Discover Zebulon: Little River Park and McLean’s Ole Time Cafe

Zebulon, NC Little River Park rock and water
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Hey there!  How is it June already?  I feel like I blinked and preschool was out for the summer.  We spent our first full week out of school heading down south to visit family (aka Grandma and Grandpa).  It was a great time filled with beautiful weather, but we were glad to get back home. My kids loved all of the swimming activities and seeing all of the lizards running around.  So, to ease them back into being home, we took them to Little River Park in Zebulon, North Carolina. We wanted to enjoy some water views and reptiles courtesy of Sylvan Heights Bird Park.  After our field trip, we cooled off and filled up at McLean’s Ole Time Cafe.  

All About Little River Park

I came across this free event called, “Reptiles of Eastern North Carolina With Sylvan Heights” from Zebulon’s Parks and Recreation Department Facebook page.  As I started researching Little River Park, I became intrigued by some of its features like the broken mill dam and the rocky granite-based river terrain.  Once I saw that it was only 13 minutes away at 1800 W Gannon Ave in Zebulon, NC, I was sold!

A Brief History Lesson for Little River Park 

According to the Little River Park’s Master Plan, this is the site of the historical Moore’s Mill complex which once included a gristmill and dam.  While the exact date of Moore’s Mill’s founding is unknown, it is believed to date back to the mid-1800s.  In 2016, Hurricane Matthew caused substantial flooding and damage to the dam.  That damage has not yet been repaired, which leads to a cascading waterfall effect across the river.  

Zebulon, NC Little River Park water flowing over old dam

Little River Park Parking

When we arrived, we were unsure if we had parked in the right spot. We didn’t see the event set up. Two separate parking lots get you access to the park, and both are gravel-based (not paved).  Quick side note- There are No public restrooms at this park.

One section of the parking lot allows you access to the western side of the park. This is where you will find hilly, grassy, tree-lined areas great for kids running around and exploring the western side of the dam.  On the eastern side of the park, you will find access to a short, unpaved walking trail with little side paths.  These allow you access to the Little River and areas where you can stand closer to the water.  This area also gives you better access to where the Little River pools more and the sandy beach area.

Zebulon, NC Little River Park grassy, hilly, tree-lined area

We parked on the western side of the park and enjoyed running around by the tall shaded pine tree area.  We looked at the western part of the dam, which was relatively dry and a bit overgrown with foliage.  Then, once we had realized we parked on the wrong side, we drove on over to the eastern parking lot.

Zebulon, NC Little River Park remnants of old mill dam

Learning About Eastern North Carolina Reptiles

Once we got settled down at the right spot, we enjoyed listening to Ms. Julie from Sylvan Heights Bird Park in Scotland Neck, NC.  She gave an interactive and engaging lecture all about native reptiles and had plenty of pictures and exhibits (like a huge snake skin) for the kids to see and touch.  She also had a turtle and a baby alligator named Loki which was only 9 months old!

Zebulon, NC Little River Park with Sylvan Heights Bird Park reptile presentation

Unfortunately, we did have to take a break for a little bit of her lecture due to the heat and my kids getting antsy, so we decided to stroll back to the shaded trail.  However, for a 4 and 2-year-old, Ms. Julie captivated their attention for much longer than I had thought was possible!  As a side note- Sylvan Heights Bird Park has been on my list of places to visit in the future.  It looks like an amazing place for anyone who appreciates the beauty of birds.

Enjoying the Trails and Getting to the Little River

As far as we could tell, we couldn’t find a path linking the two sections of the park together, but according to the parks department’s budget and Little River Park master plan, they have been working on clearing out kudzu overgrowth.  Therefore, we could have missed a trail and not realized it.  We also spotted a delicate, gorgeous purple/white flower called eastern beardtongue (according to my PictureThis plant ID app).  It felt like a little forest fairy would climb right out of one of the flowers. If you’re looking for more trails, check out my post about Knightdale Station Park, also!

Pathway at Zebulon, NC Little River Park
Zebulon, NC Little River Park tree growing out of granite outcropping

The area was well-shaded, didn’t have too much of a slope, and had a cool ephemeral pool (basically a natural pothole in the granite) where my kids got to watch tadpoles swimming around up close.

Zebulon, NC Little River Park water pool with tadpoles

We carefully walked along the flat granite outcroppings. The sound of the running water was so serene.  I don’t think my writing can do this spot justice, so I will try to let my photographs and short video do the work for me.

Little River Park Swimming and Safety

From a swimming point of view- I would NOT attempt to do so here.  There were, “No Swimming” signs all around and signs warning to not walk across the dam structure.  Also, the rocks where the running water flows are covered in algae- making trying to cross that area very slippery.  People have drowned in this body of water, so mind the signs to stay safe!  But you can still have fun!  My kids still really enjoyed the water views, tadpoles, and hopping around the much drier granite rock that hugs the river.  

Zebulon, NC Little River Park waterfall from remnants of dam

As another side note for safety, watch out for copperhead snakes while you are here, especially if you have younger children with you.  There was a good amount of vegetation growing around the trails and some rocky areas where the copperheads might like to hide, according to this article by the News and Observer.  Stay vigilant, and if you see one, just leave it alone and back away from it until it leaves the area.

Fishing at Little River Park

We saw quite a few people fishing here.  Now, I’ve only been saltwater fishing so I won’t begin to pretend to know anything about freshwater or river fishing in this area.  However, I came across a local YouTuber, Mack, of Mack’s Extreme River Fishing and Outdoors.  He put out an informative video back in 2021 all about fishing in this area if you want to give fishing a try!

Thank You, Ms. Julie!

After our nature walks, we came back to the reptile presentation.  It was wrapping up.  Ms. Julie was so patient and kind to give my kids a turn at petting the baby alligator and turtle since we missed that opportunity while we were away.  My children’s faces lit up with awe at the animals and I’m still hearing about that baby alligator a few days later.  🙂  

9-month old baby alligator presented by Sylvan Heights Bird Park

Looking to the Future of Little River Park

One of the biggest discoveries during my research was to see what the Town of Zebulon’s plans are for this park.  Their ambitions include but are not limited to:

  • Outdoor classroom
  • Nature-based playground
  • Greenway connection that will link the two sides of the park together, 
  • Fishing platform, 
  • Historic exhibit.  
  • Picnic tables
  • Restrooms
  • Paved walkways
  • Native plant meadow
  • Expanded beach area
  • Paved plaza
  • Shade structures
  • Open lawn space
  • Paved pathways

While the master plan mentions a phased approach, it’s not clear to me if a timeline and budgeting for phase 1 have been identified yet.  But, one day this park is going to undergo a major transformation and attract even more visitors living in or around eastern Wake County. The image above is a screenshot from the Master plan document linked above from the Town of Zebulon.

Time for Lunch at McLean’s Ole Time Cafe

After our nature adventure, it was clear that the snacks I had packed were not cutting it, so we took a quick 4-minute drive over to a southern-style, down-home cooking restaurant called McLean’s Ole Time Cafe.  

McLean's Ole Time Cafe in Zebulon, NC

McLean’s Ole Time Cafe Location

McLean’s is located at 418 W. Gannon Avenue in Zebulon, NC.  The restaurant very much reminds me of Cracker Barrel in terms of some of its decor and menu.  I saw on their website that McLean’s was established in 1956.  Fun fact- Cracker Barrel wasn’t founded until 1969, so it feels a bit like a disservice to compare this original, locally-owned restaurant to the chain.  Especially as you walk through the restaurant and browse the black-and-white family pictures.  These pictures adorn the walls in the waiting area by the host stand, and they make it clear that this business is a labor of love. 

We arrived right before the dining room opened for lunch, so we sat outside on the front porch and played with a checkers board.  There is plenty of seating outside and inside if you have to wait.  I was surprised at the number of people sitting outside waiting for the lunch service to start- always a good sign the place is worth it!  But McLean’s ensures that if you choose to sit outside, you can sit on a pretty porch.  Their porch is decorated with rockers, hanging ferns, and beautifully potted flowering plants.

Lunch Time!

When lunch service began at 11:15 am, we were promptly seated.  Our server was so kind, attentive, and quick to get us anything we needed.  She brought out a large basket of biscuits and hush puppies, which my kids descended upon like ravenous, wild wolves.  I learned that day that my son loves hush puppies dipped in butter.  Well, at least McLean’s hush puppies! I’m sorry about the pic below… they grabbed them up before I could get a prettier picture! Lol.

hush puppy basket from McLean's Ole Time Cafe

We ordered our lunch and enjoyed looking around at all of the decor hanging on the walls and ceiling while we snacked on biscuits and hush puppies.  Another wonderful team member came by and offered to put on our kids’ favorite movie (they happened to be facing the TV in the front host area).  My kids were thrilled to be able to watch parts of Frozen while they waited for their food to arrive.

interior at McLean's Ole Time Cafe in Zebulon, NC
interior 2 at McLean's Ole Time Cafe in Zebulon, NC

McLean’s Ole Time Cafe Food

I ordered the McLean’s chicken sandwich special and opted for fried okra instead of french fries.  My food came out hot, crispy, fresh, salty, and tasty- everything I want from down-home country cooking.   It was a filling meal, so much so that I took half of my sandwich home for later.  My kids got the chicken fingers, but I didn’t have time to snap a picture of their food before it was already devoured.  We all agreed that the food was simple but tasty.  I ordered sweet tea, which was a true Southern sweet tea with a good amount of sweetness to it.

McLean's Ole Time Cafe Chicken Sandwich Special with fried okra

After lunch was over, we paid for our meal at the front.  When you come into the front area, you see a display case full of desserts.  It was really hard to pass on dessert that day just because they all looked so amazing, but I knew I would be back another day to try one of them.

dessert case at McLean's Ole Time Cafe

McLean’s Other Services

Our meal for a family of four was approximately $37 before the tip.  I also took a mental note that McLean’s does catering, takeout, and baked goods, and has a banquet room. We were able to pay quickly and enjoyed one more quick, “game” of checkers (which involves my kids just shuffling the pieces across the board) before heading home.

Wrapping Up The Morning

After lunch, it only took us about 14 minutes to get back home to Knightdale.  We were all a bit wiped out after our lunch, reptiles, and the park.  Speaking of reptiles, we passed a community called Lizard Lick on the way home.  Best name ever! 

Lizard Lick sign in North Carolina

We all went home satisfied, full of food, and full of eastern Wake County’s natural beauty.  Not too shabby for a Saturday afternoon. 🙂

Taylor
Author: Taylor

Taylor, the founder of Eastern Wake Love and resident of Knightdale, NC, created the platform to celebrate Eastern Wake County’s community and lifestyle. Driven by the lack of substantial information about the Eastern Wake communities during her move to Knightdale, she wanted to create a resource for this beautiful area's potential and current residents and visitors. In her spare time, she’s chasing after her two young kiddos, getting involved in her community, and laughing with her husband about the chaos of parenthood.

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