Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Deal of the Year: Shenandoah National Park (Cedar Run-White Oak Canyon and Hawksbill Peak)

In an earlier post, I mentioned that we've been taking advantage of Travelzoo, Groupon and Living Social deals this summer as a way of trying new activities and restaurants, while simultaneously saving money doing so.  We scored some fantastic deals--the trip to Mountain Lake Lodge, a family white water rafting outing on the James River and a romantic dinner for two at Pescados.  But the best deal of all, turned out to be a Living Social special for the Skyland Resort in Shenandoah National Park.  The Living Social deal was $75, which included one night's lodging in a premiere room at Skyland Resort as well as a bottle of wine, two glasses, two tickets for Luray Caverns and the gourmet, breakfast buffet.  (Note:  I priced these items individually--the room rate is $165, admission to Luray Caverns is $24 p/p and the breakfast buffet is $14 p/p.)  In all, we got over $330 worth of services and products, as well as two days of family fun, for $75 (plus the cost of dinner & gas).  Needless to say, this was too good a deal to pass up!

This photo of the Skyland Resort came from

So Bob, the kids and I packed up Scarlett (our red-hot minivan :-)) and headed for the mountains.  We decided to do one of my all-time favorite hikes in Shenandoah National Park, the Cedar Run - White Oak Canyon Loop, before checking into the lodge.  Bob and the kids had never done this hike before and I was excited for them, because I knew they were in for a real treat.  The Cedar Run-White Oak Canyon loop is a very strenuous, 8.5 mile hike, but it is also stunningly beautiful.  There are at least 9 huge waterfalls and dozens of smaller ones along the route.  Check out: for more info. 

We began our hike at the Cedar Run trail head on Skyline Drive and proceeded to descend 2,500 feet along side a gorgeous stream.

Fortunately, due to a very wet summer here in Virginia, the stream was flowing fast.  Along the way, we saw dozens of falls, rapids and swimming holes.  However, it was an unusually cool day--with a high of 65 degrees in July--so it was too brisk to take advantage of the swimming holes.


Connor and Mikaela have climbed Old Rag before, which is a more famous, 8+ mile hike in Shenandoah Nat'l Park, but personally, I think Cedar Run-White Oak Canyon is a more difficult and an even more beautiful hike than Old Rag.  It may not have the views that Old Rag has at the summit, but on the other hand, just about the the entire hike is gorgeous.

This hike doesn't have "summit views" so to speak, but every so often, we'd manage to catch a glimpse of the surrounding mountains.

When we got to the bottom of the mountain, we crossed the stream, hopped onto a one mile connector trail and then began the long trek back up the mountain, this time via White Oak Canyon.

In my opinion, White Oak Canyon is definitely one of the most beautiful trails in the Park.  It's full of big rock walls,

and even bigger water falls.

The coolest thing about our hike wasn't the dozens of waterfalls we saw, but rather, it was the fact that we saw 4 bears!!!  Towards the end of our hike, we came across a sow and two cubs and then about a mile later, we came across a large male bear who was pawing at logs on the ground.  What a fantastic experience for us all!

After our hike, we checked into the lodge.  Ironically, since they didn't have our wine ready when we arrived, the manager gave us 2 more free tickets to Luray Caverns (which saved us $48!).   (Umm, I think we could have waited an hour to get our "fine" white table wine, but thank you very much!)

We ate a hearty dinner at the lodge and then went to our room.  The Skyland Lodge isn't the Ritz, but the rooms were very clean and comfortable (w/nice linens) and they all had gorgeous views.

The next morning we awoke and took advantage of the gourmet breakfast buffet.  I must have eaten at least $10 worth of fresh blackberries myself (yummers!).  After that, it was time to hit the trail again--this time we climbed to the summit of Hawksbill Peak, the highest point in Shenandoah NP.

Compared to the previous day's hike, this 4 mile loop hike was literally (and figuratively) a "walk in the park."

We climbed the mountain and stopped along the way to take in the views.

At one stop along the way, Connor took out his poetry journal and began to write.  Most of you who know Connor would be shocked to discover that he loves to write poems...but he does.  This past year in our homeschool co-op, Connor had two amazing teachers--Jeanne and Tara, who ignited in him a passion for all things written.  (I can't thank them enough)

When we got to the summit, both Connor and Mikaela made themselves comfortable, whipped out books from their backpacks (I didn't even know they were carrying) and spent an hour or so enjoying the view and reading.  Bob also got very comfortable and took a nap and I just sat there, with a big grin on my face, taking it all in.

Next up was a 45 minute drive to visit the Luray Caverns. 

Luray Caverns is one of the largest commercial caves in the world and despite the fact the cave gets tens of thousands of visitors annually, it is simply stunning. The cavern tour consists of a 1.25 mile hike on an underground trail which winds its way through a "forest" of stalactites and stalagmites. 

My photos don't even begin to show how beautiful and spectacular it was.  Many of the cave's features began forming more than 4 million years ago and some of them were 10 stories tall!  All four of us really enjoyed seeing the caverns and we couldn't help but imagine what it must have been like to have been the person who discovered them. 

After our visit to Luray Caverns, it was time to head home.  We were tired, but extraordinarily content and amazed at just what a great deal we lucked into! It was even a better deal because we didn't have to pay for it.  My parents bought it for themselves, but ran out of time to use it before it was going to expire, so they gave it to us.  Thanks Mom and Dad for a wonderful mini-vacation.  We enjoyed ourselves immensely.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Rockets and Robots

Earlier this summer, Mikaela attended GEMS (Girls in Engineering, Math and Science), which was a one week camp held at the Governor's Academy for Engineering Studies in the neighboring county.  

She really enjoyed it and got to do everything from learn how to program robots, to measure the strength of chicken bones, to tour VCU's School of Engineering.  By the week's end, not only was she considering becoming an engineer, she was also very motivated to get more involved in robotics.

Connor on the other hand, has long been interested in robotics and one of his very favorite hobbies from day one has been "building things."

Bob saw these interests as the perfect opportunity to share his knowledge and experience with his kids as well as allow them to spend time together doing something they all enjoy.   I probably should mention that Bob is a mechanical engineer who teaches high school physics and runs the Engineering Specialty Center.  He has also been coaching high school FIRST robotics teams for the past 7 or 8 years. 

Bob came up with the idea of putting together "Rockets and Robots", a terrific, week-long camp that was held at our house.  Each day, Connor, Mikaela and five of their friends spent 7-8 hours with Bob, learning about physics, engineering and robotics.  They did lots of experiments, built rockets and robots, learned how to use CAD software and even took a field trip to a retired engineer's house.

On the first day of camp, Bob taught them all of Newton's Laws via hands on experiments.  For example, his first experiment involved having each participant lie on a bed of nails.  Bob then placed a cinder block on each of their chests and swung at it with a sledge hammer in order to break it.  Needless to say, the kids were pretty unsure about the whole idea, so Connor volunteered to go first.

Kerby was up next, but was clearly not convinced that Newton's First Law really worked.

They also did a number of other experiments, all of which were pretty darn fun!

During the course of the week, the kids each built a small rocket.  The Team America Rocketry Challenge's competition rockets are much larger and go hundreds of feet in the air as well as carry a payload.  However, the Estes kit rockets were a great intro and the kids really enjoyed launching them.

This picture below totally cracks me up.  We launched the rockets in our pasture and it's obvious that both Fannie Mae (my pet donkey) and Zeke (our dog), weren't too crazy with the blast off.



Bob also had the kids download a computer program called RockSim, which is a CAD program they are using to design their competition rockets.  


The last couple of days of camp were devoted to learning about the VEX robots and this year's challenge.  They broke down the robot into various components.  For example, the kids learned about different types of lift mechanisms and then spent several hours designing and building them.

 Connor and Kerby were tasked to design a chassis capable of going over "speed bump" type obstacles.

Connor loved it and long after camp was over, he was still building experimental lift mechanisms and testing out chassis designs.


Bob also built in time in the schedule for the kids to have time to hang out/goof around during lunch and go swimming at the end of each day.

The camp was a blast and the kids really had a lot of fun.  In fact, so much so they subsequently gained one new team mate.  The eight of them are going to spend Tuesday afternoons with Bob during this upcoming school year.  He's generously volunteered to coach homeschool VEX and Rocketry competition teams.  They're excited...and so am I--it's something very cool and educational for them to do that entails no work from me.  Yay! :-)

Here are some links with information about each of these programs: - VEX Info Game Site - This year's VEX challenge - Rocket Contest Info

History Field Trips

Several years ago, I was invited to speak at the Organization of Virginia Homeschoolers' Annual Conference.  The topic I chose to speak about was fieldtrips, particularly History fieldtrips.  (One of the many reasons I homeschool Connor and Mikaela is because I want them to receive a very experiential education so consequently, we take fieldtrips 2-4 times a month.)  At the end of my presentation, I gave a hand-out to participants listing numerous history field trip ideas for homeschoolers in Virginia.  I was recently contacted by several people and asked if I could redistribute the list.  I thought I'd just post it on my blog, so anyone could access it.

We have visited the majority of these places, so if you have any questions, just ask.  Also, if the site has a homeschool day/week that I'm aware of, I posted that as well.  I highly recommend going during that day because the museums tend to go "all out" and entry fees are SIGNIFICANTLY reduced.  I hope you find these trip ideas useful.

U.S HISTORY:   In terms of U.S. History—it doesn't get any better than living in VA for studying this topic!

  • Jamestown—(Homeschooler Week 2x/Year)
  • Colonial Williamsburg—(Homeschooler Week 2x/year)
  • Henricus Historical Park—Re-enactment of 1611 Colonial Village (Chesterfield County, VA)

  • Mount Vernon (George Washington’s Home—Alexandria:  Has Homeschool Day)
  • Monticello (Thomas Jefferson – Charlottesville:  Has Homeschool Day)
  • Poplar Forest (Thomas Jefferson—Lynchburg, VA)
  • Ash Lawn (James Monroe’s Home—Charlottesville)
  • Montpelier (James and Dolly Madison's home – Orange, VA:  Very Homeschool friendly)
  • Gunston Hall (George Mason’s home, Mason Neck, VA)
  • Scotchtown (Patrick Henry’s House—Hanover, VA)
  • Saint John’s Church in Richmond, VA:  Twice a year they do a re-enactment of the Second Virginia Congress and Patrick Henry’s Speech.  The one around Veteran’s Day is free to the public.
  • U.S. Archives (Constitution and U.S. Declaration of Independence)
  • Battersea Revolutionary War Re-enactment (Battersea Plantation—Petersburg, VA)
  • Yorktown Victory Center:  Has homeschool day and some great educational programs
  • James River Plantations in Charles City County (Shirley, Kittiewan, etc...)

  • Frontier Culture Museum, Staunton, VA:  Has a number of Farms from the 1800’s (African, English, Irish, German, and American) and a great homeschool day program.
  • Fort McHenry (Star Spangled Banner – Baltimore, MD:  War of 1812)
  • Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center (under construction in Charlottesville)
  • Slave Trail Reenactments, Richmond VA (offered through Richmond Park and Rec)
  • Booker T. Washington National Monument, Franklin County, VA
  • Berekley Plantation, Charles City County (William Henry Harrison’s Home/Plantation Life) 


  • American Civil War Center, Richmond, VA  (They offer some great homeschool programs.  We particularly enjoyed the Bohemian Brigades and Civil War Weaponry/Cannons)
  • Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, VA
  • White House of the Confederacy
  • Civil War Re-enactment (Battlefield State Historical Park, New Market, VA)
  • Appomattox Courthouse—(End of Civil War, Appomattox, VA)  We had a fantastic visit here--our guide was exceptional and we wound up staying 4+ hours.
  • Manassas, Richmond and/or Petersburg National Battlefields
  • Harper’s Ferry (We did the night-time ghost walking tour which was very good--the kids loved it and swore they saw a ghost.  :-))
  • Antietam Battlefield, MD (Mike Dudash is a biologist and avid historian who offers a unique paddling trip through the battlefield.  Contact him at (240) 675-2711)
  • National Museum of Civil War Medicine
  • Gettysburg, PA
  • Ghosts of Gettysburg Candlelight Tour (Sleepy Hollow Tours)
  • Gettysbike (offers bicycle tours of battlefield—we did this and our guide Bob was fantastic) 

  • Maymont Mansion, Richmond, VA (Great local example of America’s Gilded Age)
  • Holocaust Museums (Richmond and DC)  The Richmond Holocaust Museum is a little known gem that is a fantastic museum/learning experience.
  • Woodrow Wilson’s Home, Staunton, VA
  • National D-Day Memorial, Bedford, VA
  • Vietnam Foundation and Museum, Ruckersville, VA (It's extraordinarily hands on and the tours are given by Vietnam Vets)

  • Smithsonian Museum of American History
  • Smithsonian American Indian Museum (great restaurant/food)
  • Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum
  • Smithsonian African American History and Culture Museum
  • Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery
  • Walking tour of Memorials and Monuments in Washington DC
  • Mariner’s Museum, Hampton Roads, VA:  Has a Fabulous Homeschoolers Day as well as special exhibits/programs on Civil War Ironclads
  • Nauticus, Norfolk, VA:  Home of the Battleship Wisconsin
  • U.S. Spy Museum, DC (We did the spy in the city program which was very fun!)
  • Virginia Historical Society and Museum, Richmond, VA
  • U.S. Library of Congress (my favorite building in D.C. )
  • Newseum, Washington, DC
  • Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA (Gorgeous cemetery with the tombs of several presidents.  Again, Richmond’s Valentine History museum offers a great walking tour.)
  • Arlington Cemetery
  • Valentine History Museum, Richmond, VA
  • Paramount Theater in Charlottesville offers several history-based performances each year.  They are extremely homeschool friendly and reasonably priced.  POC:  Cathy Von Storch


  • Fossil Hunting at both York River State Park and Westmoreland State Park (we’ve been to both and enjoyed them immensely.  York River has more fossils and they are easier to find, but Westmoreland is fun because the kids get to dig in the sand and along sand cliffs.) 

  • Valentine History Museum’s Walk with the Ancients (Ancient Greece, Rome and Egyptian) and Neoclassical Architecture Program, Richmond, VA.  (They are both great programs and to this day, my kids can't help shout out what type of columns they see.)

  • Medieval Times, Ann Arundel, MD (The kids LOVED this)
  • Renaissance Festivals (Maryland’s Rennfest and Virginia’s Renaissance Festival at Lake Anna)
  • Agecroft Hall, Richmond, VA is an actual 15th century Tudor estate on the James River. When it fell into disrepair in England, it was sold at auction, dismantled, crated, and shipped across the Atlantic, and then painstakingly reassembled.  Every summer Richmond Shakespeare puts on performances at the mansion.
  • American Shakespeare Center, Staunton, VA offers great teaching performances for students.

 Civics/U.S. Government:
  • White House tour (not providing them currently)
  • U.S. Capitol tour
  • U.S. Supreme Court tour and if you time it right, you can hear a case (check their website)
  • National Archives Museum, DC
  • Library of Congress tour (my favorite building in D.C.)
  • Pentagon Tour
  • VA State Capitol Tour (The Valentine History Museum offers a Great Walking Tour)

Resources for Ideas:
  • Teaching with Historic Places ( is hosted by the National Park Service and has some great lesson plans)
  • Journey Through Hallowed Ground (Gettysburg through Montpelier):
If anyone has any other ideas or suggestions, please leave me a note in the comments section and I'll add them in.  Also, I have write-ups on many of these places on this blog and moreso on my previous blog (

Saturday, August 10, 2013

We have another Teen!

The day after Mikaela turned 13, Connor became a teenager as well (they are my "virtual twins").

I have to say, it wasn't too difficult for me to imagine Connor going from this,

to this:

After all, from day one, Connor has been a happy-go-lucky, bundle-of-energy with a Carpe Diem personality!  And I have to say, it's been immensely rewarding watching him develop into a kind-hearted, bright, funny, creative and athletic young man.

Unlike his sister, Connor wasn't very interested in getting a cell phone for his birthday.  Instead, he wanted to share a variety of experiences as a family.  Fortunately, we were able to use Groupon, Living Social and Travelzoo to score some really great deals.  For instance, on the day of his birthday, we got a groupon for all 4 of us to go bowling.  Additionally, one of his B-Day gifts was another Groupon--2 for 1 tickets to Kings Dominion which he and his Dad will be going to later this week.  Their goal is to ride every single roller coaster and water slide.

But the best deal of all, was a timely Travelzoo special.  Several days after his B-Day, Connor and I were home alone.  Bob was in Portland, Oregon taking a week long bicycle mechanics class at the United Bike Institute (my Christmas present to him) and Mikaela was at a 5 night, sleepaway Vacation Bible School with her friend Nadia.  Connor and I wanted to do something special together and we were in the process of planning a backpacking trip along Virginia's Triple Crown.  However, the day before we were going to leave, I got a Travelzoo deal in my inbox that looked too good to pass up.  It was a special  rate for Mountain Lake Lodge in Pembroke, VA. Basically, the special rate was $99/night which also included a $50 food voucher and a $50 adventure activity voucher.  I wound up purchasing two of them and so for $198, we had 3 days of fun in the mountains--as well as $100 in food vouchers and $100 to spend on adventure activities.  Off we went!

Mountain Lake Lodge is located in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains about 30 minutes from Virginia Tech.  It's a family resort and it's most famous for being the location where they filmed the movie Dirty Dancing.  However, Mountain Lake Lodge is wisely trying hard to shed the Dirty Dancing image and instead become a major adventure destination in Southwest Virginia.  As such, they have built 23 miles of hiking/ mountain bike trails on their property as well as constructed a brand new aerial adventure course.

Connor and I opted to use our adventure vouchers to do the Treetops Aerial Adventure Course.   The course had 20 different obstacles and ziplines and we had a total blast.

Next up was a hike on the Appalachian Trail to Wind Rock, a scenic outcropping that overlooks Jefferson National Forest. (The AT runs through Mountain Lake's property)

We also went swimming, soaked in the hot tub and played outdoor checkers with life size pieces,

and when it rained, we went into the "barn" and played many a game of ping pong, pool and air hockey.

Much to my delight, Connor has become a strong mountain biker in the past few years, so of course we explored a number of the trails, which were VERY fun and "flowy."

I love being able to share my passion for mountain biking with my son!

One of the highlights of our trip was a relatively short, 4 mile (r/t) hike we took on the Cascades National Recreation Trail in Jefferson National Forest.


The Cascades trail is very popular because it's not only breathtakingly gorgeous, it's also artfully constructed, with over 2 miles of well placed rocks.  

It rained most of the time we were hiking, but we didn't mind because it kept other hikers to a minimum.

Virginia has had an incredible amount of rain this summer, so everything was extraordinarily green and lush.

Water was everywhere--it was literally running down the trail as well as running down the sides of the mountains.

At the top of the trail was a beautiful 69 foot waterfall with the perfect swimming hole at the base.  (This was just one of the many swimming holes we passed along the way.)

Connor and I had a phenomenal time together and he must have thanked me half a dozen times for taking him on this adventure.  As we were driving home, I realized that this may have been the first time that he and I had spent more than 24 hours together, just the two of us.  I also came to the realization, that we definitely need to do this more often. When I think about how quickly the past 11 years have flown by, I get a pit in my stomach because I know that the next six are going to zoom by even faster.  I want to savor these remaining days together and work hard to create memories that will last us all a lifetime.