“There’s a 50% chance of rain, but I am planning for this rain or shine.” That was one of the first sentences Dylan said to me when we first spoke on the phone regarding the pictures he wanted when he proposed to his girlfriend. I told him absolutely, sold on his romantic and adventurous spirit, and the location he had in mind.
I was referred to Dylan by a friend of his in the same local photographer’s facebook group I am in. He was looking for someone for a friend planning to propose, and that it would require a hike of about 15 minutes or so–in other words, the type of sessions I dream of booking. I was thrilled when Dylan contacted me saying he liked my portfolio and wanted to work together. We talked, and set up a day to meet at the trailhead so I could figure out where I would hide, and where he would make he would pop the question.
Aside from realizing just how out of shape I am when compared to a college athlete, the hike was worth every steep step to a beautiful overlook of the Hiwassee River–and isn’t heavily trafficked so we weren’t too worried about having to navigate around other hikers. Particularly with the forecast looking wetter and wetter.
And the day itself was indeed rainy–up until about the point I started driving out there. Then the rain cleared, giving way to a delightfully moody sky. I hiked up with my gear, met up with Dylan’s incredible best friends who had hiked a whole bench up to the overlook, and we all got into our positions. I learned pretty quickly that my knees are NOT cut out for hiding places where I have to squat–but then I heard voices, and Dylan and Sofie were in position, and I was able to stand up and start shooting.
Of course, Sofie said yes! Her reaction was perfect, and once Dylan pointed out to her that he had a photographer there, I was able to climb out of my hiding spot, and do an engagement session for them on the spot, and I could not have asked for better models. They were both so comfortable in front of the camera, are such attractive people, and they are so happy and in love. They hardly needed any prompting at all, and I was happy to sit back and just direct them to different spots on the overlook, all while clicking away at their natural interactions.
I’m so excited to finally share some of the images from their gallery now that they have had a chance to see all of them and tell their friends and family their good news.
Congratulations Dylan and Sofie! I wish you the best of luck in wedding planning, and a beautiful life together.
In trying to catch up on writing from this year, it feels appropriate to talk about a place of extreme days and nights on the day Daylight Savings Time ends for most of the US. So while most of this writing is several months old, this trip was such a highlight of my year, and so significant for my personal and business growth, I figure it’s better late than never.
When I spent most of January at my mom’s house watching her die, I told Billy one night on the phone that once it was all over, I wanted to go on a solo backpacking trip. Some time alone after taking care of the kids while he was still home due to work, and most importantly, time in nature to try and start healing from losing my remaining parent.
Life, as usual, had other plans. Not to mention, I like camping with my family. While I enjoy getting out solo, I miss Billy and the kids when they aren’t with me. I spend the whole time taking pictures of things I think they would like, and come home and want to share everything with them. So while I did a lot of camping in the early part of the year, none of it was on my own.
I had just about written off the idea that I would go through with this much needed self-care mission, when I saw a PNW photographer I admire post that she was hosting a workshop on family adventure photography….in Alaska.
Alaska is obviously far from Tennessee. It’s far from everything. I don’t really like flying, we definitely couldn’t afford for me to, Billy would have to take the weekend off since we couldn’t find childcare with his hours, and to do the trip would mean making it as short as possible which would leave me absolutely exhausted.
I cried. I wanted my mom. Normally I would call her with a decision like this. And she would either assure me that it was okay for me to go, or she would help me feel better about admitting that it wasn’t. But then—wasn’t I supposed to take a weekend to myself because of losing my mom anyway? And sure, I was thinking somewhere within an hour’s drive of home, not on the other side of the country, but the end result was the same. And being able to learn from someone I have long been inspired by? Plus Alaska has never been on Billy’s bucket list while it was on mine, so this way I could go without feeling like I was taking away from a vacation he wanted to take.
So, I bought a seat at the workshop and booked a plane ticket.
And two months later, I climbed into a shuttle at 2am to take me to the Atlanta airport so I could begin a very long—but very fulfilling—weekend to America’s Last Frontier.
I would be remiss if I didn’t give some much-earned credit to Ashley for the work she put into her class. Hosted at the gorgeous Yule Farm in Palmer, Ashley coordinated with several other vendors to make not just a great learning environment, but beautifully styled breakout sessions as well. As this was an introductory class, a lot of the material covered was information I learned in high school, but she presented it in such a fun and engaging way that I enjoyed watching the other students learn terms and tricks that I forget aren’t common knowledge.
I got to ask a lot of questions (probably too many!) on marketing and the business aspect of family adventure photography, and Ashley and I got to share some Hike It Baby stories, as she used to be a branch ambassador and photographer for HIB before stepping back to focus on her business. And best of all…getting to shoot against the backdrop of Alaska.
The weather was overcast so we didn’t have quite the view of the mountains I had dreamt of, but they were still there, and we still had brilliant greens, gorgeous clouds, and three wonderful families to work with. And introductory class or not, shooting alongside someone whose work I have found such inspiration in was worth the money and the travel alone—I have since had the chance to use some of her tricks and to adapt them to my own personality, and I feel so much more confident than I did before.
The workshop ended around 3pm and I stayed on the farm drinking coffee and talking to everyone until close to 5. In Tennessee, even in July, that would have made it hard to eat dinner and find a hike I could do and still get back to the car before it started getting dark. But not in the land of the midnight sun.
On the recommendation from the owners of the farm, I chose the West Butte Trail—a short but steep trail not far from “downtown” Palmer that afforded great views. The trail was rated as moderate on All Trails, and incidentally a week before I had hiked a trail near home that was considered “the hardest short trail in Georgia.”
Guess which one was harder. Everything is relative, or so they say.
I didn’t start hiking until close to 7pm, after stopping for a beer at Bleeding Heart Brewery, and even though I knew the sun wasn’t going to set until almost midnight, I was still largely in awe over just how light it was outside. I also left my bear spray in my rental car, so made a bit of a fool of myself by shouting before turning any corners, because I knew my experience with black bears in the Appalachians was no preparation for the wildlife in Alaska.
The trail was not the steepest I’ve hiked but wasn’t easy—721′ in just over a mile, mostly in the 505 stairs leading to the top–but worth every single heart-pounding step for the views once you were done. Because it was so late I had the summit to myself, save for one trail runner who passed through while I was attempting a self-portrait. I stayed at the summit for…who knows how long. Just admiring. Admiring the distant glaciers, admiring the low-flying planes landing so close in the valley, and admiring the way the light caught the dust in the air and made the landscape look like an oil painting. I have wanted to go to New Zealand for almost half my life. Since I first saw Lord of the Rings, I knew—I had to go there. If I had realized that Alaska was just as beautiful, just as expansive and majestic, and so much more accessible—I would have been there so much sooner.
My goal was to make it back to Anchorage in time to catch the sunset over the bay and hopefully catch a glimpse of Denali, but the double rainbow I saw in the parking lot of the trail distracted me and I hit traffic on the way back, so I ended up watching the last of the light fade from a black sand beach in a city park, too dark to take pictures without a tripod, but lovely nonetheless.
And while the night before exhaustion had claimed me and I got a hotel instead of embracing the bohemian life and sleeping in my car, on my second night, I picked up the most delicious pizza I have had in my life, and ate that while drinking lukewarm beer in the airport parking lot, before catching an hour of sleep and heading back into another day of travel.
I mention Seattle, just because I chose my flight itinerary based around having a 12 hour layover–or one short day–in the Emerald City (apologies, “Wicked” fans–it was stuck in my head the entire time I was there so you must suffer/enjoy with me). I’ve been watching Grey’s Anatomy since 2006, and Starbucks has been paying our bills and providing my health insurance for most of my married life, so Seattle has long been on my list of places I wanted to visit. And ultimately, Seattle is a city, like any city—but the day I was there the weather was amazing, I got to ride the ferry, and I determined that Bainbridge Island is truly #goals and I hope the people who live there take a few moments every day to appreciate their surroundings. One day I’ll be back to get a closer look at Rainier.
My final flight landed in Atlanta Monday morning, not quite 72 hours after I left. I ate my last slice of pizza while waiting for my shuttle, and watched reruns of Grey’s on the way home and got to think “I’ve been there!” on every establishing shot of Seattle. But mostly, I thought of Alaska. The stories I would tell my kids, the pictures I would show them. The gratitude I felt for Ashley for hosting the workshop and for treating me like a friend despite my thinly-veiled fangirling. My love for Billy for supporting me in something so expensive and spontaneous. And the pride in myself for leaning into the fear and choosing adventure.
It’s been a fast and short year. It feels like we were baking under the sun off Little Tybee Island only a few weeks ago, when it’s been almost six months, while in the moment time has stretched us thin. Hiking slowed down a little over the summer–after our whirlwind of camping almost every weekend in the spring, I had to stop and take care of things related to my mom’s estate, and the oppressive Tennessee humidity made it hard to feel motivated to go sweat it out on a mountain somewhere.
Still, adventures happened! We managed to find a few new local trails, and to get in a little bit of travel back to the Smokies and Pisgah National Forest. One of the trails we hit during this time was Andrew’s Bald, located right next to Clingman’s Dome–the highest point in the whole park and the tallest peak both in Tennessee, and on the entirety of the Appalachian Trail.
The kids and I hiked Clingman’s Dome last summer, and I honestly wasn’t that impressed. Not to say the views were not utterly incredible–but the crowds were so intense at the lookout that it was hard to really be able to enjoy them. I very much want to make it to the observation tower for sunrise sometime, where I can take my time and soak it in. But for this hike, our goal was a trail that started at the base of the Clingman’s Dome trail–the 3.5 mile out-and-back to Andrew’s Bald along the Forney Ridge Trail.
Before my mom died, I was dreaming up a plan to hike, camp, and backpack through as much of the Smokies as possible, with the goal of writing a hiking guide for families. One of the first trails I planned for was the journey to Andrew’s Bald; in part because it’s so easy to find the trailhead, and in part because I liked the idea of providing a way of extending a trip deeper into the forest for people wanting to check Clingman’s Dome off their list but still wanting more of a true “hike.”
Our goal for this hike was to walk in the dark and get to the bald in time to watch the sunrise. We left our house in the middle of the night for the three hour drive up to the parking lot…but when we got there, we were encased in the typical fog that usually covers the high peaks of the Smokies. We still had an hour or so before we had to start walking, and Billy and I decided that we’d sleep a little in the car instead of waking the kids. And then the alarm went off, and it was still foggy. And as I stared out the car windows, unable to see stars or trees, I heard the voice of Susan Clements in my head, asking me why I thought it was a good idea to set off on an unfamiliar trail in the dark fog, with my very small children. I thanked her, shut off the alarm, and went back to sleep.
Instead, we watched the “sunrise” from the parking lot–the fog was still present, the clouds were thick, and we were grateful we hadn’t made the trek in the dark for what amounted to just a gradual lightening of the area. We ate our breakfast sandwiches and made coffee in the parking lot, and had boots on the trail a little before 8am.
The trail is fairly straightforward: the trailhead is off to the far left at the end of the parking lot; if you head up the concrete path to the Clingman’s Dome visitor’s center you’ve passed it. The trail descends for about .1 mile before reaching an intersection with the Clingman’s Dome Bypass Trail. To the right is an alternate route to the observation tower via the AT if you want more dirt and quiet instead of a paved trail and crowds, but to get to Andrew’s Bald you’ll go left, sticking with the Forney Ridge Trail. Here you continue heading down the mountain, and the trail is very rocky at the point. There are steps that help with navigation, courtesy of the trail work of the Friends of the Smokies and Trails Forever program. After another .2 miles or so the trees will open up to the right affording some beautiful views, depending on visibility, before closing off again and taking you deeper into the forest.
A little past the half mile point the trail flattens out a little. There are several footbridges through this section, and while it was very dry the day we were there, there was plenty of evidence of how wet it can get. We used this as an opportunity to teach the kids how to read the ground and see where water would flow when it rained, and how it caused trail erosion, and the importance of the footbridges to help protect the land from foot traffic caused by hikers.
At .9 miles there’s another intersection; here the Forney Creek trail turns to the right and continues to a couple of the backcountry campsites. Continue straight and the trail begins its ascent to the summit. The total elevation gain here is around 200′, with more steps to help you along, and is overall a fairly gentle incline stretching about half a mile total. Evident along the entire hike are dead trees, casualties of the Balsam Woolly Adelgid that has killed so many of the trees in the southern Appalachian region. (Kairi asked if the dead trees were caused by the Gatlinburg wildfire of 2016, a story that stuck with her for its horror and tragedy. “No,” we tell her. “This is because of an invasive species.” Unschooling provides so many learning opportunities, and so many rabbit trails for our kids’ education to follow.) In this section however, fir trees are abundant. The smell is so fresh, damp, and green, and this early in the morning with the trail to ourselves, it’s like we are hiking through the edges of Narnia.
The last few hundred yards before the bald descend a gradual 100′, but there are a lot of rocks and roots to navigate, so watch your footing. The trail then takes you out of the forest and into the bald–your first views are to the right, and then to the left, and then it opens up. I was expecting full 360 degree views like on Max Patch, but the bald here still has a lot of vegetation–wildflowers, fir trees, and thick clumps of rhododendron and azalea. It was unfortunately still very foggy when we were there so we could only occasionally see the shadows of other mountains, but it was enough to promise that on a clear day it would be quite beautiful.
We found a resting place on the summit to eat our snacks, and took another learning opportunity to remind the kids about the importance of staying off the wildflowers. And I would be remiss without a reminder here–they are very fragile, and super important to the ecosystem of the bald. There are several paths that have already been cut across through the grasses, and it is essential to stick to them. If my feral three year old can do it, anyone can!
To get back just retrace your steps–keeping in mind that about 700′ of the total elevation change of the trail occupies the last .9 miles on the way back to the parking lot, so bring snacks filled with energy, and make sure you have enough water for the return trip!
Special note: Every review I read about this trail warned that it was very popular, and to get out early. I felt like we ended up with a late start, so I was surprised that on the way out to the bald we didn’t see any other hikers. However while we were eating we heard several other groups–including an extremely large church group–above us, and on the way back out we easily passed 50 other people (many of whom lapped us at our painfully slow child-led pace). And while we were the first ones in the parking lot when we got there around 3am, by the time we got off the trail the parking lot was almost completely full. So definitely plan this one early unless you want to share the trail with a lot of other people.
Overall Family-Friendly rating: 4/5. This is a great trail for older kids, or for kids in carriers. Because it’s close to 4 miles round trip after you explore the summit, it would be hard for toddlers and young preschoolers to do on their own. I had forgotten to switch our toddler carrier to Billy’s car when we left home, and we ended up carrying him in our arms back up most of the return trip as his little legs were just too tired–particularly combined with very little sleep the night before. Kairi did fine however until the very end, and I think if she’d gotten a proper sleep laying down instead of a few hours in the car she would have been fine. But this trail is easy to find, easy to follow, and not very technical, and has a lot of interesting rocks and trees to explore. And the smell. It’s worth it for the smell. My only kid-friendly detractor for this trail is the distance, so if your kids can handle that, I highly recommend this one!
Late spring was a busy time for us. I had several client sessions, back-to-back camping trips, a lot of time spent trying to clean out my mom’s house, and the end of the Girl Scout season to wrap up.
When we got home from our trip to Little Tybee Island in May, we were all suitably exhausted, and agreed that while we were happy for all of our adventuring…we needed some time at home.
So naturally, right after that, The Dyrt announced a program for their Rangers that involved free camping during the month of June, and well…who wants to turn down free camping?
June was already pretty busy for us, but we managed to find time to book two of the campgrounds available for reimbursement. The first of these was at Greenheart Forest in Pisgah National Forest, which happened to be right in the backyard of Max Patch. I invited Jordi and her kids, and despite the abysmally wet forecast, the kids and I set off Friday afternoon for what we hoped would be a trip filled with friends and hiking.
As circumstances would have, this was a wet, wet, wet, trip. The ground was squishy, firewood was sopping, and the rain Friday night got heavier and heavier. Jordi wasn’t going to be able to make it until the next day which left me setting up the tent alone in the rain, and I was nervous because the website for Greenheart Forest stated that only vehicles with 4WD would be able to get the 200 yards from the parking area to the campsites.
That turned out to be true. Maybe in dry weather my RAV4 could have handled it, but certainly not in a torrential downpour. Thankfully David, the campground host/owner, offers a portage service for only $5. But then as we were unpacking the car, I discovered Billy had failed to pack…the rainfly for our tent. Cue facepalm.
David to the rescue again—one of his campsites has a 10 person tent already set up with cots and chairs; his “glamping” site. It was an extra fee, but one I was happy to pay in order to have a dry place to sleep, and I promised Billy I was okay with it because his error led to us having a tent already set up and ready to go—and much larger than the tent we brought.
Personal mishaps aside, once we finally got settled in we were in love. It’s a statement to this place that even with all of those mishaps, I was able to keep a positive—if not harried—attitude, and that David was patient and kind to us the entire time, whatever his first impressions of me must have been.
This is, more than a campground, a place of healing. Educated and certified in Forest Bathing, David and his wife have created a place at Greenheart Forest for meditation, quiet, and eco therapy. The grounds around the lodge are filled with pollinator gardens and a communal fire pit, and inside the lodge are books on forest bathing, plant identification, and terrapsychology. As you progress to the campsites, he has a gorgeously constructed zen garden–one that provided Jordi and I with a place to breathe, and the kids enjoyed raking the sand, bringing them a sense of grounding they didn’t even realize they were getting.
There are five campsites total, and all of them are very large and fairly spaced out. We were in site 2 due to needing the tent, and it was perfect for us. The site is huge, with a large fire ring and plenty of space for us to set up our screen house and an additional tent, with room to spare. Of the other sites, one has a sun shade already set up, one has several wooden benches around the fire ring, and while the other two are smaller they are extremely private. All sites have picnic tables, giving the feeling of front country camping, while still in a very primitive, backcountry space. The lodge is available for water, a bathroom, and even a shower, and there is a small pop-up shelter over a bucket that serves as a privy if you want privacy without the walk back to the lodge.
Past the campground, the road leading to the sites turns into a trail that connects with the Buckeye Ridge Trail, and then to Max Patch. Due to time and weather we ended up driving the short distance from the campground to the Max Patch trailhead, but it is only a 3 mile round trip hike, and one I would plan for on a return visit.
There is a magic to this place. It was cloudy and raining most of our trip, but we had a brief time in the morning when it was just me and the kids when the sun tried to poke through the dripping leaves, twinkling like magic in the trees. And all through the day, when it wasn’t actively raining, mist and fog drifted in and out over our heads. Our kids showed calm and creativity, and there were far fewer squabbles than there usually are when getting that many kids close in age together. Jordi and I, perpetually on our journey of healing from our losses, felt at peace. I didn’t even mind the rain, wet as we all were. As if the rain was for cleansing, as it passed through the energy of the forest.
Overall Family-Friendly Rating: 4/5. This is a hard one to rate. Because the purpose of this campground is to give people a place to find peace, I felt the need to keep my kids a little on the quieter side, and of course reminding them that the zen garden and the lodge were not for playing, but for meditation and learning. While David never made us feel like our children were unwelcome, if there were more campers I would have been worried our noise may have disturbed others’ purpose for being that.
All that said, if you can make it during a time when it is not busy, or your family dynamic is one where the kids are fine playing with nature, this place is amazing. There is such a gentle energy, and rather than camping in the forest, you really are camping with the forest. David and Jeanette’s love for sharing the outdoors is apparent, and ultimately as long as your family is there to share that love, it won’t matter if the kids are a little rowdy.
We went to Richmond last weekend, for a trip of many purposes. Most of it was family-related, but we also wanted to celebrate Kairi’s birthday a little early at Bear Creek Lake State Park, as we have done the last two years. She was sad to miss it there this year, so we surprised her with camping and all of her friends at her favorite lake.
In addition to talking about how great it was to see each other, and remarking on how much all the kids have grown, one of the most common things I heard, while surrounded by most of my favorite people, was commenting on all of our adventuring lately.
“You are always going somewhere! I’m so jealous, I wish we could plan for things like that.”
“I’ve been nervous taking the kids camping, but you do it all the time, and you’ve inspired me to try!”
“I love that you share everything on your blog and Instagram, it’s like I get to live vicariously through you!”
Me. The woman who scrolls through instagram covered in kids while my coffee sits in the windowsill and gets cold. Thirty blog posts in my head I’ll never write, watching whatever my kids have on tv while I try to muster up the gumption to get us out of the house for the day. Looking at other mamas who are section hiking the AT, or checking off National Parks, or doing trans-continental bike-packing trips.
Conversations like that make me take a good look at how much of my adventure planning is wanderlust, and how much of it is just FOMO. With the ability to be so connected to everyone else’s adventures, it’s easy to forget just how many people aren’t having epic adventures every day. And to remember that when I look at my circle–my actual circle, not my instagram feed–that we are still pretty adventurous. My kids ask to hike. Almost daily. For our morning tv binges over coffee and “morning milk,” they spend most of the afternoon outside. Part of their pretend play lately has been being thru-hikers on the AT. We have to play “hostel” a lot, where they knock on a door and I let them in to spend the night before they get back on the trail the next morning. Their art is almost exclusively comprised of sunsets, mountains, and tents, and Kairi’s most prized birthday present is a book on plant identification.
It’s true that social media doesn’t tell the whole story. For every adventure the people I referenced above are having, I don’t know how much time they spend NOT adventuring. As a photographer I know all too well how many moments happen in between the ones we capture, edit, and send out to the world. And honestly–this year has been exhausting. I remember a time when camping meant planning. Writing out a camping-specific grocery list, pulling our gear out two days before we left to make sure we had everything, making a list and checking it twice. Now my car is still half packed from the last trip most of the time, and we have forgotten everything from our rain fly, to extra diapers. Minimalist? Sure. And a great exercise in being flexible and learning to improvise. But the constant go-go-go, the need to jump at every opportunity that comes our way, take advantage of every gap in Billy’s schedule where we can fit in a camping trip?
I hate to say it…but it almost makes camping feel like work.
I’ve been using adventure as a way of avoiding my grief over my mom. And while I don’t regret a single one of our trips, and I love how many places we have gone and how ready the kids are to just get in the car and go… I miss the lazy camping trips where we went somewhere familiar, and stayed for a few days. Where we weren’t rushed, and we weren’t chasing anything down, weren’t crashing in a tent on our way to the Next Place, but we were just there for the quiet, and the nature.
I’m not going to stop looking at what I could be doing. It’s how I get ideas. It’s how I find inspiration on the days that my depression makes me want to stay under the covers and disappear. I might not make it to the spectacular locations I see others posing in front of, but it might get me onto a local trail for the day instead. Or I may shoehorn in a trip because let’s face it, give me a day or two at home and I am itching to see somewhere new. And my local trail, or last-minute trip may be all that it takes for someone else to remember that their adventures are however they define them. Even if it’s their own back yard.
May is our time of year for secluded beach adventures, it seems.
Last year we took a bikepacking trip to False Cape State Park, which still remains one of my favorite beach trips ever. Living in Tennessee, beach trips are fewer and further between, but we are finding ways to fit them in regardless. We went to Little Talbot Island State Park in Florida back in January (and I will review this at some point!). Hoping for something a little closer with camping directly on the shore this time, I did some research, and we settled on Little Tybee Island, off the coast of Georgia near Savannah.
There is a campground on Tybee Island proper, but it’s expensive, a good half a mile from the shore, and definitely geared more towards RVs than tents. We wanted oceanfront camping. Camping where we can look out of the tent and see the sea. Little Tybee Island promised this, but at a price: there is no vehicular or foot access in. The only way to reach the island is by boat or kayak, and once there, there is, well, nothing. At least, nothing man-made. A state nature preserve, the island is entirely undeveloped, and other than the kayak tours that run from the main island and anyone adventurous enough to camp there, it’s fairly untouched by humans at all.
Most importantly, we LOVED this trip. I need to preface with that, because this was not an easy trip, and not one that I broadly recommend. Most of my takeaways from this trip are ways to prepare, things we learned, and warnings for anyone looking to head out there–but also that it was incredible. We just stood there a few times just talking to each other in awe. “This is GEORGIA.” I kept repeating. “Who knew you could have this in Georgia?”
So with that said, here are some facts about this island that made me question upfront if it was a good choice, and that made it one of our more challenging family adventures:
Accessing it. You need to have your own boat/kayak (or have the means to hire someone to take you out there) and need to be able to navigate ocean currents.
Wildlife. The island is home to alligators, several species of venomous snakes, wild hogs, raccoons, and tons of bugs, in addition to waters FULL of jellyfish.
Tides. The tides on Little Tybee are extreme, and once the tide came in we were fully and completely trapped where we had chosen to camp. Because many areas become inaccessible once the tide comes in it’s important to know when and where it will rise.
The elements overall. The areas accessible for humans have little shade, and the place we camped faced southeast. It makes a beautiful landscape, but one with direct sunlight that lasts most of the day, and little reprieve from the wind.
There is no drinking water on the island–not even water that can be filtered.
So, why did I look at all of that and think, hmm, this sounds like a great trip to do with a three and five year old?
Because of this:
We are a family of beach bums, but we are also a family of nature-lovers. While taking a day trip to the boardwalk at Virginia Beach and sitting with the crowds for a couple of hours was always welcome beach time, Billy and I have gladly sought out quieter coastal spaces since we’ve been together. It was true before we had kids, but now especially, we love being in a place where the kids have so much flat, open space to explore. And this island had the added bonus of an “oak graveyard” right next to one of the recommended camping hammocks, which made an amazing natural playground for the kids when the tide was out. They could be as loud as they wanted, could run as far as we could see them, could splash and come right back to camp, and we had a home base steps from all of this natural play space–no dealing with hotel elevators or having to drive back to a campground. Plus being in an undeveloped area allows so many teaching moments. We saw sea turtle tracks. The kids found a live horseshoe crab and a live starfish. They dug up clam and oyster shells. We talked about the tides, and ocean currents, and water safety, and lunar gravity. There were so many different birds–and while not a pleasant learning experience, there was even a bird carcass near us that allowed for a conversation about decomposition and why bugs are important even if they are a nuisance.
So going back to the challenges, how did we prepare for them, and what advice do I have for anyone else hoping to make this trip?
Know your water skills. This was our first time sea kayaking, so in addition to time out on local waterways, I did a lot of research, watched videos of other people paddling at this location, talked to experienced sea kayakers, and we asked locals for the best place to land on the island. Preparation is essential.
Learn about the wildlife, and talk to your kids about it. We didn’t end up seeing any land critters (except some lizards), but once we planned the trip we talked about what to do if we saw a gator or hog, and we played “snake” with phone cords. Make it fun and make it a learning experience–for everyone. I have been scared of alligators forever, but after preparing for this trip I am admittedly a teeny bit disappointed we didn’t see any. And bring bug spray, because they are relentless.
Have a way of monitoring tide charts. Before you go, and while there. Head out to the island while the tide is going out, and leave when the tide is coming in, or you’ll be fighting the current your whole ride. (And hug the sandbar on your way back in! We missed this piece of advice and really could have used it!) Make sure to set up camp well above the tide line as well. We got cell service out there, but something like this emergency crank radio from Midland to monitor weather was also really helpful.
In addition to sunscreen, I strongly recommend UPF resistant clothing. Sunscreen is no fun to apply when covered in sand–which you will be, the whole time you are there. And as the day moves on, the UPF clothing (or towels, like the ones from luvbugcompany) protect not just from sunburn but keep your skin cool against the heat of the sun. I think of all my warnings, this is the one I need to stress the most–it is harsh out there. There really is no reprieve from hot sun and high temperatures, and when the tide is coming in the wind picks up. Failure to adequately prepare for this can make everyone miserable.
Make sure however you come in, you are able to pack in lots of water. We used it for drinking, cooking, first aid, and hand-washing. I usually bring electrolyte tablets like the ones from Nuum with us on hikes, but this time I brought packets of Liquid IV hydration boosters because I was worried about running out of water, and wanted what we brought to go as far as it could. We took a 5 gallon container in addition to some water bottles and that was enough–but if we had stayed any longer it wouldn’t have been, and that was with also having sparkling water, juice boxes, and beer in the cooler for extra drinks.
Instead of a family-friendly rating, I’m going to break this down more into categories. The family-friendliess of it has way more to do with your individual family’s adventure preferences and everyone’s comfort level.
Privacy: 5/5. You don’t have complete isolation. There are companies that run kayak tours here during the day in addition to the locals who come out, and when we pulled in Sunday morning the hammock that had been recommended to us for camping was occupied with a group who spent the weekend there–but once the tide started coming in Sunday afternoon, everyone left and we had the place entirely to ourselves. And even at the most “crowded,” there was still far fewer people than you’d find on a mainland beach in May. Plus, the island is huge, so depending on your paddling skills you can always find somewhere else to camp if the hammock near the oak graveyard is occupied.
Safety: 3/5. There are far more environmental hazards here than I think anywhere else we have camped as a family. I cut my foot badly on oyster shells our first day there, and that’s in addition to all of the wildlife and elemental dangers listed above. These can all be prepared for, but they do require preparation, and should not be underestimated.
Amenities: 0/5.There aren’t any. Period.
Activities: 5/5. So, so, so many. I mean–there’s kayaking obviously. Swimming. Sandcastle building. Shelling. Bird-watching. Fishing. Downed oaks everywhere that make a natural jungle gym. There is a sandbar that stretches from Tybee Island to just offshore of Little Tybee during low-tide you can paddle to for wide-open running. I saw videos of people harvesting their own oysters. Think of a beach activity that doesn’t require man-made intervention, this place has it.
For the work that goes into this trip, it’s not for someone who only wants to relax at the beach. But if you want the adventure along with the beauty, this trip is so, so, so worth it. Anytime you can combine falling asleep in a tent with falling asleep to the sound of the ocean is a good time in my book, and having so much to explore was great for all of us. We all got sunburnt, and we all came home absolutely exhausted, but despite all of that, I would go back next week if we could.
Have you been there? If you have, or if you end up going, I would love to hear what your experience is like!
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:
Two adults is going to be a must for awhile. A newly three-year-old still needs to be carried a lot, so having a second set of shoulders to lug gear is a necessity so adult #2 can take on toddler-carrying duties
We are in no way ready for cold weather backpacking, and probably won’t be until our kids start sleeping in their own bags instead of wanting to snuggle up with us
Warm weather backpacking on the other hand I think is very doable to far more remote locations, when the nights are still warm enough that blankets (like the ones from Rumpl) are enough to stay warm.
Mountain House meals are amazing, and should be in everybody’s emergency food supply
Hot chocolate is an excellent remedy for the problem of “how do you keep milk cold while backpacking.” Both of our “I must have milk at bedtime” kids were satisfied by having hot cocoa instead.
A bear canister is now on our future-purchases list. Kids are messy and generate a lot of trash, meaning dirty clothes and a lot more to store at night than just food. And once they are ready for bed, they are ready. Having an easier method of storing food/trash than hanging a bear bag is going to be a necessity if we want to continue backpacking.
And finally–our kids loved it. We set up camp about halfway between the bald and the dispersed camping area (officially, camping is not allowed on the bald, though you’d never know it for how many people ignored that rule), at a previously used site near the trees. The kids loved having dinner on the bald, making friends with other hikers and their dogs, and playing frisbee to one of the best sunsets they have seen in their lives.
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.
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!
Overall Family-Friendly Rating: 4.5/5
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.