The James River Parks System is a municipal park in Richmond, Virginia. It is 550 acres of heavily wooded land along the James River. Hundreds are drawn to this park each year for the biking trails, swimming holes, beaches, fishing and of course paddling. The park system is a big part of what strengthens Richmond’s name as “the River city”. The Huguenot Flat Water posting is the the most western part of the park. It is a popular launching site for canoeists and kayakers, providing 2 miles of flat water paddling before the river starts to churn once again.
It’s the middle of October, and finally starting to feel like it, with highs in the upper 60s we wanted to take to the water. After hearing about his successful canoe run on at Pocahontas State Park, Minh’s uncle wanted to take him for a spin on the James. He was nice enough to load the Ol’ red prospector, and pack the food. It’s actually been a while since we have both been on this canoe together. It’s hard to believe that this was the canoe we drove up to Erie, Pennsylvania to pick up in March 2016. When we arrived at the parking lot, I realized that I actually haven’t been back to this flatwater segment in over a decade.
The air was crisp and the water calm as expected at this time of year with little rain. We paddled to the north bank and built a fire in Brian’s trusty snowpeak fire pit. We explored this beach that would normally be underwater in the summer. We searched for shells and firewood. Minh thoroughly enjoyed it. He was also much more calm and stable in the canoe this time around. This outing reminded me that you don’t always have to go far to have some fun.
*Always remember to check water levels before paddling trips. Know your sections of the river, where you plan to put in and out! And of course, don’t forget your PFDs. Have fun.
I have been wanting to take our 23 month old son out on the canoe pretty much since he was born but I wanted to wait until he was ready and old enough. The idea of bringing a toddler along in a canoe can sound a little unnerving but with the proper instruction and safety measures, we were all able to have a good time. I also didn’t bring my regular camera on the canoe, instead I brought along my trusty Sony FDR FDR-X3000, it is an action camera that shoots in 4k. After my gopro died on me, I switched to sony and this camera has not let me down. I love it.
We decided to test the waters on a beautiful October day with a high of 71 F. We head out to our “go to” spot, Pocahontas State Park. We wanted to choose a waterway that we knew well, and Swift Creek Lake was a good a place as any to go on our toddler maiden voyage. The water in this lake is very shallow, and calm with very few areas exceeding 8 ft. Most of the lake sits at waist depth. The lake itself is very “creek-like” and as a result there are numerous, quiet, meandering routes to take. At Pocahontas State Park, canoes and kayaks could be rented for $10 an hour and they provide paddles, PFDs. No gas motor boats are allowed on the lake to preserve the peace and quiet.
Overall, I was surprised at how well he did. He loved the small waterways and marveled at the wildlife we were able to observe closely from the canoe. Several turtles, fish, an a large heron. There are very few man-made vessels that nature accepts, the canoe is certainly one of them. Practicing different strokes such as the “indian stroke” can allow one to hover silently through the water while never fully taking the blade out of the water. This is a continuous stroke and is excellent for observing wildlife. Our son lasted the full hour before he started to get antsy. Most of the time, he just wanted to use the canoe paddle, as he is most definitely in the phase of toddlerhood known as “MINE”. Everything appears to be his! It looks like he have a new project on our hands in the near future……canoe paddle making.
My wife and I were finally in a spot where we could take a solid 10 days off (Sep 15-25) together with our 23 month old son for a family vacation before I started my new job. We contemplated several different destinations. We were considering Maine (Acadia National Park), Western Canada to the rockies or even Ireland. We ultimately decided that this was the perfect opportunity to take on the “Mighty 5″ National Parks of Utah (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches National Park). I was initially concerned about the amount of car time our toddler would have to put up with. Looking at the map, we would tally over 800 miles of driving broken up over 10 days. He has proven to us however on past trips to Shenandoah, Yellowstone and the Great Smokies that he was a road warrior.
Day 1: Richmond, VA to Las Vegas
Our journey started in Las Vegas, after a long travel day from Richmond, Virginia with a layover in Charlotte, North Carolina, we were exhausted. Minh did surprisingly well on the both legs of the flight. I don’t think we could have done it without “Bob the Train”, his favorite TV show. For the most part, we don’t allow him to watch tv, tablets or phones during the day, we save them for long travel times in the car or plane. As a result, he is able to stay occupied for hours because it is still novel to him. We packed along toys on the plane as well such as cars, bulldozer, play doh and of course plenty of snacks. We arrived in Vegas at midnight eastern time zone, but Minh was wide awake once we stepped into the Venetian, the lights, sounds and bustle of people even at this hour was enough to get him riled up. I’m surprised he was able to fall asleep that night!
Day 2: Las Vegas, Nevada to Springdale, Utah (159 miles)
This leg of the trip was what I called the “HOT” segment. The drive along interstate 15 was easy enough, but it was a scorcher through the desert at 103 F. While the desert is a beautiful place, I find that its desolation and unforgivingness leaves me with a sense of loneliness and unease. At these moments, I compare deserts to forests. While both are magnificent; one of them provides, and the other taketh away….
We made a short detour to the Valley of Fire State Park (Nevada’s oldest state park). The park is named after red sandstone which were formed from shifting sandstone formations 150 million years ago. Under the harsh sunlight, these formations give the illusion that they are literally on fire. Stare long enough, and the rock formations started to look like faces trapped in stone….creepy. We wanted to go on a decent hike of 2 miles however the extreme heat cautioned against this idea. Thankfully, Valley of Fire is a driver friendly park and we were able to hop from point of interest to the next.
Hat and sunscreen….absolutely crucial for kids. Don’t forget sunglasses too.
Valley of Fire
We arrived in the town of Springdale, Utah (pop 529) that night, all of us were pretty exhausted. We stayed at a peaceful air bnb with an unexpectedly green and lush backyard for our son to run around. It was clear that the owners worked diligently to keep the garden and lawn flourishing. Water barrels and a irrigation systems seemed to be all placed carefully. It was odd to see so much green in the desert, but it was certainly welcoming. I made a trip to the general store that night to pay an arm and a leg for milk and breakfast items for our crew the next day. On the way back, I saw that there was a grocery store, “Sol foods”, that was open late…..awesome. I didn’t really care at this point. We were in Zion and we had the next two full days to explore it.
Day 3: Zion National Park
The next morning, a combination of the climate, altitude change and allergies seemed to hit us all at once. We were congested and drowsy to say the least. We decided that we were going to take it easy and spend the day on short hikes and get a good idea of the layout of Zion. For those that wish to drive into the park, be warned that even in shoulder season, parking spaces in Zion are pretty much full by 8-9am! Instead, an excellent shuttle bus system runs through the town of Springdale (every 15 minutes or so) and will take you directly into the park. We hitched a ride in front of our street, along with many other hikers in one of the shuttles. Minh really seemed to like the bus system and he proceeded to sing “the wheels on the bus go round and round” for all to hear.
Virgin River in Zion National Park
Happy for ice cream
We started our adventure at the visitor center to discuss trail conditions, special highlights, get maps and hear recommendations. When traveling with a toddler, I am not ambitious about what we attempt to accomplish. My main concern out here was safety and letting him have a good time. We took on the Kayenta trail, a mild hiking trail that wasn’t heavily populated. We later went back for ice cream and lunch in front of Zion National Park Lodge. Minh was getting used to the hiking. We had our bearings, and we were ready for the Narrows the next day.
Day 4: Zion National Park (The Narrows) and travel to Bryce Canyon City (87 miles)
Temperature High: 70 F, Low 57
We needed to get an early start today. Sarah and I woke up at 5:30am to pack all of our belongings and load the car and prepare breakfast while Minh slept. Once he awoke, we all eat a hearty breakfast and drove into the park at 7:30am. It was cold and dark. Sunrise was at 7:07am although we were heading to the bottom of the canyon and I didn’t expect sunlight to reach us until noon. At this early part of the day, parking was still available. We made our first stop, just outside outside the park at Zion Outfitter, a canyoneering and camping equipment store to rent canyoneering boots and socks for the hike in the narrows.
“The Narrows” is Zion’s most popular attraction and hike. It is the narrowest section of Zion Canyon where the North Fork of the Virgin River flows. There are two ways to approach “the Narrows”.
1. 3.6 mile bottom-up hike from Temple of Sinawava to Big Springs. This is the most popular approach and the easiest. This is what we would be attempting.
2. You could also hike the Narrows from top-down. A 16 mile hike from Chamberlain’s Ranch back to the Temple of Sinawava. This approach requires a permit, as well as careful planning because it is a 2 day excursion.
Breakfast before the narrows
Wading in the water
Asleep in the narrows
Careful weather planning is needed before attempting the Narrows. As you can imagine, the area is incredibly dangerous during times of rain as it is susceptible to flash flooding.
This hike was one of the main reasons we wanted to come to Utah. It lived up to the hype and every step of the way was gorgeous. The water is clear and the light reflecting from the canyon walls spectacular. Minh enjoyed this segment greatly! We decided not to hike the whole 3.6 miles mostly for safety reasons. On all of these hikes, I carried Minh in a Deuter Comfort Active pack that we purchased specifically for this trip. I love this pack. It is comfortably for the passenger as well as the carrier. It is lightweight and the passenger sits closely to your back to prevent that torsional force on the spine. I saw a few others with kids on their back. It is very important to practice extreme caution when hiking with a toddler. Always 3 points of contact for me, and also making sure I had firm footing. Trekking poles are a must. We finished our hiking at approximately noon and head back to the parking lot to return all of our gear. Minh was tired and thankfully slept all the way to Bryce Canyon town.
Day 5: Bryce Canyon National Park
We awoke in the town of Bryce Canyon to clear skies and cool temperatures in another air bnb. This was probably my favorite place that we stayed at because we had a beautiful backyard all to ourselves with a small playground and trucks to play with. Behind us was a wooded area where plenty of deer roamed. They even crossed through the backyard to welcome us. Similar to Zion, a bus shuttle system takes visitors throughout the park. I have heard from many visitors that Bryce was their favorite park of the mighty 5. I could easily see why. The views are unlikely any other. The canyons are filled with thousands of hoodoos (a tall thin spire of rock that protrudes from the ground). Many of the locations are drive up views, but the hiking trails into the canyons are amazing. We took on the Queens Garden trail that meets up with the Navajo Loop trail to get back to the top, the purpose was to see Wall Street and Thor’s Hammer. Bryce did not disappoint.
The wolves of wall street
Day 6: Bryce Canyon City to Capitol Reef National Park (109 miles)
We head out the next morning to the town of Torrey, Utah (population 243). We arrived at approximately noon and head straight out to see Capitol Reef National Park only a short drive away. Out of the might five national parks, Capitol Reef is considered by many to be “in the middle of nowhere” as it is far from the interstate. This park is definitely the least visited of the mighty five although I actually preferred the peace and quiet out there. This was our easy day. The Fruita valley is where we spent a good portion of our time, exploring the beautiful apple, apricot, pear orchards. Minh loved picking fruit from the tree, I think the idea of it was still novel and amazing to him. We stopped by the Gifford house and enjoyed some berry pie on the picnic tables outside. We head back to Capitol Reef resort to settle for the night. Surprisingly, the view outside our door was one of the best we had during our tripping.
Karate in Capitol Reef
Day 7: Capitol Reef to Moab, Utah (136 miles)
We woke up this morning to complete a hike in Capitol Reef, our goal this morning was to see Hickman bridge before we made the drive to Moab. The Hickman bridge trail is an easy 1.7 mile hike out to the natural bridge and back. Overall the hike is very pleasant and moderate in difficulty. One thing we noticed on these trails, were the “beware of aggressive wasps” signs. As we approached the bridge, Sarah actually got bit by one! These were certainly aggressive and they went after her for sure. Interestingly enough, no one else nearby including Minh and I were being swarmed by these wasps. Aside from the wasp incident, this trail was awesome. We packed up into the car and made the 2.5 hour drive to Moab, Utah. Thankfully Minh slept for most of this leg. We arrived in the town of Moab to reunite with Minh’s grandparents for the last few days of the trip. He was certainly thrilled to see them. I also believe that he was more cooperative as he is surrounded by more adults. 4 to 1, he didn’t stand a chance. Moab was the biggest town by far, that we’ve been in for several days. Population greater than 5000. Amazingly, 3 million visitors come to Moab each year to engage in every outdoor activity possible.
Day 8: Canyonlands National Park
The next morning, we head out to explore Canyonlands National Park, the fourth of the might five on our list. I was amazed at just how different each of the parks could be, even though they were in the same geographic region. Canyonlands made me feel the smallest. The awesome thing about Canyonlands is the fact that you are able to get up close and personal with alot of these canyons. Just outside, the national park is Dead Horse Point State Park which actually boasts some of the most impressive views on the entire trip an absolute must detour. We also allotted some time at the end of the day to go to Moab Giants, a dinosaur park for kids that features full sized dinosuars along a 0.5 mile trail through the desert, a 3D prehistoric aquarium that Minh loved, and dinosaur playground. As a giant dinosaur fan, this was also a must visit for us.
Shafer Canyon Overlook
Day 9: Arches National Park
One of the most popular of the mighty five is Arches. It is only 1 mile north of Moab and bordered by the Colorado River in the Southeast. It is home to over 2000 natural sandstone arches. The most famous of which is probably the “Delicate Arch” which is featured on probably every postcard and tshirt. We were actually able to get in some good hiking at Arches to see the thin Landscape Arch and Minh had the opportunity to play in a giant sandbox. If you only had an hour in Arches, I would go to the “The Windows”. From this parking lot, you are able to access several arches all in one spot. Including the famous “windows”, “turret” arch and the “double arch”. All of which are within sight of each other.
Day 10 Arches National Park to Salt Lake City (233 miles)
On our last morning, Sarah and I rose early to get in Arches National Park to see the sunrise. We decided to go the “windows”, a popular spot that opens up to several fantastic arches. I was surprised when there were actually far less people who were willing to wake up at this hour than expected. In retrospect, the hours between 6:30am and 8:30am are probably the golden hours of the park. The trails are empty and the colors spectacular. The cool temperatures also allow for optimal hiking conditions. We were both surprised that even at 8:30am, we were able to get some prime locations all to ourselves. We head back to back up the cars and then made the long drive to Salt Lake City for our flight home the next day.
Looking back on this trip, I was amazed at the distance we were able to travel with our little boy. It actually didn’t feel tiring at all, because we were fueled by the thrill of new sights and we had clear objectives each day. Above all else, I am grateful that we were able to travel safely without any accidents or injuries. There are certainly risks involved when traveling with a child on a road trip like this through the desert. Medical centers are few and far between so make sure that you are prepared. I’ve compiled a list of essentials that I think anyone going on such a trip such strongly consider bringing.
Also, for anyone considering making the “mighty five” road trip, I would also highly recommend allocating time to seeing some of the state parks. Many of these parks in the area offer spectacular views and are less crowded than the national parks.
– medical kit with “epi pen”
– abundant supply of water (national park services recommend drinking 1 gallon of water per day, this is actually twice the amount recommended during a typical day in the city).
– sun protection (sunblock, sunglasses!)
– satellite messenger if hiking in remote areas
– hard copy maps or GPS (signal strengths are variable out in the desert)
– multi purpose tool (ex. swiss army knife)
– carry two sets of car keys! (we helped a couple at canyonlands when they locked themselves out of the car)
An unseasonably cool breeze came through central Virginia and decided to stay around for the whole weekend. We were blessed with clear skies and temperatures in the mid to upper 70s. This was certainly a welcoming reprieve and sign that the last weeks of summer are upon us. It seems as if the more record-breaking hot summers we endure, the more I value such days. The morning air was actually crisp and it reminded me of the unfamiliar feeling of being chilly! We’ve gotten through the worst of it….autumn is just around the corner. The only logical thing for us to do with this beautiful day was to explore a new park! A 50 minute drive from Richmond brought us to York River State Park. The impressive York River spans 34 miles long with a width of 1 mile at it’s beginnings to 2.4 miles as it opens into the Chesapeake Bay. The river is formed by the confluence of the Pamunkey and the Mattaponi Rivers and drains a large watershed region of the coastal plains of Virginia. The York River was home to the indigenous people for thousands of years and subsequently was used heavily during both American Revolutionary and Civil Wars; it was the site of many historic battles.
Time to explore!
The favorite owl
Today, York River State Park serves as a diverse and well kept recreational area for all lovers of the outdoors. It is a day-use only park and as such, it closes at dusk (during the summer is 8:00pm, the gates lock so be careful!). The park’s 2531 acres offer a plethora of activities, from canoeing and fossil hunting, to historical sites to explore. The unique location on such a large river provides a rich variety of terrain, with sweeping bluffs, open lands, marshes, and densely wooded forest. This transition zone of land to eventually ocean, provides refuge for hundreds of animal species including, bald eagles, river otters, deer, crab and countless insect species.Our boy was certainly excited to be here. He immediately took off into the large open spaces of freshly cut grass to let out a triumphant toddler yell that was loud enough to catch the attention of nearby deer. Our first stop was the nature center, where he eagerly pointed at every single animal and inquired “what’s that!? what’s that?!”. He was particularly fond of the owls and of course the rabbits. Behind the nature center is a small amphitheater that can be reserved for meetings and retreats, it overlooks the York river with a grand view over a bluff. From here, you are able to spot the large nests of the numerous osprey that hunt these grounds.
Sands of time
One of my favorite parts of this park has to be the lovely view overlooking a Taskinas Creek, as it winds through a dense marsh. There is a wooded stage with a mounted tower viewer binocular set to see the show that nature has in store for us. What’s even better, is the fact that you can walk down a series of staircases to get right on this tributary. A fleet of canoes is standing by, ready to be rented out and paddled along this scenic waterway. I was very impressed at how well kept the park seemed to be. The facilities and equipment seemed to be in tiptop shape. I was pleased to learn that like all Virginia State Parks, York River organizes numerous activities each week to draw visitors to the park. One of which is called “canoeing under the stars” from 8-10pm, where canoiests can paddle by moonlight along the mighty York.
We hiked a short half mile trail across boarded walkways to get to Fossil Beach. Along the way, we spotted two large white-tailed deer in the distance. Our toddler without skipping a beat, took off a full speed after them. The deer were amused at this small creature creating such a scene and decided to watch for several moments before taking off into the woods. We had the beach to ourselves as the sun was beginning to set. Our boy loved every single moment of it as he tracked down crabs, fingered through seashells and pick up colorful rocks.
The York River
The state parks were created for all to enjoy and to instill a sense of adventure, inspiration and curiosity. By the look on my son’s face, York River State Park certainly accomplished all of those goals. We will certainly be back to paddle Taskinas Creek and to explore the many trails.
I was able to catch this shot of our toddler re-enacting a scene from Forest Gump. Running through a corn field in Gloucester County, Virginia on a beautiful 75 F degree summer day. Shot on Sony a6000 with kit lens.
A short 24 minute drive from Richmond, Virginia will get you into the tranquil and densely wooded areas of Pocahontas State Park. It is a fantastic escape from the noise and grind of the city. Over the past few years, we have actually made several trips to Pocahontas although I truly didn’t appreciate all of it’s offerings until now when we are tripping with a toddler. Pocahontas is a very well kept park providing a plethora of activities for everyone to enjoy.
I thought that we had gotten through the hottest days of Virginia summer but sure enough, I was wrong. Here we are, the 17th of August with temperatures still in the 90s F. We were getting stir crazy indoors and wanted to get moving. We set out to hike the 2.3 mile loop around Beaver Lake in Pocahontas State park. The only way to do this, was early in the morning, before the sun was at full strength.
Most of the Beaver Lake Trail is under the thick canopy of the forest so we were actually all quite comfortable. We were also blessed with an early morning of overcast and fog. The trail is relatively flat with very minor elevation changes. Our son has a taken a great liking to the Kelty Kids backpack carrier. It was a little too comfortable and he actually took a nap in it.
Other activities at Pocahontas include, camping, bike riding, water recreation area as well as plenty of good water for paddling. There is also an excellent nature center with a kids play area. We only had a couple of hours to spend here but will be back to take him to the water play area. Pocahontas is certainly an awesome place for anyone to explore nature….whether it be on foot, bicycle or canoe.
A summer road trip through New England took us through New Haven, Connecticut where we had the opportunity to tour the campus grounds at Yale University. The stunning collegiate gothic style architecture has got to be one of the most beautiful in the country.
In March 2017, we took a trip to the southern most tip of South America to explore Chilean Patagonia. This was over 2 years ago, but I finally found some time to put together a video! It was filmed on my sony a6000 which I purchased in 2015, it amazes me how well this camera has held up over the years. It’s not 4K video, but the colors and image quality are still awesome in my opinion. It has been on a lot of trips in all types of weather conditions and survived. It is also a tiny camera so you can actually use it when the moment calls. Enjoy!
I found this cool short video of a family’s canoe journey on the Inside Passage from Washington to Alaska. It was featured in National Geographic’s Showcase Spotlight. Pretty amazing trip! Would you ever go on a trip like this with family?
“In 1974, filmmaker Nate Dappen’s 20-year-old parents and uncle Andy built their own canoes to travel up the Inside Passage from Washington to Alaska. The voyage took them all the way to Ketchikan and became an epic journey that would later be retold to Nate and his brother. Determined to reinvigorate the legend, Nate convinced his father, uncle, and brother to embark on another trip. In the summer of 2017, the Dappens renovated those original canoes and continued their expedition on to Juneau.”
“Showcase spotlights exceptional short videos created by filmmakers from around the web and selected by National Geographic editors. We look for work that affirms National Geographic’s belief in the power of science, exploration, and storytelling to change the world. The filmmakers created the content presented, and the opinions expressed are their own, not those of National Geographic Partners.