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The Latta Nature Preserve located in North Carolina in the American southeast offers guests a fantastic outdoor adventure. Travelers can see wildlife, go hiking, kayaking, paddleboarding, horseback riding, bird-watching and revisit the past by touring a historic plantation.
As a new Carolinian longing for the outdoors, I happened upon such a place in the most unlikely way.
While searching Charlotte metro resources for a good place to walk, hike or stroll, I discovered and immediately ran (well, actually I drove) to Latta Nature Center and Preserve in suburban Huntersville, just eight miles from Charlotte and mere minutes off I-485. Using the Huntersville exit, I easily scooted over to the park.
The Latta Nature Preserve in Huntersville, North Carolina
Upon arrival, I couldn’t help but wonder, how does Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation Department manage to house three distinct experiences, all under one big “Carolina Blue” sky?
With plenty of room to roam, Quest (Latta Nature Center), Historic Latta Plantation and Carolina Raptor Center comprise 1,460 eclectic acres. Set along Mountain Island Lake, the park offers visitors an array of options to engage and delight all ages.
There are trails, the shady soulful kind that inspire anything from quiet reflection to hands-on learning to rugged outdoorsmanship. There are homespun activities at the Historic Latta Plantation and exciting ones at Carolina Raptor Center.
Latta Nature Center and Preserve is a feast for the eyes, ears and attitude, appropriate for an hour or a day. It’s perfectly located, either for weary long-distance travelers seeking respite or for day-trippers dreaming of fresh air and a dose of the unexpected!
Quest North Carolina’s Latta Plantation Nature Preserve
The Latta Nature Center is currently in the process of transitioning to its new facilities and in the future will be known as Quest.
The Latta Nature Center is the ideal spot for relaxation, reflection and recreation, with miles of trails ranging from easy to quite challenging.
You can find a handy rest area at the end of Sample Road, starting in the waterfront area. Here you can find picnic benches scattered under the trees and near the water, plus gorgeous terrain and spectacular water views that inspire.
Quest offers the traveler both guided programs and self-guided immersion in nature. Encouraging exploration, hiking and horseback riding, running, fishing, paddleboarding and kayaking are on the menu.
Quest director, Joli, recommends trying out Cattail Trail, Cove Trail and Buzzard Rock overlook. In case you get lose in this beautiful enclave, there are scads of informative and directional signage that are sure to encourage, guide and keep you on track.
The picnic areas are plentiful, sit back and relax on a hill, put in your kayak in the water, and watch the kiddos run and play in the endless landscape. When traveling through the Preserve by car, be aware that horseback riders have the right of way.
Latta Nature Preserve is on a mission to enhance community wellness. Director Joli, and her staff coordinate fitness hikes, nature art and stand-up paddleboarding.
The Latta Nature Preserve is like gold to travelers amidst hours of highway miles. And a magnet for summer camps and daycare programs, for team building and ecology learning. Guests love to commune with the forest creatures, experience the gardens, and drink in the beauty of the shoreline along Mountain Island Lake, Mecklenburg County’s primary water source.
My favorite parts about visiting the Nature center were seeing a hiker walking a little farther each week, a toddler being delighted by the butterflies in the garden, watching a teen master the canoe, and seeing a bird-watcher sighting a species for the very first time. All the sights are breathtaking but the people watching is amazing too.
The Historic Latta Plantation in North Carolina
Right next to the picnic park, you’ll notice Historic Latta Plantation, where history lives. Since its opening in 1976, visitors have learned about life in the Carolina backcountry during America’s early years.
The main house, barns, assorted out-buildings, the cook’s kitchen and living quarters dot the property. Whether you’re into home goods, farm ways or food culture, you’re sure to learn about the present from the past.
Don’t be surprised to see children and tour groups on site. If you’re lucky, you might arrive to find a battle reenactment, complete with cannon fire. Visitor Services Director Jenette recommends day-trippers walk through the plantation house, visit the animals, and choose a few other structures on-site to see.
Starting with the home, you’ll tour the upstairs and downstairs of the circa 1800 plantation house. The interior is 80% original, including the floors, and it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
Then make sure you check out the carriage barn, smokehouse, well house, kitchen or cabins depicting the lives of both the enslaved and yeoman farmers of the period. Don’t forget to check in with the cook, who will share her recipes and explain brick oven cooking. She will teach you her best tactics for managing water and fire.
For the animal lovers in your family, adults and kids alike delight to antics of busy chickens and a docile donkey, plus the farm also has special residents that are threatened or endangered, like Guinea hogs, Costwold sheep and a Belted cow.
Volunteer interpreters are always ready to clue you into the action. Ask the friendly farm manager to tell you all about them. My favorite parts of the Historic Latta Plantation were that it’s easy to navigate. The interpreters were knowledgeable and friendly.
The animals were sweet but beware of getting too close just in case.
The Carolina Raptor Center in North Carolina
The Carolina Raptor Center is situated in the middle of the park. A dramatic eagle statue stands guard at the can’t-miss entrance.
There you’ll get nose-to-beak with creatures that have inspired the human imagination for eons. A staff of twenty cares for 1,000 birds, and over 100,000 who visit annually in person and online.
According to the center’s Chief Wonder Maker, Michele, the concept was hatched at University of North Carolina Charlotte in 1976 when Dr. Dick Brown introduced his students to their first raptor. Legend has it that a UNC administrator encountered a vulture riding the elevator prompting the relocation of the center to Huntersville.
Michele said vultures are very smart and social. These birds change lives. Several of the birds are well trained and they visit schools to spark curiosity in youngsters. One child shared, “Before, I thought I was an indoor kid. Now that I’ve been on hikes and spent the last week at the Raptor Center, I think I’m an outdoor kid.”
Keeping Raptors Safe in the United States
Summer guests love the Bird Show, where raptors showcase their natural behaviors. In 2021 folks will delight in ten sessions weekly at a new facility with expanded programming, including the Bird Show, year-round.
Raptors are at risk in the wild. The top reason raptors are brought to the center is because they’re hit by cars while scavenging for food. Another threat to raptors and other wildlife is discarded single-use plastics.
Finally, lead poisoning from hunters’ lead shot is another top cause of death in raptors who feed on carcasses in the woods ― the center recommends using silver shot for hunting instead.
Make sure you have plenty of time, touring the grounds takes at least an hour. The trails are natural terrain. Dress accordingly and watch for level changes, ruts and roots. Take care to stay “an eagle apart.”
You’ll see over thirty species with signage explaining their characteristics and behaviors. The Bald Eagles, King Vulture, Spectacled Owl and Peregrine Falcon are fan favorites.
Track North Carolina’s Bald Eagle from Your Phone
Freedom, a male whose parents are Bald Eagles “Liberty” and “Justice,” first poked his head through his shell on March 10, 2016. He was cared for in the eagle aviary by experienced parents, “Savannah” and “Derek.”
Later, he was sent to the hack tower, a place for eagle reorientation to the wild. Since then, the center has tracked him in North Carolina, South Carolina, Canada and Ohio.
Eagles mate for life and Freedom appears to have found his eagle lady love in Anderson, South Carolina, where they will likely return annually to raise their young.
You can track Freedom and Mrs. Freedom on your smartphone via Life Tracker App. Be sure to favorite Freedom, Bald Eagle.
If You Go:
Latta Nature Preserve:
See Latta Nature Center and Preserve for hours of operations and amenities.
Wear comfortable walking shoes. The grounds are grassy and mostly level but always watch your step. If you want to see the entire house, be ready to go upstairs.
Visit the Latta Plantation for hours of operation and to purchase tickets in advance. Adults, seniors and student tickets are $5.00 Members and children under 5 are free. Make sure to visit each structure for detailed information about the place and its purpose.
The gift shop is a treasure trove.
Carolina Raptor Center:
The gift shop offers treasures for all ages, including educational selections. Note of the Center’s hours of operation and follow safety protocols. Visit the Carolina Raptor Center for days and hours of operation and to purchase tickets in advance.
General Admission for adults – $13.73. Students -$9.53. Seniors/Teachers/Military – 11.63 Admission is free for children age three and under.
North Carolina COVID regulations are in place. Visit www.nc.gov for current guidance.
Author Bio: Based in North Carolina, Monica’s passion for storytelling sparked during business trips that took her from New York to San Francisco, all around the Southern US, and internationally to Brazil and Italy. Her background spans marketing, public relations, academics, travel and tourism. Reporting these days primarily from the U.S., number one on her travel bucket list is Hondarribia, Spain, a village in the Basque Country. Visit her via Instragram: Mokes_On_The_Move and follow her blog: mattiolimonica.wixsite.com.