Dinosaur Land

Where: 3848 Stonewall Jackson Hwy, White Post, VA
When: Open daily 9:30 am- 6 pm until Labor Day, after Labor Day hours are 9:30 am-5 pm. Admission for kids 2-11 is $5, kids 11+ and adults are $6. (Credit cards are accepted)

When browsing the Internet, there are lists I am never, ever going to click on. “25 Things No Woman Over 30 Should Wear.” Nope, not clicking, don’t care. “15 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Convenience Products.” They’re convenient for a reason, I’m not making them myself. But “10 Wonderfully Weird Day Trips Around Washington”– I’m all over it. I saw this list yesterday, clicked on it, and within 2 minutes of reading had our daily activity planned: Dinosaur Land. I texted a friend to see if she and her kids wanted to join and we were off.

If your kids are in or ever went through a dinosaur stage, you need to come to Dinosaur Land. If you were born at any point in the 1980s and grew up with The Land Before Time and Jurassic Park, you need to come to Dinosaur Land. If you delight in the sort of kitschy Americana that old roadside attractions provide, you need to come to Dinosaur Land.

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Dinosaur Land was built in 1963 and I am 100% positive that the Dinosaur Land we see today is identical in every way to the Dinosaur Land visitors saw in 1963. There is no way anything has ever been changed or updated. It is literally as if you are stepping back in time (in more ways than one). There was probably a time when Dinosaur Land was considered a MAJOR attraction that visitors from far and wide (in Virginia anyway) would come and see. I can just imagine back in the 1960s some family in like, Staunton, making an entire summer vacation trip around Dinosaur Land.

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Although Dinosaur Land was originally constructed in an empty field, time and nature have worked together to fill in the space with trees, so that now our dinosaur friends exist in a wonderfully shady “primordial forest” (just go with it).

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The statues are rather crudely built and have probably not been painted since the 1960s which lends them a wonderful vintage feel, kind of like if a Rankin-Bass stop-motion Christmas movie came to life.

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Many of your standard well-known dinosaur favorites are here, like Stegosaurus, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Brontosaurus, and the dinosaur that gave everyone nightmares in 1993, the raptor:

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Yeah. Never forget, that thing can open kitchen doors.

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Tucked away in the back corner of the park is a nook composed of various dinosaurs engaged in vicious battle.

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I believe the look on that pterodactyl’s face says it all. (My toddler is sitting on my lap as I write this and when this picture loaded she said, “That’s not good.” No, I would say getting snatched out of the air and torn to shreds is decidedly “not good.”)

Amongst the melee, Littlefoot’s mom is gracefully plucking tree stars:

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Unfortunately, just a few feet away, she is also getting nailed by Sharptooth:

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The creative use of fake blood really brings the scene to life, you have to admit.

If the cruel realities of the food chain are a bit too much for your young kids, don’t worry, there are plenty of friendlier dinosaurs in the park, some of which may or may not have even existed and might be totally made up by the creator of the park:

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Visitors are asked not to climb on the statues, but there are two exceptions: a giant prehistoric shark whose belly you are allowed to enter so that you pop out in his mouth:

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And a King Kong whose open hand you are allowed to climb upon and act out your best Fay Wray impersonation:

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When you’ve made a couple rounds of the park and had your fill, you exit through the gift shop which- I really can’t overstate this- is a gift shop of the finest magnitude. The sheer amount of unnecessary stuff inside this shop make it exactly what every gift shop should ever aspire to be. It actually existed first and Dinosaur Land was built to accompany it. Previously known as “Rebel Korn’r” it has since been stripped of this name for obvious reasons, but it still bears the most extensive collection of Confederate Civil War coffee mugs I have ever seen:

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It’s never too early to start Christmas shopping!

Dinosaur Land is a wonderful little excursion through a time when entertainment was simpler and more innocent. No CGI or animatronics or sound effects- just plain old dinosaur statues standing among trees. If you’re out in Berryville in the fall for Wayside Farm Fun, or on your way out to Winchester, a 15 minute detour to Dinosaur Land would be well worth the diversion.

Food is not allowed inside the park, so we stopped at Rose Hill Park in the town of Berryville on our way back out to Rt. 7 to eat lunch under the gazebo and play on the playground for a bit.

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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.

Fun For Winter

As I write this, the models are holding strong for a historic winter storm to hit this area this weekend. The spot right above where I live has a foreboding purple color and the number 36. If everything locks in, we’re looking at 2-3 feet of snow in the DC Metro area this weekend, and a call from our favorite person, Wayde Byard.

Aside from endless sledding and snowballing and snowman making and ordering movies off OnDemand and eating Ghirardelli brownies and drinking wine and mediating stir-crazy sibling fights this weekend, I’m here to suggest a few other ideas for weekends when getting out and about will actually be possible. Not going to lie though, I am morbidly curious to see what 3 feet of snow looks like. Never in my life!

Here’s a few things we’ve discovered and been up to recently if you’re in need of some fresh ideas for your winter bag of tricks:

The Wegmans Wonderplace at the Museum of American History

When we first moved here almost five years ago, we discovered Wegmans for the first time. I went inside and was blown away by how fancy it was. There’s neighborhoods, you know. And a second-floor eating area and hot bars and olive bars and trail mix bars and sushi bars and bars bars bars. I said to myself, “Oh, so this is the “nice” grocery store like Whole Foods that you only come to for a few special things.” NO. Wegmans is, unbelievably, the very nice grocery store that somehow manages to be fancy and also affordable and suitable for everyday shopping purposes. There is a reason Wegmans is one of the most beloved grocery store chains of all time: IT RULES. Wegmans is the purveyor of all things good and great so it’s no surprise they are behind the new Wonderplace at the American History museum, which is a 1700 square foot hands-on interactive play area for kids 0-6.

We went on a warm weekend after popping into the National Gallery of Art and cutting through the NGA sculpture garden to walk down to the American History museum. Security at the door was intense that day; I am pretty sure after the thorough search we all went through we were cleared to fly to Turkey if need be. We headed to the west wing on the first floor and had our own A Christmas Story moment when we saw the welcoming and wide open Wegmans Wonderplace… that was actually the SparkLab. The Wegmans Wonderplace was next door and had an extensive line to get in. Womp. This might die down in the near future, and would probably be non-existent on a weekday, but at this point it’s mid-winter and the Wegmans Wonderplace is barely a month old, so if you go on the weekend, be prepared to wait. Luckily there’s lots of fun things to look at in the space where the line is formed, including a 1984 Apple that you definitely used in elementary school and is now in a museum of history. Alongside things like a washing machine from the 1930s and a phone from the 1920s. Absorb the sting. You’re old.

There’s also this great view which I would not have seen otherwise:

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I sat in front of this big picture window for a few minutes and pondered the nearly-completed future Museum of African American History. The choice of design is not without controversy, but the explanation for the design and why it was chosen is compelling. I personally can never decide how I feel about it (not that my opinion matters); for now, it feels jarring and out of place but I have a feeling that in another 10-20 years it will feel like the perfect fit and will seem as indelible to the landscape of the National Mall as any other structure.

The Wonderplace tightly constricts entry so that it follows a one in-one out system that keeps the play area accessible and relatively crowd-free for the kids. After about a 45 minute wait we were in- inside is a mini-model of Julia Child’s kitchen for kids to play in (a nice nod to the fact that Julia Child’s kitchen is on display at the museum), a small farmstand, an area with blocks, and a play structure in the middle of it all that is part boat, part clock tower. The area is well-maintained by employees who make sure toys are picked up, wiped down and cleaned, and generally kept from falling into total disarray. For some reason a few parents seemed to think their bodies were designed to enter the confined play area inside the clock tower; I’m not sure why, but that was a general hindrance to the actual children who wanted to get in there and play. Guys, be cool. The thing is approximately as big as a doghouse. Don’t fold yourself into that clock tower. Your kids will manage without you while they’re in there. There’s windows.

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Here Orange Backpack Mom exhibits the proper way to supervise your children as they play in the structure. Thank you, Orange Backpack Mom.

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A show at The Kennedy Center

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My favorite website ever, Certifikid, is currently offering a deal for a performance of Oliverio, a reinvented version of Oliver Twist featuring a Brazilian orphan girl named Oli who dresses in disguise to make her way to the beach during Carnaval to request a wish from the goddess of the sea. The show looks vibrant and exuberant and colorful and charming and at just 70 minutes run time with no intermission, is the perfect length for young elementary children. I bought tickets to take my 6 year old the last weekend of January; Certifikid currently offers them for just $10. It sounds like the perfect show to mark a child’s first visit to The Kennedy Center.

Small weekend getaway

I’ve written about our weekend trips to Pittsburgh and Charlottesville, and we are heading to Norfolk for President’s Day weekend to see some new sights. While there we plan to hit the Great Dismal Swamp, the Children’s Museum of Virginia, Chick’s Beach, King Neptune at the Virginia Beach Boardwalk, the Oriental Garden, and the Mermaid Factory to paint our very own Norfolk Mermaid. 

I also took advantage of another Certifikid deal and purchased a weekend package to the Natural Bridge, which has been on our Must See list for awhile. The deal is $109 and includes a night at the Natural Bridge Hotel plus admission for four to the Natural Bridge, the Caverns at the Natural Bridge AND the Exploration center. Seriously, that’s a great deal. It’s valid any weekend through April, so the next empty weekend we get with reasonably nice weather forecasted, we’re off. We’ll hang out doing all the Natural Bridge stuff and likely stop in Lexington on the way home to poke around and see what’s what.

The Grotto of Lourdes, Emmitsburg, MD

The signs for the Grotto of Lourdes, right off Rt. 15 in Maryland just before you cross the Pennsylvania border, have always caught my attention, but we’ve never taken the time to stop and see it. (Isn’t this the way it is? You’ll see something neat on your way to somewhere else but won’t want to waste the time to go see it because you’re in a hurry to get where you’re going. Then, on the way back, you just want to get home… so you still don’t stop. Oh the things in life I’ve never seen because of this phenomenon.) We had a free day last Sunday so figured we’d finally head up there and check it out. It’s the oldest replica of the original Grotto of Lourdes in France, and on a winter day, we had the place all to ourselves.

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The grounds include a small chapel, the Grotto itself, a Calvary scene, a fountain, and the Stations of the Cross, as well as numerous statues of religious figures in Catholicism. We’re not Catholics, but just like the Franciscan Monastery in DC, I don’t find that you need to be to appreciate the beauty of these places. Simply take in what you appreciate and value and leave what doesn’t resonate.

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Visit WONDER Exhibition at the Renwick Gallery

The Washington Post recently ran an article discussing the Instagramibility of the exhibition (not a word- yet) and mentioned that the exhibition has so far drawn 176,000 visitors to the Gallery since the exhibition opened in November. The previous yearly total visitors hovered around 150,000- that’s how big WONDER is. I’ve already written about it, but I’ve gone back to visit it again since my first post and was amazed at how impressive it still was, and how my perception of the pieces had slightly changed. While I was first drawn to Echelman’s ethereal 1.8, my second visit had me entranced by Leo Villareal’s Volume. Repeat visits are encouraged but one visit is a must.

 

But first: get thee to a store for snacks and supplies. Winter showed up.

Potomac Overlook Park

Where: 2845 Marcey Rd., Arlington, VA
When: Open daily from dawn to dusk

HI FRIENDS, IT’S JANUARY. I normally approach January with a very bleak and dour outlook. Oh great, it’s cold and dark and there’s no more warm and cozy Christmas decorations up to take the edge off the cold darkness. Just endless cold and misery. I’m trying to do better this year. Maybe it’ll be okay?

Anyway. The last day of 2015 was, like all other days in December, warm and mild, so before our New Year’s Eve party that evening, my girls and I spent the day outdoors. I decided to head to a new-to-us NVRPA park in Arlington, Potomac Overlook ParkI will provide the disclaimer that the Potomac Overlook this park is named for is now closed (not sure why?) but the rest of the park is so well done and full of fascinating things that the lack of overlook isn’t necessarily a detriment to your enjoyment. I love getting surprised like this; I had no idea the park would have so many interesting diversions and fun things for kids to check out. NVRPA really does an excellent job with all of their parks. Hats off, NVRPA.

As soon as you pull up in the parking lot you’ll see a wonderful little wooden play structure, which my children ran around on for awhile (and had all to themselves on this holiday weekday).

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There’s two separate paths you can take from the parking lot- one leads through the woods down to what once was the Overlook, which is now closed. However, the path looked very pleasant and easy for kids to navigate, so I would still give it a try even if you can’t get out to the Overlook anymore. The day we went it was far too muddy and slippery for my toddler to attempt (meaning I didn’t feel like getting mud all over my car after she inevitably fell 8,000 times) so we’ll try it another day on a visit that doesn’t take place at the end of a rainy week.

Instead, we took the path to the Nature Center.

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Along the way is a lovely little thing called the Planet Walk:

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Each planet gets its own banner with facts and information. They are spread out in proportion to how far away they are from each other and the sun- meaning Neptune is the first planet you reach on your walk down (because Pluto is no longer a planet, or is it, I feel like it changes every so often?) and the first planet you see for quite awhile, until Uranus pops into view, followed by Saturn, and Jupiter. At the Nature Center, as in the universe, Venus, Earth, Mars, and Mercury are clustered right next to one another in a tight little lineup. It’s very well done and my kids enjoyed running to each planet as they saw it along the path and then reading the planet’s bio. Very cute!

Right across from the Nature Center is a fabulous Birds of Prey exhibit, which houses hawks and owls that were injured in the wild and rehabilitated at the park. Inside a small pen of cages are a red-tailed hawk, a horned owl, and my favorite- a barred owl.

 

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Actually, make that at least two barred owls. I didn’t see the second one skulking in the dark corner until I later looked at the pictures.

The Nature Center was my kids’ favorite part of the whole park- taxidermied animals, tanks with live snakes, reptiles, and turtles, a double-sided bee hive filled with busy bees, and a display of animal skulls. The whole thing is part of the park’s Energerium program, designed by the park’s naturalist staff to educate children on nature’s role in supplying the earth with energy and how all aspects of nature, from large to small, cooperate together to keep things running smoothly.

Energerium is designed to incorporate Virginia SOLs (the educator in me is impressed and pleased with this), but remains accessible for younger children as well. Just really, really well planned and executed. If you’re a homeschool family, a trip to Pototmac Overlook park would be perfect for a day focused on science, chemisty, ecology, biology, etc. If you’re not a homeschool family, a visit is still interesting and informative for a wide range of ages. My children spent a good 30 minutes inside the Nature Center, exploring each floor and every display, which makes it the perfect time-killer for those cold days when you need fun indoor activities. Being tucked inside a regional park, it’s hard to believe a little Nature Center could offer so much- you truly don’t want to miss it. What a little treasure.

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A short walk down from the Nature Center is a vegetable garden that visitors are encouraged to enter and explore, continuing with the concept of the Energerium. There’s a compost bin and raised plots of (currently) winter vegetables. My girls enjoyed walking around each plot and seeing what was planted.

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(In this bed, we have garlic and Saigon Turnips.)

On our way out we stopped back at the play area and played a little bit more before getting in the car and heading home. I can’t recommend Potomac Overlook Park enough- plenty of displays and areas of curiosity to keep you and your children busy and lots of space to run, walk, and play. It just might be my new favorite NVRPA park, and we will definitely be heading back over the next chance we get.

Make a day of it: 

I just want to let you know that The Italian Store is about 2 miles away from Potomac Overlook park on Spout Run Parkway. There are picnic tables at the park, so if you don’t want to eat at the store, you can pack it to go and bring it along as a picnic. In either case, I feel it’s imperative that you stop in for a bag of the best sandwiches ever, a couple slices of pizza, and a box of Berger cookies.

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Addendum:

Hannah at NVRPA sent me an email after reading this post including NOVA Park’s Winter camps and activity guide, which is full of one-time events that take place all winter long at different NVRPA parks. The guide is full of activities that my own children would love and I will likely sign up for more than a few of them. If you’re interested in exploring some of these activities with your own family, here is a link to the online guide and schedule. Thank you, Hannah!

Hidden DC: Kenilworth, Brookland + Palisades

Let us take a moment to reflect upon two incontrovertible truths:

  1. The monuments and museums in Washington, D.C. are unsurpassed and are a must-visit for all locals and visitors.

2. There is SO MUCH MORE to Washington, D.C. than the museums and monuments.

My family loves the museums in D.C. but we tend to let the tourists have them in the summer and save them for the winter days when we have exhausted the options for fun in our house and need to get out before we go stir crazy. The same goes for the monuments- they are absolute treasures, but they only necessitate a visit every so often. Those too are better saved for when guests are in town, because visiting them with someone who is experiencing them for the first time is really the best way to see them. Don’t get the wrong idea- I’m not above the tourist stuff; I’ve spent hours sweating my butt off on the Mall on the 4th of July, and I still feel a swell of pride when the Capitol Dome comes into view. I have read the Gettysburg Address in the Lincoln Memorial with my heart in my throat and think there’s nothing prettier than cherry blossoms in bloom around the Tidal Basin. The landmarks are landmarks for a reason- they stir something emotional within you and make you feel connected to your fellow Americans. You look around and feel a sense of camaraderie with everyone around you who owns this shared history. Even the people you just elbowed and cut your eyes at on the Metro.

But looking past the landmarks, DC is a city full of diverse and fascinating neighborhoods. It is The Nation’s Capital, but it also has an identity as a complex and intricate city in its own right. So much goodness lies off Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues. Looking past the monuments you can see the small things that make Washington DC uniquely Washington DC.

Inspired by Thrillist’s list of 13 DC Secrets You Had No Idea Existed, my girls and I spent a few hours in the city the other day, burrowing into the small corners that house some of DC’s best kept secrets. We hit three DC neighborhoods: Kenilworth, Brookland, and Palisades. I want to stop right here and say something real quick: don’t be intimidated by going into the city alone with your kids. (DC residents please don’t roll your eyes too hard.) I know the idea of loading your kids onto the Metro and navigating the city while keeping an eye on them and toting all your paraphernalia can be daunting. So too can the idea of driving around, trying to find an unfamiliar location, unsure exactly of where you’re going, with your kids screeching in the backseat. I’m here to tell you, you can do it. 

I remember moving here four years ago and being incredibly intimidated by the idea of driving anywhere in DC. Could not do it. Could not imagine doing it. I feared what would happen if I got mixed up about where I was supposed to be going and worried people would get mad at me and honk. I worried they’d see my Virginia plates and think “There’s another idiot Virginian who can’t drive in DC.” Little by little, I grew more sure of myself (and developed more aggressive driving tactics) and realized, hey. I can do this. It’s just a city. What’s so impossible about driving in a city? Even one with lots of traffic and one-way streets. Even with my kids in tow. Even if people honk. Does this reveal me as a rube? That’s okay. We all have to start somewhere. If you think you might be a rube, I’ll be a rube with you.

If you don’t live in DC, you can’t just walk out your door and set off on foot exploring new areas. And riding the Metro might not be second-nature to you and so you avoid it. And driving in the city is initially confusing and makes you anxious so you avoid that as well. Have faith in yourself. Load up your kids and give it a shot. Watch out for the tourists standing in the middle of M Street taking pictures in front of Georgetown Cupcake, but other than that, you’re good to go. You don’t need a friend to go with you, you don’t need your spouse. Just you and your kids. I promise you, you’ve got this. 

The great thing about the three places I’m going to share with you today: they are all easy to drive to and all have onsite parking. Since we’re going full confession mode here, I’ll share another one with you: I can’t parallel park to save my life. There was never a need to do it where I grew up or went to college or when I moved to Texas for my first job so I just… never bothered to get good at it. So anywhere I need to go that doesn’t necessitate parallel parking is a plus for me.

Okay, enough with the pep talk. Let’s get on with ourselves.

Our first stop of the day was in the Kenilworth neighborhood in NE DC at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens.  These are, as the name might suggest, water gardens which house flowering plants that grow in water. Have you ever stood in a veritable forest of lotus blossoms? Let alone in a residential neighborhood in Northeast DC?

At Kenilworth Gardens, you can do that!

The gardens are located in the natural wetlands along the Anacostia River and go back to the late 1800s when Civil War veteran Walter B. Shaw purchased the land and planted water lilies he had transported from his home in Maine. He maintained the ponds on his land, cultivating a wide variety of water lilies, with the help of his daughter, Helen Shaw, who eventually convinced Congress to purchase the land in the 1930s in order to preserve it. The result is the garden you can visit today, teeming with ponds that are overflowing with all manner of water lilies, lily pads, lotus blossoms, and various birds.

Inside the gardens the steady humming of insects surrounds you and you would never guess, if you didn’t know, the you’re just minutes from the interstate and the nonstop movement within the city. It is as calm and bucolic an environment you are likely to find in the middle of an urban sprawl.

In addition to the lily ponds, a boardwalk extends into the marshland all the way out to the Anacostia River. All through the marshland are various birds- while walking on the boardwalk we saw egrets, Canadian geese, and blue heron.

The NPS website maintains a detailed history of the gardens and an inventory of the lilies that were originally grown and cultivated by Walter Shaw- his notes on the flowers are contained within this document and several varieties are named by him for people important to his life (one species of lily is named N. Odorata Luciana for his wife, Luciana; another variety is N. Helen Fowler for his daughter).

The gardens are absolutely stunning and a must-see. They are located at 1550 Anacostia Ave NE, Washington, DC and are open daily from 8 am – 4 pm. Because Kenilworth Gardens are a National Park (the only National Park dedicated to the cultivation of water plants!), parking and admission is completely free.

Moving eastward through the city, our next stop was the Mount Saint Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery located in Brookland at 1400 Quincy St NE. Brookland is somewhat of an enclave for Catholic institutions in the city; in addition to the monastery, The Catholic University of America, Trinity University, and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception are all located in Brookland.

The Monastery was built in 1898 and is still a fully functioning church and self-sustaining community. The grounds and gardens are open to the public daily from 9 am- 4:45 pm; guided tours are available on the hour from 10 am- 3 pm.

Surrounding the church and monastery is the Rosary Portico, decorated with Christian symbols and 15 chapels depicting scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary.

Behind the walls of the portico is a staircase that leads down to the gardens, which hold their own against the beauty of the monastery.

Walking around the garden you see markers depicting the Stations of the Cross, a shrine to St. Anne, the mother of Mary and patron saint of grandmothers, and a tomb that is modeled after the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem, inside which candles are lit in eternal prayer for Mary.

If you aren’t Catholic, don’t let that deter you from visiting the Franciscan Monastery. I am not Catholic either but that didn’t prevent me from taking in and enjoying the hushed reverence of the grounds and gardens and appreciating the imagery and detail embedded in every aspect of the design. My 6 year old loved viewing the tableaux in the Rosary Portico and naming stories from the Bible that she recognized (by which I mean, she saw the scene of the Nativity and got pumped remembering Christmas is coming in JUST FOUR MONTHS!). I did help her out by explaining some of the ones that weren’t obvious to her.

Parking at the Franciscan Monastery is located in a small lot across the street, and is free. Feel free to sign up for a guided tour in the visitors center office, or simply wander the grounds at your own leisure.

Driving east through the city on our way back to Virginia, we made our final stop at Palisades Recreation Center in NW DC (5200 Sherier Pl. NW). I once again made the error of going to the DPR site to check the address of the rec center and accidentally put the DPR main office address into my GPS instead of the rec center address, which means we got a pleasant though slightly unnecessary detour down the entirety of Rhode Island Avenue. Don’t be like me. Double check your addresses properly before inputting them into your GPS.

Our main reason for visiting Palisades Rec Center was an art installation in the woods known as the Glass Forest. Before I could entice my kids to tramp through some backyards and into the trees with me, I let them have some runaround time on the fantastic Palisades Playground. This place was like the Platonic ideal of a playground. Soft squishy running surface, a small splashpad, a percussion instrument station, climbing equipment shaped like a fort. In my humble opinion, it’s worth making the drive out to Palisades just to let your kids take in this well-designed playground.

After my kids had gotten their fill of play, we headed back toward the parking lot but made a detour into the woods to see the Glass Forest. It took some cajoling for my 6 year old to be convinced to go see what I described to her as “very cool art” in the woods, which is weird because she definitely hasn’t seen The Blair Witch Project. I promised her to just trust me and she would enjoy it and she went along suspiciously, until we found the Glass Forest at which point she thought we had discovered some sort of fairy garden. You must must must come find the Glass Forest- a small section of the woods set back off the trail filled with sculptures made from scrap and found objects. The Prince of Petworth first wrote about the Glass Forest back in 2012, so it’s been around for at least a few years, but it seems to frequently change and might not be the same any two times you visit. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before- all at once ethereal, ever so slightly spooky, and somewhat otherworldly.

Our favorite installation in the Glass Forest (and presumably the reason why it is called the Glass Forest) was the “mobile” hanging from a tree in the back made up of broken glass shards, mirrors, and glittery objects strung up from branches. It spun in the wind and caught the light, constantly throwing out prisms and light flares, while also reflecting the trees behind us, making it seem as if we were caught in one all-encompassing light consumed forest all around us. Does this make any sense? No? Just go.It’s very Alice in Wonderland; I can’t properly describe or show the entire experience.

At the end of our planned stops, we had logged over five hours in the city, and had spent a grand total of just $10 on lunch while we were out and about. None of these places cost any money to visit, and were open for us to take in and enjoy at our own pace. There still remain 10 more “secret” places on the list and we have every intention of tracking them all down.

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On the Kenilworth Gardens website is a phrase that has settled within me for several days after first reading it – it described the gardens as “places within places.” This can be extrapolated to the city of DC itself- it’s a city of places within places. Look beyond the big and flashy and find the small and contained. The monuments and museums have their place, but to truly feel like you’ve “seen” DC, and taken in some vital part of the spirit of the city, take a trek into one (or three) of its 90 neighborhoods and submerge yourself in the culture of that neighborhood. The most wonderful things await you there.

Wild and Wonderful: Harpers Ferry, West Virginia

I know West Virginia is the red-headed stepchild of, well, the country, but it gets such an unfair shake. West Virginia is flat-out gorgeous and I get a kick out of the state slogan, “Wild and Wonderful.” West Virginia is just gonna let you know right up front they’re here for a good time. Compare that to Indiana’s slogan- “Honest to Goodness Indiana.” Or Nevada- “Wide Open.” That sounds… fun. Give me the West Virginia rabble-rousers any day.

Harpers Ferry is just over the state line from Virginia, an easy drive from NoVa along beautiful route 9. We went to Harpers Ferry recently to pick flowers at Ridgefield Farm, but this trip was to visit the historic town of Harpers Ferry located in Harpers Ferry National Park.

Harpers Ferry sits at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers and is the sight of John Brown’s raid, an event that essentially precipitated and kicked off the Civil War. We’re going to get into that some more in a bit.

To get to the town of Harpers Ferry, you enter the national park itself (physical address is 171 Shoreline Dr., Harpers Ferry, WV) and ride a shuttle bus from the parking lot down to the Lower Town (with a stop in Bolivar Heights for a Civil War walk if you so choose but it was 95 degrees on Sunday so nobody on my shuttle bus chose). Parking is $10 a day per car and the shuttle is included in this price. The shuttles do not run precisely on a schedule but I’ve never waited more than 10 minutes for one; they run constantly starting at 9 am going until the last shuttle that leaves Lower Town at 6:45 pm.

The shuttle bus deposits you directly on the bank of the Shenandoah River, and it’s essential that you dip beneath the railroad trestle and walk down to the edge of the river. Is there a finer river than the Shenandoah? It’s so peaceful, so languorous. It’s technically a tributary to the Potomac, but if you’re asking me, the Shenandoah is the superior river.

We spent some time on the bank of the Shenandoah, selecting shells to add to our seashell collection and teaching the girls to skip rocks. The river is so placid and shallow at this point that it’s possible to walk out to larger rocks in the middle of the river and wade around. Several people had their small children and dogs playing in the water. 

When you’re done fiddle faddling around in the Shenandoah, head up into the Lower Town and take a look around. The main attraction is the bridge that crosses the rivers at the confluence and ends in Maryland Heights with a 300 foot cliff overlooking the water and city. It is, in a word, scenic. Don’t even take my word for it; Thomas Jefferson famously stood on a rock in what is now Lower Town and, upon viewing the scene below, declared it NOT ONLY “perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in nature” but “worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” So yes, you should definitely make the trip from DC/Maryland/Virginia to take in this sight. You may have to grapple with 495/66/267 but it’s at least not a voyage across the Atlantic.

Looking out at the Potomac from the bridge you can see people engaging in various water activities, which is one of the most popular things to do in Harpers Ferry. Harpers Ferry Adventure Center offers kayaking and tubing and my husband has gone river rafting with the River Riders and had a great time.

I sort of mused aloud that wouldn’t it be fun to be doing the tubing and maybe we should go down there and do it right now! My 6 year old kind of wigged out at the idea. I say “my” 6 year old but honestly, if she doesn’t think sitting in a tube and floating down a river with a tube cooler filled with tasty cold beverages floating alongside sounds like the best thing ever, the amount of genetic material we have in common is in question.

Harpers Ferry also happens to be the headquarters of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (which you can visit daily from 9 am- 5 pm) and Harpers Ferry is one of the few places on the trail where the trail actually runs through a town.

You can technically say, if you walk through Harpers Ferry, that you have hiked the Appalachian Trail. Hey, I’m not going to argue with you. At this point, you are very nearly at the halfway point of the trail (actual halfway point is at Pine Grove Furnace in Cumberland County, PA). This marks our second time in a week being on the Appalachian Trail- just call me Bill Bryson.

Located in Lower Town are several options for lunch (or dinner). Although I’m normally a champion for packing a picnic lunch and bringing it along, and you could absolutely do that, I advise against it only because with so much walking, and being a shuttle ride away from your car, it’s unlikely you’re going to want to tote around a picnic blanket and/or picnic bag while you explore the town. We ate lunch at The Coffee Mill and got soft serve ice cream next door at Swiss Miss (which used to serve incredible frozen custard but evidently switched at some point to ice cream).

Just around the corner from these spots is a plain building with a sign on it that says JOHN BROWN. This is a small museum that tells the story of John Brown, a man you really just need to get to know. Here’s what you’re greeted with when you walk into the museum:

So there’s John Brown. This is who we’re working with here.

John Brown was a radical abolitionist who had the idea he could incite a great slave rebellion, starting by commandeering the Federal Arsenal in Harpers Ferry, taking control of all the weapons and ammunition within, then moving south attracting slaves to his army as he went. Here’s how that went down:

John Brown: Okay men. We’re going to break into this armory and seize all the weapons. Once we do, you go out to neighboring farms and plantations and tell the slaves we’re gonna take care of things from now on and they can come join us so we can free all of them! We’ll raid the WHOLE SOUTH!
John Brown’s men: Sounds good.
[Takeover of armory is successful]
John Brown: Well that was easy. Now, go tell the slaves we’ve engineered their escape and to come join us!! I’ll wait here.
John Brown’s men: Slaves, gather round. John Brown has secured the path to your escape. Join us as we march through the south freeing slaves far and wide. Trust us, this can’t go wrong.
Slaves: How’s he going to get out of the town? Does he have a plan? How’s he going to make it all the way down south with people after him for this?
John Brown’s men: Yeah, that’s what you guys are for. He’s gonna give you guns and spears and have you fight people off! The rest he’ll figure out later.
Slaves: We’re just gonna stay here then, thanks.

Although he had a vision, John Brown lacked planning and foresight (and possibly sanity) and the whole endeavor fell apart rather quickly. He was put on trial and hanged after being found guilty of treason. However, this did serve to deepen the divide between North and South as the North cheered the actions of John Brown and the South decried them as the workings of a madman. The rift between North and South eventually culminated in the Civil War beginning in 1861. I am from Georgia and my senior year of high school we took a seminar class called History of the South (because if there’s one thing Southerners never tire of talking about, it’s the South and being from it) and John Brown and his raid were perhaps the highlight of the course for my classmates and me, who found him highly entertaining.

While we were in the John Brown museum, a woman who was there asked us about our visit to Harpers Ferry and the museum. It turns out her great-grandfather was Alexander Murphy, owner of Murphy Farm, which abuts Harpers Ferry and housed the engine-house (pictured above) that served as John Brown’s fort during his failed raid. W.E.B DuBois and the group he formed that later became the NAACP made a barefoot pilgrimage to the Murphy Farm in 1906 to visit the engine-house that held the sparks of the abolitionist movement.The Murphy family had sought for years to get Congress to purchase the farm land so that it could be preserved as part of Harpers Ferry National Park but not until the early 2000s did Congress approve $2 million to purchase the land from the Murphy family for preservation. Before that it was very nearly turned into a housing subdivision! Two gates are on display within the museum, and these gates were located at the armory that John Brown raided in 1859; the woman I spoke with said her great-grandfather, Alexander Murphy, hid and preserved those gates on his farm in order to donate them to the United States. She was very, very proud of her family’s history and their role in Harpers Ferry. More than once she told me her great-grandfather was a visionary. She took great umbrage with the placement of a placard detailing her forebear’s contribution to Harpers Ferry history and she seemed quite a spitfire (she claimed “I’m not done with them yet”) so if I one day return to the John Brown Museum and see the Alexander Murphy placard has been moved from beside a window to beside the gate he donated, I will know she finally got her way.

There is also a John Brown Wax Museum in Lower Town which tells the story of John Brown in wax figures but John Brown is a little intense even in the form of a painting so a freaky-deaky wax figurine of a maniacal abolitionist may not be the most fun thing for small kids to see. I’ve never made it that to museum but if you do, let me know how it is!

Lower Town is built into hills and there are steep walkways and stairways leading up to the “higher” level of Lower Town.

On this next level of Lower Town is the historic St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church, the only church in Harpers Ferry to make it intact through the Civil War. Mass is still held there today! Sitting high atop a hill, the church offers sweeping views of the town and rivers below. Visitors are welcome to go inside and take a look around.

Handy tips:

-Wear good walking shoes. You will do LOT of walking at Harpers Ferry, and many of the stairways in the town are simply carved out of the existing rock. The stairs can consequently be uneven and require careful navigation. When you’re not on stairs, you’re still on hills- so come prepared.

-Think twice about bringing strollers. While you can navigate parts of Harpers Ferry with a stroller, many parts will be very difficult- the stairs and paths leading between the two levels of Lower Town would be tough to go up or down with a stroller, and the town sidewalks can be very narrow. Shops and restaurants tend to be quite small. If at all possible, consider leaving the stroller behind to make getting around a bit easier.

-Make time to stop at a winery on the way home! There’s so many gorgeous vineyards located along route 9 and any of them would be a good choice. I’ve written a post about Maggie Malick Wine Caves, but along that road are also local favorites Hillsborough Vineyards, 8 Chains North, and Sunset Hills Vineyards.

Harpers Ferry is the perfect spot for nature lovers and history lovers, a beautiful little gateway town tucked into the foothills of West Virginia. It is absolutely a must-see for anyone in this area and a great destination for kids and adults. Dip your hands in the Shenandoah, take in the view that Thomas Jefferson declared one of the most stupendous in nature, and absorb the history all around you in this wild and wonderful little town.

Bears Den Overlook

Where: 18393 Blueridge Mountain Rd., Bluemont, VA
When: Gates open daily 8 am – 9 pm

I had a moment yesterday. I was hiking with my girls, reassuring them we were about to see something REALLY REALLY COOL, and I thought to myself, “Wow. I am my father’s daughter.” My dad is your consummate outdoorsman. He ran a week-long 150 mile race through the Sahara Desert once for fun. Among his life goals is the desire to reach the highest point in each state in the US. Years ago, he took my sister and me on a “walk” that ended up being about 12 miles up and back the highest point in the state of Alabama. We nearly died (in our minds) and he was like, “What, you thought that was hard?”

Mostly, I’m not like that. I have moments of delusion where I fancy myself to be rather outdoorsy but by and large, I like air conditioning way too much to ever really claim the title. But, as is typical of delusional and fanciful people, I can easily be persuaded to forget my own nature and assume another when something compels me. Like pretty Instagram pictures of a rock outcropping along the Appalachian Trail that creates an overlook you can hike to. “Yeah,” I think to myself. “Yeah, I can DO THAT!”

So that’s how I came to abandon my plans to go to the pool and instead ended up on the Appalachian Trail. Viva delusion!

The spot I’m discussing here is Bears Den, located in Bluemont. Virginia houses 550 miles of the Appalachian Trail and Bears Den is located on the so-called “Roller Coaster” section of the trail, named for its hills. What was once the home of Dr. Huron Lawson has morphed over time into its current incarnation as a hostel for thru- hikers offering lodging, showers and bathrooms, and a campground. From Bears Den one can hike to an Overlook that perches above the Shenandoah Valley, offering incomparable views.

Luckily, Bears Den also has a day-lot for people who, rather than devoting massive amounts of time, energy and money to hiking the entire Appalachian Trail and sleeping wherever they can along the way, prefer instead to drive up, walk on it for a bit, and then get back in the car and go home. I read on the Bears Den website that the Overlook was a “short stroll” from the day parking lot and I thought, oh, that sounds great for us! We can totally do a short stroll!

Let me tell you something about the word “stroll.” It’s incredibly misleading. I spent three weeks in India in 2007 trekking the Himalaya because a trip there was presented in a way that specifically mentioned the phrase “strolling through alpine meadows.” (And also, again, delusion that I am the type of person who does things like trek the Himalaya.) I had incredible visions of Sound-of-Music style twirling and gallivanting through lush green meadows with glorious mountain views. What I did not take into account was that alpine simply means “relating to high mountains” and the phrase “strolling through alpine meadows” doesn’t promise that your “stroll” will be a simple, pleasurable walk. It means it’s gonna be a walk on a HIGH MOUNTAIN. And you’re going to be “strolling” for 12 hours at a time and be carrying a trekking pack that carries everything you’ll need for 2 weeks which your guides insist only includes two pairs of underwear.

India is another story for another time. But I just want to give you some background on how the word stroll continually misleads me. I again wrongly assumed we’d pull up in the parking lot, Maria von Trapp our way through some meadow, and end up at a rocky outcropping overlooking the Shenandoah Valley while also being able to claim we “hiked the Appalachian Trail.”

Well, that’s sorta what happened. To begin, we did park. Parking in the day lot at Bears Den costs $3 for the day. A small box is located at the top of the parking lot and inside are envelopes into which you will place your $3 parking fee, then detach an included flap to stick on your dash to let everyone know you paid.

This magnificent creation was also located in the parking lot:

Bears carved into a tree. Just the parking lot of Bears Den alone is one of my favorite new finds this summer.

There’s several available options for getting to the Overlook from here. I know them now that I’m looking at a brochure I picked up at the Lodge which includes a trail map, but at the time I didn’t know which way to go so I followed a group of hipster teenagers who could see I was trying to get my bearings and said “The rocks are this way.” Oh, helpful hipster teenagers. So kind and friendly!

So I went that way, to begin the “short stroll.”

The trail we took, I now see, was the Historic Trail, which is 1/2 mile long (each way) and labeled “moderate” in terms of difficulty. Hmm. Okay, I do believe it’s moderate for most adult hikers. My kids are not adults though and this was decidedly not-moderate for them, perhaps more on the side of “challenging” but I will say they handled it with great aplomb and were champs about the whole thing. Yes we all had to clamber up rocks. Yes they each fell and got a scrape on their knee. Yes I nearly took a thorned branch to the face while carrying my toddler. But we all made it through our “short stroll” just fine.

I did enjoy the hike but because I had been conditioned to think this would be a “short stroll” I started to get a little concerned when no outlook was appearing and the trail was getting more and more “moderate.” Why had we been walking so long? They said “the rocks” were this way. I started questioning my helpful hipster teenagers. Hipsters. Why did I think I could trust them? They weren’t even wearing clothing appropriate for hiking!! They tricked me and I hate them.

Oh wait, I hear voices. It’s the hipsters!! At the outlook! I can see it through the trees now. Nobody tricked me after all. Hello kind, sweet, friends, we meet again, here at this great spot nature has created for us all to enjoy together.

And this is what the Shenandoah Valley looks like from 1350 feet up. You can sit on these rocks and contemplate the land below and mentally congratulate yourself, “I hiked this.” Someone who is ACTUALLY hiking the trail will clomp past you, loaded down with their worldly possessions on their back and a cheerful dog walking alongside. Pay them no mind. You are a hiker too.

The map I later picked up suggests that the Blue Blaze Loop might be an easier path if you wish to attempt this trip with your kids (and I think you should! It was incredible!). The Blue Blaze Loop is only 1/3 mile and is labeled “easy” as opposed to the 1/2 mile “moderate” Historic Trail that I took. If your kids are bit older, the Historic Loop would probably be fine, but my toddler obviously had some difficulty and needed carrying through certain portions. If you’re toting a baby/small toddler in a backpack carrier, you could still do the Historic Trail, but would just need to be careful on the portions that require a bit of rock climbing. Next time we go I’ll try the Blue Blaze Loop and report back.

Regardless of which trail you choose to take to reach the outlook, I think your kids are going to love the hike. My oldest felt incredibly accomplished when she saw the destination she had worked hard to reach. “I AM A HIKER” she said. “I hiked the Apple Trail.”

“It’s actually the Appalachian Trail” I corrected her.

“I HIKED THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL.”

And you know, when you’re just about 6, that’s no small shakes. I never know how my kids will respond to the outings I plan for us; sometimes they don’t enjoy things I just swore they would love, and sometimes, like our trip to Bears Den, they surprise me and enjoy the hell out of something I thought they would merely tolerate. Both of them did so well I am convinced that they got more of my dad’s genes in them than I did. They just might be my father’s granddaughters.

My husband was incredibly jealous he was not able to do this with us (God bless the man, he works hard so I’m able to do things like hike a mountain in the middle of a weekday afternoon with my kids) so we are definitely planning a return trip soon. The overlook is westward facing so the sunset views have to be incredible. I would be tempted to bring a bottle of wine with me to enjoy the sunset with but then again, rocky paths + unsteady footing might just be asking for trouble. Not saying I wouldn’t still do it, just that I would temper expectations for how well the return hike would go. And bring Band-Aids.

Handy tips:

-Bring exact cash or coins to pay your parking fee. There’s no guard shack or attendant, so nobody’s going to swipe your card through a Square Reader or break your twenty.

-Wear appropriate shoes. I want to think this is self-explanatory, but if you wear sandals to hike the Appalachian Trail, you’re gonna have a bad time. 

-If you’re unsure which trail you’d like to take, walk up to the Lodge and grab a handy dandy map. It lays out every trail option along with length and difficulty of trail. Or, you can be like me and blindly trust a cadre of hipster teenagers. That’s your call.

-There’s no trash cans at Bears Den, so if you bring any drinks or snacks to enjoy up on the overlook, be a pal, pack the trash back out with you, and dispose of it later once you’ve left the park.

Most of all, I want to say that if you don’t think you’re an outdoorsy person who would enjoy this, try embracing a little delusion. You can do powerful things with delusion! I trekked the Himalaya on the fuel of delusion. Just tell yourself you’re a hiker. You’re tough. Tell yourself that girl from Novadventuring did it with two little kids, so if she can, you definitely can!

Because this is the view that awaits: