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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kauai 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.)
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.
Kilauea 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 volcanic vent that formed this area 15,000 years ago.
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). The 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.
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.
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.)
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.)
Also 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 structure 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.
Another 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
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.
Of 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.
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.
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.
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.