Hemlock Bluffs Nature Preserve is tucked in the middle of suburban Cary. Cars on busy Kildaire Farm Road zoom by the entrance. Neighborhoods sit around it.
But as you follow the trails deeper into the 150-acre preserve, it's easy to forget that you're in the middle of a bustling town. Here, shaded by the tall, leafy trees and evergreens, you might spy a lizard on the ground, a deer drinking from Swift Creek or a rabbit hopping across your path.
You could spend a lot of time here. Plenty of families do. Hemlock Bluffs, with its adjoining 3,700-square-foot Stevens Nature Center, is busy on the weekends, especially now that a sidewalk along Kildaire Farm makes it easier for people in nearby neighborhoods to walk there.
Hemlock Bluffs is known for its collection of 235 Hemlock trees, normally found 150 or 200 miles to the west in the mountains. The north-facing bluffs of Swift Creek, which runs through the preserve, make the spot hospitable for the trees.
I've always loved it here and have enjoyed walks with my kids here, though I don't get there as much as I'd like. It's a cool, shady spot in the summer and a wonderful place for families to explore all year.
The preserve offers four trails. The 0.9 mile Beech Tree Cove Loop is the best if you have a stroller. The Swift Creek Loop, a 0.8 mile trail and my favorite, includes boardwalks and a long stairway. The Chestnut Oak Loop is the longest at 1.2 miles and includes some uneven terrain and inclines. The 0.7-mile West Hemlock Overlook trail is accessed off the Chestnut Oak trail.
Once you're done exploring the preserve, you can check out the nature center, which includes exhibits on what you saw outside, along with some hands-on activities for kids, including a box where kids can make different animal tracks. You'll also find bathrooms here and a nice gift shop with a selection of nature-related toys, stuffed animals and books.
Because it's a preserve, there are a few rules. Visitors are asked not to go off the trails or collect leaves, sticks and other things that they might find on your hikes. So the experience can be a new one for kids who are used to collecting a pile of acorns or fallen leaves to take home.
Many kids first get an introduction to the preserve during one of its regular nature programs. Activities are planned for kids from age one and beyond, including many programs, workshops and camps for school-aged kids. Most activities require pre-registration and have a small fee.
Mark Johns, program specialist, and Laura White, nature center supervisor, both have worked on the site for a couple of decades. They tell me that they've watched more than a few kids grow up in the nature programs at Hemlock Bluffs and launch a nature-related career.
If you're looking to expand on a walk in the preserve with your kids, ask about the Junior and Senior Explorer Activity Badge. These offer activities for kids ages 5 to 8 and 9 to 12 that they can do at their own pace.
Hear more about Hemlock Bluffs and see some scenes of the preserve in my video interview with Johns.
Hemlock Bluffs is open from 9 a.m. to sunset, seven days a week. Find it at 2616 Kildaire Farm Rd. in Cary.
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