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Take your kids to these hidden Durham treasures



We know and love Durham Bulls baseball games, The Museum of Life & Science and Duke Gardens. What do you do when you gotta get the kids out of the house but you're tired of the same old, same old? Break the familial monotony with an adventure to the hidden gems across greater Durham.

Those 100-degree days are just around the corner. That's a perfect time to take the kids to cool off in any of the city's free spraygrounds or join a reasonably priced neighborhood pool. Then take a break from the plethora of DIY yogurt shops with old- school snowballs at Pelican's—in addition to the North Roxboro location, there's a new one at Fayetteville Street and N.C. 147. Legend is that if you eat all 100 flavors in one summer, you get a free T-shirt. (But that includes such doozies as Dill Pickle, Cadillac Juice and Sour Tsunami, so caution is warranted.) Later, you can wind down as the sun sets with great local music. Listen for free as your little ones chase fireflies at lesser known free outdoor concerts, including Rock the Park, Warehouse Blues and Durham Symphony's Pops in the Park.

As far as the great outdoors, head out to the very northern edge of our county to visit Rolling View at Falls Lake State Recreation Area. You'll find a wide beach, a sandy playground, lakeside camping and a fishing pier. What's most impressive is a newly renovated community building that's nice enough to rent for any event—but still saves enough money in your budget for food so you can grill out by the lapping waves.

There's also camping, nature trails and even a low ropes course at Lake Michie Recreation Area in Bahama. Both places are a nice break from the concrete jungle of downtown and feel like a real getaway while still being close to home.

Discovery High Ropes Course at Bethesda Park - PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON
  • Photo by D.L. Anderson
  • Discovery High Ropes Course at Bethesda Park

Durham has the largest population of lemurs in the world outside of Madagascar—quite the accomplishment in conservation. Appreciate them in person at the Duke Lemur Center, where your fam can watch these clever and silly primates swing from branch to branch.

Kids can learn by doing with hands-on classes at the Piedmont Wildlife Center, helping garden during community workdays at Duke Campus Farm and trailblazing with the Ellerbe Creek Family Explorers Club. If mountain biking is your thing, you don't have to travel far. The little known Solite Park in South Durham (or SoDu, as it's lovingly referred to by locals) has what's known as a "pump track." Hidden in the field next to the playground is a dirt circle of small hills and valleys, where a young rider can learn to maneuver using just his or her body's natural momentum with minimal pedaling. Behind it you'll find a short mountain bike trail, perfect for newbies, and easily accessible from the American Tobacco Trail.

With more than 60 parks, Durham surely has at least one place to play that you've yet to find. Some hidden treasures? The performing stage at Burch Avenue Park, the handcrafted log teepee at Piney Wood, the spaceship at Garrett Road, the long bike path around the playground at Rockwood, the futuristic geometric climbing structures at Old Chapel Hill Road and Northgate Park's creek and dinosaur.

A rainbow snowball at Pelican's - PHOTO BY D.L. ANDERSON
  • Photo by D.L. Anderson
  • A rainbow snowball at Pelican's

Downtown, don't forget the climbing blocks outside of the Durham Arts Council on Morris Street.

You probably already love West Point on the Eno. But have you seen its new natural learning playground, where logs and bamboo allow kids to use their imaginations to build castles to the clouds? The beloved Old North Durham Park, with its giant Buckminster Fuller-inspired prism climbing structure and soon-to-be completed soccer field, reopens in August after a long controversy over land use. Daredevils, head over to Durham Parks & Rec's new crown jewel, the Discovery High Ropes Course at Bethesda Park, with rope structures reaching as high as 55 feet in the air, a zip line and a giant swing.

Aside from the smorgasbords that are our beloved food truck rodeos, where can a family go where the parents can enjoy their meal and let the kids play? At Bull City Burger and Brewery, Rise Biscuits & Donuts and Nanataco, play areas await the bored kiddos.

Stay & Play Snack Cafe is a super neat addition to this lineup, specifically created to solve the problem of parents being unable to have a normal conversation with friends, especially since they usually have to corral the wild little ones into behaving in a traditionally somber coffee shop.

Nora Berklich romps at Stay & Play Snack Cafe - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Nora Berklich romps at Stay & Play Snack Cafe

If you want to let them pick their own food, the rows and rows of blueberries and grapes at Herndon Hills Farm, the juicy strawberries at Waller Family Farm and the pumpkin patch at Ganyard Hill Farm combine an activity with a delicious reward at the end—as well as berry-stained lips.

That's one great thing about a county that is both urban and rural: You're not that far from the farms that put food on our tables. The new South Durham Farmers' Market is smaller than its downtown cousin, but the chalk and music keep the kids happy while parents pick from fresh offerings. Despite its size, it's got more Durham-based farmers than any other market, including family-run Green Button Farm, who say, "If a six year old cannot read [it], you will not find it in our food."

On indoor days, I can't recommend Durham Parks & Rec's many options enough. The city council adopted a new fee structure for 2013 that makes enrichment accessible to all families. For around $10 (for a two-month session!) you have your choice of classes in sewing, dance, tumbling, art, cooking and more. There are also cheap one-day workshops for teens and themed preschooler play days.

Bull City Craft is a great destination when you're feeling creative, with its mommy & me classes and drop-in projects, as well as a neat selection of crafts to take home. Defy Gravity is a space-themed indoor trampoline park, perfect when you want to feel like you're walking on the moon (or if you want to go nuts in their dodgeball tourney).

Ah, the chore of shopping with kids—never easy. Luckily, Northgate Mall not only has free morning movies for kids in the summer but also a carousel, ride-on toys and a bungee jump, as well as an outdoor sculpture that becomes a sprayground in the summer.

Squirt gun and water balloon fight on the Durham Farmers' Market lawn - PHOTO BY JEREMY M. LANGE
  • Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
  • Squirt gun and water balloon fight on the Durham Farmers' Market lawn

The Durham Green Flea Market on Pettigrew is a kid-friendly place to find a variety of goods, rain or shine, from cheap mangos to collectible albums. If you have an artist in the family, or are spring cleaning the house, rent a booth for less than $20. It'll teach kids money management, the art of selling and, best of all, you can get rid of that elliptical machine you'll never use.

One of the best parts about being a parent in Durham is the sense of community we have in such a diverse place. My family has enjoyed marching in the wild Mardi Gras parade, giggling in their costumes during the spooky Halloween fun run, soaking in some culture at the Durham Art Walk and chowing down at the new Thanksgiving in Spring giant potluck.

Come winter, there is nothing lovelier than area children's choirs performing at Duke Chapel and the candlelit tours at Duke Homestead.

For the offbeat, Marry Durham comes to mind (although by this point we're just renewing vows).

When you're looking to connect with other Durham parents, you'll find a thriving online community. The Stir Crazy Moms' Guide to Durham is chock-full of even more hidden treasures, with reviews of dozens of spots. The Durham Mothers Club, Alternative Parenting of Durham, SoDu Parents Posse and South Durham Moms Meetup Group are all amazing resources for Durhamites with tykes.

We've found a wonderful place to raise a family, with quirky fun waiting to be discovered. Get out there and find something your family can call your own hidden Bull City treasure.

Correction: Nanataco (not Nana's) has a play area.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Modern family."

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