Friday, July 19, 2019

Shenandoah National Park

The very most important thing to know about Shenandoah National Park: there are black bears. Plenty of them. Just because one spends a week in Great Smoky Mountain National Park and Yellowstone/Grand Tetons (at different time, obviously) and sees not one bear (minus a back of a large black bear in Cades Cove and a grizzly on a ridge several thousand yards away in Yellowstone) doesn't mean that you should confidently go without bear spray for a few hours in Shenandoah because you will in fact run into a black bear. I'm speaking from experience because that exact thing happened to us. I'm shaking my own head at myself for my stupidity on this one.

Our day began bright and early because we had a LONG day ahead of us. We left our hotel in West Virginia around 9 a.m. and drove to Ocean City, Maryland by way of Shenandoah National Park. We knew ahead of time that we wanted to hike a couple of shorter trails in Shenandoah, so we were prepared for our long 16 hour day in the car. Luckily, it only wound up being about 15 hours. It was a fairly easy drive until we got into the DC area during rush hour and had to figure out tolls. Then a kid, then another, had to pee. Did you know DC gas stations don't have bathrooms open to the public?? Every restaurant (fast food wise) and store has locks on their bathroom that you need codes or a key to enter. You must be a paying customer to gain access to these. It's kind of a nightmare when your kids have to pee. That's how we ended up with okay-ish Panera bagels for dinner and a reset route to Ocean City.

But back to Shenandoah National Park. We began at the South end of the Park because that's where we were coming from. It's quite evident that most people began their drive through the Park via Skyline Drive on the North side. We had to wait until we were halfway through the Park for a visitors center. The Park has some amazing hiking trails and okay views. It's honestly not as pretty as the Smoky Mountains and doesn't come close to the views of Yellowstone and Grand Tetons. Much like Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Shenandoah is more than likely gorgeous in the fall and probably the preferred time to go. Obviously, the highlight of our time in the Park was seeing the black bear run in front of us.

The drive out of West Virginia and into Virginia was beautiful. Luckily I didn't have driving duties that day so I got to enjoy the views!

When we arrived at the southern end of the Park, to the north was Skyline Drive (through Shenandoah) and to the south was Blue Ridge Parkway. We drove part of Blue Ridge Parkway in North Caroline back in 2016. At the time, we didn't stop to get a sign picture with the kids. Nearly three years later to the day we got our sign picture. Better late than never!

I'm not really sure I got the better end of the deal by not driving. I had to play referee for the kids and navigate our way through the Park because we didn't have cell signals. You know you rely on GPS too much when it takes you a moment to figure out the Park map!

We stopped at as many lookout points as we could. Well, Hubs and I did. For most of them the minis stayed in the car.

The top picture is minutes before our bear encounter and the bottom picture is minutes after our bear encounter. I should add that the kids didn't actually see the bear but Hubs and I sure did! So, here's the story:

As we began our drive through Shenandoah earlier in the day I had asked Hubs if there were bears in Shenandoah. His reply, "I'm not sure. Not a lot if there are." So, usually we do our homework and plenty of reading about where we're going. However, since we were only driving through Shenandoah I didn't do a lot of reading. At all. As we drove towards the visitors center, we had a few hikes in mind but preferred to speak with a ranger first. This is our rule for all National Parks we visit, as Rangers are the most qualified to tell you of any dangers or closings on the trails. Plus, they're excellent at making suggestions. No one mentioned bears to us as the visitors center. I didn't even bring bear spray with us on this trip because we were simply driving through the Park with a nice hike or two along the way. These were all mistakes that could have led to a very dangerous situation. As funny as this story is, I'm not naive enough to think that this could have turned out very different for us.

Since we like to adventure quite a bit with our kids, we have spent much of the last three years teaching them trail etiquette and how to deal with wildlife. Bears and mountain lions in particular. We chose a trail close to the visitors center, but that also meant taking a lesser used path to the main trail. As we set foot on the trail, the kids went a good several feet in front of us, talking loudly and not a care in the world. Hubs and I were behind them, but not within arms reach. Not even a quarter of a mile in, I heard a twig snap off to the right of me. I looked at Hubs, Hubs looked me. We looked where the noise came from and saw bushes moving. Instinctively, I called the kids back to me and Hubs began moving in front of the them. At that moment, as the minis were turned looking at me a black bear ran right in front of Hubs, right where the kids had been. We were loud enough that it was scared and ran away from us. I calmly told them there was a bear and to start walking back to the beginning of the trail. The minis did exactly as they were told to do, as well as continue making loud noises to keep the bear away. No one panicked and everyone kept calm. I was so impressed with them and so happy we've taught them how to act in these situations. I am also so happy we can look back on this with amazement...and the insight to always carry bear spray when hiking.

My new saying is now "spend a week in the Smokies and Yellowstone and see no bear. Spend a few hours in Shenandoah and see one."

Never got to see the Falls, but apparently it's one of the best in the Park. Instead we settled for a boardwalk trail that was a small loop. Well traveled so we didn't have as many worries about bears.

Matt's imitating a bear getting the kids. Isn't he hilarious?? Major eye roll as I type that.

The northern part of Shenandoah was prettier than the south end.

Our last stop in the Park was at the bathrooms, where we saw this sign. Again, it would have been helpful to see this at the beginning of our drive!

While Shenandoah is by far not our favorite National Park, I would go back for some fantastic hiking trails (with bear spray obviously). I would have loved to do more hiking had we had more time. Several hours, numerous potty breaks, a few wrong turns, and one meltdown with the GPS after the last picture at Shenandoah was snapped, we arrived at our beach side condo in Ocean City, MD.  We were all in heaven going from mountains to oceans--everyone had their favorite things within 24 hours of each other.

With all of the National Parks and Monuments, National seashores, and conversation areas we've visited, we have our top five easily picked. What's your favorite National Park you've visited?

Monday, July 15, 2019

Almost Heaven, West Virginia

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong
West Virginia, mountain mama
Take me home, country roads
- John Denver

I can't think of West Virginia without hearing this song in my mind. West Virginia surprised me! I've always known it was beautiful, but it had excellent hiking, a laid back feeling, and gave us so many adventures in the short time we were through the state. 

We stayed at Holiday Lodge in Oak Hill, WV. Our main reason for visiting the state was to take a coal mine tour in Beckley, WV (about 20-30 minutes away from Oak Hill). What I was pleasantly surprised about was our close proximity to New River Gorge Recreation Area. 

This hotel had the most unique breakfast area. It's set up like a restaurant (because it is one after breakfast hours) and offers buffet style food.

When I first typed into Google 'coal mine tours in West Virginia' a year ago, Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine kept popping up. For $80+ the five of us could go into an abandon coal mine and learn about the history of coal mining, the importance of it to WV. What I didn't realize is everything that would come with our ticket purchase. There's a historical (re-built) 1850's coal mining town and a Youth Museum for the kids. The coal mine town reminded me of Living History Farms (here in Iowa), so the minis weren't overly impressed with that. Hubs and I loved the coal mine tour it's self, while the minis enjoyed it, but were happy it was over at the end.

One of the highlights of the day for the minis was writing with turkey feathers and homemade paint (made from berries). They have now requested we try this at home with daycare. 

Dancing for us at the outdoor stage at the Youth Museum. We waited to do the Museum after the tour and I'm so glad we did (more on that later).

Our parents were worried about us in an old coal mine, however, what you can't see in the pictures is the fire extinguishers and sprinklers all throughout the mine.

Our guide showed us what it was like to work in the coal mine way back when and the miners light they had to work in (above). Seeing things first hand obviously gets to the minis more than anything (below).

Here was the biggest shock of the day: the Youth Museum was actually a children's museum! Something I know about (now)! When we bought our tickets (and encountered other workers throughout the morning), all anyone every told us was that there were hands on activities for kids. We walked in to find passed on exhibits from the Minnesota Children's Museum! It was all children's storybook themed and so adorable. Harrison and Elizabeth loved (most) of the exhibits while Max (age 11) did a bunch of brain teasers.

These two had a blast in Peter Rabbit's house

When I found out our hotel was just minutes away from New River Gorge Bridge, I knew we had to pay it a visit. We also took time to hike Endless Wall Trail. The trail provided us with a gorgeous 4.5 mile hike along the rim/wall of the gorge. As we hiked and watched the river I was instantly regretful that I didn't book us a rafting adventure. It looked so much fun!

The stairs to the Bridge viewing area were killer. Harder than the trail in fact.

Someone forgot her hiking shoes back at home. Luckily my Sketchers are extremely comfortable and held up well throughout the entire trip. I've logged A LOT of miles with the shoes since I got them for my birthday! New Orleans, Chicago, East Coast, and many thing in between.

Elizabeth created an interesting game to keep her entertained during our hike. She kept watch for the tree roots and sticks and looked for letters in each, like this H above.

Looking for bears and other animals. Oddly enough (although not that odd because apparently there are a lot of black bears in this area) we would see a bear the next day in Shenandoah National Park.

A mushroom that the kids requested a picture of.

This is the ridge we hiked!

Our long hike in the heat called for burgers from Tom's (a local Oak Hill restaurant) and the hotel swimming pool. Bonus that we had the entire pool and hot tub to ourselves for over 2 hours!

Using A TON of butter on her toast. She then proceeded to eat the butter right out of the container. I had to leave the table at the point so I didn't gag! While we prefer to book Airbnb, hotels are often times unavoidable while traveling, especially during those quick stays. When we book hotels, I like to look for the hotels with extra amenities: free breakfasts, free parking, free internet, pools, suites, in-room mini-refrigerators and microwaves, etc. Holiday Lodge in West Virginia was a very comfortable hotel stay for our family of five. Some of our favorite hotel chains to stay at: Country Suites, Comfort Inn and Suites, and Homewood Suites. 

Out of all the sites we saw on our 17 days on the road, West Virginia had the best views and prettiest scenery to drive through.