Daytrippin': The Greenway at the Ararat River
My sons ages 7, 4, and almost 2, derive great satisfaction from chucking rocks into water. On a recent visit to the Ararat River Greenway in Mount Airy, they and their father skipped, plopped and kerplunked many a smooth stone from the rocky banks into the river. They also enjoyed everything else the greenway offered.
The Ararat River runs along the eastern boundary of Mount Airy, flows past Pilot Mountain and empties into the Yadkin River. Until recently, erosion from the Ararat sent 15 million pounds of sediment downstream each year endangering wildlife and affecting water quality in the Yadkin River.
The three-mile stretch of the river that runs through Mount Airy was causing much of the problem. In 2005, Mount Airy and Surry County officials set out to restore this section of urban stream that ran from one city park to another. Catrina Alexander, the director of Mount Airy Parks and Recreation, says officials soon came to realize the potential for recreation and education that lay along this same corridor.
The Parks and Recreation Department added a greenway between the two parks to the restoration plan. Thanks to a culmination of grant funds from various sources, the Ararat River Greenway was dedicated in 2010.
The greenway path begins at Riverside Park and runs for a total of 2.2 miles to Tharrington Park beside Tharrington Elementary.
Several locations offer access to the greenway. Riverside Park has parking, bathrooms, picnic tables and activities for all ages. Younger kids will enjoy the playground that features a boat-shaped sandbox, adjoining sea watch tower, rubber bridges, a tree house, tire swings and a wooden police car worthy of Deputy Fife. Older kids may enjoy the skate park.
H.B. Rowe Environmental Park offers more of a focus on nature without the distraction of a popular city park. Parking, bathrooms and trail guides are available. Tharrington School Park, at the south end of the greenway, has parking but no bathrooms.
We parked at Riverside Park and walked downstream along the greenway. From the park, the paved trail crosses under the Donna Fargo Highway Bridge. My sons enjoyed watching the gradual waterfalls created by stones that direct water around the bridge pylons.
Once crossing under the bridge, the path opens out with the river bank on one side and a wooded area on the other. Birches lean over the edge of the wide river. My sons also liked the large rock formations that were built into the river to slow water (and thus erosion).
The path is paved and relatively flat. Bikes, scooters, roller blades and strollers work well along the trail.
The Mount Airy Parks and Recreation Department rents bikes at Riverside Park from May to November.
When exploring by foot, look for TRACK (Trails Ridges and Active Caring Kids) Trail Adventure guides, online at (www.kidsinparks.com) or along the trail. These guides were created by the Blue Ridge Foundation's Kids in Parks Program, an organization that encourages family involvement in the Blue Ridge Parkway area (10 minutes from Mount Airy).
Three TRACK Trails Adventure Guides are available for the Ararat River Greenway. My family used the winter version of Nature's Hide and Seek, a visual checklist of common but often overlooked natural objects to find while walking along the trail. My sons spotted insects, animal tracks, trees with woodpecker holes, acorns, mushrooms and rocks with lichen.
We also used the Birds of the Blue Ridge Mountains guide that shows colorful pictures of birds common to the area. My oldest son, Ian, quickly spotted a blue jay. We caught short glimpses of another type of bird. We thought it looked most like a Carolina Wren. Later, we confirmed this online at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website (www.allaboutbirds.org), where you can learn about the habitat and behavior of any bird and hear its song.
Once a TRACK Trail has been completed, children can go online to record their adventures and look for other TRACK Trails and related information.
While my sons were happy to hunt for nature's treasures for a while, they soon returned to exploring the trail in a more physical way. They climbed through and on top of the many large rock formations, walked along fallen logs and crossed the pedestrian bridge, stopping of course to chuck a rock or two in the water below.
Misty Fleming of Mount Airy enjoys walking the greenway with her dogs and family. "Many families will bring picnics to share on the banks or at one of the tables along the trail," Fleming says. "And in warmer weather, some families get in the water and swim."
Alexander says it used to be that families who could not afford to join a local pool would use the river for swimming. "Now it's not really an economic situation, it's a preference. They are already there [on the greenway] and now the accessibility is there," she said.
The open banks, wide pools and gentle bends of the Ararat River are not only good for swimming, but also for fishing. Thanks to the stream restoration project, the river has been designated a delayed-harvest trout fishing area, one of only 18 in the state and the closest to Winston-Salem and Greensboro. The river is stocked with trout by the North Carolina Wildlife Commission. My husband, who often attempts to steer family outings toward trout waters, says that many angling groups have given the river high marks.
Children can try river fishing at the Healthy Kids Day to be held at Riverside Park on May 5. The North Carolina Wildlife Commission will supply rods and bait and teach children how to fish. The day will begin with a family fun run at 10 a.m. and continue with various activities through 2 p.m.
Canoeing, kayaking and tubing are also popular in the river. Riverside Park and Rowe Environmental Park have canoe/kayak put-ins upstream along the greenway and Tharrington Park, where the greenway ends, has a take-out. Fancy Gap Outfitters on Main Street in Mount Airy rents kayaks, canoes and inner tubes for day use.
Main Street Mount Airy, just around the corner from Riverside Park, offers a great ending, beginning or break to a greenway adventure. Enjoy a famous pork chop sandwich at Snappy's Lunch and the Mayberry Soda Fountain. And if more is needed to round out the day, the Mount Airy Regional History Museum, with its children's area, and the Earl Theater, home to a Saturday morning Bluegrass Jam, are just a stone's throw away.
If You Go
Mount Airy Parks and Recreation Department
113 Renfro St.
Mount Airy, NC 27030
350 Riverside Drive, Mount Airy
H.B. Rowe Environmental Park
217 Hamburg St., Mount Airy
Tharrington School Park
315 Culbert St., Mount Airy
Fancy Gap Outfitters
160 N. Main St., Mount Airy
Jan Wharton is a freelance writer from Winston-Salem.