LETS ALL GO TO BLUE JAY POINT COUNTY PARK
THERE IS REALLY SOMETHING HERE FOR EVERYONE
RECREATION - EDUCATION – NATURE – WILDLIFE – AND MUCH MORE
Ben Wittenberg is the manager of Wake County’s Blue Jay Point Park and Green Hills County Park. Ben graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2002 with a B.S. in Recreation and Resource Management. He was a seasonal park aide at Lake Crabtree County Park in February 2003, and in 2004 was promoted to Park Technician at Blue Jay Point. In 2015 he became the manager for Blue Jay Point and now is also the manager for Green Hills County Park. Ben is a certified environmental educator with the State of North Carolina, and a certified playground safety inspector through the National Recreation and Park Association.
Interviewing Ben Wittenberg today is Bill Riccadonna, the Regency Park Partnership’s community volunteer serving our neighbors in northwest Cary. Bill has been working and living in the Triangle area for over 30 years, and is Broker-In-Charge and owner of Guiding Light Realty in Cary. He is a member of the National Association of Realtors and the North Carolina Association of Realtor. He is an avid outdoor-enthusiast and enjoys many of the parks in the Wake County and Town of Cary park systems. Blue Jay Point Park has become one of his favorite destinations here.
Ben, I am so pleased to be able to do this interview with you as your park is one of my real favorites here, so much to see and do. But before we get deep into the many things one can do at Blue Jay, can you tell us how did this park came to be and about its rich history?
Bill, there is certainly a long, rich, and at times, unpleasant historical account of the land that makes up Blue Jay Point. Originally this land was comprised of several farmsteads. The park itself was established after the 12,400 acre Falls Lake Reservoir was completed in 1981. As part of this project, 4,500 acres were designated as separable recreation lands and now Blue Jay resides on a portion of these lands.
The Tates operated a gristmill near the mouth of Upper Barton’s Creek at the Neuse River, near where the Barton’s Creek Boat Ramp exists today. Later, much of the land where Blue Jay resides was sold to members of the Allen family Throughout the 1830’s and 1840’s, the Allens also purchased 205 acres on the Upper and Lower Barton’s Creeks from the Tates, including the property near the current location of Blue Jay’s maintenance building.
The Tate family were the first to live on this land. They bought 260 acres in 1788, and 66 more acres in 1792.
And there was at least one church on these lands, correct?
Yes. Likely to have predated the Civil War, a church had formed on Allen’s farm. Many of the emancipated slaves from area farms worshiped at this church that was demolished in the 1970’s when the US Army Corp of Engineers was acquiring land for the Falls Lake Project. In 1974 the congregation relocated to a new church about 1 mile West on Pleasant Union Church Rd.
Ben, that is so interesting, thank you for sharing. And now can we move onto the Falls Lake project in some detail?
Yes, this is an important part of how we got to where we are today.
Driven by Raleigh’s exploding population needing a reliable water source and a desperate need for flood control along the Neuse River, the US Army Corps of Engineers conducted a study of the Neuse River Basin from 1958 to 1964. The findings were presented to the 89th Congress of the United States who authorized construction of Falls Lake in 1965.
Most of us don’t know that while completion was originally scheduled for 1970 at a cost of $18 million, this highly contentious project wasn’t a reality until 1983 with a price tag more than tenfold the original estimation.
Earlier you mentioned that this was in part a contentious project. Can you explain?
Much of the discontent surrounding this project revolved around the fact that many people were going to lose their land, homes and in many cases their livelihoods. Through eminent domain, 40,000 acres totaling 1200 tracts were turned into public property. At Blue Jay Point, at least 16 parcels and 3 farmsteads were purchased by the government.
40,000 acres certainly seems like a lot. Can you break this down a bit for us?
Of the 40,000 acres, 12,000 were for the reservoir that would provide drinking water for Raleigh and surrounding communities, while also diluting pollutants and storing sediment. 10,000 acres were for storing flood waters which allows the lake level to rise 13.3 vertical feet during storms. 14,000 acres were for freeboard land.
The remaining land is used for recreation areas around the lake. This is called separable recreation land and Blue Jay Point County Park now resides on a portion of this area.
The remaining land is used for recreation areas around the lake. This is called separable recreation land and Blue Jay Point County Park now resides on a portion of this area.
What would you say makes this park so very special and so different from many other Wake County Parks?
Bill, I would say that play, some of which is organized, is a really big part of what we have to offer. With both a traditional and natural playground, open play fields, miles of shoreline along Falls Lake, and a Go Ape Tree Top Adventure Course, there’s really something for everyone!
Our outdoor environmental education opportunities serve tens of thousands of participants each year. One of the ways we can engage people is when groups stay in our overnight lodge which offers extended stay, overnight environmental education.
Groups who take advantage of this opportunity are immersed in our landscape for the duration of their stay which enables a broad depth of opportunities to learn, play and explore.
What about your hiking trails?
We have about 5 miles of non-bike trails, including a 3 mile section of the greater Mountains to Sea trail! which originates in Clingman’s Dome in western NC and terminates in Jockey’s Ridge at the Outer Banks. It runs for a total of 1,175 miles across the various landscapes and environments North Carolina has to offer. It is bisected in several places with our other point trails: Sandy Point and Beaver Point.
We also have three loop trails: Laurel Loop, Sparkleberry Loop, and Azalea Loop, all of which intersect with either the Falls Lake Trail, one of the point trails, or both!
What about trails for mountain bikes?
You mentioned your lodge earlier. What more can you tell us?
Our overnight lodge is a unique amenity with a specific mission, “ … to offer extended stay, site-specific overnight environmental education experiences.”
School groups, scouting groups, environmental and church groups make up the majority of our guests. And there are certain pre-requisites as well as requirements for educational activities during a stay.
Can you describe some of these requirements?
At least one person from the group is required to attend a Leadership Orientation Workshop. We also expect that the entire group stay for the duration with each person completing at least 6 environmental education activities per night of stay.
What about lodge amenities?
We have a well-stocked modern kitchen – no need to bring anything kitchen items with you. We have a gas log fireplace and even a library.
Sleeping quarters are divided into men’s and women’s bunk rooms, each with its own restroom and showers. Total sleeping capacity is 36, sleeping linens not provided
What about the lodge’s outdoor deck?
Outside the lodge is a large deck with a charcoal grill (charcoal not provided) and an ADA accessible boardwalk down a short hillside to the firepit area!
Find out more about the lodge and making a reservation by visiting our website
And you also mentioned a Go Ape Treetop Adventure Course?
Yes! Go Ape is a relatively new amenity that opened in March 2015. Go Ape satisfied something that was long missing from Blue Jay’s recreational offerings: a more intense, immersive, and organized form of recreation that offers minimal disturbance to the existing environment.
It seamlessly blends into the site and during the growing season is nearly imperceptible to the average park patron, except for all the laughter, monkey calls and obvious good times had by participants!
To learn more about Go Ape, course restrictions, age requirements and to book your next adventure, visit their website here.
Ben, this is very interesting and valuable information. What else can one do at Blue Jay? Can we start with your gardens that I have heard so much about?
Yes, our gardens are a great place to start! Our educational garden has so much to offer: Cool places to explore, quiet places to relax, a native plant garden, a pollinator garden and a pond full of tadpoles, newts, aquatic invertebrates, turtles and the occasional water snake!
The pizza garden is where we grow many of the ingredients needed to make a basic pie! This site has some historical significance as well, as the rock chimney of an old homestead stood near where the pond is now.
Eventually it became too unstable and needed to be removed. Rather than disposing of those old rocks that undoubtedly came from the nearby fields that were farmed back then, staff used them to create walking paths through the pollinator and native plant gardens!
What an interesting story about the chimney rocks. Now what about small children?
We have a traditional playground that was updated and reopened in April of 2021. It features two play structures designated by age – 2 to 5 and 5 to 12, both with nature-themed colors of greens and browns and a fort-like appearance.
Adding to the nature theme, there are balance beams made of de-barked black locust and even a boulder hill to climb! Finally, there’s a 2-bay swing set with adjacent saucer swing and a sandpit with several spring rockers.
We also have a more natural playground created by staff over the years with some additional pieces coming from Eagle Scout projects. Here you’ll find a sandpit with surround log seating, natural building blocks, a fort building area, balance beam, stump jump, nature sound board and a magical school bus!
What are some of your recurring events?
We have 3 recurring events; Songbird Celebration is held annually, and we alternate Winter Open House from year to year with our Night Owls and Candle Magic event.
Songbird Celebration celebrates International Migratory Bird Day with a different theme each year. This includes events that take place in several parts of the park. There are also guided bird walks, some with a specific species of interest such as blue birds or ospreys.
Winter Open House will next be held in 2024. Though the theme changes year to year what you’ll find is lots of fun hands-on activities, games, crafts, and various agencies will talk about all sorts of nature and environmental related topics.
And what about Night 0wls and Candle Magic?
Night 0wls and Candle Magic is a night-time event and includes a guided walk along our Sparkleberry Trail that’s lit up with luminaries where one can stop at points to learn different things about owls. We have a story telling exhibit, tables where you can learn cool facts about owls or make a craft, and there’s even live birds on display! We’ll have a firepit going to ward of the November chills and free hot chocolate, while supplies last!
What about indoor exhibits?
Our Visitor Center is full of exhibits! Some deal with water and particularly Falls Lake. There’s a 3D representation of the Neuse River Basin, an explanation of how lake water is treated to become potable water, a representation of the water cycle, and one about the Falls Lake Watershed.
We also have panels about human’s impact on the earth, biodiversity, recycling, green consumerism and more!
Our Nature Discovery Room has a representation of forest succession, from grass lands to soft woods and eventually to mature hardwood trees. There’s lots of hands-on displays about forest, stream and field habitats, local bird species and their nesting habits and finally posters showcasing local snakes, reptiles, and amphibians!
Do you have any guided tours and educational programs, especially for younger children and students?
Those are actually our bread and butter, PreK thru 5 grade!
One might go pond dipping, or sweep netting for insects, play a game about beavers, or examine raptor feathers in one of our many programs. Group programs can be scheduled for individual schools or user groups.
We have a wide variety of topics that are all correlated to the NC DPI curriculum with lots of fun, hands-on activities to get kids excited about nature (and bonus, they are free)! Visit here for more details
What are some of your general-public programs?
We offer a huge variety of public programs that range from 18 months old to adults! Our focus is often environmental education so you may go on a wildlife tracks and signs walk, learn about recycling with crafts, or go bird watching and learn bird songs. Almost all of our public programs (other than summer camps) are free and just require pre-registration. Learn more here.
Are there fishing opportunities in the park?
Fishing is permitted along the park’s shoreline, NC fishing regulations do apply. A typical catch may include crappie, bluegill, catfish, bass, white and yellow perch, bass and pickerel. One must remember that swimming and wading are prohibited at Blue Jay Point.
While it is permitted to launch paddle craft from our shore, it’s about a quarter mile from any parking area, Closer options include a gravel pull-off where our north and south boundaries meet Six Forks Rd. And just north of Pleasant Union Church Rd there’s a NC Wildlife Resources Commission public fishing access.
What about accessibility?
Accessibility is very important to us and we’re striving to create more accessible areas as we upgrade existing amenities or add new ones. Currently, the Visitor Center, overnight lodge, playground, and several picnic tables throughout the park are all accessible.
Any special programs for those with different abilities or comfort levels?
We are able to adapt almost all our group and public programs to make them inclusive for all. We’re happy to talk with groups or individuals about how we can meet their needs and make the program work for them. We’ve had many successful outings with groups and individuals of various abilities and have many fun, hands-on activities for all (don’t worry we can even deal with those afraid of insects and snakes).
What about your staff?
Bill, without question, Blue Jay’s most valuable asset are the staff who work here. We have 7 permanent staff and depending on the season, up to three or four temporary employees, all of whom are dedicated professionals devoted to ensuring a safe, enjoyable, and educational experience for all who visit the park.
Ben, I understand you have volunteers that help out. Tell us about the role volunteers play at your park, do you currently need volunteers, how does one apply?
We use volunteers in all different ways – at our special events such as our lake-shore clean up, mulching trails, garden work, craft preparation, Eagle scout projects and more!
Our volunteer webpage has opportunities that you can sign up for. Otherwise, individuals or groups are welcome to contact us directly to see
if we have volunteer opportunities available.
To learn more about our volunteer opportunities, please visit our website
Now if we wanted to spend all or part of the day exploring your park, what would you suggest, and how much time should we plan on spending there? Include time for a picnic lunch if there are places to have it.
You might also try the trail that runs west, along our southern border with the lake. This tends to be a quieter stretch of trail perfect for wildlife viewing. There are others as well such as the Beaver Point Trail and the Azalea Loop which will bring you to the road just inside the park gates.
After this you might want to visit the Visitor’s Center for a water and rest room break and be sure to check out the exhibits in the building!
Time for lunch? There are several groupings of picnic tables throughout the park, some with grills and some without. If you don’t need a grill, the tables in the garden offer plenty of shade and solitude while listening to the gurgling pond.
After lunch, you can enjoy another trail hike, or a playground. and if you’re feeling adventurous try out Go Ape!
I would arrive in the morning, maybe around 8:30, and do one of the trails, Blue Jay Point Trail might be a good one to start with as it explores the shoreline, and you might find an active osprey nest there.
In closing, can you tell us in your own words why this is a favorite for families across the region?
Bill, I think one of the main reasons families are drawn to Blue Jay Point is the variety of opportunities. Staff-led or self-guided programming, nature play, fishing, hiking, newly replaced playground, Go Ape Tree Top Adventure, gardens, and much more can all be found here. There really is something here for every outdoor enthusiast! We like to say, “Come learn, play and explore at the point.”
Ben, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us today. It is quite obvious to me that you are excited about all that Blue Jay Point has to offer and I hope that many of our readers will take the time to visit with you soon. Thank you again!
BLUE JAY POINT COUNTY PARK
PARK GROUNDS HOURS: 8 a.m.–Sunset 7 days a week
EDUCATION CENTER EXHIBIT HOURS: 8 a.m.–5 p.m. 7 days a week
Closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
CONTACT: 919-870-4330 BlueJayPoint@wake.gov