What It Takes to Change a Place: River Park at Cooleemee Falls

by | Jul 25, 2023 | Greenspace

AKA: The Bullhole

When is the last time you discovered a new place? Where was it? Far away, or close to home? What sticks with you about the experience? Have you told anyone about it?

I’d like to tell you about a place that I discover anew each time I visit, as the terrain and amenities continue to amass and amaze. A mere 2.5 miles from my childhood home is River Park at Cooleemee Falls, affectionately called “the Bullhole,” which officially opened in November 2003 with the inception of an independent board of directors and 501(c)(3) status.

Situated at the foot of a dam between Rowan and Davie Counties*, the area has been an unofficial swimming hole for decades. People who grew up in the area have stories of finding their way there as kids and teens to escape supervision and test the waters, so to speak. The park itself has grown up since then, and is now a sought-out family-friendly destination for visitors from the region and beyond. I visited on a recent Wednesday and met Heraclio and Isabel and their two boys who were visiting from Kentucky. The boys were making runs with friends on bright innertubes.

Two board members and the park manager met me on the ridge of sandy beach beside the water. “Has it changed since you were last here?” Board Member Ashley Honbarrier of Happy Roots asked.

“Yes! The sand! I was here for a fish fry in the fall of 2019, and this was flat and a rock. I have pictures of it!”

photo Linda & Sara


“In May and then again in September of 2020, the 100-year flood plain was broken. Two times in just a matter of months! All this sand was deposited naturally. We moved it with heavy equipment to make the beach,” Board Member Paul Moore explained. Earlier in his career, Paul worked for Salisbury Parks & Rec, and he is now Davie County’s Parks Director.

Things are coming together in magical and enduring ways now. Park Manager Kali Davis (pronounce her name KAY-lee) visited the park with her dad when she was a little girl living in nearby Mocksville. Kali is an environmental biologist with visions and vigor for immediate enhancements and longer-term park development projects. She describes one of her ideas, a playground built of and into the existing landscape. “I would love to see the playground fall in line with our mission and vision to preserve the natural feel of the park by using materials such as wood and metal to avoid using plastics and unnatural coloring as well as using recycled and repurposed materials. I want it to look nostalgic…I have actually mapped out trees that are the same species and the same age where the swing sets would not warp over time! It would not be far-fetched to have our own treehouse with games and wooden bridges and steps taking a path down to a spiderweb jungle gym made of rope and entangled between 5+ trees that are close enough for stability, but far enough apart to allow for the webbing.

“There are also patches of trees with enough strength and yet small enough to be close together to make uneven steps, as well as a row of swinging steps. There are some really neat trees in the area behind the restrooms like the hooked serpent tree that appears to be a keyhole into the possibilities of this area if we keep the natural landscape intact and actually build around and through it by utilizing these trees as a main stake for every post and step in this play area. Recently fallen trees can be carved and cut to be used as balance beams, seesaws, chairs, tables, maybe a little snack time hut for cookies and lemonade (one of my own childhood favorites with my grandpa). We need all the help we can get to raise money and awareness to help clean up this area and begin our build!”


The park invites you to participate in a fun fund-raiser, their annual Great Bullhole Duck Race** Aug. 5, 2023. For anyone worried about a dump truck load of numbered rubber duckies deposited into the water, Ashley Honbarrier assures us that they will all be collected in a net at the “finish line.” All proceeds from the event help preserve local ecosystems along the South Yadkin River and benefit park enhancements.

Entry Gate + Duck Race Sign


Other goals of the park include eventually qualifying for and becoming a North Carolina State Park. Significant acreage is needed to achieve this, but in the meantime, “we act like a state park with rules, regulations, and so forth. Our procedures and infrastructure are evolving,” Paul explains. He wants everyone to “see the beauty of God’s creation, be thankful and take care of it so that it’s here as a place you can enjoy.”

Paul paints a picture: “Whether you are a mountain lover or a coast aficionado, River Park has a place for you. The trees and river boulders of the mountains. The natural swimming water minus the sharks and jellyfish!”


children playing in the bullhole

SEE FOR YOURSELF: Park Safety & Preparedness

I asked some experts for recommendations for being safe and enjoying time at the Bullhole. ***Becky Sides, Scoutmaster of Troop 443G and Associate Advisor for Venturing Crew 443, and her daughter Emmalyn Sides, 17, Senior Patrol Leader for Troop 443G and Secretary for Venturing Crew 443 (high adventure for ages 14-21 males and females) visited the park for the first time recently.

Becky has completed Scoutmaster Position-Specific Training, Introduction to Outdoor Leader Skills (IOLS), Hazardous Weather Training, Venturing Advisor Position-Specific Training. Emmalyn is currently the rank of Star and working on her Life rank. She has completed Introduction to Leadership Skills for Troops/Crews (ILST/C) and has served on staff at Camp John J Barnhardt in Stanly County. She completed the First Aid and Swimming merit badges as well as life guard training.

Park Map

Q&A with Becky & Emmalyn

  • What are safety recommendations that people should consider BEFORE visiting a new place in nature? (include making plans/gathering materials, etc.: what to wear/bring, how to research)
    • Becky: Good planning and preparedness prior to executing the activity is key to success per the Scouts BSA Troop Leader Guidebook.  One of the tools from the Boy Scouts of America that we have to use is the Guide to Safe Scouting. Our motto is Be Prepared…the meaning is that a Scout must prepare him or herself by previously thinking out and practicing how to act on any accident or emergency so that he or she is never taken by surprise. As Scoutmaster of a female troop and as a mother, I always do my research on the place we want to visit by collecting brochures, checking out their website and social media pages, as well as asking others that may have already visited the location. I also like to check what the weather will be like for the time we will visit. With this information, it helps me to plan what we will do and what we will need to bring to have a safe adventure.
    • Emmalyn: Dress appropriately for the weather, meaning check the forecast before you ever leave your house. It would also be a good idea to research the place you’re going to so that you can see pictures if there are any posted. It can give you a better idea of how the landscape of the place will be. Always bring water and it would be advisable to create a plan of what you’ll be doing at the place: ie, having a meal, just relaxing.
  • What are safety recommendations for interacting with elements (water, sunlight, rocks that you may climb — both in and out of the river, etc.)?
    • Becky: Dress appropriately. That may mean swimsuit underneath shorts and shirt in case you want to do some hiking or play in the field as well as swimming. Wear closed-toe shoes. You will have a short walk down a trail to the beach. You will also want closed-toe shoes or water shoes to wear in the water since it is a river. The rocks could be slippery and sharp. Be sure to put on sunscreen.
    • Emmalyn: Water can make things slick. Pay attention and be careful. Bring water shoes if necessary. Either wear long sleeves to protect from sun or sunscreen. Reapply your sunscreen. Rocks in the river will be slick. Rocks out of the water may not be, but I would still suggest proper footwear such as tennis shoes instead of flip flops.
  • What should we do as we visit places in nature in order to preserve and uplift the spaces?
    • Emmalyn: In Scouts we teach a thing called Leave No Trace. Not only does this mean pick up your own trash as well as others, but it also means to leave nature alone. Don’t cut down living things like trees or flowers. There will be people who maintain the park who will take care of keeping up the trails. Anyone who would like to do community service could reach out to the park and schedule a time to help with any needs they may have. I know that our Scouts and venturers often do service projects for community parks and organizations.
    • Becky: We also have a saying in Scouts “to leave it better than you found it.”
  • Is it possible to have a lot of fun while also being safe? What are your tips for accomplishing this?
    • Emmalyn: One of the main purposes of scouting is to be safe and respect the outdoors while having a lot of fun. To be safe, follow all the rules and signs posted. Don’t get discouraged when one thing doesn’t go right. Use your imagination and find other things that are fun if one thing gets ruled out. For example, if there’s a red flag and it’s unsafe to be in the water, bring a ball and play in the sand or a field.
    • Becky: River Park has a flag that they put up each day to let you know what the water conditions are for that day — red, yellow or green. They also make sure you know that there is not a lifeguard present so you get in the water at your own risk.  Also, as Scouts, we use the buddy system and we tell them to always have their buddy with them whether hiking, swimming, or whatever.
Yellow Flag
  • Is there anything you’d do differently as you plan your next visit to River Park

    • Becky: I would be sure to read the recommendations on the website for River Park as they seem to cover a lot of questions that people may have before going out there. I would also plan to go for a longer time and be sure to pack snacks and/or lunch and plenty of water to drink.  The day we were out there, they had a food truck selling snowcones. Otherwise, I don’t believe they have food or drink for sale there, but we went out on a weekday.
    • Emmalyn: I would check the times and rules of the park and plan my trip based off of that, as well as the weather. 
  • What would you tell anyone who may be concerned about the slippery rocks at River Park at Cooleemee Falls?

    • Becky: If you use common sense and follow the rules of the park, you should stay safe. River Park has done a very good job of telling you the rules when you stop at the entrance gate to pay, as well as having signs up around the park with what to do to stay safe. 
    • Emmalyn: In the grand scheme of things, River Park isn’t any more dangerous than other rivers and streams. There are signs and warnings posted everywhere to alert you of the surrounding dangers. As long as you use common sense and follow their rules and recommendations, you should be safe and have fun.
BSA girls PAUSE safety
Scouts BSA handbook cover


When we come with an open mind and a willingness to let the place show us what it is —and all that it can be — we leave changed as individuals, and we leave the land and resources changed —hopefully enhanced — by our being there. This doesn’t need to be huge or heroic. Pick up any trash that you generate. Pick up any that you see. Share your stories. Encourage others to explore and become part of the places that you love.

Park Closes at 6pm Sign

*Location & Information: 645 Erwin Temple Church Road, Woodleaf, NC 27054 https://www.cooleemee.org/riverpark-home/

**The Great Bullhole Duck Race, will be held Saturday, Aug. 5, 2023, at the Bullhole from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The Duck Race will start at 1 p.m. Music, food, and sweet treats will complete the day. Duck tickets are $10 each, a FireQuacker-Pack (5) is $40, and a Flock (15) is $100. If you wish to contribute with no ducks in the race, please send your check to River Park at Cooleemee Falls with “Duck Race” in the memo line.

***To learn more about Scouting for Boys and Girls: Contact Becky Sides, Scoutmaster 443G at 704-856-9331 or arrange to attend a meeting to learn more. Youth (males & females, ages 11-17) meet on Mondays 6:30-8 p.m. at 201 W. Council St., St. John’s Lutheran Church Community Ministry Center. Venture Crew (males & females, ages 14-21) meets on the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays, but the location varies. 

About The Author

Sara Austin Bailey

Sara grew up in Rowan County, in Woodleaf. She has spent much of her career in public K12 education as a teacher, math curriculum designer, and leadership coach for principals. Sara has recently begun expanding into other work, including non-profit project management, and writing. She feels honored to write for Your Rowan because she gets to experience something familiar with new and heightened awareness. And—in this—she has the opportunity to discover for the first time something that she thought she knew inside and out. She cherishes this process. She knows it is how effective learning and lasting connections occur. Find her at: https://www.SaraAustinBailey.com