Tag Archives: hiking

Mason Neck Park




Our week in Virginia was spent camping near my old stomping grounds of Fort Belvoir, Virginia. This area of the country was the place we called home during my pre-middle school years. I have so many sweet memories of this area.

Living so close to Washington DC meant that when relatives and friends would visit from out of town we would take advantage of the many historic and cultural sites to be seen in DC. Because of the abundance of things to see and do in the heart of Washington DC many visitors don’t realize all there is to see and do outside of the city limits.

Fairfax County was where we spent most of our week exploring and playing. Within a few miles of our campground we had a dozen different state and county parks just waiting to be explored…parks that offered boat rentals, bird watching, biking and hiking trails.

One evening, following Rusty’s day at technology camp, we decided to explore Mason Neck Park. We picked one of the trails that offered a view of both the river and the marshland and headed off.


It was a gorgeous evening and this particular trail offered a spectacular variety of scenery to enjoy.


The boys enjoyed collecting shells along the beach,


And searching for local fauna among the abundance of lush flora.


Snakes, frogs, fish and birds were abundant.


It was fun seeing this experience through my boys’ eyes… So different from how my girls would have navigated this same landscape.


While I took photos, trying to capture even a smidgen of the beauty before me through the flattened lens of a camera, the boys immersed themselves fully in the sensory wash of sights, smells, sounds and textures.



It was such a fun shared experience with my guys and I was glad that we postponed our visit to Mason Neck Park until Rusty could join us in the evening. It made it more fun that he was there. The setting sun brought cooler temperatures and a golden glow to an already magical vista as we finished our hike and headed back to camp for the evening.





Panama Rocks


Years ago Toby and I enjoyed a weekend away for our anniversary. He booked a hotel in western New York near Jamestown. While staying at the hotel a fellow visitor told us about a hidden gem, revered by locals but widely unknown by those outside the area, called Panama Rocks. It was recommended we check out this scenic park before leaving the area so we did and were so glad we did. It was one of the most magical places I had ever seen! 

When Grace and I made plans to visit Jamestown I knew a visit to Panama Rocks was a must, so following our morning at the I Love Lucy museum I told Grace we had one more place to visit while we were in the area, not giving her any clue of the magical world she was about to enter…

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Panama Rocks Scenic Park:  “an enchanting world of towering rocks, deep crevices and passageways, cool, cavernous dens, and small caves.”

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Formations are composed of conglomerate sedimentary rock, according to their website, and extend “about a half a mile and read upwards of 60 feet tall — one of the largest of its kind in the world.”

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There’s not many people in this day and age that aren’t familiar with the J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous trilogy, Lord of the Rings. Most of Tolkien’s well-known story line takes place in the magical setting of Middle Earth, a fictional fantasy world that’s covered in vibrant green landscapes and mythical wonders. If the idea of not being able to visit such whimsical place like this has always broken your heart, then no need to get upset…

We found Middle Earth!

And it is only a 40 minute drive from Erie!

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Operating since 1885, Panama Rocks Scenic Park is touted as one of the best outdoor attractions you’ll find in this area of New York.

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From deep crevices to cavernous dens, there was so much to see and explore in this extraordinary scenic park.

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Not only does the scenic park feature a one-mile long trail that leads visitors to fascinating places, off-trail exploring is also allowed here! Grace and I were able to make our way through passageways and explore crevices that looked like places from out of this world.

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The trail is great for visitors of all ages but does feature moderate inclines and pathways that will take you over the many roots you’ll find exposed throughout the park. (Which adds to the magic but requires watching your step.)

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One of the main reasons that this park is so eye-catching and unique is that the mosses and ferns create a lush scenery amongst such rough formations.

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It really was nothing short of magical and we found ourselves looking for the fairies and gnomes that we knew must call this fantasy land home.

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Pictures just don’t do justice to the awe-inspiring magnificence of this magical park. It really is another world and by far one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

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I was so grateful I was able to share the experience with Grace but we both agreed we must return soon with the entire family so that we can enjoy a day of exploring together in this fairy tale forest.





YSA Campout


In my last post I shared the end of one era of life…

Today I share the beginning of another.

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Grace has just completed her first year of college and as part of that transition she now attends church down in Pittsburgh with other 18-30 year old young adults. She has loved it and has found a great group of friends in the process.

Last weekend we were able to finally meet some of these friends in the flesh… friends that Grace has spoken of with fondness…when the YSA ward had an activity at our home.

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A few months ago Gracie shared that her and two friends were throwing around the idea of a group campout. After getting the ok from their bishop they began planning. The first order of business was finding a location for their campout. Grace asked if we could host the event and planning began.

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In the week leading up to the activity the family pitched in to prepare Patchwork Farm for the onslaught of visitors…

Mulching was completed…(Happy Mother’s Day to me!)

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The bus was cleaned out in preparation for overnight visitors and moved to a more accessible location in the yard.

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In the process of charging the battery Toby discovered this nursery under the hood:


The grass was mowed and the volleyball net was erected,

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And before we knew it Friday had arrived!

Gracie’s friends began showing up around 6:00, with Olivia arriving early to set up her family’s two tents that she graciously shared with the group.


Food for the event arrived soon after that and cutting and dicing for dinner began while Rusty and Tyler got the fire going in preparation for foil dinners.

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By 6:30 the driveway was filling up with vehicles.

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Friends continued to file in as dinner was served and games commenced.

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Following dinner there was a spiritual devotional offered fireside…

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And then the remainder of the night was spent singing around the fire (accompanied by guitar) and playing night games.

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The next morning a “create your own” oatmeal bar was laid out on the picnic table and everyone got a warm and filling breakfast in their bellies before they headed out for their hike.

Per Gracie’s suggestion, they headed to Buttermilk Falls for their hike.

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This little gem is only minutes from our house but is awesome to experience. Everyone had a good time exploring the waterfall and the climbing rocks that makes this park one of our favorite places to visit.

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When I start to feel sad about a chapter of life coming to a close it is nice to be reminded that new chapters await and they can be equally blessed.

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So grateful Gracie has found this group of friends!

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Custer State Park


Yesterday we spent the afternoon at Custer State Park. Having never been there before, I wasn’t sure what to expect with this stop. It was a $20.00 entrance fee since our America the Beautiful park pass didn’t cover the entrance fee since this was a state park rather than a national park. We hoped the visit would be worth the entrance fee.

I think I sometimes find myself believing state parks to be sub-par to national parks. They are the parks that didn’t make the cut, and weren’t epic enough to make the list of National parks…second string players, so to speak. And sometimes this can be the case, but it certainly wasn’t the case for Custer State Park.

It was one of the most beautiful parks we have ever visited, national or state.

There is nothing ordinary about Custer State Park. It was the first state park in South Dakota and is the largest state park in the state.  

As we entered this spectacular reserve, it took only minutes for the enchantment to beguile our senses. The towering pines sheltering the roadway, the gentle, flowing creeks, the massive granite outcroppings- was nature at its most bewitching.

And taking center stage in this transcendent landscape was one of the most powerful icons of the American West- the bison- shouldering his way into view, unchallenged master of this wild world.

The bison, or buffalo, is the official logo of Custer State Park and its main claim to fame as a wildlife refuge.

The story of the buffalo is a tragic one. Once 30-60 million strong, herds of buffalo covered the lands of the west in the 1700s. By the end of the 1800s they had dwindled down to fewer than 1000 and were in danger of extinction.

But the story doesn’t end there. Preservation measures began soon after with laws passed to protect the buffalo of Yellowstone National Park. At Custer State Park the conservation efforts began as well and now they find themselves home to the second largest buffalo herd in the country, 1300 strong, with around 400 new babies born to the herd each spring.

At the front gate we were directed to head first to the visitor’s center. We were told that there we would be directed which way to drive to see the buffalo herd according to where the park rangers had spotted them that day…

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Found them!

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We needn’t go any further than the visitor’s center. How convenient. They had the buffalo there waiting for us!

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 The huge bulls knew they had the right away and we were thrilled with the up close views as they ambled across the road, bringing traffic to a halt. Walking with the cows were a sprinkling of spring calves that were a thrill to watch.

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It was unreal.

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The sight of those majestic creatures so close to the car took my breath away. The kids were shaking with excitement and Toby and I looked at each other and declared the experience worth every bit of that $20.00!

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And that was only the beginning!

Once we made our way through the sea of bison we parked in the lot of the newly built visitor’s center. Opened only since May of this year, this building, and the interactive exhibits inside, were wonderful.

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The exhibits revolved mainly on the icon of the park…the American Buffalo. Here the boys approach a buffalo virtually and get to see the signs of danger and the warnings to look for before the buffalo charges.


At this station everyone stepped on the scale to see how the combined weight of our family measured up to the weight of a buffalo.

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Then we headed into the theatre to watch a wonderful 20-minute film about the park and the buffalo. It was entitled, “Spirit of Tatanka” and was narrated by Kevin Costner.

From there we left to drive Wildlife Loop Road, where we spotted more buffalo, prairie dogs, deer, and antelope.

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Then we came across an unexpected animal…

An unexpected, interesting critter that was waiting to make our acquaintance- the park’s burros…

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better known as the infamous begging burros.

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These burros originated from a herd that once hauled visitors to the top of Harney Peak. When the ride was discontinued years ago, the burros were released into the park and have become a popular visitor attraction.

These panhandlers stop traffic along the Wildlife Loop Road and are without a doubt the most photographed animals in the park.

Luckily I had read about the famous begging burros and came prepared for the experience, having packed an extra bag of carrots in the cooler.


As soon as we pulled up they were at the windows looking for a handout.

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We then parked and got out of the car so all the kids could have a chance to feed the burros.

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They were so sweet and friendly.

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Ozzie lovingly squeezed one around the neck saying, “He’s just like my best friend, George.” (My parents’ donkey)

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Once we had exhausted our carrot supply we were back in the car. We left Wildlife Loop Road and headed UP, towards higher elevations to see the other site Custer State Park is known for: the granite needles.


Towering high above the park are awesome granite spires, surrounded by tall pines. The views are spectacular but to get to those views we had to head up, up, up.


It was knowing about this drive that made us consider renting a car. The drive up to the spires consists of a narrow road, with hairpin turns, and steep cliff drop offs. There is no way the bus could have made it,

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Especially with three of these tunnels, cut out of the granite boulders, that had to be passed through to reach the top.

There is no way the bus would have fit. It was quite the harrowing drive,

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But boy was it worth it!

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Check out these views!

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Unreal, right?!

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At the top of Custer State Park, at 6, 145 feet, is Sylvan Lake. The reward for that drive is this view:

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I don’t know that I have ever been in a prettier place.

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We walked around the lake and allowed the kids to climb on the granite boulders and explore the cracks and crevices.

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Toby joined them.

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It was a magical place and we could have spent hours hiking and exploring but, alas, we had a dinner reservation to get to, so after an hour of exploring, we climbed back in the car for the ride back down the mountain.

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Pictures truly can’t do justice to the magnificence of Custer State Park. If you ever have the opportunity to visit, don’t hesitate, don’t question… just go!

 You’ll be glad you did!

Logging miles


Three more weeks until we start rolling across the country. This month, while Toby, Molly, and Rusty, have been working on my sister’s garage in Michigan, the boys, Grace and I have been preparing for our trip. We have established a routine that works for the little boys and has helped cut down on harder days.

In the mornings we tackle tasks on the vacation prep to-do list, work of preparations for the house sitter that will be staying at the house while we are gone, do house/yard chores, and complete summertime school work.

One of the BIG to-do items we got crossed off the list this week was getting our menu for the trip figured out and creating a master shopping list that can be used for weekly grocery shopping as we travel along.


I also was able to assemble the freezer meals that we will use for many of our crock pot dinners as we travel. I made 30 freezer meals to fill the freezer of the bus so that meal time is a bit easier on vacation.

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Then when our chores are done we pack a lunch and head out in the afternoon to enjoy our pool pass. But before we take our picnic to the pool we go walking/hiking. We are trying to build up everyone’s endurance with daily walks in preparation for hiking at many of the national parks we will be touring. The Michigan crew is walking daily up there and we are fitting in a walk each day before we swim at the pool, increasing our time/distance each day. The pool is the cool reward after working up a sweat.

We have tried a variety of walking paths and hiking areas around the area but this week we have been hiking the path at Ellwood City park that runs along the river behind the pool. It is a BEAUTIFUL hiking trail! The shade trees keep the walk a bit cooler and the boys love stepping off the path for a little rock climbing and exploring.

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We are getting stronger and faster and I can see the conditioning working as the boys’ endurance and staying power increases.

After our walk we then spend a few hours at the pool enjoying the pool pass my parents graciously bought us.

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The sun and the swimming wear the boys out, making for easier evenings and smoother bedtimes. Since Grace is now 18 she gets to join me in the pool for adult swim (offered the last 10 minutes of each hour)where we enjoy relaxing and floating while the boys sit and eat their lunch.

Grace and I have also enjoyed our adult evenings. Around 8:30 each night we call Toby on his cell phone and put it on speaker phone so we can have some family time before bed. Talking to Toby brings Tyler enough peace and security that he is able to go to bed without being paralyzed with fear, and it is nice for the Michigan crew to catch up on our news and visa versa. We do our evening devotional and have a night time prayer before hanging up. Then the boys get tucked into bed and Grace and I get some “grown up time” together. Grace has stepped into the role of co-parent while Toby has been gone and as a result has experienced all the work and fun that come with that role. In particular the wonderful feeling of freedom and celebration that comes when the boys are tucked into bed for the night and the adults can sit, watch non- cartoon shows, and pull out the good snacks that are hidden from the kids.

Bedtime is the best time of the day!

We have enjoyed our evenings together watching chick flicks and working our way through the “Call the Midwives” series while doing crafts together. It has been a really special time for Grace and I.

This weekend Toby, Molly and Rusty come home for the weekend and we can’t wait to see them! We are going on a final camping run to work out any last kinks with the bus before our big road trip.


Great Falls National Park


“And the air is full of the roar

And the thunderous voice of waters.” IMG_5930 (2)

One of our excursions while in Washington DC was to Great Falls Park.

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Mimi Joy took us to this National Park five years ago on our way to Thanksgiving in Virginia and we were so impressed that we wanted to visit again and take the two little boys.

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We began on the Virginia side of the falls. Here we began our visit in the visitor’s center where we learned more about the history of the gorge, the falls, and the canals that were built here under George Washington’ presidency.

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While the Virginia side is pretty, it is nothing compared to the Maryland side of

“The Niagara of the South.”

So next we drove 20 minutes around the gorge, crossing the Potomac river, to get to the opposite side of the falls.

It is here you can see the locks of the original canal system built during the late 1700’s.

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The scenery was breathtaking (even with the muddy waters caused by recent heavy rains.)

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The walk out to main falls took us along wooden foot paths and over a series of smaller falls.

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We finally reached the main falls.

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Here we took pictures of the big kids in the same spot

they were in 5 years earlier when we visited.

kids at falls

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Now all the kids…

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As we stood looking over the falls it was hard to believe we were only minutes away from a major metropolis. We felt like we were tucked into the deep wilderness,

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not outside the nation’s capital.

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It truly was “Breath-Taking!”


“There is pleasure in the pathless woods.

There is rapture in the lonely shore.

There is society where none intrudes.

By the deep sea and music in its roar.

I love not man the less

But nature more.”

– Lord Byron

Buttermilk Falls


On Saturday morning Toby and Rusty bundled up in preparation for a really cold morning. The temperature hovered around the 0 degree mark and they had a hike to prepare for. They packed water and trail mix and then Toby went out to warm up the truck. They were meeting the boys from Rusty’s boy scout troop for a hike. Toby, as an assistant scout master, was also going.

The planned hike was changed from its original location to Buttermilk Falls. Buttermilk Falls is a little hidden gem that is located not too far from our house. The trail is not a long one but it is really beautiful. It ends at a waterfall that you can explore and walk behind, making it a favorite with my kids.  As a family we have hiked it and experienced its beauty in the summer, spring and autumn months, but we have never explored it in the winter.

I sent my camera with Toby and asked him to get some pictures. I had no idea how breathtaking those pictures would be.

When Toby and Rusty arrived they met up with three other leaders. Unfortunately no other boys could make it, but that didn’t deter them from having a good time.

The hike was pretty…the falls were magical. Here is a glimpse of the views the boys enjoyed on their winter hike…

Walking the trail to Buttermilk Falls.

Walking the trail to Buttermilk Falls.

Getting closer...

Getting closer…

The falls were frozen, creating a beautiful ice creation.

The falls were frozen, creating a beautiful ice creation.

Matt climbing the falls.

Matt climbing the falls.

Rusty climbing...

Rusty climbing…

My handsome boy scout.

My handsome boy scout.

The rock formations were equally fun to climb.

The rock formations were equally fun to climb.

The view from above.

The view from above.


The view from behind the falls.

The view from behind the falls.


The beauty of God's creation...enjoyed by a group of guys, out for a hike, on a cold Saturday morning, in Western Pennsylvania. :)

The beauty of God’s creation…enjoyed by a group of guys, out for a hike, on a cold Saturday morning, in Western Pennsylvania.  🙂