St. Stephens Dog Walk

St. Stephens Dog Walk

Published: September 28, 2023

2023 is the Year of the Trail in North Carolina and we invite you to spend it at Catawba County Parks! This series of articles will help you do that with details on suggested routes across our four parks. Our next feature is a dog walk around St. Stephens Park.

Walk Statistics:
     Distance: 0.43 mile loop
     Estimated Time: 15-25 minutes
     Elevation Gain: >50 feet
     Difficulty: Easy

Walk Overview:
St. Stephens Park is a suburban oasis on the outskirts of Hickory whose signature one-acre off-leash dog park has become a beloved hangout for locals and their four-legged companions. This family- and dog-friendly 0.43 mile walk begins on the paved LITeracy Trail, then loops around the perimeter of the park through a wooded creek bottom habitat and past a playground, picnic shelter, and two fenced-in dog parks.

Directions to Trailhead:
From I-40, take exit 126 and travel north on McDonald Pkwy SE for 3.2 miles. Turn right onto Springs Rd NE and proceed 1.4 miles to a left turn onto Kool Park Rd NE. In 1.8 miles, turn right onto 36th Ave NE. Park entrance is at the end of the road in 0.4 miles. The walk begins on the paved sidewalk in front of the park office to the right of the parking area.

Walk Description & Details:
Begin on the paved path in front of the park office where the LITeracy Trail begins with station one. Designed to engage children in reading, learning, physical activity and time outdoors, the trail consists of 18 individual stations that contain pages of a children’s book along with activity prompts and exploratory questions. With four installations across Catawba County (at Bakers Mountain Park, Bunker Hill Covered Bridge, Murray’s Mill Historic Site and St. Stephens Park), LITeracy Trails (LIT = Literature, Information and Technology) bring reading, technology, and fitness activities to the forefront for an innovative, delightful way to enjoy a story and the outdoors at the same time. Featured books, changed on a quarterly basis, are aimed at preschool and early elementary school reading levels but the engaging titles are fun to enjoy as a family with kids of any age.

Follow the story, currently the bilingual book “Papá and Me” by Arthur Dorros integrating both English and Spanish text, as the path leads around the right side of the office building past stations two and three on the right and bathroom facilities on the left. At the end of the building, the path turns to the right past stations four and five, curving to the left to stations six and seven. The path is shaded, lined with trees, the most notable of which are the waxmyrtle near story station two and the sweet bay magnolia across from station six. Both produce aromatic flowers and are prized for their showy berries relished by birds, attracting species such as the myrtle warbler, the red-eyed vireo and the eastern kingbird. Look on the ground below the magnolia to see an edge of the swimming pool formerly located here, operated by the City of Hickory for public use from 1980-2005. (Fun fact: it took 20 truckloads of dirt to fill the pool when the property was converted to a county park in 2008.)

Turn left past station seven onto a gravel path that parallels the fence of the small dog park area on the right to continue the story at stations eight through twelve. The park’s garden is on the left of the path, planted with native bushes that draw pollinators such as bees, butterflies, moths and hummingbirds. The sweet pepper bush blooms here mid-July with upright spikes of fragrant white flowers that look like bottle brushes, followed by brown capsules that provide seed to birds through winter. As the story walk curves to the left at station 13, a large snowball bush adorns the corner of the garden, a delight for the senses with its striking globe-shaped clusters of white flowers that emit a fruity aroma with hints of vanilla. A star anise plant grows behind station 14, interesting for its attractive eight-horn star-shaped fruit pods with a distinctive licorice scent, recognized for culinary use in teas and as an oil or a spice in dishes.

As you come to the back of the office past station 15, turn right; you’ll find a butterfly bush on the left next to the building. Also called summer lilac, the shrub bears graceful wands of tubular purple flowers, attracting monarchs and other butterflies from summer to fall. Turn right a few steps ahead to continue along the story walk stations 16 and 17 to the terminus of the LITeracy Trail at station 18 where an alder bush piques curiosity with its curved branches. A picnic table sits at the entrance to the small dog park area located here, a fenced-in play space for dogs under 30lbs.

Turn around and retrace your steps to the right back corner of the paved area, and make a right onto the gravel path bordered by the fence of the any size dog park on the left and a row of sugar maple trees on the right. The maples, transplanted from the wooded area within the park at the time of its opening, put on a show in the fall with their yellow, orange and red colored leaves; in spring and summer, their lustrous foliage provides excellent shelter from direct sunlight, making them the most abundantly used shade trees in North America. A gourd hangs from one of the branches, a nesting spot for tree swallows that make the park their home, the first place the birds were ever spotted in Catawba County. 

The gravel path descends down to a right curve at the corner of the dog park area where the old pump house of the former swimming pool still sits on the right. At 0.15 miles into the walk, the path comes to a T junction with the trail from the parking lot; turn left to descend down, curving to the left and entering the woods at 0.18 miles. Under a dense canopy of tulip poplar, sycamore and red maple trees, the shaded gravel trail carpeted in vibrant green moss travels on a rolling terrain parallel to the park’s eastern boundary abutted by Snow Creek. The creek bottom habitat is frequented by red foxes, wild turkeys, spotted salamanders, raccoons, opossums and an occasional white squirrel. English ivy paints the woods in green year-round as it blankets the ground and climbs up tree trunks, an extreme example of which can be seen on the right at 0.24 miles where the largest tree in the park, a northern red oak as old as 150 years, grows almost completely covered in vines.

The trail continues on a rolling terrain as it comes to another interesting tree past an uphill left curve at 0.3 miles: a tulip poplar shaped like a bench, so caused by the tree’s main trunk falling over and another limb shooting up to become a second trunk. It makes for a good photo spot or resting stop before the gradual climb up the uneven path through this last forested section as the trail exits the woods at 0.34 miles. Continue on a gentle ascent along the northern boundary of the park next to the fence of the any size dog park area on your left. The path curves left again past a grassy field marked by a large sweetgum tree on the right at 0.36 miles, the park’s brand new playground at 0.37 miles and a covered picnic shelter at 0.38 miles. The shelter, equipped with picnic tables and a grill, can be used on a first-come basis or reserved ahead of time by contacting the park office. A set of cornhole boards are located just behind the picnic area and next to the playground, adding to the numerous ways for the whole family to play at the park.

Continue along the gravel path that borders the any size dog area to its entrance on the left at 0.42 miles. The one-acre space is fenced-in for dogs to run and play without wearing a leash. Dog waste stations and benches are scattered throughout, with shade offered on sunny days by the clusters of trees within the area, including a showy set of sugar maples down from the entrance, planted as an Eagle Scout project in the early years of the park opening. Within the park boundary there is also a covered shelter with picnic tables and a brand new agility course for dogs to run through tunnels, leap over jumps, weave through poles and navigate other obstacles.

Ahead and to the right of the entrance to the dog park, a feeding station and a platform feeder popular with the park’s numerous birds anchor a pollinator garden home to a distinct blue Atlas cedar tree, a focal point with its sparkling silvery blue foliage and weeping branches. A ‘black and blue’ salvia, so named for its deep cobalt blue two-lipped flowers with a black calyx, lures hummingbirds and other pollinators; a fig tree attracts squirrels, possums and coons when it fruits in summer, making this spot the center of activity in the park. Turn right to return to the paved path at the park office entrance to complete the loop at 0.43m.

Mileage Breakdown:

  • 0.00 – start of walk in front of the park office
  • 450ft – end of story walk at gate to Small Dog Park Area; start of gravel walking trail
  • 0.18 – path enters the woods
  • 0.30 – bench tree on left
  • 0.34 – path leaves the woods
  • 0.37 – playground area on right
  • 0.38 – covered picnic shelter on right
  • 0.42 – entrance to Any Size Dog Park Area on left
  • 0.43 – end of walk at park office

Visitor Reviews:
This is an all-around great park for the pups!  There are regular visitors that we have gotten to know, so both the dogs and the people have a friend! The grass is short and the park is well maintained.  There are clean restrooms and brand new playground equipment. Google Review

A wonderful little park. I particularly enjoy the little trail through the woods. Google Review

Nice relaxing place to go with family and pets! Google Review

Small and self-contained little dog park that is tucked away at the end of the road. A nice place to let your furry friend run off some energy while you take in the air or socialize with neighbors. Google Review

Walk Video:

Other Routes in the Series: