it’s just me, but I have started keeping a written list of those such places so that I don’t keep finding myself in that situation.
The most recent example is when a friend was coming into town for a few hours, and while we both knew we wanted to grab some drinks, dessert was mentioned, and I quickly found myself falling down the rabbit hole of local instagram foodies, trying to find something visually appealing that caught my eye and met the criteria established.
This time, it manifested in the form of Barcelona Wine Bar. I’d heard of it. I’d seen pics of it. I knew they had alcohol. So far so good. A little more scrolling and voila, dessert was spotted. This was the place.
Upon entering said place, my initial feelings were validated. With shelves of books, antique knick knacks, and a few scattered plants, I immediately felt as though I was entering into a cozy cellar that featured warm lighting and delicious smells.
After a round of sangria, we decided to throw some tapas into the mix before moving on to dessert. The abondigas, spiced meatballs in a tomato-based sauce paired great with the complimentary bread that we couldn’t get enough of. The pork belly with almond slivers was so extremely tender it almost melted in your mouth. And the garlic aioli topping the patatas bravas was worth licking the plate for. Of course we didn’t…
We allowed the savory goodness of meat and bread, sauces and spices, to almost dissuade us from ordering dessert. But alas, we came here for a reason and we could not leave without fulfilling our quest.
The crepas allowed us to complete our mission. Stuffed with the lightest, yet creamiest coffee filling, drizzled with chocolate sauce, and sprinkled with whole hazelnuts, the rich flavors were so smooth and airy with just the right amount of crunch.
The next time I need to find the perfect spot in a pinch, there will be no hesitation.
I like hidden gems, hole-in-the-walls, and offbeat destinations