Monday, April 27, 2015

Shenandoah National Park recap.

Shenandoah National Park is just a few hours from my parents' house near DC. Since we were so close and neither of us had been, we decided this would be the perfect spot to test our gear before hitting the road for our upcoming National Parks camping extravaganza.

After four days, two campsites, 21 trail miles, no bears and just a few April showers, we're happy to report that our equipment (mostly) passed muster. And although it was still pretty cold and the wildflowers weren't quite blooming, we had a great time exploring the park and the surrounding area. Here's a recap of our trip...

mainland park #1 - check!
(park entrance #3 of 4 - check!)

The hikes. Shenandoah National Park has over 500 miles of trails including 101 miles of the Appalachian Trail. Ranger Warne at the visitor center provided us with a handful of recommendations; from there we narrowed it down to one full-day hike and a bunch of little meanders.

Day One: we got in fairly late and thunderclouds were looming so after setting up camp, we took a short walk up to Lewis Mountain (not very exciting this time of year) and then hiked along the Appalachian Trail until the raindrops started.

pre-storm trekkin'

Day Two: we headed to Old Rag Mountain to conquer the billion-year-old boulders along a 9.2 mile return trek. Yes, billion-year-old. This is one of the more popular hikes in the park; it's also one of the more dangerous hikes, and absolutely impossible if the rocks are wet. Luckily we only ran into a few people and it was a gorgeous clear day.

first viewpoint from Old Rag Mountain

look what I can do!

one of the easier passages

the reward

(I keep saying "no more adrenaline-rush hikes, please" - this one required a lot of bouldering in narrow crevasses and along steep cliffs - but secretly I love these. Don't tell Patrick.)

Day Three: on our way to Big Meadows campground we stopped at Bearfence Mountain. Another scramble along boulders, this time only 1.6 miles round trip to nice panoramic views.

it wasn't that bad, really

After setting up our new camp, we walked along the AT to the Rose River Falls loop featuring a lovely creek and nice waterfalls.

Rose River Falls


The loop trail meets up with Dark Hollow Falls (not as ominous as we expected).

lower Dark Hollow Falls

The rain started just as we were making our way back along the Story of the Forest trail so we headed to the tent for a nap. We never did learn the story - with a name like that we were expecting signage along the route.

bet the deer knows the story

Day Four: we started the day with a verrrrrrry cold hike to Lewis Falls (from the parking area instead of the campsite, which saved us a mile or so).

ssssssoooooo cooooooold

After quick showers we stopped by Skyland to see what that was all about (tourist crap and conference centers, turns out), and then hiked to Hawksbill Mountain, the highest peak in the park.

nope, not quite spring yet

Old Rag Mountain in the background

Hawksbill Mountain peak

Finally, we headed to Stony Man Mountain and were pleasantly surprised to find a really interesting narrative tourbook at the trailhead. Our quick 1.6 mile stroll ended up taking longer as a result, but it was nice to get some context for all the trees and rocks we'd been seeing over the past few days.

some lichen grow just 1mm every year
... had no idea

Stony Man peak -
very nice, very old, very windy, very cold

The campsites. The park has four campsites but only two were open at the time we visited. We decided to try them both. It was early in the season so we had our pick of prime sites at both campsites.
  • Lewis Mountain Campground (we chose site #7)
    • Pros: smallest campground in the park; interesting history; fully stocked campstore and showers; excellent drainage at campsites; utility sinks and hot water (!) in bathrooms
    • Cons: not many trails within walking distance; campsites are pretty close together which could be annoying when the campground is full
first campsite of 2015!

sunset from Lewis Mountain campground
  • Big Meadows Campground (we chose site #52)
    • Pros: lots of walk-in tent sites with bear boxes; numerous trails within walking distance; the best campfire grills I've seen yet; utility sinks and hot water (!) in bathrooms
    • Cons: hard to find a tent site with good drainage; only one set of showers for a few hundred campsites

... far
(the view from our parked car)

The food. Non-campers often ask what we eat on our camping trips. Car camping is so easy compared to backpacking! Breakfast is usually oatmeal or cereal; lunch is usually sandwiches. Dinner requires a little pre-planning, a little patience and a little creativity (and a shoe box of spices), but we generally eat really well - and we almost never eat soup.
  • Post-rain dinner #1
bag of mixed frozen veggies, tofu, rice noodles,
ginger, curry, chili powder, salt, pepper,
delicious Allagash beer
  • Post-exhausting-hike dinner #2
fresh roasted vegetables, tofu, rice noodles,
garam masala, salt,
delicious Allagash beer
  • Nacho night dinner #3
roasted vegetables,
a can of diced tomatoes with chilis,
lots of cilantro and oregano

We ate so healthy (and hiked so many miles) while we were camping that we decided to indulge on the way home. Thanks, Spelunkers!

bacon cheeseburger, onion rings, philly cheese steak -
all surprisingly delicious

but the real winner was their custard of the day -
maple bacon bourbon

Before our fast-food binge we stopped by Luray Caverns - we were on the fence about this because it's privately owned and really popular with tourists. It turned out to be worth the short side trek and admission cost, which gets you into the caverns, the historic museum and the antique car collection...


how to save $30

it's a dog-powered treadmill butter churner
(I am so not kidding)

almost skipped the car museum -
but we ended up loving it

Luray was beautiful but very different from the caves we visited in Vietnam. We're curious to see how it stacks up against Mammoth and Carlsbad...

So that's our Shenandoah National Park trip in a nutshell. Lots of people just enjoy the views from Skyline Drive and its 70+ overlooks, but we definitely recommend staying a few days if you can, or at least getting out of your car to explore some of the quick walks. If you haven't been, go! (But maybe not in mid-April!)


We'll be posting about each park we visit in the coming months. We're still working out the format so we'd love any input on this one. Is the information helpful? Is it interesting? Is there anything you'd like to know more (or less) about? Leave a comment and let us know!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Tourists for a day in DC.

Growing up about 15 minutes from our nation's capital, I spent a lot of time in DC on school field trips. Unlike most cities, I actually like this city, so I've also spent plenty of time there as an adult. I've visited most of the museums, monuments and federal buildings; eaten at amazing ethnic restaurants; watched July 4th fireworks on The Mall; even saw a few shows at the 9:30 Club back when it was still at 930 F St (and still technically called the 9:30 Club) and The Bayou (back when it still existed).

I'm really lucky - most people in the US don't get these opportunities, especially not on a fairly regular basis. Patrick also had the chance to visit some of the major sights a while back and he's lucky for that. But neither of us had seen the cherry blossoms in bloom and that just seemed wrong! With my parents moving, this would probably be our last chance to visit for the foreseeable future so it had to be done.

blossom-o-rama teaser

We planned our visit for the day after the Cherry Blossom Festival so the blossoms were still out in full force but the crowds were much tamer.

riding on the {empty} met-tro-woah-woah

The weather couldn't have been better...

this jonx is da bomb!
(you can take the girl out of PG County in the '90s but...)

DC snow
(one variety, anyway)

The walk around the Tidal Basin and surrounding blocks takes you to all sorts of monuments...

like the pointy Washington Monument

and the round Jefferson Memorial

... and the variously-shaped but similarly massive memorials to Lincoln, Roosevelt, those who served in WWII, Vietnam war veterans, Korean war veterans - all very beautiful and thought-provoking.

One we hadn't seen yet was the Martin Luther King, Jr memorial, an impressive sculpture surrounded by sixteen inspirational quotes.

more stones of hope,
less mountains of despair please

On the way back to The Mall we diverted to the White House to wave to the President's bees.

wonder what White House honey tastes like?

(we also waved to Mr. Obama)

And no visit to The Mall would be complete without a visit to the Smithsonian. Trouble is, each museum could easily take a full day. We opted for two short visits that afternoon - one based on nostalgia and the other on exploring new territory.

First, we stopped by the National Museum of Natural History to see the enormous elephant in the rotunda one last time and visit the always-impressive photography exhibit. This year's photos featured a shot from a wildlife photographer we'd seen speak at Portland's REI a few years ago - very exciting to recognize a name on the wall!

road trip research

Our last stop before dinner was the National Museum of the American Indian, chosen based on a friend's recommendation (neither of us had really even heard of this one). The building was stunning, the exhibits were really interesting, and the amount of information presented was almost overwhelming.

gorgeous atrium ceiling spiral

We definitely recommend a visit, but go early in the day after lots (and lots) of coffee and plan for several hours - many of the exhibits are really text-heavy.

Later we met up with friends who took us to Maketto, an amazing new Chinese Cambodian restaurant that also combines traditional Asian market features like shopping, coffee and a community space.

Khmer sausage -
slightly better than a hot dog from a street van

After several amazing dishes including pork buns, Khmer sausage pictured above, tamarind salad, oyster omelettes and chicken curry soup (so hot our eyes watered - Asian spices, how we've missed you!), we waddled back to their house for one of the most amazing whiskey flights we've had yet.

Scotland is now officially on the list

Our 5-mile wander around DC ended with one last trip on the Metro. I've been in many train stations on this journey (and in general) but none have ever felt as eerie as an empty underground Metro station in DC late at night.

and oh, the echo!

Whether you're on a budget or not, with so many free things to do downtown there's no excuse not to pack a picnic and spend a day meandering. The people-watching can't be beat, and even if you were dragged downtown twice a year as a kid there's still something magical about that giant rotunda elephant and the inspiring quotes carved in the memorials...

words to live by

(Speaking of budgets, we managed to get by on just $11 for our DC tourist day. Family and friends who helped sponsor this day - "thank you" doesn't really cover our gratitude. We'll repay you somehow, someday!)