My Peaceful Christmas Season

christmas nativity

I turned my shopping cart down the aisle in the big box craft store and felt tension immediately creeping into my neck.  It was September and I was staring at trees, lights, ornaments and wrapping paper in an explosion of green and red.  That tension was a sign that I was bracing myself for the stress that usually overcomes overs me in regards to the holiday season.  Only this year it was already starting in September.  The stress was also known as Christmas.

The holiday season is often a silent scream that is aimed at adults, often times moms who seem to often orchestrate the magic that surrounds the holidays.  TV commercials, Facebook event reminders, school events all become reminders of the traditions and magic that should be created each year.  As a mother and wife I took that responsibility on, to make the season magical for my loved ones.  Pinterest and Instagram brought the expectations to a whole new level these past few years.

christmas

I can sit and reflect on past years where gifts, stockings, hosting parties, decorating the home, taking the perfect photos, all left me feeling empty and breathing a sigh of relief on the December 26.  But this year as I sat at a recent MOPS meeting, watching a video about this exact stress, I decided that this year Christmas would be different.

Christmas is about love coming down to Earth.  It is the story about a mother and her baby.  In particular I am reminded of the verse “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” (Luke, 2:19).  I look at my three beloved children and am reminded every day of how quickly they are growing.  About how limited my time of actually having them under my roof really is.  It is all fleeting moments and I am determined to not let the stress take over my holidays anymore.  Instead I have made a conscious decision to limit our commitments, and choose family and quality time this season.

nativity

My husband and I have decided to focus on three festive events this Christmas season.  Beyond that we are not stressing about fitting everything else in.  If we can squeeze in a few extra events, great!  If not, no big deal.  We actually took out our calendars over Thanksgiving and scheduled in activities to make sure that time was blocked out.

meadowlark

For our family, the first event we chose was experiencing the lights at Meadowlark Botanical Garden in Vienna, Virginia.  This spectacular display of holiday lights that you can walk through has been on my list of things to do for 10 years now.  By strategically planning our time we were able to accomplish this event and were lucky enough to pair it with a visit with great friends.

meadowlark

If you are planning on going to Meadowlark make sure to go online and purchase your tickets earlier in the week.  The time slots do sell out on the weekend.  There are often discounts offered weekdays through Certifikid or their Facebook page.  Dress warm as you will be outside for an hour or so.  We brought the stroller which worked well for our 17 month old.  Even though it was 7, his bedtime, he was so distracted by the beautiful lights that he was fine.  At the end there is a stand to purchase hot cocoa, smores supplies to roast by the fire, and popcorn.  If you are looking for a good quick dinner before or after, try Church Street Pizza.  It’s delicious, in particular their white pizza and meat lovers.

How do you manage the holiday stress?  Are you starting any new traditions this year?

 

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Family Bike Ride: Mason Neck State Park

mason neck bike ride

Many of my favorite memories from childhood revolve around my pastel colored bicycle.  Bike riding provided a type of freedom as a child that I craved, and this love has carried into adulthood.  With 2 older children that are pretty good at riding, I was patiently waiting for my baby to be old enough to pop in the seat attached to my bike.  Mason Neck State Park was the choice for our family bike ride on a beautiful fall day.

mason neck nature trail

This past weekend was our first family excursion with baby in tow, on our bicycles.  And Mason Neck State Park in Lorton, Virginia was the perfect location to go ride and be outside to enjoy the beautiful fall scenery.  Mason Neck State Park, along with Pohick Bay is tucked into the corner of Fairfax County, Gunston Hall to be specific.  It’s right next to Lorton, and just down route 1 from Woodbridge.  A quick turn onto Gunston Hall Rd. and you feel like you are way out in the country.  You will pass some large horse farms that look straight out of the movies.

mason neck family bike ride

If your children are older and can handle a longer ride, I recommend actually parking at a pullout on Gunston Hall Rd.  and riding on the awesome paved trail into Mason Neck Park.  Seeing as this was our first attempt with the baby seat, we actually drove a little further, into the actual park and nature preserve, to park at the trail lot.  Your other option is to drive all the way to the education center on the water, and park there.

mason neck family bike ride

The best biking is done on the High Point multi-use trail.  It is rated easy, and is paved which makes for great riding.  The awesome thing about this trail with kids is that it is pretty much flat, just a few rolling hills, and you basically have the trail to yourself, even on a beautiful fall day.  In over an hour on a Saturday, we only had one other cyclist pass us.  With that being said, I wouldn’t ride this trail alone for obvious safety reasons.

mason neck family bike ride

Along the High Point trail are a few picnic tables as well as restrooms.  At the Visitor Center you will find rangers ready and willing to answer questions, some interactive displays, and life size bald eagle statues.  There is a children’s learning room with lots of items for them to feel and touch, as well as some aquariums with fish and frogs.  Outside of the visitor center has bird houses set up which make for great viewing,  And if you are lucky you will spot some Bald Eagles on your trip.  Take some time to look at beautiful Belmont Bay, it offers some peace and quiet from the business of Northern Virginia.  Looking for other weekend outdoor fun, check out my guide to Great Falls hiking with kids.

mason neck visitor center

 

Wildlife Viewing

Though exploring the refuge is restricted to established nature trails, you’ll find that these winding forested corridors are rich in nature and history. Visitors to the refuge can enjoy hiking our 4 miles of trails to view birds and other wildlife, or simply enjoy the solitude.

Download the bird list (pdf)

mason neck hiking trail

Hours of Operation

Elizabeth Hartwell Mason Neck National Wildlife Refuge is open year-round, including federal holidays, from 7AM – 5PM October 1- March 31 and 7AM-7PM from April 1 – September 30. Staff temporarily closes the refuge during managed deer hunts in November and December. Call the headquarters office or check this website for scheduled closures.

 

Location

The park is in southern Fairfax County, about 20 miles from Washington, D.C. Access to the park is via U.S. 1, then five miles east on Route 242 (Gunston Road) to the park entrance.

Its address is 7301 High Point Road, Lorton, VA 22079-4010

OVER TO YOU

Have you been to Mason Neck?  Where else do you go biking in Virginia?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.  I’d love to hear from you!

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Great Falls : Kid Friendly Outdoor Recreation and Nature

 

great falls national park outdoor recreation and nature

Perfect weather on an October weekend in Virginia meant we were taking it outside to a favorite destination, Great Falls National Park.  Great Falls is a unique treasure so close to the urban center of DC.  A trip to the waterfalls and hiking trails makes you almost forget the traffic and fast paced life of the surrounding areas.  The Great Falls National Park is nestled right off the beltway.  The national park encompassing over 800 acres along the Potomac River in Virginia and Maryland boasts some of the most majestic nature and stunning vistas in the DC area.  It also provides  excellent opportunities for outdoor recreation and historical explorations.

The Virginia side is officially named Great Falls Park, while the Maryland side is actually part of the C&O Canal National Historical Park.  The main attraction, which is the gorgeous cascading water of the Mather Gorge, visible from both sides, makes it all considered Great Falls. And it absolutely lives up to the name.

great falls national park outdoor recreation and nature

Activities available at the parks include hiking, rock climbing, biking, horseback riding, fishing and kayaking.  Both sides of the park have their own Visitor Centers which is nice to stop in with children.  There are interesting exhibits and hands-on activities for discovering more about the nature, wildlife, and history of the local area.

great falls national park outdoor recreation and nature

The Billy Goat Trail on the Maryland side is the most well known in the park.  It is just under five miles, winds through trees, outcroppings of large rocks, and along  paths in the area between the C&O Canal and Potomac River. This fun yet rugged trail offers awe inspiring views, but it tends to get crowded and includes parts that could be a bit difficult for young children.

great falls national park outdoor recreation and nature

There are designated overlooks of the falls on both sides Great Falls Park. In Maryland, there is lookout  just a short walk from the parking lot, where you can take in views of different parts of the Mather Gorge. In Virginia, overlooks with views of the gushing rapids and falls are right off the trail, not far from the Visitors Center. Both offer equally beautiful views of the Gorge.

As with many activities near DC, there can be crowds.  On a nice weekend the parking lots tend to fill up early and there can be a line of cars waiting at the entrance.  If possible try and visit on a weekday, or at least arrive early on a weekend.

great falls national park outdoor recreation and nature

Some useful tips to note if planning a visit;

  • wear good shoes for hiking, there are rocks and uneven footing on the trails
  • restrooms are located at the Visitor Center on both sides of the park
  • swimming is NOT allowed
  • Concessions are available but it is much more fun to bring a picnic

great falls national park outdoor recreation and nature

Great Falls Park is open daily from 7am to 30 minutes after sunset. The Visitor Centers are open 10am – 4pm. The Snack Bar is open March through October 10am – 4pm. Admission, good for three days, is $10/vehicle, $5/individual on foot or bike. Entrances are located at 9200 Old Dominion Drive in McLean, VA, and 11710 MacArthur Blvd in Potomac, MD

Looking for other day trips to take, check our apple picking guide in Virginia and a review of Great Country Farms.

OVER TO YOU

Have you been to Great Falls?  Where else do you go hiking in Virginia?  Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.  I’d love to hear from you!

ENJOYED THIS POST?

Make sure to check out and follow my Pinterest Boards on other fun fall activites.

I send out blogs like this often, offering my expertise and useful tips for parents about all things related to Virginia, child learning,   reading instruction.  and the occasional recipe or DIY project.

If you sign up for my email updates, I’ll send exclusive content straight to your inbox!

P.S. PASS IT ON

Like this post? Share the love and send this to a friend who might enjoy it too!

 

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Apple Picking: Guide to Orchards in Virginia

apple picking at orchard Great Country Farms

I never really went apple picking at the orchard growing up.  However now as a mom it is definitely on my bucket list each fall.  Virginia has some of the best apple orchards around.  I just love all the fall smells, the crisp air, the beautiful photo opportunities, kettle corn, and of course, the delicious apples.

There are also some pretty cool facts about apple orchards that you can share with your kids.

Farmers love to share their knowledge.

If you are not sure what type of apple is good for a recipe, ask the farmer.  If you’re not sure what color a ripe apple should be, just ask the farmer.  They are usually more than happy to chat and share all of their knowledge.

Most pick your own farms grow dwarf trees.

You can reach for the apples without climbing a tree.  Apples also ripen from the outside of the tree to the inside, so preschoolers can easily pick their share.

Most pick your own farms have lots of other activities.

As shared in yesterday’s post on Great Country Farms, there is plenty to do at the apple orchards.  There may be tractor rides, barn animals, jumping pillows, rope swings, corn mazes and play areas.  Check the websites to see what is offered.

Picking and caring for the fruit is the perfect multi disciplinary lesson.

There are so many opportunities for learning when going to the apple orchard.  What color is that apple?  How many apples are in the basket?  Don’t drop the apple, it may bruise.  How much do all these apples weigh?  How much will the apples cost?  Try reading a book or two before you go to the apple orchard to get your kids excited.

Apples by Gail Gibbons,  How do Apples Grow by Betsy Maestro , and Ten Apples Up On Top! by Theo LeSieg.

Great Country Farms – Bluemont
Apples are $1.29/lb and are available for u-pick http://www.greatcountryfarms.com/index.php/u-pick.html from 9am-5pm daily. Weekday admission is $8/child and $10/adult and weekend admission is $10/child & $12/adult; admission includes all the farm activities (playground, slides, farm animals, wagon rides, and more).  Later in the season you also can pick pumpkins and greens.  Also see their special events including the Fall Harvest Festival and Pumpkin Chunkin’.

Hartland Orchard – Markham
Pick your own apples including Gala, Golden Delicious, Red Delicious, and Jonagold at this family working farm with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Hours are 9 am to 5 pm daily. You can also pick peaches and pumpkins.

Crooked Run Orchard – Purcelville
Pick your own apples including Gala and Golden Delicious (you also can pick pears and blackberries).  Note: the orchard’s Facebook page is updated more frequently (and has more information) and the website directs you there for updates.

Mackintosh Fruit Farm – Berryville
Pick your own apples daily (8 am-6 p) during the active growing season, which usually goes through late October.  Apple varieties include Ginger Gold, Gala, Honeycrisp, Blondee, Golden Delicious, York, and Fuji.

Marker-Miller Orchards – Winchester
With 325 acres of apples in the orchard and more than 20 varieties to choose from, you’re bound to find something you like here. Their online chart that tells you what you can expect when. The orchard also has a playground, cow train, and wagon rides.

Have you gone apple picking?  Where have you gone and did you like it?

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Annual Apple Picking Trip at Great Country Farm

close up red and yellow apples

This past weekend marked our annual apple picking trip.  The weather was perfect on Sunday, especially after a really gloomy Saturday.  So we hopped in the car, rain boots and all in case of mud, and drove out to Great Country Farms.

Weekday Admission: $8/child & $10/adult
Saturday/Sunday Admission: $10/child & $12/adult
540-554-2073
18780 Foggy Bottom Road, Bluemont, VA 20135

We were meeting up with friends at the apple orchard which made the trip extra awesome.  My friend over at Lightning Bug Designs told us about Great Country Farms two years ago.  I find it makes the perfect apple orchard adventure for several reasons.  It’s a little over an hour from Prince William County.  There are several routes out, but we always take the most scenic which makes for an awesome Sunday drive.  Great Country Farm s really big and fun for all ages.  And if you are military they waive the admission fee which is amazing and means more money on this apple picking trip for donuts, apples and kettle corn!

apples in box, peck, bushel

Activities on the Farm

Our group had kids ranging from ages 13 months all the way up to 12 years. They all had fun at the apple orchard, like alot of fun.  Most fell asleep on the ride home from the exhaustion of playing and picking apples all day.

When you get to Great Country Farms, go ahead through the main gates to get your bracelet which gives you unlimited access to almost everything on the farm.  There are wagon rides, a giant jumping pillow, putt putt, animals in the barn, tractors to climb on, farm play area, corn mazes, and a fishing pond.

Ninja Course and GaGa Ball

Worth special mention is the new Ninja Course geared towards 12 and under.  And a GaGa ball pit.  The dads were so excited about this, as they all felt they had become experts at scout camp this summer.  It was super fun to watch them play!

baby counting apples in orchard

For a small additional fee at Great Country Farms there is a super cute cow train for the little ones and a gem mine sluice.  This is a big hit with my kids.  You buy a bag of dirt with hidden items in it like arrowheads and rocks, then they take it to the sluice and mine for treasure.

Lunch

There are lots of food choices or you can bring a picnic.  If you want to buy lunch there are chicken sandwiches, hot dogs, pulled pork, donuts, ice cream, and kettle corn all available while you listen to live music on Sundays.

jam and salsa at apple picking farm in mason jars

Wagon Ride to the Orchard

We decided to head out to pick apples in the orchard after playing for several hours.  You hop in a wagon for a quick 5 minute ride, and the wagon driver will let you know which orchards are open for picking that day.

Plan on spending the day playing and apple picking, because your kids won’t want to leave.  They will be begging you to come back soon to pick some pumpkins.  Grab some donuts for the ride home, and plan out some recipes to make with all your apples.

apple pie homemade from apple picking, lattice on top

We went with the apple pie this year, after much debate.  Although I still have a ton left, so it’s on to apple crumble, baked apples, and apple sauce next.

Come back tomorrow for a roundup of Northern Virginia’s Best Apple Picking Farms.

 

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Ten lessons learned about parenting in Northern Virginia

  1. There will be traffic.  For real, there is traffic ALL THE TIME.  Ask anyone about their first impression of the area and they talk about the traffic.  But here’s the thing, you get used to it.  For me it took a couple years, but I did and found ways around it.  Regardless of how close a playdate or activity may seem, give yourself an hour.  I’m not kidding, it could be three miles away and take close to 45 minutes.  It helps to avoid rush hour, which around here is like 6 hours.  That means roughly 6:30-9:30 am, and 3:30-6:30 pm.

2.  Number two kind of goes with number one, but it is to make the WAZE app your best friend.  Download it now onto your phone and never leave home without it.  If you have never used it, I swear it is genious.  It is like a crowd sourced, real time traffic, program to give you directions to your destination.  There will be several route options, toll options, time estimates, accident updates, pretty much everything you could think of.  So go download it now, and start using it!

3.  There is so much history around that it is almost hard to not see a historical marker on a drive or hike.  We are so fortunate to live in a state that has places such as  Old Town Alexandria, Mt. Vernon, Fredericksburg, and Manassas just to name a few.  There are tons of great sites and attractions in these locations, but a quick tour of any local area will leave you with a history lesson and probably an opportunity to walk where George Washington may have been.  Case in point, our first rental house in Lorton was across the street from the Pohick Church where George Washington used to attend services.  How cool!

4.  There will be allergies, and lots of them.  Even if you are someone who has never suffered, I would say start the allergy medicine and buy some tissues.  Some people say you get a free pass your first year here, but everyone I know seems to be pretty miserable at various points throughout the year.  The glass half full take on this is that Virginia is beautiful and so many flowers, trees and shrubs bloom with the most amazing vibrant colors so get your cameras ready.

5.  You would be hard pressed to find a more patriotic place to live in the country.  Everywhere you turn there are reminders of our brave men and women who protect our country.  Flags fly proudly all year long, not just on holidays.  Our children recognize the fact that freedom often comes at the price of a deployed parent, and are proud to talk about their service member parent.  Odds are if you aren’t connected to the military, then your neighbors are and you will be there for them at the drop of a hat.

6.  There is an endless variety of activities to have your children try.  Now sometimes it’s nice to not have a crazy schedule, I’m the first to admit that.  But it’s also great to know that if your child asks to try gymnastics, or soccer, or horseback riding, that a quick Google search can locate an option that won’t be too far away (use WAZE!)

7.  The schools are pretty great.  They can be big, sometimes huge, but are pretty great.  When looking for a home near a great school, make sure to check the Virginia Department of Education site.  You are looking for the school report card section.  This quick fact sheet on each school will give you some important information when trying to figure out where you want your children to attend school.

8.  There are wineries.  Lots of them.  And there are wineries that are kid and dog friendly.  Now that’s a pretty awesome combination if you ask me.  One of my favorites is Barrel Oak Winery.  It is a pretty quick hour drive that makes you really feel like you are out in the country and can escape the hustle and bustle.  Ask for the kid scavenger hunt when you get there, this will keep the kids busy for a while.  There is plenty of space for the kids and dogs to stretch out, make noise, eat food, and overall have a great time.

9.  You will never have to pay for a museum visit if you don’t want to.  I didn’t realize how amazing this perk was until we visited Chicago and had to pay an arm and a leg to get into a pretty great museum.  That’s because we are totally spoiled with the Smithsonian Institute Museums.  There are so many options, events and exhibits that you could live here for years and still go experience something new each time.  You do have to plan whether you will drive or metro into the city.  That’s a whole other topic, but weigh the options to see what would be best for your family.

10.  There are lots of ways to connect with other mom’s, but you do need to put yourself out there.  I wasn’t so great at this 10 years ago.  But I’ve become better now that I have three kids, a husband that travels, and a dog and cat to take care of.  I really can’t do it all, believe me I try.  But I need my mom’s, even if its just for a quick chat at the bus stop.  So try to figure out one way you can connect, and come back to read some surefire ways you can start to grow your tribe.

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