Vacation Time: North to the Smokies and DC

Vacation Time: North to the Smokies and DC

Scrambling to get in a vacation before the first day of Kindergarten, we escaped the summer heat and pointed our car north, spending two weeks frolicking in the cold streams of North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains and the air conditioned museums of Washington, DC. If I captured a day-by-day journal of our travels, I’m afraid this blog would turn into a book, so instead I’ll share some of the highlights and memorable adventures.

Our Cabin

Alarka Creek Cabin 2

When the listing on our Alarka Creek Cabin said Bryson City as the location, I pictured a small cabin on a creek just on the outskirts of the town’s main street. However, when the directions arrived via email, we found ourselves driving deep into the woods 15 minutes from the nearest cell phone and Internet connections. I must admit, at first it took a little adjusting. But after a day or so of being completely unplugged, we began to relish in our daily duties of exploring the creek running through our backyard, collecting fireflies in the nearby field and passing away the evening playing board games. The giant black snake eating his dinner off our back porch was an added bonus for the kids as was the family of frogs living underneath the garden water hose.

Waterfall at Deep Creek in Great Smoky Mountain NP

The Views
As we stood on the Blue Ridge Parkway gazing at the fog hovering between the blue-shaded rows of mountains before us, we remembered what draws us back year after year. Perhaps those who live in these parts are accustomed to the daily beauty of the Smoky Mountains, but to a family growing up on the Gulf Coast’s flat horizon, it’s a rare and awe-inspiring site. It’s a place that spurs the imagination, where a walk through an old homestead creates amazement at the hardiness of early settlers and quick moving fog prompts a five-year-old’s questions as to where the smoke machine is located. Throw in a few magical waterfalls at Deep Creek, hikes through Joyce Kilmer’s old growth forest and displays of mad kayaking skills at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and you have the prime setting for a place where dreams are brought to life.

Salamanders

One of the many salamanders we found

After last year’s disappointment at not discovering a single salamander, a staffer at our favorite nature center in Highlands, NC, let us in on the secret. These shyest of creatures are found “under” the rocks, not on top. So low and behold, our five-year-old led us on daily excursions into icy cold streams to lift every accessible rock present. We were rewarded with countless salamanders, some black, some blue with spots and some so fast their color was a blur. Our best searching spots were at the end of the path leading out from Mingus Mill, in the pool at the base of Indian Creek Falls at Deep Creek, at the Highlands Botanical Garden and on the moist, loop trail behind the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center.

The City

Great Falls as seen from Maryland

We don’t often take our kids to big cities, for obvious reasons starting with their tendency to wander off on a whim. Yet, after previously living in DC, we felt comfortable shuffling them around the metro to some of our favorite haunts. To ease them into the transition from wilderness to concrete, we started off at Great Falls, where the Potomac River drops 77 feet in less than a mile. The walk along the C&O Canal reminded us of our wish to bike the entire 184.5 miles and started the wheels spinning on how old the kids would need to be before we could embark on this trip.

U.S. Capitol

Next, we were off to visit our old friend Abe, who despite recovering from a recent vandalism attempt, still sat as impressive as ever. On the opposite end, we walked the Capitol steps on our way to the Botanic Gardens, one of our all-time favorite places. Of course, there was the dinosaur exhibit at the Natural History Museum (twice!), the Carousel ride on the National Mall and a tour at my husband’s previous employment – The Phillips Collection (one of the best art museums NOT on the Mall).

Unexpected Finds
No matter how well you explore an area, there are always unexpected surprises that pop up in every trip. This time we ventured off the highway to Virginia’s Grayson Highlands State Park, where wild ponies run free and a hike through the forest leads to a rock outcrop with outstanding views of the state’s two highest mountains.  On the road there, we nearly missed the state’s Marion Fish Hatchery and made a quick u-turn to stop by. It was our lucky day, as a bear had ripped the feeder off the wall the night before, so instead of buying a handful of fish food for a quarter, we were rewarded with a whole bucket of food to feed every fish in the hatchery. The kids squealed as the fish splashed and jumped at the food, and our oldest found a new best friend in the manager who gave us a personal tour of the facility.

 

Monticello’s Gardens

Our other surprise was in Charlottesville, Va., where we stopped off for another look at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Years ago when we visited here, you could drive straight to the house, park beside the bookstore/gift shop and snap a few photos without even buying a tour ticket. Today, the UNESCO World Heritage Site greets visitors with an expansive entrance, complete with a movie, children’s Discovery Room, cafe and gift shop. The home itself is hidden from view, accessed by a shuttle ride up the hill. Despite our surprise, we paid the $24/person fee and embarked on a journey through his home and extensive gardens. If you’ve never been, it’s still well worth the visit to learn about this fascinating president.

Walled garden at the University of Virginia

Below his mountain, on the campus of the University of Virginia, we picnicked on the main lawn and then set off to investigate the walled gardens of the Academical Village. It was a private, magical place, where individual gates led from one small manicured garden to the next. Here, in the middle of campus, tiny bunnies raced across the grass to hide in thick bushes, and we found ourselves not able to stop exploring until we had found each and every garden.

A Few Parting Photos
Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee Visitor Center at Smoky Mountains NP
One of our scenic hiking trails
And one of the beautiful creeks in the Smokies
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
Can you spot the salamander?
A tranquil pool at Great Falls

 

Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum
Abraham Lincoln Memorial

 

Feeding ducks by the reflecting pool and Washington Monument

 

Feeding the fish at the Fish Hatchery

 

Enjoying the view at Grayson Highlands

 

Fossil Hunting in Gravel

Fossil Hunting in Gravel

Our latest obsession is fossil hunting. During a recent trip to Percy Quin State Park, we were initially dismayed to find the normally beautiful lake now a drained, muddy bed. We made the most of it, though, venturing out into the squishy mud, collecting a few interesting rocks along the way. Back at home, the discovery of a document by Louisiana State University opened our eyes to what we had before us–rocks filled with imprints of tiny plants and sea creatures from hundreds of millions of years ago.

Now hooked, we had to find more. As it turns out, a good location for Louisiana fossil hunting is in the riverbeds of the Tunica Hills area. Unfortunately, fall is hunting season at Tunica Hills Wildlife Management Area, so we set our sites on neighboring Mississippi’s Clark Creek Nature Area.

Our first find

A two and half hour drive from New Orleans, Clark Creek wasn’t quite close enough to make it without stopping for a sanity break for our 2 and 4-year-old. Pushing through Baton Rouge, we skidded to a halt in St. Francisville on the 400th “are we there yet??” interrogation. A very knowledgeable woman at the Visitor’s Center set us up with a brochure on Clark Creek as well as information on other attractions and, most importantly, food.

Looking for a quick place to pick up lunch, we ordered wraps at Cozy Corner Bistro and walked past the St. Francisville Inn to eat on the picnic tables in the adjacent park. While the kids climbed trees in the park, we glanced down at the Inn’s pebble driveway and discovered the first of the day’s fossils. In under ten minutes, we had found a half dozen river rocks bearing impressions of tiny ferns and marine animals. Giddy with excitement, we loaded back in the car and headed for Clark Creek.

Making friends at the Pond Store

Google routed us along Tunica Trace to the Fort Adams Pond Road, which proved to be a bumpy ride pitted with potholes. Regardless, it was a nice jaunt into the countryside, past pastures of cows and horses and even an old Pond Store, circa 1881.

Just around the corner from the Pond Store was Clark Creek Nature Preserve. We parked alongside a handful of other cars and loaded our backpack with water and snacks. The 700-acre preserve boasts 50 waterfalls, champion trees and miles of hilly, strenuous trails.

Clark Creek’s Waterfall Trail

We set out on the leaf-covered Waterfall Trail, admiring the scenery and listening to the birds chirping. Long rows of stairs bypassed steep slopes that turned slippery in wet weather, and much of the trail had a surprisingly sharp drop-off on one side. At the intersection with the Primitive Trail, we veered off the main trail to walk along the stream’s edge (often having to jump across to switch sides). It was here that we began taking breaks to examine rocks and had already found several interesting pieces when we heard the first waterfall.

Passing beyond a leaning tree, we found ourselves on top of the waterfall, looking down to the pool below. We backtracked through the woods and emerged again on the lower end, marveling at our first sight of a waterfall since the Smokey Mountains. The pool was warm to the touch, and the kids practiced their “mountain-climbing” by jumping across boulders.

Exploring the creek bed

Although the Waterfall Trail leads to six waterfalls, we set our goals on seeing the first two, knowing that we’d most likely be carrying kids on our way out. The second was just as stunning as the first, making us realize the trip would have been a success even without the discovery of fossils.

By the time we made it back to the car, nearly three hours had passed and the sky was darkening with the incoming front. Despite being a bit sore, we were delighted with our day’s adventures through this picturesque nature preserve. Plus, we found plenty of brachiopod, crinoid and tabulate coral fossils for our coffee table’s “show and tell” bowl.