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Tucked away in Raleigh’s suburban sprawl is the 157-acre Annie Louise Wilkerson, MD Nature Preserve Park. Yes, the name is a mouthful, but this hidden gem deserves an impressive moniker.

Dr. Wilkerson, a renowned Raleigh doctor left the park to the city with the stipulation it be used for nature and wildlife education. What a generous lady, and what an extravagant gift for the citizens of Raleigh!

On a warm August morning I invited Shawn to join me for a walk in the park.

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Wilkerson Nature Preserve 8_21_14 (62)

Does the access road remind you of the Blue Ridge Parkway? Can you feel the stress dropping as you leave the busy highway and contemplate a few hours in the great outdoors?

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The sidewalk to the office winds around a native plant display garden. Time admiring someone else’s garden is never wasted. The space is registered as a wildlife habitat, an achievement that reflects considerable effort.

Registering a section of a property as a National Wildlife Federation® Wildlife Habitat is a great project for a family or organization. We registered our yard in 1999 (Backyard Wildlife Habitat #22770). Check the National Wildlife Federation® site for program details.

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We will get to the office shortly. Show me a curious kid who can walk past this plant covered with bugs and not spew a string of questions. The plant is Asclepias (Butterfly weed), and those are red milkweed bugs. They pierce the pods and eat the seeds to curtail the invasive nature of the plant. Why are the bugs red? Parents, be ready to share your wisdom with the troops, or capture the questions you can’t answer and do a family investigation.

Sarah greeted us in the office, and she holds a wealth of information about the wonders in the preserve. She shared an overview of the amenities and explained many of the programs which are family-friendly and kid-centric. The focus is on educating the next generation about stewardship of our environment. Parents, our kids need to be in nature to learn about nature. These programs look like prime opportunities for making that happen.

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Wilkerson Nature Preserve 8_21_14 (67)

Is this a gift shop? No. These are the hands-on learning opportunities waiting any child or adult who visits. Imagine that! Explore, learn, and enjoy. But please, return the items for the next person.

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The park offers loaner equipment which can be checked out, such as this Explorer’s Backpack. Inside your child will find a magnifying glass, compass, and other assorted must-have items for adventurous nature lovers. Adults may borrow binoculars for bird watching, and for windy days, there may be a kite waiting an experienced flyer.

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We’ve all been there. Drive. Arrive. Look frantically for the bathroom. Relax. Restrooms are centrally located near the picnic shelter.

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Inside the grassy privacy fence is a bench waiting for a secret conclave. Youngsters will love the teepees scattered through the preserve. I crawled inside one—just to absorb the flavor so I could write the article with authority. Really.

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Trails are well-marked and easy to follow. I rate the hiking effort as easy, a casual walk, but would suggest closed-toe shoes. And stick a Band-Aid in your purse or wallet, just in case. Map brochures available at the office include numbered legends allowing curious hikers to identify trees, rocks, and turtles on the journey.

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We did not linger at the pond due to the heat/humidity but plan to return for a better look. A pair of does and a fawn jumped from their hiding place and frolicked through the grassy meadow behind the pond. They seemed as intent on watching us as we were them.

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Don’t be just a tree-hugger. Go ahead, pucker up, and move to tree-kisser.

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Wilkerson Nature Preserve 8_21_14 (75)

My favorite section was the Hidden Rocks Trail. It reminded me how lucky I was to grow up in the country where our playground was acres of woods dotted with rock formations. Kids will love the challenge of climbing.

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Now kids, back when I was your age, I could jump from one rock to the other.

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The Resurrection Fern seems to grow without soil, and responsible stewards of nature will heed the warning to look but not climb.

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Under this grassy right-of-way are the pipes carrying drinking water from Falls Lake. The trail brochure states that 48 million gallons per day flow under the hiker’s feet. How does your family practice water conservation?

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Who can look at this Tree Lady and not smile? She stands as the guardian for a section of the park I’ll call Fairy Forest. It is filled with kid-curiosities. Kids can build their own teepee using the bamboo stalks provided. Or they may build a house for little people using the abundant sticks and stones. What treasure will you find in the sand pit?

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Wonder what the gnome who lives behind this door is like? Is he happy? Should we knock and find out?

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Nearly every hike leaves me wanting more. This sign points out the short connector to the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. We were out of time…but soon.

That’s our view of the Annie Louise Wilkerson, MD Nature Preserve Park. Set aside some family time, pack some snacks, and see it for yourself. You won’t be disappointed.