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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
Bryce Canyon is one of the most remarkable and memorable sights I have ever seen in my life, and I feel so lucky to have visited. Bryce Canyon has the largest collection of hoodoos IN THE WORLD. That’s right- you can see this crazy wonder of nature hiding away in Utah. What are hoodoos, you ask? Hoodoos are non-uniformly shaped pillars of rock that are created through erosion. While I do have a variety of pictures in this post, the only way to truly experience this park is to visit.
When you drive into this park, you really have no idea what you are about to see. The Aspen trees and open fields keep the major sight a mystery. If this is your first visit to the park, I recommend taking a stop in the gift shop to take a bathroom break, stamp your passport, and buy your souvenirs.
To see the hoodoos, one should start heading towards the lodge, either via the park shuttle or by parking in the parking lot. If you are not interested in hiking, the views from the overlooks alone are spectacular.
In my advanced research, I knew exactly which hike I wanted to do in Bryce Canyon. The Navajo Loop and Queen’s Garden Trail comes in at 2.7 miles with a change in elevation of 679 feet. This hike is considered a moderate hike, however, I think this is only because the end of your hike is the upwards part to come out of the canyon. Throughout this hike, one hikes down into the hoodoos, and you get to see everything up close and personal.
After walking between the rocks in the photo above, I barely could believe I was not in a dream! Bryce Canyon just feels like a magical land, and the Navajo and Queens loop let you fully enjoy the magic. You can see the changes in foliage as you get further and further into the canyon, and there are a few picnic tables at the bottom if you want to pack a picnic.
Usually, switchbacks are a little intimidating, but as I looked up and down along the switchbacks in Bryce, I was still blown away by the beauty of this park. If a park is so beautiful that you enjoy the switchbacks, you know you have found somewhere special.
Overall, this hike is really fun and probably one of the most interesting hikes I have ever been on. While Bryce Canyon is a larger park than just this area, this is definitely the main area of the park to visit.
After the hike, Dallin, Henry, and I did a little driving to look out from other overlook areas. We saw some active wildlife on our hike, aside from just chipmunks looking for leftover sandwiches. While driving along, we saw an elk running across a field, and this was in the middle of the day. In non-peak seasons, there are probably many interesting animals to see.
Bryce Canyon normally is $30/vehicle to visit. Thanks to my National Parks pass, this was another free visit, and this brings my pass value to $202/$80. The value of this pass really shows itself in the western part of the United States since there are so many larger parks to visit.
This post is my final post from my Utah trip. After a week visiting Zion National Park, Cedar Breaks, and Bryce Canyon, I definitely am feeling a bit of a travel bug! The parks in Utah were so amazing, and I would highly recommend visiting these parks when you get a chance!
Thank you so much for following along on my National Parks journey. The day I got back from Utah marked the 150th anniversary of the Antietam National Cemetery and 155th anniversary of the battle of Antietam in the United States Civil War. Despite being exhausted, Cacia and I made the journey to Antietam and Monocacy battlefields. To catch back up a little bit, this will be a two blog week, with my next blog discussing this visit.
In honor of the upcoming Fall 2017 White House Garden Tour (October 21 and 22, 2017), this seemed like the perfect time to post a bonus blog this week about visiting the President’s Park, also known as the White House. The President’s Park requires some significant planning to see, but some ways to visit are easier than others. All of these ways to visit are free. Here are the ways we have found to see and visit the White House.
1. The Visitors Center
The easiest way to learn about the White House is to visit the Visitors Center. Essentially, it is a museum of past presidents’ artifacts, although most of the really interesting ones are in the American History Museum. This is where you obtain your cancellation stamp for the NPS Passport. It is across the street but adjacent to the White House.
2. Spring or Fall Garden Tour
The Garden tours are the easiest way to get up close and personal with the White House. The Garden tours are offered two weekends a year, one in the end of April and one in mid-October. We attended the spring tour on Saturday April 22, 2017, which was a 50-60 degree all-day rain day. Cacia and I got to the pavilion to get tickets between 8:30 and 8:45 AM, and there was no line. We got tickets for 10:30 AM, and we went for coffee and breakfast to pass the time. We got in line around 10:10 AM and were on the White House grounds around 10:35 AM.
Essentially, being up close and personal with the White House is the highlight of this tour, not really the gardens. If you want to get an exterior picture of the full White House, this is the tour that will allow you to do so. The lawn is in perfect condition, and we saw the biggest tulips ever. But it’s mostly lawn and not gardens. The most popular site to see within the gardens is the Michelle Obama vegetable garden.
The President’s Own Band performs, and they are absolutely excellent. Once you are on the grounds, it takes about 30 minutes to see the gardens.
3. Scheduling a visit through your representative
Residing in the District of Columbia, you would think that we could somehow get priority access to seeing the White House since we suffer through constant motorcades. We do not. Cacia and I requested a tour on April 16, 2017, and we did get a tour successfully on October 7, 2017. We were told to request at least 6 months in advance, although I have heard of people getting in on less notice. You do have to give quite a bit of information to security before you arrive so be sure to talk to your party in advance about how best to handle this. We saw many people get pulled out of the line because they spelled their names wrong or used nicknames.
Unlike the garden tour, the White House tour is actually more chaotic. You are supposed to enter the line 15 minutes before your tour, but the tourists do not understand rules so they all line up early. Since people are in line 2 hours before they should be, the line drags on. If you plan to be rude and do this, you should know that you will be pulled out of the line and lose your place. (Don’t suck! Follow the rules!) We got in line at 10:50 AM, and we got past security around 11:50 AM.
My favorite views of the White House were the ones that you do not usually see in pictures, the views from the inside to the outside.
Once inside the White House, the Secret Service and Park Rangers can answer all of your various questions about the White House, and they are more than happy to do so. It seems like the Secret Service should be scary, but my interactions with them at work and here are that they are a really nice group of people. Have a question about the picture on the wall or the china you are looking at? Ask them, and they know!
The east room was probably my favorite room we visited, as it is grand and beautiful, and it is one of the rooms you often see featured in pictures. This room also has the famous full-length portrait of George Washington, and it has been here since 1800!
The tour of the White House only spans about eight rooms, and we comfortably saw everything in 30 minutes. After our long wait in line, it felt a little anti-climatic, but I would recommend it to anyone. When else will you get to see where the President lives?
I hope this blog helps you plan your visit to the White House! If you have any questions, feel free to ask them below. Thanks for reading!
Zion National Park is probably one of the most interesting National Parks I have visited to date, and this blog is loaded up with pictures from my five hikes, including the well-known Angel’s Landing hike, and fun in Zion over a three day period. I could have easily spent three straight days in this park and done every hike, but time did not allow for that. Since this blog post is so much longer than normal, it only seems appropriate to introduce you to my companions.
The picture on the left are my friends Kaitlin, Dallin, and their son Henry. Dallin and I attended graduate school together, and we have all been friends ever since! I stayed with them for my entire week in Utah. The right picture is with my friend Josh, and I met him through Dallin. Josh comes to D.C. to advocate for the arts with his students once a year. These amazing people made my time in Zion so memorable and also helped drive me around to all of the National Parks I visited.
My first day hiking into Zion National Park was at the northern part of the park with Kaitlin and Henry. After driving into the park, we pulled into the parking lot for the Middle Fork Taylor Creek Trail. This is an easy trail over 5.2 miles with a 1,699 feet elevation gain. While easy, this trail is not dog-friendly.
The end destination of this hike is to the Double Arch Alcove and a Grotto. This trail is jumps back and forth over a creek, which was really fun. The path to the Grotto is not marked, and you will need a friend or a map to help you get there. It’s very small, but it was cool to see! After stopping in to see the grotto, you can head back over to the Double Arch Alcove to see the major site of this hike. Pro tip: Bring a picnic to enjoy while you take in the sight.
While you are hiking mostly to see the end destination and the red rocks on the way, we saw quite a bit of wildlife on this hike. There were lots of lizards and cool bugs, and apparently we walked right past a rattlesnake! (I’m glad we did not see it up close- a group going the other direction was waiting for it to pass!) This hike is exposed and requires quite a bit of water for that reason, but it’s a great hike for anyone! Before leaving the park, we took a look at Kolob Canyon, which is visible from an outlook very close to the Taylor Creek trail head.
A few days later Dallin, Kaitlin, Henry, and I made a trek down to Zion proper. The main part of Zion is a bit like Disney world, with narrating shuttles running every 3 minutes to escort you throughout the park. While this area of the park has a general parking lot, arriving in the early afternoon required parking in town and taking another free shuttle into the park. The good news is that Zion free shuttles are clean and comfortable, and they run more often than rush hour public transportation in Washington D.C., which is quite impressive. If you took one of the shuttles from Las Vegas airport to Zion, you could make an April-September visit happen completely with public transportation.
We opened our day with a walk down the Riverside Walk, which is an easy 1.9 walk with only a 344 feet elevation gain. The dominant use of this path is to get to the Zion Narrows, but we saw lots of people using it as a pleasant nature walk too. Like many of the easy paths here, the walkway was packed.
After a brisk walk up and down this path, we headed back to the shuttle to see Weeping Rock. At only .4 miles and a 173 feet elevation gain, this was another easy walk to make, and this trip will allow you to bring a dog! While this walk is really easy, Weeping Rock is just a crazy thing to see. It’s kind of a big and misty waterfall that you walk under. It’s indescribable and difficult to photograph so it is well worth seeing in person.
Our final hike on Zion Day #2 was the longest. There are 3 pools on the Emerald Pools hike, which is an easy 2.3 mile hike with an 833 feet elevation gain, although most of the elevation gain is on the way to the last pool. If you want something shorter, you can take the 1.3 mile hike and only 154 feet elevation change to visit just the Lower Pool. Unfortunately, this is another hike that does not allow dogs.
The Emerald Pools hike is a little strange because I found the pools to be relatively unimpressive. They are really just dirty little ponds, and the trip to each pond was much more interesting than the actual pool. This is a hike where the journey is more interesting than the sights. Nonetheless, we visited all 3!
The first pool looks similar to Weeping Rock, as a small waterfall pours over the walkway into the first pool. As you continue heading up, there are two more pools. The second pool is a very little and shallow pool but probably the cleanest of the three. The third and upper pool is just under 1/2 mile away from the middle pool, but this is definitely the hardest part of the journey, as it is mostly uphill with fewer flat areas. The third pool is a big pond in a type of alcove, and it kind of looks like a dirty sandy pond. Henry really liked playing in the sand! I had fun on this hike, and it was a nice way to finish off the day.
The peak of my visits to Zion was on the third trip there, and this one was to hike Angel’s Landing. With a 9:30 am arrival on a weekday, we did successfully park in the Park’s parking lot. Angel’s Landing is a 4.4 mile hike with 2,073 feet of elevation gain that is marked as difficult/strenuous. Josh and I took this hike by storm.
It definitely was not the hardest hike I have done, but the opening switchbacks are not easy. The first 2/3 of the hike are made up of two separate sets of switchbacks, and the last 1/3 is a rock-scramble experience with chains for balance. The rock-scrambles get very large lines and back-up so doing this trip on a weekday and early is an absolute must. We started at 9:30 AM, made it to the rock-scrambles by 10:30 AM, reached the summit by 11:10 AM, hung out on the top for about 30 minutes, and finished at 12:45 PM. We could have made it from the rock-scrambles to the summit in half of the time had we not waited in line so much.
While this hike was so painfully overcrowded, even with a 9:30 am start time on a Friday, it was so worth it.
If there is one hike that you MUST do in Zion, this one is it. The views are stunning, and it is just one of the coolest experiences. I highly recommend it!
After conquering a hike as cool as Angel’s Landing, you should definitely stop in the gorgeous gift shop and pick up a souvenir. The gift shop had the most reasonable prices I have seen for a National Park ($2.99 for magnets- score!), and there were so many things to choose from. The main Zion gift shop was nicer, but both visitor’s centers have their own passport stamps if you are looking for those.
It is $30/car to enter Zion, and the non-transferable vehicle passes are good for 7 days. Without my National Parks pass, I would have paid $60 in fees since we utilized two different cars throughout the trip. I’m now at $160/$80 for my National Parks pass.
You might be asking yourself, “A day of hiking is great, but what should I do with my evenings?” Just a half hour away from Kolob Canyon is the Utah Shakespeare Festival! I had the luxury of attending three shows during my visit (Romeo & Juliet, Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and they were all so different but well done. The Festival also does some non-Shakespeare if you would prefer that. It’s well worth it to make a visit to this awesome Festival after a day (or three!) of hiking.
Are you still there? Thanks for reading this extra EXTRA long blog this week. This will most likely be my longest blog ever, but I just wanted to take you along for the full journey. Next week’s blog for Cedar Breaks will be much shorter, but Dallin and Henry joined me on that adventure too! Don’t forget to subscribe and comment with any questions. See you next week!
Yesterday was the 101st birthday of the National Parks! Based on my explorations so far, I have to say that they are looking pretty good for their age. In honor of their birthday, I will be filling my weekend with National Parks visits, but first, here is a visit I made last week!
The National Park service has so many sites to see in Washington, D.C. and the surrounding area that sometimes it is just easiest to combine trips together! This blog will feature both Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts and the LBJ Memorial Grove on the Potomac.
Over the course of the summer, I saw two venues at Wolf Trap, the Filene Center and the Barns. The Filene Center is a big outdoor amphitheater, and the Barns is literally the inside of a barn. I preferred the Filene Center since it was outdoors, and you can even sit on the lawn, although that still requires a paying ticket. It also has tiered seating versus everyone being on the same level, which makes the view much better. The Barns is much more intimate and indoors in setting and probably seats 200 people. Before one show, we tried to go for a walk in the woods, but the options are limited. However, there is a nice walk from the parking lot to the Filene.
Did you know that Wolf Trap is the only national park dedicated solely to the performing arts? Wolf Trap features many different kinds of events, and I had the opportunity to experience quite a few this summer including Chick Corea Elektric Band & Bela Fleck and the Flecktones (Jazz and bluegrass), Pilobolus Maximus (Modern dance and movement), and The Juniper Tree & Bastianello (Opera double bill). There were also pop artists, children’s shows, and more throughout the summer. There is really something for everyone at Wolf Trap.
While Wolf Trap in and of itself is pretty cool, one of my favorite parts is stopping for a meal before getting to Wolf Trap. The fast-food-casual Vietnamese restaurant Roll Play is seriously awesome, serving up delicious and cheap spring rolls and unique sodas. It is worth a visit if you are in Tysons Corner, and it is walking distance from the Greensboro and Tysons Corner metro (Silver Line).
Getting to and from Wolf Trap really does require a car, unless you attend a Friday or Saturday performance. My friend Lindsay picked me up from the Spring Hill metro (Silver line) for my first visit, but I had to Uber home since the metro closed far earlier than the Sunday night show we attended. Wolf Trap does have a stop with the Fairfax Connector bus, but it is $5 each way. You can only access this bus from West Falls Church (Orange), and shows can run later than the metro making it not as useful some days. It’s $3.85 in non-peak fare to go to either stop, but getting from the stop to Wolf Trap is just hard and a little expensive. Luckily, parking is free if you have a car!
If you do choose to take a car to Wolf Trap, the LBJ Memorial Grove is an easy place to stop off and have a picnic before going to a show. Located in Washington, D.C. but on the border with Virginia, the LBJ Memorial Grove is a small city park with a walking trail and a few picnic tables. Since it is located on the Potomac, it is a great park to stop by and visit on your way to a site in Virginia. Due to its location, there were many people dropping in kayaks from this park, and there is plenty of free parking. Like many of the sites in D.C., this is yet another park where you can look out and see the Washington Monument.
I hope you enjoyed learning about these two parks! I wish I had more pictures from Wolf Trap, but my last blog entitled Theodore Roosevelt Island had a ton of pictures if you are just here for the scenery.
I am not sure what the next few weeks blogs will hold yet. Next week, I will be taking you to two D.C. memorials, the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial and the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality House. Otherwise, we are experiencing a cool summer in D.C., and this weekend the highs are only in the low 80s and high 70s! We have discussed going to Harper’s Ferry or Great Falls, but nothing is firm yet. However, I plan to have fun!
Feel free to post comments or questions below, and thanks for reading!