Summer Fun: 5 Dog-Friendly OBX Destinations

Tavish on the beach by Jennette's Pier

OBX:  three little letters stand for North Carolina’s Outer Banks and a summer full of fun for dogs and people alike. Many locations along the Outer Banks are denoted simply by their milepost number along U.S. Highway 158.  At Whalebone Junction, the road becomes a decidedly less-congested N.C. Route 12 and is the gateway to Cape Hatteras, designated the country’s first national seashore in 1953. Beaches are dog-friendly, with regulations varying by town and season. Here are the Intrepid Pup’s picks for the top five scenic and sandy spots at this east coast playground:

Bodie Island Light Station

After wandering the grounds, be sure to follow the 1/8-mile boardwalk through the marsh for a picture-perfect view.

35° 49′ 5.30″ N,  75° 33′ 51.53″ W
Bodie Island Light Station
, Bodie Island, Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina
Open March – December

Throughout the centuries, the storms and shoals defining this stretch of coastline have wrecked more than 600 ships. Were it not for the area’s lighthouses and lifesaving services, this Graveyard of the Atlantic would have claimed even more. Don’t miss Bodie Island Light Station, the 164.4-foot black and white striped beacon whose light is visible from 19 miles at sea. Constructed in 1872, it’s actually the third light station to occupy that approximate location. Since 2000, it’s been maintained by the National Park Service, and you can even take a ranger-led tour up the tower.  While dogs aren’t currently allowed inside the light station, that wasn’t always the case. A Chesapeake Bay Retriever named Chess used to climb the tower every day, accompanying his master Vernon Gaskill who served as Bodie Island’s last civilian-era keeper (1919-1939).  According to Elinor De Wire’s book, The Lightkeepers’ Menagerie—on sale in the light station’s gift shopChess had no problem with the heights but apparently drew the line at entering the lantern room, because he didn’t like the odor of kerosene!

Tavish at the Lost Colony

The emptiness here adds to the mystery and kind of proves a point. After all, it is the Lost Colony.

35° 56′ 9.79″ N,  75° 42′ 35.35″ W
Fort Raleigh National Historic Site, Roanoke Island, North Carolina
Open year-round

A newly renovated visitor center at this National Park Service site interprets the history of Roanoke Island, from Algonquian homeland in the 1500s to a refuge for runaway slaves during the Civil War. But the spot is perhaps best known for what it wasn’t, namely a successful English colony. In fact, no one knows for certain what became of the English settlers who’d arrived in 1587.  When Governor John White returned to check on his transplants to the New World three years later, the 117 colonists plus White’s ill-fated granddaughter Virginia Dare (the first Christian baby born in Virginia) seemed to have vanished into thin air.  An abandoned fort and the word “CROATOAN” carved into a post are the scant clues in this unsolved mystery.

You, too, can explore the grounds of the lost colony. Pass a reconstructed version of the original earthen fort and join up with the Hariot Nature Trail for what amounts to about a 20-minute walk. We came upon a flock of ibises unhurriedly picking their way through the clearing. The wooded trail is slightly overgrown in spots and is punctuated by markers identifying types of trees and habitats. Sprinkled in are quotes drawn from accounts in Old English affirming the myriad challenges that the colonists faced. The trail provides a  picturesque view of Albemarle Sound before circling back to the Visitor Center.  Let us know if you happen to make the separate 2.5-mile round-trip hike on the Freedom Trail out to Croatan Sound—we were unfortunately thwarted in our attempt by a severe thunderstorm!

NagsHeadBeach

The Intrepid Pup officially “off duty” on the beaches of Nags Head.

35° 54′ 36.32″ N,  75° 35′ 43.77″ W
Nags Head Beaches & Jennette’s Pier, Nags Head, North Carolina (milepost 16.5)

Cape Hatteras National Seashore and the towns of Duck, Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, Nags Head, and Southern Shores all permit dogs on their beaches with varying degrees of seasonal access and leash laws. Team Tavish and the Intrepid Pup particularly like the beaches in Nags Head, because dogs are allowed on the beach year-round and at any time of day so long as they are on a maximum 10-ft leash and owners clean up.

Jennette's Pier

A bronze sea turtle stands watch by the pier house on Jeannette’s Pier.

While Tavish loves the water, he isn’t big on swimming, and that’s actually just fine here, because one does have to be mindful of the dangerous rip currents that can lurk offshore. But the beaches are clean and wide…perfect for an Intrepid Pup to snuffle the sand, poke at shells, crabs and seaweed, and skitter through the foamy surf. Walk the beach at sunrise and you’re sure to catch glimpses of skimming pelicans and playful porpoises offshore. Hard to miss at the heart of the beach’s Whalebone District is Jennette’s Pier (see photo at top). It’s been at this location since 1939, and  its current iteration is all concrete and extends 1,000 feet  into the Atlantic Ocean. Dogs aren’t permitted in or beyond the pier house, but you can get as far as the oversize bronze sculpture of a sea turtle. From that vantage point you can watch all the anglers heading out onto the pier to catch bluefish, cobia, skate, pigfish, mackerel, sea mullet, and more.

Tavish at Jockey's Ridge

The dunes at this state park are very cool…just be mindful of your dog’s paws, because the sand can get hot, hot, HOT!

35° 57′ 50.37″ N,  75° 37′ 59.38″ W
Jockey’s Ridge State Park
, Nags Head, North Carolina (milepost 12)
Open year-round

Did you know that this 420-acre state park represents the eastern United States’ largest natural dune system? It’s open to the public year-round, though park hours vary by season. Parking and general access are free. Dogs are allowed, so long as they remain on 6-foot leashes. From the visitor center, you can stroll a 360-foot boardwalk to a dune overlook, set out on the 1.5-mile “Tracks in the Sand” interpretive trail, take a mile-long walk on the “Soundside” nature trail…or simply scale the dunes. The shifting sands create a ridge that varies in height from 80 to 100 feet, providing spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean and Roanoke Sound. With fairly steady prevailing winds, Jockey’s Ridge is a favorite destination for kiteboarders and sandboarders. On the morning of our visit, hang gliding lessons were just getting underway, and the park was also gearing up for a big kite festival. We’d been forewarned that the sand at Jockey’s Ridge can get anywhere from 10 to 30 degrees hotter than the air temperature, so Tavish came prepared wearing his Ruffwear Swamp Cooler™ vest (a real godsend that made all the difference in his comfort in the dry heat), and he had his protective paw booties at the ready.  A word to the wise:  try taking off your shoes. If it’s too hot to walk on the dunes barefoot, it’ll definitely be too hot for your pup!  When we reached the ridge, the radio announcer for the kite festival approached us to pet  Tavish. Taking stock of all of our water bottles and gear, he remarked, “Wow, I can’t tell you how many people I see come up here with no water for themselves, let alone for their dogs. Big mistake.”

Tavish Wright Brothers National Memorial

The sky’s the limit at the Wright Brothers National Memorial!

36° 0′ 51.20″ N,  75° 40′ 4.40″ W
Wright Brothers National Memorial
, Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina (milepost 7.5)
Open year-round

Modern aviation is indebted to two Ohio brothers who journeyed to what at the turn-of-the 20th century was a remote patch of dunes. Carefully chosen for the winds, lack of distractions, and sandy landings, Kill Devil Hills was where Orville and Wilbur Wright first achieved powered, controlled, and sustained human flight on December 17, 1903.  You can follow in the brothers’ flight path with a visit to this National Park Service memorial. With Tavish in tow, we covered a total of approximately 1.5 miles walking the grounds. A pathway with stone markers traces the trajectories and landings of the Wrights’ first four powered flights. Trek uphill to get a panorama of the site, topped by a 60-foot granite memorial; it’s the same promontory from which the Wrights had earlier experimented with glider flights. Before turning back to further explore the informative Visitor Center, head downhill beyond the memorial. At the apex of the trail loop is a bronze and stainless steel sculpture group entitled, December 17, 1903. It captures the same instant of first flight as the iconic photograph and makes for a pretty nifty photo opp all its own!

Dogging the Details

Click to see what 2 on the Wag-A-Meter meansYou see a lot of dogs on the Outer Banks enjoying outdoor activities a-plenty. So at first we were puzzled by the fact that dog-friendly lodging and dining weren’t as abundant. It turns out that many dog-owning OBX vacationers rent beach houses by the week (Sunday to Saturday) so they’re not needing as many hotels and always have the option of cooking in.  That being said, there are approximately a dozen pet-friendly overnight accommodations. We stayed at the Dolphin Oceanfront Motel (milepost 16.5), finding it to be minimalist but functional, with its key attribute being that it had a primo location right on the beach. By no means inexpensive, it was still comparatively less pricey than the pet-friendly rooms at the national hotel chains and some of the local B&Bs.

Tavish at the Front Porch Cafe

Chillaxing at the Front Porch Cafe

Foodwise, we stopped at a couple places with patio dining only to discover that dogs weren’t allowed.  We hit the jackpot, though, in finding the Front Porch Cafe for breakfast. We ate at their locations in Nags Head (milepost 10.5) and Kill Devil Hills (milepost 6). In addition to making a good cup o’ joe, they have a wide assortment of muffins, pastries, and breakfast sandwiches. We sat outside in roomy Adirondack chairs, and the staff was quick to offer Tavish dog biscuits and a bowl of water.  Pigman’s Bar-B-Que was our other find. We took our order out to their picnic tables, and Tavish happily sampled our Carolina-style Que, hush puppies, fries, slaw, baked beans, and cornbread. OBX ranks a “2” on the Intrepid Pup’s wag-a-meter for providing enough canine fun in the sun, sand and surf to blow Tavish’s ears back! Grab a leash and go!

Four Ways to Savor the End of Summer with your Dog

Lounging

Don’t throw in the towel on summer just yet: Tavish the Intrepid Pup has—count ’em—FOUR great ideas for eking out the last bits of summer fun.

Labor Day Weekend is upon us, officially signaling that summer is drawing to a close. But just because the sun is setting earlier and the number of BBQs is dwindling doesn’t mean there isn’t still fun to be had. To that end, Tavish the Intrepid Pup has picked four can’t-miss activities to help you and your dog savor these last days of summer and tide you over ’til next year.

Click to see what a 3 on the Wag-A-Meter meansEach of these tops out the Intrepid Pup’s wag-a-meter at a “3” not only for being canine-specific but also for being fun for dogs and people alike. While they all happen to take place within the greater metropolitan DC area, Team Tavish suspects that there are similar events elsewhere in the country…let us know in the comments section below!

 

Canine Cruise

Ahoy! Tavish spent the whole Canine Cruise facing into the breeze.

Canine Cruise with Potomac Riverboat Company, Alexandria, Virginia
38°48′18.40″N,  77°2′22.99″W

Only two more cruise dates remain in the 2012 season: Thursday 9/6/12 and Thursday 9/13/12 at 7PM and 8PM, weather permitting

Here’s your chance to get out on the water! The Potomac Riverboat Company offers a whole host of water taxi services and scenic tours along the Potomac, but this one is billed especially for dogs. Board the double-decked, open-air Admiral Tilp from the Alexandria Dock at the base of Cameron Street; look for the dog-friendly drinking fountain near the gangplank! Though you’ll have to purchase a ticket ($15/adult; $9/child, reservations are suggested), your dog rides for free and usually even receives a complimentary dog biscuit from the crew!

There were approximately six other dogs sharing the upper deck with us on the evening of our 40-minute excursion. It was typical, sultry end-of-summer weather, so the light breeze off the water was welcome. The captain pointed out the highlights and shared a few pieces of trivia, but otherwise this was not a highly narrated affair. You’ll head as far south as the impressive Woodrow Wilson Bridge and as far upriver as Bolling Air Force Base. Along the way there are lovely views of Old Town and National Airport on the Virginia shore and National Harbor and the Naval Research Laboratory on the Maryland side.

Dogs are required to be on 6-foot flat leashes.

Dog Swim

Tavish prefers wading and splashing to actual swimming but had an absolute blast at last year’s Dog Swim at NVRPA’s Great Waves Waterpark.

Dog Swim at NVRPA Waterparks
38°48′18.04″N,  77°6′1.56″W
Saturday 9/8/12 – Noon to 4PM

On the final day of the season before the pools get drained, all five of the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority’s waterparks go to the dogs! Although the “rides” and slides are off limits, there’s plenty of action to be found in the wave pool, play areas, giant bubblers, and waterfalls. Come prepared to fill out a waiver/registration form and to pay the entry fee of $5 per dog. Once you pass through the security gates you can let your dog off leash, but be sure to keep your dog in view. Remember to bring a towel, doggie bags, fresh water for your dog to drink…and a camera! The sight of all those dogs racing around and grinning away (easily 50 at any given time) was priceless!

Though you may be tempted to join in the frolicking, only dogs are allowed in the water on the Dog Swim afternoon. And one final tip, shared from personal experience:  As your dog careens through the pools, be mindful of his toenails and paw pads, since the concrete decking can rapidly wear them to the quick or cause a tear. If your dog is due for a nail trim, don’t do it right before the Dog Swim.

NPS tour

Fala, you sly dog, you! Tavish poses with the bronze statue of Fala, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famed Scottish terrier and confidante, at the FDR Memorial. It’s the only presidential memorial to include a pet.

Presidential Dogs and Four-Legged American Heroes Tour, beginning at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, Washington, DC
38°53′2.24″N,  77°2′38.89″W

Upcoming dates are Sunday 9/9/12, Sunday 9/16/12, and Saturday 9/29/12, beginning at 5PM…plus a couple dates in October TBA, beginning at 4PM.

How better to explore man’s best friends’ contributions to our nation than via DC’s national memorials? Well-behaved, leashed dogs are welcome on this innovative (and free!) walking tour led by a National Park Service ranger. This particular tour is a relatively new offering—the first one was a month ago— and is rapidly growing in popularity. The tour convenes at the bookstore at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and, fortunately, finding late-afternoon weekend parking nearby on Ohio Drive isn’t impossible. In about 90 minutes’ time, you’ll cover approximately 1.5 miles at a leisurely pace, with built-in stops for water breaks and dog treats. Ranger Eddy Kahle readily held the attention of our multi-generational group consisting of 10 people and 5 dogs. Brimming with anecdotes and a dog-owner himself, Kahle is clearly passionate about the important role pets play in our lives. You’ll learn which president had the most pets in the White House (hint: one was a pygmy hippo!), who had a pair of beagles named “Him” and “Her”, and what dog joined the president on his morning jogs. As the tour moves away from the Tidal Basin and toward the war memorials, the focus shifts to the role of dogs in wartime and their value to returning veterans.

For your dog, bring along doggie bags, fresh water and a 6-foot leash. For you? Don’t forget a camera. After all, how else are you going to get that requisite photo of your dog alongside a super-sized Fala immortalized in bronze?

Yappy Hour

Tavish discovered that the Hotel Monaco’s open-air courtyard is a pretty happenin’ place.

Doggie Yappy Hour at the Hotel Monaco, Alexandria, Virginia
38°53′2.24″N,  77°2′38.89″W

5PM on Tuesday and Thursday evenings through October, weather permitting

One of the very first dog owners we met the winter we moved to northern Virginia told us point blank, “Come April, you must go to the Hotel Monaco.” That’s when the boutique hotel opens its brick courtyard for the much-anticipated Doggie Yappy Hours that take place every Tuesday and Thursday evenings all the way through October.

The ground rules are simple: no more than 2 dogs per handler, no paws on the tables, and dogs must be on 6-foot leashes and have current rabies tags. There’s a good vibe, and the people/canine-watching is pretty sublime. It’s not uncommon for the café tables and cushioned wicker sofas to be filled to capacity, with close to 25 dogs of all breed and sizes (plus a few adoptable dogs from the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria) lounging alongside. Hotel Monaco staffers are quick to accommodate with water bowls and complimentary dog treats. There’s no cover charge, but don’t think you won’t need a wallet. There’s an eclectic mix of non-draft craft beers available from the outdoor bartender. Wait staff will help you choose from a tasty selection of small plate “new American tavern” dishes from the hotel’s Jackson 20 menu. (Think fried green tomatoes, BBQ sliders, shrimp fritters, waffle fries with pulled pork and smoked gouda…yum!)

If you time it right on a Thursday, you can have drinks and appetizers at the Yappy Hour and then walk the three blocks down to the waterfront to catch the Canine Cruise described above.

Oh Shenandoah, I Long to See You

Brown House at Rapidan Camp

In visiting Rapidan Camp, Herbert Hoover’s presidential retreat in Shenandoah, the Intrepid Pup follows in the footsteps of such luminaries as aviator Charles Lindbergh and inventor Thomas Edison. Here, Tavish lounges on the porch of Brown House, the Hoovers’ personal cabin, at the terminus of the 2-mile Mill Prong Trail.

Rapidan's Outdoor Hearth

Rapidan Camp’s outdoor fireplace provides a good backdrop for photos, just as it did in Hoover’s time.

From 1929 to 1932, President Herbert Hoover and First Lady Lou Henry Hoover relished their rustic fishing camp in Shenandoah. Fortunately, three of the 13 original buildings constituting their Rapidan Camp have been preserved, and you can enjoy it, too.

One option is to board a shuttle bus at the Byrd Visitor Center for a ride down a fire road as part of a three-hour, ranger-led tour. But you can’t bring your dog. And that hardly seems sporting when the second option is a moderate hike that’s dog-friendly. The trail to Rapidan winds through the very forests that so appealed to the Hoovers as a presidential retreat just 100 miles from the pressures and summer humidity of Washington, DC. The Hoovers built the camp with their own funds, the design largely influenced by the First Lady’s own experience in working with the Girl Scouts. Their personal cabin, known simply as The Brown House, had a comfortably open floor plan, welcoming hearth, and Navajo rugs. The president maintained a separate bedroom/office so he’d not disturb his sleeping wife when White House business kept him burning the midnight oil. Meals were eaten in a communal mess hall to promote camaraderie. Days were spent fishing, horseback riding, and entertaining a steady stream of official guests.

The Hoovers' Norwegian Elkhound Weejie

The Hoovers had several dogs, but it’s their Norwegian Elkhound named Weejie who most often appears in Rapidan Camp press photos like this one from 1932. This particular AP image is part of the onsite interpretive exhibit at Rapidan’s Prime Minister’s Cabin.

Hiking into Rapidan affords you the opportunity of getting the lay of the land. Outdoor signage marks where the other buildings used to stand, and the Prime Minister’s Cabin (so dubbed for Ramsay MacDonald’s visit in 1929) now contains a comprehensive exhibit about the Hoovers and how their presence shaped development in the region. In addition, a park volunteer is on hand most of the year to answer questions and provide hikers with impromptu tours of the Brown House. Our arrival was met by a very personable and knowledgeable history Ph.D. graduate student named Jonathan who was living onsite in the Creel House and serving as Rapidan’s resident caretaker for the summer. From him we learned that Hoover gifted Rapidan Camp to the government upon leaving office, and the camp was incorporated into Shenandoah National Park in 1935. The camp enjoyed use by the Boy Scouts up until 1959, when the Park Service removed all but the existing three structures. Rapidan continued to host senior U.S. officials into the early 1990s, although Maryland’s Camp David had long since supplanted Rapidan as the official presidential retreat.

The grounds and buildings underwent a full restoration in 2004 to return them to how they appeared during the Hoovers’ residence, and they remain a fascinating time capsule of a bygone era.

Dogging the Details

Click to see what 2 on the Wag-A-Meter means38°29′26.49″N, 78°25′10.93″W
Rapidan Camp, Shenandoah National Park, VA (trailhead at Milam Gap)

The Intrepid Pup wag-a-meter registers an emphatic “2” for this excursion. It requires a modicum of  pre-planning, but the pay-offs include a good workout and a unique historical destination.

With more than 500 miles of hiking trails and only 10 trails on which pets are not permitted, there’s a lot for you and your leashed dog to explore at Shenandoah National Park. If you’re coming by car, there’s a $15 entrance fee per non-commercial vehicle (slightly less if it’s December – February), and your pass is good for the day of entry and the next 6 days, so you’re definitely getting your money’s worth. Road and trail maps are available at any of the ranger stations, and you can download a map for the Rapidan Camp area here.

Mill Prong Trail

Tavish at one of three stream crossings en route to Rapidan Camp

Begin your journey by parking at the Milam Gap pull-off just shy of mile marker 53 along Skyline Drive. The Mill Prong Trail is the most direct route to Rapidan Camp, and the trailhead is just across the street from the parking area. The path is shady, well-groomed and well-marked with tree blazes and concrete posts at trail junctions. It’s two miles downhill on the way in. There are three water crossings, but unless the streams are running high, you can easily ford them by stepping from boulder to boulder. With the last water crossing at Big Rock Falls—a distinctive but gentle cataract flowing into a shallow pool—you’re on final approach to Rapidan Camp.

Nature-wise there were butterflies, huge millipedes, and a couple of chipmunks. Ultimately we encountered more gnats (note: insect repellent is helpful) than hikers and saw no other dogs…but we suspected that it gets more crowded on the weekends. Hiking in took an hour but included several photo stops. For the return trip, we hiked out the same way we came (for a 4-mile round trip total). But if you’re up for a longer circuit hike (7.4 miles total), the alternative is to pick up the Laurel Prong Trail at Rapidan Camp and follow it until it intersects with the Appalachian Trail, which turns northward over Hazeltop Mountain and ends back at the Milam Gap parking area.

Pet-friendly lodging:

Team Tavish enjoys camping, but for this particular trip we had sought a night’s stay in pet-friendly accommodations and were pleased to find a few choices. There are a limited number of in-park, pet-friendly rooms at Lewis Mountain Cabins, Skyland, and Big Meadows Lodge.  We opted for a traditional room at Big Meadows, as it was closest to the trailhead for Rapidan Camp. It was reasonably priced and offered adequate amenities: coffee maker,  double beds, and a small bathroom (no phones or TVs, but there is wi-fi and a TV room in the main building, if you’re so inclined). While dogs aren’t allowed inside the main lodge where the dining options are, you can get pub fare from the Taproom restaurant and eat on the terrace with its none-too-shabby view of the sunset over the Blue Ridge. We saw probably a half dozen dogs being walked on the grounds the next morning, so clearly we weren’t the only ones availing ourselves of the pet-friendly lodging.

Tavish sees a snake

From a safe distance, Tavish observes what was by all accounts Rapidan Camp’s resident non-venomous snake.  We’d read that snakes can strike at a distance up to half their body length. Had this been one of Shenandoah National Park’s pit vipers—identifiable in part by their more triangular-shaped heads—Intrepid Pup wouldn’t be posing for a photo.

Special considerations:

Mosquitoes and ticks are almost givens in any woodland excursion, but hiking in Shenandoah presents two additional cautions (yay!): snakes and bears. Poisonous copperheads and rattlesnakes do reside in the park. Read up on dog-versus-snake encounters, and you’ll be sufficiently freaked out. Dogs usually weigh less than people and thus are more readily “incapacitated” (to use a euphemism) by snake venom. That being said, the snakes in Shenandoah aren’t exactly out trolling for hikers and dogs and would much rather be left alone. In the end, Team Tavish concluded that basic avoidance was going to carry the day, and our modus operandi was hyper-vigilance about not letting Tavish stray from the main trail so he could literally let sleeping snakes lie.

Shenandoah National Park also has one of the densest populations of American black bears in the United States, and pretty much any piece of park literature you’re apt to find includes information about bear safety. They’re purportedly “skittish” and tend not to pose any threat so long as you give them a wide berth, keep food out of the equation, and don’t run away. Another oft-repeated piece of advice is to “let the bear know you’re human” (i.e. wave your arms, make noise, speak in normal tones, etc.), but our travel companion—a close family friend and fellow blogger—joked that in the event of a bear encounter she would also be readily enumerating her other human attributes like, “I can read, I have opposable thumbs, and I have relatives that care about me.” As it turns out, we were glad to have reviewed bear basics because while hiking the 4-mile Rose River Loop Trail the next day, some oncoming hikers alerted us that they had just seen a bear not 200 yards ahead. They said it had shuffled off into the woods when it heard them approaching and, indeed, we never saw it.  We did, however, catch a glimpse of a bear standing at the side of the road as we were driving out of the park.

Special gear:

While you can count on temperatures being cooler in the mountains, you still need to keep hydrated, so bring plenty of water for yourself and your dog. Team Tavish used a CamelBak for water and snacks, and Tavish carried his own water and gear in Ruffwear’s Palisades Pack™ (be on the lookout for an upcoming product review in the near future). Remember to keep your dog on a 6-foot leash as the park’s leash policy is enforced for the safety of dogs, visitors, and wildlife alike. Finally, beautiful scenery is at every turn, so don’t forget to pack a camera!

There Be Dragons!

Tavish at Deal's Gap's Tail of the Dragon

Tavish seemingly not intimidated by the Tail of the Dragon with a motorcycle in its clutch.

Tavish the Intrepid Pup‘s therapy dog vest sports several pins, many of which represent places he’s traveled. Mostly they’re conversation starters, and by far the one that attracts the greatest attention—primarily from kids—is the Day-Glo yellow one shaped like a road sign bearing the silhouette of a dragon and the words, “At the Gap there be dragons.” Here’s the backstory:

Last July, Tavish and Team Tavish were visiting friends in Tennessee who were eager to show us the Tail of the Dragon. It’s a storied stretch of Highway 129 that straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. More accurately, it’s 318 curves in 11 miles with up to a 12% grade and 1800 feet in elevation. Hence the vivid and apt comparison to a jagged dragon’s tail. Were it a TV commercial, it’d have that impossibly fine print flickering across the bottom of the screen saying, “Do not attempt. Professional driver on a closed course.” Indeed, there have been vehicle performance tests done here, and for obvious reasons, the road is a magnet for motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts.

We had visions of “slaying the dragon” Easy Rider-style, with a Doggles®-wearing Intrepid Pup in a cool sidecar. The biggest problem with this plan was that neither we nor our friends own motorcycles. So, we did this trip in decidedly less hip fashion in what was probably an affront to the road itself: our friends’ 2001 Hyundai Elantra. Eat your heart out, James Dean.

Deal's Gap Motorcycle Resort's Tree of Shame

Who says that kinetic, post-modern sculpture can only be found in she-she art galleries? Deal’s Gap has a pretty good example with its “Tree of Shame.”

Our friend drove and would periodically concede to the far more intrepid bikers by easing into paved pull-offs, earning us many appreciative nods and an occasional wave. It was also blisteringly hot that day, so the Intrepid Pup was favoring the Elantra’s AC vents over lolling out the window. But even without a white-knuckled Nürburgring experience, this was still a drive we’re glad we did.

There are a handful of entrepreneurial outfits that station photographers along the Tail of the Dragon. The business model is akin to having your photo taken at an amusement park while on some giant roller coaster and then having the opportunity to purchase said photo as you exit the ride. (Editor’s note: We did go online afterwards and easily found ourselves in that day’s batch of pictures…after all, there aren’t exactly zillions of silver Elantras amid the supercars and slick Harley-Davidsons. And, as you might’ve guessed, our souvenir car shot is best left to your imagination.)

Rounding the final curves and easing down that last slope (Wheelie Hill), reward you with the gateway attraction that is Deal’s Gap. Touting its own special brand of self-proclaimed “two-lane tourism,” Deal’s Gap consists of Tail of the Dragon LLC (an outlet store and de facto visitor information center) on one side of the highway and Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort (with accommodations, a shop, and a 65-seat pub) on the other.

Deal's Gap statuaryThere are two standouts in this spectacle. One is the signature green “tail” pictured above. The other is the Tree of Shame  located in the motorcycle resort’s parking lot. This crowd-sourced totem is part whimsy, part rite-of-passage, and part cautionary tale. Basically it’s 20+ years of jetsam—smashed reflectors, blown tires, broken headlights, dented hubcaps, and shorn fenders—lobbed in frustration by those unlucky enough to have been “bitten by the dragon.”  The tree is always in flux as pieces get added or otherwise shift among the branches (a nearby sign warns, “CAUTION: Watch for falling parts from Tree of Shame”). It’s also a good reminder that riding the Tail of the Dragon carries an inherent risk; over the past 12 years, there’s been an average of slightly more than two deaths a year.

The parking lot is better than any showroom for gawking at the bikes, and it was here that Tavish made a few new friends. He plunked down in the shade by a random, concrete statue (doorstop?) of a bikini- and bandanna-clad biker and drew his fair share of affectionate pats from bikers returning to their rides. Many intended to traverse the route several times that day, and one biker nostalgically reminisced to us about his own pup that he never wanted to be away from for too long.

Maybe, just maybe, Tavish will get that ride in a sidecar yet!

Dogging the Details

Click to see what a "1" on the Wag-a-meter means

35°27′59.77″N,  83°55′9.99″W
Highway 129
(a.k.a. Tail of the Dragon),  Tennessee/North Carolina, with a stop at Deal’s Gap

35°18′22.87″N,  84°00′46.45″W
Cherohola Skyway (Routes 143/165), North Carolina/Tennessee

This excursion rates a “1” on the Intrepid Pup wag-a-meter. It was a fun, scenic outing and, aside from the driving, was not very strenuous…particularly if you’re a dog! In all, we covered 113 miles that afternoon, but this represented three hours of actual driving time, because speed limits are just 30 mph on the Tail of the Dragon and 40 mph on the Cherohala Skyway.

Cherohala Skyway

The Cherohala Skyway is the “mile-high legend.” Tavish proves it by standing at the Santeetlah Overlook, the route’s highest elevation at 5390 feet.

We had started out just south of Knoxville, snaking southeast on the Tail of the Dragon. En route we passed the Cheoah Dam. Besides holding back the water of the Little Tennessee River, it’s also famous for being the dam from which Dr. Richard Kimble—portrayed by actor Harrison Ford—swans dives in the 1993 thriller The Fugitive. It wasn’t easy for us to pull off the road right then, so there’s no Intrepid Pup photo…you’ll just have to take our word for it. We decided to extend our drive by daisy-chaining from the Tail of the Dragon right onto the Cherohala Skyway, a 60-mile, high-elevation road running west from Robbinsville, North Carolina, to Tellico Plains, Tennessee. But be sure to top off your fuel tank at Deal’s Gap as there are no gas stations on this segment. The route takes its name from the two national forests (Cherokee and Nantahala) it transects.

We made a couple stops along the Skyway to check out some pretty amazing vistas. From the sheer elevation, it’s easy to see why much of the highway gets closed during wintry weather.  Before a passing thunderstorm hit, we were also able to stretch our legs and get in a short 0.75-mile hike with Tavish along a roadside trail with interpretive signs about railroads and timber harvesting.

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Journey to the Edge of Shangri-La

Catoctin Trail

That got your attention, didn’t it? OK, so while Tavish the Intrepid Pup technically didn’t stumble upon the mystical paradise described in Lost Horizon, he came pretty close to a Shangri-La. In Thurmont, Maryland, that is.

Catoctin Mountain Park, administered by the National Park Service, is some 10,000 acres of hardwood forest interspersed with recreational areas and a lot of history. Its past is interwoven with that of sawmills, whiskey stills, tanneries, charcoal production, and pig iron. In the 1930s it was shaped into the Catoctin Recreational Demonstration Area by the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps. Of this expanse, the Hi-Catoctin Camp for families of federal workers caught the eye of President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a viable spot for a presidential retreat. Roosevelt hadn’t been too keen on adopting his predecessor President Herbert Hoover’s retreat (Camp Rapidan) in Shenandoah, in part because its remoteness presented challenges for Roosevelt’s physical condition. But Hi-Catoctin was just an hour northwest of Washington, DC, and refreshingly cooler in the summer to boot. Roosevelt first visited Catoctin in April 1942, and the existing camp was quickly converted to a presidential retreat he dubbed “Shangri-La” after the utopia in James Hilton’s popular 1933 novel. It became a true haven for the president during World War II, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill even came there for the Third Washington Conference in 1943. After Roosevelt’s death, President Harry Truman recognized the importance and significance of Shangri-La and preserved it through an arrangement with the National Park Service. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower came into office, he readily embraced Shangri-La but with one significant modification: he renamed it Camp David after his grandson! It’s kept that name ever since and has seen several historic moments, from visits by Leonid Brezhnev, Nikita Khrushchev, and Margaret Thatcher to the 1978 summit with Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin culminating in the Camp David Accords. As you might suspect, Shangri-La (a.k.a. Camp David) is neither visible from any of the park roads nor open for visitation by the general public even if you do find it.

However, you have the whole rest of the park at your disposal, and with 25 miles of available hiking trails ranging from easy to strenuous, you can readily assemble an itinerary that strikes your fancy. We ended up covering about 5 miles during our visit by hiking the out-and-back Cunningham Falls Nature Trail (2.8 miles round-trip, with a nice view of the falls), the Hog Rock Nature Trail loop (1.5 miles, featuring 14 kinds of trees and nice vista of the Monocacy Valley), and the Blue Ridge Summit Trail (0.6 mile round-trip, with a rocky overlook at an elevation of 1520 ft). Just to manage expectations: at no time did Bo, President’s Obama’s Portuguese Water Dog, come bounding up to us. In fact, we were kind of surprised by how uncrowded the park was, but we chalked it up to the fact that rain in the forecast was keeping folks away. We’ll definitely be back to tackle some of the other routes!

Click to see what 2 on the Wag-A-Meter meansDogging the Details

39°39′1.54″N,  77°27′50.65″W
Catoctin Mountain Park, Thurmont, Maryland

39°37′5.79″N,  77°24′56.46″W
The Cozy’s Camp David Museum, Thurmont, Maryland

This excursion is a solid “2” on the Intrepid Pup’s wag-a-meter. Catoctin is a great natural setting that welcomes leashed dogs, and the hiking trails are very well marked and maintained.

Catoctin Mountain Park

Tavish on the lush and shady Cunningham Falls trail. We passed a total of six other dogs on this popular route.

Make the Park Service’s Visitor Center at Catoctin Mountain Park your first stop. There is no entrance fee for the park, although rates do apply if you’ll be availing yourself of any of the four cabin camp rental sites. The ranger can outfit you with a trail map and recommend what hikes will best suit your group and the time you have available. Particularly neat is the park’s current initiative, the “Healthy Park | Healthy People Challenge.” You’re given a pamphlet listing a combination of 13 interpretive trails and scenic overlooks in the park. With each destination attained, you have a ranger record it on your sheet. Make it to all 13 spots and you’ll earn a special Catoctin Mountain Park carabiner!

The Visitor Center contains restroom facilities, outdoor trash receptacles, a small museum covering the cultural heritage and natural history of the region, and a park bookstore/gift shop that even carries collapsible water bowls and pet bandanas stamped “National Bark Ranger” (um, yeah, we bought one).

After truly enjoying hiking in the park, our next stop was the historic Cozy in downtown Thurmont. Established in 1929, Cozy is Maryland’s oldest restaurant still run by its founding family. That in and of itself makes the Cozy noteworthy in this day and age, but it’s the Cozy’s other claim to fame that had Team Tavish intrigued. In addition to the Cozy Country Inn and Cozy Village Shops, the Cozy complex is home to the nation’s “only museum of Camp David history.” You come upon the outdoor painted plaque that says that Mamie Eisenhower and Babe Ruth are among the notables who’ve dined here, open the door to the family-style restaurant,  and boom:  there’s the Camp David Museum.

Camp David MuseumA modest-sized room off the main dining area serves as the gallery chock full of photographs and memorabilia highlighting the Cozy’s Camp David connections to 13 presidential administrations and counting. There’s a perfect photo opp beneath a rustic “Camp David” sign, but sorry, no dogs allowed inside.

For security reasons Camp David doesn’t show up on the Park Service trail maps, but area residents are accustomed to Camp David hubbub and seem happy enough to demystify things for you. One nice lady we met (alas, didn’t catch a name) recalled how broadcast journalist “Barbara Wawa” would hike up her skirt and vault a fence so she’d be the first out to the helicopters that used the parking lot of a local car dealership as a  landing pad. Time was that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secret Service agents stayed at the Cozy. JFK’s cabinet members often dined there, and the Cozy was the lodging of choice for guests attending President George H. W. Bush’s daughter Doro’s wedding at Camp David in 1992. And then there were tales of television reporters who had their favorite yards or trees downtown that they’d always use as backdrops for reporting “live from Camp David”…even though all the locals watching the evening news knew better.

Yet, despite the G8 Summit being held at Camp David just two months ago (May 2012), Team Tavish detected a hint of wistfulness in our new-found Thurmont-er friend. “It’s not quite like it used to be,” she said. “Now all those world leaders just Skype and email each other, you know. And President Obama really seems to be more of a beach kind of guy, so I don’t think he gets up here as much as some of the other presidents did.”

Everything in the Cozy’s various displays has been donated over the years by visiting White House staffers, dignitaries, and members of a generous press corps. It seems that the bus tours that stop for repast at the Cozy are a pretty discerning bunch, and it apparently hasn’t gone unnoticed that the Obama section of the Camp David Museum is a little sparse. Don’t blame the Cozy, however, as they know their audience and aim to please. They’ve submitted requests for items through “official channels” and have even improvised by adding a few generic images of the First Family. But at the end of the day, Team Tavish had to concur with the assessment of our casual acquaintance: “Photos downloaded from the internet somehow just don’t cut it.”

So, if someone at the White House happens to be reading this (and we know hope you are!), the Intrepid Pup encourages you to  “throw a bone” to the Cozy’s Camp David Museum in the way of some Obama swag and a few recent photos of the president at Camp David. Who knows? It might just translate to some key votes from Thurmont-ers and Cozy-philes in the November elections.