High Rock

Where: Pen Mar High Rock Rd., Cascade, MD (For GPS purposes, try plugging in 14600 Pen Mar High Rock Rd. This is Pen Mar Park and High Rock is NOT in Pen Mar Park, but this gets you on the right road and you simply continue up past Pen Mar Park until you come to High Rock)
When: Well, it’s rocks so it’s there whenever.

I need to begin this post by telling you that High Rock is incredible but I demand to know who was in charge of naming it. Could you really do no better? It is a rock outcropping, and it’s quite high, but surely there was some other quality, some spirit of imagination that could have been looped in to the name instead of just… High Rock?

Look at this high rock.
Yeah, wow. What should we call it? Devil’s Peak? Widow’s Nest? God’s Pillow? Stairway to Heaven?
Let’s call it High Rock.
Ok!

I have, strangely enough, the Vans Warped Tour to thank for introducing me to High Rock. In the strange way that Instagram algorithms work, a picture of some members of some band on the Vans Warped Tour doing community service on High Rock got propagated into my feed. What I noticed first was the great graffiti covering the rock they were standing on. Then I read the caption which said something like, “Vans Warped Tour doing community service cleaning graffiti off High Rock today” and I thought WHAT NO, YOU CAN’T CLEAN OFF THE GRAFFITI, THE GRAFFITI IS GREAT! It’s not often that graffiti enhances a natural landscape but from time to time, something just clicks and I have to say, in the case of High Rock, the graffiti somehow just makes the whole thing better. Don’t hate me, nature purists, I’m kind of a magpie and colorful things appeal to me.

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High Rock lies on South Mountain in Northern Maryland (hee!) right along the Mason Dixon Line. It’s situated on the Appalachian Trail and is a popular lookout spot and hang gliding platform. People also somewhat frequently fall off and tumble to their death. Not trying to scare you or anything, just think you ought to be warned! This really is a rock you want to be respectful of. There’s no fencing or railing surrounding the rock, and the dropoff isn’t one of those fake-out ones where it looks like a sharp drop with dirt 2 feet below. It’s, you know, A DROP. So if you take kids, just keep a close eye on them. Especially with the wet weather we had, the combined effect of rain on spray paint is a quite slippery walking surface. Be safe, my dudes.

Despite the hard work of the Vans Warped Tour, High Rock, I’m pleased to say, is still covered in all manner of graffiti. We got up early on a Saturday morning and headed out since it was a good 60 mile drive from our house, and when we got there I was happy to see that the Vans Warped Tour had not eradicated all the graffiti I had been hoping to see. Rainshowers were moving in and out of the area quickly, and shortly after we arrived, a cloud moved over us and obstructed the view of everything beyond High Rock, lending it a surreal quality wherein you could not quite tell where the end of the rock was and the dropoff began or just how high up you were (1800 feet up, FYI). We were all alone up there and it felt like we really just perched up in the clouds.

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The rain did begin driving a bit more steadily so we retreated to the car and waited a bit and eventually when the rain dissipated we made our way back up to the rock and were rewarded with a brief but stunning view of what lies beyond High Rock when it isn’t obscured by clouds:

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As the sun broke weakly through the clouds, a few more cars pulled up and several of us stood and watched the valley below us open up for just long enough to get a view before the clouds started rolling back in.

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Even this little friend enjoyed the rock (and is a good reminder to please leash any pets you bring along):

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High Rock is accessible via hiking on the Appalachian Trail, but it’s also ridiculously easy to access by car. As in, you just drive up Pen Mar High Rock Rd until you see the small pull-out lot on your right with the rocks right next to it. Definitely wear workout gear and good shoes so that everyone who sees pictures thinks you hiked up a really tall mountain to get there, but your secret is safe with me. I found a hiking log of the trek up to High Rock and it mentions lots of switchbacks and a steep climb so just say that and nobody will ever know.

The best part of the trip to High Rock for me was when I posted pictures of it to Facebook and my dad posted a picture of himself there… in 1982. The rock was pure and free of graffiti and my dad was in stonewashed jeans, a crop top, and had bangs and a mullet. Time moves on, my dad definitely does not wear crop tops now, and the youth have covered the rock in paint, but through a fun wormhole in time known as the Internet, my dad at 19 and I at 31 were in the same place.

 

High Rock made me happy. My kids loved it, my husband loved it, the view were stunning, and even in the rain it was well worth the trip. I can only imagine it’s even better in the fall with all the foliage down below, so we’ll be making a return trek back then. Add this one to your hiking list for sure, definitely at least before the next Vans Warped Tour comes through and tries to de-graffiti it.

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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.

Fresh Water Play in Northern VA

Somehow it’s July 12th and I haven’t written a post about anything we’ve done this summer yet. Whoopsie doops! My apologies.

My family recently spent a week at Carolina Beach, North Carolina for family vacation and the proximity to water only awakened in us some latent desire to be near water as much as possible. Given our landlocked position here in Northern Virginia, the beach isn’t a daily possibility but luckily, we’ve got plenty of opportunities for fresh water play nearby and for whatever reason, that is mostly what my kids and I have been most interesting in doing lately. I decided to compile a post about some of our favorite local stops to get back to the water.

Goose Creek/Kephart Bridge Landing
42942 Riverpoint Dr., Leesburg, VA

Goose Creek snakes lazily through many parts of Loudoun County and for all the times I’ve driven by it or over it, it only just this summer occurred to me that we could actually find a place to get down in it. Our favorite access point is Kepheart Bridge Landing in the Lansdowne neighborhood which has a nice parking lot and a walking path that leads right down to a small creek-beach. Kayakers and canoers frequently launch from that spot and on any given trip out to the creek you can watch them out in the water, sometimes navigating the (very small) rapids that lie just upstream from the landing.

Revealing how easy it is sometimes to entertain kids when you just let them entertain themselves, my kids’ favorite thing to do at the creek is throw rocks in the water. That’s it. For as long as I’ll let them, they just select rocks and throw them, then maybe remark to one another how big the splash was. It’s the essence of simple summertime fun.

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The water in this section of Goose Creek is shallow and placid and perfect for wading and swimming if you’re interested in getting in the water. Just for reference, I am 5’1 and would say the water in the middle of the creek at its deepest is about hip height on me. Just wear water shoes!

As a fun bonus, there’s a bunny tree near Kephart Bridge Landing:

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Watermelon Park, Berryville
3322 Lockes Mill Rd., Berryville, VA

A bit further west in Clarke County lies Watermelon Park, a former watermelon farm turned campground and tubing spot. It sits just along the bank of the Shenandoah River and is a perfect spot for packing a picnic lunch and spending a few hours playing and exploring. Admission to the grounds is $10 per adult but kids 6 and under are free. We picnicked, threw rocks in the water, played on the on-site playground, and enjoyed a summer afternoon in the Shenandoah.

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River Farm, Alexandria
7931 E. Boulevard Dr., Alexandria, VA

We spent a lovely morning at River Farm, the headquarters of the American Horticultural Society and formerly George Washington’s northernmost of his five farms. It lies along the banks of the Potomac and the manor house on the grounds provide stunning views of the river:

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Just up the road from River Farm is Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve which has trails that wind three-quarters of a mile through marsh and tidal wetland. We spent so much time at River Farm that we did not have time to do Dyke Marsh the same day so have saved it for another trip out to Alexandria.

Lake Anne, Reston, VA

We love Lake Anne, a planned community surrounding a lake in Reston. Walking paths around the lake provide different views and there’s several waterside restaurants and fountains and a used book shop. We love to come look around and find tadpoles in the canals:

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A stop on the Van Gogh Bridge is always a must:

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And finally, although it isn’t in Northern Virginia, it’s only a short distance away- Cunningham Falls State Park in Thurmont, Maryand. We went here one Sunday morning and hiked out to the waterfall and got IN the waterfall! This was very fun and confidence-building for my kids who had to trust their own sure-footedness on the slippery rocks. The novelty of standing in the pool of  waterfall was very fun for them and it was a trip we really enjoyed as a family. My oldest even crossed a fallen log across the water with my husband!

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Venture forth! Commune with the water! Also if you’re playing PokemonGo I have a feeling these areas are probably full of really great Pokemon (LOL).

 

Weekending: Lexington, VA + Natural Bridge Edition

All apologies to Purcellville, Charlottesville, and any other town my excitable brain previously declared to be my favorite small town in Virginia. There’s a new kid in town: Lexington. This one’s definitely my favorite small town in Virginia. I’m sure of it. Until I find the next one, but for right now, it’s the winner.

The timing for a weekend trip this past weekend initially did not seem so great- I had just wrapped up the last week of spring semester for my grad program and an auction I had chaired and spent 8 months working on took place Friday night, so my brain was essentially non-functioning and my zest for life was at nil. The forecast was also a weekend full of cool temps and rain. But we had months ago purchased a Certifikid voucher for a night at the Natural Bridge hotel with admission to the bridge and the caverns included, and the last day to use it was April 30, so the trip was on no matter what.

And wouldn’t you know it, I found it to be the perfect little two day getaway. Some friends of ours bought the same voucher and joined us down in Lexington and we had a blast. The drive couldn’t be easier- a relatively quick 3 hours down I-81 through the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We decided to be leisurely about it since we weren’t in a huge rush and stopped in Staunton for some frozen custard from Kline’s Dairy Bar, which has been operating in Harrisonburg since 1943.

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Our voucher was good for a night at the Natural Bridge Hotel (right next to the Natural Bridge itself) with admission for four to the Natural Bridge AND the caverns right next door. We paid $109 for all that and so I was mentally prepared for a rundown, dark and dank hotel that had not been updated since the 1970s. NOT SO AT ALL, although I do think the road leading to the Natural Bridge hotel may be haunted. I base this completely on the fact that on one side suddenly loomed a giant baby head inside what was a graveyard of strange giant props. The sign indicated it was a place called Enchanted Castle Studios that offered “tours” though who gives them, I’m not sure, because it looked abandoned. Look, I’m not saying you’ll go into that place on a “tour” and never come out and that the Scooby Doo crew is going to have to come in and find you. I am not saying that. Just think about it is all.

The Natural Bridge Hotel was recently updated with nicely furnished rooms and a very pleasant staff. If you’re looking for proximity to the bridge, it’s great. If you would prefer to be closer to Lexington, you may want to stay elsewhere, but if this deal is ever offered by Certifikid again, snatch it up, because for two days of admission the attractions and a night in a perfectly pleasant hotel, it was a steal.

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After settling in and meeting up with our friends we grabbed dinner at Foothill Momma’s BBQ Juke Joint (recommend) and then headed back to the bridge for the nightly light show.

Now look.

I’m from Georgia, and down there, one thing that everyone does growing up is go to Stone Mountain to watch the laser show, which is extravaganza of the highest order. Lights and lasers shoots around the mountain and give the illusion the carved figures are riding their horses and Dixie is played as well as The Devil Went Down to Georgia. It is definitely one of those things that only when you grow up and move away from the Deep South do you go, “Huh, yeah, that is a bit weird.” BUT IT’S AWESOME. So you can perhaps see what I expected from the Natural Bridge light show. Maybe some Van Halen? Lots of zooming light rays and strobe lights.

That is decidedly not at all what the Natural Bridge light show is like.

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So here’s the story of the Natural Bridge, which is told to you by the recording at the Natural Bridge: it took 3-4 million years to evolve naturally through the gentle erosion process of the stream that flows beneath it. It was originally discovered by the Monocan Indians as they were evading an enemy and considered by them to be a sacred site, and later Thomas Jefferson “bought” it for his own pleasure because, well, aint that just the way history tends to go. (My husband and I quibbled all weekend over whether a person can truly own something like the Natural Bridge; call me Pocahontas, I just really don’t think so. I don’t even care if you’re Thomas Jefferson, you can’t own that stuff, dude, it’s for all mankind.)

Right after you are told that the Natural Bridge formed naturally, through the course of nature, over millions of years, the light show program begins, and it tells the story of Genesis and how God created the earth in 7 days. It was written and created by Calvin Coolidge back in the 1920s and has been used ever since. There were several times sitting there, somewhere in the middle of the third day of creation, when I realized that this passed for high entertainment in the 1920s. In 2016, well, it seems a bit… antiquated. A musical version of the Lord’s Prayer that my friend aptly described as “a dirge” played in the fifth day of creation. Hey, I got no dog in the hunt when it comes to how the bridge was formed. Maybe you think the stream did it, maybe you think God plopped it there somewhere in the six days he was decorating the earth. It’s just funny how the Natural Bridge show simultaneously suggests it somehow could be both.

The bridge sure is beautiful, though!

Sunday morning we had breakfast down at The Pink Cadillac (insert Springsteen lyrics):

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I’ve mentioned before the “bubble” that extends about 50 miles in any direction from DC and how different life is once you break out of that bubble. At the Pink Cadillac, a plate of three pancakes was $2. TWO DOLLARS. No crushed velvet seats, though, and I really think they missed the mark there.

The rain began to pour after breakfast so we took the opportunity to visit the Natural Bridge Caverns and hide out 340 feet underground and give it a chance to pass. Hey, aren’t caverns cool? At one place in the caverns our guide told us to look up at what appeared to be an opening and said it was called a Murder Hole. Way back when, when people drove around in buggies and such, they would sometimes roll right over one of these Murder Holes and fall ass over teakettle into the caverns. Whoopsie doops! Not a great day.

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Emerging from the Murder Hole we re-entered a world filled with sunshine! The rain had passed so we headed into the town of Lexington to see the sights.

Some things you should know about Lexington:

It’s home to two colleges: Washington and Lee University and Virginia Military Institute (so-called West Point of the South). You can tell the student bodies apart as they mill around town because the Washington and Lee students are wearing clothes nicer than you, a grown adult, typically wear, and the VMI cadets are decked out in their finest military dress. Even to walk into a Sheetz gas station, yes I saw that.

It’s also pretty much Robert E Lee’s town. Everything there revolves around Lee in some way. There’s Lee Highway, the Robert E. Lee hotel, Lee Chapel, a different church named the Robert E Lee Memorial Episcopal church, which is about 200 yards in front of Lee Chapel. Lee died in Lexington after serving as president of (then) Washington University, renamed to include Lee after his time there. Stonewall Jackson also features prominently in Lexington, given the fact he lived there and taught at VMI in the 1850s. Some of his curriculum is still taught there today! He was not a very popular teacher though and students there called him “Tom Fool,” which luckily for him was later replaced by the everlasting nickname he earned on the battlefield at Manassas, and by which we still know him- Stonewall. (I am seriously just beyond tickled that one person, in the span of about fifteen years, can be the recipient of two such diametrically opposed nicknames, and also walk away forever bearing only the really good one.)

The house Stonewall Jackson owned and lived in during his time in Lexington still stands on Washington St., right down the road from Lee Chapel:

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The downtown Lexington area was funny like this- on one corner might be a new shop or popular restaurant, and then a few doors down, the home of a huge Civil War figure. Virginia is so cool.

We paid a visit to the  Robert E. Lee Hotel:

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Eventually we made our way down to the campus of Washington and Lee University to visit Lee Chapel. And WOW, what a campus! My own alma mater is beautifully landscaped and  frequently makes lists of Most Beautiful Campuses, but it must be said that a good chunk of the buildings are from the 1960s/70s and leave something to be desired, aesthetically speaking. Meanwhile, in Lexington, not only is the campus impeccably landscaped, look at this architecture!

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This is known as the Colonnade and faces Lee Chapel. When I mentioned at the beginning of this post I am in a grad program, it’s to receive my Master’s in Education. This means I’m spending chunks of time each semester student teaching in high school English classes. The last two semesters, my students have been seniors, and it’s been very exciting as they get accepted to colleges and decide where they’re going to go. Many of them are going to JMU, a couple to William and Mary, some to UVA, but I realized when I was on W&L campus that none of them had decided to go to Washington and Lee and I wondered why. It was such a nice looking school in such a pleasant little town not terribly far from Northern Virginia. I started thinking, I would encourage my own girls to consider this school when the time comes! When we were on the way home I looked up the university and discovered it is private and costs $47,000 a year to attend as an undergraduate, so that explained that. It also explained why all the students were dressed so nicely and the frat houses were giant antebellum homes on lush wide avenues.

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Tucked into this little glade right across from the Colonnade is Lee Chapel, where Robert E. Lee is buried and where his beloved horse, Traveller, was buried in 1971 after his bones were disinterred and placed here to be with his master.

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Would you just! Have you ever seen a more perfect little chapel? I got married in what I consider to be a very beautiful and picturesque southern chapel but it really doesn’t compare at all to Lee Chapel. Inside on the pulpit is a statue of Lee known as “Recumbent Lee” which depicts him lying in repose, and the stained-glass windows tell his life story. He and his family are buried in a crypt below the chapel and Traveller is buried just outside:

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Students at the university leave pennies (and sometimes apples) on Traveller’s marker in hopes it will bring them good luck in their studies. Awwww! Traveller is maybe one of the best-known horses of all time, certainly the best known Civil War horse, and the following is written about him in the poem Army of Northern Virginia by Stephen Vincent Benet:

Such horses are
The jewels of the horseman’s hands and thighs,
They go by the word and hardly need the rein.
They bred such horses in Virginia then,
Horses that were remembered after death
And buried not so far from Christian ground
That if their sleeping riders should arise
They could not witch them from the earth again
And ride a printless course along the grass
With the old manage and light ease of hand.

I can’t tell you what a good choice it was that we invited the friends we did, because the husband in that family is a high school history teacher and he and I were nerding out together the whole time.

Other small scenes around Lexington:

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I loved everything about Lexington and really can’t suggest strongly enough that you take a trip down for a night or a weekend and pay it a visit. They bred such horses in Virginia then- and they made such towns in Virginia then.

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!

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.

Haymarket: Burnside Farms + Pickle Bob’s

Where: 2570 Logmill Rd., Haymarket, VA
When: Monday-Friday, 10 am- 6 pm, Saturday 9 am- 6 pm, Sunday 10 am- 6 pm.

My husband tried to get me to agree to move to Haymarket awhile back. I balked, because I’m no country mouse. I like to visit the country, but I don’t want to live there. Nor do I wish to live in a city. Suburbia is the place for me, as uncool as that is to admit these days. I like order, and convenience, and Wegmans.

“But you love that flower place out in Haymarket,” my husband said, which is absolutely true but also not a standalone argument for picking up and moving to a whole new city. “Whydja move to Haymarket?” they’d ask. “Sure do like that flower farm over there” we’d have to say.

Although it (probably) won’t convince you to move to Haymarket, I think Burnside Farms can at least convince you to visit Haymarket. Each year Burnside Farms holds their Festival of Spring, when different spring flowers bloom and are available for picking. In March come the daffodils, followed by tulips and Dutch iris in April and May. I took my girls one warm day in late April during the 10-day period when Burnside Farms said the tulips would be at their peak and the sight of those tulips was something to behold. A whole field of tulips in the middle of Virginia farmland! Burnside Farms calls this part of the season Holland in Haymarket, and they even have a giant set of wooden clogs that kids can pose in for the full effect.

I spent a full $25 on tulips the day we went because I just couldn’t stop cutting them and adding them to my basket. If you went after April 28 it’s possible there were none left after I scavenged the fields. Sorry about that.

A wet winter decimated the Dutch iris harvest in May, but I made sure to keep an eye on Burnside Farms’ Facebook page all summer for updates on when their Summer of Sunflowers would begin. A rainy start to summer led to a later bloom date than usual, but the sunflowers were finally ready to be cut starting in early August and I immediately planned a trip out. “Didn’t you JUST go pick flowers like, last week?” you might be asking. Yes I did. But there’s a few things in life you can never have too much of:

Friends
Flowers
Mascara

And you can take that to the bank.

Admission to Summer of Sunflowers is $4/person for one day passes but after that, how much you spend is up to you. Flowers are priced on a per-stem basis so it’s your discretion how many flowers you pick and how much you’ll spend accordingly.

Along with the sunflowers, Burnside Farms has planted gladiolus because they are tall like sunflowers and the two flowers look particularly nice arranged in a vase together.

They’re great. But let’s be honest…

The sunflowers are the stars of the show. How can you even resist them!?

Though rain was promised by good old Capital Weather Gang, the day ended up being blisteringly hot, especially out there in the shade-less flower fields. I kept my flower cutting to a minimum to appease my hot children who were ready to get up under the shady trees and eat some lunch. Nonetheless, the six stems I did grab look mighty tall and beautiful on my dining room table:

In addition to the flowers, the kind folks at Burnside Farms set up a fun bubble stand for kids to play with, consisting of a bird bath filled with bubble solution and handmade bubble wands in different shapes:

My kids spent a good chunk of time swarming around this bird bath, blowing bubbles with the bubble wands and then chasing the bubbles into the flowers.

A cute chalkboard table was set up with a note to get creative and make a fun chalkboard sign for your pictures:

I stood here for quite awhile trying to come up with something good. I… completely failed myself. I couldn’t think of one good thing to write on these chalkboards. Well, I take that back; I did try to write NOVADVENTURING on one but I suffered from a lack of foresight when choosing my blog name and it turns out Novadventuring is a pretty long word to try to cram onto a tiny chalkboard. So it looked like this: NOVADVENTU. And then I was out of room. I eventually just gave up.

I again brought a vase along to stick my flowers into for the trip home, but if you forget a vase or just want to buy a new one for your pretty flowers (valid), Burnside Farms sells a variety of colored glass bud vases and glass and painted Mason jars:

Helpful tips:

-Burnside operates two different fields- their regular field where the spring flowers are planted is across the highway from the summer flower field. If you’ve been to Burnside Farms in the spring this might initially be confusing. The address at the top of this post is the address for the summer fields where the sunflower operation is.

-Burnside Farms does accept cash AND cards for all purchases and admission.

-Outside food is allowed and picnic tables are thoughtfully placed under a small copse of trees to provide shade while you sit and eat lunch.

Because this is the way I like to do things, after we were done at Burnside Farms we headed five miles down the highway into Haymarket to try the local ice cream shop, Pickle Bob’s.

Everyone, this is Pickle Bob. Can we all give a nice warm Novadventuring welcome to Pickle Bob?

Hi Pickle Bob.

Why is a pickle in a cup of ice cream? I have no answers. I’m asking in case you know.

Pickle Bob’s is a small ice cream stand located on a teeny side street in Haymarket. There’s no indoor seating but there are picnic tables set up outside for you to sit and enjoy your soft serve.

If you have a dog, bring the dog with you- Pickle Bob’s serves “pup cups” of ice cream for dogs!

Pickle Bob’s serves vanilla, chocolate, and swirled soft serve but they offer all manner of toppings as well as concoctions called “tornadoes” and “flavor bursts” and other vaguely meteorological sounding ice cream treats. There’s recently been chatter on their Facebook page about adding cereal as a menu topping but I didn’t see any evidence of that so … what do we need to do to get Fruity Pebbles on tap at Pickle Bob’s? I will also settle for Cocoa Pebbles.

If you can’t make it out to Haymarket for the Summer of Sunflowers, be sure to set aside a weekend in the fall to visit Burnside Farms’ fall market, which features barnyard animals, pumpkins and gourds, mums, and freshly picked apples. And definitely mark your calendars to attend Holland in Haymarket next spring- ideally before I am able to get there so there will still be tulips left standing in the fields.