Junior Ranger Program at Wolf Trap

Where: 1551 Trap Rd., Vienna, VA
When: Open daily from 7 am-dusk, admission is free

As the parent of an early-elementary kid (she’s a rising first grader), somewhere in between pool trips and ice cream cones and hanging out with friends, it occasionally occurs to me that we should do something to prevent summer slide. During summer, she is required to keep a journal and for every 7 journal entries, she earns a small prize. This is great, but now that she’s nearly 7, I have been casting around for other ways to keep her reading and writing skills up during summer break. I decided we would dip a toe into the waters of the National Park Service’s Junior Ranger program, which is a wonderful program designed to help kids enjoy National Parks, dig a bit deeper into the history and background of parks they visit, and make education fun and rewarding. We already have a National Parks passport which we get stamped at each park visit, but the Junior Ranger program is another way to enjoy parks with kids.

For our first Junior Ranger outing we settled on Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna. Locally known and loved as a venue for amazing concerts and Children’s Theatre in the Woods program, Wolf Trap is also a National Park, the only one in the country devoted to the performing arts. Although most people probably associate Wolf Trap with the Filene Center, the park is full of walking trails – the Wolf Trap trail, which is a 2.5 mile hike around the perimeter of the park, and the kid-friendly Wolf Trap TRACK trail, which is a 1.5 mile loop paired with a variety of activity booklets created by the Kids in Parks initiative, which works to get kids and parents outdoors and enjoying state and national parks together. By creating an account for your kids at Kids in Parks, you can track various hikes and activities using an online “journal” and access different activity pamphlets for a variety of parks.

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Once you’ve parked and entered Wolf Trap, a short walk down to the Ranger Stand will get you all squared away. Simply find the park ranger, ask for an activity book, and get started! The Junior Ranger program is designed to appeal to kids roughly between the ages of 5 and 12, and the booklet we got was double-sided, with easier activities for the early-elementary set and harder ones for the late-elementary set. For my kids, the early-elementary side of the booklet was perfect, with short questions that could be answered by reading park information plaques (“Are there still wolves at Wolf Trap?”) and a scavenger hunt which encouraged a long walk through the woods in the hopes that they would find everything on the list (18 out out of 25, not too shabby).

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Once we’d finished our activity booklet we returned to the ranger station where the park ranger checked to make sure everything had been completed, then signed saying the girls were “honorary park rangers.” Each park has its own Junior Ranger badge, but at Wolf Trap, kids who complete the Junior Ranger booklet have the option of choosing between the standard badge and a patch. My oldest daughter, who is also a Girl Scout Daisy, chose the patch to go along with all the other patches she’s earned that are in a Ziploc baggie because I haven’t managed to attach them to her Daisy smock yet, whoops.

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Currently, over 200 National Parks around the country have a Junior Ranger program. For many of the parks, the booklets are available online and can be completed and mailed in for a badge or picked up and turned in at that park’s ranger station. The Kids in Parks program runs in both National Parks and several state parks, but the Junior Ranger program itself is only available in National Parks. Fueled by the satisfaction of success, my kids are now eager and excited to do more Junior Ranger booklets, so we’ll be squeezing in quite a few more during the last month of summer (we are lucky to be within driving distance of many Virginia, Maryland, DC, and even Pennsylvania parks). For kids around age 5, the booklet should be doable with some help from mom or dad, and older kids will be able to complete most or all of the activities on their own. I would say many kids who are rising kindergartners would be capable of doing the activities in the booklet with help, and the challenge is well worth the fun and reward that comes with completing a booklet and earning the badge.

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Virginia Bluebells at Bull Run Park

Where: 7700 Bull Run Dr., Centreville, VA
When: Early-mid April from 8 am-8 pm

So, it’s spring. Or should I say, it’s “spring.” Friends, it’s cold and windy- is that spring?  Is spring supposed to be chilly and duplicitous like this? I think I fight this same internal battle of expectations vs. reality every year, in that I expect spring to be warmth and sunshine and in reality it’s still pretty cool and wet. I’ll figure it one day I suppose. Just clinging to hope that one day we’ll all be warm again. Won’t that be nice?

Despite it all, the world is awakening and coming back to life. The cherry blossom trees bloomed! And then de-bloomed, making way for leaves. Everywhere there’s forsythia aglow, and whatever those pinkish-purple tree blossoms are. Tulips are coming to Haymarket any week now, and the daffodils are already on their way out. But we are extra lucky here because Virginia is home to one particularly special spring wildflower: Mertensia virginica– the Virginia bluebell, which grows in large, massive clumps in wooded areas. Bull Run Regional Park, which hosts one of our favorite winter traditions, the Festival of Lights, has roughly 150 acres of lush Virginia bluebells growing on the property. Though the bluebells typically peak in early-mid April, a nice shot of warm weather in March gave them a boost and they’re currently blooming now. LIKE RIGHT NOW, YOU NEED TO PLAN TO GO.

We were up early this Sunday morning and decided to head over and have the park to ourselves to scope out the bluebells. Though you’ll see patches of them growing along the side of the road inside the park, there is a designated Bluebell Trail, part of the Occoquan Trail, that provides access to a large swath of bluebells about a quarter mile into the woods. Parking for the Bluebell Trail is at Atlantis Waterpark (you can’t miss it, big dolphin out front) and walking across the street you’ll see:

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This means you are on the right track.

A nice little wooden boardwalk escorts you down to the bluebell patch and suddenly they just pop into view- first tiny little white and pink buds, and then an explosion of blue.

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Would you just look at them? How darling and delicate and precious does a flower get? You know when you see a particularly cute and fat, luscious baby and you don’t even know how to fully process the cuteness so you think to yourself, “I could eat you. I’m just going to eat you up”? That’s how I felt about the bluebells. I liked them so much. They were so pretty and made me so happy I didn’t even know what do with the excitement of it all and I thought, “I’m gonna eat one.”

In this little section of Bull Run Park, abutting Cub Run creek, the bluebells blanket the ground. Full on wall to wall bluebell carpeting. It’s magnificent. Virginia, how are you so damn pretty?

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In every description I can find of the Virginia bluebells, they are noted for being ephemeral. They’re here, and then rather quickly, they won’t be, and the forest floor will lose the rich azure carpeting it currently has when the bluebells go. Please don’t miss them! Though you may get lucky and stumble upon some bluebells while out walking, Bull Run is a wonderful place to guarantee a sighting. If you’re a resident of Northern Virginia, admission to the park is free. If you live in the District or Maryland and decide to pay a visit to see the bluebells, admission will still only be $7 per car. The cherry blossoms in DC get all the glory but these tiny blue trumpets lying quiet in the Virginia woods are just as lovely in their own special way.

Great Falls Park

Where: 9200 Old Dominion Dr., McLean, VA
When: Open daily from 7 am- sunset (visitor’s center open from 10 am- 4 pm). Entrance fee is $10/vehicle.

On December 27, my family, and everyone else’s family, went to Great Falls Park to get outside and take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather El Nino gave us for Christmas this year. I’m not sure about you, but I can’t decide how I feel about it being in the 70s in December. On the one hand, warm weather is nice. On the other hand, if we don’t get any winter weather this year I worry I’ll have missed out on the yearly experience of complaining incessantly about the weather. How does one proceed?

Anyway, what you need to know about this warm weather is that it will most certainly cause a delay getting into the park if you don’t get there early enough. My family scooted into the park just before 10:30 am and the wait was about four cars long. When we were leaving around noon, the wait was considerably longer. The National Park Service kindly warns visitors of this on their page, but in case you don’t want to poke around over there, just know that on a nice day, the line to get into Great Falls Park can, and has, stretched all the way out to Georgetown Pike, the length of which line will result in about an hour long wait to get up to the gate. So earlier is definitely better if you can swing it.

The park was crowded the day we went, and I was tickled to see later that many local Instagram accounts I follow were posting pictures from either Great Falls Park or the Maryland side of the falls at the Billy Goat Trail. It seems every family in Virginia looked at each other that morning and said “I don’t know, want to go to Great Falls?” It’s highly possible I saw some of you there and didn’t know it. Hi! I was the one crabbing at my toddler for whining about her wet shoes after she jumped in a puddle.

The last time we had gone was over the summer (June 30, thanks to my handy dandy iPhone photo-dating) and the falls looked quite different from 6 months ago:

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The lush greens tucked around the falls during the summer have of course given way to a starker, more ascetic look in December:

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Still lovely! All good things!

There’s three separate spots to view the falls, each with a slightly different view than the others. This was the third spot, located furthest from the falls, which gives you a more panoramic view. The first spot is right on top of the falls practically, which is quite titillating.

Nearby is a stick that shows the high water levels from previous years:

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I have a rich imagination that tends to the dramatic, so in my mind, with all this seemingly never-ending rain we’ve had lately, I figured surely the falls would be roaring lions of tumbling rapids and we would have met a notch on this pole. Then I was brought back down to earth by seeing that no, we had not even reached the paltry water levels of 1985. In my mind we were easily at 1937. The reality was there were a few standing puddles and the falls were no more gushing and wild than usual and I need to really dial things back.

After you’ve viewed the falls, there’s a variety of trails you can take to explore the park. If you’ve got kids with you, stop into the Visitor’s Center on your way in and grab a Junior Ranger booklet (or visit this page and print one out to take with you). Using the map and the instructions in the book, kids can tour the park filling in responses to the questions within and then, after showing their completed booklet to a ranger at the Visitor’s Center, earn a Junior Ranger badge. I did the packet for kids age 5-7 with my daughter during our summer visit and she loved it! It’s a fun, interactive way to keep kids interested in the park and paying attention to what’s going on around them.

Once you’ve got your Junior Ranger booklet, hit the trails!

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The Canal Trail takes you the route of the old Patowmack Canal, which was built to help ships bypass the falls as they made their way down the Potomac River. Along this trail you can see remains of the locks that would lift and carry ships past the falls.

The Matildaville Trail takes you by the ruins of the little town of Matildaville, which was built to house the canal-workers who built the Patowmack Canal. Both the canal and Matildaville lie in unused ruins now because ultimately the entire project proved to be expensive and unsustainable. The NPS page says that the canal was only usable one to two months a year, and the tolls collected from ships during that time were not enough to keep the canal running. Ultimately the entire enterprise was handed over to Maryland in 1828 and the town of Matildaville was abandoned. It’s tough on these streets canals.

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There’s plenty of picnic tables available at Great Falls Park, so pack a lunch if you like, but be aware that there’s no trash cans in the park so you’ll need to take your trash with you. Pack In, Pack Out.

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How cool is this tree? It’s circled with years and years worth of carved graffiti. I mean, don’t add to it, technically this is a travesty, but since it’s all already there, you might as well look at it and admire how neat it looks.

Dogs and strollers are welcome at Great Falls Park, so bring them if you like! Wear good walking shoes. I want to believe this is obvious but I saw a girl lingering around the Visitor’s Center wearing heeled booties and a leather jacket and a clutch, either unwilling or unable to engage in any activity within the park due to her attire. I actually wonder about that girl. Did the people she was riding with completely mislead her as to what Great Falls Park was? Did they say they were going to the mall and then detour to the national park? Life is full of mysteries. Some questions have no answers. Wear your boots or walking shoes.

Make a day of it:

Going back down Georgetown Pike toward the village of Great Falls, you can stop at Grange Playground and let the kids do some climbing, or grab a cone at Great Falls Creamery. Going up Georgetown Pike another 8 or so miles will deposit you at Clemyjontri Park, one of the best playgrounds in the area, designed to be fully inclusive for people of all abilities.

Meadowlark Gardens Winter Walk of Lights

Where: 9750 Meadowlark Gardens Ct., Vienna, VA
When: 5:30-10:00 pm, every night until January 3, 2016
Tickets: 13+ are $12 for admission; 3-12 are $7 and children 2 and under are free

IT’S CHRISTMASTIME!

Thanksgiving gets the shaft nowadays with that ever insidious Christmas creep, and Christmas is not allowed to enter my home until the Thanksgiving meal has been eaten. Then and only then may we begin decorating and participating in Christmas activities. It can be a struggle in that last week when everyone else’s decorations and lights are going up, but I hold fast to this because Thanksgiving is its own holiday and it’s an excellent one- a nice, quiet exhale before the plunge into the nonstop excitement of the Christmas season. You don’t rush Thanksgiving. You cook your pies, you cook some more pies when you mess up the first pies, and watch Gone With the Wind on AMC and enjoy your family in a way that doesn’t involve buying them a single thing.

And as soon as it’s over you get your husband to pull up fifteen gigantic containers of Christmas decorations from the garage, decorate your house, and go online and buy tickets to a Christmas light display.

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We normally save Meadowlark Garden’s Winter Walk of Lights for later in the Christmas season, but the Friday after Thanksgiving was unseasonably mild and my sister was in town from Atlanta, so we went a bit early to take advantage of both of those boons.

If you’re planning on going to Meadowlark one night this season, go ahead and select a date NOW and pre-purchase your tickets. Tickets are sold in limited amounts based on windows of time so that the park can regulate how many people are entering the grounds at a given time. I bought 7 pm tickets and later, after thinking to invite friends along, went back to check if any tickets were left for that window only to find tickets could then be purchased for the 9:15 window and no other. Plan early, buy early. (As usual, Certifikid is running a deal on admission, so check that out first!)

There’s really not a whole lot of rocket science involved here, so I won’t chat your ears off: you enter and walk around looking at Christmas lights. The display is fabulous, although Christmas lights are one of those things, like fireworks and Super Moons, that just never photograph as impressively as they actually look.  For some reason, what sets the brain agog via the lens of an eyeball does not translate through the lens of a camera.

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You see what I mean? I assure you that was astonishing in real life.

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As you meander through the garden you’ll pass many different displays- flower plots, woodland animals, a Christmas tree whose lights blink and change along with Christmas music. The whole thing is beautifully done. I could be speaking for myself here, but Christmas lights are one of those things that retain their magic even for adults. They make the world seem softer, kinder. I’m convinced there’s nobody who doesn’t enjoy looking at Christmas lights.

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At the end of the display there is a small shack from which you can purchase s’mores kits or bags of marshmallows for roasting, and a fire pit where you can crowd around with your fellow visitors and indulge in some convivial holiday bonhomie. This is the great thing about the holidays. Undoubtedly these people are the very same ones you have once honked at while driving, or sighed wearily at when you held a door for them and they breezed through without a word of thanks. But in the presence of Christmas lights and a fire pit and marshmallows, they seem like friends.

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Beside the fire pit is a small grassy lawn with one last color-changing Christmas tree around which, the night we were there, a herd of boisterous toddlers (mine included) gathered to run and wear themselves out. It was the sweetest little display of old fashioned holiday cheer.

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Among the many reasons I love raising my family here, special efforts like the Winter Walk of Lights rank quite high. What a small joy it is to bring your children to the same place year after year, to herald the coming holiday season with a simple and lovely tradition of walking through crisp air looking at Christmas lights together. The sheer abundance of tradition-making opportunities in our area never ceases to amaze me. We live in such a fast paced area, there is no doubt. But if even for a month each year, we have at hand so many different ways to slow down and gather in to one another, to lock arms and hands, and to watch in silent reverence a Christmas tree that changes colors to the tune of “Joy to the World.” To know that somewhere in our kids’ minds, that memory will settle and when they too are adults with their own families, each year at Christmas it will light up anew and they will think with a smile, “I remember doing this with my mom and dad.”

Thank you for that, Meadowlark Gardens.

Colvin Run Mill Park + Great Falls

Where: 10017 Colvin Run Rd., Great Falls, VA
When: Open daily except for Tuesday, 11 am- 4pm. Admission to the park is FREE; however, if you’d like a tour (which are offered hourly), adult rates are $7 and kids are $5.

The other morning on his way out the door my husband asked me what we were going to get up to today. I told him I thought we’d hang around the house, take it easy, maybe I’d get some housework done. And I meant it!

But then…it just looked so nice outside. And I remembered that staying at home to get stuff done means you’re in the house getting stuff done. I do enough of that the 9 months of the year our lives, like everybody’s lives, are dominated by the almighty Schedule. Exactly one month from today, school is back in, and The Schedule rules us once more. We have to seize our freedom while we still can. (Another plus of getting out each day for a nice long excursion: my toddler takes a 3 hour nap afterward, which is how I’m able to sit down and write these blog posts.)

As you can guess, the dishes aren’t done, the laundry isn’t folded, and our weekend trip bags aren’t packed, but we did have ourselves a nice time outdoors. And this bird you cannot change!

I saw a sign for Colvin Run Mill Park the other day while driving home along Rt. 7 and made a mental note to check it out once I was home. It’s a lovely little park run by Fairfax County Park Authority, featuring a restored water-powered mill and a General Store that sells flour and meal ground by the mill!

We stopped in at the General Store near the entrance, which is not strictly necessary, especially if you aren’t buying tour tickets, but I highly recommend popping in before you do anything else. We went in and a sweet old lady named Marge who was running the store gave us a scavenger hunt to complete. What is it about kids and scavenger hunts? They LIVE for scavenger hunts. I’m not sure my 5 year old would have enjoyed our visit nearly as much had she not had Marge’s scavenger hunt to motivate her to fully explore everything there was to see.

There’s also penny candy!

Actual price of purchase: Twenty pennies. PLUS TAX.

The General Store was quite the popping place back when it was in business. It served those who came to Colvin Run Mill as a store, provisions outpost, post office, and meeting place. One woman said of the store that twice a week her husband would “have to go up to the store and stay for awhile.” Isn’t that a nice idea? Hanging out with your fellow store patrons and shooting the breeze rather than elbowing past them to get a spot in line or reach the bell peppers? Sorry, I foolishly attempted the brand new Whole Foods in Ashburn on its opening day, and now I’m a bit jaded. That place was Thunderdome. A beautiful, shiny, perfectly organized Thunderdome.

Walking from the General Store down through the park you come across a large shed filled with blacksmith tools, and then the miller’s house, built in 1809, where Addison and Emma Millard and their 20 children lived. Let that sink in a minute. TWENTY CHILDREN. Hat’s off to you, Emma Millard. You’re a better woman than I am.

The Mill itself is just a short distance away from the Miller’s house (nice commute) down a shady gravel path:

This decorative bordering is made up of millstones, which are used to grind the grain into flour:

And finally around the back of the mill you see the waterwheel in all its splendor:

My girls once again enjoyed standing on the bridge and throwing leaves into the stream of water blow.

There are many picnic tables available at the entrance of the park if you choose to pack a lunch and eat it there like we did, but the park was nearly empty and we had the place to ourselves so we decided instead to sit in the nice red rocking chairs on the porch of the General Store and eat our lunch.

We ended our visit by stopping back inside the General Store to return the scavenger hunt to Marge and buy some penny candy for the road- old fashioned stick lollipops, and flavored honey tubes. .

Be sure to do this:

-Outside the General Store is a wooden container with several brochures for local places of interest tucked inside. We grabbed a very well done brochure on Historical Places of Interest in Fairfax County. There was also a pamphlet called the Discovery Trail Map which listed the Fairfax County Park Foundation’s parks. Colvin Run Mill is included in this list as well as Frying Pan Farm Park, Sully Historic Site, and Green Spring Gardens. If you visit 8 of these parks and get your Discovery pamphlet stamped at each location (the ones at Colvin Run Mill come already stamped!) you can send it into Fairfax County Park Authority and be registered to win a prize package. Like I said, kids love scavenger hunts, so most would love the opportunity to go around “collecting” stamps from local parks they visit.

Make a day of it:

Colvin Run Mill was not far from where we live and was a perfect 90- minute outing  to get us active and out of the house before heading home for my toddler’s nap.If you complete the mill tour, which takes about 45 minutes, your visit will take a little longer. If you’re looking for more to do in the area, Great Falls is a great little place to explore. Just three miles away from Colvin Run Mill at 9818 Georgetown Pike is a fantastic playground that my kids just love- Grange Park.

There are numerous different play structures which are well-connected to make for a playground that’s easy for kids to play on. There’s even one of those old metal merry-go-rounds that used to be on playgrounds everywhere when we were kids, before people realized their kids were breaking arms and legs on them left and right. Here in the village of Great Falls children can still play on potentially dangerous metal playground equipment just like we did in the 80s and 90s!

One last stop for your day in Great Falls- ice cream just across the street from Grange Park at Great Falls Creamery. I don’t know why, but I’m a sucker for fresh ice cream in the summer. The other 9 months of the year I have very little interest in it and almost never eat it, but something about summer just makes me want ice cream. We’ve eaten far too much of it this summer. Again- we will get back on track in a month when school resumes. For now, it’s all ice cream, all the time. (DOWN WITH FROZEN YOGURT, IT’S AN IMPOSTOR.)

Great Falls Creamery is located at 766 Walker Rd. in Great Falls, tucked into Village Center right across Georgetown Pike from the Grange Park playground. They serve an ever-changing variety of homemade flavors as well as treats from famous local Northern Virginia bakery, Heidelberg Bakery. The day we went my girls split a cup of strawberry ice cream and I got a fresh ice cream sandwich made with white chocolate raspberry ice cream smashed between two soft Heidelberg Bakery chocolate chip cookies. There’s tables outside as well as the rolling green lawn that sprawls across the width of Village Center, where free outdoor concerts are held each Sunday evening in summer.

We hope you’ll find lots on this site to give you ideas for how to fill the last few weeks of summer. Don’t forget, the Loudoun County Fair is still in town through tomorrow evening (August 1) and is one of the highlights of the year. Petting zoo, 4H animals, FRIED OREOS, midway rides- you don’t want to miss it. We’ve gone every year since we moved here and it’s family tradition now.

The Peach Fuzztival kicks off this morning at Great Country Farms and before the NOVAd family hits the road for a weekend trip, we’ll be stopping by with friends to enjoy peach pancakes. (Certifikid is currently still offering the reduced $5 admission to GCF and that voucher IS GOOD for the weekend of the Peach Fuzztival- a very generous offer on behalf of GCF considering all the extra activities available during the Peach Fuzztival weekend and the fact peach pancakes are included in your price of admission even with the Certifikid voucher. You have no reason not to go!)