Editor’s Note: This is the first in a continuing series of stories called “Find Your Park,” where we will highlight local, state and federal parks within this region of North Carolina and nearby Virginia communities.
Some cities’ parks have hiking trails and playing fields, while others specialize in playgrounds or picnic facilities. But Mount Airy’s two largest parks are one-stop shops for almost everything one could want in the way of recreation.
Both Riverside Park and Westwood Park each had humble origins in the late 1970s, but now boast an array of offerings that collectively cater to virtually all forms of outdoor activities.
The list includes the usual athletic fields, playgrounds trails and picnic shelters, but has been expanded over the years to also accommodate such specialized interests as skateboarding, disc golf and an increasing emphasis on water sports.
Two examples of the latter involve the Ararat River that runs through Riverside Park and Tumbling Rock Reservoir, which is part of the Westwood Park complex.
Both have benefited from recent restoration efforts, including streambank repairs about six years ago associated with the development of the Ararat River Greenway, which begins at Riverside Park, and a Westwood Park facelift in 2006 which included reviving a historic waterway.
“Since the river restoration along the Ararat near Riverside Park, which returned delayed-harvest fishing to the river, and the restoration of Tumbling Rock Reservoir to include a handicapped-accessible fishing pier, a resurgence of fishing and water-based recreation has occurred,” explained Catrina Alexander, city parks and recreation director.
The addition of those activities has given the two facilities within the city limits of Mount Airy a national-park feel that makes users think they are in a different place.
“It is virtually impossible to not feel as though you have been transported to a simpler place and time — like Mayberry,” Alexander added.
Riverside Park growth
Riverside Park, located on Riverside Drive near the heart of downtown Mount Airy, got off to a rough start after being developed in 1977, when its most-used features were tennis and basketball courts along with an athletic field.
Being located in a floodplain, however, sometimes caused the courts to be covered by water, which led to constant cracking and repair problems. Eventually, city officials abandoned the idea of tennis courts at that location and arranged for courts at Mount Airy High School to be open for public use.
And the water that caused so many difficulties in the location fueled a resurgence at Riverside Park that has made ample use of that resource, including a canoe launch in addition to fishing.
With renovation projects in 2004 and 2009, Riverside Park boasts a lighted soccer field, a skate plaza, two picnic shelters, restrooms, green space and a renovated playground that was just reopened this summer.
Another recent project was the completion of a connector that links the Ararat River Greenway to the Emily B. Taylor Greenway on the opposite end of town. Taylor was a teacher, city commissioner and mayor in Mount Airy who had a vision of improving the city’s recreational facilities as a quality-of-life resource for increasing ranks of fitness-minded residents.
The greenway connector, which opened in July, allows bicyclists, walkers and runners to access 6.6 continuous miles of paved trails, starting at Riverside Park.
“Our paved trails lend themselves to biking, jogging, rollerblading, birding and walking,” Alexander summed-up.
Westwood offers variety
For those who prefer to recreate a little more off the beaten path, there is Westwood Park on Galax Trail, just off U.S. 52 North.
After being built in the late 1970s, Westwood Park also has had features added over the years, partly due to a renovation in 2006 which was made possible by various funding sources.
It is a wooded site that allows one to largely escape the noise of traffic to enjoy an array of facilities, including a nine-hole disc golf course.
“Mountain bike trails, disc golf, two lighted ballfields and shady gravel trails that include fitness stations allow Westwood Park users to enjoy a passive environment with plenty of open space,” Alexander pointed out.
Westwood Park also has playground equipment, a picnic shelter, restroom facilities and paved parking and one of the facilities local officials are most proud of: the community fishing pond.
The public fishing area evolved from a reservoir built in the late 1920s as a water supply for Mount Airy, but was not used long and eventually abandoned. In 1998, officials became concerned about the dam and decided that it needed to be torn down or rebuilt, which led to the refurbishing of the area.
Water was drained from the site in 2005 as part of the work and it was refilled in September 2007 as part of a refurbishing effort that also included the construction of the handicapped-accessible pier.
“The Ararat River, Lovills Creek and Tumbling Rock Reservoir are all stocked with fish through a partnership with the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission,” Alexander said of a resource that has boosted tourism along with other park facilities.
“Referred to by many as, ‘urban angling at its best,’ our parks’ proximity to downtown make them convenient enough to incorporate into any short stay,” the parks and recreation director added.
“Whether you are here for a visit or for a lifetime, Mount Airy’s abundant natural resources are showcased in the city’s parks and greenways.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.