5 Family-Friendly Summer Adventures in Charlotte

Get the kids outside for one last adventure this summer.
Get the kids outside for one last adventure this summer. Jim Healey
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Camps are complete, supplies are bought and the threat of early wake-up calls loom like an unfinished plate of broccoli. The first day back to school is almost upon the kids of the Queen City. But summer still has a trick or two up its sleeve. There is time for one last adventure before the last-minute dash to catch the first school bus of the year.

Here are five family-friendly adventures around Charlotte perfect for squeezing that last bit of magic out of summer.

1. Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden

DSBG introduces kids to all sorts of flora
DSBG introduces kids to all sorts of flora Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden

Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden hosts programs for children year round. Their year end holiday celebrations bring music, carriage rides and Santa to the gardens. Peter Rabbit visits at Easter and for Halloween the “Bootanical” grounds are dressed in their scary best. But it doesn’t take a special occasion to make a child’s visit to Daniel Stowe, well, special.

A stroll through the mid-evil themed Kimbrell Children’s Garden, or Lost Hollow, brings the adventure to children of all ages. Moon Keep, the “fortress” overlooking all that’s hiding in the hollow, Fireplace Cave, so called as its entrance is formed from a mantle formerly belonging to Daniel Stowe himself, and the spinning aviary are just a few of the ever growing exhibits to be found. The Hollow is placed between a stand of old growth hardwoods and younger pine – giving the keen observer a glimpse of what forest progression is all about.

You most certainly will get wet walking the tunnel fountain
You most certainly will get wet walking the tunnel fountain

But Lost Hollow is just a part of what can be discovered at DSBG. The 8000 square foot indoor orchid conservatory and miles of walkable trail will help young explorers become more comfortable with nature. And a slow walk through the tunnel fountain is the perfect remedy for a hot August day.

2. Crowders Mountain State Park

Crowders Mountain State Park offers some beautiful vistas and tough trails for adults, but also some flat trails for the young ones.
Crowders Mountain State Park offers some beautiful vistas and tough trails for adults, but also some flat trails for the young ones. Amy

Crowders ’ steep hills and rugged peaks are the home training ground for some of Charlotte’s toughest runners. But the state park, just 30 minutes west of uptown, is also a convenient outdoor playground for Queen City kids.

A visit to the park office is a perfect start to your day. Chat with rangers and get the lay of the land while the kids look over educational exhibits describing the history, both human and natural, of the area. The office is located at the Sparrow Springs Access detailed on the park map.

For a taste of Crowders hiking, head to the back of the parking lot to find the Turnback Trail trailhead. From the Turnback Trail connect to the Fern and Lake Trails for a 2-mile walk that offers abundant opportunity for shaded strolling and wildlife viewing. For the most part, these paths offer gentle grades but there are a few stairs that could prove challenging for the tiniest of trekkers.

The walk loops around Crowders’ 9-acre lake. The park offers canoe rentals on the lake throughout summer. The little lake and its small, tree-covered coves are the perfect introduction to paddling. And for the quintessential late summer experience, it’s tough to beat laying back on a shaded bank watching your bobber for signs that a bass or bream has taken a liking to your bait.

3. Latta Plantation and Nature Preserve

Kids can saddle up at the Latta Equestrian Center.
Kids can saddle up at the Latta Equestrian Center. Rob Glover

Latta Plantation and Nature Preserve is not just a great trail system and historical marker for Charlotte’s past—although it is that as well—it's also the gateway to all things paddle, saddle, and flying raptor.

Much of the 16-mile trail system that weaves its way through the forested peninsula that Latta occupies leads hikers to the shores of Mountain Island Lake. With very few notable hills and several miles of smooth trail and a few bumpy single track, the walking here is suitable for most ages.

At the Latta Equestrian Center, would-be cowboys and cowgirls can hop on the saddle for pony rides or guided trail excursions.

Face off with some of the coolest raptors in the world
Face off with some of the coolest raptors in the world Carolina Raptor Center

Mountain Island Lake is less developed so sees less traffic than other Charlotte-area waterways. The quiet, tree-lined coves make for a great place to paddle and fish for both catfish and bass. The nature center offers the use of some fishing tackle for free and has a boat-rental program. You can also use one of the two launches in the park for your own non-motorized craft.

Of course, you’ll want to spend some time learning about the Plantations past, but make sure you save an hour or two to meet the patients at the Carolina Raptor Center. The Center rehabilitates birds of prey and many, unable to return to the wild, are permanent residents. Meet hawks eye to eye and learn why golden eagles wear boots.

4. Cane Creek Park

Cane Creek Park's large beach area is just one of its amenities
Cane Creek Park's large beach area is just one of its amenities Randy Knight

A bit of a surprise to many Charlotteans who haven’t ventured down to Waxhaw, Cane Creek Park is full of summertime adventure.

You can start with a quick climb, swing and slide on a well shaded, spacious play area. Then have a walk along the many miles of trails that loop around the park.

It won’t be too long, however, before the “let’s go swimming” battle cry is called. The sandy beach, large by Carolina lake standards, is appropriately roped off with the swimming only open when lifeguards are present. But there’s plenty to do on the water as well as in it.

kids can climb, swing, and slide the large playground area at Cane Creek Park
kids can climb, swing, and slide the large playground area at Cane Creek Park Randy Knight

As one of the few trophy bass lakes in the state, Cane Creek is a fishing destination full of largemouth bass, crappie, and catfish. The park rents canoes so you can row away from the splashing mayhem that ensues near the beach. A small separate section of the lake is designated for paddleboats, also rented on site.

Finish the day with a quick game of mini golf and then, of course, a trip to Waxhaw Creamery for a waffle bowl stuffed with homemade butter pecan and mint chocolate chip ice cream.

There is a small park entrance fee and a separate charge for most activities.

5. U.S. National Whitewater Center

Play "don't touch the lava
at the USNWC obstacle course
Play "don't touch the lava at the USNWC obstacle course

The U.S. National White Water Center delivers the best “Oh, they’re gonna sleep good tonight” day out ever. Let your kids run rampant all over Charlotte’s most diverse adventure playground.

While a few activates are for grown-ups only—sorry Timmy, no beer sampling for you—most can be enjoyed by kids. Each has some minimum criteria (age, weight, or height), which we’ve included for easy reference.

Crush the largest outdoor climbing wall in the South East
Crush the largest outdoor climbing wall in the South East Rob Glover

The ever expanding terrain of the USNWC includes some of the best trails and on-land activities in the area. Hike (any age) or bike (4 feet for rentals) a trail before the day gets too hot. Accessed from the back of the main parking lot, the Lake Loop is rated green and is the most tame of the singletrack system. It’s roughly three miles does have plenty of roots and rocks though so might be tough for the puniest peddlers.

Feel free to use your outside voice while attempting a traverse of the obstacle course. The challenge is to not let your feet touch the ground while swinging above, hanging on, and climbing over each obstacle.  Kind of like the game of “keep off the lava” you played on mom’s furniture. The course entrance is located near the north side of the channel where the North Main trail re-enters the woods.

A breezy zip line or splash filled raft trip cools down even the hottest summer day
A breezy zip line or splash filled raft trip cools down even the hottest summer day Rob Glover

You’re going to want to spend some time on, or in, the water—Whitewater is the Center’s middle name after all. Rafting (8 years) the man-made channels can be mild to wild. For a calmer experience, try paddling the adjacent Catawba River. The USNWC offers sit on top kayaks (8 years or 4 years for tandem boats) and stand-up-paddleboards (8 years) plus all the needed paddling accoutrements.  Floating on the tree-lined Catawba is a great way to immerse the kids to their natural surroundings with up-close introductions to turtles, herons, and huge osprey a common occurrence.

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