Field Trip Reviews

::  North Carolina  ::

Road Trip to Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill
(written for September 2011 publication of VaHomeschoolers Voice)

There are so many field trip opportunities here at home in Virginia, but when you are heading down south to North Carolina for a family adventure, you should definitely plan to explore the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area. From Richmond, it’s an easy 2.5 hour drive down I-85 and there are so many sites and activities to discover. What follows is a sampling of this homeschool mom’s idea of some fun family sites in the Research Triangle.

Our first stop is the Museum of Life + Science in Durham. This is a must-see and you could easily spend a good chunk of your day here! Hands down, it’s our favorite museum in the area and we plan to visit again soon. It’s a children’s museum, science museum and park all rolled into one. Life + Science makes for a really fun time for the whole family. We recommend a visit on a clear day because you’ll spend majority of your time exploring acres and acres of award-winning outdoor exhibits.

Museum of Life + Science participates in the ASTC Passport Program, so bring your Science Museum of VA membership cards with you for free admission. Their cafe is good for quick snacks, sandwiches, ice cream and drinks to enjoy a break while exploring their outdoor exhibits. For families who like to pack their own picnic, they offer a nice picnic area outside the main museum across from the parking entrance, with plenty of shelters and space to spread out. Not to mention their gift shop is a wee bit addictive with lots of cool learning toys.

This place has so much to discover! We like to kick it off with a visit to the soundSpace room. This exhibit is a blast! It combines cameras, lights, video, sound engineering, a dance floor and you—your motion and movement creates all the sound. Get in there and dance with the kids to play the room like a giant instrument. Second stop is to explore Loblolly Park. This outdoor play-yard has a multi-level fort, sandbox yard, percussion instruments, water play and a real red caboose. Catch the Wind offers interactive exhibits about the important role wind plays in the natural world—our favorite is the sailboat pond. There is also a farmyard, dinosaur trail, fossil dig, wildlife and bear exhibits, wetlands and beautiful gardens along the numerous walking paths. Oh yes, and a fun train ride (just don’t forget to buy some tickets at the main entrance.)

The Magic Wings Butterfly House is not to be missed. Guests walk through a rainforest environment surrounded by tropical butterflies to discover a gorgeous 35 foot tall conservatory. Visitors can also get a bug’s eye view of exotic creepy crawlies at the museum’s Insectarium. Back inside the main museum they have tons of hands-on exhibits about weather, the body, geology and aerospace. There are math games and puzzles and contraptions, and even an indoor preschool play area. The Museum of Life + Science truly encourages lifelong learning. So if your family enjoys exploring, playing and connecting together then be sure to add this one to your to-do list!

There are tons of other things to enjoy in the area. And what’s a trip through Durham without Duke Chapel. Located on Duke University’s campus, Duke Chapel is an example of neo-Gothic architecture in the English style, with large stone pillars and arches, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses which work together to create vast open spaces. So basically, inside and out, it is an awe inspiring, take-your-breath-away cathedral with stained glass windows and a pipe organ that are well worth the visit. Parking info is available on their website, and be sure to call ahead (919-681-9488) to confirm that the chapel is open during your planned visit. (The chapel is closed to visitors during weddings and funerals.) The 50-bell carillon is played Monday-Friday at 5pm, and on Sunday for worship services. Organ Music is played most weekdays from 12:30-1:30pm for the enjoyment of visitors. The Duke Chapel Choir and Orchestra’s annual performance of Handel’s Messiah (in early December) is also a nice tradition.

For some natural beauty and quietude, you may also want to check out Duke Gardens where they offer children’s programs like scavenger hunts and sensory walks. Children are welcome to connect with the gardens, to explore and discover with care. Keep in mind that visitors are encouraged to approach Duke Gardens as a living museum, not as a park or playground. Admission is free. If you need to plan for lunch or dinner, less than ten minutes from Duke Gardens in the urban chic American Tobacco historic district (next to Durham Bulls baseball park) you’ll find some fantastic pizza at Mellow Mushroom—om nom nom.

Just minutes from Durham and Chapel Hill you can explore wilderness trails and gentle waters at Eno River State Park. There are historic mill sites and scenic views so bring a camera or enjoy some geocaching with the kids. Contact the park office for information about educational materials and ranger talks. There’s also camping and fishing—children under 16 years old may fish anywhere in the park with bait without a license.

Herndon Hills Farm has blueberries and blackberries available for picking in the summer. From late August until mid-October, they have 10 varieties of muscadine and scuppernong grapes available for picking. Their crops are never sprayed with pesticides.

The Research Triangle continuously ranks among the best places to work and live. I spent some of my growing-up years in this region and it remains a frequent destination for our family. We consider ourselves lucky that we have close relatives near Chapel Hill, in Carrboro, so we have the perfect excuse to visit. With such a vibrant campus, the University of North Carolina is a huge draw for Chapel Hill. But with a just short drive over to neighboring Carrboro, you’ll happily discover a relaxed pace and a thriving, unique culture. One trip to Carrboro and you will understand why this area receives accolades for being a top place to live. This small town enjoys a thriving music and arts scene, and has a reputation for being progressive and culturally diverse. The streets are pedestrian friendly, welcoming even. The community seems truly connected—it’s a blend of hipsters, techies, farmers and bohemians. Beautiful.

Another big draw is the Carrboro Farmers’ Market which is open year-round on Saturdays until noon, rain or shine. The market is located on the Town Hall Commons and is a great place for local vegetables, flowers, herbs, jams, cheese, wine, eggs, soap and crafts. This market is just one example of Carrboro’s commitment to environmentally sustainable practices. A fun bonus is that this market also has a great little fenced playground at the back of the grounds. Plan to shop very early—it is best enjoyed after coffee at the Open Eye or with some fresh, handcrafted pastries and bread from Weaver Street Market. If you are already familiar with Carrboro, you’ll know that Weaver Street Market is at the heart of Carrboro and serves as a hub for social gathering and community events. It is well worth the time to just hang out on the lawn here. Enjoy historic Carr Mill Mall which has plenty of unique, locally owned shops and boutiques. A favorite local shop named Ali Cat has creative toys, puppets and children’s books. For a nice lunch, hang out on the patio at Panzanella which offers up quality, seasonally fresh dishes. In my opinion this whole area is a foodie’s paradise with tons of options, and is more than vegan-friendly. For great food with a casual, local vibe visit the Spotted Dog (eclectic menu, great burgers) or Carrburritos (fresh salsas!)

A quick drive back over to Chapel Hill and you can catch a star show at Morehead Planetarium & Science Center which is one of the largest planetariums in the country. They offer interesting lectures and experiments in their Science Live classroom. The center is located on the north end of the UNC campus. They also participate in the ASTC Passport Program, so bring along your Science Museum of VA membership cards. Also in the area is Kidzu Children’s Museum which is a small, hands-on center that is great for toddlers and young kids—it makes for a nice break in the day. If you’re in need of some comfort food, may I suggest the buffet at Mint Indian Cuisine on West Franklin Street—yum!

During our most recent visit, our family stayed at the Courtyard by Marriott in Chapel Hill. Our comfortable suite was spacious and the kids really enjoyed the hotel’s indoor pool. The Marriott is close to nearby shopping areas and to campus, but is located in a quiet area. This hotel seems fresh and has a welcoming, modern décor.

If you have time for a bit more, Raleigh is the state capital and well worth a visit. A cherished childhood memory of mine includes a lazy afternoon spent enjoying Pullen Park’s old fashioned historic carousel, which re-opens in November 2011. I can’t wait to share this with my kids again after the renovations and improvements are completed. This popular Raleigh park will once again offer their beautiful carousel, a mini train ride, kiddie boat rides and paddle boats. There is also the Pullen Arts Center with studio art programs and a gallery, plenty of playing fields and tennis courts, an Olympic-sized aquatic center, picnic shelters, walking trails, playgrounds, concession stand, Theatre in the Park, and for Mayberry fans there is even an “Andy & Opie” statue.

In search of some good Carolina BBQ? Head downtown to Clyde Cooper’s. After lunch, visit nearby Marbles Kids Museum with tons of fun hands-on learning exhibits and activities—there’s so much here to encourage young imaginations (be sure to check out their cool pirate ship!) Make note, they have an amazing IMAX too. There is also the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences which has free admission and is the largest museum of its kind in the Southeast. If you have a dinosaur fan in your group, they’ll be a happy camper here. We recommend visiting this museum on one of their special event days for more hands-on offerings. Right next door you can visit the North Carolina Museum of History for free too. For creative inspiration, visit the North Carolina Museum of Art, also with free admission. Be sure to pack a picnic and your walking shoes to enjoy the adjacent Museum Park, and don’t forget your sketchbook or nature journal! There are over 160 acres which offer up some creative environmental art exhibits and sculpture.

As you might have guessed, I carry a torch for North Carolina—sweet tea addict that I am! Don’t get me wrong, we definitely consider RVA our home, but we always enjoy our visits back to NC. You may not think “tourism” when someone mentions the Research Triangle, but to me that’s a good thing. Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill remains a welcoming destination for families, with plenty of historic landmarks and fun sites to explore. From our family to yours, we hope you enjoy your road trip—may your NC adventure be filled with creative learning opportunities and exhausted kids!

::  Resources  ::

Museum of Life + Science (
Duke Chapel (
Duke Gardens (
Mellow Mushroom (
Eno River State Park (
Herndon Hills Farm (

( &
Carrboro Farmers’ Market (
Open Eye Café (
Weaver Street Market (
Carr Mill Mall (
Panzanella (
Spotted Dog (
Carrburritos (
Morehead Planetarium & Science Center (
Kidzu Children’s Museum (
Mint Indian Cuisine (
Courtyard by Marriott in Chapel Hill (

Pullen Park (
Clyde Cooper’s BBQ (
Marbles Kids Museum (
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (
North Carolina Museum of History (
North Carolina Museum of Art & Museum Park (

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