Campground Review: Balsam Mountain

After we announced we were leaving RVA, a close friend in HIB told me she and her family were taking a southeastern road trip in August that included two nights in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and asked if we wanted to camp with them. Of course I was more than happy to make the drive, not just to see friends I knew we would be missing terribly by then, but also to see the Smokies. Jordi gave the names of a few campgrounds they were considering, and we settled on Balsam Mountain, due to its higher elevation, and the promise that it would be less occupied than the other GSMNP campgrounds.

The first thing you notice about this campground, is the fog. At 5,310′ elevation, it sits comfortably in the clouds–or at least it did while we were there, and it was present the whole time we were at the campground.

Our plan was to try and share one site between both families. However, when I got there with my kids, it was obvious the tent pad was not large enough even for two small tents, and as rest of the site was very hilly I chose to book the site next to hers. Between the intense fog that kept a layer of dampness all over the ground, and the promise of rain at night, I wanted us in our six person tent rather than my “two person” bivvy style backpacking tent.

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There’s a dishwashing station somewhere in all that fog…

The campground itself–or what we could see of it through the fog–is very lovely. And the fog and cooler weather gave it an eerie, late October feel that all of our kids really enjoyed. The elevation is high enough to have coniferous trees mixed in with the hardwoods, and despite the crowds on the trails lower on the mountains, there were hardly any other people at Balsam Mountain. Our sites were very near the entrance and just a couple of sites down from the campground hosts, and aside from them we only had one other occupied site nearby. We were also near bathrooms with flush toilets and a solar light for after dark, as well as a separate dishwashing station. On a future trip I would definitely choose a site further back in the loop, but considering the utter lack of privacy our location allowed, between the fog and the low occupancy, we still had the impression of having the place to ourselves.

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Exploring the upper GSMNP flora

Positive elements of this campground:

  • Low occupancy, even during one of the busiest weeks of summer.
  • Temperatures around 15 degrees lower than at the foot of the mountain–a welcome escape from the 90 degrees temps of the south in late August.
  • Varying privacy of sites–we stayed in sites 38 and 39 which were right on the road and right next to the camp hosts, however on exploring the rest of the loop, there are sites that step down from the road and offer more room for kids to run around, and “walk-in” sites only a few dozen yards from the parking area, but without separate driveways per site.
  • A trailhead at the campground. We did not end up hiking this due to the fog and how close to dark it was when we got to camp each night, but it allegedly has incredible sunset views, and is easy for all skill levels.

Negative elements of this campground: 

  • Small tent pads. Our Coleman Evanston 6 *barely* fit; I was not able to stake down one corner because it hung just over the edge of the wooden barrier.
  • “Helicopter” campground hosts. A bear sighting was reported right around the time we arrived, and it led to the hosts being far more involved in the supervision of our children than either family was comfortable with. Particularly when one of the hosts tried to use fear as a method of keeping Jordi’s three-year-old from leaving the campsite. I understand their concern, and they probably thought we were not taking the bear threat seriously (we were), but few things annoy me more than having to helicopter my children because I’m worried about other adults interfering.
  • Everything is damp. I don’t know how seasonal this is; this campground is closed November-April, and earlier in the summer may be drier, but be prepared for your stuff to get wet. We also had torrential rain our second night there.
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The two big kids working on their Junior Ranger badges in the car, while we took down camp in the rain

Overall Family Friendly Rating: 4/5. Families who are not used to rugged spaces may find Balsam Mountain intimidating because of its isolation and the presence of wildlife, but I think that makes this an excellent place to give small kids a touch of backcountry while keeping the comforts of car camping. I hope that our experience with the campground hosts is not common; we got there late Sunday and spent most of Monday exploring the lower parts of GSMNP, but I got the feeling that either Jordi or I would have ended up unleashing our inner Mama Bears had we stayed up there during the day, just to remind the hosts who the actual parents were. The only other element of this campground that would make it hard for kids was just how damp it was. The fog was incredible, but keeping clothes/diapers/toys dry is more important with very young kids than if you were just there with teenagers/other adults. Fortunately as it is car camping we just kept anything we didn’t want to get wet in the cars.

Of note: this was my first camping trip with kids where I went the entire time without Billy, and I had absolutely no issue at this campground. There are very few environmental hazards other than wildlife, so as long as you follow proper food storage procedures and make sure the kids are within sight, this is a great place to let them explore.

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On the way to Clingman’s Dome; not Balsam Mountain, but an idea of the clouds settling on the mountain peaks

 

 

 

Trail Review: Ozone Falls

Ozone Falls is the first wilderness hike that Kairi ever went on. At the time, I was a new mom and still very nervous about anything other than flat surfaces while babywearing, so we didn’t even make it halfway. Now that we live in TN, when I heard about a trail clean-up day at Ozone it seemed like a perfect opportunity to give back, get the kids involved in trail stewardship, and finish the hike.

Located in Crab Orchard, Tennessee, Ozone Falls is only a few miles off I-40, and is thus extremely popular due to its ease of access. Fun note–It was also used in filming of the live action version of The Jungle Book, adding to its notoriety, along with its beauty. I have family very near the trailhead so have driven past a lot since moving, and it’s not uncommon to see both the parking lot and overflow lot across US-70 full on weekends.

The hike to the top of the falls can hardly even be called a hike–it’s about a tenth of a mile along flat slabs of sandstone to Fall Creek, where the water rushes quickly over a ledge. If you are careful, you can stand at the edge and watch the water crashing into the pool below, but getting in the water up here is not recommended; the current is strong, and there are deaths reported each year from people who go over the edge of the falls.

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A long, long drop. And me trying not to have a panic attack behind the camera.

The hike to the base of the falls is short. Adults and older kids shouldn’t have an issue, but younger kids and babywearing moms will probably find it difficult, especially if there’s been rain recently. From the parking area off US-70, head west for about 100 yards, and after a short scramble down to the road, the trail turns left. From here it is very rocky, descending beside the sandstone bluffs you walked on if you went to the top of the falls. The rocks are very slippery when wet, and a small creek can form along the trail during rainy periods. About halfway down the trail levels out, leading to another view of the falls. To hike the rest of the way to the base, the trail continues its descent to the right of the bluffs, following another short rocky pass before leveling out again between the pool at the bottom of the falls, and where Fall Creek re-emerges from its brief journey underground a few feet west of the falls. Down here you can swim, picnic, or explore more along Fall Creek, before retracing your steps out to get back to the parking lot.

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The view from the halfway point. Toddler for scale.

Because we were doing clean-up on our more recent trip we moved at a slow pace, but it had rained that morning, which meant Kairi needed extra help on the rocks. I had Sebastian in our Beco carrier and let him out halfway to the falls. He attempted the final descent on his own, but quickly decided he’d rather be carried after slipping and sliding several times on the wet rocks and muddy ground. Going back up, the biggest challenge was again the slick rocks.

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Lots and lots of water after the morning rains–but fun “caves!”

Overall Family-Friendly Rating: 3.5. On a drier day, and with another adult, this would be a great challenging trail to do with kids. Kairi enjoyed herself quite a bit–the trail afforded plenty of opportunities for rock scrambling and puddle jumping–two of her favorite hiking activities–and the bluffs have a couple of recesses that look like small caves that she wanted to climb in. She did need a hand getting back up, but she made it down just fine on her own, and was upset when I told her we weren’t going to swim in the pool at the base of the falls. And Sebastian liked being on his own in the flatter areas–he is going through a “scared of everything” phase or I think he would have liked climbing the steeper, rockier areas as well, and adventurous toddlers should be able to do this trail with a grown-up close by.

However, the hazards here should not be overstated. I would not let a toddler on their own at the top of the falls, and was nervous having Kairi walking up there. There is a brief part of the trail where you are right beside US-70, and then of course if the rocks are slick there are fall hazards the whole way down. As mentioned before it can also get quite crowded here, so take into consideration your child’s comfort level around other people when planning this hike.

All that said however, the trail is so short, and the falls so beautiful, that as long as your family is adequately prepared, Ozone Falls is a great addition to any waterfall-chaser’s bucket list. And because of its proximity to I-40, is a great addition to any road trip through Tennessee!

Trail Review: Cravens House Trail to Sunset Rock

It’s been almost a month since National Summit Day, so I am very, very, very overdue in sharing this trail! Between camping trips and writing about Virginia, I’m behind in covering some of our TN hiking adventures, and this one is a great place to start.

We did this trail shortly after getting into our new house. After a week of unpacking, painting, and unpacking some more, we knew we wanted to get out on the trail as a family. And since the buzz around Backpacker’s National Summit Day tugged at my instagrammer heart, I figured, we’re in a place where the mountains AREN’T a two hour drive now, let’s take advantage of it and find some views! So I set out to find a summit. And was quickly reminded of why I started blogging about our hikes in the first place–it is so hard to find trail recommendations for small children that aren’t just nature parks!

Sunset Rock on Lookout Mountain came up in my searches repeatedly however, and after looking at several websites I decided we would hike to it from Cravens House. The internet promised ample parking and the option of a 1.5 mile out and back, which seemed more than doable for us–long enough to feel like a hike, but short enough that it wouldn’t eat up our entire day.

The trailhead is easy to find, and the trail itself starts off relatively flat, before taking a left turn after a couple tenths of a mile. From there the trail follows a gentle incline up the west side of the mountain for the remainder of the first mile. This stretch of trail is wide, well-worn, and had we not been worried about time, I would have definitely let Sebastian walk on his own. At one mile, a second trail branches off to the left to go to Point Park, and the Cravens Trail continues to the right. Here, the elevation gain increases a little, as do some hazards that would make this a little more difficult for a toddler–bridges, steps up onto rocks, and some pretty severe drop-offs on the west side of the trail. That said–there is so much to look at. The views themselves – even through trees thick with summer leaves – gave us a wonderful taste of the lowering sunlight, and on the east side of the trail water runoff created several mini-waterfalls, which both kids loved watching. We also saw several really intricate spiderwebs, which was a highlight for my arachnid-obsessed five year old.

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We could still hear traffic which was a bummer, but what a change having an elevation hike so close to home!

The last tenth of a mile on this trail is the kicker. After passing the sandstone bluffs that make up the overlook, a set of stone steps jack-knives back towards them, and those steps are no joke. They are steep, narrow, and have a very high rise. Even with the benefit of a handrail, tiny legs will definitely need grown-up assistance, as some of them I’m pretty sure are taller than Sebastian’s legs.

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While she probably could have aced this trail in the morning, by dinnertime even a 5 year old needs a lift!

The top though–the top is so, so worth it. Spectacular views over the watershed plains, the iconic Moccasin Bend, and the city itself, and a wide open view of the western sky to watch the sun sink behind the mountains in the distance. From a kid-friendly standpoint it was a little nerve-wracking, just because of the severity of the drop-off, but there is enough space at the top that both kids were able to run, climb, and even splash in a few puddles leftover from the week’s rains. We had a picnic dinner while we admired the golden light spilling over the landscape, and chatted with several other families who came in from the .1 mile hike from a parking lot at the top of the mountain.

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Dinner with a view–in reusuable snack bags from LuvBug Company! 

Unfortunately, we did not get a chance to see how the trail is heading back down the mountain. As Billy was getting Sebastian into the deuter, it tipped backwards and Bastian cut his head on a rock when it fell–not knowing just how bad it was, we accepted the help of a family who offered to drive Billy back down to our car, and I hiked the short trail up with both kids to the upper parking lot. It turns out Bastian was fine–he calmed down before I had even started walking–and it afforded me a chance to see this stretch of the hike. It is obviously much shorter, and it’s downhill to the viewpoint, but I think the hike from Cravens House was definitely the way to go. Fewer people, more chance to soak in the woods, and it makes the view that much more rewarding once you’ve done the extra work to get there.

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Overall Family-Friendly Rating: 4/5. The are definitely hazards on this trail, but with attentive adults and a carrier on hand, it’s a great option to combine a little adventure with breathtaking views. There is enough space at the top to be able to enjoy the overlook while keeping the kids a safe distance from the edge, while still giving them rocks and trees to play on. Honestly the biggest detractor for me was just the sheer number of people who had congregated the closer we got to sunset–but we expected that, knowing this was one of the most popular views in the city. I can see this easily becoming a place we come back to, and I look forward to seeing how different it looks as the seasons change.

Note: There is signage everywhere indicating this, but the parking lots close at dark, and I have heard this is very strictly enforced. If you are planning a sunset hike, make sure you are aware of how quickly you can make it back to your car, as if you don’t get back until after dark you may not be able to drive out. Have a carrier on hand for young walkers to make sure you can move at an adult-pace on the way out if necessary. 

Campground Review: Foster Falls

One of the benefits to moving, is having an entire new state’s worth of new trails and campgrounds to explore. After Billy finished his first week at his new store he ended up with Sunday and Monday off, so we decided to escape the humidity of Chattanooga and travel up to South Cumberland State Park to camp for a couple of nights at Foster Falls Campground.

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Learning to use tent stakes

I chose Foster Falls due in part due its proximity to Chattanooga, in part for its elevation (at over 1700 feet I knew the temperatures would be better than they were at home), and in part because it was in a book my mom had on Tennessee camping. Like most campgrounds now, you have to reserve your site in advance, though I did call ahead and found out that you can at least get there and drive through, then choose a site and reserve it on your phone (if you get cell signal), provided the dates you want are all available. Unfortunately there is a $5 reservation fee attached to your first night that is unavoidable, so be prepared to add that to your budget.

The campground itself was…underwhelming. I wanted to like it. The sites are very spacious, and very flat; some have gravel tent pads while others are mostly dirt, but I don’t think I saw a single site that would not fit our 6 person tent. My mom ended up able to join us, and we could fit two 6 person tents at our site (site 8), while still keeping both of them away from grass or saplings. There was also plenty of firewood; bundles are available for purchase in town about 5 miles from the campground, and there were plenty of logs from felled trees laying around. The scenery was also quite lovely. As is common in looped campgrounds, the middle sites are more open and grassy, while the sites on the outer side of the loop are wooded and often separated from each other by underbrush. We were on the western side of the loop, and both nights we had the most beautiful golden light streaming in through the trees directly onto our site. The picnic tables are large and are on concrete blocks, and the fire rings are large but shallow, making it easy to cook over a campfire.

I had three complaints, however, which made it hard for me to say this is a place we are likely to come back to, except as a base if we ever want to hike the Fiery Gizzard Trail. The first two are noise related–a rooster lives near the campground, who crowed. And crowed. And kept crowing. He started sometime in the pre-dawn hours and kept going for most of the day. If you’ve never been around roosters this might sound like a cool experience, but if you have, you know how annoying they actually are. This is no fault of the campground, and became a joke by the end, but if you have little ones who are easily distracted or light sleepers, it could definitely be an issue. The second issue, is how loud the sound of traffic was. While the campground is not super remote, it’s far enough from the interstate that traffic seemed an unlikely disturbance–but it’s right off of US-41, and apparently there are more heavy vehicles on that road at night that we predicted.

My last complaint though is the biggest, and that was the overall cleanliness of the campground. I had read in advance that the bathroom was home to a lot of creepy-crawlies, which didn’t deter me. It’s camping, it’s the woods, I expect to see spiders and bugs in the bathhouses. What stuck out to me was how much human trash was everywhere. The place had obviously been highly occupied over the weekend, and it was evident in the amount of beer cans, paper towels, and bits of plastic strewn into every site we walked past. On Monday, we walked past a site near the bathrooms that had been occupied Sunday  night–and they had left their fire ring FULL of paper towels and banana peels. I reported it to a ranger (leaving the trash there as evidence), and I went to see if he had actually cleaned up, and he had only taken the paper, but not the banana peels. He also said, when I was reporting the trash, that there was no record of people in that site the previous night so they had camped illegally.

A park vehicle drove past AT LEAST twice from when those people arrived, and when they departed the next day. So to say there is minimal ranger presence here is an understatement. And while that is not always a bad thing, for such an accessible campground that draws in a lot of people who obviously are not following LNT principals, it creates a place that is not only unfair to other campers, but disrespectful and downright dangerous to the overall environment.

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Admiring a caterpillar. One of the many species who needs us to leave our parks better than we found them!

All that said–the hike down to Foster Falls was amazing. It’s a steep half mile descent to a swimming hole at the bottom of the 60′ waterfall. We did our hike early in the day so it was still a little chilly for swimming, but it meant we had the place to ourselves, and it was…it was magical. It was everything I love about hiking, camping, and spending time outdoors. There’s a feeling of insignificance you get when standing on a mountain peak, or, in this case, in a gulf at the bottom of a towering waterfall, that reminds you of just how strong our planet is, and just how huge our world is. It makes human problems feel manageable. Hiking with kids does not always take me to places where I get that sensation (or if it does, it’s overtaken by the constant not so close to the edge! admonitions), but even the kids seemed to understand the scope of where we were, and how awe-inspiring it was. There’s a viewpoint at the top of the falls, but it’s nothing compared to looking up at 180 degrees of sheer cliff face, and the sound of pounding water drowning out all the noise in your own head.

Overall family-friendly rating: 3.5/5. I want to give this a higher rating. It was so pretty, and we really did have an amazing time while we were there, but the trash–and the noise–makes it hard for me to be too positive. Very young children may find it hard to settle and go to sleep, and we found a lot of broken glass. If you want to combine your trip with a hike down the falls this would be a good place to stay (provided you get there early–as the day grew a lot of young adults journeyed to the falls–we even saw one person reckless enough to JUMP OFF THE TOP OF THE FALLS–which is a crowd that I would be hesitant to have my children around). However, if you are just looking for a quiet place to camp, this doesn’t entirely fit the bill.

Farewell, Virginia: My 5 favorite hikes for kids

We are officially residents of Tennessee, now. The kids and I have been here almost three weeks now, and I am daily longing for my RVA Hike It Baby family, and despite living almost at the foot of Lookout Mountain, every time I see a picture of the Blue Ridge Mountains I feel a huge pang of homesickness. Richmond is well over an hour from the mountains, closer to two hours for most of the places we would camp and hike, but the mountains of Virginia were my home as much as the River City was. (And we won’t even talk about how much I miss the beach!)

So as a tribute, here are five of my favorite kid-friendly trails from my home state. Some I’ve written about on this blog already, some I haven’t, but if you have kids in VA, or are just passing through, I highly recommend checking these out!

Blackrock Summit, Shenandoah National Park:

I love this trail so much that I submitted it to HIB founder Shanti Hodges’ book, Hike It Baby: 100 Awesome Outdoor Adventures with Babies and Toddlers. This is a great hike for kids and parents: for one, it’s short. It’s a 1 mile loop, with minimal elevation gain, but an incredible payoff, and it connects to the Trayfoot Mountain trail, so can be made longer if you want to add mileage. The talus slope at the top makes for a great rock scramble, which is fun for older kids and provides good risk-taking for younger kids, but it can be avoided entirely for parents who aren’t comfortable letting their kids scramble up (although the views are SO worth it). It’s also part of the Trail Tracks for Kids program: at the trailhead kids can get a small pamphlet with information on some of the flora and fauna that live on the mountain, and because the ascending part of the trail follows the AT, it’s a great opportunity to talk to kids about thru-hikes and exercise their imagination by pretending they are on their own long-distance hike.

Crabtree Falls, George Washington National Forest:

This is definitely a challenging hike for little legs–it’s only 2.8 miles to the top of the falls and back, but that comes with an elevation gain of 1,128 feet, often in the form of stairs. The falls themselves are also treacherous: there are signs at every viewpoint warning hikers not to climb out onto the rocks due to deaths that have occurred. That said–it’s a beautiful hike, and well-worth the drive to get there. The falls are the highest cascading falls east of the Mississippi (I’ve seen both 60 and 70 feet listed as the total height), and the trail affords several viewpoints on the ascent, with an observation deck to the left of the bridge that crosses the creek at the top of the falls. Once at the top, the creek provides a great place for water play, and the option to extend the hike another mile and a half along the Upper Crabtree Falls Trail. The trail in this section is wide, well-maintained, with little to no changes in elevation, making it a nice addition for your toddler who probably wants to run after being worn up the climb to the top of the falls.

As a bonus: the parking lot at the end of the upper falls trail connects to the AT via a short walk on a gravel road, allowing for a much longer hike for those looking to make it a full day, or two-day trek: going south takes you to Spy Rock, and north connects to The Priest.

Larus Park: Richmond, VA

A branch-favorite for HIB RVA, and also where I went on my first ever Hike It Baby hike. My favorite part of this park, is how no two experiences are the same. There are several trails that wind through the woods; many of them connect to a stream that makes for wonderful water play, one takes you through a long tunnel underneath Chippenham Parkway and to another section of creek, one to a place less maintained where kids can climb over felled trees. Because this trail is so easy, and so toddler-friendly, it’s a great place to make a regular hike, so kids can observe the changes in the seasons from week-to-week. Plus, with the park being in the city, it’s an easy place to have a picnic when you want to immerse yourself in the woods without the long drive that comes with going somewhere more remote.

Belle Isle, Richmond, VA:

Right in the middle of the city, it’s unlikely anyone from the metro area hasn’t done this hike at least once. It’s popular with cyclists, trail runners, history buffs (Belle Isle was once used as a prison during the Civil War), photographers, bird watchers, and of course, hikers. And for parents, it’s a great hike for kids of all ages. From the Tredegar parking lot, there’s a footbridge that runs half a mile across the James River, and from there, you can either take the dirt path that makes a stroller-friendly circuit around the island, or if you want to add more adventure, can explore the criss-crossing singletrack paths through the rocks and hills in the center of the island, or cross another pedestrian bridge on the southeast side to connect briefly with the Buttermilk Trail, and then rock-hop back to a ladder that brings you back to the main island. Kids love the rock hopping (although this side of the island can be impassible when the river level is too high), there are ruins of the old prison camps and old factories to explore, and plenty of places to splash, as long as you avoid the treacherous Hollywood Rapids. Belle Isle offers a great view of the city, with the sounds of the city blocked out by the rushing of RVA’s urban whitewater.

Powhatan State Park, Powhatan, VA

Not a single trail, but I love this park as a great day trip to get out the city and into the quiet of nature without the long drive that comes with going to the mountains. There are roughly 12 miles of trails total, ranging from very easy to semi-moderate difficulty, and covering wooded, meadow, and riverside terrain. The trails are easy for little legs to explore on their own, and there is a playground near a couple of picnic shelters for post-hike playing. Powhatan also has two campgrounds; one that has electric and water, and a primitive campground that is hike- or canoe-in only, along with three yurts. This is a fairly new park, and in our experience is still largely undiscovered; we have rarely had company on the trails. With the wide open skies of the Virginia piedmont, and the beauty of walking besides the James River, this quickly became one of our favorite day-trips.

There are so many trails in Virginia I never made it to, and so many I would love to go back and hike again. Prior to our move, I was making plans to section hike the 105 miles of the AT through Shenandoah National Park with the kids. I know that future visits back home will include checking off several of the summits I missed, and visiting old favorites with old friends. If you make it to any of these trails, I’d love to hear what you think. And comment below with your own favorite trails in the Virginia area, kid-friendly or otherwise!

Campground Review: Bear Creek Lake State Park

We went to Bear Creek Lake for the first time when Kairi was two. It was a nice day and we wanted to take advantage of the weather, so figured we’d drive the hour outside of Richmond to check out the beach on the man-made lake at the park. Unfortunately, storms passed near the area not long after we got there, so while we never saw any rain, the lake closed on account of lightning.

Since then, we’ve gone back several times, and had Kairi’s birthday party there last year. I debated asking people to drive so far, but figured it was still a lot closer than the beach or the mountains, and it’s such a beautiful location that surely everyone would feel like it was worth the drive.

As far as I know they did, because we had her party there again this year and they still showed up. 🙂

I was admittedly very skeptical about camping here. We’ve driven past the campsites frequently, and while the water-view sites always struck me as beautiful, I worried about privacy, and about losing the wildness that we tend to seek when we go camping (and why we tend to do a lot of primitive camping). Even booking our campsite almost three months in advance, there were only two water-view sites left, so I had no idea if the site we were getting was going to work for our family, or if we were going to be looking at busy roads, overcrowding with our fellow campers, not enough shade, and limited firewood options.

My reservations? Completely unfounded. This was easily one of the prettiest sites I think we’ve ever had.

The tent pads were filled in with shredded tires which gave the ground a little more give than gravel or packed dirt, and the sizes have a wide range. We were in the only tent-only loop (so no electric or water hook-ups), and our 6 person tent could have easily fit in every site, and I saw a few sites with 10 person tents set up.

There are two sections with water-view sites. We were in the one closest to the park entrance, and in this loop there is boat ramp to launch canoes or kayaks (and very clearly labeled no swimming). A few of the sites (8-10) border the lake, about 4′ above the water with a fence and a retaining wall serving as barrier. Site 11 is right on the water with no barrier whatsoever. We were in site 12, which had the boat ramp and the driveway to site 11 between us and the water, but I think we had one of the best sites in the loop. We were elevated a little and had a great view of the lake, while still having a small degree of privacy and a lot of space–and the bathrooms were just up the hill on the side of the site opposite the water, with a small meadow and growth of trees protecting us from view.

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The other sites at Bear Creek Lake are the Acorn Loop sites without a water view, and then two loops on the other side of the main entrance to the park–there is a trail that leads from the sites to the water, about .2 miles, and from that point connects to the Channel Cat Trails for another .2 miles to get to the beach. Our loop was .4 miles from our site to the beach, but followed the lake the entire way. The kids and I made that trek several times, often with both kids barefoot because they were too excited about going to swim to be bothered with anything but their bathing suits and floaties.

I tend to forget, in my constant fretting that my kids are going to disturb other campers, that the more maintained and less primitive a campground is, the more OTHER kids are going to be there. Of the other sites in our loop, at least half of them were occupied with families with kids both nights we were there. Of the two families in particular we spoke with, one had two little girls a year older than each of our kids respectively, and the family closest to us was celebrating an 11th birthday party, and those boys took both of our kids completely under their wing, letting them watch while they built their fire, and even sharing their fishing rods. (I suspect it’s my introversion that drives me to seek places where we don’t have to interact with other people far more than it is actually worrying about my kids…)

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At site A11. You really are camping right on the water.

Things of note:

  • Swim bands are included with your overnight fee if you camp. You get them when you check in at the ranger station.
  • Cumberland County is still in the piedmont region of Virginia, and is only at 455′ above sea level. It. Was. Hot. Like, miserably hot. We are so used to camping in the mountains where that higher elevation knocks down both the temperature and humidity, and we had forgotten just how awful it is camping when you can drink the air through a straw. Fortunately the storms that rolled through Friday were the result of a cold front, and Friday night/Saturday were gorgeous–but plan your trip according to Virginia summers, not Virginia mountains.
  • Boat rentals are available near the lake–as of July 2018, paddleboat rentals are $6/hour and canoes are $8/hour. Kayak rentals are also available, but I forgot to ask what the rates are for those.
  • If you choose to rent a boat, there is a spillway at the end of the lake nearest the water-view camping sites. You can actually see this from the road right before turning into the park. When the water is low this shouldn’t be a hazard, but we avoided it just in case.
  • The campground bathrooms have showers, if you need/want those.
  • Our last morning there Kairi got into something that gave her a rash all over her arms and legs. There was only one plant near where she was playing I didn’t recognize, and the ranger thought it was an immature orange creeper vine. The campground host who saw us gathered together expressed her surprise, stating the rangers do a very good job of removing poisonous plants, and this is the first issue we’ve ever had in a Virginia state park. We treated the itch with calamine, but she continued to have redness, swelling, and little white bumps, until we got home and could give her Benadryl.
  • The campsites allegedly have Wifi. We never tested this, but I saw a sign posted about it near the lake.

Overall Family Friendly Rating: 3.5/5. For older kids, I would have no problem giving this 5/5, but for young children there are safety hazards that require a lot more vigilance than we prefer.  Both of my kids kept wanting to go down to the boat launch, and the water there gets deep pretty quickly. Staying away from the water-view sites would eliminate this hazard, but that puts you in the more populated loops with a lot more vehicle traffic–cars, RVs, and bicycles–and I actually find that a lot more stressful than being near water! However it really was a beautiful camping experience, and there is so much to do at the park for kids of all ages, that as long as you are comfortable having to helicopter your kids a bit more than might be usual, this is a great place for kids, and a REALLY great place if you’re looking to bring friends who are hesitant to leave behind any amenities.

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Raise your hand if your kids don’t think it’s camping without roasted marshmallows!

I will likely skip next week’s post on account of us getting ready for our move from Richmond, VA to Chattanooga, TN. Make sure to subscribe to my email list below to receive a special farewell gift in the coming week! 

 

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Liberal Patriotism in America the Beautiful

A change of pace from my normal trail and campground reviews–because I couldn’t write about those places, if we didn’t have them to write about.

I’ve had a distant relationship with the concept of patriotism for most of my adult life. I was a junior in high school when the 9/11 attacks occurred, and I remember being confused–and honestly disgusted–by the attitudes that I saw following it, that seemed to imply that if you weren’t 100% behind the American government, you were unpatriotic. It just didn’t make sense–our country is built on civil discourse. On seeing injustices and standing up to them, of challenging our government and reminding our elected officials that they answer to the people, not the other way around. Of course we can stand up! The very idea of standing up (or sitting, or kneeling) is, I think, one of the most American–most Patriotic–things you can do. I’ve heard, all too often from far too many people, the idea that you can’t criticize the President. That you don’t have to like him, but you have to respect him–despite the fact that our country is based on fighting for the freedom to disagree with the government.

I spent a lot of my early adulthood wanting to ex-pat, because I very cynically associated America with processed food, war profiteering, and placing corporations over people, and nothing else. And in today’s climate of separating families at the border, mass shootings, and the continued fight for equality that women, minorities, and the lgbt+ community face on a daily basis, identity politics have clouded what it means to be a patriot.

Merriam-Webster defines Patriotism as: “love for or devotion to one’s country.” Not to one’s government.

When I go to the mountains, I feel love for my country.

When I stand on the edge of the ocean, letting my toes sink into the sand and the water splash up to my knees, I feel love for my country.

When I look at pictures of vacations we have taken–to the red rocks of Sedona, the rocky beaches of Maine, the open plains of Texas, I feel love for my country.

Other places have these things, to be sure–but they are other places. We have an incredible landscape right here, that existed long before people did, long before our government did.

You may be wondering–why am I talking about politics here? I’m a business owner, and this page is about my business. But–the older I get, the more I am increasingly confused by how environmentalism can be such a polarizing political view. How public lands should be funded, sure–but having those public lands–having places where we can walk, hike, run, camp, hunt, swim, meditate, climb, fish, bike, whatever? Our very existence as human beings craves connection to nature, and this is coming out more and more as that nature is taken away from us. We are discovering how vitally important it is for children to have outdoor spaces to play in, and looking for ways to bring nature back into urban areas. We have museums dedicated to getting kids and adults alike interested in our natural world–but then as soon as politics enter the conversation, it becomes bi-partisan.

I like to think the environment could be a unifier. That we can all find a way to step back, take our political party out of the equation, and examine our own relationship with nature. Not everyone wants the immersion the way I do, but even the most indoor-dwelling people I know still feel revitalized eating that first meal of the spring outside, and see the benefits of taking their kids to the park and letting them run around for awhile. For as many memes on websites like tumblr as there might be about hating bugs, hating hot weather, hating the brightness of the sun–there are just as many incredible photographs of sunsets, clear blue lakes, mountain peaks that stretch into a sky of endless stars. Whether the people posting ever choose to go there or not, those photographs will disappear if we don’t fight to protect our natural spaces.

I love the geography of my country. I do not always love my government, but I will always love the beauty found within the United States. There are so many places I haven’t seen yet, so many places I want to see, and I consider myself fortunate to have all of these incredible natural wonders in place where I don’t even need a passport to go to.

I know that Independence Day is about celebrating the birth of American Democracy. I also know that we cannot celebrate the birth of this country without also acknowledging the price the Native stewards of our land paid, and are still paying. We are built on blood and tears, and have already stripped away so much of our natural space and killed or isolated the people who know the stories of our mountains, trees, rivers.

But it’s not too late to save what we still have, or to reclaim what has been lost. For our mental health. For our children. For future generations of Americans who should have the same outdoor opportunities that we have, if not more.

So on a day dedicated to the love of our country, I choose to celebrate the land.

 

Campground Review: Loft Mountain

A couple weeks ago, a very close friend of mine got some bad news. I had already been debating on taking the kids camping for the night, so when she told me, it cemented my decision: I invited her over, and then whisked her off to the mountains for some nature-therapy in one of my favorite campgrounds.

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Loft Mountain is located around milepost 80 off Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park, and is a campground that I believe just about any type of camper can enjoy. There are a wide variety of sites, ranging from walk-in, car camping, and RVs, there are some that are reservable (loops F & G) and most that are first-come-first-served, sites that are hidden behind thick blackberry bushes, sites that are wheelchair accessible, and sites that look out onto a gorgeous view of the sun setting over the mountains. The bathrooms have water and electricity and are kept very clean, and the camp store sells everything from beer, to tent stakes, to SNP souvenirs–and has showers. Your fellow campers are anyone from family reunions and scout troops, to AT thru-hikers stopping for the night.

I’ve been camping here for most of my adult life. It’s one of the first places I brought Billy when we were dating, and we’ve been bringing both kids here since they were babies, and my only bad experiences here were have been due to bad weather. The rangers are always nice, and while other campers can be a little loud at times, they are very friendly. There are always families with kids of varying ages, and this past time was especially neat, as a family had heard Kairi talking while out on a walk, so we ended up hanging out with them while our kids played together.

The AT hugs the west side of the campground and crosses behind the camp store, so it is not uncommon to see thru-hikers while here during the summer. This time the site we picked was right at the top of the spur that leads from the AT to the campground, and a group of trail angels were in the sites across from us. They told me their son had hiked the AT in 2010 and they set up camp during the time he would be passing through to give him a place to stay and a hot meal, and offered some trail magic to all thru-hikers that passed them. Then a few years later their son set off to hike the PCT, and while they could not travel out to him, they set up at Loft Mountain again–knowing that people were offering him kindness out west, they wanted to mirror that by offering kindness to hikers where they could go. They had signs at the Blackrock Hut a few miles away, and again at the spur to the campground, letting hikers know they could come by for a place to sleep, and free dinner and/or breakfast. Both nights they hosted several hikers, and had music and conversation all afternoon–it was an incredible insight into the communitas that happens on the trail, and really me nostalgic for my time on the Camino de Santiago.

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One of the must-dos at Loft Mountain is to watch the sun set over the mountains to the west. If you are lucky enough to find them available, you have a great view directly from sites 20A and 20B, but as those are almost always occupied, by taking the spur down to the AT and then turning left, after a short walk is a small outcrop of rocks. Come here at sunset and you’ll find many other campers joining you for the show. Our first night we were treated to one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve seen, and while the second night we didn’t have the same vibrant colors, it was still beautiful to watch.

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The day we left Kairi wanted to go on another hike, so we actually did part of the Frazier Discovery Trail this time. I’ve never done this as we usually drive to one of the hikes off Skyline Drive, but the part that we did on this trip was a very easy trail that follows the AT part of the way, and then turns off towards the campground amphitheater. In all the years of camping here, it was the first time I made it to this section of the campground, and just about kicked myself, because it has an incredible east-facing view. Now I know–come here at sunrise next time! (I loved this view so much that I actually took clients there yesterday and they agreed that it was spectacular!)

I should note the wildlife element of this campground. Deer and bears are very prevalent here, especially in the summer, and the campground now requires campers sign an agreement that improper food storage will result in an $80 fine. I’m glad they are doing this, as bears in Shenandoah are getting to be less and less afraid of humans. Bugs are also terrible in the summer, and as mentioned before, lyme has been found in ticks in SNP, so good bug spray is essential.

Overall family friendly rating: 5/5. This is a great campground, and it’s a great campground for just about any type of camper. If you have kids that get nervous easily, grab an open site near a bathroom. If you have kids that you’re worried will disrupt other campers, pick a site you have to walk to, or one of the ones on loop G. If you’re in an RV, you’ll have a lot more privacy and woodsy-ness than many campgrounds that cater specifically to RVs. There are plenty of nearby trails to fill the hours in the day, some without even having to get in the car–and all of the loops are paved, so even the most inexperienced of cyclists can enjoy taking their training wheels for an after-dinner spin.

If you’re planning a trip to Shenandoah with kids, I highly recommend spending at least one night here–although I’d guess you’re going to want to spend more!

Arizona Part II: The Grand Canyon

I’ve been tagged in enough posts requesting tips on the Grand Canyon, that I have no excuse to delay writing this anymore, even though I don’t know that I have a lot of tips to really offer.

I’m not sure we did the Grand Canyon “right,” if there really is a right way to go somewhere so impressive.  We not a family of early risers–Billy and Kairi in particular. Because we were staying in Sedona, two hours away from the Grand Canyon, I had wanted to be on the road absolutely no later than 8am, earlier if possible. My goal for our trip was to hike down to the three-mile rest stop on the Bright Angel trail, and I knew we would need to get as early a start as possible to complete all 6 miles. Instead, we didn’t manage to leave until well after 9, and by the time we got there, parking was not easy to come by. We finally found a spot near one of the lodges, walked to the rim trail, and started our descent into the canyon just before 1pm (at which point we had already decided we would only go to the 1.5mile rest stop).

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The only picture of me on the trail! Taken by Billy. More exhausted than annoyed, despite how I look!

The trail itself was…underwhelming. I hate to say that about a place that inspires so much awe in everyone who sees it, but as far as hiking goes, in retrospect I would have planned the day differently.

The biggest drawback for me is just how popular the trail is. When I hike, I do it for the immersion in nature. The constant stream of people going both up and down the Bright Angel trail made it hard to feel that at all. Anytime we wanted to stop and just stare into the canyon, we had to scoot out of the way of all the people still moving, and it’s hard to just breathe in the majesty with other conversations in the background. We also let Kairi walk during our descent. It was was not a problem for her at all, but meant a lot of encouraging her to watch where she was going, be careful of other people, let’s let these people pass, etc, etc.. I didn’t feel like we gave her a chance to really enjoy herself.

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Free-range toddler. He insisted on wearing the “pack-pack,” and was so happy to be able to walk.

We had lunch on an outcrop just past the privies at the 1.5 mile stop, and this was the closest to feeling in the canyon I got. Because we were a few yards off trail we had a slight sense of privacy, and had the quiet necessary to just look at the red cliffs, and take in how big the whole place was. Billy and I took turns standing as far out as we could and feeling our own smallness, looking down at Indian Gardens, and the drop beyond to the river we couldn’t see, but knew was there.

Surprisingly, we made better time on the way back up than we did going down. Kairi was already tired, so I took over wearing Sebastian and the backpack, and Billy wore Kairi in the Beco toddler carrier I bought specifically for this trip. Moving at an adult pace the whole time, we made it out in around an hour. The hardest part going back up is definitely the series of switchbacks that last for about half a mile after the rest stop, and once we got past those I think we were so surprised at the pace we had maintained that we just kept it up. There are two natural tunnels in this stretch of trail, one about a mile down and one about a tenth of a mile down, and when we got back to the tenth of a mile tunnel we actually let both kids down to walk the remainer by themselves–I only had a slight heart attack watching Sebastian move around next to such a sheer drop.

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The tunnel about 1/10th of a mile from the trailhead. Getting a shot without other people in it was not easy, even later in the day!

It was after 4 by the time we got up to the top, and this is when kid-meltdowns started to happen. I walked to the car and back to take the backpack and get my tripod, and when I got back, we were all starving, and Sebsatian wanted to run everywhere after being in a carrier for three hours. I wanted to get a picture of us overlooking the rim, but Kairi broke one of the legs of my tripod trying to help me, and I realized after we found a good spot, that I had not taken the clip for my Capture Clip Pro (something else I bought specifically for this trip and then left in my car in D.C.) off the base of my camera, so couldn’t attach it to the tripod anyway. Sebastian was screaming unless I was holding him, and thankfully a very kind woman whose husband was an amateur photographer offered to take a picture for us.

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Not the picture I would have taken, but I’m so grateful to have it.

From here we decided to get dinner. We had an hour’s wait for a table and couldn’t leave the building or our buzzer would stop working, so we missed the entirety of the golden hour/sunset waiting to eat, and it was completely dark once we were done with our very mediocre meal. However–there are very few sidewalk lights (none in some places), and we were only two days out from the new moon, so we did get to see the stars over the Grand Canyon, and that was a truly incredible sight. Sedona is an International Dark Sky Community, so we saw incredible stars the whole time we were in Arizona, but standing on the edge looking out, there was no horizon. It was endlessly black above and below, with more stars than I’ve seen in my entire life. If you don’t have opinions about light pollution already, you will once you see just how many stars our streetlights are concealing.

Overall–I can’t say I loved our trip. But I can say that I am very glad we went, and I learned several things for next time, and that I’m happy to pass on to anyone looking to go here with kids:

  • Get there early. Yes, we all know this, but don’t make our mistake and underestimate how long it will take to get everyone ready and find parking. There is too much here to see and do, and half a day just isn’t enough time.
  • Make time for the Rim Trail. I was so certain that I would regret leaving without having hiked below the rim, but I did it at the expense of really getting to see just how big the GC actually is. We really only looked out from the area around the Bright Angel Trailhead, and we just missed so much by not walking along more of the rim.
  • Be prepared for a lot of people. Even as we were almost back at the trailhead, there were still several people going down into the canyon. I don’t know if the South Kaibab trail is the same–it is a more difficult trail which may discourage a lot of the traffic, and allegedly the South Rim is far more populated than the North Rim, if your trip allows you to visit that side.
  • Allow yourself two days if you want to hike below the rim. As adults traveling without kids it would be possible to do a hike and then spend some time on the Rim Trail and exploring the GC Village, but with kids, especially young kids, the hike itself was very taxing. Even though Sebastian didn’t walk most of it, that just meant he was a bit manic by the time he was able to run around. Kairi has incredible stamina for her age and did a good job of holding herself together even as she was tired and hungry, but she was clearly overstimulated, and quickly got bored with our desire to just stop and watch the sunset when all she wanted to do was get dinner. The hike was not as difficult as I expected it to be, but it’s still a different hiking experience that what we are used to, and that’s a lot of sensory input for kids to take in.

The next time we come here, I want to plan a Rim to Rim hike. I would love to see the North Rim, and to give ourselves more time to explore the village on the South Rim, and more time to walk along the rim itself and take in the scope. Our trip felt rushed, and left me feeling like I had missed an experience—one I am eager to go back and regain.

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Campground Review: False Cape State Park

I was a boy scout in high school. Sort of. I was a girl scout for a long time, and then in high school had a few friends in Venture Crew, which is a co-ed branch of BSA with a focus on outdoor adventure. Once a month we would go on a new type of adventure–backpacking, caving, repelling–and on one of those trips we went to False Cape State Park, all the way at the southern stretch of the Virginia coastline.

You can’t get to False Cape by vehicle. It’s on the other side of the Bay Bay National Wildlife Refuge, so the only ways in are to walk, bike, or take one of their electric shuttles which only does tours, but does not transport campers. When I went in high school we backpacked in. Two things about that trip have stuck with me: that it was a long, hot walk in direct sunlight for the entire 6 miles…and that it was worth every single step once we got to our oceanside campsite. On that trip we set up camp directly on the beach, and go to watch the sun rise over the ocean from inside our tents. It was pure magic, and I’ve wanted to go back ever since.

I don’t know why it took so long. I guess because it’s a three hour drive, on top of the 6+ mile walk in, and it’s been a slow process for us collecting backpacking gear. Last week was Billy’s birthday, and when talking about where we wanted to go, I decided we were doing False Cape. None of the oceanside sites at the 6 mile point were available, so I booked one of the ones 9 miles from the parking area, and we decided we would find a way to bike in.

And that’s exactly what we did. We borrowed two bike trailers from friends, packed the kids into one, our gear into the other, and at 6:30pm on Thursday evening, we finally started pedaling away from the Back Bay Visitor Center with no idea how long it was going to take two relatively inexperienced cyclists to make it while towing up to 100 pounds each.

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Cell phone picture! Note to self-make sure camera is accessible at all times.

The ride in was amazing. The weather could not have been more perfect–that late in the day we rode through the golden hour (and I cursed myself for deciding I didn’t want to worry about my camera while cycling because THE LIGHT YOU GUYS. THE LIGHT.), with low humidity and warm-but-not-hot temperatures. We watched the sun set over the bay. We saw THE BIGGEST CRAWDAD I’ve ever seen. It was so peaceful, it’s almost my favorite part of the trip.

Before when I came, I remembered the campsites being very close to the ocean–as in–just on the other side of a dune. The oceanside sites at False Cape actually have two sites–one on the island side of the dunes, and a sister location if you want to pitch your tent on the sand. We had planned on that, but our sections of sites this time was actually about 1/10th of a mile from the shore, through loose, deep, sand, and we didn’t want to deal with getting the bikes through that, so we went ahead and set up camp at the picnic table site–which was really just as well, since there was a privy right there, and we didn’t have to worry about the wind blowing away anything that wasn’t staked down.

The site itself is one of the prettiest campsites I’ve ever stayed in. It was so shady that even as the sun got high (and hot) in the sky, we were never uncomfortable. We were so close to the ocean we could easily walk back and forth as much as we pleased, and we spent a lot of our time just relaxing on the beach. We did take a short bike/hike on Friday–I wanted to cross the VA/NC border, but we didn’t learn until the next day when talking to a ranger that if you want to do that on wheels, you need to wait until low tide and ride along the coast, since the inner trail is on loose sand. We made it until that sand started, and then parked the bikes and walked to an old cemetery (we seem to find cemeteries on hikes frequently). Again, I didn’t have my camera, since I had thought we’d be spending most of our time under high noon light. One day I’ll learn.

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So pretty, and so private

Things of note for camping here:

  • There is no potable water except at the visitor’s center. We got water on the way in, and then Billy biked out and back to fill up all of our canteens on Friday. Make sure to bring empty water containers and have a way to transport them to and from your campsite.
  • Campfires are not allowed in the park. You’ll need to have a backpacking stove for cooking/heating water, and if you come in cooler months will not be able to make a fire for heat.
  • Bugs. Bugs, bugs, bugs. So many bugs. Everything I read prior to our trip warned about the bugs, so heed those warnings and then add a few more. Billy and I each found 5-6 ticks a piece on us. Fortunately we got to most of them before they burrowed, but still. Eek. In addition to mosquitos, biting flies, sand fleas, gnats, and any other type of nuisance you can think of. I make bug spray because I just cannot bring myself to use DEET, and we went through the entire bottle over the course of three days. We also love Murphy’s Citronella Sticks, although the ones I ordered did not arrive in time for us to take with us–I think they would have been a great help, and highly recommend bringing, if not those, something similar. Friday evening Billy and I actually dressed a little more than was comfortable for the heat just so more of our skin was protected from bugs.
  • There are no trash facilities in the park. Anything you pack in, you pack out. This shouldn’t be difficult, but is something to prepare for.
  • We cheated a little on the 9 miles. The Back Bay Visitor Center is actually 1.5 miles from Little Island City Park, where overnight campers are expected to leave their cars with their reservation number in their windshield. However, during daylight hours the visitor’s center is accessible by vehicle. So we drove in, unloaded the car, and I drove back and parked, then rode in that mile and a half unencumbered. We did the same thing on the way out. Not having to tow the trailers on a paved road with vehicle traffic, and cutting off that extra mile and a half was totally worth it.
  • I asked the rangers if they ever allowed campers to use the shuttle in the case of persons with disabilities, and they said they have done it before, you just have to speak to the park manager to make special arrangements. So if not everyone in your family is able to make the 6-9 mile trek in, you have options to still enjoy this incredible park!

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Overall Family Friendly Rating: 4.5/5. This might seem like a really  high rating for a park that requires such a long hike/ride in, but hear me out. There’s an ocean. There are miles of open sand, where you might have a few other people at most, even at full occupation. The privies are extremely clean, the sites are beautiful and sandy, so even when not on the beach the kids have something to do. There are trails everywhere. I’m only even taking off half a point because it’s not something you can drive to which involves a little more planning for comfort, but as long as you have the means to get there, that actually makes it more family friendly to me. Fewer people around, no cars to worry about, SO much open space for kids to play in. So often in the more maintained campgrounds, I feel like kids get bored quickly–neighboring campsites are so close it’s hard for them to freely explore, and constant traffic presents a hazard. Our kids spent as much time playing in the sand on the path by our campsite as they did playing in the sand on the beach, and we could keep an eye on them from a distance rather than feeling the need to keep them close. If you have the means of getting here–either via bike, or backpacks to hike your kids in–I highly recommend bringing little ones to False Cape.

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