Shenandoah National Park

Stony Man Mountain

When my mom learned that I had off over the Fourth of July holiday, she suggested that she, my brother, and I get away for a few days. We ultimately decided to go to Shenandoah National Park since it’s one of few national parks within driving distance of Philadelphia. It’s also somewhere that none of us had been prior to this trip. The drive from Philadelphia to Shenandoah took roughly four hours, but it flew by as traffic was minimal and the route was scenic. We opted to stay at Skyland, which is conveniently located inside the park.

Shenandoah National Park is situated in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It is largely forested, with many of its hikes leading to either cascading waterfalls or breathtaking vistas. The foliage is said to be particularly beautiful come autumn. I must say that I was blown away by how large the park is! It spans 105 miles from top to bottom and encompasses over 500 miles of trails. Skyline Drive runs the length of the park, making all of its trailheads accessible by vehicle. A portion of the 2,000 mile Appalachian Trail also runs the length of the park.

Wildlife sightings were plentiful, including a variety of birds and butterflies, as well as deer and black bears. Yup, you read correctly: bears. Prior to our visit, I had no idea that Shenandoah is home to hundreds of bears and, as such, sightings are anything but a rarity. I lost count of the number of sightings I had – some while driving along Skyline Drive and others while hiking. Hot tip! Don’t make the rookie mistake that I did and neglect to bring bear spray along with you.

Due to some physical limitations with my mom and brother, I mostly hiked solo. Because I wasn’t prepared to hike strenuous, 7+ mile trails on my own, I opted out of two hikes on my wish list. With that being said, both the Old Rag Mountain Loop Trail and the White Oak Canyon and Cedar Run Trails come highly recommended if longer, more rigorous trails are your thing. I hope to check them out for myself when I return one day!

All in all, I’m extremely grateful for the the short, but sweet time that I spent in Shenandoah. It wasn’t until I was there that I realized how badly I was in need of a city escape. As much as I consider myself a city gal, immersing myself in nature every once in a while keeps me level-headed. In regards to hiking solo – something that I had never done prior to this trip – I freaking loved it! To my own surprise, I welcomed the solitude with open arms and learned that it deeply nourished my soul.

Stony Man Mountain

Stony Man Mountain

Stony Man Mountain

Day 1

Stony Man via the Appalachian Trail: Being that we arrived to the park in the late afternoon, this easy, 1.5-mile trail was the perfect way to kickoff our getaway. It’s a short loop that offers stunning views. When I reached the summit of Stony Man, I was shocked to find that there wasn’t a soul up there. I embraced the opportunity to meditate as the sun set and the gentle breeze washed over me. The sense of tranquility that I felt in that moment is indescribable.

Rose River Trail

Rose River Falls

Rose River Trail

Lower Dark Hallow Falls

Upper Dark Hallow Falls

Day 2

Rose River Trail: I absolutely loved this trail! To access the trailhead, head to the Fisherman’s Gap Overlook parking lot and cross the street. It’s a moderately challenging, 3.5-mile loop that is strewn with streams and waterfalls. The most impressive waterfalls that you’ll see on this trail are Rose River Falls and Dark Hallow Falls. Although Dark Hallow Falls is arguably the more popular of the two, I was actually more drawn to Rose River Falls. I worked my way down to the rocks below them and meditated to the sound of cascading, pristine water. No one was around and it was extremely peaceful.

Bearfence Mountain Trail

Bearfence Mountain

Day 3

Bearfence Mountain Trail: Despite this trail being short, it was incredible. It’s a moderately difficult, 1-mile loop that leads to a 360º view of the park. In fact, the summit of Bearfence Mountain is one of only three summits in the park to offer such a view. The climb up is steep and ultimately turns into a scramble climb. I found this portion of the hike incredibly fun and wished it had lasted longer! Yet again, I was the only person in sight once I reached the summit and thoroughly enjoyed the solitude as I took in the beauty surrounding me. Out of all the trails that I experienced while in Shenandoah, I found this one to have the most impressive variety of wildflowers.

Hawksbill Gap Loop

Hawksbill Mountain

Hawksbill Gap Loop

Hawksbill Gap Loop via the Appalachian Trail: This moderately difficult, 2.6-mile climb is well worth the effort. Sitting at 4,050 ft. elevation, the summit of Hawksbill Mountain is the highest peak in Shenandoah. Despite hitting this trail during a period of extreme fog, the views at the top were lovely. I can’t imagine how gorgeous they would have been if I’d experienced them on a clear day! My favorite memory from this trail was being greeted by a group of bucks a mere 100 or so yards into hiking. They were about 10 feet away from me and were completely unfazed by my presence.

Forgotten Longwood Garden Photos and a Lesson in Extreme Gratitude

Today, I took on the daunting task of sorting through thousands of photos and videos. Deciding which to keep and which to toss was arguably the most time-consuming, emotionally-draining aspect of the whole endeavor, but the mere act of backing everything up takes time as well. Although I had been dreading this task for months, it swiftly morphed into a lesson of extreme gratitude. The highlight reel of my life quickly reminded why we collect memorabilia in the first place.

On a day-to-day basis, I find it so incredibly easy to get caught up in the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Most of the time, I can’t help but feel like I’m simply going though the motions. However, after sifting through what felt like an endless collection of photo and video footage, an overwhelming sense of gratitude washed over me. My heart felt like it was about burst. I mean, seriously, how lucky am I to have lived so much life in my short 29 years? Better yet, how lucky am I to have done so with such incredible people by my side? The best part of all is that I’m just getting started.

In the midst of re-living so many precious memories, I came across a group of photos that I had intended on sharing but ended up completely forgetting about. They were taken at Longwood Gardens on Mother’s Day of last year. I figured, better late than never, I’d share them with you guys. If Longwood Gardens is accessible to you and you have never been, do yourself a favor and visit its beautiful grounds this spring. If not, please enjoy some of my favorites from the day.

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Utah’s Mighty Five, Part 5: Arches National Park

Delicate Arch

If you missed the intro to this blog series, be sure to check it out here!

Day 7

Our last full day in Utah was jam-packed with adventure. First, we woke up super early for a much-anticipated hot air balloon ride with Canyonlands Ballooning. We definitely had some pre-flight jitters, but the pilot, Lou, and the rest of the crew made us feel insanely comfortable from the get-go. To get things started, we were driven out to the remote lands of Moab and watched a beautiful sunrise as the crew got ready for our flight. Then, we hopped into the basket, and up, up, and away we went!

There are truly no words to describe the experience. Although being thousands of feet in the sky, and despite anticipating a rush of adrenaline, the flight was actually quite serene. Both the ascent and descent were slow and steady, allowing us to soak in every single moment. And, my goodness, the views! To have panoramic, 360° views of Moab’s stunning landscape was awe-inspiring to say the least. After about an hour in the sky, we landed in the middle of the desert and were pleasantly surprised to learn about the tradition of a post-flight champagne toast. It was accompanied by the Balloonist’s Prayer, which is as follows:

“The winds have welcomed you with softness.
The sun has blessed you with its warm hands.
We have flown so high and so well that God
has joined you in laughter and set you gently
back into the loving arms of mother Earth.”

I can’t recommend the experience enough! If you ever find yourself in Moab, the guys with Canyonlands Ballooning were fantastic. We had a seamless experience from start to finish, and it was just as special of an experience as I’d always dreamt it would be.

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After being driven back into town, we made a breakfast pitstop at Love Muffin Café. The menu was totally my steez: organic, local, and seasonal. Plus, the service was fast and, most importantly, the food was delish! We got it to go and ate it en route to Arches so that we could squeeze as much as possible into our day.

First, we stopped at the park’s visitor center and picked up some souvenirs that we’d been eyeing all week. I grabbed a hardcover copy of 59 Illustrated National Parks: 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service. It’s beautifully illustrated and perfectly informative! I highly recommend it for all the nature lovers in your life.

Anyway, after our stop at the visit center, we headed towards the Devil’s Garden trailhead. You’ll know that you’re in the right place when the park’s paved road dead-ends. I absolutely loved this hike! It’s 7.8 miles long, with some portions being incredibly easy and other portions being extremely difficult. It took us roughly five hours to complete, but it was well worth it as it allowed for up-close-and-personal views of several of the park’s 2,000+ arches: Tunnel Arch, Pine Tree Arch, Landscape Arch, Partition Arch, Navajo Arch, Double O Arch, and Private Arch. What I loved about it most was that portions of the hike involve scaling up and over sandstone fins (read: future arches). So cool!

After an awesome hike, we beelined it to the Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint for sunset. This viewpoint allows for views of Delicate Arch from about a mile away. Now, this is where you pay attention, people. DO NOT DO WHAT WE DID. Instead, go to the Delicate Arch Trailhead, do the three-mile-roundtrip hike, and take in this iconic arch from the closest vantage point possible. After all, this is the arch of all arches, having earned itself a spot on the Utah license plate. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize our rookie mistake until the sun was setting and it was far too late to engage in a three-mile hike. The upside? The storm clouds that we witnessed were insane and made for some remarkable photo ops.

Double Arch, Park Avenue, Balanced Rock, and The Windows are some additional attractions worth mentioning. They were also on our “to see” list, but it simply wasn’t feasible to experience them given our limited time in the park. I think it goes without saying that one day is not nearly enough time to experience this magnificent park and all that it has to offer. As such, I’d love to revisit this park in the future!

After leaving the park, we briefly headed back to camp, freshened up, and headed to downtown Moab. We had dinner accompanied by local brews at Moab Brewery. Then, per the recommendation of our server, we hit up Woody’s Tavern. Think live music, top-notch people watching, beer mugs the size of yo’ face, and the perfect mix of locals and tourists. It was an absolute blast and is definitely worth checking out if you’re in the mood to party!

Tunnel Arch

Pine Tree Arch

Landscape Arch

Partition Arch

Navajo Arch

Double O Arch

Day 8

Verost and Miller behaved themselves the night prior, so they woke up at the ass crack of dawn to return to the Delicate Arch trailhead. Major props to them! Colleen and I, on the other hand, were feeling a little rough and decided to sleep in. Once Verost and Miller returned to camp, we packed up and headed to downtown Moab for some shopping. Eventually, it was time to embark on our four-hour drive to Salt Lake City and catch our flight home.

Words can’t express how grateful I am for this trip. It had been a bucket list trip of mine for years, and to have made it happen with an amazing group of gals by my side was the icing on the cake. It was hands down one of my favorite trips of all time, and I have no doubt that it will remain at the top of that list for years to come. #prairedawgsforever

…Next stop, home sweet home! <3

Utah’s Mighty Five, Part 4: Canyonlands National Park

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If you missed the intro to this blog series, be sure to check it out here!

Day 6

Boasting nearly 338,000 acres, Canyonlands National Park is massive. It contains four districts that are divided by the Green River and the Colorado River. The four districts are Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves. Island in the Sky has a scenic drive with several overlooks, making it the best option for those with limited time to experience the park. The Needles, on the other hand, provide a backcountry experience that requires 4WD. Similarly, The Maze is incredibly remote and involves a fair amount of off-roading. This district tends to be visited by veteran campers for multiple days at a time. Lastly, the rivers are most commonly experienced by boating.

I’m sure that, given our timeframe, it comes as no surprise that we visited the Island in the Sky district. As this district sits atop a ginormous, 1500-foot mesa (a flat-topped hill), it is quite literally an island in the sky. Although I felt like I’d been on another planet the entire time that we were in Utah, I truly felt like I was on Mars while exploring Canyonlands.

Once we arrived to the park, we hopped onto the scenic drive and headed to the Grand View Point trailhead. It is an easy two-mile hike, but don’t underestimate it as the views are spectacular! The trail follows the rim of the mesa, allowing for views in every direction. Next, we headed to the Mesa Arch Overlook to take in one of the park’s iconic views. Mesa Arch is situated in front of Buck Canyon, and, if viewed from the perfect angle, it frames the La Sal Mountains. Lastly, we headed to the Green River Overlook for sunset. It was incredible to take in the vastness of the park while viewing the river that made the park’s larger-than-life canyons possible.

Before settling into our tent at Under Canvas Moab, we headed to downtown Moab for dinner. We decided on Peace Tree Juice Café as its menu had plenty of healthy, yet delicious options. The fact that we could eat outside while listening to live music was an added bonus. It was the perfect ending to our day!

…Next stop, Arches National Park!

Utah’s Mighty Five, Part 3: Capitol Reef National Park

If you missed the intro to this blog series, be sure to check it out here!

Day 5

Capitol Reef is considered the underdog of Utah’s national parks and I couldn’t disagree more. While it may not have the grandeur of Zion, it’s most definitely worth a visit. Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile-long buckle in the Earth’s surface, is the geologic landform that defines the park.

Upon our arrival, we headed to the visitor center and were excited to learn that Capitol Reef is home to the largest orchard in the National Park Service. Being that we took our trip in mid September, our timing couldn’t have been more perfect! We hit up a couple different orchards and had a blast picking a variety of apples and pears. Pickings were free if eaten within the park and a mere $2 per pound if taken out of the park. Not bad considering that the produce was super fresh and delicious!

Afterward, we headed to a talk about petroglyphs, led by Ranger Adam Lavender. You can’t make this shit up! He discussed the rich history and culture of the Fremont (read: ancestral Puebloan) people and how the petroglyphs came to be. These ancient carvings are estimated to date back to 600-1300 CE. As such, it was amazing to see them up close and personal!

We then drove along the Capitol Reef Scenic Byway (Highway 24). It was when we were doing this that I realized just how unique the rock formations are in each Utah park, despite them being only a couple of hours away from each other. Capitol Reef’s rock formations were hands down my favorite as they had deep, reddish-orange and light blue undertones. I’m clearly not a geologist given that lame description, but as you can see from the photos, they were magnificent!

Once we hit the end of the byway, we hiked the Capitol Gorge trail. It had a feel similar to the Narrows, minus the water. I loved this short but sweet hike! It was within a deep canyon, and the canyon walls were laden with historic inscriptions. While I’m usually not a fan of graffiti in a national park setting, it was pretty freaking cool to see that this park has been enjoyed by fellow nature lovers as far back as the 1800s. Anyway, the highlight of the Capitol Gorge trail is the short climb to the park’s waterpockets, also known as water tanks. It’s striking to see water in the middle of the desert! As you can imagine, these waterpockets are vitally important to the desert ecosystem.

We finally head back to our hotel, Capitol Reef Resort, which was conveniently located one mile from the park entrance. Our mountain-view room was incredible! We walked across the street for a night out at The Rim Rock Patio – a “spaghetti western cafe,” whatever that means. Considering that it was in the middle of the desert, we were pleasantly surprised by our experience! Think elevated pub food, Utah microbrews on tap, great music, and an overall cool vibe. I think it’s safe to say that we had a little too much fun that night. ;)

…Next stop, Canyonlands National Park!