December 5, 2012

Kiddie Dope

News From the Juice Box Set

Growing up in the frozen tundra of what many around here simply call "The North," autumn for me starts in late August and goes until Halloween. Once November hits, it's full-on winter, with bare trees and freezing temperatures.

So, you'll have to excuse me if I'm still getting my head around enjoying fall after Thanksgiving. But I'll take it. It's the best time of year, perfect for hiking, running or cycling. And since kids seem to have zero sense of when it's cold, you can often take them along with minimal complaints.

With help from their fathers, children look at pieces of butterfly wings, leaves and rocks under a microscope exhibit at Sandy Creek Nature Center. Learning that your city has a cool nature center where you can learn even more stuff? Five hard-working hon

Bike riding, in particular, is one of my favorite fall activities, and here in Athens we're blessed with the Greenway. If you haven't taken the kids over to this meandering paved pathway that follows the North Oconee River, you're missing out. You can pick it up east of downtown off Oconee Street (there is a nice parking lot at Dudley Park) or park and unload the bikes or scooters at the parking lots on Willow Street or MLK Drive. It's also easy to pick up via sidewalks and side streets from lots of downtown neighborhoods, which is what my little family was able to do on a recent sunny afternoon. At College Avenue and MLK Drive, there's the start of a pathway just across the bridge. This takes you down to the river, where you split from the main road and follow it on mainly flat terrain up to Sandy Creek Nature Center (205 Old Commerce Rd.).

It's amazing how close downtown is to the Sandy Creek Nature Center. Yet, within five minutes of turning off College Avenue, we were surrounded by woods and even saw a deer watching us from about 50 feet away. There are bikers and runners on the path, too, so we never felt alone.

Now, I'd heard rumors about taking the Greenway all the way up to Sandy Creek Park, where construction just finished up on a new bridge that allows you to ride the eight-mile loop around Lake Chapman. (The bridge officially opens next month.) But that leg of the trip is an entirely different adventure. With a couple vague signs and a Google map, we attempted to cross U.S. 441 and find a paved route to Sandy Creek Park, but that failed miserably. Turns out, not only is it another four miles to the park when you're at Sandy Creek Nature Center, but it's a hiking trail, not ideal for biking. Specifically, it's called Cook's Trail, I later found, and it follows Sandy Creek under 441 to link the two public areas.

While the trek all the way to Sandy Creek Park on the bikes isn't possible—because I refuse to ride on U.S. 441—it's still a good idea to park the bike and go for a walk in the woods once you get to Sandy Creek Nature Center. There are trails that meander around the property, and maps are inside the visitors center. The property includes wetlands and pine forests (we had a good time picking up pine cones), and, depending on the weekend, you can sometimes catch a guided nature walk or a storytime.

In fact, bring a lunch, because you can easily spend half the day at Sandy Creek Nature Center.

Truth be told, until now I've spent limited time there. We went to a couple of birthday parties and gawked at a hissing cockroach, but I was never too sure what all was on the property. Well, after spending a good bit of a Saturday afternoon there, I'm imploring you: Explore it.

Not only are the Greenway trail and the hiking both great reasons to get out and enjoy the fall weather, the newly renovated exhibit hall brings it to a whole new level. Seriously, the place is up to par with any big-city science museum, thanks to a recently finished $3 million renovation. After spending an hour watching the fish and turtles, looking at stones and wings under a microscope, exploring an oak tree and learning about all the things made from wood, I had to drag my daughter out of there—only because we were both starving. (I should have packed a lunch!) There's also an area to explore electricity, the solar system (with a planetarium) and a bee hive.

The bee hive is one of the simplest yet coolest things, actually. We probably stared at those hard-working bees for 10 minutes straight, from the safety of the other side of the Plexiglass.

When you're done, hop back on the bikes and head back home or to the car. I don't care how old your child is—they'll learn something at the visitors center, and it will make for interesting conversation on the way back. Who knew so many things were made from trees?