August 15, 2014 @ 11:13 PM · Exploring Nature in the Sandhills

By Joy G. Crowe

Tucked away between farms on Highway 421 in Harnett County is Raven Rock Road. This three-mile road leads to a hidden gem of the Sandhills area, 4,667 acres along the Cape Fear River that make up Raven Rock State Park. A beautiful visitor center welcomes the public, and an interactive display will give you an education about the ecology and geology of the area, as well as trail maps for your excursion. Primitive camping (some are even "canoe-in" sites), picnic areas and plenty of fishing holes can be found. On the south side of the river, 12 miles of hiking trails wind through the forest; nine different trails range from one-half mile to five miles in length. Along the paths you'll see a variety of wildflowers, including Solomon's Seal, bellwort and bloodroot, as well as breathtaking overlooks of the Cape Fear River. On the north side of the river are eight miles of trails for horseback riding. (Note: No mountain-biking trails are currently available, but they hope to add bike trails in the near future.)

One of the unique aspects of Raven Rock is the variety of topograpy. Raven Rock State Park sits along the fall zone, where the rocky foothills give way to the softer rocks and sediment of the coastal plain. Through the ages, nature worked its magic with wind and water, carving out the centerpiece of the park, Raven Rock. This crstalline sculpture of nature rises 150 feet above and stretches for a mile along the Cape Fear River.

Michael Walker, a park ranger at Raven Rock State Park,  says the diversity of the ecosystems at Raven Rock is what drew him to the park. "Raven Rock is unique in that it has three different ecosystems mixing. You have the coastal plain mixing with the sandhills and an area that reminds me of the mountains," said Walker, who is originally from Asheville. 

Walker is on a mission to get more kids active and enjoying the state park.

"They are the future of parks and conservation. Teaching them how cool and special these places are is important," he said. 

One way that the park is reaching out to young visitors is through a new initiative called TRACK TrailTM produced by the Kids in Parks program. Kids in Parks was originally created in 2008 by the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, the National Park Service and Blue Cross and the Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation as a way to link the health of children to the health of parks by creating a network of trails and community partners.

Each TRACK Trail features self-guided brochures that turn a child's visit to the park into a fun and exciting outdoor adventure. And, participants can earn prizes for tracking their adventures and logging them in online at kidsinparks.com.

At Raven Rock State Park, kids can begin their adventure at the American Beech Loop Trail (located near the first parking lot behind the picnic shelter). Adventurers select the brochure of their choice, choosing from "The Need for Trees,""Birds of the Piedmont," "Animal Athletes" or "Nature's Hide & Seek." Each brochure guides you along a scavenger hunt that is fun and educational. 

"TRACK Trail is the perfect opportunity to give kids incentive to visit the park with their family," said Walker. "Kids are very reliant on one sense, usually sight. This makes you use your other senses, like listening to what the birds sound like. I like that it incorporates as many different senses as possible. Plus everyone has a different learning style, so kids can use the program the way that it works best for them."

Sitting and relaxing with a picnic, fishing with the grandkids, a strenuous five-mile hike, or a family nature walk with Spot and toddlers in tow — whether one is two or 92, Raven Rock State Park offers something that everyone
can enjoy.

During the summer months, the park is open 8 a.m. to
9 p.m., with hours changing to an 8 p.m. close in September. To learn more about Raven Rock State Park, visit www.ncparks.gov or call 910-893-4888. 

Joy Crowe is a mother of two and the publisher and editor of Sandhills Naturally and Kidsville News of Harnett & Lee Co.