Exploring Local Unique Places – the idea
I’ve run into a lot of people that equate solo travel with a big trip like the one I took to Antarctica. But what does it really mean to travel?
To me, it’s about being in your comfort zone yet pushing the envelope a little, but having a great time and seeing something new.
Travel can be big and exotic, or you can solo travel locally and explore your home town. What could be better than checking out all the unique things to do in North Carolina?
In full transparency, I hadn’t really been living that philosophy. I was looking for the next “big” trip where I could generate hundreds of Instagram pictures.
Then life stepped in when my computer broke and it was going to take a week to get it fixed. It sounds silly, but without a computer, I was stalled.
The iPad and phone weren’t much of a backup plan and while I was whining away, my mom said, “Why don’t you take the time to travel locally?” Words of wisdom. Wait. Aren’t those my words of wisdom?
Planning and Research
Intrigued, I recalled a friend had gotten the “Weird Carolinas” book by Roger Manley years ago and we had done a few things it mentioned.
That inspired me to think about weird, crazy, fun and unique things to do in North Carolina, so I hit the internet and asked my friend to dig up the book.
After gathering a few ideas and putting together a plan, I hit the road.
Finding the Dinosaur
A Little Background
First up on the unique North Carolina tour was finding the Brontosaurus in Durham, North Carolina.
Steve, as one blogger named him, was part of a dinosaur walk created by the precursor to the Durham Museum of Life and Science in 1967.
The museum created a “pre-history trail” and Steve was built as the crowning feature at 77 feet long and 30 feet high.
Sadly, in 1996, Hurricane Fran came through and destroyed all but Steve.
Over time, the forest grew around him. The museum installed a new exhibit which is more interactive, but the lonely brontosaurus remained hidden.
Locating and Meeting a Brontosaurus
I walked down Ellerbee Creek Trail, crossed a street, rounded a corner to enter the woods and BAM, there he was on my left.
The gentle giant stood kindly and patiently smiling at me.
He’s actually pretty easy to find and beautiful to photograph.
While there, it’s worth taking a short hike on the trail and enjoying the day.
Museum of Art Outdoor Park
History and Background
Since Steve was located so readily, I had time for more and the North Carolina Museum of Art Park was calling me.
The park is officially called the Ann and Jim Goodnight Museum Park.
It features temporary and permanent art installations, along with gardens, sustainable landscapes, and recreational trails.
Visitors are encouraged to bike and jog along the trails and picnic while enjoying the art and scenery. The park is open dawn until dusk daily and is perfect to explore solo.
While the park itself isn’t really a unique thing to do in North Carolina, it has a specific exhibit called the Cloud Chamber which put it on my radar.
Although I was initially just trying to find this particular exhibit, I became sidetracked and wound up touring almost the entire park.
Exploring the Art
When I first got there, I could see three large amazing rings in the distance.
This exhibit is called Gyre by Thomas Sayre. The rings can be seen from almost anywhere in the park due to their immense height.
As I worked my way closer to see the rings, I passed two interactive pieces meant for children and adults to play.
First was a metal pig (SCULPT.C by Jaime Hayon). I climbed inside but opted to forego the small slide for children.
Next up was a colorful rooftop that seems to emerge from the ground. A group of children scrambled along it having a great time.
I found out later this is called “Southern Oracle: We Will Tear the Roof Off” by Heather Hart.
The Cloud Chamber and Beyond
It was hard not to be distracted by the large art installations all around, but it was getting late, it was hot, and I was on a mission to find the Cloud Chamber (Officially the “Cloud Chamber for the Trees and Sky” by Chris Drury).
The installation had appeared in almost every weird and unique things to do in North Carolina list I found.
It took some hunting to locate since the park map can be a bit difficult to follow, but I finally found it.
The cloudy weather made the chamber a bit lackluster, and creepy. I could see how it would work, but it felt like I was trapped in a dirt cell.
This is one of those times I wished I wasn’t traveling solo. Another person could have stood guard at the door.
Finishing up my walk, I came across the daisy fields which made for a great photo opportunity.
Walking away, I passed the rings again and this time saw them up against Daniel Johnston’s “Untitled”. The effect of the two together was amazing.
It was a full day and I only wish I had more time.
But it was hot, and since it was a spur of the moment, I didn’t have enough sunscreen or water. Note to self: if you’re going to be a solo adventurer, even locally, always be prepared.
Shangri-La Stone Village
The Story Behind Shangri-La
Heading home, I finalized my adventures for the next day. Up first was Shangri-La stone village in Prospect Hill, North Carolina.
It sounds hokey, I know, but this is an amazing attraction and also appeared on every unique things to do in North Carolina list.
I was really taken with the story and the generosity of the family.
Henry Warren, a retired tobacco farmer, started building a small village from the stone he blasted from his own yard in 1968. He continued until his death nine years later at the age of 84.
There are 27 structures averaging around two and a half feet tall. The church must be over five feet since it’s quite a bit taller than me.
He even carved intricate designs to resemble brick in the buildings.
What made me smile was the engraved stone at the entrance to the village: “Let me live in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to man”.
Mr. Warren called his village Shangri-La and the intent was to welcome people.
His family lives there now and keep up the tradition. They have a visitor book where you can log your information and your thoughts.
I spent quite a bit of time there, mesmerized by the minute detail.
While wandering, I ran into some other local adventurers and we shared tips about offbeat things to see and do in the area.
A Feeling of Zen
I took a lot of pictures but none truly convey how special this area is.
It’s not just how tall the buildings are, or the fact he bored holes in the stone to then add another color to create a pattern or even the details in the town square.
There’s a feeling you get when you’re there. You sense the kindness of the man who built this town.
Mr. Warren wanted people to come to his house, be welcome, and enjoy his vision.
Such a simple thing, but in these times, it’s so special. This, to me, was what made the attraction so unique.
That feeling kept me there for two hours trying to get a picture capturing something that can only be felt.
Here again, I’m glad I was a solo traveler. It was peaceful and relaxing to spend as much time as I wanted in this space.
A Twenty-Foot Retro Robot
Tearing myself away, I headed for my next crazy to do. I had a meeting in Greensboro and just down the street was the Burger Warfare robot.
This is a 20 foot tall, old school metal bot. It looks like a barrel on two skinny legs and is holding what is either a cannon or large laser gun.
No one even blinked as I walked around to grab pictures.
What’s so interesting about this unique robot is that many locals from Greensboro aren’t aware it exists.
Local Journey’s End – For Now
My unique things to do in North Carolina journey ended the next day when I received a call that my computer was fixed.
I felt inspired after my week of local, crazy, weird solo travel. Now I have plans. I have ideas. All I need is more time.
It’s funny how something that came up as a way to pass time is now something I need to find time to complete. Not that it could ever be completed.
The world of unique, crazy fun is vast and local.
Tips for finding local fun
Think there’s nothing fun or unique to do where you live? Try a basic Google search for “weird my city”, or “weird my state”.
I also tried “Unique things to do in North Carolina” and “Odd North Carolina”.
Be creative, and know that it may require a little driving.
My rule was no more than a two-hour drive, or the attraction had to be near a business trip or meeting.
t the end of my search, I had so many places to visit that this will be something I get back to occasionally.
Deciding what’s actually exciting versus a bust
You won’t know ahead of time, but you might see some reviews and comments as you search. It’s all part of the fun.
Years ago, my friend and I checked out “The Devil’s Stomping Ground”.
It was basically a local campsite with beer cans. Of course, nothing grew in the center of the circle. There was no mystical reason for this. Just a campfire and a lot of alcohol.
On that same trip, we went mining for emeralds and sapphires. I grudgingly agreed to go and wound up glad I did.
It was four hours of fun and I walked away with a baby sapphire.
Be open to the good and bad and have your camera ready.