Garden 2019

As we enter the heart of autum, I reflect on the weird garden we picked from this past season. We didn’t intentionally grow a garden this year, but it grew anyway. In the middle of summer, the tomato vines were growing out of control from our initial planting 2 years ago. This prompted me to look up which vegetables were actual annual vs perennial (survives for longer than 2 years).

  1. raspberries, blueberries and other berry bushes
  2. asparagus
  3. rhubarb
  4. kale
  5. garlic 
  6. radicchio 
  7. horseradish
  8. globe artichokes
  9. lovage
  10. watercress

Minh and I were forced to put up the foundation to keep them from overtaking our lawn. I’ve never seen more grape tomatoes! Minh thoroughly enjoyed the task of weeding and tending to the tomatoes. He’s an industrious little fellow. Another perennial plant in our garden is the raspberry bush in the corner. The raspberry bush did quite well this year and it yielded more berries than the year before. Minh was particularly excited about that. We are well into autumn now and the fruits are all picked.

Upon further reading, it looks like with proper care, the raspberry bush should continue to deliver more berries year after year. One thing, we haven’t been doing is pruning. The branches (also called canes) that bear fruit, only live for two summers. In the first year, the new cane is green. It eventually is enveloped in a brown bark and lies dormant in winter. When it warms again, it becomes a “floricane” which yields berries in early to mid summer and dies. I guess I’m going to have to start pruning the dead canes.

In the spot where we leave our rotting pumpkins, it looked like an extensive vine groundwork was laid however, but we didn’t see any pumpkins, I suspect that the buds were eaten by the local squirrels.  Alas, next year we shall be ready for a real harvest….

A Day on Huguenot Flat Water – James River Park System

Huguenot Flatwater Segment is at the most western part of the James River Parks System.

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.

The snowpeak fire pit, that has been with us on countless trips, is introduced to a new generation.

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.

A day with his uncle. Eating apples and goldfish.

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.

First time in the canoe – Paddling with a toddler

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.

Looking for fish beneath the lily pads

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.

“The Mighty Five” with a Toddler – Utah

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.

Minh plays with his bulldozer while taking in the vegas views

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.

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.

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.

 

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

Minh points to Thor’s Hammer in the distance, one of the most recognized sights in Bryce Canyon.

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.

Wall street
Hoodoos for miles

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.

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.

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.

Probably pointing at a bulldozer
The best sandbox

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.

Essentials:

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)

York River State Park – Williamsburg, Virginia

Map of York River State Park

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.

Fleet of canoes on Taskinas Creek

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.

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.

The big 3: The James, York and Potomac Rivers.

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 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.

For more information, here is a link to the official website for York River State Park. 

Things to consider bringing:

  • bug spray (especially around the ankles to prevent tick bites)
  • sunblock, hat
  • sunglasses
  • towels
  • strainer (if you’re fossil hunting)
  • water bottle
  • water shoes
  • camera
  • binoculars

Pocahontas State Park – Chesterfield, Virginia

Pocahontas State Park Map of facilities. Beaver Lake trail, 2.3 mile loop.

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.

Beaver Lake – July 2018
Maiden voyage out on Swift Creek Lake in Pocahontas State Park, VA March 2016

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.

The water lillies were in full bloom
Lilly pads

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.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Sevierville, Tennessee

I normally wouldn’t log this trip as an expedition, but with a 19 month with us, it sure felt that way. My friend was getting married in Nasheville and he suggested that I head out a week early to explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well as the surrounding Gaitlinburg area before the wedding. Gaitlinburg is listed at 6 hours and 41 minutes from Richmond, and I have always been looking for an excuse to go to the smokies. We felt like the distance might have been quite a stretch for our 19 month old son, but he has always been quite a good lil traveler so we decided to brave the roads instead of the airplane. He had never travelled such a distance by car before and I had no idea how he would tolerate it. So we ended up allotting a 12 hour travel window for us with scheduled 2 hour breaks in between so he could run and stretch his legs.

Roanoake River

Departure: 6:30am. The first leg of the trip went very well. We were able to get in 2.5 hours before our first stop in the town of Roanoake, Virginia. We stopped at Greenhill Park, and it was the absolute perfect pit stop. For a toddler, this park was like an oasis. It had it all, a playground, picnic tables, shaded areas, and even the roanoake river coursed through the park for fishing and cooling off. The bend of river that traveled through the park was very clear and shallow. It was perfect to wade and search for fish and crayfish. Our son loved this spot a little too much and as expected, it was a battle to get him back into the car…fortunately, the weather was merciful and by mid-day it was still surprisingly comfortable.

cabin views

Soon enough we were on 81 south again, as the interstate rolled gently through the hills towards Tennessee. We covered a couple of hours before we stopped again in Bristol, VA/Tennesee for lunch. We finally finished the leg to our cabin at about 4:30pm (a total travel time of 10 hours) 2 hours ahead of schedule! We actually stayed just outside Gaitlinburg in a town called Sevierville, Tennessee (population 16,716). We were all excited to stretch our legs, jump on the bed a few times, and get outside and take in some of the beautiful views. It did not take us long to get settled into our new home for the next 5 days and 4 nights. Our son instantly fell in love with the place and of course the air hockey table. We all rested easily that night, in a cabin up in the clouds after a long day of travel – we were pretty worn out.

The next morning, we woke up early to head into the national park. The drive was a short and easy 20 minutes into the park. Out of all 60 national parks in the United States, the Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited park with more than 11.6 million visitors in 2016. This is likely due to the fact that it is one of the few parks on the east coast and it is also free admission. I was surprised to see the level of commercialization of the surrounding area. The town of Gaitlinburg is essentially one big tourist trap, with everything from “Ripley’s Believe it or not” to go carting! I personally found this to be off-putting but many people seemed to love it. I guess I always imagined the national parks as one of the few special places on earth protected to bring us closer to the outdoors. They are meant to inspire future generations to learn about the environment and the importance of different ecosystems. Instead, in Gaitlinburg, there are endless shops and stores that sell meaningless t-shirts and merchandise… all of which will likely end up in a landfill within a couple of months. While, Gaitlinburg can be very entertaining for children, it feels out of place so close to a national park.

The ascent up to Laurel Falls.

The park itself is very nice and actually very similar to Shenandoah National Park. We chose our hikes carefully…..something feasible with a 27lb 19 month old on your back. We arrived early in the park and were fortunate enough to get a parking spot at Laurel Falls. It was an easy one with only 314ft elevation gain over 2.4 miles. Our son particularly liked the Sugarlands visitor center where he finally got to meet a black bear (the goal of his trip). He even posed next to it for some pictures. He always seems to enjoy visitor centers at parks, whether they be state or national. They offer a quick run through of the key faun and flora in the park. We later head into Gaitlinburg to tour the town and find some dinner.

Now that we knew what we were up against, we wanted to rise early and get to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park and in Tennessee. It is located in the heart of the park at an altitude of 6643 ft. Fortunately with a child, the parking lot brings you within one mile of the observation deck, where you make a steep ascent to be amongst the clouds. The temperature at this altitude was 52 degrees farenheit, a stark contrast from the 82 degree weather back at our cabin! Visibility fluctuates rapidly at this altitude as well, and we hunkered down in our CRV until the sun started to show. Interestingly, at this altitude, there was an information cabin and gift shop. We bought a sweater and a stuffed bear and hung around the parking lot until the sun came out. We caught our break when we caught a glimpse of Fontana Lake on the North Carolina side over a mile away. The climb up is steep with numerous benches along the way for visitors to take breaks. The landscape is pretty amazing with the distinct douglas fir trees that painted the horizon. The clouds moved fluidly over the mountains and created an ocean of moving shadows over the mountain range.

Up in the clouds

We would spend the next few days at the cabin, relaxing and taking in the surrounding views and listening to the sounds of the mountain range. We did occasional trips back out to Sevierville for supplies and food, but the pickings were slim. Of course, a trip to Tennessee would be incomplete without a visit to a local distillery for some bourbon. We picked up a couple of bottles from the King’s Family distillery as gifts for friends and family back home. All in all, our lil toddler loved the trip. The Great Smokies itself is a beautiful park. Perhaps one day, we might return to take on the most popular and strenuous hikes like Mt Leconte or Andrews bald, but I seriously doubt that we would be back in this area with so many more National Parks left to visit. I was surprised at how well he did in the car, and this gives me hope for future trips.