We started the day early and were in the Lodge for breakfast by 8:15. We both slept better at Shenandoah than at the KOA, likely due to better mattresses.
The Big Meadow Lodge breakfast food was unremarkable. I got an omelet and dad got some pancakes. The coffee and service were good.
Next up, we stopped at the Harry R Byrd Visitor Center and Wayside market to get various sundries and ask about the best hike. I got Nick a pressed penny, Sarah some socks and postcards, a keychain and National Park stamps for me. I also grabbed a book on the best short hikes in Shenandoah. We also filled up on gas at $3.55/gallon. This is only about $0.25 higher per gallon than outside the park. I thought this was a deal compared to the Grand Tetons expectations of a $1.00+/gallon.
After discussions with the Ranger and referring to the book, we settled on a level 1.3-mile hike called Limberlost.
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The trail had many benches for sitting. It was an easy walk and with the use of hiking boots and sticks, we made it through without an issue.
After our hike, we stopped for lunch at Skyland.
As the name would suggest it had a great view of the valley and sky. It overlooked Luray which was where our server was from. Along with taking care of our dining needs, she filled us in on Luray and her 40-minute commute. We got salads and pan-fried Brussels sprouts.
Next, we headed out of the National Park to the small town Luray. The best thing I can say about Luray is their cell signal is stronger than the NP. I used this to text Sarah some pictures and provide proof of life. After visiting the Luray visitor center for bathroom and “museum” fun, we stopped at a local grocery store and grabbed some snacks on our way out of town.
During the drive to and from Luray, we stopped several times for views off Skyline Drive. It was pretty.
We got back to the hotel around 3:30 PM. We sat on our patio and chatted the afternoon away.
Around 6 PM we went to the lodge to grab dinner and watch the sunset. We decided to watch the sunset first and we claimed our spot on the balcony chairs and used the intermittent internet while we waited for the changing colors of the sky.
It got kind of cold, but we lucked out and sat near the just-lit fire inside the lodge after the sun went down. It was a cozy spot to sit and relax.
It was so nice by the fire that I was glad that we ended up having to wait for a table in the dining room. It was slow moving and the wait to longer than expected. The menu wasn’t wowing us, so we decided to go to the tavern instead and grab a pizza.
Dad got carded at the Tavern by D’An!
We came back to the room and sat outside watching the stars and talking. It was very close to Yellowstone’s level of stars and was a great end to the trip.
Our day started bright and early around 7 AM. Before leaving the campground, we grabbed a bagel sandwich, breakfast potatoes, and two coffees at the KOA ($10). Dad donned his Beards of Gettysburg* t-shirt and we were off.
We were early to pick up our tour guide (Mike Strong) for the Gettysburg National Military Park 3-hour tour ($125 + tip). The tour guide was outstanding. This was his 18th season as a guide. It was amazing how much he shared about this 3 day battle in such a short time. He has a gift and a passion. My biggest learning was about why they fought the way they did. They used the formations and flags because smokeless gunpowder had not been invented yet, and it was exceptionally difficult to direct action and prevent friendly fire. (Gettysburg Tour Audio Clip)
After the tour, we checked out the Visitor Center. The battleground and Visitor Center of the Park are free; however, the Film, Cyclorama and Museum do charge admission ($36 for us with a AAA discount). The film was okay. The Cyclorama is an oil painting reaching 42’ high and 377’ in circumference, depicting the end of the 3-day battle. It was rather amazing and took 12 artists a year to complete.
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The museum was okay. The best part of the museum and Gettysburg, in general, is they maintained the actual damage from the war. Below are the rafters that were damaged by a cannonball in a barn at the battle. They were removed from the barn and relocated to the museum. You can see this type of wall damage throughout the town.
After the Visitor Center, we rushed to Auto Tour stop 12 by the Pennsylvania Memorial to see and hear a cannon being fired. It was a blast (pun intended). We were able to talk to the team after the show.
On the way to our next event, we had car issues as the Subaru lost its mind and thought it was running when it wasn’t. This was pretty stressful as we tried various solutions. We eventually got the problem fixed and were able to relax and enjoy the rest of our night.
We ate dinner at the Blue and Gray Bar and Grill. We sat outside since it was a beautiful night. Live musicians were playing and the food was great. We got the Philly Cheesesteak Waffle Fries and mustard-based coleslaw. For the entree, Dad got the General Warren and I got the General Archer burger.
We capped the night off by sharing a Reese’s Pieces Sundae at Friendly’s. While we were waiting in line, a trio of guys walked by and I commented about how I liked his Confederate hat. We got to talking and found out that he was a history teacher and had had the hat for 30 years. I told him I was there visiting with my dad, who is also a history nut. He gave me a replica Civil War bullet for Dad!
Back at the cabin, we played cards before going to sleep.
For years, my Dad and I talked about taking a trip together. He got to pick the destination. He finally decided on Gettysburg. That was not what I had been anticipating, but I started looking at accommodations near the old battlegrounds.
I found a KOA nearby and booked it for a couple of days. I also wanted to see Shenandoah National Park, so I booked us there as well.
We started our 6.5-hour trip at 8:00 am. The drive was easy and we made it fun.
Checking into the KOA Gettysburg, I realized that when they say bring linens, they meant towels too. We made a quick trip to Walmart for towels and washcloths. The KOA seemed to be the older style of campground, with tighter spacing and it looked like it would be hard to bring a larger RV in. As far as KOAs go, it was middle of the road. They did have a breakfast option on-site though.
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We had booked a Deluxe Cabin with a full bathroom. They claimed it could sleep 5, which would have been extremely tight as it was a small cabin.
After settling in, we drove in to see the town. It was only about a twelve-minute drive. There were quite a few restaurant options, but I had made a list of some of the neater-looking options and we decided to eat at the Dobbin House Tavern. The restaurant had a great ambiance and I enjoyed the meal. We hit the gift shop on our way out to grab a keychain and postcard.
We walked around town, exploring a little bit before grabbing ice cream for dessert at Mr. G’s. After a round of cards, we headed to bed. I was eager to see what our Gettysburg experience would be like.
Ben and I had been to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky when we were both kids. It is the world’s longest cave system (currently 420 miles mapped) and we thought the kids would enjoy seeing it.
The Mammoth Cave National Park has a nice Visitor Center with bathrooms, ticket booths, a gift shop, and a book shop (basically another version of a gift shop). There is another smaller gift shop in a trailer outside. There are spots to eat lunch outside as well.
MAMMOTH CAVE TOUR
We booked tickets for the extended historic tour ($92 for 4 tickets). Book your tickets early and online! When we went, there was only 1 tour that wasn’t completely sold out (over the course of two days).
Will is our history buff, so we thought he would enjoy the history tour. We got to see the old mining equipment that had been left there for saltpeter and a house that was part of an experimental tuberculosis hospital.
The tour is listed as moderate, but we found the 2-hour tour to be pretty easy. There was some stooping and bending with a tight squeeze in Fat Man’s Misery, but it was a relatively slow walk (Ben’s watch said it was a 42-minute/mile pace). There was some uneven ground, which could be tricky in the low light if you have bad ankles/knees or balance issues. There were also some stairs. Ben’s note: At 5’10” and 260 Fat Man’s Misery (narrowest part) was more fun than scary. I found this and Tall Man’s Misery the best part of the tour as you felt like you were actually caving.
The black writing on the ceilings is old-school graffiti, made from candle smoke. There was a bathroom down in the cave, but it is a while to get to it, so I would definitely recommend going before your tour (some tours do not go by the bathroom!).
It was pretty, but I found Carlsbad Cavern a much better experience overall. I felt rushed during Mammoth; the tour guide pretty much said this wasn’t a picture-taking tour and he would not be stopping for long. Without being able to use the flash (to preserve the cave and its creatures), taking pictures can take a little bit of time. I didn’t want to hold up the group, so I did not get very many. Carlsbad had an audio self-guided tour, so we could go more at our own pace and were able to take more pictures. The monochromatic interior of Mammoth Cave and the lack of copious Stalagmites and Stalagtites left me wanting more. The main plus is that Carlsbad is very desolate and tough to get to, whereas Mammoth Cave is fairly close for many visitors and has a more built-up infrastructure around it. We did see a cave cricket and a bat in Mammoth though, whereas we didn’t see any at Carlsbad (we were a month too late for the bats). Now, to be clear, we saw pictures of different cave features that are supposed to be in Mammoth Cave on postcards and posters, so it may have just been the tour we were on that lacked a lot of cave features.
SAND CAVE HIKE
Mammoth Cave Rating: 3 stars out of 5 (Will liked it the most.)
I double-checked the park’s hours before we left, but when we got there, we were told the house was closing in 10 minutes for a staff meeting and wouldn’t be open until later that morning/early afternoon. We rushed through the house and then spent time in the Visitor Center.
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Nick got his Junior Ranger Badge. They had a neat package for the kids: a bag with the Junior Ranger program booklet, a pencil, a Junior Ranger badge sticker, and a William Howard Taft sticker. Once the booklet was completed, he turned it in to be sworn in and receive the plastic Junior Ranger badge.
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It was neat to see, especially since there is no admission fee for this Historic Site. I think we will go back again when we can spend more time in the house though and really read through everything.
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WHERE: 2038 Auburn Ave, Cincinnati OH 45219
HOURS: Grounds open sunrise to sunset. House/Visitor Center open daily 8:30am-4:30pm. (Some limited hours/holiday closures)
PARKING: Yes (small sized lot)
TIME RECOMMENDED: 30 minutes+
COVID RESTRICTIONS: Masks Optional (as of March 2022)
*Details correct at the time of posting, but please double check before you go.
Although we stayed in Bear Lake, we frequently went into Frankfort, Michigan. Frankfort was about 15 minutes away and was a cute town. There was a grocery store and gas stations near town. The main street had several restaurants, a bookstore, bakeries, and a neat beach area with a lighthouse. We found a Little Library and a Little Art Library.
There were several ice cream places in town as well, and the two we tried were both good. The bagels from L’Chayim were delicious, the ice cream cake from Kilwin’s was amazing (but expensive), and The Bookstore was fun to explore.
On Nick and Mom Day, we walked the jetty to the lighthouse. It was very foggy and you couldn’t see the lighthouse from the shore when we started. We spent some time on the beach at the swings. After telling Ben about the fun things at the beach, we all headed there the next clear day. The benches and swings all face the Lake! There were also a few sand volleyball nets. Restrooms were near the parking lot. It was a great place to relax. You could swim there, and some people were, but the water was too cold for us.
Frankfort was a nice walking town. If you are in the area, I would check it out!
We picked the Sleeping Bear Point Trail to hike in the park. It was listed as a moderate trail, but less strenuous than the Dune Hill Climb. It was a 2.8 mile trail loop. We did the trail clockwise, as the app stated that it was a little easier that way.
We started in a grassy forest type of area. I would wear long socks or stay in the middle of the trail, as there was poison ivy along most of that part of the trail.
We did see some great views of the water along the hike. One of the reasons we picked this trail was the “ghost forest”. The dunes shift and over time the trees that become covered in sand will die. There were a handful of trees, but not what I would think of a forest.
Hiking on sand is no joke! We were all pretty tired at the end, but the kids of course had a lot more energy. If you take this hike, bring water, a hat, and sunscreen. Once you leave the tree area, there is no shade.
This was the last National Park on our current route. The name of the park seems sweet, but it is a horribly sad tale. I read two different versions. A mother and her cubs are forced to flee from wildfire into the Lake and have to swim to the other side. The cubs do not make it. The mother bear lays down waiting for her cubs. The other version is that there was a food shortage, and to keep from starving they had to cross the lake. The cubs do not make it. The two small islands pop up as monuments for the cubs.
The main visitor center, Phillip A Hart Visitor Center, was located in Empire, Michigan. It was not in the park. The park boundaries are actually made of 3 sections of land with towns in between and 2 islands. We drove around the park in a few locations, but only saw a ticket/pass booth at the Dune Climb parking lot.
On our first visit, we drove the Pierce Stocking Scenic Dr. I’m sure it had wonderful views, but all we could see was fog! (It hadn’t been foggy at our campground, about 30 minutes away). There was a small covered bridge that was fun to see.
There were several hiking and bike trails in the park, along with beach areas.
The check-in area was not well laid out for larger RVs. It looks like you used to be able to pull straight forward, but now they have you turn into a parking lot. It has not been redesigned for larger RVs. The campground itself has a pond and a lake. There was a laundry room, a few planned activities, a basketball hoop, Snack Shack, putt-putt, playground, and a pool. Fishing was allowed in the pond and lake, but no swimming. The lake by the office had boats available for use. There were also horseshoes and a small baseball diamond.
The laundry room had a lot of machines. There was no change machine, but I was able to get change at the office. Washers were $1.75/load, dryers were $1.50.
The Snack Shack had some ice cream products, shaved ice, and some drinks. It was only open on the weekends when we were there.
Our hotspot and phones worked…kind of. If it was cloudy we lost a lot of reception on all 3 networks. Some spots were better than others in the park for getting a signal. We ended up buying the campground WiFi for the week ($19.95). Phone calls seemed ok for the most part, but internet was definitely spotty.
The campground did have a lot of nice amenities. The boys really enjoyed the putt putt and basketball hoop. It was a nice destination campground and there were grocery stores within a 20-30 minute drive. Cleveland was about an hour drive and Cuyahoga Valley National Park was also about an hour drive.
NOTE: The campground was included in our Thousand Trails membership, but charged us a 50 amp fee at check-in (not stated ahead of time).