America the Beautiful Pass Value

Approximately one year ago, I invested $80 in the America the Beautiful Pass for a year-long membership to the National Parks from May of 2017 to May of 2018.  I was concerned at the time that I would not get the full value of my pass.  Let’s see how I did!

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May 2017 with my brand new pass at Assateague Island

Assateague Island $20

Shenandoah Trip #1 $25

Everglades $25

Great Falls Maryland $0 (If we had found the Ranger Station $10)

Great Falls Virginia $10

Harper’s Ferry Trip #1 $10

Harper’s Ferry Trip #2 $10

Zion Trip #1 $30

Cedar Breaks $12 ($6/person)

Bryce Canyon $30

Zion Trip #2 $30

Antietam $10

Steamtown $0 (Fee Free day; Otherwise $14)

Fort Washington $10

Fort McHenry $20 ($10/person)

Shenandoah Trip #2 $25

Total: $267; Parks Pass: -$80; Savings: $187

As you can see, I used my America the Beautiful Pass for over three times its original value!  It would have been even more had I bought the pass at the beginning of May when we visited Colonial Park ($28 in Jamestown and $10 at Yorktown)!

I have loved getting to know the National Parks service better over the last year, and I am looking forward to expanding my journey this year.  Thanks for following along with my blog over the last year, and I hope you enjoy the upcoming year!

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Shenandoah (Part 2)

After an amazing trip last year to Shenandoah National Park, my dad quickly jumped at the opportunity to take a trip to the park again this May.  We met up in the same way that we did last year.  I took Amtrak from Union Station to Culpeper, VA, which is about an hour away from Shenandoah, where my parents met me.  We stopped for lunch at the cafe we found last year, Before & After, before heading into the park for the weekend.  There is nothing like a Peach Cream Soda and the mountains to make it feel like summer is just around the corner!

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Hudson taking in the views from the living room area in our room

Last year, we stayed in a pet-friendly room at Skyland, but this year we decided to try a pet-friendly room at Big Meadows.  Big Meadows is ten miles further south from Skyland, and we went the first weekend Big Meadows opened for the season.  Unlike Skyland, Big Meadows does not have a view to the mountains, but we had an upgraded room for a lower price at Big Meadows.  We had a small living room with a fireplace adjoining the bedroom with two double beds.  The living room had windows all around, and there was a screen door to allow you to keep the door open at all times.  There was also a small porch.  Big Meadows included a refrigerator with our room, but you are limited to the Big Meadows Lodge Dining Room or the Big Meadows Wayside takeout/dining room if you do not plan to picnic for the weekend.  We liked both Skyland and Big Meadows for different reasons, but I would be happy to stay in either lodge again.

I started my hiking adventures at 8:00 AM on Saturday morning with the White Oak Canyon Trail.  This hike is 7.3 miles round trip with around 2,000 feet in elevation gain, and it features six waterfalls.  I wanted to complete this hike in May to see the waterfalls at their best, and I was not disappointed!  The tallest waterfalls range in height from 35 to 68 feet high, and each one is a little different!  My favorite waterfall was the first upper fall.

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The is the first waterfall in the set of upper waterfalls on the White Oak Canyon trail

This is one of the more difficult hikes in Shenandoah, and I really enjoyed it.  Starting at 8:00 AM from the upper lot, I did not see anyone on the trail until 9:30 AM, and I was the first car in the parking lot.  I completed this hike alone with no problems, but if you are hiking alone, you may want to start a bit later in the day to see more people.  The trail has two parking lots, and I chose to start at the White Oak Canyon Parking lot on Skyline Drive and to hike down to the lower falls.  It took me 3.5 hours round trip to complete this hike, and that included stopping at each set of waterfalls for photographs, enjoying lunch at the lower falls, and waiting for a large group of horses to pass by on one of the horse trails that crosses the trail.  While this trail is dog-friendly, at only 10 pounds, Hudson would have had a little trouble on the more difficult parts of this hike.

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The is the last waterfall in the set of lower waterfalls

After enjoying this hike, I headed back to Big Meadows to enjoy lunch with my parents, who had just finished enjoying the Lewis Falls trail with Hudson.  We stopped at the Big Meadows Wayside for a lunch of fried chicken, which was the main thing my dad wanted to try on this trip to Shenandoah.  He and Hudson both approved of this lunch.  After a short nap, we continued on our hiking journey for Saturday.

Last year, we visited both the Hawksbill Summit and Dark Hollow Falls, and we decided to make return visits to both of these locations.  Instead of hiking the Hawksbill Gap Loop Trail, this year we went with the slightly shorter Upper Hawksbill trail.  This trail is 2.2 miles with an elevation gain of 488 feet, but the journey is far less sceneic than the Loop trail.  Hudson hiked 3/4 of this trail by himself, but I carried him up the final ascent because it had a lot of gravel.  He arrived at the top to take in the views and watch the hawks.

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The view from Hawksbill Summit.  Many large birds fly around at the top!  This is one of my favorite views in the park.

Pro-Tip:  We had this mountain top to ourselves last year when we started the loop hike around 6:00 PM.  We loved having it to ourselves, and I would recommend this hike later in the day for that reason.

After our trip to Hawksbill Summit, we decided to visit Dark Hollow Falls via the Rose River Falls fire road.  This path is fairly flat and easy to walk along, and it is an enjoyable walk to see the falls.  This year, with it being earlier in the season, Dark Hollow Falls has significantly more power than last year.

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The view of Dark Hollow Falls from the Rose River Fire Road

After our day of hiking, I had clocked in over 30,000 steps on Saturday!  But what does one do after a day of hiking in the mountains?

During the evenings on vacations, we have discovered that we really enjoy completing puzzles!  We started on this activity while visiting Dewey Beach, DE last year, and we completed an awesome train puzzle that was 1,000 pieces of fun.  For our trip to Shenandoah, we did a 500 piece Harper’s Ferry puzzle!  As we left Shenandoah, we picked up a National Parks 1,000 piece puzzle that we can work on at the beach this year!  The National Parks store had some very cool puzzles if you enjoy puzzles.

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Our completed puzzle of Harper’s Ferry!  This puzzle was much harder than it looks with so many similiarly colored pieces.

As we sadly packed up to leave the next morning, we made the short .4 mile round-trip walk with 60 feet in elevation gain to Blackrock Viewpoint from the Big Meadows lodge, and the final views were a great way to wrap up a weekend in Shenandoah.

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The view from Blackrock Viewpoint.  It was very foggy down at the bottom of the mountain this day, but it was sunny and beautiful from our view.

With a $25 admission fee to Shenandoah, this brought my total pass value up to $267/$80.  As we headed down the mountain on this trip, we already were talking about returning to Shenandoah next year.  Thanks for reading!

Catoctin Mountain

After a cold March and a cold beginning to April, I was so thrilled by the two days of 80 degree weather that we had a few weeks ago!  Desperate to continue on my National Parks journey, I convinced a friend that we should take a day to go hiking in Maryland, and we ended up at Catoctin Mountain Park.

After stopping quickly in the Visitor’s Center to grab a map, fill our water bottles, and go to the bathroom, we started along the Wolf Rock & Chimney Rock Trail.  This trail is 3.2 miles with a little elevation gain and a fairly rocky path.  We chose to follow the loop to see Chimney Rock first, and the first part of the trail was much more rocky than the second part.  While this hike is rated as strenuous, I would place it more on the easier side of moderate.

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The view from the Chimney Rock outlook

The path to Chimney Rock follows along a road for the first part of the trail, but it eventually turns up the hill.  This trail definitely has many hikers on a nice day, but we still were fortunate enough to enjoy a peaceful hike.  We stopped at the Weis Market near the highway exit for the park to purchase a lunch of sandwiches, chips, and blueberries, and we enjoyed them from the Chimney Rock outlook.  I would highly recommend packing a picnic, but make sure to take all of your trash with you.

After stopping at Chimney Rock, we continued on to Wolf Rock.  Wolf Rock, unlike Chimney Rock, is not an outlook.  It’s a unique rock formation that you can climb along.  It’s not quite scrambling, but the formation is about 80 yards long if you enjoy climbing along rocks.

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The taxidermy exhibit at the Visitor’s Center featuring different wildlife you could see in this park

Once we completed the hike, we stopped back in the Visitor’s Center to refill our water bottles and check out the exhibit room.  The room was fairly small and mostly displayed furs for you to touch and a taxidermy exhibit.  Outside of the exhibit room is also a small gift stop area where you can stamp your passport and stock up on souvenirs.

Before stopping at Catoctin Mountain Park, we did a small hike in Cunningham Falls State Park, combining the Cunningham Falls Upper Trail and Lower Trail to make a trip to a small waterfall.  There is also a small man-made pond to enjoy by the parking lot.  This state park is $3 to visit and is next to Catoctin Mountain Park, which is free to visit.  If you make the trip to one, you should make the trip to both!

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Next weekend, my blog will feature a post for Manassas National Battlefield, and I will be enjoying Shenandoah National Park with Hudson the Poma-Poo and his parents.

May 31 will mark the end of my year with the America the Beautiful National Parks pass.  I’m looking forward to sharing the value of my pass with you in a few weeks!  Thank you for continuing to read my blog!

Independence

After spending weeks away from the National Parks Service, Cacia and I decided to make a day trip to Philadelphia to visit Independence National Historic Park.  Both Cacia and I visited this park as children, and I would highly recommend a February visit over coming in the summer.  While it was very rainy, the crowds were much lower than when I visited with my parents in July as a child.

When I was a child, I remember being very underwhelmed by the Liberty Bell because it was so much smaller than I imagined it.  It also was difficult to see since there were so many people.  In the winter, there are still people trying to visit, but we really were able to see it quite well.  We waited in a security line for about 20-30 minutes, but it was very easy to walk straight up to the bell after that.  Prior to getting to the Liberty Bell, there is a small exhibit detailing the history of the bell.

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Both Cacia and I visited Independence Hall as children so neither of us wanted to do a tour of the building again.  In February, since there are fewer visitors, you do not need a ticket to take the tour.  While we did not enter the building, we did marvel at the building from the outside, and it is really worth stopping to see.

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Cacia and I continued to wander around the park, and we also walked over to the Declaration House.  The Declaration House is actually a reconstruction of the house where Thomas Jefferson rented two rooms on the second floor.  In this house, he drafted the Declaration of Independence.  We were disappointed to learn that the Declaration House, Thaddeus Kosciuszko House, and other sights only are opened in the summer.  We stopped by anyway to take a look at the houses from the outside, but there is no good way to avoid the crowds and visit these places.  While finishing up your visit to this park, you should also take a drive past the Old Swedes’ Church.

If you are dependent on public transportation, Amtrak and Megabus both stop very close to Independence park, and there is plenty of public transportation in this area.  It was about $20 in gas for us to drive here from DC, and we spent $20 to park on a Saturday at the Independence Visitor’s Center.  It was only $7 on Sundays or if you arrived prior to 9 am on Saturday.  All of the sites we visited were free so it was an inexpensive trip.

While our trip to Independence National Historic Park was less structured than usual since we mostly wandered the park freely, we had a fun time on this rainy trip.  If you are coming to Philadelphia for the day, we highly recommend stopping by Sonny’s for a cheesesteak.  It is very close to the Liberty Bell, and the prices were great.  If the weather is nice, you could stop by for takeout and have a fun picnic!

That is all for this week.  I hope you enjoyed this blog!  While in Philadelphia, we also stopped by the Edgar Allan Poe house, which I will post about next week.

Our Family Goal

Hello, Readers!  Thanks for checking out my first blog of 2018.  I am completely stir-crazy from spending too many hours in my office and not visiting the National Parks.

When Cacia and I visited Fort McHenry a few months ago, a family from California asked us what our “family goal” was for visiting National Parks.  This lead to a few questions for us:

1.  What was their family goal?
2.  Should we have a family goal?
3.  What is the definition of “family?”

While the third was more philosophical than anything, we were very intrigued by this idea!  The California family’s goal was to visit the 59 parks of the National Parks Service before their two children turned 18, and they were well on their way to that goal.

Cacia and I took a few months to come up with our family goal once we decided that we should have one too.  We are well on our way to visiting all of the sites in the National Capital region so finishing those off has been an ongoing goal.  As I was researching an upstate New York road trip for our summer, I had the brilliant idea that we should try to get complete passport stamps for the National Capital region AND the Mid-Atlantic region, which includes Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia.  We are also hoping to visit all of the New York City parks over the summer.

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Cacia and I hiking the Billy Goat Trail on the C&O Canal in Maryland last August

The biggest trip we are planning to take this summer is to upstate New York, which will cover Morristown National Historic Park, Thomas Edison House, Patterson Great Falls, Vanderbilt Mansion, Franklin Roosevelt House, Eleanor Roosevelt House, Thomas Cole National Historic Site, Martin van Buren National Historic Site, Saratoga National Historic Park, Upper Delaware River, Middle Delaware River, Schuykill River, Hopewell Furnace, and Valley Forge.  We will be taking on this ambitious undertaking for six days in August!

Cacia is part of the National Parks Travelers Club (My pre-trip research abilities serve both of us very well.), and they post a list of unlisted and specialty stamps you can get in every region.  Part of our goal is not only to visit the places listed in the Collector’s edition of the passport but to get all of the specialty stamps as well.

This might be a lofty goal, but we have had so much fun on our National Parks journey that I am looking forward to renewing my annual pass in May to meet our new goals!

Thanks for reading this week’s blog!  Do you have a National Parks family goal?

Delaware Water Gap

After a great visit to Steamtown, Cacia and I decided to head over to the Delaware Water Gap.  On a day with some rain and temperatures in the low 50s, we enjoyed an in-the-car picnic and hiking through the woods.  In the final days of September, leaves were starting to change colors, and the park was very quiet.

After a little research, I chose the Tumbling Waters hike for us to complete.  If you park at the Education Center, there is a small parking lot with 20-25 spots, and the trail head is just across the street (Emery Street).  The path is a loop.  This 3.3 mile trail had 593 feet of elevation gain, and with the rolling hills, there were some nice ups and downs to keep the path interesting.

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This path is partially shared with the Two Ponds trail, which is an education trail, so we opened our trip with a walk past the trash graveyard, showing how long it takes for various things to compost.  The trail splits off from this path fairly early, and it becomes very pretty and serene quickly.

This hike was rated as moderate on AllTrails (my hiking app of choice), but there were also many easy sections like the one pictured above that we enjoyed as well.  My main interest in this hike was that it makes a trip down to a waterfall, which is where the more moderate aspects came into play.  Stairs have been built into the side of the hill to reach the waterfall, but the trip back up was fairly steep and a nice workout.  However, the sight was totally worth it!

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In addition to this waterfall, there is another one a few hundred feet away, but you stand at the top of those falls and cannot really see down them.  These double falls were really gorgeous in person and looked especially pretty with the changing season.

Cacia and I both felt that this hike was really interesting because the views kept changing.  Every 1/2 mile or so it seemed like there was a slight change in the trees, or the type of path, or the wildlife we saw.  This kept the whole trip very interesting, and it would be a great hike on a sunny day too because of the solid tree coverage for most of the hike.  At one point, you even reach a clearing from the trees and can look out over the hills.

It took us 2 hours and 15 minutes to walk the trail, and this included a nice stop at the waterfalls.

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We had one traumatic part of this trip, and it was because Cacia almost did not get her passport stamp.  Many of the ranger stations are closed on the weekends in the Water Gap, and we were concerned about finding her stamp.  If you are looking to collect a cancellation stamp, the education center by the Tumbling Waters trail head carries the cancellation stamp.

We drove through quite a bit of the Delaware Water Gap, and you really need to get out of the car and take a trip down a trail to get the whole experience.  It’s a really beautiful place that seems to not see too much traffic.

After a great day, Cacia and I drove into Strasburg to spend a night at a hotel closer to Gettysburg (And so I could get a chocolate milkshake from Hershey’s Chocolate World).  Next week’s blog will talk about our time at Gettysburg.

Steamtown

After a childhood of going to visit steam trains for vacation trips, it should not be a surprise that I wanted to visit Steamtown in Scranton, PA.  Steamtown is a historic rail yard with a large museum and many engines to check out.  It’s approximately a four hour drive from Washington, D.C. (Add an hour if you leave on Friday at rush hour), and it is well worth a visit.  I did this trip with my D.C. Partner in Crime, Cacia.

Scranton, PA is a small sleepy town in northeast Pennsylvania.  While the beautiful historic buildings still stand from its glory days, the town is pretty much a ghost town.  Steamtown is one of the remaining reminders that this was once an industrial and coal-driven city.  Pulling into the parking lot of Steamtown is an exciting experience, as you are surrounded by steam trains from the past.

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The Reading Railroad (Pronounced “Redding”), possibly best known for being a Monopoly Square

As you walk towards the museum, a ranger station allows you to pay the fee and buy train tickets.  We visited on a fee free day, but normally it is $7/person to visit Steamtown, which would have been covered with my National Parks pass.  Train rides are $5/person.

The site is mainly broken into the museum, roundhouse, and train rides.  The museum had exhibits featuring the history of the railroads, and the space is industrial and cool.  The exhibits had some interactive features, including an area to test your knowledge of train whistles.  My favorite part, though, was the roundhouse.  It featured many restored steam engines and cars to look at up close and walk through.  We especially enjoyed walking through the different kinds of cars and standing on platforms right in front of the biggest steam engines.  Outside of the roundhouse, there is one steam train that you can enter and pull the bell.  That was very fun too!

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After getting our fill of these attractions, we took a $5 ride on the “Scranton Limited,” which was a very limited 3 mile train trip through the historic rail yards.  The 30 minute ride mostly consists of signals being thrown as you slowly ride through the yard.  If you are looking for a great train ride, I would make the trip to Strasburg Railroad instead.  It’s two hours away from Scranton and three times the price, but the train experience is much more exciting there.  Everything else at Steamtown was exceptional and cool, though!

We spent around three hours in Steamtown on a Saturday morning at the end of September, and it was in the low 50s (Much cooler than D.C.!).  Both Cacia and I had a lot of fun visiting this unique National Park stop.  We decided to pair this visit with a trip to the Delaware Water Gap in the afternoon, and it was a great way to spend the day.  You can check out next week’s blog to learn about our hike there.

See you next week!