12 DSC 0593 ClarkAfter a year of being masked, isolated and vaccinated, the sun is shining — literally and figuratively — and it is finally time to venture back into the great outdoors. 

There are a number of local area sites and activities that offer a chance to see and experience the wonders of nature. You don’t have to go far or spend much money if you look to our own Fayetteville-Cumberland Parks and Recreation.
 
“There is something for everyone at Clark Park,” said Jennifer Smith, Ranger Supervisor at Clark Park Nature Center. “The city’s second largest regional park remains a natural area dedicated to preserving the environment and educating the public about nature.”
 
About 27,000 people per year enjoy programs and the Nature Center. Thousands more enjoy the playground and park trails. Spring, summer and fall are all busy seasons, Smith said.
 
“The Nature Center offers programming for educators, groups, individuals and families plus self- guided experiences,” Smith said. “You can attend a class on fall fungi or take a Star Wars-themed archery class. The Nature Center features 23 live animals including eight species of turtles native to North Carolina.”
 
The Nature Center also has museum exhibits and displays on natural history, and all of them have interactive elements. You can search for 38 of North Carolina's smallest frogs, toads, snakes, salamanders, lizards and turtles in an exhibit created by wildlife artist Joe Morgan. 
 
Morgan hails from Liberty, North Carolina, and his work has been featured in museums around the world such as the Smithsonian Institute and also in film and TV. You can get rewards for finding the creatures with some prizes and take home your own set of baseball-style animal fact cards.
 
There are self-guided activities to get you moving and exercising out on the trails, Smith said.
 
StoryWalks break the notion that reading only happens within libraries and that parks are only for exercise and recreation. Visitors can stroll along the River Trail with a story to guide their way. The stroller-friendly paved trail is less than 1/2 mile in total. 
 
Stories change about four times per year. The project is a partnership between the Cumberland County Public Library and Information Center and Fayetteville Cumberland Parks and Recreation.  It was funded by a grant from the Women's Giving Circle of Cumberland County, through the Cumberland Community Foundation, Inc. 
 
The Great Pinecone Scavenger Hunt is a themed activity that gets visitors to explore the unpaved, woodland trails of the park. They search for large golden pinecones hidden along the trail as they experience topics such as tree bark, spring flowers and winter buds. Sheets for the hunt are outside the Center.
 
“We have three park rangers that do the majority of our programming, plus two ranger supervisors who do most of the administration,” Smith said.  
 
“One of our rangers actually majored in recreation, but the rest of our staff are all science nerds. Two studied biology and two studied wildlife. They love doing in-depth programs on plants and animals, and all are involved in monitoring local populations of birds, frogs and toads, moths and other creatures. Our recreation ranger is amazingly creative at coming up with fun programs that really engage his audience. He has a following of regular customers.”
 
Most popular activities at the park are the public animal feedings, campfires with storytelling and archery programs, Smith said. 
 
“This is because they appeal to a wide age range,” she said. “Families with young kids enjoy watching the animals eat, and the older kids enjoy the thrill of gathering around a fire at night or learning how to fire an arrow.”
 
Park visitors ages 5 and up should be prepared to don their masks while in the Nature Center and practice social distancing guidelines. All visitors should also sign in at the front desk.
 
Nature Center hours during COVID are 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For the latest programming information and learn more about the park visit www.fcpr.us/parks-trails/parks/clark-park
 
“The most valuable thing we do is to create and maintain awareness of the wonders of nature, especially in the young, and to maintain a place where people can go and still have the chance to see something amazing, like a tiny Cope’s gray tree frog curled in the knot of a tree,” Smith said.  “Clark Park is an island of diversity, preserving some species that have resided here since the time of the last ice age. The rangers have to keep awareness of that flowing out into the community, in order to keep the park and its biology valued and intact.”
 
There are a number of activities available at Clark Park and Lake Rim Park for visitors of all ages and abilities. Most activities are free or charge a minimal fee to cover expenses, such as $3 to build a bee house or $5 for archery targets. 
 
A schedule of activities is updated monthly on www.fcpr.us/parks-trails/parks or call Clark Park at 910-433-1579 and Lake Rim Park at 910-433-1018.
 

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