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Park review: Historic Yates Mill County Park

The 174-acre park just south of Raleigh features trails, an education center and a working gristmill.

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Sarah Lindenfeld Hall
Historic Yates Mill County Park doesn't have a playground. But it doesn't need it.

The 174-acre park just south of Raleigh opened in May 2006. It's home to a fully restored 18th century, water-powered gristmill, along with several miles of trails and a giant education and research center with lots of kid-friendly activities. The park, run by Wake County, also is home to lots of programs for kids and families, including its Harvest Celebration on Sept. 18. But more on that in a minute.

Let's start with the mill. It served Wake County as a water-powered mill for more than 200 years. And it's the only working mill remaining of the 70 that once served the county. The mill doesn't operate all the time, but regularly scheduled events showcase the mill and how it works.

On the third weekend of each month from March to November, visitors can attend half-hour corn grinding tours to see the mill in operation from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. One hour mill heritage tours are available most weekend afternoons from March to November.

Tickets are $5 for adults; $3 for children (16 and under) and seniors; and free for kids ages 6 and under. Funds raised support the mill's maintenance and operation.

Even if the mill isn't operating, there's plenty to do. The mill is just a short walk from the parking lot and education center. It will take you past a group of three picnic tables (be sure to look out through the trees to the pond where you'll probably see some turtles) and some old millstones kids can play on. Walk around the mill building to see the water wheel. Kids will enjoy climbing on the flat rocks for a better view (just know that if the rocks are wet, it's going to be slippery).

Be sure to heed the sign that points out the water snake habitat. These are not venomous snakes, but Rebeccah Cope, the park's education director, tells me it's best to keep your distance.

Back inside the A. E. Finley Education and Research Center, the building is home to an exhibit on mills and plenty of activities for kids. There's a kids corner with books and puzzles and a dress-up area where kids and adults can dress in 18th century duds. And there's the "cabinet of curiousity," also called "the dead zoo." That's an exhibit on the creatures that live in the area and includes some drawers full of stuffed birds and turtle shells all at the right height for young kids. There's also a nice collection of children's books in the resource center to look at and read while you're at the park.

Sometimes when I'm at a place like this, I wonder whether my kid is actually learning anything or just flitting from exhibit to exhibit. Cope said park staff wondered the same thing. So they created scavenger hunts for kids and families to do on their own. They send them hunting for objects among the education center's exhibit. Kids who complete the hunt can pick up a wheat penny. And in the next month or so, the park will have discovery boxes on hand for families to take into the park and learn more about the creatures and plants that live there.

The park has a little over three miles of trails. You'll be able to push your stroller to the mill, but that's about it. The trail surfaces here are natural with rocks and roots jutting out. Yates Mill also is a wildlife refuge (which is why pets aren't allowed). But there is a quarter-mile walk that is easy for even young kids. It takes hikers across a couple of boardwalks. See the video for more details on the hike.

The park offers lots of programs for kids starting at age 3 and up. It's a popular place for homeschoolers as well. Most require pre-registration and some fill up quick, including Colonial School Days program for kids 8 and up on Dec. 4 and The Ingalls Family's Long Winter for kids ages 6 to 12. For the first time, the park also will hold a family friendly haunted mill trail this year on Oct. 29 (pre-registration also required).

And the park holds free special events throughout the year including this month's Harvest Celebration. From 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sept. 18, the park will feature crafts and games; mill tours; old time music; antique cars and tractors; and more. Kids and adults can enter a cornmeal cook-off contest (just be sure to turn your entry in by 11 a.m.)

To learn more about Historic Yates Mill County Park, the Harvest Celebration and its other programs, check the park's website.
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