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New playground will round out Lake Junaluska’s family appeal

fr playgroundA new park and playground under construction at Lake Junaluska carries a price tag of more than $200,000.


It was funded entirely by private donations thanks to the Junaluska Associates, which has funded more than $3.5 million in amenities and improvement projects on lake grounds over the past 40 years.

The new playground is a small but important part of a grand master plan for Lake Junaluska’s campus. 

“The strategic vision of Lake Junaluska involves a focus on children and youth. This is clearly a project that fits that focus very well,” said Jack Ewing, executive director of the conference and retreat center.

Attracting families to vacation at Lake Junaluska is a huge push for the retreat center. An obvious target is the spouses and kids of conference attendees. Families that tag along have a full slate of kid-friendly fare — swimming, mini golf, paddling, fishing, tennis, a greenway around the lake, a waterfall, a nature trail, and even a drop-in summer day camp for child care.

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The new playground will make a high-profile statement that Lake Junaluska is a family-oriented destination.

“One of our great strengths as a destination is an appeal to families looking for a wholesome environment. A family can easily come here and find a week’s worth of activities at Lake Junaluska,” said Ken Howle, the director of advancement for Lake Junaluska.

But Lake Junaluska hopes to build a following among families beyond the church retreat or conference goer.

It could be families renting vacation cottages for a week, making annual sojourns for family reunions, or simply coming to the lake for a long weekend.

Lake Junaluska faces a conundrum shared by the travel industry across the mountains: the aging demographic of its tourists. Travel and tourism bureaus throughout the region are trying to cater to the next generation, hoping to build a new following of loyal travelers that will pass on the family tradition of a mountain vacation.

“It is like any organization that doesn’t focus on replacing its core,” Ewing said. “A critical part of the history of Lake Junaluska is that children and youth have always been attracted to and enjoyed the grounds of Lake Junaluska.”

The playground project is not merely geared toward Lake Junaluska’s tourist appeal, however. The playground is highly popular with local families.

“The sweet spot about this project is that it will serve all the different populations that come and use Lake Junaluska,” Howle said. 


Out with the monkey bars, in with the boulders: Lake Junaluska rolls out terrain-rich playground 

Lake Junaluska’s old playground has been torn out to make way for a new one, a nostalgic farewell given the many milestones thousands of parents have witnessed here — the glee of their toddler’s first trip down the slide, their elation when they finally learned to pump their legs on the swing, their triumph the first time they reached the top of the fire pole. 

It was a better-than-average playground by conventional standards, but conventional nonetheless. These days, swings, slides and climbing domes — once the bastions of playgrounds everywhere — are fading from center stage. 

The equipment itself is more interactive today, more like an obstacle course to be navigated with a chose-your-own adventure feel.

But rather than a standalone jungle gym plunked down as a kid magnet in an otherwise mundane landscape, the new paradigm in playground design has a more terrain-centric approach.

“On a modern playground, the equipment and terrain go hand in hand. In this design, the terrain is one of the biggest features of the playground,” said Ken Howle, the director of advancement at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center.

A more park-like setting with knolls, dips and gentle hills will create an inviting environment for kids to play and parents to loiter. Kids can scramble, climb and clamber across zigzagging logs, over large boulders and along a dry creek bed.

It will also reflect a local sense of place. A small knob built into the park has been dubbed Little Max Patch in honor of the nearby peak and popular hiking destination along the Appalachian Trail.

The design is the work of Asheville-based Pearson Russell Landscape Architecture, who recreated the once flat field into the meandering, rolling terrain. The firm has worked with Lake Junaluska on other projects over the past two years aimed at improving the landscape and human environment on the campus, with a focus on lake shore restoration.

The vision for the site is being brought to life by Mackie McKay of RCF Construction based in Haywood County.

“It reminds me of building a golf course,” McKay said, while surveying the job site recently. “It’s complicated, with all the humps and bumps and features.”

The playground should be finished by the end of fall.

“We have tried to create a playground that is very fun for kids. It is going to be fabulous,” said Jack Ewing, executive director of the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center.

Ewing said he can’t wait to see his own grandchildren climbing on the boulders, jumping off again and rolling down the grassy hill — in fact, he thinks he might just join them.

— By Becky Johnson

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