We discovered Elk Neck State Park in central Maryland over a decade ago when looking for a new place to take camping trips with our family. We have since been back and it is one of my favorite camping spots. Just 75 miles from Philadelphia, it offers multiple terrains and outdoor activities.
The park is on a peninsula between the Elk River and the Chesapeake Bay. Encompassing over 2188 acres, its landscape includes beaches, wooded areas, marshes and cliffs, and a big draw for me, a lighthouse. Our first visit, we made the easy hike to the Turkey Point Lighthouse where we could walk around the grounds.
On a return visit, the lighthouse had been restored and we were able to go inside and climb to the top.
Given the location of the lighthouse (atop a 100 foot cliff) it is only 35 feet tall, so this doesn’t take very long. The 3rd tallest on the Chesapeake Bay (at 129 feet above the water), Turkey Point has the distinction of having more female lighthouse keepers than any other lighthouse on the Bay.
The park has seven trails, with distances from one to three miles, ranging from easy to difficult. Bikes are permitted on most of these and most are pet-friendly, as is most of the park. One of these (and one of our favorites), the Beaver Marsh Loop, has to be timed just right to complete the loop.
Part of the trail goes along the shore, which is underwater at high tide. The Elk Neck also has day use areas and a boat launch and offers youth programs, such as the Junior Ranger Program as well as seasonal programming.
Campsite fees vary and reservations are recommended, especially for holiday weekends. There is a per vehicle day use fee for the park, as well as a boat launch fee, with discounted rates for Maryland residents.
Fort Delaware, originally built to protect the cities of Wilmington and Philadelphia, is a Union fortress that once held Confederate prisoners of war. The fort, which dates to 1859, sits on Pea Patch Island in the Delaware River and is only accessible by ferry via Forts Ferry Crossing which runs from Delaware City, DE. Tickets available on the day of visit at the park ticket office (first-come, first-served).
The park offers a number of activities, from exploring the fort to birding (it is the summer home to nine species of herons) to hiking, (the Prison Camp Trail, is an easy 0.8 mile loop over grass and packed earth) to Living History events. Visitors are free to walk throughout and around the fort and see numerous artifacts as well as reproductions of items that would have been present in the fort which appears as if it were stopped in time over 150 years ago.
The daily schedule of events has costumed re-enactors explaining life in 1864 with enough to see and do to easily keep you busy for much of a day. Visitors are welcome to ask questions and sometimes even to help with tasks.
Visitors learn how everyday tasks such as cooking and laundry were accomplished and witness soldiers preparing to defend the fort as they complete the steps involved in loading and firing a cannon. In the barracks, a soldier welcomes visitors to talk about conditions in the barracks (and maybe share a secret about the ghosts that linger there). Out on the lawn, recruits are schooled in practicing drill as enlisted soldiers.
Included in the ferry fee is the option to travel to Fort Mott, which is on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. The fort was built up in the late 1800s in preparation for the Spanish American War, as part of a three-fort defense system, along with Fort Delaware and Fort DuPont in Delaware City. This 124 acre state park also offers picnicking, an easy walking trail and special educational events.
There are no food vendors on the island, but packaged snacks are available in the gift shops. Picnic tables and grills are available if you choose to bring food with you.
Niagara Falls, one of the natural wonders of the world is on many bucket lists and for good reason. It has been a tourist attraction since the early 19th century and for generations was a popular honeymoon destination. Formed during the last Ice Age, the falls are on the New York/Ontario border and combined have the highest flow rate in the world.
While the falls themselves are truly awesome, without the towns that have grown on either side, there wouldn’t be all that much to do. Of course there is hiking, but that only interests a subset of the population. The cities of Niagara Falls, both in New York and Ontario, have capitalized on the natural feature with a number of related activities and both offer a package deal that provides a discount over purchasing each attraction separately.
We spent a few days visiting Niagara Falls, Ontario in mid-May, before the tourist season truly began. While the area has much more to offer than the falls, the activities surrounding the falls are the main focus of a trip to this town and can be completed in a single day, though it is more enjoyable to spread them over two, or maybe even three days. These attractions are run by the Niagara Parks Commission, a self-financed agency of the Ontario Ministry of Tourism.
Since I was traveling with my adult children and the hotels all seem to charge extra per adult over two, we found it more economical to rent a house for our vacation. (There are a few websites that list rentals; many homes are listed on them all.) This also gave us the added advantage of more square feet per person as well as a full kitchen so we wouldn’t have to eat every meal out. We arrived on a Monday evening, settled in, and went out to the grocery store to pick up something for dinner and breakfast the next morning. However,we quickly realized that, it being a holiday, the stores were already closed. Starting to get hangry, we decided to eat at the closest restaurant, Doc Magilligan’s Restaurant and Irish Pub and were pleased with the choice. Adjacent to the Best Western, it has a charming interior and an intimate, cozy feel that was surprising given its size. The menu promised “authentic Irish fare” and none in our party of five were disappointed with their meal. We planned to return, but other fabulous meals awaited us elsewhere.
We started Tuesday at the Visitor’s Center where we picked up our Adventure Passes (conveniently attached to lanyards) that we had purchased online and selected our days and times for each activity. We had chosen the Classic package, which included a boat ride to the falls, a self-guided tour of caves dug under the falls, a 4D retelling of the history of the falls, a White Water Walk and two-day bus passes. After inquiring into how long each took, we decided to start with Niagara’s Fury, the 4D experience and the Journey Behind the Falls that morning and scheduled the boat ride for after lunch. We decided to postpone the White Water Walk to the next day.
While Niagara’s Fury was informational, the brief film is really designed for a younger audience and none of us would have missed anything by skipping it. We got ample warning that we would get wet, as the 4D portion involves water; the blue rain ponchos we were given upon admittance were useful. The Journey Behind the Falls was a rather ordinary walk through cement arched tunnels with archways open to the falls at the end of two of them, allowing you to see and feel spray from the falls. Though I had read positive
reviews of this attraction, honestly I was not very impressed. Then we went down a longer tunnel that led to a two-story platform right next to the falls. Here is quickly became apparent why we needed those yellow ponchos. I was in awe. (Note: For those who are concerned about plastic waste, there are bins to collect and recycle these ponchos as you exit each attraction, unless of course you choose to keep them.)
From there, we walked along the falls, which was a much longer walk than we had anticipated. The bus passes were good for 48 hours from first use and we had thought we wait until later to extend their usefulness to our last day there. A bit of advice: take the bus to the boat dock. For lunch we stopped at The Secret Garden Restaurant, where we sat outside and enjoyed a water view. (We could see American Falls from our table.)
After lunch, we took the short walk to the Hornblower Cruise and donned our red ponchos. While the boat does offer a covered area, we stayed on the upper level, embracing the water and breeze. As we entered the horseshoe area of the falls, I had to wonder who on earth thought it would be a good idea to steer a boat directly into a waterfall and what would happen if the boat’s engine were to die. My doom and gloom thoughts aside, it was an exhilarating experience being so close to such a powerful force of nature.
Tired and wanting to freshen up, we walked to the nearest bus stop and headed back to our house, where we made dinner (after a stop at the now-open grocery store) then headed back to view the falls at night. We got off the bus at the Table Rock Welcome Center and walked to the falls, stopping briefly at the Canada150 sign which was lit up. The falls too were bathed in light that changed in color every minute or so.
The next day we headed back into town for our 12:30 pm White Water Walk. The bus dropped us off at the entrance and for the first time during our visit, we had to wait. We soon discovered we were waiting for the elevator which took us down to river level. We walked out to the Niagara River onto a platform where the water raged on the other side of the railing. A short walk down a boardwalk along the river’s edge provided more views of the swirling rapids. Placards attached to the railing provided information about the river such as: The water’s speed along the walk is about 48 km/h or 30 mph, which are Class 6 whitewater rapids, generally considered unnavigable. Watching the water go past, I wouldn’t be one to test that. Leaving there, we missed the bus heading back to town and caught the next one heading the other way for a short ride to the end of the line. Since I had wanted to stop at the Floral Clock to try to recreate a picture of my grandmother several decades earlier, we jumped at the driver’s offer to wait for those who wanted to see the clock and take pictures before heading back. (Next time, I will take my time and get good pictures.)
Back in town and hungry, we chose Mama Mia’s Italian Eatery, a small but pleasant place with almost too many delicious sounding options to choose from. Amply nourished, we headed over to the Clifton Hill attractions.
We had purchased Clifton Hill Fun Passes in advance (online purchases get you a bonus ride on the Skywheel) which grant admission to 5 attractions plus five tokens for the arcade. Given the choice of Wizards’ or Dinosaur Gold, we made the decision to go prehistoric and mostly enjoyed our 18 holes of miniature golf (the group behind us could have used some lessons in mini-golf etiquette). We then took an eight-minute ride on the 175-foot high Sky Wheel (we decided to save the second right for later that night). The Skywheel had signs indicating it was climate controlled, but our enclosed gondola was sauna-like, which we didn’t mention to the attendant, though perhaps we should have. After that, we went on the Ghost Blasters Dark Ride and Wild West Coaster in the arcade. (These too were designed for a younger audience, so neither was completely appreciated by our group) before heading to the Movieland Wax Museum which had a few statues worth seeing.
A friend had recommended Kelsey’s Restaurant at the top of Clifton Hill where we welcomed the opportunity to sit down and cool off with a cocktail before selecting from the many appetizing choices. Again we were pleased with our meal.
Though I’m not sure I would repeat a visit to Niagara’s Fury, the Adventure Pass package provides a $25+ discount over paying individually, which is more than the cost of this one activity, plus a number of coupons for other sites, shops and restaurants. An Adventure Pass Nature option is also available, which includes the cruise and bus passes as well as a trip on the Whirlpool Aero Car and visits to a Butterfly Conservatory and Floral Showhouse gardens. The next level, the Plus option gets you all of these plus the Falls Incline access and admission to four Niagara Park Heritage sites. On the American side, the Niagara Falls USA Discovery Pass offers a similar package that includes a boat ride, cavern tour, one day of unlimited trolley rides and other attractions on the New York side.
While the falls can be visited year round, certain attractions are closed during the winter months. The city has many other attractions, including two casinos, an indoor waterpark, many museums, the 520-foot tall Skylon Tower which has an observation deck and restaurants and various sporting activities. There are an almost endless number of hotel options; some offer packages that include tickets to local attractions. The WEGO bus system is efficient and affordable and can take you almost anywhere you might want to go, though if you miss one bus you will have to wait 20 minutes or more until the next one. Three days are enough to take in the highlights of Niagara Falls, though you could certainly extend your trip to see more of the surrounding area, including Niagara on the Lake and Niagara Falls State Park in New York.
While Hershey Pa. is most famous for its chocolate, today, Hersheypark and Zoo America are among the best known attractions in the city. Over the years, the amusement park has grown to include “The Boardwalk,” a separate section offering bathing suit-only water attractions, and an adjoining zoo. Although the amusement park is only open during the summer (Memorial Day to Labor Day), it also offers special events at other times of year, such as Spring Preview Weekends, Halloween and Christmas Candyland (during which there are limited rides, visits with Santa and skating on Rudolph’s Pond), as well as holiday entertainment and shopping.
Hershey Chocolate World, adjacent to Hersheypark, is a massive candy store and more. The free chocolate tour is a gentle ride and chocolate education all in one. Other activities, such as Create Your Own Candy Bar, The 4D Mystery, and Chocolate Tasting Experience are available for an additional charge. Trolley tours of town also depart from here.
The Hershey Story, a history museum detailing the life of Milton S. Hershey and the history of the town is well worth the time to visit. Even if you are not a fan of the chocolate, his story is inspiring. The museum also has interactive displays and a collection of memorabilia spanning decades which brought back several childhood memories. Besides detailing the history of chocolate, the museum looks at how manufacturing and advertising have changed over time. There is also a lengthy exhibit detailing Hershey’s philanthropic pursuits and the growth and successes of the area.
Nearby Hershey Gardens opened in 1937 as a “nice garden of roses” and has grown into an amazing display of flowers, trees and bushes spread over 23 acres with flowing paths. We received free tickets with our stay at Hershey Lodge, so we decided to check it out. Though I am generally not a big fan of public gardens, I enjoyed this one very much. I was most impressed by some of the unusual trees (which I was happy to see were labeled, so I could tell what I was looking it). There is also a rock garden and off by themselves, at the far end of the garden, the Four Seasons Statues. The exhibits are gathered in their own individual themed gardens, with a path meandering throughout. “The Great Garden Adventure” and a children’s garden are especially designed for the little ones and the Butterfly House (open during the summer months) welcomes everyone to learn more about these pretty pollinators.
Besides chocolate, Hershey is home to the Hershey Bears hockey team. Other area attractions include concerts, golf, shopping and another amusement park, Dutch Wonderland (designed for families with kids 12 and under).
There are many hotels in the area as well as the collection known as the Hershey Resorts: The Hotel Hershey, Hershey Lodge and Hersheypark Camping Resort. The Hotel and Lodge are popular locations for conferences and events; all Hershey Resorts offer discounts to some of the Hershey attractions.
On the northern end of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the town of Corolla is a popular vacation destination and the one-time home of North Carolina’s state horse, the Colonial Spanish Mustang, (for their safety the horses have been moved north of Corolla in the area beyond the paved road which is only accessible by 4-wheel drive vehicles).
The town has a long history. As is common with coastal land, nature has shifted the coast and created and moved dunes and inlets. Numerous hurricanes have changed the structure of the Outer Banks, which have effectively served as a protector to mainland North Carolina. Up until early 1800s, it was only accessible by boat and its residents survived through hunting and fishing as well as salvaging items from shipwrecks. Other towns came and went, but the residents of Corolla stuck it out.
Government jobs in the 1800s increased the population. Between 1873-75, the Currituck Beach Lighthouse and the Jones’ Hill Life Saving Station were created. In 1895, Jones’ Hill (as the area was then known) had grown enough to get its own Post Office and the US Postal Service asked for suggestions for a name. Corolla (which is the inner part of a flower) was suggested and ultimately chosen by the postal service. In 1905 a one-room school was established. Some of these 19th century structures remain in what is now known as Corolla Village, a collection of charming buildings surrounding the 162-foot tall lighthouse, including the Corolla Wild Horse Museum and several charming shops.
In 1922 the Knights of Newport, RI began building their 21,000 square foot winter home, Corolla Island, which was completed in 1925. In 1940, under new ownership, Corolla Island was renamed the Whalehead Club, and was leased to the Coast Guard during WWII.
The Club was used as a boy’s school in the summers in the 1950s. Today, the building has been restored to its appearance in 1925 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Owned by the county, it and the lighthouse are both part of the Currituck Heritage Park. Whalehead offers seasonal tours of the building and hosts special events throughout the year.
In the 1970s, only about 15 people lived in Corolla. The road to town was an unpaved trail along the sound. The state later took over the road, and it became part of NC Rt. 12 in 1984. More than 1500 homes were built over the next ten years. Over 500 more were added over the next five years, most of which are vacation homes, with more than half 5000 square feet or more. This road continues through most of Corolla, but then simply ends at an expanse of sand. There are homes (and the horses) beyond this point, but they are not accessible without the use of a 4×4 vehicle.
Today the town of Corolla is relatively quiet and family centered. The houses are packed close together and are a variety of sizes and styles. Needing a place that would accommodate our extended family and two dogs, we rented a home a short walk from the beach with ample space inside, plus a balcony and “bird’s nest” rooftop sitting area which sat higher than most of the other buildings, where we could view both sunrises and sunsets.
A reservoir in our neighborhood was home to a few turtles, and the kids were entertained simply watching them. We also saw a few deer, including a fawn napping in our backyard.
We happen to own ocean kayaks and had brought them along with us (rentals are also available). We spent one lazy afternoon exploring the sound and another day my husband and son tried them out in the ocean. We also spent time lounging on the beach, playing in the ocean and the sand and searching for seashells. My niece was fascinated by the exoskeleton of a horseshoe crab that she discovered.
There are a number of restaurants in Corolla, but for the most part, we chose to shop at the Food Lion and Seaside Farm Market and prepared food back at the house.
We did pick up pizza from Tomato Patch Pizzeria our first night there, which was very good. We also enjoyed our dinner at Sunset Grille and Raw Bar in Duck where we got to sit outside on the dock and were amused by the fanciful drink glasses that we got to bring home.
Shopping included the traditional beachy souvenir shops, upscale gift boutiques and antique markets as well as outfitters for water sports. An 18-link golf course, mini golf, go carts and a movie theater are right in town, and tours via 4×4 vehicles are popular and are probably the best way to see Corolla’s horses. Fishing, surfing, kayaking and stand up paddle boarding rentals and lessons can be found for those who would rather be in the water.
The Outer Banks have much more to offer, outside of Corolla, but we spent most of our week locally. The ride in on a Saturday morning (which is when most of the rental periods start) had us almost at a standstill for a couple hours, causing some to not want to venture out until the week’s end. Having a fondness for lighthouses, I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit another one nearby, so my son and I made a trip south to explore.
The Fort Raleigh National Historic Site is the location of the first English settlement in America, which tragically ended in mystery. All 117 people in the colony vanished without a trace. At a ranger-led talk at our visit, we explored the possibilities and most popular theories of this strange vanishing act. During the summer months, a live performance, The Lost Colony is put on by the non-profit Roanoke Island Historical Association. The nearby Roanoke Island Festival Park, a North Carolina Historic Site offers a peek into history as costumed interpreters demonstrate life in the 1585 settlement or onboard the Elizabeth II, which represents one of the seven ships bringing colonists to America in 1585.
The Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kill Devil Hills celebrates the birthplace of aviation. While there, one can visit the Flight Line where history took place, peek into 1903 camp buildings and explore the Visitor’s Center.
Jockey Ridge State Park in Nags Head is home to the Atlantic’s tallest living sand dune. A visitor’s center and boardwalk provide information about the dune’s ecology. Shoes are a must while walking on the sand; the park website warns that the sand can be up to 30 degrees hotter than air temperatures.
Between Corolla and Cape Hatteras. there are 5 lighthouses. Just south of Nags Head, the Bodie Island Lighthouse (pronounced “body”) stands 150 feet tall and is open to climb subject to weather conditions. On the day of our visit, thunderstorms were threatening so admission was limited to the ground floor. The other lighthouses on these barrier islands are the Currituck Lighthouse in Corolla, the Okracoke Lighthouse (which is the nation’s oldest operating), the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse (the tallest brick lighthouse in the country), and the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse.
The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras delves into maritime history. The coast of North Carolina is known for its density of shipwrecks, which is one of the highest in the world. The waters are known for their tales of pirates and Civil War battles, as well as engaging with submarines during the World Wars.
We only had a week on the Outer Banks, so we still have much to see. I look forward to future visits and to further exploring the historic sites.
The oldest city in the state, Savannah, Georgia boasts a wealth of history and Southern charm. With several museums and art galleries, Revolutionary and Civil War sites, ghost tours, riverfront shopping and dining, one can easily keep busy for several days. The Andrew Low House, the birthplace of Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts is also a popular attraction. There are various ways to discover the city: you can wander about on your own, join a walking tour, or book a tour via segway, bicycle, trolley, carriage, water, even helicopter.
Since we only had a couple days to visit, we started exploring via a trolley tour, which was a good introduction to the city. The ticket allows you to hop on and off all day, and we discovered that the continuously looping trolley was a handy method of transport for tired feet (and also to get out of the rain).
One of the trolley stops is at Forsyth Park, the largest park in the historic district. It is home to the Confederate War Monument, which sits on the site where soldiers drilled before going off to war. The park also features a large fountain (the water is dyed green each St. Patrick’s Day) and a bandstand at the Forsyth Park Cafe. Large expanses of grassy areas provide ample space for play and picnicking, or simply relaxing.
While walking around, we experienced a summer downpour as we approached the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, where we sought refuge. (But not before we were soaked to the skin – everything in my purse was soggy, even the chewing gum.) This beautiful church is open for tours from Monday to Saturday. The parish dates back to 1789 when French Catholics (some were
nobles fleeing the French Revolution) came to the area after an uprising in Haiti. The Diocese of Savannah was established in 1850 and, at that time, included all of Georgia and most of Florida. A statue of St. Patrick has a place of honor in the cathedral and his feast day is one of the largest celebrations in Savannah each year.
River Street has wonderful views, shopping and dining
We spent an evening wandering River Street, which has an interesting assortment of shops, while trying to decide on dinner. We had tickets for the trolley ghost tour, so a fancy sit-down place was out of the question. We found a small seafood place where I had an amazing oyster dinner.
There are several ghost tours offered in Savannah, whose history would indicate the abundance of spirits. We chose to take the trolley tour (there was a package deal) and were entertained by our guide with stories of ghostly presence and more history of Savannah (she was especially concerned that a ghost not accompany us home as we were leaving one site on the tour).
We didn’t make it to nearby Tybee Island, with its beaches, featuring birds, sea turtles, pirates and water sports. It is also home to a lighthouse, so we will be back!
Lucy the Elephant is a hidden treasure of the Jersey Shore. We made a side trip years ago to see her and were captivated by the structure and its interesting history. More recently, I was going through old photos my mom had given me and found several of her and her parents also atop the pachyderm! She had not mentioned her visit, so I doubt she remembered it, but I have photos to prove we all were there.
Lucy is the only one of three such structures that remains. Built in 1881, the 65-foot high wooden elephant reportedly cost more than $25,000 to build and the idea of an animal-shaped building was patented in 1882. James V. Lafferty conceived of the idea to attract buyers for his property in what was then South Atlantic City. He also built two others, in 1884, the 40-foot Light of Asia in what is now South Cape May (torn down in 1900 due to severe deterioration) and the 122-foot Elephantine Colossus, an amusement attraction at Coney Island NY, at a cost of $65,000. (This elephant had 7 floors and 31 rooms. A financial loss from the very start, it was sold and later burnt down in 1896.)
From 1902 to 1969, Lucy served as a four-bedroom home, a tavern and a tourist camp. She survived fire and hurricanes that destroyed many nearby structures. Since 1916, she has been a popular attraction. Notable visitors include President and Mrs. Wilson and Henry Ford who have paid admission to visit the elephant and climb her 130 steps in her hind legs to the viewing platform on her back.
In 1969, a developer bought the land Lucy sat on and agreed to donate the building to the town with the stipulation that it be moved in 30 days. The cost to make this move to a public park was $24,000 which was raised by donation. The estimate for restoration was $124,000. Work began in 1973 and tours resumed in 1974. Costs to upkeep the structure have been considerable and numerous fundraising campaigns have been launched to care for it. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Lucy is currently maintained by the non-profit Save Lucy Committee Inc.
Lucy the Elephant can be found at Josephine Harron Park in Margate, NJ. Tours are given every half hour. The building is also available for private events such as weddings and parties.
A visit to the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library & Museum demonstrates why the study of history is so important. Though Wilson was president a century ago, much of the collection on display at his birthplace in Staunton, Virginia is surprisingly relevant to life today.
Though Wilson only lived in the house that was his birthplace for his first year (his father was a pastor and the church called him to Georgia and then South Carolina), he regularly returned to town to spend summers with family. He later visited frequently while attending the University of Virginia Law School before going on to earn a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. (He is reportedly the only U.S. president to hold an earned doctoral degree.) Staunton has always claimed him as its own, and the city was home to the first “Wilson for President” club.
Wilson was elected President of the United States in 1912 and served two terms. He is one of the few presidents to have married while in the White House (he was widowed in 1914 and remarried the end of 1915) and is known for his social and economic reforms such as the Federal Reserve Act and the Child Labor Reform Act, as well as his efforts to establish the League of Nations after World War I.
The Woodrow Wilson Museum offers seven galleries of artifacts that take a visitor through his early years, his presidency, suffrage, prohibition and World War I. Enlarged copies of ads and newspapers as well as promotional materials displayed on the walls show women’s fight for equality and the public’s very diverse opinions on immigration, indicating that these issues were as fiercely debated then as they are now. One panel proclaims the U.S. “A Nation of Immigrants” and discusses the fears some Americans had that these newcomers were a threat to American values. Wilson was staunchly pro-immigration and vetoed a bill to use literacy requirements to restrict the flow (as did his predecessors Cleveland and Taft). However, Congress was determined to restrict the flow of immigrants into the country and overrode his veto in the next session.
Besides personal items belonging to Wilson and his family, the president’s prized original 1919 Pierce-Arrow limousine is also on display. Though it began as part of the fleet, the president liked the car so much, his friends purchased it for his personal use after he left the White House. On the lower level of the museum, a WWI trench has been created to simulate the sights and sounds of soldiers in battle. Display cases also hold a full uniform, various weapons and everyday items used by soldiers in the field.
During his presidency, the U.S. saw the introduction of a federal income tax and the Internal Revenue Service, the outbreak and resolution of World War I, and the passage of the 19th Amendment. Wilson was the first president to hold regular press conferences, starting a tradition that has lasted until today. As World War I came to a close, he was the first president to visit Europe while in office where he fought to establish a League of Nations, which he hoped would be a diplomatic way to prevent further conflicts from escalating to war.
Admission includes a tour of the home that was Wilson’s birthplace, a Greek Revival that recreates life in a Shenandoah Valley home in 1856, the year Wilson was born. The house, which has a strictly-enforced policy of no photography inside, is decorated with both authentic Wilson furnishings and period reproductions. A Victorian-style terraced garden sits behind the house, which was installed by The Garden Club of Virginia in the early 1930s. Once owned by the Presbyterian Church, this 1846 National Historic Landmark has three floors and was designed to be “the best house in Staunton” when it was finished. From the rear of the home you can easily see the steeple of the nearby Presbyterian Church.
The Wilsons moved into the home in March of 1855. Four other ministers’ families later lived in the home before it was purchased with funds that were largely raised by the trustees of nearby Mary Baldwin College. In 1938, the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace Foundation was established to preserve the property as a birthplace museum for the former president. Renovations were completed in 1941 and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated the museum as a “shrine to freedom.”
The Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library and Research Center houses documents and 3-D objects as well as almost 3,000 library titles. Research is free, but appointments are necessary to access these collections.
The city of Staunton VA can be found in western Virginia, where Routes 81 and 64 meet. Besides the Woodrow Wilson Birthplace (said to be the first in Virginia), the town also boasts the Blackfriars Playhouse and the Frontier Culture Museum, an outdoor living history museum depicting life in the area from the 1600s through the 1850s.
Named one of “America’s Favorite Mountain Towns” by Travel and Leisure and one of The 20 Best Small Towns in America of 2012” by Smithsonian Magazine, Staunton (pronounced STAN-ten by the locals) was the first town in Virginia to win a Great American Main Street award from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The town dates back to the mid-1700s and served as a major remote trading center for the back country, and served as Virginia’s capital in June of 1781. It’s reputation as a trading center was cemented when the railroad came through in 1854 and it was an important supply are for the Confederacy. A long-time home to musicians, the town annually hosts the Staunton Music Festival in early August. It has also been the backdrop for several movies including Gods and Generals and Hearts and Atlantis.
There are several bed and breakfasts and chain hotels to choose from in Staunton as well as the Stonewall Jackson Hotel and Conference Center, a 124-room member of the Historic Hotels of America (a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation). If you appreciate a good pizza, Maria’s Pizza and Pasta may have the best crust south of the Mason Dixon line. (Try a slice of their veggie pizza.) The city has plenty of parks, shops and restaurants to choose from and the Staunton Trolley makes it easy to get around. Visitors centers can be found both downtown and at the Frontier Culture Museum.
Note: No compensation was provided by any businesses mentioned in this article. Opinions are those of the writer.
Our first trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park was as a couple. The kids were spending time with their grandparents and we decided to spend a few days camping on our way home. We had the necessary items: a tent, sleeping bags and some basic cooking gear (we had planned to use the campsite as our base, but this time eat out for the most part). On the way there, our van got a flat tire, so we had to stop to replace it. We stopped at a warehouse store and while waiting, we of course decided to shop. One of our purchases was a screened tent with a set of four chairs and a table, all of which conveniently folded into about a 4 x 2 x 1-foot case. This tent quickly proved its worth and has served us well over the years, both in our yard and at multiple campsites.
We arrived at Great Smoky Mountain National Park and checked in at the ranger station. We knew nothing about the campsites, but were told there was plenty of space at the first-come sites, so we could just go pick one out. We generally prefer the more natural sites, and we ended up at Balsam Mountain Campground, which at a mile high, is the tallest campground in the park.
This was a good choice, except for the fact that it was a 45-minute drive down the mountain on twisty roads, so eating out would prove to be inconvenient. (A side note: If you are prone to motion sickness, the ride up to Balsam may cause you some discomfort.) Luckily we had picked up snacks while waiting for the tire, so we managed to put together a dinner of cheese, gourmet jarred vegetables and fruit. The next morning we had our coffee and headed out to explore and get more supplies.
The drive through Pigeon Forge, TN was interesting. The road out to Dollywood is colorful and busy, to put it mildly. Though I recognize that it sometimes has its appeal, touristy kitsch was not what we were looking for on this trip. There was not much of interest to us on the western side of the park, so we then headed east, out to Cherokee, NC and got groceries and stopped at a couple Native American shops to pick up gifts for the kids and the friends who were watching our dog.
When we returned, we were very happy to have purchased the screened tent as it had obviously rained while we were gone. (During the summer months, it rains somewhere in the park pretty much every day.) In the park, we did some hiking and visited Clingman’s Dome, the tallest point in the park, where you can get a 360 degree view of the Smokies. After our climb up the observation tower, we took a short walk on the Appalachian Trail. At this point, the trail straddles the North Carolina and Tennessee borders, so it is possible to walk through two states at once.
Several years later, we made a return trip, this time with the children and the dog. My husband was traveling for work and had arranged to fly into Knoxville, where we picked him up after setting up camp.
We again stayed at Balsam Mountain, and on the second day (when the other residents moved out) we moved our tents to the same campsite we had used years before. (Our hiking was somewhat limited this trip as the park has limitations on where dogs are welcome. Only two trails are dog-friendly; this is the only stretch of the Appalachian Trail that dogs are not permitted.)
This time we spent a little time at Cades Cove, where Europeans settled sometime around 1820 and walking along the Oconaluftee River Trail from the grounds of the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill. Our neighbors at the campground told us about a great spot to watch the sunset, just a short hike down the road, so we grabbed flashlights and were not disappointed.
The park has several campgrounds as well as LeConte Lodge, which at 6,593 feet is the highest guest lodge in the eastern U.S. The lodge is at the top of the park’s third largest peak, Mount LeConte, and is accessible via a 5-8 mile hike (there are five trails). Advance reservations are necessary to stay at the lodge; those wanting to just spend a day need to watch the sun and conditions to ensure they have time for the return trip before dark.
With an elevation from 875 feet to 6,643 feet, the weather varies throughout the park with temperatures varying up to 10-20 degrees. The rainfall is from 55 to 85 inches per year. For those wanting hotel accommodations, there are many options outside of the park. There is no fee to enter the park, as the state of Tennessee prohibited such fees when transferring ownership to the federal government.
There are 150 official trails in the park and a number of waterfalls. As conditions often change, it is a good idea to check the website for closures before you go. Bicycles are permitted on all paved roads in the park and the 11-mile Cades Cove loop is closed two mornings a week until 10 for the exclusive use of bicycles and pedestrian traffic. Horseback riding and hayrides are available through concessions in the park. The Smokies Trip Planner (which can be downloaded from the NPS website) has more useful information.
Now the Appalachian Trail (AT) may seem like an unusual travel destination to some, but the trail has a mystique that calls to thousands each year. The 75-year-old trail, a 2189 mile footpath along the Appalachian Mountains in the Eastern U.S. has been the subject of many books as well as conversations among hikers for generations. It takes careful planning and five to seven months to complete the hike. Since the shelters actually on the trail are limited, one needs to carry both shelter and supplies as well as enough food to get to the next resupply location, which can sometimes be several days. The trail does go near and even through some towns where hikers can resupply, shower and maybe even stay at a hotel or hostel for a night or two, but through-hikers need to expect to spend most nights on the trail.
The Appalachian Trail was conceived by Benton McKay, a regional planner in October 1921, and the Appalachian Trail Conference (ATC) was organized in 1925 when work seriously started to create a contiguous walking path from Mount Katahdin, Maine to Springer Mountain, Georgia. The trail was completed in 1937. The ATC has grown and changed a bit over time (it is now the Appalachian Trail Conservancy) but it still plays a primary role in maintaining the trail and the corridor lands that border it. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy’s stated mission is “to preserve and manage the Appalachian Trail – ensuring that its vast natural beauty and priceless cultural heritage can be shared and enjoyed today, tomorrow, and for centuries to come.” This responsibility is shared with the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, a number of state agencies, and countless volunteer groups.
In 1968 the AT became the first National Scenic Trail; it was added to the National Park system in the 1970s, when the National Trails System Act called for state and federal government to purchase corridors surrounding the AT footpath; the last stretch of land was acquired in 2014.
There are a number of ways to hike the AT, which has seen several variations of trail markers over the years; older versions can still be found on the trail. Most people enjoy the beauty of the AT on day hikes and for many, this is enough, but serious hikers may want to tackle all 2189 miles. Few people have the luxury of being able to spend half of a year without obligations (not to mention the cost: approximately $3,000 plus gear, according to the Appalachian Mountain Club), so many hike the trail in sections. This can be a number of day hikes, or multi-day backpacking trips. Those who are really serious do decide to hike the entire trail, either from end to end or in a “flip-flop hike.” Most who start do not complete the full hike, it is estimated that only about a third of those who start a through-hike complete it.
Since much of the trail’s geography takes one through states that experience (sometimes harsh) winters, through-hikers have a window during which they need to start in order to complete the full hike. Most travel from Georgia, with March 1 through April 15 the most popular dates to start. There are some who start in Maine but, due to the snow, can’t start until May or June. This northern section of the trail is also said to be the most difficult, so most experts suggest building up to that level.
Flip-flop through-hiking is also an option. The ATC gives several plans to do this, which involves starting at a location somewhere on the trail, hiking one direction to the end, then returning to your starting point and completing the trail in the other direction. Although this is a bit non-traditional, there are good reasons to do this. Aside from the fact that certain mid points are easier hiking to start with (so you would then progress to more difficult terrain) there is also the fact that it reduces the crowds found at the traditional starting points.
Preparing for your hike
There are a number of excellent websites and books to help you determine what you need. Guide books and trail maps provide even more information. You might want to select a trail name for yourself, or wait and see what name feels right after a couple days out. Learn about or review Leave No Trace principles so that you minimize your impact on the outdoors and help keep it enjoyable for everyone. Start hiking smaller distances to get in better shape, and get used to carrying a full pack. A hike this challenging is not something to just jump into unprepared. Make sure someone knows you are going and leave them a rough itinerary. (This is of course a good practice anytime you are traveling.) Know the regulations, for example on where camping is allowed and if cooking fires are permitted. Some sections of the trail go through state and national parks that require permits (you can get some of these in advance through the ATC website).
Planning the hike with a partner is a good idea. Besides having someone to share experiences with and encourage you (not to mention helping with preparations), it is also safer. While the risks are minimal, the trail does go through wildlife habitat and run-ins with bears or snakes are possible. Much of the terrain is rocky, so there is a chance of injury. And, although the majority of people found on the trail are good people, as with anywhere else, there are some out there with evil intent.
Know that your personal mileage may vary. Trail sections are sometimes rerouted. Note: hiking the trail usually means hiking more than the trail. There are interesting side trails, sometimes leading to incredible overlooks which it would be a shame to miss. Leaving the trail for a trip into town also adds to your total distance.
The ATC now has a voluntary through-hike registration, which is free and includes a membership to the ATC and other perks. The idea behind the registration is to minimize the crowds at the early stretch of the trail. News about closures and other alerts can be found on the National Park Service website.
Enjoy the trail’s beauty
Although I would love to say that I think I could through-hike this trail, I am a realist and am fairly certain that I will never be in good enough shape to do this. So, instead, I have the almost as ambitious hope (not even a goal) to someday be able to say I have section-hiked all or at least most of it. Bill Bryson’s popular memoir A Walk in the Woods is an entertaining story of his journeys on the trail. It is largely his writings that made me realize that through-hiking is likely not for me.
The trail is beautiful and demanding. I have completed short sections of it in Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee (the latter two states essentially at the same time as a portion of the trail straddles the border). I have not as of yet backpacked on the trail, instead doing day hikes from a campsite.
The Virginia section goes through Shenandoah National Park and this is the state where I personally have logged the greatest number of miles on the trail. The trail also goes through Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which is where I hiked Tennessee and North Carolina. I had quite a bit of fun with this stretch, near Clingman’s Dome, hopping into NC, then back to TN and back to NC once again.
A couple years ago, I completed a stretch of about 3-4 miles of the trail (with side hikes, total of 10 miles) while camping at Lewis Mountain Campground in Shenandoah. We set up camp late in the day and the next morning I ventured out and happened to see the white blazes marking the trail that went right behind our tent! As luck would have it, the trail heading north went up to the Bearfence Rock Scramble and to a 360 degree overlook that I had read about just a few months before. The campground map indicated it was only about a mile, so it was an easy decision. It was mostly uphill and had several switchbacks to get to the overlook, but the view was well worth it. We ended up missing the scramble, as we followed a trail marker that led to the overlook instead. Total miles for this trip (there and back, plus the detour) was 3.6.
The next day we headed south on the trail, with our destination the ruins of the Episcopal Pocosin Mission, which dates back to 1902, about a mile off the trail, with total miles 5.7. The trail started downhill, and coming back I remember thinking that there was no end. I kept telling myself I would stop for a breather at the next plateau, but the trail seemed to just keep going up. This hike came in at 5.7 miles (again this is there and back, plus about 2 miles off the trail to the mission).
While perusing the ATC website this week, I discovered the 14 State Challenge, where the goal is to hike a section of the AT in each of the 14 states the AT goes through. And, there is no time limit to complete this! Now that sounds like a manageable goal!