How did my children and I follow up the 33-day, 8701-mile road trip we went on last summer? With a 35-day, 5529-mile road trip this summer!
Last summer we crossed the country and hit many national parks (#CrosscountryNPFamilyRoadTrip1). It was our first epic car adventure, and left us wanting more. So this year we took a route closer to home: the #AppalachianMountainRoadTrip. Parents: I definitely recommend hitting the road with kids, and while not everyone can take 35 days, it’s possible to get just as much out of shorter adventures.
Road Tripping 101
We weren’t always a road-tripping family. But several years ago, a few months after my wife’s death, my children and I were playing alongside a stream in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I realized that they had never been on a road trip—even a short one—other than to visit family.
Recalling the few road trips from my own childhood that our mother took us on by herself, I decided it was time to remedy that, so we drove an hour away and stayed at a Tennessee State Park. That weekend was the beginning of something very special, which eventually grew into our month-long car adventures.
Getting away from home for a few days, exploring new trails, seeing rivers and lakes we’d never seen, eating at new restaurants, all of these things removed us from all of our familiar places and let us see that there was so much awaiting us out in the world.
I’m blessed to have two amazing children—16 and 9—who truly enjoy spending time together, as well as spending time with me. That wasn’t exactly my experience as a child, and I look back in dismay on our mother having to constantly intervene between my two younger brothers and me.
Every family falls somewhere in between these experiences, and I believe that those of you who do more intervening than snuggling can see a gradual, continual change in that dynamic by planning exciting, educational car adventures. Being away from home means being away from comfort—and battle—zones, which is sometimes all it takes.
As I was planning the #AppalachianMountainRoadTrip, I looked back on the successes and shortcomings of our 2015 #CrosscountryNPFamilyRoadTrip. Several “lifetime moments” came immediately to mind—the Badlands, Yellowstone, Olympic NP, Crater Lake. But there were less than great aspects, as well—too much driving, too much focus on meeting up with adventure friends, too much junk/fast food.
This summer would be different. I laid out the route, selected a handful of iconic destinations, both adventure and urban, reached out to a few adventure friends who lived along our route, and began the two month-long task of putting together a less stressful, more enjoyable, quality-filled follow-up.
I had always wanted to meander along Skyline Drive, through the heavily forested, trail-rich, mountain splendor of the Blue Ridge Parkway, so that historic route immediately became the focal point of our road trip.
We didn’t drive the entire 469 miles of the parkway, but the 400-plus miles we covered were truly breathtaking with dozens of “Scenic View” pull-offs living out their purpose. We stayed in the two national park lodges associated with the Shenandoah NP, Big Meadows Lodge and Skyland Resort.
Late in the afternoon of our second day in Shenandoah, we decided to go for a short hike on the Whiteoak Canyon trail. The hike started with a relatively easy downhill that flattened out and widened to accommodate the very young, very old, and even the wheelchair adventurer. The high humidity of early July in an Appalachian forest began to take its toll and we slowed the pace on our way back up to the parking lot, stopping for a water break on a newly-constructed park bench. After encountering two black bears on the previous day’s short hike, my children wondered what the chances were of us seeing more of them today. Very good. They weren’t pleased, and the heat and humidity exacerbated their nervousness.
The trail began to climb, and soon my daughter was about 20 feet ahead of us, using her long stride to her advantage. My intuition told me to look past her, which was when I spotted the young bear, no more than 20 yards further up the trail. I closed the 20 feet between my daughter and me in a few long strides, placing myself between her and the yearling. It only took two “Hey, Bear!” calls, accompanied with my raising my arms over my head, to send it scampering away, much to the relief of both of my children.
By our journey’s end, we had driven through 16 U.S. states and 2 Canadian provinces, taken in 25 U.S. national parks, forests, scenic byways, wildlife refuges, seashores, parkways, water gaps, national monuments, national battlefields, and memorials, 9 U.S. state parks and forests, and 1 Canadian national park. We had hiked over 35 miles, several of which were along the Appalachian Trail. We explored almost a dozen well-known waterfalls. We saw over 20 animal species—although, regrettably, we didn’t see a single moose. We visited our nation’s capital, and our largest city. We visited with eight adventure friends, swam five times, saw six movies, visited two art galleries, and enjoyed five milkshakes and fifteen scoops of ice cream.
But most important was our time together as a family.
Whether exploring the confines of Luray Caverns, or walking all over Manhattan—twice—sharing memories of when their mother and I lived on the Upper West Side back in the late 90’s, my kids and I got special, uninterrupted time together. We enjoyed a few fine dining experiences, like the one at Convival where the owner stopped by our table to visit. They were a nice change of pace, but we also enjoyed several stops at crowded, local ice cream shoppes.
Making our way to a wide assortment of waterfalls meant everything from a very short walk from where we parked, to hiking into the backcountry of the DuPont State Recreational Forest, where we were treated to three of Transylvania County’s most popular waterfalls. My children were excited to visit Canada for the first time, and I was thrilled to see the Bay of Fundy—a destination that had been on my bucket list since my time as a middle school World Geography, in the late 80’s.
In terms of “lifetime memories”, we struck gold again.
There are so many funny moments that we will reflect back on through the years, like Siri sending us on wild goose chases via her “most direct” map routes, and the children running into the cold Atlantic on Cape Cod, thinking the water would be warm because it was summer.
Sadly, we’ve made a family decision that these two epic car adventures would be our only month-plus-long road trips, since the wear and tear of almost 70 days on the road, and traveling almost half the distance around the equator, was enough…at least for now.
Each day and every mile will live long in my memories, as I look through the hundreds of photos I took, and recollect with great warmth the love and laughter we shared. It is my fondest hope that someday my children will take their own children on road trips, long or short, and continue a family tradition.