“Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit.” – Frank Borman
Time spent traveling is something that we both find meaningful and worthwhile. Journeying farther than our comfort zone, and immersing ourselves in all the beautiful views and culture around, feeds our souls. The feelings of anticipation the days and weeks that lead up to the trip were mind-blowing. Not only was this going to be our maiden cross-state voyage on our way to Florida, this was also a new lifestyle, and our honeymoon! Almost a week of travel and we have driven through four different states along the eastern coast: Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina.
We set off last Tuesday with the trailer in tow towards Harper’s Ferry National Park, a historic small town and surrounding areas located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. On a New Year’s trip to D.C. last year we had stopped at this spot before. While the weather had been mild last winter, our visit was rushed and we really only got a small taste of the area. Several small self-pay parking areas line the roadways and there are two information centers in this national park. One is located in the Lower Town area and the other a little farther outside the town limits. Derek and I opted to take advantage of the large parking lot at Cavalier Heights Visitor Center. The national park offers a shuttle service that begins running at 9 am daily that will drive visitors to various locations around the park. We decided to hike down into town so we could take Boone along on the adventure.
The Visitor’s Center to Lower Town Trail is a 1.6 mile trail leading right into Lower Town. At one point along the trail there is a set of 97 gorgeous stone stairs that help to navigate steep terrain and small waterfalls to the left. Boone had to check out the chilly swimming hole and dry off on the rest of the hike. At the base of the ravine the trail crosses Shoreline Drive. The trail and road run parallel, we had to make sure to keep the pup on a short leash! Wetlands run along the opposite side of the trail and we were able to spot a few turtles and heron while walking. Also along the way are historic relics of years gone by including old factories, mills, and house foundations from the Civil War era. Derek and I explored the ruins of the Shenandoah Pulp Mill and what is left of the Shenandoah Canal.
Upon making it into town Derek took Boone to sniff around the area while I visited the bookshop and visitor’s center to snag a stamp or two for our National Parks Passport book. We met again down by the river to take in the sparkling rush of water. Then ventured back to Shenandoah St. where the bookshop and a variety of other historic exhibits and buildings line the road. Eventually we turned up Potomac St., another popular spot with a few exhibits along the way. Potomac is also great for tiny shops and tasty eateries. My sweet tooth is always calling, True Treats Historic Candy was one of my favorite shops in town. To enter I walked down a few knobby old stone stairs into the basement shop where candies were sorted by decade going back to the mid-1900s. I had no idea that I was about the experience the nation’s only research-based candy store! Each product has been researched and sourced by experts of the time period, and each label tells the exact history of the sweet treat you are holding. Derek and I continued to meander around Lower Town for awhile to take in the history, then headed back along the river to the visitor’s center.
Harper’s Ferry is steeped in history and accompanied with beautiful scenery. Thomas Jefferson even noted its beauty upon visiting the area. He is quoted saying, “The passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature.” Jefferson Rock, where Thomas Jefferson took in this natural beauty, is another popular viewing point in Harper’s Ferry. The rock is located along the Appalachian Trail and displays, what we hear is, a breathtaking view of the mountains and rivers. It is on our list of things to do next time we go through the area!
After getting back to our trailer at the visitor’s center we checked the hitch and got on the road. Our stop for the night was at Hollywood Casino, in Charles Town, WV. During our research, Derek and I found that casinos are a great place to set down your wheels for a night, or even a few. Behind the west parking garage there was a separate parking lot with long pull-through spots. Several other trailers, RVs, and tractor trailers were already settled in when we arrived. Once the pets were comfortable, we hit up the penny slots! Even though we weren’t big winners this trip to the casino, we still had a great time! We explored different theme rooms around the casino and drank all the free soda we could handle.
Early the next morning we set our sights on Cedar Creek and Belle Grove National Historical Park. The park, located in Virginia, was created to protect and preserve the site of the Civil War Battle of Cedar Creek and Belle Grove Plantation. Most of the battlefield is privately owned and not accessible to the public, but the national park does offer a variety of tours including a self-guided driving tour of the battlefield by public road. Partner sites that pre-date the national park, offer programs at Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation Headquarters, Belle Grove Plantation, and Hupp’s Hill Civil War Park. A visitor’s center was also added to the park, located in Middleton, VA.
Our day was rainy and dreary outside, we must have been a little too sleepy and missed the visitor’s center to the park. We continued down the road to the Cedar Creek Battlefield Foundation Headquarters to grab a park map and cancellation for our passport. Here we learned how spread out the park was, and decided to pick and choose locations based on parking for the trailer. A brochure detailing the self-guided driving tour specifically states that it is not suggested for RVs or trailers. Inside the foundation headquarters, we discovered an informational exhibit about the Battle of Cedar Creek as well as intricately made period clothing and hats mostly sewn by the women running the foundation headquarters. Derek and I were sad to learn we were missing a huge reenactment of the battle by just a few days. A couple thousand reenactors along with horses would participate! Next, we headed to Belle Grove Plantation. We chose not to tour the house and instead enjoy the liquid sunshine while Boone stretched his legs. The plantation grounds contain several exhibits about the property.
Wanting a little break from the rainy weather, Derek and I rode toward our next camping spot in George Washington National Forest to cozy up for the night. Rain dripped heavily down bright and burnt leaves as we winded through the forest. The small creek was swollen with cascading waterfalls gushing down the hillside. Freecampsites.net lead us to Little Fort Campground near Woodstock, VA. Little Fort is a primitive camp, with no hookups or water available. Site #1 was great for our 24 foot trailer, and some spots were better suited for tents or vans. The campground is one of several located near the largest complex of OHV trails in Virginia. A simple, yet effective, check-in system welcomed us as we pulled up to the 11 spots. After finding an opening and parking, we simply went back to the check-in and flipped the washer on our site number from green to red.
The weather outside was perfect for making soup and I had a recipe I was excited to try out. Derek and I set up camp and I settled into slow cooking a chicken and mushroom wild rice soup. I have to pause here to tell you how thrilled I was to cook with wine… that I bought at Aldi ... for under $3. For those of you who aren’t from Pennsylvania you might not know that alcohol laws are just starting to lax a bit there. It wasn’t until the last few years beer or wine was available for purchase outside a state store or distributor. The convenience of buying wine at a grocery store, and not even having to go to a different register, was awesome! As I cooked and Derek explored the area the weather continued to cool off. We had no service, but knew we were in for a cold night. Bundled up and dining on soup we chatted about a trail Derek had spotted close to our campsite. We finished dinner, prepared to watch movies in our blanket fort, and planned to take the trail to Woodstock Tower in the morning.
Man was it cooooooold that night! Because we were dry camping, running the furnace all night wasn’t really a viable option. That could potentially drain our batteries past a point of comfort. Getting out the generator for one night seemed silly. Derek and I decided to bundle up and make plans once we got service and saw the weather. We stayed bundled and plodded to the trailhead near camp. We hiked to an intersection where we found a map of the trail system and continued upward. The trail was rocky and difficult to navigate at some points, but we made it to the crest of the hill. Here the trail ran along a ridge surrounded by rock formations and led to the Woodstock Tower. It was incredibly windy at the base of the tower, I was happy that each of us had windbreakers when we started our climb! Built in 1935, the historical structure offered stunning views of the Seven Bends in the Shenandoah River.
Packing and hitching up was an easy decision once Derek and I saw the weather forecast for the area; it was going to get colder, much colder, over the next few days. We also checked out the weather for Asheville, NC where we had planned to stop next. Even. Colder. There. We wanted to move further south to warmer weather. Editing our plans a tiny bit took us toward the barrier islands, Outer Banks in North Carolina. It was into the afternoon once the trailer was all hitched up, and we had a long drive ahead of us.
About five or six hours into the tow, we were getting tired and needed a place to stop for the night. Dismal Swamp Canal Welcome Center became our oasis for the evening. The rest area had 24 hour restrooms, vending, a visitor’s center, ample parking, and a 150 foot dock for boaters to enjoy the area too. The coolest amenity was the Dismal Swamp Canal State Park entrance just feet away from our trailer. The swamp is one of the largest pieces of undeveloped land in the eastern U.S. The dangerously inhospitable features of the land lend to create a unique blend of history. Currently the park boasts 20 miles of trails, a boardwalk with exhibits of wetland ecology, and an interpretive museum.
The next morning we set out with Boone as soon as the state park opened. The friendly ranger provided us with a map and let us cross the canal bridge. Not far from the entrance to the park were bathrooms and an information center. We continued just past, and entered the boardwalk. Butterflies flitted by and the swamp became alive with a chorus of creatures as we navigated the figure-eight boardwalk. After our short walk, we went to the trailer to grab bikes, and head back into the park. Canal Trail was our first choice and we rode down its sandy path finding treasures along the way, the first being a distillery replica. Farther along we saw a replica of a lighter boat used to transport cedar shingles and rustled up a few white-tailed deer. If there had been more time we may have even chosen to take the Canal Trail the entire way into the nearby town.
Well rested and energized by the beautiful morning, we were ready to continue driving to the Outer Banks. On the drive reservations for Cape Point Campground in Cape Hatteras National Seashore were made. We entered the Outer Banks about halfway down the islands and stopped in Kitty Hawk. Kitty Hawk is credited as the site of the first flight and made famous after the Wright Brothers made their first flight at Kill Devil Hills, four miles south. While some people may know Kitty Hawk for it’s flight history, Derek and I will remember it as our first look at the ocean during this adventure. We had to stop, dip our toes in the sand, and take in an ocean view. Boone had never seen the beach before. The verdict is out on how he feels, but I bet he won’t be trying to drink salt water any time soon. In Kitty Hawk we also had the opportunity to meet up with some of Derek’s family. Hurricane Mo’s was a cute little beachy bar with a great happy hour! We visited and snacked on buffalo wings, tacos, and shrimp. Once on the road again we scooted along to Wright Brothers National Memorial for a quick look at the first flights. Then we jumped onto Route 12, a gorgeous scenic byway that leads down the barrier islands.
We were surrounded by picturesque sand dunes and ocean waves cruising the highway. Small beach towns sprinkled the shores every so often then Route 12 would shrink to quiet wilderness once again. Ocean bridges stretched across mirror-like water. Derek and I pulled into Cape Point Campground minutes before dark. There was plenty of choice in our spot, and we followed one rangers tip to look for a site with higher elevation. Sunset lit up the sky with brilliant oranges and red. With nightfall came the metered and sweeping flash of light. We realized just how close Hatteras Lighthouse was to camp! A nighttime bike ride felt in order and we rode to the nearest beach for a little stargazing. The stars were out and shining bright; it felt like you could see through the depths of the Milky Way. As we gazed up, I couldn’t help but feel very grateful to be exactly where I was in that moment.
Derek woke up to watch the sunrise and we got an early start to our day exploring the lower barrier islands. Hatteras Lighthouse was just minutes down the road, and our first stop. While we could tour the lighthouse grounds and museum, climbing the lighthouse was closed for all lighthouses in Cape Hatteras National Seashore for the season. On the plus side, Boone was able to come with us to enjoy each of the parks. We ventured down to the beach where the lighthouse originally sat before it’s big move in 1999. (Click here to see an award winning film about the move, suggested to us by one of the park rangers!) Shells and driftwood were collected while Boone splashed around.
Traveling all the way down Route 12 to the location of Ocracoke Island ferry, we stopped to explore. The ferry is currently only open to locals while hurricane damage is being repaired. We took a tour of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum to learn about Blackbeard and his precious Queen Anne’s Revenge. The museum also had maritime exhibits from throughout history in the Outer Banks. My favorite part of the experience was a look into the museum’s restoration room. All sorts of treasures from the sea were on display. Heading northbound we window shopped at a handful of beachy stores and souvenir shops; it just wouldn’t be a trip to the beach without some of those! I used a lot of self control while perusing the Life is Good merch, and found a great book shop! Buxton Village Books was one of the warmest and inviting little cottages. It felt like home as you snaked your way through each room. Artists sold jewelry and hand knitted items, and there was also a healthy section for local myths as well as flora and fauna. I could have spent all day sitting between stacks in that cozy little place!
Driving past Hatteras Lighthouse we continued north all the way through Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge until we reached Bodie Island. On the island is a visitor’s center, Bodie Lighthouse, and a great boardwalk that leads to a covered gazebo. The view from this gazebo is two-fold. One direction shows a unique view of Bodie Lighthouse, while the other is a display of natural beauty. While we visited the park a family had taken up one corner of the gazebo to draw and paint for the day with a picnic. It was incredible to see children from three to thirteen so engaged together, and each tackling their own artistic challenges. On the way back to camp we made sure to stop in Avon, a town that Derek’s mom had lived in. Derek and I made sure to check the weather forecasts and NOAA before we reached Cape Point Campground. We had heard whisperings all day that Tropical Storm Nestor could hit the islands with high winds, causing flooding. While the storm had been dissipating throughout the day, there was still a chance Route 12 could be shut down due to standing water. We didn’t want to get stuck in the lower barrier islands, as beautiful as they are, and we certainly didn't want to be stranded if the storm did indeed pick up speed again.
Once we made it back to the park, we hitched up and started driving toward Croatan National Forest. As we drove into the night, I began to find us a place to stay along our route for when we got tired. In the end we stayed at a very nice Walmart for the night. The parking lot was incredibly flat and we found a spot tucked away on the side. Instead of risking going to a new spot at night we waited it out, which paid off. We woke up the next morning ready to go, and drove about 30 minutes to our destination in Croatan National Forest. Our newest camping spot is surrounded by pine forests, bogs and raised swamps called pocosins. There was another family camping for the weekend when we arrived, but currently just Derek, myself, and the animals are here.
The journey is just beginning and we have already seen so much, and discussed a few places we need to head back to see again! For about two more weeks we are going to travel down the east coast to our Disney destination. Follow along with us here on the blog to see what we’re up to next. Stay in touch and follow along by liking, subscribing, following... on whatever social media platform you use.
Until next time,
The Tie Dye Travelers