Old Town, San Diego, CA

One of the most-visited state parks in California is dedicated to the history of European settlement on the west coast. Old Town San Diego State Historic Park is located on the site of the original town of San Diego, which grew around the base of a bluff on which the first European settlement, the Spanish Californian military outpost of San Diego Presidia, was founded. This outpost and the Spanish Mission San Diego de Alcalá were both built in 1769, but the town that grew around them dates to the 1820s. It’s these buildings, built between the 1820s and 1870s, that form Old Town San Diego Historic District.

San Diego briefly held the status of a Mexican pueblo, but the town’s population remained low, and after only a few years it lost this status. Located several miles from the ocean and shipping ports, the original San Diego didn’t thrive until the 1860s, when ‘New Town’ San Diego was built up directly on the shore, and the heart of the town moved from Old Town to New. Modern downtown San Diego now marks New Town, and Old Town has remained preserved, a time capsule from another era.

The span of time preserved and recreated by the Old Town park is 1821-1872, and the variety of buildings represent everything an early 19th century town needed: five original adobes, a schoolhouse, a blacksmith shop, a cigar and pipe store, a carriage stable, and even the first San Diego newspaper office. Part of the fascination of Old Town is its location so close to the Mexican border, which puts Old Town within both the Mexican and Early American periods for Californian history, and shows a diversity and duality of culture not found in other areas.

Many of the original buildings have now been turned into museums, which offer tours and living history demonstrations to give visitors a real feel for the time period and culture. The Casa de Estudillo was built in 1827, and is both one of the finest houses from Mexican California and one of the best surviving examples of Spanish architecture in California. Other surviving adobe houses in Old Town include the restored Casa de Machado y Stewart, Casa de Bandini, and Casa de Altamirno Pedrorena

The Black Hawk Smithy & Stable offers blacksmithing demonstrations, and the Seeley Stables contains a collection of carriages, wagons, and horse-drawn buggies. In the Sheriff’s Museum, a jail cell, courtroom, and other memorabilia paint a portrait of western law enforcement, and the First San Diego Courthouse has also been restored and turned into a museum. The Mason Street Schoolhouse is the first San Diego public school house, and other restored buildings include Racine and Láramie, a 19th century tobacconist, and the San Diego Union Museum, a 19th century newspaper and print shop. Depending on when you visit, you can also see historic soap making, listen to a concert, attend a town dance, practice carding wool, weaving, and quilt-making, or learn historic printing and photography techniques. Special events during the year include a Latin American festival, Stagecoach Days pioneer days, Mexican and American Independence Day celebrations, Dia de los Muertos festivities, and many more cultural and arts festivals.

All museums and the state park itself are free to visit, and if you’re making a day of it, Old Town is full of restaurants and shops as well as the historic sites. Right next door to Old Town is Heritage Park, a Victorian historic area featuring buildings from the 1880s and 1890s; the Mormon Battalion historic site, where visitors can learn brickmaking and gold panning; and Whaley House, built in the 1850s and considered by some to be the most haunted house in the United States.

I visited near Christmas in late December, and what I remember most clearly is the artisans market, where local artists showcase jewelry, pottery, and other visual arts, frequently using traditional styles and techniques. Old Town maintains a flavor of the old-time West, the Gold Rush era, and early Mexican Independence, and the variety of art on display was as interesting to me as the historic buildings. The ‘Birthplace of California’ is a great place to visit to see the history and culture that contributed to the development of the state.

Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, IL

If I were to make a ‘must-see’ list for Chicago, Shedd Aquarium would definitely be on it. The largest indoor aquarium in the world when it opened in 1930, Shedd has topped lists like ‘most visited aquarium in the U.S.’ and ‘most popular cultural attraction in Chicago.’ With 5,000,000 gallons of water, it’s home to more than 25,000 fish, and 1,500 aquatic and amphibious species. It was the first inland aquarium in the world to house a saltwater fish collection, and has hosted some of the most fantastic aquatic exhibits in the world.

Shedd Aquarium is located on the Museum Campus in Chicago, along with the Field Museum of Natural History and Adler Planetarium. The building is now on the Register of Historic Places.

When you enter the aquarium, the first exhibit you might see is the Caribbean Reef. In 1971, the reef made its debut on the site of the aquarium’s first original exhibit, and has become one of its most popular attractions. A diver in the tank is responsible for feeding, observing, and otherwise maintaining the enormous reef habitat, and visitors to the aquarium can ask the diver questions from the other side of the glass, interacting with the animals via an intermediary.

Amazon Rising is home to the exotic plants and animals of the Amazon River and rain forest. Piranhas, anacondas, tarantulas, monkeys, and caimans guide you through the South American waterscape, where the exhibit focuses on how the dramatic flood cycle affects life in the Amazon. The 30-foot difference in the water level between the dry season and the flood season means massive changes for people, plants, and animals in the areas affected by the rising and falling water.

The oldest exhibit in the aquarium is Waters of the World, which expands on the South American habitat to explore the waters of Asia and Africa. Diverse habitats such as oceans, wetlands, lakes, and rivers are all explored in this comprehensive tour of the world’s waters. I remember especially being interested in At Home on the Great Lakes, the area of this exhibit devoted to the local waters around Chicago. Both native and introduced species are studied to show their effects on the Great Lakes ecosystem.

Wild Reef focuses on another specific ecosystem: that of a Philippine Coral Reef, based on the Apo Island Marine Reserve. Living coral, tropical fish, rays, and sharks all dwell in this exhibit, which has a focus on education and conservation. The exhibit is designed so that visitors feel as though they are seeing the reef as a diver would, moving among the plants and animals that surround them.

The Abbott Oceanarium is my favourite place in Shedd, and the one that I remember most. The Oceanarium houses marine mammals such as sea lions, sea otters (several of them survivors of the ExxonValdez oil spill), white-sided dolphins, and the happiest beluga whales I have ever seen in my life. I think it was the size of the tanks that made such an impact on me; often as aquarium visitors we see marine mammals swimming in circles in a shallow pool, their movements limited by available space. In the Shedd Oceanarium, I was fortunate enough to witness whales playing, leaping, and frolicking in general merriment, diving and surfacing to the delight of everyone around them. The Oceanarium is the largest indoor marine mammal facility in the world, and it shows in the attitudes of its inhabitants.

While you’re at the Oceanarium, check out the marine mammal Aquatic Show; and if you really want to get into the spirit, look into Shedd’s ‘Extraordinary Experiences’ tickets, which offer up-close-and-personal encounters with beluga whales, penguins, sharks, and more. Elsewhere in the aquarium, you should also say hello to Granddad, the Australian Lungfish who has lived at Shedd since 1933, and who might be the oldest fish living in an aquarium anywhere in the world; and to Nickel, a green sea turtle who will definitely make an impression. Injured by a speedboat, Nickel has buoyancy issues which render her incapable of surviving in the wild and have affected her ability to swim; she does just fine in a reef tank, however, and can be seen capably paddling her way around near the entrance to the aquarium.

This may be the first and last time I champion a gift shop: Shedd has a great one, with a wide variety of gifts and keepsakes. All proceeds go to support the aquarium, as a non-profit organization, which means the money helps with marine conservation, education, and research. If you spend the day at Shedd – which is easy to do – there are a few (vegetarian-friendly) café and restaurant choices inside the aquarium. You should also investigate ticket deals—Shedd does discount days for Illinois residents as well as the general public, and is included in several package deals with other Chicago tourist attractions.

Restaurant Rarities

Those who know me know I am definitely not a foodie, and getting me to go out for a meal sometimes takes extreme persuasion and even bribery. There are a few places across the country, however, that I am willing to drive well out of my way for; particularly when it comes to menu items that are hard to find anywhere else.

Kilkenny’s Irish Pub, Tulsa, OK

The first page of the Kilkenny’s menu reads ‘Boxty on the griddle, boxty in the pan, if you can’t make boxty, you’ll never get your man.’ If you haven’t had a boxty before, you are missing a treat. I was raised in the Pennsylvania Dutch potato culture, and have a sincere appreciation for potato dishes of all kinds. A boxty is a dish from rural Ireland, made of what is essentially an enormous potato crepe, wrapped around delicious fillings. You can find them here and there at Irish pubs in the U.S., but the only place I have ever found with a dedicated vegetarian vegetable boxty is in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Carrots, onions, zucchini, portabella mushrooms, red peppers, garlic, shallots, white wine, and Irish cheddar sauce, all wrapped in a grilled potato pancake. It is truly a dish worth making a trip for. Potato-loving vegetarians can also enjoy the colcannon (mashed potatoes with cabbage) and champ (mashed potatoes with cream and green onions), the potatoes o’gratin with cheddar sauce, potato soup with leeks, onions, and carrots, sweet potato fries, or good old-fashioned Irish pub chips with malt vinegar.

Mandalay, Silver Spring, MD

If you’ve spent any time with me in the D.C. area, I’ve probably tried to drag you to Mandalay. In all of my traveling, it is the only strictly Burmese restaurant I’ve ever encountered in the U.S. Burma, or Myanmar, is a country in Southeastern Asia bordered by India and China, and its cuisine is a mix of the flavours you find in Indian, Thai, and Vietnamese foods, while having its own unique character and taste. I love spicy food, and Mandalay has the distinction of being the only restaurant whose dishes at ‘native’-level spice have brought tears pouring down my cheeks. It’s flavorful, unusual, and utterly delicious.

Some of my personal favourites are the NanNanBin Hin, with cilantro (or basil) simmered in onions and tomatoes along with fried tofu; the Aloo ChoChin Gyaw, which features fried potatoes, green peppers, onions, and tomatoes; and the Tofu Ohnno Hin, a coconut cream curry with green peppers, onions, and tomatoes that makes all other coconut curries seem inferior. If you have room for dessert, which may be debatable, they sometimes have a special ShweJi; a thick and creamy baked pudding that can be served with coconut ice cream inside a coconut shell.

Black Gryphon, Elizabethtown, PA

This last is a fairly new find, but I already make excuses to visit whenever I’m in the area. The menu is not hugely vegetarian-friendly, but there is always a vegetarian entrée on the menu, and a great assortment of sides, salads, soups, and starters. Black Gryphon is ostensibly a Welsh pub, but the menu changes seasonally and is largely based on what the owner sources locally from farmers, frequently with a distinctly international flair. I’ve been told the fish ’n’ chips is exceptional (the chips certainly are), and the house-made tin bread is dangerously good—if you aren’t careful, you may fill up before the meal.

There are two dishes I come back for, one traditional Welsh and one with a Welsh twist. Rarebit, also known as ‘rabbit’, is a Welsh dish of melted cheese and other ingredients that is served poured over toasted bread. It is rich and decadent, and Black Gryphon makes theirs with cheddar and lager. My other favourite is the Welsh seasonal pierogies. Pierogies are Polish, not Welsh, but Black Gryphon’s are stuffed with seasonal Welsh ‘stwmp’: a mash made of root vegetables and starches that is wrapped in dough and fried to perfection in brown or onion butter. The stwmp changes based on what vegetables are in season, so it might be made from a combination of beets, sweet potatoes, turnips, parsnips, radishes, carrots, or whatever else is ripe and tasty.

The dessert menu, like the entrées, is always changing (we recently lamented the loss of the delectable mocha mousse), but one staple thus far has been the Fried Milk & Morning Cereal. With a different pairing every day, this treat features a scoop of ice cream rolled in a crunchy coating of breakfast cereal and deep-fried. While you might look askance at first, I can promise it is utterly decadent and delicious. There are often cakes and fruit cobblers if you’re looking for something a little more authentically Welsh.

Photos: Black Gryphon, Kilkenny’s, Foursquare

Ash Lawn-Highland, Charlottesville, VA

My first professional job – you could say, chronologically, where this travelogue really began – took place on the grounds of Ash Lawn-Highland, in Virginia. I had heard of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson; but President James Monroe’s estate, adjacent to Monticello, had never crossed my radar. When I first arrived in town, I went to visit and signed up for the tour.

Known simply as “Highland” in 1793, when the land was first purchased by James Monroe, the estate was renamed “Ash Lawn” by a later owner in 1837. In 1930, the property came into the hands of Jay Winston Johns, a philanthropist who opened the house and grounds to public tours, and willed Ash Lawn-Highland to the College of William and Mary, where President Monroe had attended school. It is now operated by the college, and has been added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The drive to Ash Lawn-Highland is a gorgeous, scenic trip through groves of trees, hillsides, and other nearby historic properties. The University of Virginia and the College of William and Mary are both local, and Monticello is so close by that you can see it from Ash Lawn-Highland’s front porch. The atmosphere set by the estate managers is one of a working early 19th century farm, complete with peacocks, textile demonstrations, and open-hearth cooking.

When the property was willed to the College of William & Mary, it was with the instructions that Ash Lawn-Highland be operated “as a historic shrine for the education of the general public.” Surrounded by the 200-year-old boxwood gardens, original buildings, and the guides and staff re-creating domestic plantation life in the 1800s, it’s easy to feel as though you’ve stepped into that shrine.

Many of the furnishings inside the main house are original, either early American pieces or French, imported from Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. The collection is completed by artwork that either celebrates or involves James Monroe. A copy of Washington Crossing the Delaware, which pictures James Monroe behind Washington, holding the American flag, hangs in the Victorian Wing; a later addition to the house which is now home to special exhibits.

With the seemingly conflicting elements of an overseer’s house and slave quarters, a bust of Napoleon presented by that very Emperor while he was conquering Europe, and a table given by Santo Domingo – now the Dominican Republic – in thanks for Monroe’s foreign policy of European non-intervention, Monroe’s home is not necessarily easy to puzzle out. For American history lovers, it’s certainly an interesting place to visit, and well worth a stop if you’re in the area.

There’s a lot that goes on at Ash Lawn-Highland, so check the calendar if your travel dates are flexible. African-American History Month, authentically-period birthday parties for the Monroes, a book festival, the local county fair, Independence Day, and even an annual sheep-shearing are celebrated on the grounds.

The guided walking tour is roughly ½ hour long, and isn’t too strenuous, although between the heat and humidity, the weather on the grounds can be oppressive by June. There is a small convenience shop available, although if you’d prefer more substantial fare, you should eat before you visit. If you’ve made it all the way to Ash Lawn-Highland, do make sure to check out Monticello and the sights at the University of Virginia, which really complete the vision Jefferson intended when he invited Monroe to settle at Highland, in order to create ‘a society to our taste’.

Photos: Ash Lawn-Highland

Fountains, Kansas City, MO

Previous Post

(top-bottom, left-right)

1. J C Nichols Memorial

2. Fountain of Bacchus

3. Crown Center Entrance Fountains

4. Diana

5. Firefighters Fountain

6. Crown Center

7. Vietnam Veterans Fountain

8. Kansas City Life 100-year Commemorative Plaza

9. Pomona Fountain

10. Mystery Fountain!

This Post

(top-bottom, left-right)

1. Ward Parkway Mirror Pool Fountain

2. Allen Memorial Fountain

3. Meyer Circle Seahorse Fountain

4. Fountain Basin/A Mind Soothed

5. Romany Fountain

6. Four Fauns Fountain

7. E. F. Pierson Sculpture Garden Fountain

8. Neptune Fountain

9. Seville Light Fountain

10. Court of the Penguins Fountain

(City of Fountains Foundation information can be found here)

Fountains, Kansas City, MO

One thing always comes to my mind when I think of Kansas City, and it isn’t barbecue: It’s the fountains. With 200 registered public fountains in the metropolitan area, Kansas City claims to have the second-highest number of public fountains anywhere in the world, falling short only next to Rome, Italy. That number also doesn’t include private fountains and business-owned fountains, which could probably easily add another hundred to the tally. I took a stroll over the weekend and then a brief drive down one of the main streets, and returned with pictures of 24 different fountains from that trip alone. Even as I type this, I’m nagging friends to help me narrow down pictures, because I can’t fit them all into one post.

The famous Kansas City slogan, dating to the 19th century, is, “more boulevards than Paris, more fountains than Rome.” Public parks, plazas, statues, and of course fountains make Kansas City a beautiful city to walk in, full of green spaces and falling water. In 1973, the City of Fountains Foundation was established to encourage the purchase, installation, and upkeep of fountains in Kansas City. If you’re on foot, fountain central is the Country Club Plaza, which trivia experts might know as the first shopping center in the U.S., established in 1922. Walking up and down the streets, you’ll find fountains on corners, on sidewalks, tucked into alcoves, and in courtyards, placed in front of stores or set into the walls in between them.

The fountains in Kansas City come from all over the world. The J.C. Nichols Memorial Fountain, with its plunging horses representing major rivers of the world (the Missouri is shown here, complete with alligator), was originally built in Paris in 1910. The Meyer Circle Sea Horse Fountain came from Venice in the 1920s, where it was first built in the 1700s. The Neptune Fountain, aboard his chariot and with trident to hand, was made in 1911 and brought over from England. ‘A Mind Soothed’ within the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is formed around an Italian marble basin that weighs 4 tons and dates mind-bogglingly to 200 C.E.

Some of the city’s fountains honor its natives: The Vietnam Veterans Fountain was designed as a memorial to those from the area who died in that conflict, and the Firefighters Fountain was raised as a tribute to all firefighers; particularly 6 who died in an explosion in 1988. Many other fountains serve as memorials to Kansas City natives or family members.

You can see the water in the fountain turn different colours on some special days, such as holidays or local events. For the start of breast cancer awareness month, the water is dyed pink. For some of the local sports events, the water turns red. For Irish Fest, all of the fountains on the Crown Plaza go green. And on the second Tuesday in April, Greater Kansas City Fountain Day sees all of the publicly-operated fountains come to life at once, officially bringing spring to the city.

Kentucky Horse Park, Lexington, KY

I may have mentioned before that I was, as a young person, more than a little horse-crazy. One of the best places for the horse-crazy has to be the Kentucky Horse Park, which calls itself an educational equine theme park, and ‘the world’s only park dedicated to man’s relationship with the horse.’

The history of the park goes back to 1777, and the land has a list of former owners that includes a military veteran from the French and Indian War; a lover of English gardens, who created the first Kentucky farm greenhouse; a niece of Daniel Boone; a coal baron; and several horse breeders. The land was sold to the Commonwealth of Kentucky in 1972, and in 1978 became a public horse park.

The main attraction is, of course, the horses. In every season except winter, you can take horseback rides through the park, which is an ocean of green grass and trees, with its own arboretum on the grounds. In the gorgeous historical ‘Big Barn’, which was originally built in 1897 and is one of the largest barns in the world, you can see the draft horse teams that pull the carriage tours of the park. The carriages themselves are also spectacular, and well worth a look.

The walking barn tour, which is one of my strongest memories of the park, takes you into the stables to meet the horses there, and to see how thoroughbred racehorses live in style. The Hall of Champions is where the race-winners reside, so if you’re a fan, you might see an old favourite enjoying retirement in a pasture. If you’d rather see them up close, daily presentations of the champions are made to show them off to visitors.

Many of those champions who passed on at the horse park are buried along the Memorial Walk of Champions, and others are buried throughout the park, with graves marked by memorial plaques and statues. Man o’War is one of the most famous to be buried in the park, along with several of his descendants.

To get a look at more than the sleek racing thoroughbreds and muscled draft horses, check out the Horses of the World exhibition, which is held daily in the park and showcases horse breeds from around the globe. Some of the breeds, such as the Spanish Paso Fino, or the Slovenian Lipizzan, a breed now associated with Austria, have their own distinct gaits and movements, which you can see firsthand in the show ring. Horses from Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas are all brought out to participate in the show. If you haven’t made it out to Assateague yet, you can even see a Chincoteague Pony! J

Another major attraction within the park is the Smithsonian-affiliated International Museum of the Horse. With exhibitions that highlight the role and history of horses in many cultures worldwide, it’s a fascinating look at the symbiotic relationship people have developed with horses over time. The museum also features equine art exhibitions, from world-renowned artists and talented locals alike. While all of the shows and attractions in the park seek to educate as well as entertain, the museum especially provides an interesting perspective on horses in history and culture.

There are restaurants within the park, but there are also public picnic tables on the grounds if you want to pack a lunch. Check the schedule of events to see what’s happening in the park—there are major competitions, conventions, and educational programs that take place on the grounds, especially during warmer months, and an admission ticket may end up coming with a bonus.

Photos: The Kentucky Horse Council

Colorado Whitewater River Rafting & Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, Glenwood Springs, CO

The highlight of my summer this year may have been whitewater rafting down the Colorado River. I’d never been rafting before, and wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, but now I would do it again in a heartbeat. The lovely thing about rafting near Glenwood Springs was that we got a taste of the extremes: the rougher, more intense Shoshone rapids, and the peaceful glide down a more relaxed stretch of the river.

We went out with Colorado Whitewater River Rafting, a family-owned company I would highly recommend. Our guide was knowledgeable, fun, made sure everyone was informed, and knew every swirl and ripple of the current to take us through in the most exciting (but safe!) way possible. I would post pictures, but in every photograph taken from shore, the front half of the boat where I was seated was completely obscured by a wild plunge into the rapids. It was raining when we pushed off into the river, but after a few minutes we were all so busy rowing and riding the rapids that no one noticed, and in true Rocky Mountains fashion, the rain died out after a brief afternoon shower and the sun came out to gild the scenery.

That scenery is one of the biggest selling points for rafting through Glenwood Canyon. Mountains rise up ahead and alongside of the boats, and rocky cliffs and grassy green banks of wildflowers line the shores. Our guide told us stories about some of the scenic spots along the way, and knew the names of all of the rapids—Baptism, Tuttle’s Tumble, and Maneater will give you an idea of how wild our ride was.

We were on the water for around 3 hours, which was just the right length to let us bask in the sunshine, get our thrills, and even take a swim in the calmer waters. I managed not to fall out, even when ‘Riding the Bull’, which is an experience I would strongly suggest for anyone who goes rafting: abandoning your seat, you perch directly on the prow of the boat, where the first strong wave will knock you back into the boat in a shower of water. I was dragged into the water at one point by a nefarious colleague, but lifejackets and sunshine meant that even the chilly waters were pleasant to float on during a hot summer day. Bring a picnic if you want to spend more time in the sun; there are tables under the trees right next to the river, where you can watch the rafts come in.

Visible above us as we came around a river bend, high on the cliffs, I got my first glimpse of Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park. After our afternoon on the water, we decided to head up and check it out. To enter the park, you need to take a gondola all the way up the side of the mountain to the crest, where an amusement park sits perched over the river below. If you haven’t already picnicked by the river, you can bring a meal up with you to eat at the top of the mountain, which will save you from the amusement park prices at the restaurant.

Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park has a very simple and unusual theme: some of the highest, most breathtaking views of any amusement park, coupled with the equally breathtaking excitement of thrill rides. We went for the Alpine Coaster, which was the first alpine coaster built in the United States, and recently named one of the ’10 Best Roller-Coaster Rides of Your Life’ by USA Today. Alpine coasters are self-contained cars, set on a track and operated entirely by gravity. You start at the top of a mountain, and the only way to go is down. Each car has its own handbrake, so you can control exactly how much of a thrill you want your ride to be (and in case you were wondering, I can confirm it is completely possible to zoom the entire way down without hitting the brakes once J). The track goes 3,400 feet down, and you can ride either alone or with a friend.

The Cliffhanger Roller Coaster is a more traditional coaster, with the added bonus of being the highest-elevation roller coaster in North America and having some sensational views. At the top, you can see 1,450 feet down to the Colorado River, and possibly even spot the tiny dots of adventurous rafters.

The ride we could see from the river was the Giant Canyon swing, which you have to see to really believe. It is, very simply, a pendulum…which swings you out over the canyon, so that you’re looking directly down over the cliffs to the river. Similar without being quite so dramatic is the Glenwood Canyon Flyer, which is a traditional swing ride, and for a swooping rush down the mountain, you can try the Soaring Eagle Zip Ride.

Once you’re thrilled out (or if you’re not quite up for looking straight down the side of a mountain), the park also offers a 4D motion theater, laser tag, family coaster, climbing wall, maze, Ferris wheel, and entertainment. You can also take the cave tours to see the Fairy Caves, King’s Row, or experience the Wild Tour. The latter involves crawling and slithering through the caves for a two-hour tour of the harder-to-reach places.

If you can’t get enough of Glenwood Springs, or just have some extra time to kill, there’s a local Railroad Museum, Frontier Historical Society, Hot Springs & Spa, Center for the Arts, White River National Forest, and a Whitewater Park. No matter what you choose to do, you’ll find more than enough in Glenwood Springs to fill your day, and with some moments you won’t soon forget.

Photos: Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park

Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, Wolf Trap, VA

Opera-goers will most likely know this, but others may not: in the tucked-away town of Wolf Trap, Virginia, you’ll find the U.S.’s first and only national park dedicated to the performing arts.

National parks are chosen for their scientific, geological, and natural features; for their cultural richness; for their historical significance and value. Wolf Trap offers something else: a Foundation for the Performing Arts, with theatres housed on a former farm, donated for the purpose to the National Park Service. At Wolf Trap, you can experience live opera, jazz, dance, popular music, orchestra concerts, musicals, and much more. Traveling spectacles such as acrobats and circus acts perform on Wolf Trap’s stages, and the National Symphony Orchestra plays its summer concert series there, out under the stars.

Outdoor performances at the Filene Center are scheduled May through September, during the warm summer months. The rest of the year sees shows in a smaller theatre, The Barns – so named because it is, in fact, a former barn – which hosts touring musical acts of all kinds. In addition to performance, Wolf Trap supports arts education programs, including camps for children, internship programs, and a Children’s Theatre-in-the-Woods with its own, smaller stage on park grounds. Children’s Theatre-in-the-Woods offers puppetry, dance, music, theatre, and storytelling performances for families with kids, out of doors and surrounded by the gorgeous Virginia forest.

Wolf Trap’s unique set-up creates performance experiences I’ve never had anywhere else. It’s one thing to attend an outdoor rock concert at an amphitheatre, or to sit in a concert hall to listen to a symphony; it’s entirely another to be watching National Geographic Live! or The Lord of The Rings trilogy on an enormous movie screen, with the National Symphony Orchestra playing  the score – with full choral accompaniment – on a stunning stage inside a glorious theatre, while you’re having a picnic with your friends under the stars. Or to dance along with a New Orleans funk band in the Barns, or watch a Western-themed opera in the perfect rustic setting, on a stage approximately the size of a postage stamp.

In fair weather, I would highly recommend allowing extra time – outside of whichever performances you choose to attend – to explore the park itself. Rich farmland and wooded hills make Wolf Trap a picturesque place to visit, especially for an afternoon picnic or evening walk. Two of my friends eloped while at Wolf Trap, and were married in a grove there under the tall trees.

The heart of Wolf Trap is somewhat isolated from neighboring towns, so to avoid a drive (and the high concession stand prices), I’d recommend packing a picnic to bring to Filene Center performances. The regular audience members are pros—I’ve seen specialized wine glass holders deftly poked into the grass on the lawn, and elaborate cheese and fruit trays that appear from coolers as if by magic. If you want to picnic but don’t have time to plan, Wolf Trap does have its own catering company, who will provide you with your very own pre-packed picnic for performances if you place an order ahead of time. Bring sunscreen and bug spray as well; the temperature can easily pass 100 F in late summer, and there are frequently mosquitos.

Whatever you go to see – be it a musical sing-along, an international theatrical troupe, a film accompanied by a live symphony, a local singer-songwriter, or any of the other programs on offer – it will very likely be an experience you don’t soon forget.