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activities

Things to Do Near Charlotte

Crowders Mountain State Park. About 25 miles west of Charlotte, this park will challenge the experienced as well as the novice climber. It offers 12 miles of scenic, and somewhat strenuous, hiking trails with a view at the top that’s worth the climb. 522 Park Office Lane in Kings Mountain. 704-853-5375. www.ncparks.gov.

Public spraygrounds. Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation’s five spraygrounds feature sprays, nozzles and spouts that spray water for children to run through and frolic under. Open seven days a week in the summer, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Several have playgrounds next door, making them a perfect place to spend hours. Locations: Nevin Park, 6000 Statesville Road; Cordelia Park, 2100 North Davidson Street; Latta Park, 601 East Park Avenue; Veterans Park , 2136 Central Avenue; and West Charlotte Recreation Center, 2400 Kendall Drive. (704) 336-3854. www.parkandrec.com.

Concord Mills Mall. Besides all the great shopping, kids will love climbing in the kids' play area, which has a hospital theme, seeing the fish in the huge aquarium at Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World and watching employees make candy apples and other treats at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. 8111 Concord Mills Boulevard. (704) 979-3000. www.concordmills.com

FinTastic. Take the kids to a local pet store for some easy free fun, or visit this tropical fish store in Ayrsley shopping center in southwest Charlotte. Kids will gaze in wonder at the clownfish, starfish and other sea creatures. Sometimes the store even has small nurse sharks. 2135-C Ayrsley Town Blvd. 704-525-0049. www.fintastic.us

Reedy Creek Park. Play disc golf, hopscotch, volleyball, basketball or horsehoes at this 116-acre park. Also has a fantastic playground with a “swing garden,” a dog park, a fishing pier and more. 2900 Rocky River Road.704-598-8857. www.parkandrec.com.

STUFF TO DO THAT'S UNDER $10

McDowell Nature Preserve. This 1108-acre preserve along the banks of Lake Wylie in southwest Mecklenburg is a great place to take the kids hiking or on a nature walk. The preserve also has a great playground and a free nature center with snakes, frogs and other creatures. On weekends and holidays, admission is $3 for a car licensed in Mecklenburg county and $5 for all others. (Other days are free.)

McDowell Nature Preserve, Part II - Camping out. For an additional $6 per family, you can pitch a tent on a campsite that has a fire ring, a grill and an electrical hookup, plus nearby bathrooms with hot showers. This summer, the preserve is doing campfire songs and marshmallows for free for campers every Friday night. On Saturdays, they offer free programs for campers including nature hikes, wildlife art, treasure hunts, and even family movie nights. Call 704-588-5224 or go to www.charmeck.org/Departments/Park+and+Rec/Activities/Outdoors/Camping.htm for more information.

Reed Gold Mine. The site of the first documented gold find in the United States is just north of Mecklenburg County in Midland, N.C. Watch an orientation movie about the discovery, check out the museum and take an underground tour for free. But the best part is panning for gold, which costs $2 per person. (Kids 8 and older can pan by themselves; younger children must pan with an adult.) www.reedmine.com

Belmont Drive-In. Take the family to one of the few remaining drive-in theaters. For $8 a carload, you can take in a double feature that typically starts around 9 p.m. It's a great place to take the kids to see a movie and not have to worry about trying to keep them quiet. Most families come about an hour early to get a good spot and spend the time talking, kicking around a soccer ball or throwing a frisbee until showtime. The season typically runs from about March to the week before Thanksgiving, depending on the weather. Sometimes the theater is open seven nights a week, but it's always open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The food -- standard hamburgers and hotdogs -- is pretty good and reasonably priced, especially compared to regular movie theater fare. 314 McAdenville Road in Belmont. 704-825-6044 www.belmontdrivein.us.

MCDOWELL PARK AND NATURE PRESERVE: The park serves as the gateway to the 1,108-acre nature preserve, which is mostly forested, rolling terrain along the banks of Lake Wylie. You can rent paddleboats and canoes, fish, hike seven miles of trails, see live animals in the nature center and let the kids play on the playground. Try the rent-a-tent program and spend the night in a 9 x 12 tent with two cots at the campground, which even has with hot showers! Click here for more information.

N.C. ZOO: Located about 90 miles from Charlotte in Asheboro, the zoo is nationally recognized as one of the nation’s finest. It offers expansive habitats for the animals – great for the animals, but be prepared to walk. www.nczoo.org

LAZY 5 RANCH: You can pet exotic animals including giraffes and ostriches at this privately owned drive-through park near Mooresville. www.lazy5ranch.com

CAROLINA RAPTOR CENTER: The center rehabilitates injured and orphaned raptors. The center also has programs on strange bird behavior and a behind-the-scenes tour that includes the bird hospital. www.carolinaraptorcenter.org

SOUTH

1. Sports Connection. This family fun center features adult-sized and mini bowling lanes, a two-story laser tag facility, a 7,000-square-foot arcade, inflatables and more. 11611 Ardrey Kell Road. 704-583-1444. www.sportsconnectionnc.com

2. Trader Joe’s: Get healthy grub and let your kids have a fun time hunting down the “animals” hidden throughout the store in Trader Joe’s scavenger hunt. 6418 Rea Road. 704-543-5249. www.traderjoes.com

3. Dish It Out: Choose from more than 800 ceramic pieces to decorate with paints, beads, metal art. Stonecrest Shopping Center, 7828-C Rea Road. 704-544-4848. www.dishitout.net

4. Davie Park: Fabulous playground, plus ball fields, horseshoe pits, hopscotch courses and a lake! 4635 Pineville-Matthews Road. 704-554-0402. www.parkandrec.com

5. Storytime with Mr. Nigel: Pack in with the rest of SouthPark’s tots to enjoy Mr. Nigel’s sing-along music. Dual train tables keep even the crowd happy before and after the performance. Every Friday, 11:15 a.m. Joseph-Beth Booksellers, SouthPark Mall. 704-602-9800. www.josephbeth.com

SOUTHWEST

7. Light rail: What kid doesn’t love a train? Ride Charlotte’s LYNX Blue Line from 1-485 in southern Meck to the end of uptown. Your kids will love the speed. www.charmeck.org/Departments/CATS/LYNX

8. Plaza Fiesta: This giant, two-story play place near Carowinds -- billed as the largest indoor play center in the southeast -- has tons of slides, tunnels and other features for kids to climb, swing and crawl through. 3700 Avenue Of The Carolinas. www.plazafiestacarolinas.com/site/

CENTRAL CHARLOTTE

We all know about Discovery Place and ImaginOn. Here are a few of our favorite out-of-the-way spots in Central Charlotte.

1. The Green: This charming park tucked in the middle of uptown features giant stone fish spouting water (bring your bathing suit and get wet!), “insects” that chirp as you walk amid the park’s paths and a lovely spot of green to play chase. Located between on Tryon Street, between Stonewall and Second streets. www.thegreenuptown.com

2. Charlotte Trolley: Light rail has gotten all the attention lately, but it’s worth checking out the vintage trolleys for a slow and easy ride from South End into Uptown. It runs only on weekends. www.charlottetrolley.org