I felt my shoulders loosen on the drive down. When I got out of the car at the tiny house I’d rented for the weekend, I tilted my head back, looked up at the trees and exhaled, long and slow.
“It’s worth it,” I said when I voluntarily heaved myself out of bed at 4:45 a.m. on a Saturday. I’d spent a week deliberating, talking myself in and out of hiking Old Rag and then, finally, in a fit of decisiveness, I stopped making excuses and decided to just fucking do it.
Old Rag is one of the most popular hikes in Virginia. It’s 9ish miles, depending on how you hike it, there’s a 1.5 mile rock scramble I’d been repeatedly warned about and it’s listed as hard or very strenuous, depending on your reference. I was, to be completely honest, a little afraid of Old Rag. The National Park Service says it’s the most dangerous hike in Shenandoah National Park and that was enough to give me pause, enough for me to question whether hiking it by myself was the right choice.
I really, really needed this trip. I needed to get out of town, to put on my pack and walk into the woods. I needed to spend a few hours in the car, music up and windows down. I needed to be alone in the woods, to take myself to dinner, to drink new beers, to catch up with one of my oldest friends. I just needed to go.
Two days after being released from the clawed paws of the U.S. Army, I visited my first National Park unit of the year, in New York City, and then spent the rest of the year dreaming of future park visits, driving across Virginia to visit close-to-home parks and generally annoying nearly everyone with my incessant National Park chatter.
It was a good year, at least for National Park adventuring.
2017’s NATIONAL PARK ADVENTURES
1. THEODORE ROOSEVELT BIRTHPLACE NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
Jan. 16, 2017, in New York, New York
I always knew Teddy Roosevelt was a badass, but this park added a bit of depth to his legend.
2. JEAN LAFITTE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK & PRESERVE
Feb. 9, 2017, in New Orleans, Louisiana
This visit almost doesn’t count, as we just had enough time to visit the park’s visitor center in the French Quarter.
3. CHATTANOOGA NATIONAL MILITARY PARK
Feb. 10, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tennessse
While driving from Houston, Texas, back to Richmond, my travel companion and I pit-stopped here for some military history and, later, some top-notch BBQ.
4. GOLDEN GATE NATIONAL RECREATION AREA
Feb. 18, 2017, in San Francisco, California
Golden Gate National Recreation Area is one of the largest urban national parks in the world and includes around 25 different locations, spread throughout the city of San Francisco and into Marin and San Mateo counties. One of my favorites is Alcatraz Island, which was the only part of the park I visited on this trip.
5. CABRILLO NATIONAL MONUMENT
Feb. 22, 2017, in San Diego, California
This was my first trip to San Diego and other than meeting some seals in La Jolla and eating tacos for almost every single meal, tide pooling at Cabrillo National Monument was my favorite part.
6. FORT MONROE NATIONAL MONUMENT
Jul. 23, 2017, in Hampton, Virginia
Nicknamed “Freedom’s Fortress,” Fort Monroe was a bastion of freedom for enslaved blacks during the American Civil War.
7. CEDAR CREEK & BELLE GROVE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
Jul. 31, 2017, in Middletown, Virginia
I pit-stopped at Cedar Creek on my way to West Virginia for work and managed to arrive just in time for a ranger-led tour. It was just me, the ranger and a retired couple and was probably the height of this year’s national park nerdery.
8. HARPERS FERRY NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
Aug. 2, 2017, in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia
On the way back from West Virginia I stopped here to explore the place where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers come together and to learn a little more about the history of the place.
9. MAGGIE WALKER NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
Aug. 19, 2017, in Richmond, Virginia
I took friends from Washington, D.C., here, to the park closest to my home.
10. MANASSAS NATIONAL BATTLEFIELD PARK
Sept. 3, 2017, in Manassas, Virginia
One of the first major battles of the American Civil War was fought at Manassas, with tragic and occasionally ridiculous results.
11. GEORGE WASHINGTON BIRTHPLACE NATIONAL MONUMENT
Sept. 16, 2017, in Colonial Beach, Virginia
George Washington was born in what is today Virginia’s Northern Neck. It’s a beautiful spot, but the sheep are exceptionally unfriendly.
APPOMATTOX COURT HOUSE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK
Turns out, tide pools are found on rocky sea shores. They’re covered with water during high tide, but when the tide goes out, separate little pools are created. The real draw here is the sea critters who live in these pools. There’s all sorts of things, crabs and anemones, snails and barnacles, even lobsters and the occasional octopus. With the tide low, you get little glimpses into their usually hidden sea creature worlds.
You’ve got two options when you head down the tide pooling path at Cabrillo – left or right.
First, we went left and the area was mobbed with screaming children and their parents, who had already annoyed us nearly to the point of confrontation in the parking lot. They could not understand the concept of car pooling, and it was soccer mom mayhem as they blocked the road in an attempt to take the parking lot by force. But still, we went down to the water and said hello to some crabs and poked at a few anemones. After the 34th child screamed in terror or exhilaration or whatever the fuck it is that makes eight year olds scream so damn much, we went back up the trail and headed to the right.
The right side of the trail is definitely more of an adventure. It winds up the hill and around some cliffs and then heads back down to the cliff-ridden seashore. It was, however, blissfully, majestically free of screaming children. In fact, seeing as it’s a bit of circuitous journey to get over there, we were mostly alone. We did not see any lobster or any octopuses, but we did meet a lot of crabs and we poked at 50 anemones, give or take, plus a bunch of barnacles and some snails, too. We were also easily distracted by the amazing views. As much as I wanted to meet sea creatures, watching the water smash into the cliffs and admiring the Pacific Ocean proved to be equally enjoyable.
While tide pooling is one of the coolest things to do at Cabrillo, that’s not why it’s a National Monument. It’s a National Monument because, in 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo led the first European expedition to explore the western coast of what is now the United States. He’s believed to have landed at Point Loma’s east shore, near where the park is located today.
Cabrillo died on the expedition, after he shattered a limb in a skirmish with some natives, but his crew kept going. They made it as far north as Oregon, maybe, before they returned to Mexico.
In addition to the tide pools, there’s also a visitor’s center, where nerds like me can get their National Park passport stamps. There’s a gift shop and a series of displays explaining the history of the area and the types of critters found in and around the park. There’s information on the Kumeyaay, the native inhabitants of the area who Cabrillo and his men encountered during their exploration.
The National Monument also includes parts of Fort Rosecrans, built to protect the harbor from enemy warships. Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery is near Cabrillo – we passed it on the drive up – and it’s probably the most beautiful military cemetery I’ve ever seen, with an incredible view of the San Diego Bay.
From Cabrillo, you can see the skyline of San Diego, Coronado, the Naval Air Station and on clear days, Tijuana. Even if you hate sea creatures and history, it’s worth the drive just for the incredible panoramic views.
TIPS FOR VISITING CABRILLO NATIONAL MONUMENT
+ Use the charts on this page to check out the tide schedule. You really want a .7 or lower, but negative tides are the best.
+ Late fall and early winter are the best times to visit. In the summer, low tides happen at night, when the park is closed.
+ You get about a four hour window to visit during low tide – two hours before and two hours after. That’s approximate though. It’s the ocean. It does what it wants.
+ Wear waterproof shoes. You’ll be in parts of the ocean exploring and dry feet are happy feet.
+ Visit the Cabrillo National Monument page for any alerts or closures. If something is closed, it’s closed. Don’t be a dick and don’t disregard park guidance. Seriously. If part of the park is closed, it’s for a reason. Probably for your safety, but also for the safety of the environment the park protects.
Cabrillo National Monument is open from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m daily, tide pool access closes at 4:30 p.m. Admission is $10 per vehicle.
He was deeply interested in conservation and established the United States Forest Service and the Wildlife Refuge system and created five national parks, 18 national monuments, 51 bird reserves, four game preserves, 150 national forests and placed millions of acres under public protection, including the Grand Canyon.
He’s credited with a whole bunch of presidential firsts, too. He was the first to refer to the White House as the White House, the first to travel abroad, the first to host a black man at a White House dinner, the first to fly in an airplane and the first to appoint a Jewish person as a cabinet member. And he was also the first American to win a Nobel Prize.
To me, Teddy Roosevelt always seemed like the OG American badass. He’s the dude who hears about danger and turns around and runs right the fuck for it.
At his birthplace, in New York City, you get to see the other side of Roosevelt, the before to his badass after.
Turns out, he was super asthmatic as a kid, and that pretty much defined his childhood. He’d have super scary asthma attacks in the night that left him feeling like he was being smothered. There wasn’t a cure, but still, he was determined. He worked out, started building muscle and trying to improve his physical fitness and found that physical exertion helped to counteract his asthma.
After a scuffle with some older boys, he got a boxing coach, started participating in bare knuckle boxing matches, and thus, an American badass was born.
The house that Theodore Roosevelt grew up in was built in 1848, purchased by his family in 1854 and he lived there from the time of his birth in 1858 until the family moved uptown in 1872. The original home was actually knocked down in 1916, but when Teddy died in 1919 the lot was bought by the Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association who rebuilt the house, using the row house next door as a model.
The restored home recreates the house as it was in 1865, and Teddy’s two sisters helped with refurbishing the home, along with his widow, Edith.
The Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association and the Roosevelt Memorial Association merged in 1953 to become the Theodore Roosevelt Association and in 1963, the home was donated to the National Park Service, who has cared for it ever since.
The downstairs of Teddy’s birthplace primarily serves as a museum, with various items from his childhood and later life. Upstairs, you get to tour the house as it would have been when he lived there, dim lighting and detailed fabric covered walls and all.
The house is lovely, of course, and being a bit of a history nerd, it’s always neat to see places the way they would have been, but my favorite part was definitely the anecdotes about Teddy Roosevelt, about the kind of kid he was, about how upset the maid would get about all the dead animals he had in the icebox for his taxidermy projects, about the gym he set up for himself to help combat his asthma, about his bare-knuckle boxing matches when he was just a kid.
I guess it’s like getting a glimpse behind the curtain. It’s like humanizing a legend, and I think that’s why I like it. Teddy Roosevelt is this incredible historic figure, but hearing about his antics as a kid and seeing where he grew up makes him seem like an actual person.
NICE TO KNOW
Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site is located at 28 East 20th Street, in New York. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with ranger-led tours available at 10 and 11 a.m., and at 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m. Since the house is pretty small, tours are limited to 15 people and that’s on a first come, first serve basis. The house is closed on Thanksgiving and on Christmas.