The first time that I went to Hill Ridge Farms, I had no idea what to expect.
My older daughter was two or three and it was her very first preschool field trip. All I knew was that we were going to a pumpkin patch. I figured we might see a few farm animals, pick up a pumpkin and head home.
Boy, was I wrong.
Now, we did those things. But there is so much more! Once you think you've seen it all at Hill Ridge, you realize you've missed a whole corner. There's the corn house where kids play in corn kernels like a sandbox. The 80-foot slide that I'm pretty sure my older daughter went down about 50 times during another field trip a couple of years later.
There is a kiddie train, a hayride, pony rides, a duck race, a fort, inflatables, a big patch with pumpkins and the list goes on.
My younger daughter, now 3, and I went to Hill Ridge about a week ago with a friend and her three-year-old. The kids had a blast playing in the corn house, jumping in the hay, riding the train, bouncing on the giant jumping pillow and picking out a pumpkin. The kids sat on our laps as we went bump, bump, bump down the 80-foot, corrugated slide, which goes very fast.
We spent more than three hours, finishing up with lunch at the small cafe. It's amazing the kids didn't fall asleep on the ride back to Raleigh, which took us about 45 minutes.
Owner John Hill tells me Hill Ridge opened 44 years ago as a small pick-your-own farm. Hill began offering field trips about eight years later to school groups.
"Then we grew from there a little bit each year and we added different things every year," he said. Eventually Hill had turned the farm into a fall destination that can accommodate close to 2,000 people. Its 10 covered wagon hayrides alone can fit a total of 500 people at one time.
In the past few years, Hill has replaced portable toilets with permanent facilities (a huge improvement, in my opinion), covered picnic areas and small buildings that sell apple treats and roasted corn on the weekends, among other upgrades.
An even bigger change for Hill Ridge coming up later this year as Hill and his family and staff prepare for a new holiday light festival, which will open on Nov. 23. Christmas at Hill Ridge will run through Dec. 29 and include covered wagon hayrides through a festival of lights, bonfire, homemade treats, old fashion candy, visits with Santa and other activities.
"We love to see all the families have fun. The children love it," Hill tells me. "Lots of children are begging their parents not to leave and go home. I kind of like that. When the kids are happy, it makes the parents happy. We really are a family type of operation here."
Hill Ridge is open from 9 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., daily, through Nov. 11 for its fall festival. Admission is $10 and includes a pumpkin. Kids under 2 are free. All active military personnel also are free with a photo ID. A $20 superpass includes some additional activities not included in the general admission ticket such as the train ride, jumping pillow and gem stone panning. Individual tickets for these activities are $3 for the train, $4 for the jumping pillow and $6 for gem stone panning.
The farm will shut down for a couple of weeks and reopen as a winter wonderland on Nov. 23. I'll have more information about the festival, so stay tuned!
For a closer look at Hill Ridge and to hear my interview with Hill, watch the video.