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Nature's Playground:
Chimney Rock's Woodland Adventure

By Angel Knight, Knight Strategies

In 2003, North Carolina's Chimney Rock State Park commissioned the design and construction of a new educational trail, providing families and student groups with a place to walk and play in the midst of nature while learning about the environment around them. Visitors to the trail can climb to the top of Chimney Rock, a towering 315-foot granite monolith at an elevation of 2,280 feet that provides 75-mile panoramic views from the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, high above Hickory Nut Gorge.

In the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, twenty-five minutes outside of Asheville, are the beautiful towns of Lake Lure and Chimney Rock Village. The area is known for quaint shops, the stunning beauty of its rock-faced mountains, and the beautiful Lake Lure and its beach, which lie beneath a 404-foot waterfall visible from Main Street.

The area is already a tourist destination for cinephiles; people from all over the world come to see where films like Firestarter, Dirty Dancing and Last of the Mohicans were shot.


Three hundred pound giant acorns carved from solid oak surprise kids on the trail. The educational signpost informs visitors that squirrels don't always find all the acorns they hide, and are actually responsible for 'planting' many of the trees they see in the woods.

More families, however, are coming to discover a magical interpretive children's trail, where kids of all ages can ride on the backs of bears, climb into a turtle shell, sit in a tree house with a great horned owl and control the flight of birds. It's called the Great Woodland Adventure, located in Chimney Rock at Chimney Rock State Park.


The 3/4 -mile Great Woodland Adventure trail starts with a 16-foot entry sign, supported by 15-inch diameter tree trunks. A scene of kids playfully running with their dog, hammered from steel, sits atop the structure.

In 2003, the park brought in landscape architect Vic Knight of Knight Strategies to oversee the design and construction of the Great Woodland Adventure. Knight assembled an interpretive team, including park naturalists, educators and administrators to devise this new family-oriented attraction for the park. The focus was to offer a safe and interactive nature trail for school groups and families with children that would encourage learning, physical activity and pure fun.


Twelve interactive stations along the trail feature signs with handcrafted frames (Appalachian Design) that educate children on the habitats of many of the forest fauna. The signs teach fun facts about local animals, and raise awareness of nature's balance and how humans interact with the environment.

A site was chosen in a level area of the park, near an existing parking area so that access would be easy for families with small children. This location, however, presented new challenges. The trailhead, and a lower portion of an existing hiking trail, had to be repositioned to create a looping trail system, and educational "interpretive stations" had to be added to accommodate both school groups and families without the distraction of through traffic. The trail system was completed by hand to minimize disturbance of the landscape, and further design and construction challenges arose while incorporating interpretive stations into the existing slopes and curves of nature.


Interpretive stations were placed into the woodland landscape to take advantage of existing wonders, including this ancient boulder, which is roughly the size of a small school bus. The entire trail system was completed by hand to minimize disturbance of the natural landscape.

Using natural elements like ancient rock outcroppings, rhododendron thickets and cool springs presented a challenge, but became rewarding components of the natural play experience the design team sought. The team worked closely with Handmade in America, a local artist guild, to choose local artists and sculptors that would create interactive sculptures for the trail's stations and exhibits. After a year of design and construction, The Great Woodland Adventure became a reality on Earth Day in 2004.


This 12-foot-tall hollow tree trunk, sculpted from recycled metal, encourages kids to peek in and see if raccoons have hidden anything away in their favorite tree.

Trail Travel
Twelve interpretive stations are nestled in the hillside throughout the trail, and a guide, Grady the Groundhog, leads visitors through educational stops about local creatures, their habitats and what nature looks like through the animals' eyes. Kids can pick up a brochure that helps them identify the footprints of different animals they may see along the trail, and Grady encourages children to bring a notebook and record experiences along the journey. Other brochures offer a hide and seek quest, in which the kids help Grady locate many things that may be hiding along the trail. Meander along the easy 3/4 -mile loop and you'll soon feel like you're the size of a squirrel during an encounter with giant, 300-pound acorns carved from oak.


Bears are often seen in the mountains of North Carolina, though few are as stationary as this one, carved from a single log by local artist Jeremy Buckner. This mother bear lets children sit on her back as she watches her two cubs play in the treetops.

Further down, salamanders are strategically hidden among the brush, and a giant spider lurks in a web high in the trees. At another station kids learn about birds of prey and, with a simple push, send the birds into flight circling above their heads. Halfway through the trail, visitors encounter a mother bear and her cubs, created by local artist and wood carver Jeremy Buckner. Mother bear just may let visitors sit on her back as she watches her youngsters climb the tree trunks.


This station features the silhouettes of native birds of prey, cut from steel and placed high above on a locust post. With a simple push, kids can send the birds circling among the trees in search of food.

Continuing on the shady trail leads to the resident toad, which always offers a ride to the kids. Grady's other friends along the trail include butterflies, moths, chipmunks and the raccoon's favorite tree. As the trail winds down to the end, a massive boulder appears, a favorite picnicking spot, complete with replicated ancient petroglyphs of animals that once roamed the area.


A copper Great Horned Owl (Art of Nature Coppersmiths) perched high atop a post clutching a snake in its talons can be spotted from the tree house, a popular spot along the trail. The life-sized sculpture of a native Hellbender salamander (Garden Art) also sparks curiosity and wonder.

Discovery Den
Of course, just because the trail adventure is over doesn't mean the fun ends. Don't miss Grady's Animal Discovery Den located just outside the trail's end, where there are always live snakes, turtles, frogs, groundhogs and opossums to see.

Most of the year (check your calendars!) naturalist Emily Walker is on hand to bring out the resident great horned owl and hawk for the kids to enjoy. And of course, Grady the Groundhog makes his grand entrance, live and in person. The rock-climbing tower is also located here and reaches a height of 40 feet, a challenge for kids and adults alike.


A close examination of this larger than life American Toad will reveal nuts, bolts and scrap metal placed by sculptor Grace Cathey, who uses recycled materials from her husband's auto body shop to create masterpieces. The box turtle shell is carved from a solid piece of wood and is raised above the deck to allow children to climb inside and see the world from a more reptilian perspective.

Families and school groups often wrap up their days by taking a 26-story elevator up through the inside of the mountain to a summit cafe for food, snacks and drinks, while taking in the incredible 75-mile views from an elevation of about 2,280 feet. Two gift shops are filled with souvenirs to take home from your adventures.

Track Trails
The Great Woodland Adventure is a member of a network of family friendly trails called Track Trails, which is included in a North Carolina-based program called Kids in Parks. The program began as a partnership between the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation and the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of N.C., and attempts to get kids outdoors and connected with nature through connections between various public lands.


At trail's end, kids and adults alike can scale the 40-foot rock-climbing tower, designed by Beanstalk Journeys. The tower uses an auto belay system that gently returns climbers to terra firma after ringing the bell at the top - if they can reach it.

Member trails are located in several states across the country, and each time members of the organization visit the Track Trails, new opportunities open on a central website ( Children earn prizes for tracking their Track Trail adventures in online nature journals and the Kids in Parks website.


Grady the Groundhog, introduced on a sign at the beginning of the Great Woodland Adventure as the trail's "guide," often makes an in-person appearance at Grady's Animal Discovery Den at the end of the walk. Bringing outdoor environmental education to life - literally - for visitors, naturalist Emily Walker brings out other animals for display and discussion at the Discovery Den, including snakes, turtles and frogs.

Before visiting the park, a visit to the Chimney Rock State Park website ( will provide park hours, one-day admissions or annual passes, and registration for workshops, hikes and school programs. After the trip, the website provides an option to create free digital photo albums that will combine professional photos from the park with family photos. Come experience the magic of The Great Woodland Adventure - Grady and his friends will be waiting!


The rock outcroppings that guide the trail present opportunities for active play and interaction with nature in a way that most structured playgrounds cannot replicate.

Project Team
Client: Chimney Rock Park
Contractor: Chimney Rock Park
Landscape Architect/Project Manager: Vic Knight, Knight Strategies

Chimney Rock Park Interpretive Team
President: Todd Morse
Marketing VP: Mary Jaeger Gale
Education Director: Andy Unguris
Graphic Design: Corey Jacobsen
Naturalist: Ron Lance

Angel Knight, Knight Strategies
Chimney Rock Park
Todd Morse


Imaginations run wild when children discover this garden spider, thirty-six times life size, high in the trees. At this station, kids see if they can jump as far as a spider and learn that flies are, in fact, a true delicacy. The cables holding the web are carefully attached to the tree, and allow for adjustments as the tree grows.

Acorns, Turtle Shell & Bears: Jeremy Buckner
Beanstalk Climbing Tower: Mike Fishesser, Beanstalk Journeys
Garden Art (Toad, Spider, Salamander, Raccoon tree, Luna Moths, Monarch Butterfly): Grace Cathey
Great Horned Owl: Jay Beckner, Art of Nature Coppersmiths
Interpretive Sign Frames, Rustic Benches: Lang Hornthal, Appalachian Design
Trail Head, Birds of Prey: Dan Howachyn, Black Mountain Iron Works

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December 6, 2019, 1:14 pm PDT

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