The Smoky Mountains: One of the Few Places You Can Hike in Two States at Once

 

100_5431Our 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 planSCAN0137ned 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.

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Balsam Mountain Campground has a looping road where you can enjoy the foliage. (It is not marked “one way.”)

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.

aerial view of a circular paved area mostly surrounded by trees with people wandering about
Clingman’s Dome, from the observation tower

 

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The observation tower at Clingman’s Dome

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.

a girl holding a bag of chips that has been inflated by the altitude
This is what happens to potato chip bags at high altitude

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.

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Elk are one of many species that call the park home

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.

pink skies and the sun hanging over purple rows of mountains
A sunset in the Smoky Mountains

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, SCAN0143the 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.

This was first published as The Gorgeous Great Smoky Mountains

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A Walk on The Appalachian Trail Is What You Make of It

a panoramic view of mountains with trees on both sides and rocks in the foreground
Bearfence Mountain Viewpoint, Shenandoah National Park, Virginia

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.

a cement trail marker post with the AT logoIn 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.a teal blue marker set in a block of cement

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

the trail is a series of rocks
This IS the trail (in Tennessee)
a trail with a downed tree across it that has been cut out to provide access
A section in Shenandoah

switchbacks on a trail with leafy trees above a path through the woods with trees on each side and rocks off to the left

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 man looks at a map in front of a trail sign
We happened upon the trail in Tennessee, near Clingman’s Dome. Of course we couldn’t resist following it for a bit!
trees and a rock jutting out with a woman perched on the end
Just off the trail in Tennessee
the foggy view of a mountain through trees bare of foilage
The view looking into North Carolina

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).

a stone foundation of a ruined building
The ruins of the Episcopal Mission
a crude shelf holding objects presumably found among the ruins
A makeshift shrine to the Pocosin Mission

a wood structure partially collapsedparts of a stone foundation among trees

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!

 

This was previously published as A Walk on The Appalachian Trail

A Taste of Portland Maine Will Leave You Hungry for More

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We planned Portland, Maine as a stop to break up the ride to Bar Harbour which would be our home base as we explored Acadia National Park. Though we had only a short time in the city, we discovered that it has a certain charm, wonderful food and history to discover, making it worthy of being a destination itself.

Spring Point Ledge Light, South Portland

Home to not one, but SIX lighthouses, Portland’s history (surprise, given the city’s name) is in shipping. Established in 1632 as a British fishing and trading community, Portland has suffered setbacks, such as fire and loss of industry, but remains a thriving metropolitan center with the current focus on art, shopping and food. Named by the National Historic Trust one of its Dozen Distinctive Destinations in 2003, the city demonstrates the resilience of its natives.

The city’s cobblestone streets contribute to its historical vibe as do its forts and the historically significant architecture found throughout the city. The Portland Museum of Art, in the center of downtown, is home to over 17,000 pieces of art. The childhood home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is also in Portland, next to the Maine Historical Society. Paddling enthusiasts can rent kayaks or paddle boards and go on their way or choose a guided tour. Bicycle rentals and tours are also offered.

Spring Point Ledge Light

Since my son was prepping for a week-long backpacking trip, I took the opportunity to plan a half a day completing a 10k “year-round” hike organized by the Southern Maine Volkssport Association which “conveniently” took us past the Spring Point Ledge Light.  Built to warn ships of a dangerous ledge in Portland Harbor, the

a rocky breakwater leads to the base of a lighthouse
The breakwater is composed of large granite boulders,and touring the lighthouse involves climbing a ladder, so good shoes are recommended

lighthouse took almost ten years from approval to completion and was first lit in May of 1897. Originally it stood out in the harbor at the end of the ledge; a 950 -foot granite breakwater connecting it to the shore at Fort Preble was completed in 1951. The breakwater is open to the public (solid shoes are recommended as the footing can be slippery) and admittance to the lighthouse is by ticket at select times. Since we were hungry after our walk, we stopped at Joe’s Boathouse for lunch and enjoyed both the food and atmosphere.

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Portland Head Light from a distance

Before heading up to Acadia, my family knew it was inevitable that I would suggest we visit the lighthouse we saw in the distance from the Spring Point Ledge Light. The Portland Head Light, the nation’s first lighthouse was commissioned by George Washington and built in 1791 and was even more impressive up close. It is adjacent to Fort Williams Park and is owned by the Town of Cape Elizabeth. The 90-acre park offers hiking, picnicking and other outdoor recreation as well as the option to explore the historic fort structures.

Portland Head Light

We stopped again in Portland on our way home later that week. It was an even shorter stop this time, just for dinner and an overnight, but we did have another wonderful meal at a place we found nearby.

I will readily admit to being a pizza snob. When asked my favorite food, yep, it’s pizza, and although I like many varieties (regarding crust and toppings), I have to admit I am a bit judgemental when it comes to quality. I am happy to say that the Portland Pie Company met all expectations. We each ordered a personal size, which was a rare treat for me as it meant I could choose thin crust (the rest of the family prefers the thicker stuff). Of course being in Maine, I went with the option of putting lobster on mine. It sounds a bit strange, but was delicious! (Unlike everyone else, I had no leftovers for lunch the next day.) If pizza is not your thing (gasp!) they do have other items on the menu as well.

This was our first trip to Maine and we saw several things that make us want to return. Portland (and the Pie Company) are definitely on the list!

 

Note: No compensation was provided for mentioning any of the businesses in this article. Opinions are those of the writer.

 

This was first published as Portland, Maine Has Much to Offer

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A Trip to the Garden Isle Is the Ultimate Salve for the Soul

Hawaii’s Garden Isle, Kauai, is a true paradise and the only place I have visited that I could honestly say I could permanently relocate to. With a year round temperature of about 78 F and terrain ranging from powdery sand beaches to mountains and cliffs, it the perfect environment for me. (If only it weren’t so far away from everywhere else!) Despite wicked jet lag (we had a 13-hour flight each way from our eastern US  home, with short layovers on the west coast), the relaxing power of this visit lingered for weeks after our return home.

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Evidence of Kauai’s volcanic heritage can be seen around the island. This is near Hanalei.

100_9764Kauai gets its nickname by virtue of being the rainiest place on earth, with an annual average of  350 to 400 inches measured at Mt. Wai’ale’ale. We happened to visit during the rainy season, in mid November, but this didn’t dampen my appreciation of all the natural wonder the island has to offer. Even though it rained every day we were there, it was not raining everywhere, and since the main road that travels most of the perimeter of the island can be traversed in under an hour, it is easy to just go for a ride to find someplace sunny. We stayed in Lihue, which is fairly central, and over the course of a week traveled pretty much the entire island. (There is plenty more to see, hiking or boating further inland, plus some areas accessible only via 4-wheel drive. We hope to do more exploring on a future trip.)

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Chickens, as well as wild boar can be found on the island. They have no natural predators and can be seen all over. (The chickens that is, the boar are more elusive.)

It would be impossible to detail everything to do (or even everything we did) in such a small place, so I will focus here on my favorites.

 

100_9500Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge is well worth the admission fee and the 0.2 mile walk from the parking lot. The views are amazing, especially on the south side of the lighthouse, where a U-shaped crater is all that remains of the 100_9511volcanic vent that formed this area 15,000 years ago.

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This small island is home to many albatross which if you look closely can be seen nesting here.
A young shearwater sitting on the ground
This Wedge-tailed Shearwater crept out to say hello

The area is home to a number of birds, including the Laysan Albatross, which nest on the refuge, and the Red Footed Booby as well as a number of native plant species (signs help identify these). A number of young Wedge-tailed Shearwaters were roaming about, peeking from under the fence that protects them from visitors (there are many notices warning that the birds are protected, and that touching or harassing them is an offense). 100_9517The 1913 Daniel K. Inouye Kilauea Lighthouse is the northernmost point of Kauai and is on the National Register of Historic Places; tours are offered on select days, pending staff availability.

 

a rocky cave entrance
One of the caves near Hanalei

We spent another afternoon wandering the shops in Kapaa Town and headed north, up the coast to Hanalei Town. We stopped to take a look in one of the caves (sadly, we didn’t see Puff the dragon) and continued on to where the road ends at the shoreline.

Some large rocks on the cave floor
inside the cave

Though we didn’t go explore it, there is a trail from here that goes along the Napali Coast. There is a bridge on the main road that frequently floods, cutting off access to the rest of the island. It was raining that day, so we didn’t want to take our chances and stay too long. We chose an area restaurant for dinner and had one of many wonderful seafood dinners. (In fact, we didn’t have a disappointing meal the entire week.)

A collection of signs on a beach warning of the dangers of swimming there
Hawaiians take safety seriously
A small stretch of beach and the ocean. A few trees are on a spit to the left of the image
The end of the road and the beginning of the Napali Coast

Though people say that Hawaii is very expensive, it seems to me that if you eat food grown and harvested on the island, it is no more so than back home. (I did stop in a local grocery store as I like to do when traveling to get a better feel for the true character of a place. Items shipped in from the mainland tended to be pricey, but local foods were very reasonably priced.)

A waterfall that appears as two, surrounded by greenery with mountains in the background.
Opaekaa Falls

100_9707Also on the east side of the island is Opaekaa Falls, which can easily be viewed from the road. Nearby, overlooking the Wailua River, is Poli’ahu Heiau (a place of worship), where we explored some of the sacred ruins of Hawaii’s past. Hawaii Visitor Bureau signs near the heiau state that the Hawaiians believed this 100_9720structure was built by the Menehune, an ancient race of small people who inhabited the islands before the Tahitians. There are a number of informational placards explaining the sire and the environment as a whole is peaceful.

 

100_9557Another day we traveled southwest and found ourselves at the home of Lilo and Stitch, Hanapepe Town. The town is small but considered Kauai’s art capital, with more art galleries than any other place on the island. It was once a busy town and has

A head on view of a narrow wooden bridge with wooden rails covered with chicken wire
The Hanapepe Swinging Bridge

been the “location” for films such as The Thornbirds, and Flight of the Intruder as well as the aforementioned Disney film. We picked up some gifts for family back home and made a trip across the famous Hanapepe Swinging Bridge.

100_9211Of course you can’t make a trip to an island without spending some time on the beach. Kauai has many beaches and the sand differs quite a bit depending on location. We tested out the water at Poipu Beach Park, and I sat for over an hour watching the birds run into the surf, then back as it chased them up the beach. Not far from here, on Route 50 (which is the only main road on Kauai) we stopped at The Shrimp Station, a roadside stand, for what they advertised as “The Best Coconut Shrimp on the Planet.” After trying it, I would have to say I agree.

Also while in Kauai, our adventures included hiking the Waimea Canyon and kayaking the Wailua River. These were highlights of our trip and things I hope to do again.

Mountains, ocean and trees, with a hint of a rainbow just below the clouds
One of the many breathtaking roadside views

Thankfully I had done my research and knew about Waimea Canyon before leaving home. This is the reason I packed hiking boots for a Hawaiian vacation, causing some to laugh at me. The boots were a must.

A parking lot with cars parked and moving. There are chickens on the road and the nearby grass
The Kauai chickens are everywhere

Waimea Canyon is breathtakingly beautiful, with each roadside vista more impressive than the last. Waimea Canyon State Park is the largest canyon in the Pacific. Ten miles long and more than 3,500 feet deep, it is on the western side of the island and is only accessible from the 18 mile long Rt 550. The hiking is rugged. At times we questioned whether we had gone off trail; unlike many other state parks I have hiked, there are no guardrails.

a brownish river
We started our journey at the boat launch

View of the river from a kayak. You can see the yellow bow in the picture

 

 

 

 

The geography of the Wailua River, on the east side of the island was completely different. We chose Wailua Kayak Adventures to guide us down the river and on a very muddy hike (thankfully they had warned us before we set out – be aware that your sneakers will never recover). Our journey took us down the river,

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We hiked through an ancient mango forest to get to the falls

beneath low-hanging branches to a spot where we left the kayaks and started our hike through the rain forest to the Secret Falls, where we took a break and snacked on mangoes and chocolate! Our knowledgeable

a box of chocolates and a bag of dried mangoes laid out on a large rock
Yummy mangoes and chocolate to refuel

guide pointed out flowers and seeds and told us that the hibiscus flower can forecast the weather. The flowers apparently bloom yellow and turn red within 24 hours. If bad weather is approaching (also known as “big water”), the color changes much faster. A light rain started while we were heading back and the river had many red hibiscus blossoms floating.

a large waterfall into a pool below
The 120-foot Secret Falls

There is much more to see on Kauai. I hope to return and explore the Napali Coast, more of the beaches and maybe even try ziplining or go on a helicopter tour.

 

Note: No compensation was provided by any businesses mentioned in this article. Opinions are those of the writer.

A version of this previously appeared as Kauai’s Garden Paradise and Exploring the Waimea Canyon and Wailua River

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Virginia’s Breathtaking Natural Bridge Is a National Treasure

 

Natural Bridge, Virginia’s 37th state park showcases one of the oldest geologic features on the East Coast. Part of a limestone cavern system, the bridge likely formed when the James River changed course and the existing cave collapsed, leaving only part of the ceiling intact. The history of the ownership of this “natural bridge” and its surrounding property goes back to colonial days.

rock face with initials G.W. carved into it, boxed in with white paint
This G.W. engraved in the rock is said to have been carved by George Washington

The recorded history of the 215-foot bridge goes back to 1750, when Lord Fairfax hired Washington to survey the bridge. It is said that at or around this time, he carved his initials into the stone under the bridge where they can still be seen today.

a plaque on a white pillar: George Washington surveyed the patent 1750, granted to Thomas Jeffersn 1774
Plaque commemorating George Washington’s survey of the patent and its granting to Thomas Jefferson

In 1774, Thomas Jefferson purchased the bridge, along with another 157 acres of land, from King George III for 20 shillings. He later built a two-room log cabin on the property, one of these rooms was to be used for guests. In 1833, the property was sold and the new owner build the Forest Inn to accommodate the increasing number of visitors to the area. During the 1880s, while owned by Colonel Henry Parsons, it became known as a resort. In 1998 it received its National Historic Landmark status and in 2014 ownership transferred to the Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund.

a plaque on a white stone pillar noting that Natural Bridge is a Virginia Historic Landmark
At the entrance to the park

This natural stone formation is on both the National and Virginia Historic Landmark lists as well as the National Register of Historic Places and is where the county, Rockbridge, got its name. The main feature of the park is the 215-foot natural limestone arch. Until recently, the bridge was in private hands. On September  24, 2016, the property was turned over to the Commonwealth of Virginia for use as a state park.

A tourist attraction as early as the 18th century, Natural Bridge has attracted guests from all over the world to see the wonder and to explore the area. It has been memorialized in literature; Herman Melville likened the arch formed by Moby Dick to Virginia’s Natural Bridge and William Cullen Bryant said that the bridge and Niagara Falls were the “two most remarkable features of North America.”

a red brick building with white pillars and "Natural Bridge State Park" across the top
The Visitor Center at Natural Bridge State Park

The Visitor Center is a large building with a variety of merchandise emblazoned with the Natural Bridge State Park logo. Also in the center is a small food concession and information booth. There is a small waterfall, Cascade Falls, next to approximately 137 steps (one of the park rangers confessed to having tried to count them and coming up with different answers each time) that go down to the path that leads to the bridge. If you are unable, or do not want to take the stairs, a complimentary bus shuttle goes back and forth at regular intervals.

Monacan longhouse made of sticks and bark
An example of a Monacan longhouse
mud wall
Protective walls were built using sticks and mud

Today a visit to the park includes not only the view of the bridge, but also admission to 6 miles of trails on the property as well as the Monacan Indian Living History exhibit which shows visitors what life was like here over 300 years ago.

 

wood bridge leading to a roped off cave
A bridge off the trail leads to the saltpeter mine

Following the Cedar Creek Trail from the Visitor Center, you can walk across a bridge to look into the saltpeter mine. Continuing along an easy path, you pass the Lost River, which broke through the ground and currently spills into Cedar Creek . The trail ends at the beautiful 30+ foot Lace Falls. There are two other trails on the property, the Monacan Trail is a loop on the other side of Route 11, the Buck Hill Trail, another loop, is near Natural Bridge Caverns.

The bridge is easy to find near the intersection of Route 130 and Route 11, Route 11 goes over the bridge, but you won’t realize the natural wonder beneath you unless you know what to look for.

a series of waterfalls on a creek
The approach to Lace Falls

Nearby are related sites, including Caverns at Natural Bridge and the Natural Bridge Hotel. (Neither of these is run by the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation which manages all of Virginia’s state parks. The town of Lexington is about 20 minutes away heading north on Route 11 and the Blue Ridge Parkway is about a half hour’s drive to the east.

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A Jersey Girl’s Visit to the Beach in the Off-Season

IMG_0129As a Jersey girl, I am no stranger to the beach. In college I worked the late shift at the local grocery store so that I could spend days at the shore (it was only about an hour away and for $5 I could buy enough gas to get there and back, a slice of pizza and a soda, and pay to get on the beach). Since then, life took me out of New Jersey and my schedule no longer allows for impromptu beach days.

Recently, my husband and I planned to get away for a weekend and chose Cape May, NJ as our destination.  Searching for accommodations turned up a large number of hotels and inns at varying price points.  Being a fan of bed and breakfast inns, we decided to go that route and chose the Eldredge House in West Cape May. Although it was a bit far to walk to town, the room was pleasantly decorated and the bed was comfortable. Our innkeeper, Todd, created a list of suggested restaurants for us as well as some “Brisk Windy Day Activities.” Unlike most B&Bs, this one does not have breakfast on the premises but instead offers gift certificates to a number of restaurants. While it is nice to have the convenience of breakfast on site, it is also nice to have a variety of options. On this trip, breakfasts did not disappoint.

While April may be considered by some to be too chilly to visit the New Jersey shore, I find the off seasons to be just as enjoyable and sometimes more so (the beach in January is beautiful). Hotels and inns are less expensive than during the summer season and the crowds are not yet out. Though some of the shops are not open, visiting in the off season means parking is free and more accessible. In Cape May, though the parking lots surrounding Washington Street Mall and spots along the beach near restaurants filled up at dinnertime, it was not too difficult to find a parking spot.

statue of a woman with children facing the water with a flag i teh background oin a replica ship's mast
The Fishermen’s Memorial

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We arrived on a cloudy, windy Friday afternoon (as our personalized activity list would indicate) and, since it was our first visit to Cape May, drove around town to get our bearings. We stopped at the Fishermen’s Memorial, dedicated to fishermen lost at sea and drove out to the point where we could see the remains of the SS Atlantus, a concrete ship built during WWI. We went past the WWII Lookout Tower and drove out to the lighthouse. The lighthouse and tower both offer tours, but this wasn’t planned as a take-in-all-the-history weekend, but

remnants of a concrete ship
What’s left of the concrete ship

as a low key, relaxing weekend (which ended up being a try-all-the-wonderful-food weekend).

 

Since we hadn’t stopped for lunch (we snacked on the trip there), we were hungry and decided to go for an early dinner. We went with one of Todd’s recommendations, the Lobster House. We sampled local oysters and I had crabmeat au gratin, which was both delicious and filling. A small loaf of garlic-encrusted bread was a nice accompaniment to the meal. Despite the wind, after dinner we needed a walk and strolled along Washington Street Mall, a pedestrian street filled with stores and restaurants (and more ice cream shops than I have even seen in one place). We wandered in some of the shops that were open and glanced in the windows of the art galleries that had already closed.

On Saturday morning, we walked across the street to the Bella Vida Café. Though I was tempted by the sound of the Chunky Monkey French Toast, I quickly changed my mind when I heard about the special of the day: a combination of crabmeat, shrimp, spinach and eggs that blended into one of the best omelets I have ever had out.

With no real plans for our time there, we perused the booklets Todd had given us and decided to skip the wineries this trip and instead try out some local brews at the Cape May Brewing Company. We each chose four beers to sample and sat outside, enjoying the sun, our beer, and a neighboring customer’s music.  Enticed by the promise of live music at the Mad Batter for happy hour, we headed there where we had a late lunch, followed by a walk on the beach, where I stalked some seagulls and took some pictures.  We decided to get photos of the lighthouse at sunset and then chased the sun to the Point where we were rewarded with a beautiful orange and purple sky over the concrete ship. After freshening up, we went back to town for a late dinner at Delaney’s, where I thoroughly enjoyed my coconut shrimp and sweet potato fries. (As I mentioned, it wasn’t planned, but this weekend quickly became all about the food.)

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Sunday came too soon and we had to say farewell to the beach, for now.  We couldn’t leave the Garden State without taking advantage of the opportunity to eat at a diner, so before leaving we had breakfast at George’s Place. (Even better, it was a diner featured on Diners Drive-ins and Dives.) Though there was a wait and we were hungry, it was worth it. The Banana French Toast, a delicious stack of three French toast slices alternated with sliced bananas sautéed in butter and brown sugar, dusted with powdered sugar and a hint of cinnamon, was absolutely delicious.

Though I enjoyed our time in Cape May, I think in-season may be too busy and crowded for me, but I will go back. Maybe we’ll need another getaway in the fall.

 

 

 

 

 

Note: No compensation has been given for the mention of businesses listed in this post. All opinions are that of the writer.

This was previously published as A Jersey Girl’s Visit to the Beach in the Off-Season

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Education and Music Are Historic Bethlehem Traditions

The Moravian Star (here in the Central Moravian Church) can be found throughout town. Originally designed as a geometry project, the traditional Moravian star has 26 points and hangs in homes during the Christmas season.

The residents of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania take pride in their heritage. In 2016, the city celebrated the 275th anniversary of the signing of the deed to 500 acres that transferred ownership of the land that would become Bethlehem from William Penn to the Moravian community who settled in the area where Monocacy Creek meets the Lehigh River. The city is known for its festivals, especially Musikfest and Celtic Classic, which are said to be the largest of their kind in the U.S.  Besides these two, there are another 10 major festivals and more than 150 lesser fests or community events each year, making the city a popular destination year round.

Steeped in History

The city has seen a great deal of history, from its inception, through Revolutionary times and to the present day.  Brethren’s House, which now houses the music department of Moravian College, was used as a hospital for the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War and over 500 soldiers who died in Bethlehem are buried there. Also within the city are a number of items designated by the National Register: six Historic Districts, 165 buildings, nine structures and four objects.

The Historic Bethlehem Partnership manages 20 of these buildings and sites, including the Moravian Museum, which is housed in the Gemeinhaus, a National Historic Landmark, which was the second building built by the early settlers, and is the starting point for several walking tours of town.

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The Blacksmith shop

The 18th Century Industrial Quarter (likely the first in the country), just off of Main Street on the Monocacy Creek, is the location of some of the eaIMG_0028rliest building in Bethlehem. One of these, the 1762 Waterworks (a National Historic Landmark) is said to be America’s first pumped water system. Also surviving from the 18th century are a saw mill, blacksmith shop, tannery, miller’s house and springhouse as well as the ruins of other structures. One can wander among the buildings at any time, and tours of the interior are available by appointment. Through the warmer months, blacksmiths can be seen at work on weekends. Information on all their properties and events can be found on their website.

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The Central Moravian Church

IMG_0034Although they are now separate entities, the histories of Bethlehem, the Central Moravian Church (the oldest Moravian Church in North America) and Moravian College are intertwined. The Moravians came from all over Europe, and though they all had the German language in common, they spoke a total of 15 different languages. Moravians have a tradition of inclusion and tolerance, and believe that everyone, regardless of race, gender or ethnicity, deserves the same opportunities. This was evident in the early years of the community, when Europeans, African-Americans, and American Indians all lived, worked, worshiped, and went to school together.

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Moravian College’s Comenius Hall

Education has always been important to Moravians and in 1742, they established both a school for girls and  another for boys. Both schools continued to grow and it is a point of pride for the college that the two merged in 1954, becoming the first co-educational institute of higher learning in the area.

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Alumni Memorial Building at Lehigh University

In 1845, the Moravian Church started selling off land and soon the farms on the south side of the Lehigh River became peppered with buildings as the railroad brought factories and mills to the area. In 1865, Asa Packer donated land and $500,000 to found a university with a focus on math and science. The first class had 39 men and today Lehigh University is consistently listed among the top colleges and universities in these disciplines.

A Tradition of Music

Like education, music has always been a part of Bethlehem.  One of the first orchestras in America was founded here in 1744 and in 1754 the oldest musical group in the country, the Moravian Trombone Choir was founded. There are several other musical groups that call the city home, such as the Bach Choir of Bethlehem.

Although music can be found in Bethlehem year round, in various bars, clubs, or on any of the college campuses, the big event is every August. Since 1984, the city has been home to Musikfest, a city-wide festival showcasing music of all types, many of which are free, as well as food, beer and arts. This year the festival runs from August 5-14. The city also hosts other major festivals (including the Blueberry and the Blast Furnace Blues Festival) as well as over 150 events or mini fests throughout each year.

This humble city in the Lehigh Valley was once known as an industrial powerhouse. Bethlehem Steel was once the largest shipbuilder in the world (building 1127 ships during WWII alone) and a major employer to the city’s residents. The rise of railroads brought factories and mills to town as well as many workers. The steady decline of manufacturing industry in the late 20th century led to the company downsizing and ultimately filing for bankruptcy in 2001.The people of Bethlehem however have shown resilience and are a good example of what can be done to revive old industrial towns.

The past twenty years have seen dramatic changes. Bethlehem now has a thriving restaurant and entertainment scene. As is common in many college towns today, the selection of cuisine is diverse, including your standard pizza, deli and pub fair, as well as tapas, Thai and vegan restaurants. Two of my personal favorites are Bethlehem Brew Works which opened in 1998 and Roosevelt’s 21st. Both have good food, good beer and celebrate the history of the area. There are also a number of charming boutique shops and galleries.

The old Beth Steel property now houses Arts Quest Steel Stacks, a four-story performing arts center that brings top acts to the area and Sands Casino, as well as The Outlets at Sands Bethlehem shopping center.

There are a number of hotel accommodations to choose from, IMG_0020most notable of which is the historic Hotel Bethlehem. Built in 1922 on the site of the first house in Bethlehem, and later the Golden Eagle Hotel, the hotel is said to have hosted such celebrities as Winston Churchill, Amelia Earhart and Thomas Edison, and is purportedly home to a number of ghosts.

Across the street from Hotel B (as it is affectionately known) is the Moravian Book Shop, the oldest continuously operating bookstore in the world (it opened in 1745)IMG_0021 and the starting place for a number of historical and ghost tours throughout the year. The book shop hosts events throughout the year and in addition to books, the store also has an extensive collection of gift items and a year-round display of Christmas tree ornaments.

The Christmas City

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The Main Street bridge

As early as 1937, Bethlehem was considered  the Christmas City, and in that year, a campaign to have people send their holiday cards bearing “Christmas City” cancellation flooded the post office with over 185,00 pieces of mail. Since then, committees have been formed to unify and fund the decorations and events that take place each December. The historic district is decked out in white lights and across the Lehigh River, on the south side of town, colored lights brighten the streets. More than 800 trees also adorn public spaces.

Each December, the city is home to Christkindlmarkt, an authentic German-style Christmas market listed among America’s best by Travel & Leisure Magazine. Originally housed in heated tents in center city, it is now located in the Arts Quest Center just across the river. With this move, a smaller, open-air version of a Christmas market has sprouted up in the historic district, with artisans selling their wares from individual huts. The

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A horse drawn carriage at Christmastime

The Christmas City also hosts a “Live Advent Calendar” whereby each night in December at 5:00, a different merchant gives treats at the Goundie House. Throughout the month, there are horse drawn carriage, bus and walking tours of town, and even an annual visit from Charles Dickens’ great great grandson to perform the Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Story.

Bethlehem has become a destination and has much to offer, any time of year.  If you love music, history, or food, there is plenty to choose from. The abundance and variety of events is sure to keep you coming back for more.

 

Note: No compensation has been given for the mention of businesses, organizations or schools listed in this post. All opinions are that of the writer.

This was previously published as Celebrating Bethlehem, PA – The Christmas City

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Lexington, a Charming Virginia Town With a Wealth of History

a street view with brick buildings and a white building with a steeple
Lexington, Virginia

Nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the charming and historic Lexington, Virginia is a friendly town that is proud of its heritage.  Named one of the “Best Small Towns to Visit” in 2013 by Smithsonian Magazine, the town offers shopping, eating, history, education and the outdoors, all within a short distance. With several hotels and charming bed and breakfasts, the small town can serve as a home base to explore the wider area, or as a relaxing setting for a weekend trip on its own.

The town is home to both Virginia Military Institute (est 1839) and Washington and Lee University (est 1749), each of which hosts museums open to the public. The VMI Museum, the first public museum in Virginia, has 15,000 artifacts, including a Revolutionary War musket, that help trace its heritage; W&L’s Lee Chapel & Museum is dedicated to the university’s history and how it is intertwined with both George Washington and its 11th president, Robert E. Lee.

A shot from the front of Lee Chapel with red bricks in the foreground and a girl sitting on a step
Lee Chapel at Washington and Lee University

Lee Chapel is a focal point on the campus and is where you will find what is possibly the first Peale portrait of George Washington. The lower level museum includes Lee’s office, and a changing exhibit as well as the main exhibit, Building and Rebuilding a Nation, which shows the contributions both George Washington and Lee made to education and reveals an interesting family connection between the men.

A monument to Jackson. A white pedestal with a statue of Jackson on top.
Jackson’s grave

The museum offers a glimpse of this Confederate general, and makes it apparent that he was faced with a very difficult choice: either fight for the North, against his family and neighbors, or fight for the South, against the nation he loved. It is also apparent that he was a true gentleman, taking defeat with grace and continuing to serve. The university owes their honor code and more to him.

Colonnade building at Washington and Lee University with green grass in foreground
The Colonnade at Washington and Lee University sits across the green from Lee Chapel

In addition to the history found at these schools, the town is also home to the Lee House (now the residence of W&L president and their families), sign "Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery Jackson's Tomb"the Stonewall Jackson House and the George C. Marshal Museum. Many of the town’s buildings date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. A few blocks away, the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery is the final resting place of the general, as well as many other Confederate veterans.

Named after Lexington, MA, the site of the first shot of the Revolutionary War, the town also has found an interesting way to share the history of her famous people, from George Washington (who endowed the university that now bears his name) to Meriwether Lewis to Patsy Cline. Pavers throughout town commemorate deceased people deemed to be “The Righteous and Rascals of Rockbridge County.” The related website offers biographical information and locations of related sites throughout the county.  Several movies have been filmed in and around Lexington, including Sommersby, Gods and Generals, War of the Worlds and Field of Lost Shoes.

The stone Natural Bridge carved by nature
Natural Bridge

Not far outside of town is Natural Bridge State Park, which was once owned by Thomas Jefferson (and is rumored to have been surveyed by George Washington) and is on both the National and Virginia Historic Landmark lists as well as the National Register of Historic Places. This natural formation is where the county, Rockbridge, got its name. The main feature is a 215-foot natural limestone arch. Today a visit to the park includes not only the view of the bridge, but also admission to a number of trails and the Monacan Indian Living History exhibit which shows visitors what life was like here over 300 years ago.

Besides this national treasure, outdoor activities in the Lexington area are plentiful. The Maury River, a tributary of the James River, is a popular destination for small watercraft and tubing. There also are many trails for hiking, from the relatively flat 7-mile Chessie Nature Trail, to the rocky Devil’s Marbleyard Trail near Natural Bridge or even the Appalachian Trail in nearby Shenandoah National Park. The area boasts beautiful skies at all times of year.

panoramic view in Lexington Virginia
Lexington, Virginia seems to always have beautiful skies

The surrounding area is home to several wineries and breweries and many antique shops and malls. In addition to the accommodations in town, camping is also available nearby, at one of several state or national forest areas, as well as privately owned campgrounds.

Lexington has a number of chain hotels, though the Hampton, an easy walk from Main Street, blends in to the city charm. Formerly the historic Col Alto Mansion (which is on the National Register of Historic Places), the reception building adjoins the 76 hotel room and also houses the breakfast room as well as 10 restored manor rooms.

When you get hungry, there are a number of options to choose from, such as The Palms Restaurant, featuring “Classic American Fare,” and a regular schedule of live music and Macado’s, a casual, eclectic place popular with the college crowd. Niko’s Grille offers “Authentic Greek Cuisine” for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For dessert, you can’t miss with a stop at Sweet Things for homemade ice cream or Pronto for gelato or a pastry and coffee. Sweet Treats offers breakfast and lunch as well as a variety of baked goods including specialty cakes. If you are just looking for a quick pick me up, stop in Lexington Coffee Shop for gourmet coffee and homemade baked goods.

Note: No compensation was provided from any of the businesses mentioned in this article. The opinions are those of the writer.

This was first published as Charming and Historic Lexington Va. Updated 8/21/2018.

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