Well. We did it again. Camping that is. We headed out last week to spend a few days camping and exploring Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. At this point it’s just a given that we’ve abandoned all good sense in the hopes we’re at least creating some lasting family memories. What can I say? The wanderlust is real.
Our original plan was to head to the beach for some relaxing family time, but that didn’t go as planned (thanks Florence!). Surf City still isn’t exactly ready for kids to swim and play on the beach, so we switched up our plans. What was a week of sun, cocktails and relaxation became camping, dirt, and a total lack of personal space.
Expert Advice – a four person tent is really a four person tent. AND NOTHING ELSE. Would you like to also breath while you sleep? Not in this tent buddy. Personally I enjoy the kid snuggles and my arm falling asleep every 30 minutes. It’s what life is made of.
Jake may or may not be thrilled with being hit and kicked by errant child limbs all night. He may or may not have yelled “I’m getting out of this FREAKING tent” at 7am our second morning in our cozy little tent.
Road Trip on the Skyline Drive
We started out from the house Monday morning. Due to my near god-like packing skills and super human preparation we managed to get in the car before 9am AND without any bickering, blaming, or side eye. This is a road trip feat that must not go unacknowledged. Jake and I deserve a medal. Or at least a very fancy coffee.
The drive to Shenandoah National Park from Columbus was mostly uneventful. The kids are amazing road trippers. Abby is still performing her very irritating move we like to call “throw all the shit on the floor and then complain because I can’t reach it”. But other than that… pretty good considering we’re weird and still don’t use any screens to entertain them.
We go through A LOT of coloring books
Around 5 or so we made it to the entrance of the park and took our obligatory sign photo. The kids complain, but I’m confident they’ll thank us when they’re older. Right?
We made our way south on Skyline Drive, stopping at pretty much every single overlook we could. Unlike our entrance to the Grand Canyon, we could actually see the views, and we didn’t want to waste our chance.
Bear Sighting in Shenandoah National Park
Pretty soon after Mary’s Rock Tunnel (mile 32) we stopped at an overlook and noticed a bunch of people sitting on the wall along the road a bit further up. Being nosy and curious we wandered over to see what was going on.
IT WAS A BEAR.
In a tree. 20 yards away maybe? I seriously cannot believe we didn’t get a picture. This little teenage sized bear was high in tree right across the road, just having some dinner and being totally unconcerned with the 30 onlookers below. The kids (and I) were a little freaked out by how close it was, but it was a really neat sight to see. Even though we’ve seen bears in the wild while hiking before, that was the clearest view we’ve ever had of a black bear.
And yes – we are Ohio people who are thrilled by bear sightings. I will forever geek out over cool nature stuff #sorrynotsorry
The views along Skyline Drive were beautiful. The sun was staring to set and it was that perfect golden light streaming across the mountains. Sigh. Even though our trips are often filled with chaos and insanity, I live for these little perfect slices when the light is just right and the kids are actually impressed and everything feels so much more alive.
We eventually made it to Big Meadows Campground (mile 51) just as the sunlight was fading. This was exceedingly beautiful and exceedingly unfortunate, as we then had to set up camp in the dark.
Jake took off on a mad dash to find firewood for the much anticipated s’mores, while I tried to keep the chaos to a minimum and assemble the tent in the dark. Needless to say, our peaceful good vibes faded with the sun.
We then tried to grab dinner at the camp store but it was closed. So I made dinner in the dark with only the light of a small, busted up lantern. It was fun. This is the part of camping that really makes me question my own sanity.
I guess we’re lucky that the rain only started after we had already settled into the tent for the night.
Hiking in Shenandoah National Park
Our first hike of the day was to Hawksbill Summit, which is the highest peak in the park and sports some excellent views in all directions. There are a few trails to the top, and we chose the 2.1 mile Upper Hawksbill Trail (mile 46). The NPS website lists it as moderate, with and elevation gain of 800ft. Honestly it was a pretty easy hike, the real difficulty is (as always) the children begging for endless snacks.
Despite the fact that it takes this family about 9,000 hours to hike a mile, we did eventually make it to the summit. There were lots of stops for leaf inspection, rock climbing, and granola bar eating.
We spent awhile at the summit working on Olivia’s Junior Ranger book and taking pictures. I am still in love with the Junior Ranger programs, they are such a great way to get kids involved and engaged in the parks.
We stopped for a quick lunch and cup of coffee at Skyland Lodge, and then headed back towards Big Meadow Visitor Center. I was *hoping* the kids would fall asleep in the car and grab a much needed nap, but of course they did not.
We powered through and decided to try to do the Dark Hollow Falls and Story of the Forest Trail loop. Mostly we were trying to pack in as much hiking as possible while the weather was still decent. According to the rangers there was a storm headed to the park in the next day or two, so we were fairly sure we’d need to cut our trip short.
Dark Hollow Falls + Story of the Forest Trail
From the visitor center we decided hop onto the Story of the Forest trail and connect with the Dark Hollow Falls trail, which would eventually lead us to Dark Hollow Falls.
In true adventures with kids fashion… Olivia was NOT. HAVING. IT.
Her grumbles turned into full on tears, wailing, and epic meltdown status when we annouced our afternoon hike intentions.
Not going to lie… she almost broke me.
So here we are, one child totally melting down in her seat inside the van.
One adult totally melting down in the parking lot outside the van.
My husband is a saint.
Eventually Jake convinced me that the sky wasn’t falling, the impending storm was not because I was cursed at all things family camping, and that Olivia would probably get over herself in a little bit. She Did. Eventually.
So off we went. Jake and Abby wandered ahead of us a little bit, while I hiked behind with a sobbing, distraught Olivia. Ahhhh the looks of fellow hikers with no children. Have you never seen a five year old totally lose her shit in the middle of the woods? MOVE ALONG PEOPLE.
This epic level of dramatics continued until we happened upon Jake and his discovery of a salamander in the creek. Just as quickly as the tantrum started, it was over. Now we had amphibians to find.
After a quick trip back the bathrooms, we eventually made it onto the Dark Hollow Falls trail. I foolishly did not bring my hiking poles and my knees almost revolted.
That trail is basically all downhill, then all uphill. I don’t even know if there was flat part the entire time? It’s not an incredibly steep grade but my knees were definitely feeling that descent.
The trail follows the creek the entire way, and it’s incredibly beautiful and scenic. Full confession time – the kids and I never even made it to the big waterfall. We stopped at one point to rest my knees and let the kids play in water. They were happy and I was confident that if I went any further I’d probably break something, so we ended up staying right where we were while Jake headed further down to the falls.
Honestly sometimes the kids just need time to play in nature, rather than hike through it. They had such a good time climbing over the rocks, getting way too soaked, and general kid in creek nonsense.
The funny thing about hiking with the kids is that you never know what they will hate and what they will love. The hike out was basically all uphill and not exactly easy. Olivia chatted happily the whole time, which was good because I was totally out of breath.
The rest of the evening was a mad dash to find firewood we wouldn’t be able to light, catch the sunset, and cook dinner in the dark again. We settled into the tent for a long night of disturbed sleep and howling wind. Family Memories.
Escaping the crazy fog
We woke up Wednesday morning with the inkling that we would need to head out before we ended up stuck in a storm in a tiny tent for hours on end. A quick trip to the visitors center and a chat with the Ranger confirmed that it was time to go.
Our drive out was an interesting experience in mountain weather. One minute we were blinded by fog and the next minute the sun was shining and all was right with the world.
We eventually said goodbye to the park and headed north towards our spontaneous trip extending destination – Pittsburgh! We spent the night there treated the kids to a trip to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
Overall our trip to Shenandoah was great. It was shorter than anticipated, and as per usual, crazy weather follows our tent. But it was a fun couple days exploring the beautiful mountains in Virginia. This also marked the 15th National Park that Jake and I have explored as a couple! 13 of those with the kids.
Yes. I know. We’re crazy. But we’re never boring.
Check out my post on visiting national parks with kids!