Park Questing

Once we had two children we had to be  creative in finding cheap fun. We enjoy hiking and being outdoors, and while looking into Maryland State Parks I stumbled across Park Quest.  Park Quest is a cost effective and creative way to explore Maryland State Parks. I’ve looked at surrounding states, but have not found anything quite like it.  Many other states offer passports, which is a one-price-all-access offer and a great opportunity, but the Park Quest passport offers family challenges and educational opportunities at 20+ MDSPs, including popular Assateague Island and Deep Creek Lake.  

Registration for Park Quest is early May and is limited to 1,000 participants, first come first serve.  Participation in the program is only 10 dollars for the entire family. This gets you the passport, which you get stamped at the completion of each task (completion of 10 quests gives the participant priority enrollment the following year).  The kids love collecting the stamps! The passport gives your family free entry to any MDSP that is participating in Park Quest, and more than pays for itself in one park visit. You do have to be a family, in that there must be at least one adult and one child under 16.

Did I ask them to pose for a picture, or did I threaten them with torture….I can’t remember because the expressions are always the same.

The quests vary in scope and include anything from hiking several miles and then hopping in a canoe, to a short, paved half mile loop learning about pollinating insects (usually includes solving a puzzle or making drawings about what you learned).  The passport rates the difficulties of each park’s quest (a ‘3 hat’ rating system), and there are usually a wide variety of options for simpler quests. Some parks will include 2 quests, a basic quest to be completed and then a ‘bonus quest’ for families looking for more of a challenge.  When we started participating our children were 4 and 2, so we targeted the simplest quests and were able to complete 10 without encountering anything too stressful or traveling too far outside of central MD. We have been misled by the hat system once, where we thought it was going to be simpler than it was (ended up on a long hike at Patapsco Valley State Park with a bit of simple rock scrambling with a 3 and 5 YO and me pregnant), so now we make sure to not just look at the hats, but carefully read the quest.  The quests are outlined in the passport, and more thorough details and printouts can be found online.

This was the park quest that caught us off guard with its length. We found nice spots like this to take breaks, but after many miles it became hard to motivate the kiddos.
Completing the ‘human pyramid’ part of our quest at Susquehanna State Park. Note: saw many families throwing tubes into the river at this park and drifting down the Susquehanna for several miles. My kids were a bit too young, but I am keeping this in mind for next time.
This was a crafty quest, where you design with, study the beauty of, and sketch nature (the older you are, the fancier you can get).
Get close to nature (I could have put in a zillion different pictures). Frogs, deer, butterflies, groundhogs, fish, etc.  This was at Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary.

Though MD is a smaller state, it is long, reaching from the Atlantic Ocean to the Appalachian Mountains.  And so the quests are spread out, accordingly. As I mentioned, we live in central MD and were able to access many of the parks in an hour or so drive (many less than that).  In our second year, we started centering some camping trips around Park Quest. We took two camping trips that year, one to Assateague Island and the other to Swallow Falls State Park in Western MD.  Each time we were able to complete a handful of quests and explore a little more of our state.

View of the Bay Bridge spanning the Chesapeake from Sandy Point State Park
Rain couldn’t keep us from exploring the beach when we arrived in Assateague.
Swallow Falls State Park in Western MD. We have been here twice and it is a favorite.

Besides the quests, many of the parks have nature centers and educational programs, not to mention playgrounds, picnic areas, beaches, trails, and creeks to explore.  We usually brought a picnic and would spend more time eating and playing after our quest was complete. 

One of her many faces
Merkle Wildlife Sanctuary
Patapsco Valley State Park, tire park Hilton Area
Many MD parks have bird sanctuaries, where they nurse owls, eagles and hawks back to health. If the animals are injured too badly, they remain in captivity and brought out for special nature talks. This was at Soldiers Delight.
Nature Center at Soldiers Delight

It is great family bonding time. I was too late on registering us this year (losing Malcolm has been so hard) and didn’t get a spot, but fully intend to participate in the future.  We are still camping this year….nature and time together is so important and so healing.

Our Family Trip

First Blog – Herrington Manor State Park, Maryland

Flash back a year, mid- July 2017. My first post has to be about the only trip we took as a family of five people and one lovable puppy dog. This was not the only place that we went with Malcolm, but the only place that we went by ourselves. Where we didn’t meet up with family or friends. And so I will always think of it as ours.

Each year our family participates in Maryland Department of Natural Resources’ (MDNR) Park Quest. A fun and frugal way to tour Maryland State Parks and perfect for an outdoorsy family. In this trip, Park Quest led us to Western Maryland, with popular Deep Creek Lake and several other great parks. I mean, great, too. That isn’t a throw away, ‘great’. Each of these parks has something to offer in serenity, adventure, or plain old breathtaking beauty.

We enjoy camping, but with a baby who was just sitting and popping everything he could into his mouth, we opted for a fairly rustic cabin rental at Herrington Manor State Park about 12 miles from Deep Creek Lake. Indoor plumbing, a stove and a fridge, yes please. The rental was 100/nt, which is very reasonable for the area in high season, but with recent renovations that may go up.

View of the neighbors

On our drive west we stopped at Fort Frederick and Rocky Gap State Park to complete Park Quests and got to Herrington Manor in time to wash up, change into our jammies and attend the s’mores smorgasbord at the community fire ring. This event forever changed how I look at s’mores. They are not just Hershey’s*, graham, and ‘shmallo any more! Graham alternatives were all types of cookies, fudge stripes appealed the most. Then for chocolates, use any chocolate…Reeses cups, peppermint patties…name your favorite! They even had Marshmello options of various shapes and flavors. My daughter was in sweets heaven. My older son, as usual, just snacked on some of the candy. Malcolm sat on his Daddy’s knee by the fire, still unfamiliar with any flavors beyond breast milk and baby cereals.

* will consider altering statement for lifetime supply of Hersheys.

So many choices!

Smore Happiness

The next morning we woke up to rain. A hard, driving, ruin-any-outdoor-plans sort of rain. We had 3 Park Quests planned for the area, but they weren’t happening today. The husband and I high-fived what felt like brilliant forethought in renting a cabin instead of being confined to our pop-up trailer with 3 small children and a dog. With two floors inside and an adorable covered porch with swing outside, we had plenty of space for the day. I confess, I had even downloaded a few episodes of Wild Kratts for my 6 and 4 year old for just such an occasion (The cabins do not have TV or WiFi or much beyond the basics). We scouted out wildlife and critters near our cabin, made some meals, and had fun/minimal squabbling.

Please ignore the towel in the photo …I didnt know I would be posting to a blog.

By mid-afternoon, however, we were all getting restless. It was still raining, but it was a warm summer rain, so we decided to explore Herrington Manor State Park, a bit. We knew there was a lake with a beach and a large, airy rec center that had games and food. We drove to the rec center (hiking is an option, on a nice day) and ordered many fried things and played some games inside while the rain continued outside.

All the fried things! Again, I didnt know I would be posting this, so it aint pretty 🙂

At last the rain lightened. It was no longer a soak-to-the-skin rain, and we had brought swimsuits. We explored the dam a bit then hung out at the beach, which was completely deserted thanks to the now intermittent rain. However, this beach rarely has more than a few families, as there are only 20 cabins to the whole park, and people who aren’t staying there flock to the more popular beaches at Deep Creek Lake. We stayed and splashed for a few hours, just the blowing off steam that we needed before winding down for the day. It was this day that I took some of my all-time favorite photos of Malcolm. We were so thoroughly happy.

So smitten with his Daddy

The following day the rain continued, but it was our last full day in the area and we wouldn’t be deterred. Fortunately, we ended up dodging most of the showers this day. First stop was our Park Quest mission and general trail hike/waterfall swim at Swallow Falls State Park. we had camped at Swallow Falls the year before and it is one of my favorite places to explore the outdoors. The trails were deserted when we got there, but visitors were flowing in by the time we left. After that we headed to another Park Quest at Friend’s Delight Farm and Store.

Our best family photo from this trip
Swallow Falls Trail to ourselves on a Summer weekend?? This needed documentation.

The adorable general store and Friends Delight, part of Sang Run State Park


We closed the day with pizza, arcade games, and a traditional mini-golf. For our first date, my husband and I went mini-golfing (it was right down the street from the Toys R Us where we worked), and so every year on our dating anniversary we mini-golf. It has been happy to share this tradition with our kids.

Dating anniversary # 17

My children learn that I dont play arcade games often, but when I do, I play Time Crisis.

The day we left we hit up one more Park Quest, this one at Deep Creek State Park. The nature center there is fantastic (I have visited a LOT of nature centers) and the beach a short walk away is very good, too. Again, we favor less crowds, but we had checked out of the cabin and did a quick stint at this beach since we were there for our Park Quest anyway. This was complicated because we had the dog with us, but we just set up shop back towards the grassy area.

Deep Creek Discovery Center

Next we packed up and went home. We were tired and we had had fun. Now, this is a trip I will always treasure with all my heart as our one true family trip. Just over 3 months later, Malcolm would be taken from us. I love and miss Malcolm so much, and will carry him with me always.