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).

 

Virginia Bluebells at Bull Run Park

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

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

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

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

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This means you are on the right track.

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

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

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

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

Great Falls Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Still lovely! All good things!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make a day of it:

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

Bears Den Overlook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This magnificent creation was also located in the parking lot:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I HIKED THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL.”

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

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

Handy tips:

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

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

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

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

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

Because this is the view that awaits: