Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in Washington, DC

If your kids are like mine, they likely came home this week telling you that in the days leading up to MLK Jr. Day on January 16 they’ll be learning about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As a parent, I’m thrilled that my first-grade daughter will be learning about Dr. King in school. As a teacher, I’m looking for more opportunities to help her make a connection with Dr. King and the historical events he was pivotal in achieving.

As an English teacher (one semester away from finishing my Masters in Education), I have this theory that all English teachers have one particular area of literature they love more than others. For me, that is African American literature. In honor of Black History Month coming up in February, I’m going to be posting an experiential learning guide I have created that honors the voices of some of my favorite African American writers and then offers suggestions of places to visit in the DC/Northern Virginia region that directly tie to those authors. This project was initially done for a course in my Masters program but the work was so interesting and fulfilling to me that I’m going to build upon it and publish it here to share it with as many people as possible.

That being said, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of my favorite writers featured in this publication, and as the only one who has his own national holiday, he earns a bump-out feature of his own. I’d like to share with you some ways to get your kids involved in actively learning about and celebrating the life of this great man on January 16. We are particularly lucky living in this area to have access to so many places that directly relate to Dr. King and can really bring his voice to life for ourselves and our kids. I plan to do this with my own kids as I attempt to introduce them to one of our greatest American figures.

Featured writings:

Everyone knows King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech- or, at least, they know of the snippet in which he declares he has a dream. Try reading the piece in full with your kids, out loud, and then watch a video of King himself delivering this speech at the March on Washington. When I teach my students rhetorical analysis, I love including audio/visual clips when at all possible. So much is conveyed in tone, facial expression, and mannerisms that doesn’t always carry through in writing (or gets distorted or lost during read-alouds because of the different mannerisms or speech patterns of whoever is reading). There is something very powerful about hearing a writer read their own writing as they intended it to be heard and received. King in particular is a gifted orator whose words on the page are powerful but become epic when heard in his own voice.

Although “I Have a Dream” is perhaps King’s best-known piece of writing, he is the author of others that (if I’m being honest) I actually prefer. One of my favorite pieces of writing of all time is King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” which was written when he was jailed in Birmingham following the 1963 Birmingham protests. In Bearing the Cross, a Pulitzer-Prize winning account of King’s Civil Rights career, it’s revealed how personally stressful King found his stints in jail. Being jailed was a not-uncommon occurrence for King in the mid-60s as protests cropped up across the South in which he would either lead or take part. As often as he was jailed, King found each instance emotionally fraught and mentally taxing. During his five-day stint in Birmingham, he released  nervous energy by penning “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” To read his moving words and measured and rational rhetoric, one would never know the great duress he was under at the time. It bears one of the most elegant and haunting closing paragraphs of all time:

If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.

I hope this letter finds you strong in the faith. I also hope that circumstances will soon make it possible for me to meet each of you, not as an integrationist or a civil-rights leader but as a fellow clergyman and a Christian brother. Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.

-Martin Luther King, Jr.; Letter from a Birmingham Jail, 1963

It is no secret that we are currently living in a world and society which is troubled and bears the silent rumblings of discord and misunderstanding across groups. I read King’s words from time to time to remind myself of his optimism and vision. I ask my students to consider our present day circumstances and to ruminate on whether we have yet reached the “not too distant tomorrow” in which King envisioned love and brotherhood. Their responses are often surprising in their depth and intellect and sensitivity. I love to hear what they think. Ask your kids the same question. (Ask yourself the same question.)

The final piece of King literature I’d like you to read is King’s haunting and eerily prescient “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered the night before he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. One again, King’s delivery of this speech is mandatory viewing, as his emotional state really comes through via spoken word. If you don’t have 43 minutes to spare, please do at least spend two minutes to watch the final words of his speech, when he really ramps up and appears to be on the verge of tears.

It really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop, and I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land.

I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

He would be shot dead the following day at his Memphis hotel. I promise you, it is impossible to watch him deliver these words and not feel the impact. What thoughts lie behind them? What fears were he nurturing?

Where to visit:

Once you’ve acquainted yourself with the man and his words, you have the option of visiting many places in this area to deepen the connection. Here are my suggestions:

Starting with the most obvious, a stop at the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Monument is a must. As it’s part of the National Park Service system, it’s free and open to the public 24 hours a day, year-round. Kids can get a Junior Ranger Booklet to complete for a badge (I’ve written here about the wonderful Junior Ranger program and highly recommend it for kids).

mlk-portraitimage via NPS

From there, visit the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech as part of the March on Washington, a coordinated protest aimed at pressuring government to pursue legislation that would ensure equality in the workforce for African Americans, creating more/better job opportunities for them and securing the right to equal pay.

be_march-on-washington-mlk

image via

Of note is exactly why the march culminated with King’s speech being delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The March on Washington took place in 1963- the centennial of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The location was a specific rebuke against the fact that much of what the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence promised had not been delivered to African Americans- or as King put it, “it is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.””

And just where did King write this era-defining speech? Right here in Washington, DC at The Willard Intercontinental, where he was staying as a guest. In the lobby of The Willard, King and his advisers made the final revisions and edits to this speech just before he delivered it at the March. Pop into the hotel and show your kids where history was made.

intercontinental-washington-2532396389-2x1image via

The Civil Rights display at Library of Congress

Before entering the room where Thomas Jefferson’s book collection is housed and displayed, the Library of Congress has erected a wonderfully informative walk-through presentation about the Civil Rights movement and its pinnacle in 1964 of achieving the passing of the Civil Rights Act, which guaranteed equal treatment of African Americans under the law and prohibited discrimination, voter suppression, and other forms of injustice faced by African Americans through the period following the Emancipation Proclamation and Jim Crow.

libcon3

The display shows the work of many of King’s contemporaries in the movement and the work that led to getting the legislation signed and passed by President Johnson. King’s speech is featured as well as a picture of he and other Civil Right leaders with President Kennedy at the White House following the March on Washington. For anyone who’d like a deeper look into the movement and the Civil Rights Act, this display is a must-see.

libcon

libcon2

note: the Library of Congress website says this exhibition was only on display until January 2, 2016- however, I was just there in mid December, when I took these pictures, and it was up.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Access to this new museum is still mostly limited to highly coveted timed passes (which will go up soon for April) but there are a limited number of same-day passes available each morning at the museum. If you’re able to grab those, do! If you can’t manage a visit in time for MLK, Jr. day, try your best to get in at a later date and make the visit nonetheless. I was lucky enough to get timed passes last September just weeks after the opening date and it was one of my favorite experiences of the year. I consider this museum to be a work of genius- never has the design of any building so informed the experience within.

Starting in the bottom floor of the museum, one begins in the dark days of slavery. Appropriately, this part of the museum is dark, light-less and feels stifling and hot. Moving up through the second and third floors you pass through the Civil War, Emancipation, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights era, and finally you burst into the light-filled center atrium feeling as though you’re gasping for air. The fourth, fifth and sixth floors (the above ground corona) are paeans to achievement in culture. Reaching the top, one feels the heights that have been reached, made all the more poignant when considering the depths in which progress began. The museum’s tagline is “A People’s Journey.” Never has a journey felt so personally rewarding.

nmaahc2

In this far back corner of the top-most floor of the NMAAHC I looked out through the bronze lattice-work that ensconces the building and stood face to face with the Capitol building. How I wished all those who had gone before could stand in that same spot to see the view. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared that he had been to the mountaintop. He undoubtedly had. But I wish he had been there for this mountaintop as well.

Other events and activities:

Washington, DC

Dr. King preschool storytime at the MLK branch of the DC Library.
King mural discussion at the MLK branch of the DC Library
Martin Luther King, Jr. parade, Anacostia (January 16, 2017, 11 am)

Northern Virginia

25th Annual Martin Luther King March and Celebration– beginning with prayer at 10:15 at the Leesburg Courthouse, the march honoring King will then proceed to the former Douglass School.
Loudoun Chorale presents “Lift Every Voice” a festival of choirs and inspirational speakers in honor of Dr. King. Leesburg Community Church (January 15, 2017, 4-6 pm)

Advertisements

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.

62e9a61e-94bf-4564-ba9d-16edcc8196ae_zpssbbidiuy

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).

a9e2d08f-06ad-426d-aab0-bb167e8bdf18_zpsft3lmg6a

85c49552-26f7-4a98-a4bf-05128ddd53c9_zpsxpcpgccx

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.

bd9b5246-ae54-4429-b357-dd81374e4afd_zpsfmknpcm8

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.

Virginia Bluebells at Bull Run Park

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

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

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

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

0f4addf9-a706-42e0-8ed3-41f4411e96b5_zpsftpio3qw

This means you are on the right track.

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

0b9b8e23-7bdb-4363-96f7-0d857e7b1a82_zpslz4zsqao

91bca6c0-9048-4cd0-b140-9b9f729b2ff0_zps9oj5cn5k

 

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

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

2fef24af-e2b0-44f2-917d-7864831ae60e_zpsbnmzuety

a3b5b95c-4202-439a-93a5-f6e05dcb1d46_zpsnklf5eql

7e09537b-3759-44c2-a1d4-652df8b769c7_zpsmq9kp8zy

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

SPRING!

Capital Weather Gang recently did us all a solid and declared winter OVER! Zero chance of snow on the horizon, a 10% chance of temperatures dipping back to freezing, and a very mild March signal the early arrival of spring this year. We had a stretch of glorious warmth this week, but the early spring does mean that National Park Service revised their Peak Bloom dates for the Cherry Blossoms to occur from March 18-23 instead of the original March 31-April 4. Unfortunately, that means they’ll likely be on their way out by the time the National Cherry Blossom Festival kicks off. It also means they’ll be blooming the week we are out of town for spring break, which means as we head down to Georgia next week, we’ll be making a pit stop at the Tidal Basin to take a peek.

The arrival of warm weather and an extra hour of daylight means more and more outdoor adventures are on the horizon. If you’re looking from some ideas to carry you into spring, here’s some of my favorites:

The Bunny Train at Walkersville Southern Railroad
When: March 19, 20, 26 at 11 am, 1 pm, and 3 pm
Where: 34 West Pennsylvania Ave., Walkersville, MD

Walkersville Southern Railroad provides visitors the chance to ride on a (beautifully) restored 1920s railroad coach car through Maryland countryside. The ride is about an hour long round trip, and in the spring, the Easter Bunny visits the kids during the train ride and passes out small surprises. If your kids are mildly terrified of mall Santas and Easter Bunnies like mine are, this is a great way to make that experience a bit more enjoyable- mine loved seeing the Easter Bunny enter the car and by the time s(he) made his way to our seat, they were well-acclimated and excited to see him. My oldest was in charge of our tickets and responsible for handing them to the conductor for validation and punching, a task she was very pleased to have.

Due to the popularity of the Bunny Train and the limited number of days the Bunny Train runs, reservations are required, so pick a weekend and purchase tickets in advance.

The Marshmallow Peep Harvest and Egg Hunt at Great Country Farms
When: April 2-3, egg hunt times vary based on age
Where: 18780 Foggy Bottom Rd., Bluemont, VA

I’ve waxed poetic about Great Country Farms in the past- it’s just one of my favorite places of all time. Though they officially open for the season on March 19th, if you’re planning a special trip, you may want to wait until April 2nd to catch their Easter egg hunt with nearly 20,000 eggs and trees “blooming” with Marshmallow Peeps. (They also have fire pits set up so you roast your Peeps, which is a very unique way to eat them that is also not at all terrible.) Stay for the day and play- there’s so much to do at Great Country Farms you could stay the whole day and still not see everything. This may be the year my family buys the season membership because we love it that much and go that often. We will be there for the Easter Egg hunt (to act as bodyguards for our children in the melee and Peep Roasters) and countless other festivals throughout the season, including my personal favorite, August’s Peach Fuzztival. The rest of Bluemont is a treat to visit while you’re out there as well, with Bluemont Vineyards and Dirt Farm Brewing being right across the street and the adorable Bluemont General store serving as a great place to pick up lunch.

National Cherry Blossom Festival
When:
March 20-April 17, 2016
Where:
Locations throughout DC

SO many events! Pick and choose which ones suit your whims or schedule and have at it- kite flying on the Mall is a mainstay of the festival (this is the 50th year!) as well as the Parade and fireworks on the waterfront. A celebration of Japanese culture (our Japanese friends gifted us with the cherry blossom trees in 1912) takes place this year on April 16

Holland in Haymarket, Burnside Farms
When: Dates announced soon- typically opens in mid-April but may be sooner this year thanks to early spring! Website says “Opening in 3-4 weeks” as of March 9th – check back often
Where: 2570 Logmill Rd., Haymarket, VA

This is the U-Pick Flower event to crush all other U-Pick flowers. In the summer, Burnside Farms runs their field of sunflowers and gladiola but the true star of their operation is the spring field which bursts forth with daffodils and then tulips in the spring. Coming down James Madison Highway you first see the field of tulips come into view- happy little heads bobbing in the breeze, an injection of color after a drab winter. The sheer expanse of them, covering an entire field, takes you by surprise. Walking among them is no less impressive. Burnside Farms provides baskets and scissors and you clip to heart’s content, paying $1 stem for tulips and .50 cents a stem for daffodils. This one is an absolute must. I’m actually going to be pretty mad at you guys if you don’t go. Decorate your whole house in fresh cut tulips! Give some to your teachers!

tulips

tulips2

Leesburg Flower and Garden Festival
When: April 16 and 17, 2016 10 am-6 pm
Where: Downtown Leesburg

Another floral feast for the eyes! The streets of downtown Leesburg are overrun with flowers, topiaries, heirloom vegetables and herbs, and craft and garden exhibits. Live music is playing on the steps of the Loudoun County courthouse and there’s kids activities spread throughout the festival boundaries. We had a great time last year, checking out the trophies these gardeners had brought to market, and relaxing in the sun listening to the band. Parking garages nearby make accessibility a breeze. If you’re interested in grabbing a meal nearby, local favorites Fireworks Pizza and MacDowell Brew Kitchen are right up the street. (MacDowell has a fenced in outdoor seating area covered in sand and stocked with sand toys and trucks, which means it is the most family-friendly restaurant I’ve ever been to that is not Chuck E. Cheese. In fact, it’s even more family friendly than The Chuck because it isn’t hell for parents. There’s even an outdoor bar!)

leesburgflower

leesburgflower2

 

Frying Pan Farm Park
When: Open daily, dawn to dusk
Where: 2739 West Ox Rd., Herndon, VA

Spring means BABY ANIMALS. On a nice warm day, my kids love to walk around the farm, check in at Kidwell Farm and see if any piglets or baby goats are running around, and play on the nearby playground. There’s also an antique carousel you can hitch a ride on if you’re there between 10 am and 4 pm. Pack a picnic lunch and spend a day on the farm.

fryngpan

Little Lucketts

On a recent warm weekend we met up with friends at Tarara Winery, a few miles down the road from the (one) stoplight in Lucketts (just outside of Leesburg). Tarara has a huge deck to sit on and enjoy wine and snacks (their warm-baked ciabatta was delicious, as was the bottle of 2013 Charval my husband and I split). Local products made in Virginia are sold in the tasting room, including these craft sodas made by Mad Hollow (which recently rebranded from Gray Ghost Beverage, so it looks like I got one of the last craft sodas under the old label, one which I admit to preferring given its nod to John Mosby).

tarara

tarara2

On your way home from Tarara, stop in at the Lucketts Community Center playground and The Old Lucketts store, right across the street. One of my favorite IG accounts, @smalltownstripes, works at the store and is constantly posting treasures that pop up there -including many she takes and puts in her own home, a house which used to be the town Millinery- it’s all very aspirational and perfect. Actually, don’t even go look unless you want to feel pretty grim about your own house.

lucketts

If you go a bit deeper into spring, Brossman’s Farm Stand will be open, and you must stop in. There’s usually a BBQ truck smoking in the parking lot, and Farmer Rick very often takes kids out into the field with him to let them pick some produce and to show them the lay of the land. He once let my toddler unload a pallet of tomatoes onto the shelf; she was very slow and he was very patent and kind. We often stop in on a summer weekend to grab fresh fruits and veggies for the week.


 

We’ll be heading down to Georgia for Spring Break soon and I can’t wait to show you Savannah and the Lowcountry. Follow along on Instagram if you like! I’m excited to head into full-blown spring once we get home – nothing like spring in Virginia!

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).

24d88d34-56c2-495a-a20b-4a6950a6d68e_zpsgbzknq1u

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.

acd66787-186d-4c07-99fa-c285052df95c_zpscxuon234

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

79feeac1-dcc6-48e4-991b-7069452f6bc7_zpsr7fwfx9z

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.

 

81fa78f8-01b0-41b6-af7c-6fe0a78475db_zps5dfsvdca

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.

5ffdc67b-34f3-4803-9f95-c2af0c93d932_zpstkz8om3a

95da5cb9-fd1c-4b8f-a78f-ec23a49ee2d4_zps8smzgpgz

63cf5104-65ca-4bf9-8ac5-7fd28da08964_zpsqghi9pu3

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.

9e9649b0-d365-4cbd-8f52-9c15c636de23_zpsyztwcfu1

(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.

a3f19ccb-1daf-4ed1-8a63-21daa3888bde_zpsere2espw

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!

Manassas National Battlefield

Where: 6511 Sudley Rd., Manassas, VA
When: Open daily from dawn to dusk- admission is free

Imagine this. You are 85 years old, and very ill, confined to your bed. You’ve heard talk of some big to-do going on in the area but otherwise, you are largely oblivious to the general climate of the country and the inferno steadily building in the now-early days of the Civil War. One morning, there is quite the ruckus going on out in the yard and you are told there will be a battle and you must be moved. But no. You are old. You want to stay in your own bed. So there you stay, even as Confederate sharpshooters enter your home and tuck themselves into niches and nooks and crannies to use as vantage points for shooting at Federal troops out in the field.

b9a2c081-b964-4436-967c-698e31e25ad7_zpsxy8djjxm

 

As you are lying helpless in bed, there is suddenly a monstrous noise and a piece of hot, burning metal rips its way through the wall and tears off one of your feet. Yes, one of your feet. Your home has just been shelled in an attempt to rout out the Confederate sharpshooters within. They’re okay. But you have lost a foot. A few hours later, you die from your injuries.

4460ddf7-0231-41ee-b331-ef58585e63d8_zpsbgasqffj

Such was the plight of Judith Henry, civilian casualty of the first Battle at Manassas during the Civil War. Foot blown off, and death. War is hell, man.

fa24c38c-9e43-4c0f-a5ad-9eb764a3ebb8_zpsxy143fg6

RIP Judith. And Judith’s foot.

The Civil War is chock-full of stories like that. For the United States, the Civil War is kind of like that one great-great-uncle who is somewhat embarrassing because he’s full of outdated and offensive beliefs, but has some interesting tall tales that are cool to hear when he’s lucid enough to tell them. It’s one of our nation’s strangest episodes, as fascinating as it is ugly. And we are lucky enough here in Virginia to be close to many integral sites featured in some of the most famous stories from the Civil War- including Manassas National Battlefield, home to not one but two battles during the Civil War.

Probably the most important thing you should know about Manassas Battlefield is that it is here where General Thomas Jonathan Jackson earned his legendary and enduring nickname, “Stonewall.” Most likely, this is the only way you know him- Stonewall Jackson, as if it were his given name. It’s not- he was bestowed this nickname by fellow Confederate Army General Barnard E. Bee, who yelled to his troops, “There is Jackson standing like a stone wall! Rally behind the Virginians!”

Unfortunately, Bee died at Manassas as well, shortly after coining one of the most famous nicknames in history. RIP Bee.

db039ddc-9b4e-47bb-a51d-55f8c1b73619_zpsrbercxdb

Interestingly enough, there’s a decent amount of controversy surrounding Bee’s nickname for Jackson. Some say it was a compliment to Jackson’s bravery and discipline and command- that he was figuratively a sturdy, unshakable “stone wall.” Others who were on the field that day claimed that Bee actually meant it as an insult. There’s Jackson, just standing there doing nothing, like a stone wall. It’s possible to see it both ways I suppose, if you subtly adjust your inflection when saying it to yourself:

“There stands Jackson… like a stone wall!!”

“There stands Jackson. Like a stone wall.”

However, because Bee shortly after perished of injuries sustained in this battle, no one knows for sure what his true intent was in calling Jackson “Stonewall” and the nickname became one representing admiration, loyalty, and deep respect. You can be anyone you want to be if people who say bad things about you die before you do.

Here’s another interesting thing about Manassas Battlefield- the two battles fought there are referred to by different names. Depending on where you grew up, you may know these battles to be called the Battle(s) of Bull Run. Or you may know them to be called the Battle(s) of Manassas. The Confederate forces referred to the Battles as occurring at Manassas, whereas the Union forces used Bull Run. Technically either name is correct but the Confederate Army won that bout and we are in Virginia after all, so it is most often referred to around here as Battle of Manassas.

02fb5e4c-9607-459a-86fd-dee1b34257db_zpse2lbnazx

There are walking trails of varying lengths around Manassas Battlefield- the 1 mile Henry Hill loop which is accessible from the Henry Hill Vistor’s Center, and the longer First and Second Battle Loop Trails. Guided tours are available beginning at the Visitor’s Center, as well as a 45-minute movie detailing the battles and various interactive displays that detail the battles. Although now closed for the season, on weekends beginning in April 2016, you can stop by the Stone House, which was used as a field hospital for the two battles, and the Brawner Farm Interpretive Center, which sits at Brawner Farm, site of the Second Battle at Manassas.

Because we went on a winter day when these auxiliary sites were closed, we settled with a tour around Henry Hill and the site of First Battle at Manassas, and a visit to the GIFT SHOP. I’m a sucker for a gift shop. My kids always say, “Can we go in the gift shop?” and I usually say, “Yes, but we aren’t buying anything,” and then at least 50% of the time I end up buying something. Because I’m a sucker.

I did buy something at the Henry Hill Vistor’s Center gift shop, but hear me out. I decided it was high time my family had their own National Park Passport. Have you heard of these? A company called Eastern National makes them and there’s a space to stick a collector’s stamp (also made by Eastern National each year) and a hand-cancellation from every national park in the U.S. Many parks sell them in their gift shops (including Henry Hill) and they’re just $8.95. We purchased ours and plan to take it along on every national park trip we make in the future. This now gives me even more reason to visit Gift Shops (score).

7a4b691b-7b45-47e6-8a5a-79a6bd88189d_zpsn0ck2slq

At Manassas Battlefield, you get FOUR stamps in your passport: one for the main battlefield at Henry Hill, one for the Stone House, one for Brawner Farm, and one for a somewhat new thing called the Journey Through Hallowed Ground, which is a 180-mile loop through four states (Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia) that includes presidential homes, battle sites, and other sites of historical importance. The sites along the Journey Through Hallowed Ground loop get their own JTHG stamp and I gather this is a very big deal because the JTHG site uses language such as “thrilled” and “most exciting” to reveal their inclusion in the Passport program. It just seems like this might be a deeply felt honor. Actually, the Journey Through Hallowed Ground thing looks pretty neat and I requested a map and will likely plan some trips to follow a couple of their suggested itineraries. 

Make a day of it:

Nearby is The Winery at Bull Run (or, I guess you could call it The Winery at Manassas if you want), open at 11 am-7pm Saturday-Wednesday, and until 8 pm on Thursdays and 9 pm on Fridays.

While we were out in this direction we decided to visit the tiny town of Clifton for lunch. Clifton is a one-street, no-stoplight throwback of a town with an adorable Main Street dotted with wine shops, cupcake bakeries, and several restaurants. We ate at Main Street Pub and then took a stroll up and down Main Street, stopping in to let the kids climb on the red caboose before heading out.

85c9951f-1c6a-43b4-bf61-20daadb3a75f_zps9rwrmfwb

9d9918f5-6e83-4753-ba1b-afe5edd530ab_zps9bndcggq

Clifton was so charming that I came home, got a babysitter, and made reservations for my husband and me to return Friday evening for dinner at Trummer’s on Main. I’ll be celebrating January 1st with one of their signature cocktails, The Titanic. Cheers!

Great Falls Park

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

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

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

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

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

9944f60b-acea-4b9d-ac17-f130317e98ad

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

623da6c0-9982-4cfc-8c07-0690c6515b80_zps8g51r6ax

Still lovely! All good things!

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

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

ea241e27-74aa-4b4f-967e-8e8ad9963f16_zpsmb7gdacv

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

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

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

27f10ca2-a4d7-42e9-97f8-78ba4642f80d_zps0bcglpuk

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

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

8caba745-dae7-4521-b6f2-a1bb0780095c_zpsgaiwx3qk

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

cf6ead66-2efb-4a16-9ce5-4eb55a5b78e3_zpsytqgq2ir

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

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

Make a day of it:

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