Monday, June 26, 2017

Catoctin Mountain Park, 6/04/2017

Located about 25 miles from the Hagerstown/Antietam KOA in Maryland's Monocacy Valley is Catoctin Mountain Park. In 1935 the Federal government bought 10,000+ acres and created the Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area (RDA) to provide a place for people to reconnect with nature. Forty-six RDAs were created in 24 states around the same time; most became state or national parks.  

Our first stop, as always, was the Visitor Center where we talked to a Ranger about hiking options (there are 25 miles of trails in the park) and picked up a map.

We also spent some time checking out the exhibits that provide information about wildlife in the park as well as some cultural historySettlers first came to the valley in the 1700s and harvested oak and chestnut bark that yielded tannin (was sold to tanneries). When iron was discovered in the area, the Catoctin Iron Furnace (built in 1770) opened and remained in operation 100+ years. Stoves, wheels, rims, cannon, and shot were the primary items manufactured there. Clear cutting for charcoal makingstripping bark, and logging depleted the natural resources in the area. Distilling grain to alcohol also began in the 1700s, and it was the last profitable business in the area. 

Hundreds of local men were hired in the late 1930s by the Works Progress Administration (a New Deal agency) to build picnic areas, cabin camps, and a visitor center. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) workers were brought to the park to return the depleted forests to native hardwood forests. They also built roads, trails, guard rails, shelters, and more until 1941 when the park closed during WWII. It was used as a rehab center for the Navy and a training office for the Office of Strategic Services. 

The area was also used as a retreat by President FDR that he named Shangri-La. President Eisenhower renamed the retreat Camp David (after his grandson). It is, of course, closed to the public and does not appear on any map of the park. 

Our first hike was on the short (.6 mi) Blue Blazes Whiskey Trail. It starts in the parking lot across the street from the Visitor Center. The trail runs along the Blue Blazes Run to a reproduction of of the Blue Blazes Whiskey Still. Brook trout thrive in the creek. 

When the Deputy Sheriff raided the still in 1929, he was fatally wounded in a fight at the still. Two moonshiners were convicted of the crime after conflicting testimony.  When the police found eighteen 500-gallon vats, they realized that it was a large, illegal, commercial operation shipping whiskey to Baltimore, Philadelphia, and NYC. During the prohibition years, the the cost of alcohol rose from $2 to $22 per gallon. 

Our sweet doggie, Sadie, had so much fun on this trail. It was just lovely.

We hopped in the car and drove along Park Central Road to the 4th parking lot. There we picked up the trail that leads to the Blue Ridge Overlook Summit. There are lots of interesting rock formations along the trail through the Eastern hardwood forest to the first overlook.

Lush, green moss blanketed much of the forest floor...beautiful.

We continued along the trail the the next overlook. Trees grow at crazy angles and right on top of rocks!

As we continued on the trail loop we came upon this black snake (about 6') slithering through the forest and over logs. Very cool.

Camping is permitted at the park in campgrounds, cabins, and shelters. Reservations can be made online. Swimming, boating, and fishing is available at Hunting Creek Lake

I had never heard of this park until I checked out the national park service resources when we arrived in Hagerstown. It is a great place to get away from the hustle and bustle of life with both hiking and equestrian trails. For additional information it, go to their website at 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Shenandoah Crossing, May 30 to June 3, 2017

Rating:  5 on a scale of 5

Location: Shenandoah Crossing is a large resort with hotel rooms in lodges, luxury cabins, yurts, and an RV park owned by Bluegreen Vacations (approximately 60 locations). Located in Gordonsville, VA, it is about 40 miles from Shenandoah National Park and north of Charlottesville, VA. 

Lot size: We had a spectacular end lot (#444) on a cement pad with a large sitting area with a built in fire pit, table with seating for 8, gas grill, and our own enclosed hot tub. No question, this is the nicest place we have stayed in our 3+ years of RVing. Near our site was a restroom and free laundry (4 washers/dryers) room. Very convenient! We thoroughly enjoyed the hot tub and enjoyed a soak ever day we were there. Every site was a nice one, but only several of the end lots had hot tubs.

Amenities: Shenandoah Crossing has every amenity you could possibly want including  two outdoor and one indoor poo/hot tub, exercise room, on-site restaurant/bar, horseback riding, Lake Izac for boating/fishing, miniature golf, hiking trails, wilderness tent sites, playgrounds, planned activities for both children and adults, and a general store with food, souvenirs, and grill. 

The Manor House can be reserved for weddings or other special events by members of the Bluegreen Vacation club. Also shown are photos of Izac's Tavern (located at the lodge). 

Cost: We purchased a vacation package at a kiosk in a mall for our stay here. The cost was $199 but we were required to attend a sales presentation (where they try to see you a lifetime vacation package with a point system to be used their various locations in the US or with other companies they partner with internationally). We also were given a $50 gift card when we purchased the package as well as another $75 gift card after we attended the sales presentation. We were tempted, but did not purchase a vacation package. So ultimately, we paid $75 for our stay. I am not sure what the per night rate would be to rent an RV site; a phone call would be required (855-214-4563).

Management: The grounds are immaculate and we saw Maintenance staff working every day we were there. Check in was efficient and easy but you are required to give a credit card for incidental expenses while there (like at a hotel check in). It is a secure facility so reservations are needed to enter the property. An access card is provided for use during your stay to provide after-hours access. The grounds are very large (1,000+ acres) and all of the staff were very friendly and helpful. 

General Comments:  Obviously, this is a place where they want to sell you a lifetime vacation package that costs $25k and up depending on what you purchase. They have a slick sales process that you need to carefully consider before purchasing. For some, this would be an excellent value, but not for us. 

Monticello, 6/02/2017

Before leaving the Charlottesville, VA, area, we wanted to see Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). Jefferson had a profound impact on our country by establishing the foundation of our government and individual freedom. He drafted the Declaration of Independence that famously put forth the concept that "all men are created equal" and values of "lifelibertyand the pursuit of happiness." The real paradox with this man, of course, is the fact that Monticello was a working plantation with 400 slaves.

There is a large complex with a Welcome Pavilion, Theatre, The Shop, Cafe, and Robert H. and Clarice Smith Gallery. 

Multiple tours are offered of the house and the grounds of Monticello. To access the grounds and house, you must take the shuttle bus (or walk). Automobiles are not permitted beyond the parking area near the welcome complex. The basic House Tour is $28/adult; Behind the Scenes Tour (includes upstairs) is $60; Hemings Family Tour is $30; and the Slavery at Monticello and Gardens and Grounds Tour are included in the House Tour. Other special event tours are available as well (see their website for details).

Because I had been sick with a viral infection for a couple of weeks, we only explored the outdoors at Monticello. I just wasn't up for an hour tour of the interior of the house. We were able to ride the shuttle for $14/each to the house. 

Monticello was built between 1769 and 1809. Jefferson designed every aspect of Monticello and it has become a icon of architecture. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Below is a view from the West Lawn. Also shown is a side view of the house and a "sun dial" on a terrace.

The plantings were beautiful and I especially loved this old tree that was here during Jefferson's days. 

The Fish Pond was used to hold fish caught in nearby streams until they were prepared for the table. 

There are two service wings at Monticello. The South Pavilion housed the kitchen, dairy, smokehouse, wash house, and 3 slave quarters under one roof. The kitchen and one of the slave areas have been restored, the other rooms are expected to be open to the public in 2018.

Mulberry Row was the hub of the 5,000-acre plantation. There were 25 dwellings, workshops, and sheds. Slaves, free blacks, and indentured white workmen all lived and worked here. Remains of four original structures and some re-created ones can be seen. 

Jefferson originally built one building to house multiple slave families along Mulberry Row. However, single buildings were replaced by individual 12'x14' "servant houses" in the 1790s. 

Six carriage and saddle horses plus one mule were stabled here. The stone structure was originally a larger L-shaped stable, but this is what remains today. At least 25 more horses were stabled at various other locations on the plantation.

Jefferson's heirs sold Monticello (including the slaves) to pay his debts after his death. It was purchased by Naval Officer Uriah Levy, a great admirer of Jefferson) in 1834 to preserve it. Levy bequeathed Monticello to the US in 1862, but the government refused it. It was not until 1923 that the house and 662 acres were sold to the newly-formed Thomas Jefferson Memorial FoundationLevy's mother is buried in the remains of the original wash house on Mulberry Row. It was one of the first structures built on Mulberry Row. In 1809 the wash house was moved to the South Pavilion and the building had other uses.

Jefferson started a nail-making operation (using slaves for the work) in 1793 that proved profitable for a time. He used the nails on the plantation and sold them to local shops and neighbors. Below is the reconstructed building. Also shown, are the remains (chimney and foundation) of the "joiner's shop." From 1775, enslaved and free workmen produced some of the finest woodwork in Virginia. 

Large vegetable gardens were planted on the land below Mulberry Row.

You can walk or catch the shuttle to Jefferson's Grave (.45 miles). The Monticello Graveyard Cemetery remains the property of Jefferson's descendants and continues to be used as a family burial ground. 

We walked back to the visitor complex and spent some time in the Gallery.

Jefferson kept meticulous records of Monticello leaving a legacy of the best-documented plantation in North America. Exhibits in the gallery were created based on that documentation. 

This is Jefferson's original design for Monticello's, although it was never fully implemented. 

Jefferson received a classical education, learning Greek and Latin as well as other languages (French, Spanish, Italian). He was well-versed in history, philosophy, literature, art and architecture and had a life-long pursuit for knowledge. He founded the University of Virginia and designed most of the original buildings. 

Thomas Jefferson was in public life for 33 years and served in the following positions: delegate to the Virginia General Assembly, governor of Virginia, US Minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and President form 1801 to 1809. Two of the notable events during his presidency include the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition

On our way back to the car, we came upon this graveyard for enslaved people of Monticello. More than 40 individuals are buried here. It is believed that their are additional slave burial sites, but others have not been yet located.

I am so glad that we had the opportunity to see this unique piece of American history. Although the tours seem pricey, the place was very crowded. We will definitely tour the interior of the house if we visit here again. There is a lot to see here, so plan to spend at least a half a day at Monticello.