Have you ever seen an elephant take a mud bath or fed a 16 feet tall giraffe named Jack a piece of lettuce? If not, you should take a trip to the NC Zoo. Boasting the greatest acreage of natural habitat of any zoo in the world, the NC Zoo is a fabulous place to take your family or visit on your own. The park is divided into two sections, one for African animals and another for North American animals. The paved paths are shaded and well attended. If you want to see everything, it will take all day. If you have more than one day to meander around, there is plenty to keep you occupied.
Our family decided to camp near the zoo and Uhwarrie National forest recently. We chose a campground called Holly Bluff Family Campground. It was a clean family oriented place with a pool and playground. The majority of visitors have RVs and campers so tent camping is less common and a bit intrusive to the tight community of locals. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the shaded campsite, tidy bathhouse, and water/electrical hookups. We tend to pack plenty of luxury camping items that we have accumulated through the years. Our tents felt like mini bedrooms without air conditioning, and we had the ability to cook on a camp stove or the open fire.
Our first day adventure was to the zoo, of course. My wife had been to the zoo as a kid in elementary school. The rest of us had never been. We parked at the African entrance and bought a family pass that was $84 and lasts for a year and includes free or discounted entrance to other such attractions around the country. The regular entry price for all five of us was only $10 less so why not? We wasted no time as we headed off for a look at the zebras and giraffes first. We spent the day at the park with a picnic lunch. We were all ecstatic about the exotic wild life, but we were worn out by 4:30. The wolves, otters, giraffes, and elephants seemed to be our favorites, but that’s not to say the baboons wrestling on the rocks to make each other fall off was not entertaining as well. The park doesn’t have any rules about outside food and drink except for a ban on large picnic baskets outside of the designated picnic areas. There are a couple of restaurants and food stands. Vending machines and water fountains are scattered around as well. They are as expensive as you would expect. We took plenty of water and a few snacks inside in a small backpack, but we went back to the parking area for the picnic. Dippin’ Dots and popcorn were a nice addition to what we had packed. There were also strollers and wheelchairs to rent. A free shuttle service runs thru the park making it easy to get from one side to the other. There are a few side attractions as well for additional fees. Those include a ropes course near the lemur enclosure, a bus tour of the African Savannah section, a 4D theater, and a Dinobus tour that has dinosaur statues.
We didn’t have time to do any of those things, but they looked fun. All in all, it was a great day trip. Back at the campsite, we discovered that our bread had been vandalized by a rather ingenious squirrel or two. My wife had hastily placed a bag with mainly canned food in the bigger of our two tents so that we didn’t have to carry it to the zoo with us and let it sit in the hot parking lot. She didn’t realize the bread would be at risk. Those little scavengers chewed a whole in the tents window screen and left the bread in tatters. We cleaned up the mess and had to change our plan for pre-packing our sandwich lunch for the next day’s hike. The girls played Uno until bed time, and we called it a night.
The following day we planned a 7 mile hike along the Birkhead Trail in the Uwharrie National forest. I felt this would be a good conditioning hike for the kids to do before our upcoming 20+ mile section hike of the Appalachian Trail. After a detour to the local Food Lion for more bread, we packed our lunch and made the air hazy with bug spray. We used a guide book to find the location of the trail head. Then we set off on our natural adventure with no lions in sight but plenty of rocks and trees. The trail followed natural rolling hills with huge rock boulders at times. There were two or three creeks and streams to enjoy. The entire path was covered by a canopy of mainly hardwood trees, and there were quite a few mushrooms and other fungi to add a splash of color. Once again, my wife pulled out her camera and took pictures of the different varieties of mushrooms. It was a little annoying to have to stop and wait for her to catch up, but the girls seemed to enjoy the search. There were also hoof prints left over from someone’s horseback riding adventure.
The Birkhead Trail follows a loop that includes part of the Birkhead Mountain Trail and the Hannah’s Creek Trail. The intersections are clearly marked, and we didn’t have any trouble finding the right paths. About 5 miles into the hike we passed a historical plaque for the Christopher Bingham plantation, built in the 1700s. We passed three campsites, one of which we chose for a picnic spot since it had large, smooth rocks on which to sit. We learned that the Uwharrie Mountains are part of what used to be volcanic islands 500 million years ago. Most of North Carolina’s Piedmont region was underwater, and the islands were part of the volcanic activity that resulted in the formation of the Appalachian Mountain range when the African plate collided with the North American plate forming a wrinkle of mountains. Time has worn down the Appalachian Mountains and the volcanic islands that are now the Uwharrie Mountains. They are North America’s oldest range. Why did I mention this? Well the Uwharrie Mountains are only about 900 feet above sea level and they feel more like hills. The large rocks, however, are evidence of the once mighty mountains. There are also large pieces of quarts rock that shine white against the leaves and dirt. The rest of the hike was peaceful. We finished the hike in about 5 hours. That evening, we went swimming and then to bed.
The next day, we were all ready to spend the day at the campsite. The pool was a perfect antidote to June heat. We paid a visit to the El Dorado outpost for lunch. The locals pronounce it El Dor-A-doe with a long “A.” They have plenty of supplies for fishing, camping, and hiking. We had Hunt’s Brothers Pizza, but there was also a grill. That evening we went to visit a family friend, and we stopped at the REI store located in Greensboro. We found some wool socks on clearance sale and picked up some freeze-dried food to sample. I also got an ultralight Sea-to-Summit inflatable pillow, that I have been wanting. When we returned to camp we learned that a thunder storm had dumped quite a lot of rain on our camp. Despite our best efforts, water had leaked a little into the tent our daughters were using. This tent has been on many campouts and never leaked, but it is getting old. One sleeping bag was too wet for comfort so we had to dig out an extra one that we had packed. We now had neighbors in the adjoining campsite with a tent “cabin” complete with air conditioning. Impressive.
The next morning, we attended a local congregation of our church in Asheboro and returned to pack up camp. It did feel a bit odd to dress up in a tent, but we always go to church if we can. The campground also had a non-denominational service so we weren’t the only ones headed to church. While breaking camp, it took a while to sort through the wet laundry that had been drenched in the storm as it hung on the clothesline, but we managed. The tents were only a little wet around the bottom so we used towels to wipe them off before packing them up. The temperature had cooled as a result of the storm, so it was all good. Then, we loaded up and headed down the interstate toward home.