Saturday, July 31, 2021

Exploring Maryland's Iconic Casselman Bridge State Park

"We build too many walls and not enough bridges." -- Isaac Newton

Like Thomas Shoals Lighthouse outside of Annapolis, the Cassalman Bridge in western Maryland is an iconic Maryland image.

Casselman Bridge once carried the National Road across Casselman River in Garrett County. It remains one of Maryland's most picturesque places, instantly Facebook and Instagram worthy. It has been photographed in the winter, with autumn foliage, and in all sorts of weather. 

And this old bridge has earned her beauty -- she's a 200-year old dame that served this nation proudly for 120 years, from 1813 to 1933, carrying the western expansion from eastern and central Maryland west through what was once the frontier wildnerness west beyond Cumberland. She also can boast of being one of the oldest of her kind surviving.

Now, the Old National Pike runs a 100 yards south of the bridge, and another 500 yards beyond that runs I-68 -- both visible from Cassalman Bridge.

When the bridge was built, it was the longest single-span stone arch bridge in the United States, and was built to last, to ensure heavy traffic, including heavy wagons, carrying loads of up to 10 tons, drawn by 12-horse teams, and countless smaller wagons pulled by oxen, loaded with the earthly belongings of those seeking better lives further west.

Now the bridge carries pedestrians only; a four-acre space surrounding the bridge is a state park, that also offers picnic tables and green space.

When the 80-foot span Casselman Bridge was constructed, it was the longest single-span stone arch bridge in the United States, and served as an important link on the National Road. A small portion of the original National Road still exists at the approaches to the bridge. 

Although the bridge no longer carries vehicular traffic, it is open to pedestrians and is accessible for disabled visitors.

While you're there, walk over the bridge to the Spruce Forest Artisan Village to interact with six resident and usually several visiting artists and their work. 

Spruce Forest serves a unique purpose in the Allegheny region. Here in the heart of what was known as Little Crossings in the time of General Braddock, artists have developed designs, genres, and even media specific to this area. Spruce Forest is a venue where artists showcase and sell their work. 

I appreciated seeing the log buildings adjacent to the bridge -- this is perhaps what local buildings may have looked like in the early 1800s, or so I imagined.

Plus, who doesn't want to do a little shopping?

Getting there: 10240 National Pike, Grantsville, MD 21536

Hours: Always open


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Tuesday, July 27, 2021

The Virginian Hotel: Experience Lynchburg Luxury in Beau Arts Style

The Virginian Hotel does not disappoint -- we spent a luxurious few days there while we explored Lynchburg, discovering all the wonderful things to see and do there!

When it opened in 1913, the hotel was Lynchburg's premier grand downtown hotel. Built in the glamorous Beaux Arts style, no detail was missed.

Throughout the years, the hotel hosted numerous public and private events, with personalities such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan (while he was still an actor) visiting.

Unfortunately, the hotel struggled in the 1960s and the building was purchased by Lynchburg Baptist College in 1973 as a dormitory. Further indignities were instore for this magnificent building: the formerly elegant first floor spaces were inelegantly boarded up and used as storage, while the the upper floors were renovated for low-income housing.

But eventually the tides turned again for this historic building, and Hilton purchased the property, renovated the building and it re-opened again as The Virginian Hotel in spring 2018.

The renovation they did on this historic hotel is incredible. The hotel is stunning.

The rooms are spacious and elegantly detailed, open and airy with tall ceilings.

Even the bathroom was pretty, with a shower with a rainfall shower head. The bedroom had soft fluffy linens that you just sink into. Literally nothing was missed in the comfort of this room.

When you're there, make sure you stop by the adorable Marigold Cafe, a casual breakfast and lunch "grab & go" that also offers cozy tables where you may enjoy your delicious coffee and pastry before heading out to explore the town. The Marigold features convenient street level access as well as large historic windows that fill the space with natural light.

Make sure you find time to visit the rooftop restaurant and bar, the Skyline Grill -- Lynchburg's only rooftop restaurant -- you can take in the views while enjoying appetizers and drinks, or even a light dinner.

Getting there: 712 Church St, Lynchburg, VA


Saturday, July 24, 2021

See the Secret Place Where Eagles Soar Aboard the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad

The Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad is a heritage railroad based in Romney, WV. The railroad operates excursion trains over a former Baltimore and Ohio Railroad line that runs between Green Spring and Petersburg. Since 1991, Potomac Eagle has operated scenic rail excursions through the South Branch Valley in West Virginia.

As you wind along the South Branch of the Potomac River, you’ll enter a scenic 6-mile wooded gorge known as the Trough, an area noted for bald eagle sightings, situated in the Allegheny Mountains of Hampshire and Hardy counties.

The steep slopes of the Trough are wooded ridges that make it inaccessible from either side.

Your options are limited if you want to explore the Trough: you can experience this beautiful stretch of the South Branch Potomac River only by the South Branch Valley Railroad (the SVBR, the host line for the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad, runs along the foot of Mill Creek Mountain), by canoe or kayak or on foot. 

The Wappacomo Plantation, which lends its name to the train station
that provides the home for the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad.

The three-hour train excursion leaves from Wappacomo Station, just outside of Romney. The good news for us on this rainy day is that bald eagles tend to be more active in overcast and/or rainy weather.

The rain drops and rivelets on the window almost lent a Van Gogh-esq touch to this photo.

Before you enter the Trough, you travel through scenic farmland.

Because of the clean water, tall trees, and breathtaking environment, the South Branch makes a perfect home for these birds -- but the eagles only recently returned to the area, as the first bald eagle nest in West Virginia was found there in 1981. Now there's at least eight documented nests in the Trough. 

The narrated journey noted the historic homes we passed by, as we were served a four-course meal in the lounge car (yes, it's expensive but the experience of riding in this luxurious rail car is oh, so worth it!). Although it had been pouring as we waited to board and at the beginning of the ride, as we rode along, the rain decreased and soon ended. We felt very lucky!

We were dining in one of the railroad's two lounge cars, Pere Marquette’s Eagle CaƱon and Chesapeake and Ohio’s Chessie Club, both of which feature couch style seating with tables, are climate-controlled, and include the four-course meal service.

We stopped briefly on our journey into the Trough, to allow passengers to enter an open-top gondola car that had been used to carry freight like pipes or railroad ties, but now is outfitted with benches, lending itself to eagle sightings. 

We stuck to the observation car, with large wide-open windows where you can lean out to get a better look that offered a bit more shelter (it was threatening rain) and allowed us to move back to our original seats in the Superior Dining Car. 

Regular passenger coaches are coupled to the north of the open-air cars. Most of these cars came from commuter rail service on the Canadian National. Typical seating in these cars are cushioned, reversible seats where passengers can move the seat-back in order to face in either direction.

Other seating options include the three air-conditioned cars featuring table-style seating, which is convenient if you're bringing picnic lunches or simply wish to purchase snacks from the concession car. 

The concession car originally was a kitchen car during the Korean War offering a selection of hot dogs, nachos, candy, chips, popcorn, and other snacks as well as beverages such as hot coffee, soda, Gatorade, and water.

We spotted deer just as we started entering the Trough, but it was over shadowed by two eagles flying over.

This eagle posed for us in a dead tree across the river from the train.

We soon spotted the first of the two nests that can be seen from the train, with fluffy little eagle balls still in the nest. 

In the center of this photo is the eagle's nest.

We saw a variety of eagles -- six or seven in all, a rewarding trip! I spent some time in the observation car, chatting with Greg, the Conductor, whose served as a conductor for three years. He says he loves his job, especially seeing the eagles, and enjoying the wonder of the passengers enjoying the eagle sightings. 

Greg's enthusiasm for his job and for the eagles themselves is part of what makes the Potomac Eagle excursions so fun and amazing.

Sometimes, especially after thunderstorms, trees come down on the tracks. And guess
who gets to whip out the chain saws to move those trees? The crew of the Potomac Eagle!

Know before you go: It’s not a guarantee you'll get to see America’s greatest symbol on the Potomac Eagle, but it’s a pretty good bet that you'll get to see at least one.

None of the eagles gave me wonderful glamor shots --
nor did I bring the big lenses to get those shots! It was still wonderful, nevertheless.

Getting there: 149 Eagle Dr, Romney, WV


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Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Hiking in the Patuxent Research Refuge

The Patuxent Research Refuge offers several nearly level hikes that include a lot of interest, including a the 1.8 mile Cash Lake Loop Trail, the 4.9 mile North Tract Loop, and the 2.4 mile Forest Trail.

Stretched for time, we chose the shorter "hike" (more like a walk, although there were a few muddy spots and trippy tree roots, around Lake Cash.

We encountered several families with young children and men fishing in the lake.

The hike is short but the scenery and wildlife are terrific. It starts at the visitor center for the Patuxent National Wildlife refuge, near Beltsville, Md, and winds around the lake. Usually you're shaded, but there are a few points where you cross floating bridges or unshaded parts of the lake in open sun.

Because of the varying scenery walking along the lake, in woods, crossing bridges, board walks, there's a lot of interest for kids, and since it's almost flat, a great place to start introducing the littlest ones to a love of nature.

There are also numerous benches and places to contemplate the beauty of Lake Cash.

Patuxent Research Refuge supports a wide diversity of wildlife in forest, meadow and wetland habitats. The land is managed to maintain biological diversity for the protection and benefit of native and migratory species.

During the fall and spring migrations, many waterfowl species stop to rest and feed. Approximately 270 species of birds have been documented on the refuge. We saw ospreys and great blue heron.

We visited during the time of Covid-19, so the wildlife /visitors center was closed. When my now-adult kids were much younger, we brought them there several times, and it was always a fun visit.

Established in 1936 by executive order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Patuxent Research Refuge is the only National Wildlife Refuge in the United States established to support wildlife research.

Getting there: 10901 Scarlet Tanager Loop Laurel, MD

Hours: the grounds are open sunrise to sunset. Please check the website for visitor center hours and other specifics.


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