I have done a lot of day hikes on the Appalachian Trail. It’s hard not to, when you live in Virginia and grow up hiking in Shenandoah National Park. The AT cuts a path through the heart of the Virginia mountains, and is home to a huge number of day hikes.
The older I get, the more I think about trying to hike the whole thing. It’s been a “someday” goal since I was in high school, and after hiking the Camino de Santiago after college, cemented itself firmly on my bucket list. But then I got married, and then had kids, and now taking six months away from my life is not something I can do.
At least, not unless I take my kids with me.
Which sounds crazy, and it is crazy. The Quirin family made headlines in 2017 for thru-hiking with their one-year-old, which told a lot of families just like mine that yes, you can have great adventures even when your kids are young. The difference in them and me is, they had two adults for one child. While my husband could not take six months away from work, which would leave me with one adult for two children.
So, can I do it?
The answer is…no. Not at their ages right now. But I wasn’t going to get to that conclusion without at least testing out backpacking with the kids, so a couple weeks ago we packed up and headed out to hike Max Patch in North Carolina.
There is a road crossing at Lemon Gap, just under six miles north of the Max Patch Summit along the AT. While we debated parking there, and hiking up and back out as a family, the weather had us worried. We are still piecing together our backpacking gear, and sleeping bags have been the last thing to add. Worried about how we were going to stay warm when our bags are way too heavy to carry, we decided that I would drop Billy and the kids off at Lemon Gap, then I would drive to the Max Patch parking lot, leave the car, and hike north until I met up with them, at which point I would retrace my steps and we would finish the climb together.
The plan worked. Other than me daydreaming so much that I followed another hiker down a wrong turn (adding almost two miles to my hike), we were able to do a backpacking/slackpacking combination. We still had full packs–Kairi even carried her own sleeping pad–but we left our massive double sleeping bag in the car, so that once we set up camp, Billy walked to the car and back (adding over a mile) to bring it to camp so we wouldn’t have to worry about staying warm at night.
All in all? The trip was a success. Billy got some time on the trail with the kids without me, which all of them could use more of, I got some time on the trail by myself (which I could CERTAINLY use more of), and the kids got their first taste of true primitive camping.
In the interest of learning from experience, here are a few of the major points we walked (haha) away with:
All in all, Max Patch is a great place to get your feet wet in terms of taking kids into the backcountry. You’re close enough to a parking lot that you can do what we did and leave some heavier gear in the car while on the trail,–or to just bail out if they get scared or things go sideways. The wide open spaces gave the kids plenty of room to run and play while staying in sight. It’s a popular spot for thru-hikers to stop for the night, and for section hikers to start or end their trip, so while the isolation factor is small, it’s such a huge area that it’s not hard to find a place to set up camp–and unlike crowded campgrounds where you may be around loud parties or next to neighbors who don’t want to hear a crying toddler at night, setting up camp in thru-hiker country is an entirely different atmosphere–everyone is out there to experience nature as closely as they can, and there’s a sort of mutual respect for each other for getting to camp through walking than I typically experience at frontcountry campgrounds.
This was a perfect test run for how our kids did walking into camp, and for how much gear we could carry with a child that needed to be worn part of the time, and for some changes we need to make to our gear for next time. I don’t know that we will come back to hike the six miles again (the Roan Highlands are calling to me for our next backpacking trip), but we will definitely be back to camp.
I’ve made the drive from central Virginia to eastern Tennessee more times than I can count, from when I was too young to drive, to now when I’m often the only driver. While doable in a day’s drive, as my own family has grown and our kids have gotten older, we’ve found it’s often easier to break the drive into two days.
Usually, we stay at a hotel. Weather, no room in the car for camping gear, and not wanting to take the time to set up and take down camp make the in-and-out convenience (and free breakfast!) of hotels appealing. I’ve looked at campgrounds occasionally, but found that other than cabin-camping at either Hungry Mother or Claytor Lake State Parks in Virginia, there weren’t tent camping options that worked easily into our itinerary.
We made the drive again this past weekend for my mother’s memorial service. Billy worked too late on Wednesday for us to drive straight through, and between the reason for our drive, and it being the beginning of spring, I was aching to camp. So, I took to The Dyrt, hopeful that maybe there were some places I’ve been missing all these years.
I looked first to campgrounds in Virginia–my home sweet home, after all–but nearly all tent camping options didn’t open until April 1, unless we wanted to take our chances with dispersed camping availability. And glancing through Tennessee, I clicked on Warriors Path State Park.
When I was little, my family would stop at at Warrior’s Path frequently while making this drive. We would get lunch to go, and then eat at a picnic tables so everyone could stretch their legs, and spend some time outdoors to break up the hours in the car. I finally went there this past December with my own kids, for the first time in probably 20 years. I was incredibly impressed with their playground–a huge, universally accessible playground with everything from a massive sand pit, to an interactive story path for The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. We didn’t explore anything in the park except the playground though, and since there’s no “tent” icon on the sign off the interstate, I have always just dismissed it as a place without camping. So seeing it on The Dyrt was exciting. It’s three hours from Chattanooga, which was the perfect drive time for when we would be leaving, it’s less than 10 minutes from the interstate, and while a playground isn’t usually a selling point for us, we knew our kids would have something to do in the morning before setting out if we wanted. I found a site that was listed as “tent only” on the reservations site, booked us for a night, and just crossed my fingers that we weren’t heading into an RV camp with two kids and a backpacking tent.
Across the lake from the playground, the campground is surprisingly quiet for being so close to a major interstate. While we could hear the road, it wasn’t obvious until after dark, once we had settled down to watch the fire. And while still slightly disruptive–the sounds of tractor-trailers frightened our toddler a few times–it was fairly easy to tune out. We also saw a lot more stars than I would have expected for a park so close to civilization.
When I chose our site, I clicked on sites on the map based on how far apart they were compared to their neighbors, which led me to site 90. It’s in a cul-de-sac, which is always nice with kids since it keeps traffic more to a minimum. The other sites around it can all accommodate RVs, but even with about half of them occupied the night we were there, we didn’t feel crowded; in fact, our site was below the road by about 5 or 6 stairs, and backed up to a meadow, which gave it both a little bit more privacy than I expected, as well as a feeling of safety. It still being late March, we could see through the trees to a lake, but weren’t so close that our kids had to investigate, which meant a nice view without the constant vigilance that comes with waterfront sites.
The bathrooms were also the cleanest I’ve experienced so far at any TN State Park, and had a space heater running at least up until we went to bed, which was VERY welcome once the sun went down! The shower was also inviting, which is something I don’t think I have ever said about a campground shower before–though the space heater likely had a lot to do with that.
We didn’t drive through the rest of the campsites because of how limited our time was, but all in all I was super impressed with the camping here. I’m not sure we would make the drive just to camp, but knowing it’s an option now I don’t see us shelling out the money (and frustration) for a hotel unless we’re traveling in winter. And I definitely recommend this park to anyone on a road trip looking for an outdoorsy overnight stop.
Overall Family-Friendly Rating: 5/5. Even with the noise from the highway, this is a great place for families. There’s hiking, fishing, and boat rentals in addition to the playground, the sites (from what we saw) have a good range of both size and privacy levels, and the bathrooms are comfortable. The meadow behind our site was a great place for our kids to run, and the park obviously dedicates time and money to safety, as we saw ample evidence of tree maintenance from winter weather damage.
Even though the spring equinox was a few days ago, I’ve been thinking since…well, since the new year about writing a post on hiking, and outdoor experience, as a means of connecting with the Wheel of the Year.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, the Wheel of the Year is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the idea of a continuous passage of time, that isn’t marked by an ending or a beginning, as on a calendar, but by the transitioning of one phase of life to the next, over and over again. Birth, life, death, dormancy, over and over again.
I lean heavily on this belief in the winter. I’ve written a lot about the outdoors in the winter. Both learning to embrace the cold and making myself get outside even when I don’t want to, and in finding comfort in the silence of the winter. But as much as winter is a time of sleep and reflection, of tending to roots while we allow everything above the surface a chance to rest, spring is new life. It’s an awakening.
I am particularly aligned with the wheel of the year so far in 2019. Over the winter, my mother was hospitalized; we found out her cancer had spread to her brain, and her prognosis was dramatically worse than it had been before. In the dark of winter, we turned inward. We had no choice. We hibernated. That I injured my knee just after the solstice only meant we stayed in even more. I couldn’t hike, or even sit comfortably outdoors. I wanted to soak up as much time as we could with my mom. And in the final weeks of January, I barely poked my head outside save for trips to the grocery store, as we held her hand and watched her die.
Imbolc marks the beginning of February. It’s when we start to see some of the first signs of awakening, at least in the south. Buds are appearing on trees. Daffodils brave the bitter winds. It is a juxtaposition of life and death; early greens blinking into the low sun, curling in on themselves against the frost and snow that will linger for weeks to months. I woke up the morning of February 2nd this year, made coffee, and called an old colleague to talk business. My husband and I went out for lunch together, before he was supposed to head back home while the kids and I stayed at my mom’s.
After that lunch, I sat with my aunt and sister, and we held my mom’s hands while she took her last breaths.
What has followed, has been like moving in slow motion. I had knee surgery a few days after my mom’s death. February is a blur of laying on the couch with my leg on a stack of pillows, of the first trip back to my mom’s house and feeling the emptiness of her not being there to meet us. Of limping across the house, and endless endless rain, flooding fields and washing out roadways across the state. March has been tears. Breaking down and sobbing in the kitchen the day of the time change because my mom always loved getting that extra hour of light at the end of the day. Looking at my yard in anger because my mom was supposed to help me with my landscaping in our new house, and now she can’t, and I can’t even call her to ask her for advice.
And March is my first hike post-op. It’s getting back outside, and breathing it in. The rot, of leaves that spent a winter under so much rain, and the life. “Stinky pear trees” as I affectionally call the Bradford Pears, because I think they smell like a locker room but I love them just the same because they herald spring. The bright yellow daffodils. The fields of purple nettles in everyone’s yards, beckoning the bees. Returning to a favorite trail, and seeing green, for the first time in months.
I have spoken to a few friends down here, people I met in the fall and then didn’t see much of during my period of hibernation. I’ve glossed over my winter–it’s heavy to say you lost your mother and had surgery in the same week. But I always end it with–we are in a new season now. Figuratively and literally.
As the days now grow longer than the nights, and the leaves return to the trees, so do we return to the outdoors. Where my greatest healing has always been. Where I look everywhere and see reminders of life, and joy, and that the year is a wheel that will continue to turn, and that we can’t have this period of new growth without the period of death and dormancy that precedes it.
I look forward to a season of life. Of dancing, joyful on the trail with my children, as we emerge, and return to that place in nature that gives us hope.
It’s been awhile since a trail review! Weather, holidays, injuries, and illness have kept us from exploring many new trails over the last couple of months–but that doesn’t mean we didn’t manage at least a couple.
I mentioned Buffalo Mountain before in my post about Hygge and the Winter Solstice, but wanted to save reviewing the trail for a separate post.
When Jordi and I were making plans, one of our reasons for choosing Claytor Lake State Park, was that it was less than an hour’s drive from McAfee’s Knob. That trail is high on both of our hiking bucket lists, but at a three hour drive from Richmond, and then an almost 9 mile hike, it has never been something we could do in a day–much less with kids. So we very ambitiously thought, with 1/3 the commute, maybe we could finally manage it?
By the time we both dealt with late starts and traffic getting to the cabin, we had independently decided there was no way our kids could handle a 9 mile hike the next day–and even if they could, we couldn’t.
But we still wanted to get out, so we began our search for trails nearby that were exciting enough for us, but short/easy enough for the kids to stay motivated. Ultimately, we decided on the Buffalo Mountain Natural Area Preserve, in Floyd County, VA. According to other trail reviews, it was a short, 2.2 mile trail with only 551 feet of elevation gain, it had panoramic views at the top, and unique vegetation for us to admire.
The hardest part of this trail was getting there, thanks to bumpy roads and my GPS getting confused (definitely look up directions beforehand since there is very limited cell signal near the trail head!), but once we got there, we were so glad we did.
The parking lot is large, and while the day we went was bright and in the upper 40s, there was still a little snow on the north side of the mountain for the kids to play in. Once we started on the trail, we were treated to a rocky stretch with very little elevation gain for the first third of the trail. The kids enjoyed playing on downed trees, and climbing on a large rock just before the first switchback–they pretended it was a pirate ship, sailing towards the sky visible through the bare trees.
After the first switchback the elevation gain begins. All of the kids were pretty tired by the time we got to the top–a late night the day before, getting to the trailhead after lunchtime, and lots of play on the first leg had them mostly ready to crash before we really started climbing. Even with that, the five year olds didn’t start whining about wanting to quit until right at the end, and while the toddlers both asked to be carried before we reached the summit, I feel confident that had we gotten out early after they had a proper night’s sleep, they would have been running up the trail. When, that is, they didn’t stop to play! We passed a few more exciting rock formations and felled trees, more snow, and a stump that had been carved into a “seat,” with “Buffalo” painted on it, and a “T” carved out–the only true trail marker we saw on the whole hike.
The toughest part of the climb is the last 200 yards or so; the trail here is very wide, but water runoff has made it very uneven, and the grade nearly doubles from what is has been. Thankfully this section is short, and you are rewarded with a bench waiting at the summit, and incredible 270 degree views.
We stayed and explored for awhile at the top–though word of caution, it is very windy up here! The kids were searching for gaps in the rocks to hide in to get out of the wind, and we ended up finding a nice lunch spot in a side trail through a rhododendron grove.
The terrain at the top of the mountain is really interesting–we had read before going that this area is home to several rare plants and animals, but seeing just how different it looked from the mountaintops we were used to was a treat. The kids took off running, excited to have open space, before we called them back to the trail so we could explore the rocks to the west, expanding our view further. We would have stayed longer if the wind hadn’t been bothering the one year old we had with us so much, and I would love to be there sometime at sunrise or sunset.
Retrace your steps back to the car, for a short and extremely rewarding hike.
Because of our late start, the return/downhill trip was actually the hardest part for the kids! They were pretty tired from the climb up, a little overwhelmed from all the social interaction, and definitely very hungry! We had snacks, but I came up with a game after remembering I had a small bag of Jelly-Bellies in our day pack. When the three-year-old just had enough on our descent and stopped and refused to get up, I pulled out the jelly beans, gave everyone a few, and announced that they could get more at every switchback. It worked beautifully. They were nearly racing each other! And on the final stretch we came up with a few landmarks, before finally dispersing the remainder in the parking lot. Jordi commented that she was so glad we didn’t do it on the way up because the trick would have lost its magic, and I agree. I generally don’t like “bribes” to get down the trail since I fear the precedent it sets, but in this instance? It was perfect. Which taught me that sometimes, candy really may be the answer!
It’s hard to find summits in the Virginia mountains that are good to do with kids; so often they are either too long or too difficult for little ones to stay motivated, or the views are limited due to the overall low elevation of the mountains. While this trail is not easy to get to in the car, it fills a great need for epic views, with a hike that small walkers can manage, and enough along the way to keep them interested, even in the dead of winter when everything is bare and brown.
The biggest drawback for little ones on this trail is that as tempting as it will be for them to run freely along the bald, the vegetation there is sensitive, and it may be frustrating for toddlers to be told they can’t explore.
I’ve been on somewhat of a social media hiatus since the beginning of the year. Not as a resolution, just in an effort to be more present, and to free up some of the clutter in my mind. I need to think about where to take my business, this blog, and I’ve been working on the beginning stages of what could be a very large project for later in the year.
And I’ve just needed a break. The shutdown of the US Government is one more step in an increasingly polarizing facet of the current administration, and while I know firmly where I stand, it gets exhausting having to sift through memes and cries of outrage all the time to find facts.
But then the facts I find, even without the filter of someone else’s opinion, still incite such an impotent rage in me that it keeps me awake, feeling so small and helpless against the apathy, disrespect, and cruelty happening in my country.
When it was first announced that the National Parks would remain open during the current shutdown, I was happy. People plan vacations around our parks. Surely, allowing visitation could only be good—right? Towns near the parks would not lose the tourism revenue. People who have planned once-in-a-lifetime trips would still be able to take them. We could prove that we value these lands enough to keep them.
That isn’t what’s happening though. It seems, unfortunately, that while we are proving a need for funding to out National Parks, it isn’t because of how loved they are, but because of how little regard visitors have for conservationist and environmentally respectful principals in the outdoors overall.
In 2016, the NY Times reported on how we are Loving Our National Parks To Death. Both local news sources and the Huffington Post have reported on that same tagline since then, and while visitation dropped slightly from 2016 to 2017 (2018 numbers are still pending the end of the shutdown), it is still close to 331 million people per year [nps].
Social media users High On Life have suffered fines and jail time after disregarding posted warning about delicate environments, causing damage to our parks and eventually the deaths of a couple of their members.
And now, during the shutdown, there are stories popping up almost daily of the damage our parks are seeing:
Joshua Tree, in the news from early on because of the inability for the park to support the amount of human waste generated during a time when there is no park staff to maintain restroom facilities, has finally had to temporarily close its doors on account of public safety, and to protect its namesake trees from damage being done by park guests. The damage will last far beyond when the shutdown ends, and in the instance of the trees being cut down, is irreparable.
Highly trafficked parks such as Yellowstone and Mt. Rainier have relied on private organizations to handle overflowing bathrooms and trashcans, but resources are running low., forcing closures.
The Great Smoky Mountains are fortunate to have non-profits such as Friends of the Smokies who have stepped in, initially keeping visitor’s centers open through the holiday season, and now funding the salaries of a number of park employees to prevent a repeat of Joshua Tree.
Leave No Trace has issued a statement on how we can lessen the impact to National Parks right now. I’ve seen it shared all over the instagram circles I follow, and on multiple facebook pages. But—I’ve seen it shared by people who by and large are already employing those practices.
This is mostly a collection of information. I can’t reach the people who are throwing trash away without regard to the fact that there is no one currently on site to empty trash cans. Or who are taking advantage of decreased/lack of ranger presence, to go off trail, explore fragile natural areas, or light campfires where fires or not allowed. I’ve seen someone jump 60 feet from a waterfall despite signs being posted everywhere not to jump from the falls, so even if blogging and sharing did get this information out, I’m not sure the people doing the damage would care.
The first, is there are still more innocent ways we are harming the parks. When we were in the Smokies at the end of December, we picked up the trash we found along the trail, but still threw our trash bag away in the cans in the parking lot. As mentioned above, the Smokies are still receiving more maintenance then and now than many other parks, but we did it without thinking. Had the cans been overflowing we wouldn’t, but it was just automatic–pack your trash off the trail, then throw it away. As the updates to LNT above mention, we can do better. And, as someone who makes a conscious effort to take care of our lands, if I made this mistake, the reminders are necessary.
But the other, which is my bigger concern, which is the long-term impact this is going to have on the parks from a funding standpoint. As more organizations and more people step in to help the parks, what will this do to the argument of keeping them federally funded? There has been so much activity, but especially in the last two years, to defund national public spaces. To me, keeping them open right now only proves how badly we NEED the funding. But as the damage increases, and the financial burden required to maintain them grows, what is that argument going to look like once the government reopens?
And as a parent, it makes me more and more determined to teach our kids right. Hike It Baby founder Shanti Hodges wrote about Leave No Trace with kids which does a lot to sum up my feelings on the balance between giving kids a chance to discover the world on their own terms, and teaching them respect for the environment. Researchers have linked wild outdoor experience as child as being the primary correlating factor to conservation-minded adults, so getting kids out right now is still important. But so is talking to them about what is going on. Explaining why our parks are so important. Why funding them is so necessary. How even something that seems as innocent as picking a pretty flower is against the rules.
I can’t convince adults to respect the earth. All I can do is share information and hope that at least one person realizes–like I realized–that just because I pick up extra trash on the trail doesn’t mean I’m doing everything that I can. We can always do better.
And as parents we can continue to teach our children, so the next generation would never considering damaging Joshua Trees, regardless of who is watching.
My favorite professor in college was a man of stories.
He was the head of the Philosophy and Religious Studies department, and had a background of military service, psychotropic drugs, and a time he hitchhiked from Canada to, wait for it, Hawaii.
This professor shaped my college experience in so many ways, from how he lectured, to leading a class I was able to attend post-graduation on the Camino de Santiago. But his stories are what have always stuck with me the most–and in particular, how one becomes a storyteller.
We’ve all heard the quote, “We didn’t know we were making memories, we just thought we were having fun,” and this professor really helped me understand that. I often feel like, in my mid 30s, that I have yet to really have stories to tell…until I start telling them. And while my stories may never entertain class after class of college students, I like to think I am doing more than sitting on the sidelines, waiting for my adventures to begin.
So before I start thinking about 2019, I want to reflect on our adventures this year.
One of the most exciting things about 2018 was the way we spent our birthdays. We managed to visit four completely different terrains, and have four completely different trips for each of us; a vacation rental in the red rocks of Sedona, a bikepacking, primitive camping trip to the beach, frontcountry camping right on a lake, and cabin camping in the mountains.
We also moved, opening up an entire state’s worth of new trails. We visited two National Parks we’d never been to before, I went on a solo backpacking trip, had the opportunity to write about Tennessee trails for three different pages, had a photo featured on backpacker.com, and went on a couple of overnight trips with the kids without Billy.
So I thought that, going into 2019, I would make a list of the specific places I wanted to visit, in the interest of continuing to see, if not the world, at least the east coast. But I saw someone make a post recently asking for guides for making “hiking resolutions” for the next year, and it got me thinking…what would my advice be? I am a spontaneous person, and our adventures are rarely planned so far in advance. Life gets in the way, and trying to make concrete plans can trap you into missing opportunities as they arise.
So in the interest of living out stories, instead of a 2019 bucket list, here are some guidelines I think are good for anyone to keep in mind–to find adventure as it finds us, and make the most of every opportunity the new year might bring.
Moving to a new state has been great for getting out and finding new places to go, but has also made it clear how nice it is to have favorites. Whether you are in a situation like us where everything around you is new, or haven’t quite found The One yet, this goal is all about finding that one go-to trail that just feels “right,” no matter what season you hike it.
Our public lands need us. While visitation increases, funding for national public lands is continually at risk, creating a situation where our lands can’t support the foot traffic they bring in during the year. And the human impact currently generated during the shutdown is just proof of how important it is for us to practice Leave No Trace, and to leave our spaces better than we find them. So while it might seem counter-intuitive, seek out a National Park you’ve never been to before. Learn about it. Love it. And then advocate for it.
With Virginia’s three solid geographical regions–mountains, piedmont, and tidewater–we were lucky enough to camp in a variety of locations. But new terrain can just be a branch off from something you’re used to. Go to a higher or lower elevation. Seek out coniferous forests if you are used to hardwoods. If you’re not already signed up, visit thedyrt.com or download their app, and find a campsite near a geographical feature you’ve never experienced before, such as the dismalites (bioluminescent larvae) in Alabama, or camping on the rocky beaches of Maine. Chances are there’s something near you with a whole new experience worth exploring.
My love of winter hiking is well-documented, but there are more ways than just changing the seasons to revisit your favorite trails. Go in bad weather–rain or snow, hot or cold–just make sure you are dressed appropriately and your pack is full of any extra gear you need for the weather. Pick one trail and make it a weekly, monthly, or quarterly thing, and observe the way it changes from one visit to the next. Try a night hike, or a sunset or sunrise hike. Go alone, go with kids, or go with friends who haven’t been hiking before–whatever you are used to doing, just change it up, and see how you experience a place you know from a new perspective.
Look for programs like the 52 Hike Challenge, Hike it Baby’s Hike It Baby 30 months, or find a local hiking group and see what their goals are. Most of these groups have giveaways to show for your efforts like patches, stickers, or water bottles, and they help you network so participants can encourage each other, particularly when things like excessive rain, wildfires, or illness make getting outside hard. Incorporate these challenges into your personal goals for extra accountability!
This is my favorite goal for the year, because it is budget-friendly, work-friendly, and perfect for parents raising outdoors-y littles. Whatever your other outdoor goals, this is one that only needs your backyard or local park. It has the accountability factor of hiking challenges, can include other parents to make it social, and would go along great if you have any personal resolutions for less screen time. Exploring Nature with Children has weekly themes and activities to go along with them each week, or there are subscription boxes available that are outdoors-y themed as well if once a week is too ambitious a goal.
However you feel about the idea of New Year’s Resolutions, the earth will continue to tilt, and if you’re in the northern hemisphere, the lengthening of the days is reason enough to think about how to spend time outside (or ways to take advantage of the remaining daylight for our friends living out the last weeks of summer). And if you look at your outdoor resolutions as goals, getting your kids involved is only another organic learning opportunity.
I know I have a lot of places I want to see this year. I want to explore some of the Gulf Coast. I want to go out on multi-night backpacking trips with my kids. But mostly, I want to look back this time next year and know that I am walking out of 2019 with more stories to tell. Whether I realized I was making them or not.
It is 8am on Wednesday morning, three days before the winter solstice. Even at this time of year, I have missed the sunrise; after waking and sleeping and waking and sleeping several times, trying to get a few more minutes, I managed to sleep through the first light breaking over the horizon. My kids have had a long month. Constant changes in time zone, from Eastern to Central to Eastern to Central, combined with more time spent in a car than they’ve spent on the trail, means even my toddler, my early riser, doesn’t wake up until the light is bright and stable through the window.
We are at a cabin in western Virginia. In my heart-mountains, as I call them; the Blue Ridge Mountains, where even pictures of them are a breath of fresh air. We came here to meet a dear friend and her kids for some much needed nature-therapy. She has experienced tragic loss, and we are reeling from bad news, and a getaway is what all of us need. I have heard before, that everyone needs that friend who will call you up and say “Come on, we’re going on an adventure.” She is that friend. And I might be that friend to her. There have been tears, too much wine, and a couple of late nights in our too-short trip, and we will go our separate ways again later in the day.
For now though, the kids are entertaining themselves, and I have a cup of coffee in hand, and I tell my friend, I am going to go sit outside for a few minutes and breathe in the morning. She smiles, “Do it. It’s beautiful out.”
The morning sun is bright. Too bright, really, after what has felt like months of nothing but heavy clouds and rain. Our cabin is right on a lake, and the still-low sunlight reflects off the water, blinding me. I shift, and sit so I am facing south, where I can still see the skeleton trees across the bright blue water. It is cold, but my coffee warms my hands and my fleece is cozy.
This is my happy place.
Despite my husband’s Scandinavian ancestry, I had never heard the word “hygge” until a month or so ago, when a friend commented on a social media post I made about my seasonal affective disorder. “Maybe you need more hygge,” she said. I googled it, and wondered.
The connection to the seasons is what has drawn me more and more into Paganism over the last few years, and this time of year in particular. Even if you don’t practice, or are atheist, or are of an Abrahamic faith, it’s hard to escape Pagan influence this time of year. Evergreens inside our homes. Candles in our windows. So many symbols of anticipating the return of the sun–but also so many ways of rejoicing in the dark. We decorate our homes and cities with lights inside and out, creating beauty that is reliant on darkness. So much connection to nature, to the turning of the wheel of the year.
Snuggling under the blankets next to a crackling fire, having Lord of the Rings marathons with my five year old, baking breads and sweets–these are indoor activities that bring me joy. But it is in the stillness of the outdoors that I find the most peace, even in these cold, dark months.
My understanding of hygge, after a month of so of trying to understand it, trying to reconcile its coziness with its stillness, trying to find the similarities and differences in drawing inward with celebrating the darkness has led me to a conclusion that I have always known. Which is:
Sitting outside by a lake, half blinded by the morning sun, shivering slightly while I drink my coffee, is where I find peace.
Because stillness is what this time of year is all about, at least from the earth’s viewpoint. It is the time of dying.
Today, the solstice, marks the rebirth of the sun in the northern hemisphere, but it is weeks before we will start to see the rebirth of the earth. Whether we are celebrating this stillness by staying indoors, or are celebrating it by embracing the cold, dead of the outdoors, there is peace to be found just by sitting outside and letting yourself blend in to the quiet of that time when all is in fact calm, if not yet bright.
In my last post I talked about some of my favorite small businesses specializing in outdoor gear for kids. But what if you already have rainsuits and sunscreen towels, or would rather spend your money on experiences instead of things?
Winter is still a great time to get outside, and there are new experiences that benefit kids and parents alike. Whether you make one of these trips a gift, or plan something for the family to recover from the hustle-and-bustle of the holidays, there is so much fun to be had outdoors when it’s cold outside.
Every winter I see pictures of people building tables and benches into the snow, bundled up and enjoying a great camping trip in spite of the cold. And every winter, I wonder what that would be like with kids. And while we have been camping with our kids when the overnight temperatures have gotten close to freezing, we haven’t quite made the jump to snow-camping yet. Although, I want to! Back in Virginia, there weren’t as many options for tent camping in the wintertime outside of the backcountry, as most of the campgrounds closed for the winter. Now that we are in Tennessee, there are some year round campgrounds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as well as more backcountry options along the Cumberland Trail that don’t require a long walk. Further south, there are parks in places like Florida that are open year round as well, so depending on how far you want to travel, a winter camping trip could be the perfect way to have a winter family vacation on a budget, and escape the snow if you are seeing a little too much of it at home!
When planning a tent camping trip in the winter, your gear is obviously going to be more important than in the warmer months. Check out a couple of these resources on winter camping when making your packing list, and then get outside! My daughter has been asking to go camping every other day for the last month, so a tent camping trip will undoubtedly be in our future this winter.
While most resorts and ski towns have plenty of condos and hotel rooms, those may be a little too close to the crowds if your goal is to spend time in nature. But wanting to escape the crowds doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t want easy access to activities like skiing, or visiting state and national parks. Whether you don’t have the winter gear for tent camping, or are trying to accommodate a large group of people with varying ideas of what “adventure” means, look to sites like vrbo.com or airbnb when planning your winter getaway! One of my fondest memories of time with my mom and sister was a trip to Wintergreen Resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains one January. We didn’t go anywhere near the slopes or resort itself, but enjoyed time spent in a small house nestled in the woods, walking to hiking trails and enjoying the quiet away from suburbia.
These rentals are also a great away to explore National Parks or Monuments outside of tourist season. And when traveling with children or large groups with varying needs, a rental home allows you to tailor your accommodations to exactly what works for your family.
Cabin camping is the “goldilocks” of winter camping for us. Finding a cabin isn’t usually difficult, and cabins come anywhere from fully equipped with electricity, a full kitchen, and television (such as in Tennessee State Parks), to primitive, with nothing more than a woodstove and bunk beds (such as the PATC cabins, stretching from Virginia to Pennsylvania).
Even in a primitive cabin, you have more shelter from the elements than you would tent camping–and more freedom to move around when you come in from a hike and want to stretch out! Both the Pocosin Cabin and Doyles River Cabin in Shenandoah National Park offer incredible views from a porch with an outdoor fireplace, where you can sit bundled up and soak in the stillness. Virginia State Parks have a nice balance between these two, by offering cabins with electricity, kitchens, and central heating, but without televisions or phones, so you can come in from a winter hike and thaw out, and still watch the snow fall outside, without ever having to get in the car.
And last but not least….
Okay but hear me out. Maybe this isn’t “outdoors” in the way that typically comes to mind when you picture winter adventure, but it is a new way to experience the outdoors, and can do so much for your mood if the bare trees are starting to get you down.
As mentioned above, there are some beach campgrounds that are open in the winter, but you could also look for RV parks if you have an RV/camper, or again, just find a vacation rental and book a trip. Billy and I LOVE the beach in winter. Sometimes I think I like it even better than the beach in summer. There is a peace that comes from listening to the crashing surf while bundled up and drinking a cup of coffee or hot cocoa, feeling the warmth from the sun despite the chill in the air, and watching the sand and waves without the crowds of people summertime brings. A long walk on the shoreline in hats and coats is as much a hike as trekking through the forest, and with a stretch of empty sand, it’s a great way for the kids to breathe in fresh air, and burn off energy by running as far as they can in a place where you can see where they are.
Whatever your plans are this winter–make the cold weather part of them! The world is such a beautiful place. And while winter is still probably my favorite season to hike, it’s becoming one of my favorite seasons for overnight adventures as well. It takes more planning and preparation, but getting out–whether it’s to the beach or the mountains–gets you up close and personal with the change in seasons, gives you a change in your personal scenery, and offers some excitement to kids that makes the darker months that much more fun.
In early 2017, we took our kids on a hike across the newly constructed T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge over the James River in Richmond. It started raining on our way back, and after more or less running to the car, Billy and I looked at each other and decided it was time to invest in better gear. If we wanted to get outside more during the cold months, we were going to have to find it in our budget to buy clothes that would keep us warm and still allow us to move comfortably. And that’s not a superfluous purchase; spending time outdoors in the wintertime is associated with better health and stronger immune systems, on top of being something we just flat out enjoy.
Outdoor and performance gear have hefty price tags, but in the end, you’re paying for something that lasts longer, and makes it easier to get out no matter the weather. Even on our tight budget, we plan for what we need so we can save to buy the right gear the first time, rather than having to replace something because it either didn’t suit our needs, didn’t last, or simply didn’t work. And while a lot of times off-brands are just as good as the big-names in outdoor gear, if you are looking to support smaller companies this year it can be hard to know where to start.
As a photographer for Hike It Baby, and a Ranger for The Dyrt, I have been exposed to a lot of great brands this year, and I’ve been even luckier that I’ve been able to test out a lot of this gear for free in exchange for reviews or photography. So just in time for the holiday gift-giving season, here are my top 5 gear recommendations of 2018 for outdoor families:
Bonus Stocking Stuffer!
Want a hiking-and-outdoor minded gift you can stick in a stocking and know it will get some use? Food. If your kids are anything like mine, snack time is their favorite part of any hike, and getting a special hiking snack will guarantee they want to get outside as soon as all the presents are opened. Healthy hiking snacks though…well, they aren’t always easy to come by unless you spend a lot of time trying to make your own. Wild Zora uses real meats and veggies in their bars, making it a snack that is high in protein and vitamins, low in carbs and processed ingredients, and has an almost melt-in-your-mouth texture. I have only had the BBQ Beef flavor so far, but am planning on trying out some of the others because I was so impressed.
With these recommendations, click on those links and start ordering! While I was able to get a lot of these products free, there is nothing on this list I would not be willing to pay full price for–I am actually planning on Wild Zora bars in everyone’s stocking this year, and will likely buy a new LuvBug towel next year so both of my kids can have their own. If you have outdoorsy kids or adults to buy for this year, make sure at least one of the above companies is on your list!
I’ve gotten more ambitious in our hiking distances. Kairi being old enough to walk 4-5 miles on her own, inspiration from other Hike It Baby families, and a desire to hike as much of Chattanooga as I can are mostly to blame for this. These factors have all combined so when I am planing a “family hike” day, I look for trails at least three miles in length.
Since our plans to backpack on the Cumberland Trail keep getting foiled somehow or another, a couple weeks ago we planned to do a longer day hike to try and make up for lost time in the woods. Our winter hats from Sunday Afternoons came in while I was in Virginia, and Billy and the kids had just gotten their brand new Merrells in the mail, and I was itching to get out and take some pictures of our new gear while there was still plenty of color on the trees.
The nice thing about the Cumberland Trail, is that it isn’t hard to find long trails that aren’t too difficult. On the flip side though–a lot of these segments are too long, even with my new ambitions. 11 and 12 mile stretches just won’t work with our kids, and while it’s easy to plan an out-and-back to waterfalls in this area, the weather was cool enough we didn’t want our family hike day to be cut short by a soaked toddler.
We settled on the southern stretch of the Soddy Creek Gorge segment. It isn’t far from home, and at 4.9 miles one way and only 450′ elevation gain, if we left a car at each trailhead it was more than doable for us. Based on the descriptions we read it seemed to have enough interesting points along it to keep the kids engaged, without being so interesting that they wouldn’t want to keep walking.
Our assumptions from reading about the trail turned out to be correct–other than in length, this is a relatively easy hike, with a lot of diversity in what you are walking past.
We started at the Mowbray Pike parking lot (after passing it several times–the turn-off is kind of hidden in the side of a hill!). Past the trail sign, the trail goes up a few wooden steps, and then starts a gentle decline through a pine forest. From the beginning you can see signs of the coal mining that used to happen in this area, from scraps of equipment to chunks of coal itself in the seams. At just over a quarter mile the trail opens up to the only real viewpoint you get outside of winter time, overlooking the town of Soddy-Daisy and the Sequoyah power plant cooling towers. Giant power lines are a big scar on an otherwise beautiful landscape, and we spent a decent amount of time here looking at the colors changing on the trees, with the kids exploring the edges of brush and being a little too brave while looking into the gorge below.
Enter the forest again and cross the Mikel branch; as predicted our kids wanted to play in the stream, so this may be the end of your hike on days with nicer weather if you have little ones. We managed to keep them out of the water, but it was hard since all I wanted to do was stare quietly at our surroundings rather than chase them back to dry land. Across the bridge was the last in our major kid-distractions; huge boulders just perfect for climbing on. There were a few other adults there who had packed in thick mats to place beneath them while they did some bouldering, but our kids wasted no time scrambling up the rocks with or without protective measures. We probably could have ended the hike here and let them play for a good hour, but as we’d gone through the effort to bring a car to both trailheads and were only half a mile into our hike, we did what we rarely do and pulled the kids away from their exploration in order to keep moving.
From here, the trail becomes–not boring, but faster-paced. The landscape changes more gradually, passing below bluffs, by a rock house that has been confirmed as a shelter for Native Americans, and across more coal seams. At just past two miles there is a large stone bench. Just as we were starting to worry about our pace as we hadn’t seen this yet, we finally did–only to realize this was the second stone bench, at mile 2.4. Right before the second bench we also saw some really awesome rock formations, including one that looked like a stack of pancakes, one that looked like a raven, and a tree growing up directly through a large boulder. The kids did a little more climbing, we stopped for a snack, and then continued on.
The next stretch of the trail was definitely my favorite part of it; after leaving the second stone bench, the trails winds along an escarpment with the valley to the right, before the left side drops into a former mine trench around mile 2.9, leaving a narrow strip of land at the top for the trail. We saw a lot of beautiful color in the trees, and it almost felt like were were gliding across the mountain. And while there are fewer places for little ones to play here, the many coal seams and the mine trench make for great conversations with about clean energy and the way the earth heals itself. (As an aside–since making the decision to homeschool this year I am always on the lookout for ways to bring learning into our everyday activities, and hiking is one of THE BEST ways to do this.) At the end of the trench the trail winds down, crosses the trench, and then follow a set of switchbacks back up; one of only two sections with any real elevation gain to speak of.
Now begins my least favorite part of the trail. By now the kids were starting to get tired and it was spitting rain at us, so I admittedly was just nervous about getting to the car before any meltdowns happened, but the weather and season made this section mostly just wet and dreary. The trail follows an old road from the mining days, so it is wide with heavy tree cover, and, at least when we were there, is very soggy. I suspect in springtime when the rhododendron is in bloom I would feel very differently about this section, or even summertime when the thick overhead and proximity to Soddy Creek would be a reprieve from the heat. In October with kids? I just wanted to be done.
The section ends after crossing a small bridge. We got very turned around here, as my guide referenced a blue-blazed trail spurring off to go to the Sluder Rd trailhead (where our other car was), and crossing a bridge to continue on the CT. There are two bridges. The first passes over a heavy drainage area before reaching a very well-marked intersection between the blue-blazed trail to the left, and the bridge over Soddy Creek to the right. On our trip even the stepping stones in this area were completely covered due to recent rain, and we kind of Gimli’d Sebastian over a particularly wet section, much to the amusement of all four of us.
From here the trail goes into its second elevation gain–a steep 200 feet in about .2 miles–while passing through the Little Soddy Historic Mining Area. Small historic markers make a good excuse to stop and catch your breath while you read them. Once at the top, cross a final bridge before arriving at the trailhead on Hotwater Rd. The parking lot is about 200ft to your left, at the intersection of Hotwater and Sluder.
Billy and I agreed once we were done, that this was one of our favorite trails in TN so far. Even at the end, with the threat of rain pressing in on us and the soggy ground zapping our energy, we could tell this was a trail that would have something to offer in any season, and we were both independently planning a trip here in the winter when you could see more of the valley as you walked. I have already recommended this to a local mom friend who was looking for a new place to take a group of older kids, on the basis of the bouldering. And in so many of the trails near Chattanooga, especially on Lookout Mountain and near Signal Point, there is still so much civilization to contend with–whether it’s seeing houses built onto the mountains or hearing traffic, there is a human impact you can’t escape. That was not the case on this section of trail, and that above all else may be why we all enjoyed it so much.
Overall Family-Friendly Rating: 4.5/5 The hardest part of this trail is definitely in its length, as far as going out with young kids is concerned. We managed the trail in about five hours, including our stops to play, eat, and one point when I realized I had dropped my phone and Billy backtracked for almost a mile before he found it. I think a mile per hour seems to be about our normal pace when the kids are doing most of their own walking however, so even with the length, the ease of the trail enabled us to maintain a child-friendly pace. The gorge presents a hazard because of its drop-off, but with the brush field to the left it’s not treacherous provided you keep your kids close during this stretch, and and creek/bouldering play should of course be done–or not done– with your kids limits in mind. To bring it up to a 5/5 rating I would suggest doing an out-and-back from the Mowbray Pike parking lot. Go as far as your kids feel comfortable with mileage-wise, but this is definitely the section very young kids are going to appreciate the most. In half a mile you get views, a creek, and rocks to climb on, with very little change in elevation–and if that doesn’t constitute a toddler-friendly hike then I’m really not sure what does!