The Panhandle of West Virginia

Wild and wonderful West Virginia is one of our favorite destinations for getting outside and walking some place beautiful.

The eastern section (and much of the entire state) is very rural.  Small cities are spread out, so if you want to stay in a chain hotel you’ll have to drive a bit to get to some of your destinations.  In between, there are some impoverished looking areas where trailers and other homes appear in need of some TLC, and collections of discarded items seem to adorn every yard.  But these homes lie in the midst of beautiful, and often wild, surroundings which, to those that love them, and to those that are lucky enough to visit, are truly wonderful.

From the east, Harper’s Ferry is a great first destination.  This historical town is right at the borders of West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia.  We took a shuttle (for 5 mins) down to the town and walked up to “the Point” where the Shenandoah River, C&O Canal, and the Potomac Rivers intersect and you could see all three states, which was neat-o for all geography dorks.  There are lots of historical buildings including famous abolitionist John Brown’s fort, and you can climb hundreds of steps up to Jefferson’s rock (where Jefferson supposedly sat and thunk smart thoughts). 

There are also some weird and interesting little towns parked in various valleys that are just plain fun to visit.  Berkley Springs is one such town.  Nestled into the Appalachians, this eclectic little town is brightened throughout with murals and art galleries, and warmed by natural hot springs that also bring many tourists to the area.  There is a tiny, urban state park here, where the hot springs are fed into stone channels, and also pumped into old Roman bathhouses that can be rented in half hour increments.  We had the pleasure of trying one out for the first time last November.  The staff kindly lowered the temperature for the kids, and we were able to add as much cold water as we needed, and open the window to the chilly mountain breeze.  Still, we were all red-faced by the end of our half hour.  It was crowded for the six of us, but definitely pleasant.

The views in the area are lovely, so make sure to stop at several overlooks.  Do yourself a favor and bring a selfie stick!  You may be the only people at the overlook, and you want to get your whole family and that spectacular view for your memory bank!  Late October and early November sport the fall foliage against the backdrop of more distant mountains in violet blue, with the closer ones adorned in scarlet and auburn. 

Cacapon State Park is nearby, and a wonderful place for a hike, though perhaps not with the frigid November wind that was blowing when we went there.  We did stop and enjoy the waterfalls at the entrance, and the kids took the opportunity to roll down the giant grass hill next to it until I felt nauseous just looking at them.  We had lunch at the lodge, and found the food and service to be OK, and the views to be lovely.

Keep driving west and you hit Tucker County and Blackwater Falls.  The towns of Thomas and Davies are charming stops along the way to Blackwater Falls State Park, or places to stay with easy access to all kinds of beautiful spaces. The falls are impressive and the hike there easily doable with small children. 

There are plenty of parks, natural areas and ski resorts in the general area around Blackwater Falls, such as Canaan Valley, and staying in a cabin with a hot tub can be a heavenly retreat.  Be prepared for the fact that there is not much there, and you can go for miles without seeing a town or city.  This is part of the appeal, but it can be disconcerting when you are unfamiliar with the area and trying to find your cabin – get there during daylight hours if possible.  (Yes, we learned this the hard way!)  But, if given the chance to drive out in the fall and see the views of the Allegheny Mountains, you will not be sorry you did.

Colorado: From Denver to Aspen

While we usually highlight parts of the East Coast, I just had to give Colorado a shout-out as a must-see destination, because the landscape there is so breathtaking.  Just driving through the mountains alone is worth the trip. We have been lucky enough to take a couple of road trips there, and these are some of the highlights, listed in order from Denver (because Denver International Airport is where most people begin their journey) to Aspen, CO, which is one of the most beautiful places to ski, hike, or just view the incredible fall foliage in the mountains.

The land in Colorado tends to look dry and parched in the foothills, but along the Colorado River, which rushes through the mountains in frothy torrents in some places, and wends gently in others, wildlife abounds. The mountains become increasingly dramatic and show a variety of different scenes, from stark rocky outcroppings to lush slopes marbled in autumn with evergreens and aspens fluttering in the purest gold, with splashes of coral and scarlet foliage.  In some areas the minerals color the rocks in different shades of auburn and copper, with long slabs of chalky white below. 

Garden of the Gods and the Manitou Cliff Dwellings:  If you’re in the Denver area and don’t have the opportunity to go far, or in particular far enough west to view the cliff dwellings found in places like Mesa Verde, you can see an awesome collection of them here.  Not only is the landscape at Garden of the Gods otherworldly, but seeing how people carved out there homes and livelihoods right into the cliffs at Manitou is a site to behold, and one you and your kids will enjoy learning about as well.  Also in the area is Pike’s Peak, so if you’re ready to climb a gazillion steps, you’ll get to see some gorgeous waterfall views. This is not part of the drive from Denver to Aspen, but the following destinations are right on the way.

Genesee Park:  If you want to see Bison, you can sometimes see a heard from highway I-70 in this area, but of course stopping off at the park to take a closer look is worth it.  While you’re never guaranteed to see any particular form of wildlife, the chances of seeing them here are pretty good!

Georgetown:  We enjoyed stopping off at this tiny town nestled in the mountains, and watching a herd of wild big horned sheep that live on the steep, rocky mountain face right across the highway from the Wildlife Viewing Area.  This small adobe-type structure is just past a lovely mountain lake, and has several tower viewers to view the sheep, or you can bring your own binoculars.  We got to see them with their young and although they are far away, it is so much fun to view them in their natural habitat doing their thing.  In October and November you may see some of the males knocking their big curved horns together during the seasonal rut.

Leadville was another small town with big character, and a very “wild west” feel.  There is a cute little visitor center with volunteers who are happy to give you some pointers.  There’s even a saloon with some of the original structure from the 1800’s, back when the mining town was first built.

Independence Pass:  As long as you’re not scared of heights, its worth veering off of I-70 to go through Independence Pass – just check the status of the road before you go.  I-82 closes in October till May due to snow, and there are sometimes snow storms that will shut down the roads even during other months.  If it is open, drive up one of the highest paved highway in the US, and stop at Independence Pass to get a taste of the alpine tundra on the mountain tops and see those other worldly views. This is also faster than staying on I-70, though it is not for the faint of heart.

Twin Lakes is a very beautiful place to take photos, with small parking lots near the lakes and campsites with stunning views. You can stop in a non-fee area for free and wander around the rocky slopes towering all around the crystal clear lakes, or get right in to wade through the water if you don’t mind the icy temperatures.  You can walk as far or as little as you want.

Grotto’s Trail is a really different, fairly easy trail through the forest and along the river, where you can view some really unusual rock formations/caverns.  It’s less than a mile to get to the ice caves and only a few miles outside of Aspen.

Maroon Bells is probably the most photographed place in CO, and it’s easy to see why.  Make a reservation well in advance in order to experience this breathtaking mountain/lake view and hike.

Glenwood Springs – if you drive back to Denver via I-70, you’ll get to drive through Glenwood Springs.  Hanging Lake was unfortunately closed due to mudslides when we passed through, but if given the chance I would go back again to try and visit this picturesque site, which is close to the hot spring area.  There is a ton to do besides just the springs, but the springs themselves are ample reason to spend some time here.

Road Trip through Eastern Maryland

The eastern half of Maryland is known for it’s maritime culture and delicious crab dinners. It’s full of beautiful places to visit in any season, but summertime on the water is especially lovely here.

Along the Atlantic – Visit Assateague and Ocean City

These are two of our favorite beaches to visit. In Ocean City, you can stay in a hotel along the boardwalk, or a condo a short drive away, such as one in Ocean Village, that comes with access to an outdoor pool, indoor pool and a hot tub. There are tons of things to do and places to eat, and the beach does get crowded, but it is wide and spacious so it’s fairly easy to find a place to spread out. There’s plenty of options for mini-golf and rides, should you need a break from the beach. There can be areas where the shore drops off quickly and steeply, which can make it difficult for young children to swim.

There are still plenty of waves at Assateague, but the flat beach makes it much easier for the kids to navigate them and I have rarely seen the Atlantic Ocean so clean and clear as it usually is in Assateague.  The sand is clean, white and silky soft.  And what, I ask you, could possibly be more charming than a beach with a bunch of wild ponies wandering around? Any trip to the area warrants at least stopping by the Assateague National Seashore to watch them.

Northeastern Maryland – visit Havre De Grace, Elk Neck State Park, and Gunpowder Falls State Park

Havre De Grace is a sweet little town along the Chesapeake Bay, and it’s fun to walk along the “Promenade,” which is a little winding boardwalk along the Bay that ends up in front of the lighthouse for which the town is known. On a hill above the parking lot for the Promenade and Marina, there is a playground which is well loved by local children and visitors alike for it’s array of playground equipment (including a miniature lighthouse) and by parents for it’s lovely hilltop view of the water. There are a number of charming little seafood restaurants nearby.

Elk Neck State Park is a gorgeous park along the Chesapeake with lots of birdwatching opportunities. You can also swim here if you are brave, though it’s not unheard of to come across a few dead fish, and the bottom is also quite rocky so you’ll need water shoes. There are restrooms with showers to rinse off afterwards.

Gunpowder Falls State Park is another beautiful one, but it is enormous so you’ll probably want to do some planning before you visit. There are miles upon miles of trails, and wading in one of the rivers and tossing some rocks in is always a favorite activity for little ones. If you want to swim in the bay, navigate to the Hammerman area. It is a large, clean area, with space to picnic on the grass, set up on the sand (water shoes not required), and take a swim in the bay. The water in the bay is often quite warm in the summertime, with little to no surf.

Cities – visit Baltimore and Annapolis

We stay at the Marriott Springhill Inn and Suites in Annapolis, which always works well for us. The pool, of course, is essential and much used, as well as the hot tub and complimentary breakfast. It’s great for families. Downtown Annapolis is just a fun, bustling place to be. Visit the Naval Academy and take a boat tour that will point out the various buildings in the Academy and surrounding area from the very pleasant vantage point of the water.

If you’re wanting to swim, you can visit Sandy Point Park, which is a sandy beach area on the bay, almost under the Chesapeake Bay bridge. There are restrooms, a playground, picnic tables and concessions, but it does get crowded.

There are a million things to do in Baltimore, but our favorite places to visit are the Baltimore Aquarium for a day out of the sun, the Inner Harbor for dining and strolling, and the Glen Martin Aviation Museum for our Air and Space Enthusiast. Even our less aeronautically-inclined children liked it because there was a cardboard rocket ship they could play in. (It’s the simple things, right?) The museum itself is tiny but includes an impressive tour outdoors of quite a few planes.

Family Travel to Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls is a great place to visit with small kids. While small children near giant waterfalls may feel a little nerve-wracking, the barriers around the falls are safe, so it’s actually pretty easy to keep them from trying to find a barrel and rolling on down. Other pros:

  • The falls themselves, obviously, are beautiful and impressive. Even small children can appreciate that.
  • Clifton Hill is a big, ridiculous tourist trap, but it’s super fun for kids. There are rides that the whole family can enjoy. There’s an awesome Jurassic Park mini-golf place and a race track. Plus, there’s tons of silly souvenirs that they can choose from that will give them a little something to remember their trip without costing an arm and a leg.
  • We loved the Sky Wheel. I loved the view, I loved watching everyone’s excitement, and I loved the fact that our family could be in our own little clear pod where no one else could be bothered by my kids’ disregard for personal space or the weird comments they’re always making about poop and nipples.
  • There’s plenty to do, but it’s not overwhelmingly large. 4-5 days is just right. Early June is a pleasant time of year and the crowds weren’t bad at all, although there was a pretty big increase on the weekend. Later into the summer crowds can be an issue.
  • Journey Under the Falls gives you a poncho, but you don’t actually get drenched. This is important when traveling with a baby. You’ll get sprayed a little, like you might in a very light rain, but nothing crazy. It’s lovely.
  • Prices are reasonable. You just have to remember everything looks a little more expensive because it’s in Canadian Dollars. (I’m just going to assume you’re going to the Canada side here, because who doesn’t love Canada?)
  • The Butterfly Conservatory was cool for most of our family. My boundless optimism prevented me from predicting that my brilliant but sensory-atypical son would be like, the only kid ever to be scared of butterflies.  Fortunately, I found a solution in giving him my cell phone and asking him to take pictures of them. Somehow looking at them through the camera transformed them from fluttering specters into digital game pieces.

So don’t forget your passports, and have a great time! The Canadian Border is easy to get through, with little waiting. The trip is very drivable from the Mid-Atlantic Region, and I would recommend driving if you can. (This is mainly because we flew, and ended up missing our original flight and spending a lot of time in the airport, getting their 14 hours after we started, when we could have driven in 8). Road-tripping with little ones can be much less stressful than flying if you do it right, so hit the road and enjoy!

Planning Gone Wrong: Things to Avoid

Don’t skimp on your planning.  While meandering down a new road to see what you can see sounds romantic and lovely, it rarely turns out that way.  More likely, you may meander to a lack of gas stations and places to make a pit stop for your whining toddler, wander into a restaurant that is too expensive or not family friendly, or find yourself with nothing to do or too many choices leading to decision-paralysis.  Plan your days, albeit loosely, and identify several options that could work for food and sightseeing on your route and throughout your time at your destination.

Don’t over-plan.  Some of us are more likely to fall into the opposite trap of planning down to the minute, with days packed full of excursions and no room for spontaneity (or unexpected challenges that may come up.)  Especially if you are traveling with a big family, choose only a couple of activities per day, with some back ups that take weather and time into consideration (Sometimes attractions take a longer or shorter time than expected to enjoy).  Check out the food options, but have one or two in mind that will work for your family if others fail.  Plan carefully, but don’t overdo it.

Don’t force yourself to stick to the plan.  We once flew to Canada after missing a flight and in the midst of hand, food and mouth disease (it didn’t even cross my blissfully ignorant, pre-COVID mind that we might spread it to other passengers), because I was too stubborn to change plans.  It would have been much quicker and less painful to drive. All this to say that flexibility is key!  Sometimes plans should give way to better plans, and it does no good to hang on to something that is just not working.

Most importantly, don’t expect everything to go according to plan!  Anticipation and excitement leading up to a vacation are part of the fun, and it’s great to savor the experience this way.  But expecting that everything will go perfectly is another matter.  Expect the unexpected, and don’t expect perfection.  There will most certainly be some wonderful moments on your family vacation, but there will likely to be some challenging ones too, and that’s totally OK.  Look at those moments as opportunities for growth and learning, and for teachable moments to show our kids how to problem-solve and maintain a positive outlook even when they might be feeling tried, grumpy, hungry or stressed.  Then get back to enjoying yourselves!

Finally, don’t forget to laugh.  And in the spirit of laughter, please feel free to laugh at my misfortune in our big trip to Mexico – it wasn’t the first time I became severely ill south of the USA, but I sincerely hope it will be the last…