Owen just returned from a few weeks of sleep away camp, and this is our week to hang out together, as Sasha is busy with Adventure Theatre acting camp, and he doesn’t begin Camp Arena Stage until next week. We spent yesterday at Purse State Park with friends, wandering the shoreline hunting for fossils, picnicking on the beach, and swimming in the Potomac (the kids did, anyway).
A lovely view of the Potomac
We first visited Purse a couple of years ago after my friend Jody heard from a paleontologist at the Natural History Museum that it was a great place to search for fossilized shark teeth and other prehistoric marine life remnants. It’s one of the best adventure tips I’ve received for KFDC — we love visiting and always come home with a good haul of fossil finds, occasionally with some pretty interesting pieces. In fact, yesterday Jody found a very rare pygmy white shark tooth (confirmed on The Fossil Forum)!
Jody’s rare pygmy white shark tooth
You can read more about the locale in Charles County, MD, in this post, which also has logistics for visiting. If you like a little adventure in your beach outing, this is a perfect place to go; it’s actually more about fossil hunting than beaching, but there is sand and surf to enjoy during the warm months — just be sure to check the tide table to make sure there is enough sand! Get a look at it all in these scenes from yesterday.
Fallen trees add some obstacles (and climbing ops for kids)
The squish of toes in the sand
Crouch anywhere by the water, and you’re bound to find a fossil
More swimming than fossil hunting by these kids – they were so happy the water was warm enough!
Fossilized shells embedded in the cliffside
Can’t beat a beach picnic!
Not the usual wildlife you expect to see at the beach
Sightings of these little guys are more common
Another friendly critter
I always bring a container with a hole in the lid to stash my finds
Over Spring Break we spent a wonderful few days at a farm near Shenanoah in Sperryville, VA. It was a great family escape from the city in a beautiful location convenient to a variety of activities and attractions.
A quick glimpse of our farm stay… I’ll post more about this another time!
On the cavern tour
One of those places was Luray Caverns, the largest cavern system in the eastern part of the country and a designated U.S. Natural Landmark. It was a perfect outing on a rainy day during our getaway, though it was not our first visit there. Levi and I had been before we even had kids, and I took Owen and Sasha when they were much younger — Sasha was still a baby, and Owen just four years old — before they could really appreciate the magnificence of it all. This trip, however, we were all enormously impressed by the underground world of stalagmites and stalactites, some up to 10 stories high and all of them creating quite a breathtaking scene.
A guided walking tour through the caverns lasted about 90 minutes and was very informative. We learned about the discovery of the caverns by a group of men in 1878 when a cold rush of air from a sinkhole blew out their candle. The guide explained how the limestone, specifically calcite, formations began developing millions of years ago. She also pointed out interesting features of the different stalagmites and stalactites — many of them are named for unique characteristics.
Breathtaking formations everywhere
The enchanting Dream Lake
One of our favorites was Dream Lake, a cluster of stalactites reflected into an 18-inch deep pool of water below, but giving the illusion of an expanse of stalagmites. There’s also the Great Stalagpipe Organ, which is fashioned with special attachments that make it play music. A “cascade” of formations creates Titania’s Veil. And the Fish Market was named for what it resembles, fish hanging in a row from the top of a market stall.
You can also toss money into the Wishing Well, which is drained every year, and the money donated to medical research, educational grants, and other charities. Thousands of dollars are contributed annually, and a sign shows how much has been given to each cause — more than a million dollars total so far.
Making a wish
Look up! Stalactites hanging from above
The entire tour through the caverns is just over a mile, and while there are some stairs (steep ones in the beginning and end), strollers are allowed. However, it’s not wheelchair accessible. And something important to know: There are no bathrooms in the caverns, so it’s a good idea to stop at the restrooms before starting a tour.
The descent into the earth
And while the underground sights are the main attraction, there’s more to see and do at Luray Caverns that’s included in admission. The Luray Valley Museum offers a glimpse into the history of the Shenandoah Valley. The Car & Carriage Caravan is a great showcase of historic transportation, with early horse and buggies, bicycles, the first cars and all kinds of old automobile models. In Toy Town Junction, you can see a collection of old toys. For extra costs, there’s also a gem mining area, a fun maze to follow, and a small ropes course for a little extra adventure.
Sweet ride, dude
Luray Caverns is about a two-hour drive from DC, perfect for a day-trip, but also great to include in a Shenandoah escape, like we did. It’s open daily starting at 9am, and the last tour departs at 7pm from June 15 – Labor Day, 6pm from April 1 to June 14 and Day after Labor Day to October 31, 4pm November 1 to March 31 (5pm weekends). Admission for the caverns is $32/adults, $16/ages 6-12, free for ages 5 and under. Extra costs are The Gem Sluice ($8, $12, and $30 options), Maze ($10/adult, $8/ages 6-12), and Rope Adventure Park ($11/over 48″, $8/under 48″). [Note: Some of these extras may not be open during Covid.]
Given the many, many years I’ve lived in DC and the frequency that we visit Baltimore, it’s kind of surprising I’d never been to Fort McHenry until recently. That’s not for lack of talking about going, though. I can’t count the number of times over the years that Levi and I drove nearby or through the tunnel bearing its name and remarked about wanting to go — starting before we even had children.
O, say can you see…my kids having a sweet moment?!
All that talk finally came to fruition when we made a trip to the national monument with the kids a few week ago. The site of the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812 and birthplace of the Star Spangled Banner, Fort McHenry makes for a very interesting, informative, and enjoyable outing for all ages.
There are all kinds of engaging exhibits both in the Visitors Center and throughout the grounds, from historical objects and structures to multimedia displays and interactives. We started at the Visitors Center, where we paid admission ($10/adult) and got a good background about the site from several exhibits. One of the kids’ and my favorites was a video featuring various artists performing the Star Spangled Banner (Whitney Houston’s Super Bowl rendition the best by far, of course.) There is also a 10-minute film depicting the history of Fort McHenry that is a must-see, with a little surprise at the end that I found very moving.
With more knowledge of Fort McHenry, including details about defeating the British in battle in 1814 and the waving American flag that inspired the National Anthem, we headed outside to explore the actual fort. Having more insight into the history undoubtedly enhanced the tour, especially for the kids, since they had a better understanding of the site’s significance and could actually place what they’d just learned where they now were.
Many original structures remain at the fort and are open for exploration. In fact, most of the barracks and officer’s quarters now contain exhibits, some of them recreating what the spaces would have looked like back then, others displaying artifacts, and even more highlighting interesting aspects of the fort’s history. In one of them you can see the cross brace of the flag pole that hoisted the original star spangled banner. Along with the barracks, there are several underground areas, like prison cells and shelters, which the kids enjoyed exploring.
Cannons sit at the forefront of it all, the guns aimed at the Chesapeake. You can walk along the bastion and take in the same view the soldiers did over two hundred years ago. What was once a battle scene is now a nice Baltimore vista. And if you look back at the fort, you’ll see the flag waving in the wind above.
You can explore it all on a self-guided tour or join a Ranger Talk offered at 2:30pm this time of year. Other programs such as drill, musket, and artillery demonstrations by the Fort McHenry Guard occur seasonally, so it’s worth checking the website to see what might be on the schedule before you go. And you can help with the flag changes that take place twice a day.
Fort McHenry is located in the Locust Hill neighborhood of Baltimore. It’s open daily, with exceptions of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day. Park hours are 9am – 5pm, and the fort and Visitors Center closes at 4:45pm. Admission is $15/adult, free for children 15 and under. Free parking is available in a lot. You could also make an adventure of getting there and take a Water Taxi from the Inner Harbor. 2021 Update: The Visitor Center is open, and restrooms are accessible, but exhibits are currently closed.