Pittsboro parks a hidden surprise

When I drive through a small town, I wonder what unsung recreational treasures are hidden within. Sometimes I get lucky and stumble upon them. And every once in a while I get a call from the director of a local parks and rec department asking if I’d like a tour. …

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Paul Horne must have picked up on my perplexed look. I was staring at what looked like three pieces of modern sculpture plunked down in the middle of Mary Hayes Barber Holmes Park, a 10-acre greenspace that opened in 2009 on Pittsboro’s north side. If it hadn’t been in mulch, usually an invitation for play, I would have expected a chastising “Do not climb!” sign in front.

“It’s a climbing feature,” said Horne, Pittsboro’s park planner — and parks and recreation staff. “I’m told it has 5.10 moves.” Sure enough, small holds were carved into jungly creation, the work of a Colorado firm that makes climbing walls and structures.

“Our goal,” said Horne, “is to create a sense of place that reflects Pittsboro.”

Creating a sense of place and play would seem to be a tall order, especially in these days of tight municipal budgets. It’s a truism of the times that has forced Horne, who’s been on the job four years, to get creative in his parks planning.

Take Mary Holmes Park. The 10-acre site was donated and the town found grants to cover much of the construction cost. Horne has also held costs down by keeping his eye out for good deals. For instance, many of the boulders strategically placed around the park came from a construction site that was eager to be rid of them. A woodworker, Horne, who grew up in Granville County and went to UNC, has helped with the “sense of place” mission by doing some of the less-demanding woodwork that helps give Pittsboro’s six parks their natural feel. And he’s constantly on the lookout for items that give a personal touch.

“C’mere,” he says, walking quickly through a light rain to a gazebo. “Look up.” From the rafters’ apex a Nordic-looking god carved of wood stares down at us. “It’s a Green Man carving,” Horne says. “I pick them up when I find them and put them in places like this. I don’t know how many people notice them.”

In the end, an asset to the town valued at over $1 million cost Pittsboro about $30,000.

It occurs to me that this little recreational oasis off US 15/501 just south of the US 64 bypass would make a great leg-stretching stop for travelers taking the scenic route across the state. If only they knew it was here. There’s no mention of a park from the highway (unlike the heads-up you get for the nearby McDonald’s and KFC), and even from US 15/501 there’s only a small sign to suggest the fun that awaits two blocks in.

That’s more notice, though, than you’ll get for Pittsboro’s newest park, the 52-acre Rock Ridge Park located three miles south of town off US 15/501 — again, anonymously.

“I’m working to get a sign out here on the highway,” says Horne.

Rock Ridge is worth the search, however. The first phase of the park opened in September and includes a kilometer-long paved walking trail and play area that features two especially cool features: a German-engineered (“over-engineered,” says Horne) pendulum swing that looks like it’s not for the weak-of-stomach, and an 80-foot zipline. Horne initially wanted to run the zipline down a steep slope on the property (a hilly plot donated by 3M, which has quarry operations nearby), but that idea was nixed  as “too dangerous.” There’s also a high fort, intended as an escape for kids but also a good aerie for parents to keep tabs on their kids, and hiking trails. Phase II of the park’s development calls for mountain bike trail. “I want to say six miles,” says Horne, “but I’m not sure.”

In addition to building new parks, Horne is trying to spruce up Pittsboro’s longstanding ones. Thirty-six-acre Town Lake Park had become overgrown by invasive species. Efforts are underway to reclaim the park and lake, in part by yanking the strangling vines and underbrush that obscure the lake’s beauty. That will also enhance existing hiking trail at the lake and give incentive to build more.

Tight budgets or no, Horne is working on future parks projects. Pittsboro has its first installment on a greenway system, a 1,200-foot stretch of crushed gravel path along Robeson Creek through town, a skateboard park is in the offing at McLenahan Street Park, and Horne would like to blaze hiking trail along a 6.5-mile frontage of the Haw River, roughly between US 64 and Bynum. That land isn’t in Pittsboro’s town limits but it is within its 3-mile planning jurisdiction. That land, fyi, is part of the Lower Haw River State Natural Area: a trail currently runs along the river’s jungly east bank, but folks familiar with the west bank, the area under Pittsboro’s purview say the terrain is much different, more mountainlike.

It’s the town’s smallest park, Kiwanis on less than an acre off Credle Street, that Horne’s Pittsboro-specific parks mission is best expressed. Earthy, arty Pittsboro, home to a thriving arts community, a customer-owned grocery and perhaps the only steampunk cafe in the Piedmont, is reflected here at Kiwanis, where fruit-bearing trees provide natural snacks, playground equipment is carved from wood and creative play is encouraged at every turn.

Says Horne, “We hope to make the park system highlight the town’s strengths.”

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Explore Pittsboro’s parks

For general information on Pittsboro’s parks system, go here. For a map of the parks, go here.

Click on the following parks to learn more about them.

Kiwanis Park
Mary Holmes Park
McClenahan Park
Rock Ridge Park
Town Lake Park
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