Monday, February 11, 2013

The Dadline: Mill Mountain: a winter funland

On the cold, clear days of winter, there’s plenty for curious kids to explore at Mill Mountain’s Star, zoo, trails and Discovery Center.

Robert Quarles of Roanoke watches his 3-year-old daughter Seanna as she slips down the slide in the Mill Mountain play area on a recent evening.

REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times

Robert Quarles of Roanoke watches his 3-year-old daughter Seanna as she slips down the slide in the Mill Mountain play area on a recent evening.

Seanna Quarles 3, of Roanoke, climbs on the rocks in the Mill Mountain play area on a recent evening, with a clear winter view of the valley in the background.

REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times

Seanna Quarles 3, of Roanoke, climbs on the rocks in the Mill Mountain play area on a recent evening, with a clear winter view of the valley in the background.

The Dadline

Ralph Berrier Jr.

The Dadline

About The Dadline

Veteran Roanoke Times features reporter Ralph Berrier Jr. Ralph became a father nearly five years ago, and has since learned, um, something about parenting.

He will share insights, trends and just plain funny stories by talking to people on the front lines. Questions? Find Ralph on the Roanoke Times Facebook page to share your own parenting stories.

Frigid winds howled. A storm system bearing enough rain to flood rivers and submerge bridges approached. Snow still blanketed the top of Roanoke’s Mill Mountain, which was Kimberly Arbouw’s destination.

“My 3-year-old made me drive up here to see the [Mill Mountain] Star in the freezing cold,” she said.

She recalled that frozen scene 10 days later, on one of those warm-for-February afternoons atop that same mountain, as her three children frolicked on the fake rocks and green slide that represent a playground.

Mill Mountain calls to people, even in winter.

That stump of a mountain, which sits upon Roanoke like a crown encrusted with a neon star, is sublime year-round, but especially on the cold, clear days of winter.

This time of year, Mill Mountain’s overlooks afford 30-mile views of a horizon unmolested by summer haze and foliage. People can hike its 10 miles of trails without breaking a sweat. The animals at Mill Mountain Zoo are aroused by winter’s invigorating chill.

And the kids love the place.

Arbouw hung out at a picnic table with her friend Sherry Blythe, whose son played with Arbouw’s three kids after everyone had a picnic lunch. The children had just attended a science class for home-schooled kids at the Mill Mountain Discovery Center.

“What a way to have school,” Arbouw said. “Science then a picnic.”

Her three children, daughter Eva, 7, and sons Arie, 5, and Thijs, 3, (Arbouw was quick to point out that her children’s names are inspired by her husband’s Dutch heritage) and Blythe’s son Jared, 6, tangled with plastic swords and glided down the sliding board, the only traditional piece of playground equipment on site.

But even the slide has its quirks. Kids have to climb a rock wall to get to the top rather than walk up steps.

“You’ve got to use your imagination here,” Blythe said, and she meant that in a good way. “They’re really playing. They don’t just play on playground equipment.”

Discovery Center a gem

I have made several trips to the top of the mountain in the past couple of weeks, including a trip to the Discovery Center for the fifth anniversary of the outdoor club Kids In The Valley, Adventuring — better known as KIVA.

I took my daughter and a few of her friends to the only birthday party they had ever attended where snakes were a main attraction. To top it off, we actually watched a blacksnake poop.

Even this poor country boy had never seen that before.

The Mill Mountain Discovery Center is open year-round, although its hours are reduced in winter. Because the center is located near the parking lot for Mill Mountain Zoo, many people assume the lodge-like building is part of the zoo. It is not.

The Discovery Center is managed by Roanoke Parks and Recreation and draws about 5,000 people per month in the summer, but only about 1,000 people per month in the winter.

Many more people should take advantage of the Discovery Center this time of year. The center offers weekend activities and has butterfly nets, backpacks, field guides and other outdoorsy stuff that families can borrow for outdoor exploring on the mountain. Mill Mountain Park supervisor Christine Elder and chief naturalist Grace Terry lead classes and can help guide families around the center and the park.

There is plenty to do here, even on the cold days,” Elder said minutes after returning from a lunchtime hike.

An all-season mountain

The KIVA birthday bash was just such a cold day. Did the kids care? Absolutely not.

After running around the Discovery Center, listening to KIVA leader Chip Donahue read the book “Stone Soup” and gorging on cupcakes, the girls from my street poured outside and played in the snow.

Mittens-less kids in unzipped coats high-tailed it for the Star, where they threw snowballs, slipped on frozen hillsides and ran like escaped monkeys. They were cold, but didn’t mind.

In a city blessed with more than 60 parks, which include tiny neighborhood playgrounds, ballfields and riverfront trails, Mill Mountain is our Central Park. It draws people from every neighborhood, regardless of class, culture or age. Whether you walk, run, bike or drive to the top, the mountain always improves the body and the spirit.

Mill Mountain never goes out of season. See you at the Star.
Ralph Berrier Jr.’s column runs every other Monday in Extra.

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