Natural Bridge, VA

There were some fun things that lured us to Natural Bridge, VA.  One was a classic American roadside attraction….FOAMHENGE!!! Chris and I had been here before, but absolutely wanted to share it and take photo ops with the kids.  A few days before we left I was doing some quick recon on details and saw that…..what?… Foamhenge had moved?!?! Guh. I guess we’ll just have to track it down in Centerville, VA another time.

Foamhenge circa October 2014
Foamhenge circa October 2014
As we were leaving a couple was arriving to get their engagement photos taken. What a fantastic idea.

Another attraction that I had my eye on for awhile was Virginia Safari Park.  I thought it sounded like fun for the kids, and safe to say, it was their highlight.  The price for the 4 of us plus 4 buckets of food for the animals ran just shy of 100 bucks, but it was money well spent.  

No wonder we ran out of food…
HB being shown the ropes

If you arrive early enough, you can book a spot on one of their wagons that will drive you through the park while you feed the animals.  I highly suggest this option.  It costs $6 a person, but includes a bucket of feed ($4) and not having to worry about damage to your car is more than worth it.  Having a buffalo stroll right by your car windows makes you flinch! We were not early enough to get seats on the last wagon of the day, and while our car wasn’t damaged, I did have an emu poke his head in and nip at my seat (silly emu).  Also, as the driver, I was worried about turning animals into roadkill (though most of them scooted out of the way, a few lingered in front for awhile) and didn’t fully enjoy the experience. Another plug for the wagons: there were off-the-beaten-path roads marked ‘wagons only’ that meandered by watering holes and around the far side of hills, so they get better access than cars do.  Still, it was a cool experience seeing some very large creatures up close. One other tip, try and ration the food! Or buy more buckets (I wish we had done this) We were out towards the end of the safari, when we saw a magnificent elk buck that we would have loved to have fed (he saw we were out of food and wouldn’t give us the time of day).

After the driving part of the safari, there is a walkthrough portion that also exceeded our expectations.  You can look at reptiles and monkeys (several with babies on their backs!) and feed goats. There were also several more unique experiences.  You can stroll through a kangaroo enclosure and walk through a parakeet aviary where you can have several birds land on you at once while you offer them seed from sticks.  This was my daughters absolute favorite.

Monkey baby!
Kangaroo Walkabout
Chris keet-less

There is also the opportunity to feed giraffes.  The ‘giraffe food’ is romaine lettuce and sold for 5 dollars a cup.  A little over-excited, I bought us each a cup. The giraffes (perhaps over-fed…it was the very end of the day), completely ignored us and we gave all our lettuce to some chill tortoises that were hanging out waiting for giraffe leftovers.   Other animals included a white tiger and two pacing cheetahs.

The ONLY negative we had was the snack bar staff would not refill our water bottle with tap water, stating it was the park’s policy to not refill, but we could, of course, purchase.  There also weren’t any water fountains, that I saw.  I can’t recall being refused water at any family friendly location before, and it did not sit well with me. We ended up buying, which, aside from costing money, defeats the purpose of us carrying around a reusable bottle.

After the Safari Park we went back to finish setting up camp.  Camping is work, but also such a great experience. After we were set up and cooked dinner on the fire, I swayed in the hammock with my son, talking about our day and watching the light fade through the trees and enjoyed one of those perfect moments.  I didn’t have a camera to capture it, but it will be in my memory forever.

Photo taken during a much crazier time the following morning.  This hammock was one of the best 20 bucks I ever spent.
5 year old laughing and saying his cheese looks like VA.  The geography nerd in me is super proud.

The next day we set out to send out some positivity in Malcolm’s memory at Natural Bridge State Park.  The kids love nature and learning about nature (they hold snakes without batting an eye), so volunteering at the park seemed like an good way to start our Remembering Malcolm experiences.  I wanted to make sure it was something that would keep the kids engaged, and tried to have them understand why we are doing what we are doing.

Gently handling Thom Hiss Jefferson and looking through some of Liz’s wildlife photos

In all honestly, my son was bored (and said so many times).  I wanted to tell him to suck it up and do it for Malcolm, but quickly reasoned that would push him away from our ultimate goal of doing something like this on every trip. There was plenty of space for him to occupy himself (which almost always consists of him pretending to tackle/be tackled/dodge a tackle), and Liz (our extremely helpful and kind park ranger) supplied him with a coloring book about caves. He ended up talking to Liz for quite some time about cave life (impressive, since he is my shy guy). He was fascinated that some animals have adapted to cave life by not having any eyes at all! We were visiting the Caverns at Natural Bridge the next day, so he could get the cave experience.  Natural Bridge State Park is beautiful, educational and FULL of wildlife, especially snakes.  We ran into several rather large water snakes and queen snakes along the rock wall at the river path.

After the park we headed back to camp for a hike with the dog and went swimming at the lake.  Cave Mountain Lake campground is SO GOOD. Away from the summer craziness of the Shenandoah, it has nice facilities and lake access for just $15 a night. A quiet place to camp in during prime summer days.

Beautiful Cave Mountain Lake
Everyone helps around camp
Doggies love camping
Kid was born to camp
Picked up for dinner at the local general store.  This photo is such a classic camping pic with checkered table cloth, Coleman thermos and trailer and some yellow mustard 🙂

It was supposed to rain on our last full day, so we had planned the caverns for that day.  However, when we poked our heads back out from the underground, it was sunny, so we hopped back over to Natural Bridge State Park for a more relaxed stroll through the park.  A different experience from the day before.

Testing out the games kids on the Monacan Tribe used to play
I mean, finding snake skin makes her a happy camper.
2 big snappers sneaking up on a frog
#watchyourhands #thisisafamilyshow

We enjoyed our last night of camp and then packed up (in the rain, as seems to be our tradition) and drove the 4 hours home through occasional squalls.  This trip was so much fun and we are already planning on making it part of a larger camping trip next year.

see how much fun we are having?

Video version of fun below

Healing Through Travel

It has been a long road we have walked since Malcolm died, and it continues to stretch out in front of us in daunting valleys and peaks.  Though I often still feel hazy and lost, I have also made an effort to focus on how to find myself/ourselves. One thing I have always craved is travel, and I fully believe it is good for the soul.  As I planned a flurry of trips this year, I still simply cannot work up the excitement I once had for wandering the world. Something was missing. We can’t just run away from Malcolm, we had to bring him, somehow, leave a mark, no matter how small, on where we have been.  It is our family’s personal #RememberingMalcolm campaign, and we have already had family and friends who have supported us and seized on the idea and are helping us spread love through the world in Malcolm’s memory. It really, truly means the world to us that people think of him and sprinkle a little love and positivity wherever they go.

Back when we realized Malcolm wasn’t going to pull through, we had to make the difficult decision to take him off life support.  One of the more harrowing aspects of the situation was being asked if we’d consider making Malcolm an organ  donor.  How could we not?  The possibility to offer hope to another family in pain was one we could not let pass by.

The Living Legacy people walked my husband through the process.  They gave us a teddy bear with the word ‘HERO’ on it.  This bear is the representation of our lost son we take to bed with us each night and carry  with us when we travel.  A squeeze on Hero Bear (HB) or Malcolm Bear can calm frantic nerves or just is there when we need to cry.  It was in his hospital bed the night before his organ donation, his skin felt the bear, it touched his lips, Hero Bear has some special attachment to him.

Though I don’t feel we ever undervalued time together before losing Malcolm, we definitely bask in every moment that we all get to spend together more than ever.  We love being outside, exploring nature and bonding through experiences. This past weekend we went to Natural Bridge, VA, on our first, official, #RememberingMalcolm trip.

On the Road
Crazy morning hair….wanted to document hitting the road with HB!

One of the tourist stops in Natural Bridge is the beautiful State Park.  I had envisioned our volunteer experience to be something along the lines of trash cleanup or similar, but once I explored the Virginia State Park volunteering process we found out our options were limited to assisting with one of the day’s programs.  One-time volunteers do not need the background check that routine volunteers require, which is great (I hadn’t allowed enough time for a background check!), but it also limits what you can do that day to being supervised assisting the Park Rangers with their work.   Volunteer Coordinator Megan Meadows made sure that we had our opportunity that Saturday!

Megan provided a list of the day’s programs.  Several nature-related and another called ‘Legends of Natural Bridge’, which educates visitors on the history and geology of the area.  Finally, that evening, they had ‘Rockin’ the Creek’, which is a family-friendly concert with food trucks and local wines in a beautiful location on a summer evening.  Volunteers there would help hand out cups and bracelets and enjoy the festivities, themselves. I read the volunteer options to my daughter, since I want the kids to be involved, and she (not surprisingly) went with the nature route.  

We arrived hour prior to our scheduled time and checked in and said hi.  Then we had about an hour to explore the park before we started volunteering.  A perk to volunteering is that you get into the park for free! This was not something I was aware of when I pursued the volunteer opportunity, but it was nice.  When I saw that the main trail (the Cedar Creek Trail) was paved and only 0.8 miles long each way, I thought we could easily make it. I was wrong! Between pausing to take photos at the bridge and exploring little stops along the way, we ended up rushing back to the visitors center and skipping the Monacan Village completely!  We ended up coming back the next day.

Natural Bridge

After our slightly rushed park visit, we assisted in 2 hour education session on ‘Skulls, Skins and More’.  Our super engaging and very smart Park Ranger, Liz, gave us a quick education on the animal pelts laid out, as well as the skulls, snake skins, minerals and other display items.  It was then up to us to share this information with visitors that stopped by, and engage them in further discussion. Liz was there when the questions got too detailed, and by the end of the session we all felt like mini-experts.  ‘Yes, mink are native to Virginia, two were spotted in the park, yesterday!’, ‘that sounds like a queen snake that you saw. Let’s look at our snake book so we can make the identification.’, ‘that is an adolescent bear skull. It isn’t intact because it was found by a ranger, and had already had several animals gnawing on it.  See these teeth marks? See how they are similar to the teeth in this squirrel skull? Some rodents had been nibbling on it.’  Watching my daughter answer questions and offer information made me super proud.

Animal pelt education with M1 and HB. When we returned the next day she surprised a different ranger by reciting them all 🙂
Checking out the minerals! Liz has her masters in geology.

We also got to meet, handle and show off Thom Hiss Jefferson, the little, sweet tempered corn snake, which thrilled my daughter to no end.

Gently handling Thom Hiss Jefferson and looking through some of Liz’s wildlife photos

Liz showed us how to use the clicker to count up visitors with whom we had engaged in nature-specific discussions.  These counts are used to maintain/adjust funding for the parks for the next year. My daughter was very diligent at making sure we were counting everyone.  

We will continue to travel, live life for our departed Malcolm, and look for meaning when we do.  It is an exciting and rewarding process that we can’t wait to get to know. 

Healing.  Having family time is healing.  Relaxing is healing. Being in the moment is healing.  Giving back and giving love is healing. Travel is healing.

This is one of the biggest/fanciest nature centers I have ever seen. This pic was downstairs, upstairs they have a large gift shop and cafe. Back in the day (50s) they even had a swimming pool inside! It is in discussion to try and make the pool functional again.

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.