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.
After I wrote about a few recent hikes in Shenandoah National Park, Kate left a comment asking if I’d consider writing about my hiking gear, if I had any specific recommendations for someone interested in embarking on a forest scamper.
At first I giggled. I’m a native forest creature, yes, a girl raised by wolves who ran barefoot through the wildness nearly every day of my youth, but hiking still feels like a new hobby. I’m still acquiring stuff to make my hikes more comfortable, more enjoyable and that will allow me to go further and deeper into the wild. When I read her comment, I felt wholly unprepared to offer any sort of advice.
I’ve had an assortment of finance-related conversations with my lady friends in the last few months. We’ve talked about how much money we’re making, how much debt we’re carrying, how much we’re spending on life essentials, like rent, food and random Sephora purchases. We’ve talked about how we do and don’t budget, if and how we’re saving for retirement and I’ve found it refreshing, this open conversation on money.
“Hello, I’m here to see the big waterfall,” is the thing I wanted to say to the customs agent after walking from America to Canada via the Rainbow International Bridge over the Niagara River. But, in the moment, I was stunned by the attractiveness of the Canadian border agent and how friendly he seemed as he reached out his paw to take my passport.
Shenandoah is, in a way, my home park. I was born in the mountains that it protects and I grew up driving up and down the Skyline Drive, but I think I took it for granted and, as a kid, I was restricted to whatever the adults wanted to do, which mostly wasn’t hiking. Plus, I’m a very different sort of explorer than I was growing up, and so, I’ve promised myself I’ll be better about visiting Shenandoah this year, that I’ll hike more and explore and just do more.
When I first planned this adventure, way back in February, my aim was to see waterfalls. After some brief internet investigating, I decided to follow the advice of Hiking Upward and hike a 6.6 mile loop that started from the Brown’s Gap parking area and included part of the Appalachian Trail, the Jones Run Trail and the Doyles River Trail, which is also listed here as the Browns Gap Hike.
the APPALACHIAN TRAIL
The Appalachian Trail is a 2,200 mile public footpath that follows the Appalachian Mountains from Maine all the way to Georgia. Finished in 1937, it was built by private citizens and today is managed by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, a bunch of state agencies and thousands of volunteers. It’s a National Scenic Trail and, along it’s many miles, it winds through a total of nine states.
More than 500 miles of the A.T. goes through Virginia, including 104 miles that cuts through Shenandoah National Park. Secretly, I want to hike all of those miles, but on this particular adventure, I settled for starting my hike with 1.4 miles of the A.T, which I picked up on the other side of the Skyline Drive from the parking lot at Brown’s Gap.
The A.T. is white-blazed and easy to follow and I spent the mile and a half of my hike along the A.T. thinking that yes, this whole hiking thing is a thing I want to do more of and maybe I might even be convinced to carry a bunch of shit on my back across many, many miles just for the chance to go further and deeper into the wild.
the JONES RUN TRAIL
From the A.T., I turned left to head downhill on the blue-blazed Jones Run Trail and, after following Jones Run for a while, I hit the first set of falls after 1.6 miles, followed by the main falls in another tenth of a mile.
I can’t explain the magic of waterfalls. There’s a draw there, obviously, or people wouldn’t trek miles and miles just to catch a glimpse of one.
After the waterfalls, I followed the trail for just over half a mile as it ran alongside and then crossed Jones Run. Shortly after the crossing, I turned left and headed up-hill and away from Jones Run onto blue-blazed Doyles River Trail.
the DOYLES RIVER TRAIL
In the past few years I have finally figured out my travel style. I like to plan. In fact, I fucking love to plan. I like reading reviews and figuring out which hike I’m going to attempt or where I’m going to drink a beer afterwards. But mostly, I’m just gathering knowledge. I don’t map out my days. I don’t plan down to the minute. I like a little bit of a rough outline that lets me efficiently explore a place while knowing the best places to grab a beer or a taco or a plate of nachos.
Part of learning my travel style has included implementing some changes and that’s what I’ve listed below, the things that have made travel easier and better, in both big and small ways.
I’ve always been a list-maker. It’s a thing that I do. And I’ve always made lists when traveling, but they’ve changed over time.
When I went to Paris for my 27th birthday, I wrote a list of more than ten things I wanted to see and do and experience while I was there. The trip was short – just a few days – but I gave zero fucks and slammed as much as I possibly could into my itinerary. I ran from place to place checking each spot off my list and then, when it was over, I was exhausted.
I don’t do that anymore. I still compile a big list because, no matter where I go, there’s always a lot to see and do and eat and drink. The difference is that now I take that big list and use it to make a master list of just three to five things. Those are my no-shit, absolutely must-do items, the nonnegotiable sights and experiences that I’d absolutely regret not doing. I still have the first list – the big list – but I don’t use it to guide my trip. Instead, everything I see from that big list counts as a bonus adventure.
The way I pack has definitely changed over the years. I’ve always been well-organized in my packing, but then, I’d get to where I was going and it would all go to shit.
In planning my trip to Italy, I knew packing was going to be a significant life event and that staying organized would be difficult since we were going to switch cities every few days. I scoured the internet for packing tips and ended up buying some travel cubes.
After a few test runs, I fell in love. I usually use one for shirts, one for my running gear (including shoes), one for my smaller clothing items, like bras and underwear, and then one more for dirty laundry. I usually leave jackets and pants outside of a cube, since they’re easy to find in a small suitcase on their own.
In addition to keeping my suitcase organized, the travel cubes also make unpacking easier and less tedious. There’s a bag for dirty laundry and then I just put away anything I didn’t wear or that got washed along the way.
In New Mexico, I visited my two favorite parks on the same day. I started at Valles Caldera, arriving just after the gates opened at 8 a.m., snagged a pass to drive the preserve’s bumpy, pocked road and then let myself go. I danced in the middle of the road, sang at the top of my lungs and howled at the mountains, streams and fields. Then, I went to Bandelier National Monument to put myself back together.
Bandelier is very different from Valles Caldera. It is more established, with screaming children, confused tourists, a snack shop and a large gift store, all contained within the visitors center compound. At Valles Caldera, there’s a ranger station with a few t-shirts and magnets for sale and little else. I relished the solitude I found at Valles Caldera, but I wasn’t without it at Bandelier.
Due to limited parking, summer visits to Bandelier require visitors to ride a shuttle into the park between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., so I, being a sassy asshole, waited until 3 p.m. to enter the park. I stopped first in the visitor center where a very patient and kind volunteer was on the phone trying to explain all the park had to offer to what was a decidedly confused tourist. From there, I set out on the Main Loop Trail, the park’s most popular and accessible trail.
The Main Loop Trail is just 1.2 miles long, well-maintained and partially-paved with a few narrow stairways and ladders along the route that allows visitors the opportunity to climb into cavates, or small human-carved alcoves that once served as homes of the Ancestral Pueblo People who carved the cavates between 1150 and 1600 A.D.
I was there in early October, late in the afternoon, and the trail was somewhat crowded. I waited at the bottom of each ladder for my turn to climb into the cavates, standing there sheepishly while couples and kids climbed the ladders, posed for a kiss or a goofy look. At first, I felt silly taking my own turn in these spaces while groups waited for me to finish my own experience. But I wanted my own turn to climb the ladder, to peer out at the canyon floor and the ruins of the civilization and it occurred to me, as I squatted in one of the cavates that my enjoyment of the place and my right to experience it was not diminished just because I was alone.
While the Main Loop Trail provided an excellent introduction to Bandelier National Monument, the real magic came later, when I started on the half-mile trail to the Alcove House.
For starters, I met a tarantula.
The Alcove House sits 140 above the canyon floor and was once home to around 25 Ancestral Pueblo People. It’s accessible via four wooden ladders and a handful of stone steps.
I climbed up and up and up and again I was surprised at how difficult the effort felt. I’d been in New Mexico for a few days at that point but the elevation – around 7,000 feet above sea level – was still kicking my ass.
Plus, ladders are sort of scary.
At the top, there was one other group loudly exclaiming over the view. I took a group photo of them when they asked and then they headed back down, their chatter disappearing almost as soon as they did, and then I was alone, standing 140 feet up in an alcove that someone used to call home before America was even a thing.
I could see people on the trail below me and I knew I wasn’t really alone, knew that there were surely other guests making their way up the ladders to the Alcove, but for those few minutes, I felt alone in the best sort of way. It’s hard to capture it, that perfect, good sort of alone-ness. It isn’t lonely, not at all. It just feels right, like you’re there, alone, exactly as you should be.
As I left the park and headed back to my Airbnb llama farm in Santa Fe, I decided I hadn’t had enough. I wanted more of Bandelier. So, I woke up early the next morning and trekked back out there, before the sun was even up. I didn’t go back to the main part of the park. Instead, I went to Tsankawi, located about 12 miles before the main entrance right on State Highway 4. There’s a parking lot there and a 1.5-mile loop trail that opens at dawn.
Tsankawi, like the other sites at Bandelier National Monument, was home to Ancestral Pueblo People and was probably inhabited from the 15th century to the late 16th century. The trail there follows an ancient path, one worn by hundreds of years of foot traffic. It winds up to the top of a mesa, past a few cavates and over the ruined remains of hundreds of pieces of pottery.
At Tsankawi, I was completely alone and it seemed astounding to me that in our busy and complex world I could still stand in the middle of a hundreds-year-old footpath carved by the bare and sandaled feet of a people who lived there while Christopher Columbus was sailing around and getting lost. I stopped on the top of the mesa, trying to imagine what the village could have looked like, scouring the ground to look at pottery fragments, trying to imagine the bustle of a long-gone community.
I thought, going out there, that it would feel haunted, but it didn’t, not in a spooky way. It felt alive still, like the ground still remembered what life there was like, like the spirit of the place was still very much alive and present.
Bandelier National Monument is open dawn to dusk and the visitors center is open 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Backcountry camping and exploring is available with a permit. Admission to Bandelier National Monument is $20 per vehicle and that pass is good for a full seven days. If you’re planning to visit a few National Parks in a year, consider purchasing an annual pass for $80 which will grant you access to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites, or, if you’re a member of the military, pick up your free annual pass.
Alcatraz Island is just one piece of Golden Gate National Recreational Area. In total, the GGNRA includes around 25 National Park Service-administered sites spread across San Francisco and Marin and San Mateo Counties.
To get to Alcatraz Island, you have to take a ferry. It’s a short ride, with indoor and outdoor seating. It offers incredible views of both Alcatraz Island and the San Francisco skyline and occasionally, on clear days, the Golden Gate Bridge. The ferry has snacks, including wine, beer and soft pretzels, but anything you purchase, other than water, must be consumed on board the boat as no food or drink is allowed on the island.
Once you get to Alcatraz Island, a park ranger gives a brief rundown of the rules, mostly that no food is allowed, not to wander off the marked paths and when the last boat of the day leaves, along with an overview of what there is to see and do on the island, where the bathrooms are and where to get water. After that, they send you off on your adventure, to wander the prison island known as “The Rock.”
Once you make your way up the hill, past the old officer’s quarters and gun positions, you’ll come to the prison. There, staff will ask your language and hand you an audio device with headphones and then you’re free to tour the prison at your own pace.
The tour is narrated by former prisoners and guards. They recount what it was like to live and work there, what some of the more infamous inmates, like Al Capone, were like, what solitary confinement was like and how lonely it was on New Year’s Eve, when prisoners could hear the sounds of revelers welcoming in the new year on boats outside their island prison. As the story is told, the narrator directs you through different parts of the prison, down different prison blocks, through the mess hall, into the offices where prison staff worked.
You get a lot of stories on the tour, a lot of details about significant events at the prison, but my favorite is the 1962 escape attempt.
Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was designed to house the worst of the worst, the prisoners with no hope for rehabilitation and who had caused problems or trouble at other prisons. It was notoriously rough and, allegedly, impossible to escape from, mostly because it’s a rocky island in the middle of the San Francisco Bay.
Still, 14 escape attempts were staged by 36 inmates during the 29 years Alcatraz served as a federal prison. Most were recaptured and six were shot and killed. Two drowned and a few others were never found, but were listed as missing and presumed to have drowned.
In June of 1962, three men – Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin staged an incredible escape. They’d been digging for six months, slowly widening the ventilation duct in their cells with tools that included spoons they’d stolen from the dining facility. They concealed the holes with well-painted cardboard and shook the excess dirt from their pant cuffs during their time outside.
When the time came to escape, each inmate put a papier-mâché-type head on his pillow, well-painted and complete with full heads of hair and eyebrows, made from hair clippings they’d stolen from the floors of the barber shop. They piled towels and clothing on their beds to mimic the shapes of their bodies, snuck out of their self-dug tunnels into a forgotten corridor they’d used as a workshop and gathered their supplies. They’d managed to accumulate around 50 raincoats, which they’d sewn together to make rafts.
From there, the men climbed the ventilation shaft to the roof, slid 50 feet down a kitchen vent, climbed two 12-foot perimeter fences and inflated their rafts when they reached the water. According to tests conducted later, the rafts were so well-made that they would float indefinitely.
Allegedly, the three were heading for Angel Island, some two miles away.
Their escape wasn’t detected until the morning, when a 10-day search was launched. Authorities found a paddle, a wallet that belonged to the Anglin brothers and some shreds of a raincoat, presumably the remnants of a raft. But that’s it. No human remains were ever found and after a 17-year investigation, the FBI closed their case, ruling that the prisoners probably drowned in the cold waters of the San Francisco Bay. The U.S. Marshals didn’t give up so easily, and their case is still open and will remain so until the men are either found or until their 99th birthdays.
Chances are they drowned, but maybe they didn’t. The Anglin brothers were excellent swimmers. In their teens, they spent summers in Michigan, picking cherries with their family and swimming in the lake while ice still floated on the surface.
Over the years there’s been speculation on whether or not the men could have survived, with shows like MythBusters testing the feasibility of their escape.
A few months ago I listened to an episode of the podcast Criminal that talked about the Anglin brothers and their sister, now 82-years-old. She and the rest of the family still believe the brothers are alive, that they survived the escape and made it to Brazil.
Personally, I’m a sucker for a good mystery. There’s a certain amount of magic in the idea that these men escaped the most fearsome prison in America, made their ways to some far away land and are living out their old age in a tropical paradise somewhere.
Outside the prison there’s more to explore. There’s a whole garden club that keeps the vegetation looking lovely and the island is a happy home for a variety of bird friends. There’s a gift shop, too, and a video that goes into the full history of Alcatraz, beyond its use as a federal prison.
Once you’re done exploring, you’re free to leave on any available ferry. Even though the ride is short, I’ve made it a tradition to get a wine on the ride back, to quickly sip as I ponder the possibility of prison escapes.
Alcatraz Island is accessible by commercial ferry at Pier 33 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Tickets go on sale 90 days in advance and have been known to sell out, especially in the summer and during holiday weekends. Tickets range from $37.25 for a day tour to $44.25 for an evening tour, with other tour options and programs available seasonally. Alcatraz is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day.
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
Wolf Trap, as it’s full name suggests, is a venue for the performing arts. It’s an outdoor venue, with its main season running April – October, and it hosts a variety of performers, from musicians to dancers, symphonies to comedians. Wolf Trap’s main stage, the Filene Center, is an amphitheater, with room for 3,800 in-house, including 88 pit seats, plus additional space on the lawn. In total, the Filene Center can accommodate 7,000.
A few times a year, during Wolf Trap’s off-season, the park offers guided tours of the Filene Center. Along the way, you get a glimpse into the dressing rooms and the musician’s lounge, the backstage area and finally, the curtain comes up and you get to stand on a stage that’s hosted performers including Ringo Starr, Ke$ha, Elvis Costello, ZZ Top, Billy Idol and a whole host of Grammy-award-winning performers.
WOLF TRAP’S HISTORY
In 1930, a woman named Catherine Filene Shouse, of the same Filene family who founded Filene’s Basement, started buying up land in an attempt to create for herself a refuge from Washington, D.C. She first purchased 53 acres at $100 an acre and by 1956, she’d acquired 168 acres. She used the property as a working farm where she bred horses and dogs, raised crops and other critters.
Years later, as Northern Virginia grew, development started to make her farm less of a refuge. Mrs. Shouse wanted to preserve her land, to turn it into a cultural landmark. She wanted something uniquely American, but also to create something new.
Mrs. Shouse first approached the National Symphony Orchestra to see if they might be interested in developing her land as a venue. They passed, so she went to the National Park Service, straight to the Secretary of the Interior, and in 1966, she donated 100 acres of her land to the federal government.
Wolf Trap was, essentially, an experiment by the National Park Service. They figured if the whole National Park for the Performing Arts thing worked, they’d build more. But that idea never materialized, despite the success of Wolf Trap over the past 50 years.
At the same time the park was created, a nonprofit, the Wolf Trap Foundation, was founded to assist in running the park. Together, the park and the foundation make Wolf Trap work, with federal dollars paying for grounds maintenance and park staff, and foundation money and support managing the performances.
A few years later, in 1971, the Filene Center hosted it’s inaugural performance, featuring Van Cliburn, Julius Rudel with the New York City Opera, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Choral Arts Society of Washington, the United States Marine Band and the Madison Madrigal Singers.
Then, on April 4, 1982, the Filene Center burned to the ground. It happened in the middle of the night, was likely started by an overheated piece of equipment, and wind gusts helped fuel the fire. Nearby residents reported that dinner plate-sized pieces of ash floated down into their backyards.
After the fire, millions of dollars came in from more than 16,000 donors from 47 states and five foreign countries, and included support from President Ronald Reagan and former Presidents Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.
Despite the fire, the Wolf Trap Foundation said the season would go on, and it did, in a big-ass tent in a nearby meadow, called the Meadow Center.
The new Filene Center opened in 1984 and Mrs. Shouse herself was in attendance to witness the dedication of the new building.
Our tour lasted about an hour and a half and started at the Stage Door, where staff are responsible for getting an autograph from each and every performer who passes by. We learned about the history of the park, about Mrs. Shouse and the first and second Filene Centers. We explored a dressing room, complete with a private outdoor area, and the musician’s lounge, then headed backstage to learn about how the venue works. We learned about the fly system, about the way different parts of the stage are used and moved to accommodate different types of performances, then the park ranger raised the curtain and we headed out onto the stage.
From the stage, the seats feel impossibly close and the view is great. The Filene Center is beautiful, built from Douglas Fir and Southern Yellow Pine and there’s not a bad seat in the house.
Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts is open every day from 7 a.m. to dusk, except on New Years, Thanksgiving and Christmas. In addition to the venues, the park includes several walking trails. For a schedule of upcoming events at Wolf Trap, visit wolftrap.org.