One of the greatest gifts that spending time in the outdoors has given me is the ability to adapt. That skill has been infinitely handy as a parent, where situations change in seconds and expectations regularly get stomped all over. Yesterday, it led to a lovely afternoon in Wheaton Regional Park – even though we hadn’t planned to go there in the first place.
I’d been eyeing a visit to Cunningham Falls State Park or Catoctin Mountain Park for ages, both of which are north of Frederick, Maryland. So when I came up with the challenge of “Visit a park that’s new to you,” my mind immediately went to one of those two places. Until Chris informed me that they were both about an hour away. With the absolute chaos of the past few days and the threat that Little Bird might cry the entire car ride, we just were not up to that level of travel.
So on to a new plan. Fortunately, I have an entire mental list of “places I’ve heard of that sound worthwhile.” While not at the top, Wheaton Regional Park was there, itching at the edges of my mind. At a mere 15 minute car ride, that seemed like a more reasonable destination.
Except that I managed to misdirect us. (You think I would have learned from the incident in Shenandoah.) Rather than finding the park’s train and playground, we ended up in a dead-end parking lot.
But to our good fortune, there was a trail just under a mile that connected where we were to where we wanted to go. And even better, there was an excavator and backhoe at the beginning – very exciting for the three-year-old in the group.
The rest of the trail rambled through quiet woodland, tall trees rising up on either side. A pond punctuated the forest, the greenery reflected in its still mirror. With Chris and Sprout ahead of me and Little Bird asleep in the stroller, I tried to just listen. When I’m so often in a silent office or bombarded by my son’s yell-singing, it was a relief to be in a place so alive and yet so tranquil.
After the pond, the trail rose up and up. Sprout ran up the hill, dashing around Chris while I pressed forward with the stroller. It emerged into a much more lively park than the parking lot we had left, with just the edges of a playground visible.
Oh, what a playground it was! From the website, Wheaton Regional Park sounded a lot like Cabin John Park near us – miniature train, playground, trails.
But while Cabin John has its retro charms, Wheaton is on a whole different scale. Its playground is brand new and features a lot of equipment I’ve never seen anywhere else. Multi-story slides. Two giant spiderwebs connected with a massive rope bridge. A sandpit with tiny, mechanical excavators. A huge blue hill that you can scramble up and slide down. The equipment encouraged unstructured play, especially in the context of the larger park of green grass, curving paths and rolling hills. Despite his size, Sprout tackled both the slide and hill without hesitation.
While the playground was spectacular, Sprout really had his eye on the prize – the miniature train. A replica of one from 1863, the train seats about 50-60 people. The design of the diesel engine rivals that of Disney in charm, even if the engine’s rattle showed their maintenance doesn’t. The train chugs through the woods, over a metal trestle, and through a little tunnel before returning to the station. In addition to the scenic greenery, we even spotted two young deer!
If you’re going to take the train, get your tickets before checking out anything else. The playground/train part of the park was very busy on a random Saturday in September, with the train tickets sold out more than an hour in advance. I can only imagine it’s even busier in the summer or on a holiday.
Besides the train, there’s also a lovely but older carousel that was once on the National Mall.
While it wasn’t a national park and didn’t have a single waterfall, Wheaton Regional Park was just the right speed for a little adventure.