Camping with Two Kids in Cunningham Falls State Park: The Good, the Not-So-Bad, and the Lessons Learned

"Camping with Two Kids at Cunningham Falls State Park: The Good, The Not-So-Bad, and the Lessons Learned" Thinking about camping with two kids? Here's what we enjoyed and what we'd do differently next time. (Photo: Orange, white and green tent on a packed dirt campsite in front of trees with a toy truck.)

Feeling the thump thump thump of kicking feet against my back and the cries of the baby who did not want to be in the car any longer, I thought, “What the hell was I thinking trying to go camping with two kids?” We were still 45 minutes from our site and things were already going very badly. Fortunately, a couple of potty breaks and some whining later, I realized that the camping trip this past weekend turned out a hell of a lot better than I expected it. In fact, it was easily our best camping trip so far.

It had been almost two years since we had gone camping with Sprout. It was the first time we went camping with two kids. Even though the times with Sprout were chaotic, from clueless packing to partying college students, I still wanted to go. There’s a genuine magic that makes all of the other nonsense worthwhile.

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Apple Picking, Hay Bales and Llamas at Homestead Farm

Photo: Rows of apple trees at Homestead Farm; text: "Apple Picking, Hay Bales, and Llamas at Homestead Farm; We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So"

As a native upstate New Yorker, apple picking runs in my blood. In my fourth grade class, not just one, but two of my classmates’  families owned apple orchards. While the picking – and especially the cider – isn’t as good in Maryland as New York, it’s still one of my favorite fall traditions. So for the final day of the Outdoors Family Challenge, focusing on “local food,” I wanted to pick apples at Homestead Farm. Even though my anxiety got the best of me on the way there, the crunch of apples, a friendly llama, and Sprout’s enthusiasm lifted my spirits by the time we finished.

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Lily Pads and Marshes in Washington D.C.: Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens

Photo of large lily pads in a pond; text: "Lily Pads and Marshes: Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens"

Dark pink blooms swayed over my son, their long, thin stems rising up from the muck. Lily pads the size of platters floated on the pond, their curved sides forming miniature walls. Blue dasher dragonflies flitted across the water, their wings nearly transparent. And a big, green tractor hauled dirt back and forth for a landscaping project. These were just a few of the wonders we saw at the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Washington D.C. this past weekend, when we visited with the kids and my parents. The tractor was my son’s favorite.

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Waterfalls and Locks: Great Falls at the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal

The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal at Great Falls

To stave off an ever-increasing case of cabin fever, we headed out to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Park on Monday. I had wanted to go for National Parks Week last week, but the weather conspired against us. But as Monday was sunny and in the high 60s, we were going, come hell or high water.

Or more specific t0 our situation, come a hungry newborn and cranky toddler. We were mostly ready to go – adults showered and dressed, the kid dressed and the newborn fed. But then Sprout wanted to do tummy time with Little Bird (he loves encouraging him). But then Little Bird needed to eat – again. But then Sprout had a meltdown because Chris was packing cantaloupe instead of watermelon and a turkey sandwich instead of peanut butter and jelly, even though he had asked for turkey earlier. But then, but then, but then. We finally left an hour later than I planned. The getting out the door routine with two kids is going to take some getting used to.

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A Nature Playground in the Suburbs: Constitution Gardens Park in Gaithersburg

Ever since reading about The Land, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of nature playgrounds. While I didn’t want my toddler setting things on fire (one of the many risky options at The Land), I do like the idea of substituting natural materials for plastic playsets. By their very nature, they’re more versatile and offer a more creative experience than playgrounds, which tend to be highly-directed. So when nearby Gaithersburg opened up a nature playground at Constitution Gardens Park, I knew I wanted to visit with Sprout.

With blue skies and fall just approaching, it was a lovely morning to check it out. While it’s perfectly walkable from Old Town Gaithersburg – and a wonderful resource for those who live there – almost everyone else will need to drive. It’s far from the closest Metro station and I still haven’t figured out how to bike safely from Rockville to Old Town. While the park doesn’t have a parking lot, there’s ample street parking right next to it.

The park is long and rather narrow, a bit squished between a private house and a clubhouse for some nearby condos. The initial impression is a bit odd, as there’s a big fence with a swimming pool right next to it. In addition, it could be confusing for little kids who now want to go to the pool instead. Thankfully, while Sprout pointed out the pool, he wasn’t particularly keen on going in it.

Photo of Constitution Gardens, which has a large sand area, pathed path, and wooden buildings

The rest of the park was more thematically fulfilling. A large area filled with sand offers kids an actual chance to play in the dirt, which most parks look down upon. It’s equipped with a push-button water fountain and buckets, which seemed to be the most popular feature in the park by far. Never underestimate toddlers’ love of filling things with water and dumping them out. Thankfully, everyone did pretty well waiting to take their turns. There’s also a little wooden building with a counter like a store, a tiny slide, and wooden farm animals for riding.

Log sections for climbing next to slide

Other areas of the park were geared more towards older children. A staircase made of uneven logs led to two very steep slides. While Sprout enjoyed climbing up, one look down and he was shaking his head. Thankfully, they offer an alternate exit down a different path. Hunks of wood of varying shapes and length made for Lincoln Logs perfect for wobbly stacking. Another, much bigger hand-pump, sprayed water into a faux dried streambed decorated with iridescent glass. Even though he didn’t come close to reaching the top on the handle, Sprout still pumped it up and down as much as he could a number of times. There’s just something about kids and water.

Although we went on a Friday morning, there were several families there, with joggers and dog-walkers wandering through as well. The park is open on three sides to the residential streets, which makes it a nice alternate route to the sidewalk. The kids were enthusiastic without being wound – perhaps the natural materials provided a calming effect.

The only major complaint I had about the park was the lack of shade. While there are some trees, the park is so new that they haven’t gotten very big yet. Although I thought it would be a relatively cool day, with highs in the 70s, the D.C. sun got the best of me and I was boiling by the end of the trip.

While not wild and crazy the way some nature playgrounds are, Constitution Gardens provided a nice reprieve from the molded plastic jungle gyms that all use the same interchangeable pieces.

Camping: Take Two (Year Old) – Harper’s Ferry and Brunswick Family Campground

I think I’m turning into the dad from Calvin and Hobbes. Except instead of our adventures “building character” for my kid, they are doing it for me! In our second camping trip, some things went very right compared to last time, but others went very, very wrong.

I tried hard to learn from last time, bringing both lower expectations and a few extra pieces of gear. Unfortunately, I repeated the very first mistake – look up where the campground itself is, not just the national park! As it turned out, the campground was literally two states over from our destination, Harper’s Ferry. As Harper’s Ferry sits on the intersection between West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia, thankfully it worked out to only a 20 minute detour.

My other efforts were more productive. We arrived there earlier, packed the car more efficiently, and set up faster than last time. We even had time the first day to head into town, eat ice cream, and gaze out over the meeting of Potomac and Shenandoah rivers, dotted with colorful inflatable rafts and tubes.

Shenendoah River with tubes and rafts

Burnt out alleyway in Harper's Ferry, WV

Not everything was quite so cheery though. Only two weeks ago, a fire ripped through several of the town’s historical wood and stone buildings. (Check out their GoFundMe page if you want to help.) A whole chunk of the block was black, charred and disintegrating, right in the middle of their tourist season. Rather than ignore it, we explained to Sprout both what happened and how people were helping each other recover. In particular, we connected it with the theme of LeVar Burton’s book The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm, which has the theme of how friends can help each other heal after traumatic situations. While I don’t think he really understood the magnitude of what happened, it was good practice for future conversations like this.

Other parts of the trip also reminded me of both the value as well as the challenges of neighbors. Camping creates an easy intimacy, with everyone sharing the twisted perspective that it’s a really awesome idea to sleep on the ground protected only by a little fabric.

This camaraderie was doubly-intense in this particular campground, which didn’t have assigned campsites, only a shared space under a grove of trees with a scattering of picnic tables and fire pits. Sprout was an immediate point of connection, with fellow campers commenting on his cuteness and encouraging him to pet their dogs. A kayaking instructor putting boats into the river even chimed into my conversation with Sprout, saying that he started bringing his son with him in the boat when he was only 6 months old. But despite his encouragement, we were content with watching dogs fetching balls, wading in up to our knees, examining clam and snail shells, and spotting tiny fish darting about.

But not all of our interactions were quite so pleasant. It started with our neighbors on one side blasting Southern rock deep into the night, with a call out about every 15 minutes to “Turn it up!” I didn’t bother getting Sprout to bed until quiet hours were supposed to start at 10 pm. All the white noise in the world wasn’t going to drown that out.

At 10 pm, I held out hope when it paused momentarily, then lost it again when it started back up a few minutes later. When those people finally went to bed at 11, our neighbors on the other side picked up the slack with an enthusiastic game of beer pong and multiple rounds of the Happy Birthday song.

Normally, I’d be mildly annoyed but understanding. However, I was sharing a tent with a two-year-old who wanted to join in the fun and knew there was absolutely nothing we could do to stop him. Not long after I put him down and left the tent, Chris commented, “Well, there’s not much he can do but sit in there and play with his toys. At least until he finds the zipper.” Literally seconds after the words left his mouth, we heard a zip and saw a little blond head sticking out. So much for that plan.

I headed in there to lie down with him, to no avail. Chris eventually got bored and joined me, but all we got for our efforts was a toddler climbing on us like it was his own personal bounce house. Across the tent, over Chris’s legs, up his chest, plowing into my head, back to his own sleeping bag and around again. And again and again. It was a toddler rave, complete with uncoordinated movements and the drug of severe sleep deprivation. But I couldn’t blame Sprout for his shenanigans – after all, they were clearly having a good time outside! Unlike last time, when I nearly melted down myself, I just shrugged and laughed. (Even when Sprout imitated my tendency to call out to my husband in whiny frustration – he yelled “Chrisssss!” at the door. Of course, Chris thought it was hysterical.)

Once the party finally calmed down at 12:30, Sprout was still way too wound to calm down voluntarily, so Chris stuck him in the car and drove around until he finally passed out.

Camping should be celebratory – of nature and people – but I do hope it’s not quite that celebratory in the future.

Montgomery County Had Some Farms – E-I-E-I-O: Montgomery County Farm Tour

“Eat your vegetables!” is a stereotypical parenting phrase, but I want my kid to not just eat them, but also know where they come from. While we’re farmers’ market regulars, the Montgomery County Farm Tour offered a unique opportunity last weekend to get hands-on with some plants and animals.

Of the 19 farms participating, we decided to visit just two, considering limits on time and toddlers’ attention span.

Our first stop was Homestead Farm, which offers pick-your-own fruit, as well as a number of vegetables at its farm market. While they offered produce for sale, they also had quite a few animals, which were a big hit with the kiddie set.

A goat on a bridge above the picture-taker

I especially loved the set-up they had for their goats. Goats are known for their climbing skills and complete lack of fear. They’re notorious for scrambling up on roofs. Rather than fighting this instinct, Homestead had the brilliant idea of giving them something to climb onto. Above our heads were two platforms connected by a walkway. There were even little baskets that visitors could use to haul food up to the goats!

Other animals at the farm included chickens, pigs and a llama. Sprout gave us a running commentary – “Chickens inside!” he’d proclaim. They seemed to be his favorite for some reason – perhaps the crowing or their feathers’ pretty colors. I tried to use this fondness to convince Chris we should raise chickens, but my suggestion was thoroughly ignored.

Several ripe peaches hanging from a tree

The orchard was next up, ready for all of our peach-picking needs. To keep him busy, I assigned Sprout the responsibility of placing – not throwing or dropping – the peaches into the box. Of course, it took a couple of tries (and then a couple more) before he moved from violently bruising them to putting them down gently. Despite his assignment, he wanted to actually pick some peaches himself. Thankfully, a lot of the peach trees were short, with fruit within his reach. While I was highly skeptical of his peach selection abilities, he picked quite a few that were perfectly ripe. There must have just been so many that it was hard to go wrong. Like any time you go fruit picking, our hands were bigger than our stomachs. Peach jam and cobbler, anyone?

Our second stop on the farm tour was Star Gazing Farm, a sanctuary for abused and abandoned farm animals. As the animals roam very free there, we were allowed to walk right up to them. Again, the chickens were popular, with Sprout exclaiming, “Chicken, chicken!” and looking interested when the guide showed us a freshly-laid egg. I took the opportunity to connect it to one of his books, Me…Jane, which shows a young Jane Goodall watching a hen laying an egg.

The farm must have made him feel safe, because Sprout even worked up the nerve to touch one of the animals. Every time we’ve seen farm animals, he’s been perfectly content to look and not touch. He backs off quickly if the animal even looks at him. But for whatever reason, he judged the sheep was unthreatening and gingerly reached out a hand to stroke its wool. After a few pets, he declared, “Soft.”

Woman demonstrating how to shear sheep

Besides looking at the animals, the farm also had a sheep shearing demonstration and offered a variety of knitted goods made by volunteers for sale. The hats and sweaters were ridiculously inexpensive for hand-made goods, probably less than the price of the wool. I got winter hats for myself and Sprout for $25!

We rounded out the day with a little picnic of PB&J sandwiches, lemonade and watermelon. Our tour of local agriculture offered a small taste of the many farms in our area and what they produce.