Heading for the Hills

Alex Ford
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After a long week of work, traffic, and more work, sometimes the thought of sticking around the house finishing up yard work makes for a very unappealing weekend. Let the hedge trimmer take a few days off and head for these 3 interesting day trips within a couple hours of Charlotte:

1. Congaree National Park

Hunter Desportes

It’s hard to imagine the tranquil isolation possible when you’re immersed in an area so teeming with life. The dense canopy of giant Cyprus trees in Cedar Creek, however, can block out most of the sun and all of the outside world, allowing you to completely disconnect from your every day. Pushing your kayak through these dark waters surrounded by thick vegetation provides a kind of solitude bordering on eerie. You’re kept company by countless frogs, salamanders, fish and dozens of birds nesting in the branches more than 100 feet above your head... and maybe a few alligators.

This is the draw of South Carolina’s first and only National Park. Huge old growth hardwoods and towering pines stand as centuries-old guards throughout the park. Creeks, rivers, and naturally forming oxbow lakes (lakes formed from bends in the river) provide more than ample habitat for dozens of fish, mammal, and reptile species.

Although not officially a swamp because the area is not under water all the time, the low lying flood plain of Congaree is frequently covered in nutrient rich waters delivered by 2 local rivers. The park contains the largest intact expanse of bottomland hardwood forest communities in North America. Average tree height is over 100 feet and the champion Loblolly Pine in Congaree is 167 feet tall with a circumference of 15 feet.

There are two ways to explore the park, by foot or by boat. Twenty Five miles of mostly flat hiking trails, including 2.4 miles of boardwalk, work their way throughout the park, and Ranger guided interpretive walks are scheduled every week or you can venture out on your own.

Rob Glover

Paddling through the park, however, might be the best way to get up close and personal with the water logged habitat of Congaree. A marked canoe/kayak trail follows Cedar Creek with three put-in spots. If you don’t want to sort out a car drop you can easily see many of the best parts of the park by putting your boat in at the Cedar Creek Landing. From there it’s easy enough to paddle up and down stream as far as your time allows.

The park is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week but the visitor center is open Tue-Sat 9am to 5 pm. Restrooms and trail guides are available 24/7 at the visitor center breezeway. At 2 hours from Charlotte, Congaree National Park makes for a perfect day trip, or weekend getaway for that matter.

2. Hiking at Stone and sipping at Rafaldini

Rob Glover

Charlotte provides easy access to a great number of hikes. What makes this day trip special is the stop on the ride home!

Stone Mountain State Park is a little under 2 hours from most parts of Charlotte. Start your 5 mile hike at the Lower Trailhead parking lot. Keep to the left as the trail splits and The Stone Mountain Loop trail will ascend quickly (read: your legs may feel this a bit). The view from on top of the rounded granite peak is one of the best around. You’ll descend through shaded tree cover and make your way past the exposed 600 foot granite wall that looks as though its erupting out of the surrounding topography. With a few extra minutes you can take a walk through the Hutchinson homestead, giving you an idea of what life would have been like for the hearty settlers in the mid-19th Century. The 200 foot waterfall is your final point of interest as you make your way back to your car.

Raffaldini Vineyards and Winery

You’ve expended calories, learned some history, and communed with nature. Now it’s time for a different kind of exploration. Just 30 minutes south of Stone Mountain, conveniently on your way back to Charlotte, sits the Italian style stone villa of Raffaldini Vineyards . Perched on a hill overlooking vineyards and forest, the view from the winery rivals those of Stone Mountain and creates the perfect setting to taste some of the best vintages being created in North Carolina. Raffaldini offers a surprisingly extensive food selection, mostly small bites (cheeses, spreads, crackers and such). The tasting room is open until 5 pm and you’re only an hour from Charlotte.

3. Carolina Tiger rescue

Carolina Tiger Rescue

Slightly different from your typical outdoor day trip, the Carolina Tiger Rescue is a great place for the whole family.

According to the Humane Society website, some 5,000-7,000 large cats are held in captivity in the United States. Only a small portion of these animals are housed in accredited zoos. Many, but not all, U.S. states have outlawed or restricted keeping these large predators as pets. Unfortunately many of these animals end up being kept in facilities that fail to keep them healthy and engaged.

Enter Carolina Tiger Rescue. Originally a breeding facility for endangered species, CTR is a 501c non-profit who cares for all sorts of large cats when their owners can no longer care for them. The animals at CTR are not capable of being returned to their natural environs, so the staff builds proper artificial habitats where they can live out their days in the healthiest way possible.

Carolina Tiger Rescue

Carolina Tiger Rescue actually cares for 10 species of big cats including Binturongs and Kinkajous. If you’re wondering what Binturongs and Kinkajous are, plan a visit. Staff-led tours are available each Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The twilight tours are the best option for seeing the animals during their most active time. They are age restricted to 13 years and up. The daytime tours are open to all ages when accompanied by an adult.

Since tickets sell out relatively quickly plan ahead. The 2 hour 15 min drive from Charlotte is well worth the chance to experience, in such close proximity, animals that would argue about your place at the top of the food chain.

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