Wilds Child: Camping at the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon
I’m going to level with you – I was not excited to go camping with my kids.
I know. Let me explain.
It’s not that I don’t love camping; I do. In fact, I’ve spent most of my life camping. When I was growing up, my parents didn’t take our family on elaborate vacations – no Disney World, no beach vacations, no Broadway shows in midtown Manhattan – but they did take us camping. A lot. Most summer weekends were spent camping in some of the PA Wilds’ best state parks – Clear Creek, Parker Dam, S.B. Elliot, Ole Bull, and Kettle Creek. My dad would come home early from work on Friday, hitch our camper to our old pickup truck, and my brother and I would squeeze into the back seat, talking excitedly about our upcoming adventures, our feet atop the grocery bags full of s’mores ingredients and bug spray. Our bikes were in the back of the truck next to our fishing poles, and I always brought a pile of books that I would end up reading by flashlight long after everyone else fell asleep. My parents would roll down the windows and we would set off through the forests to find our weekend home-away-from-home.
I continued to camp as I grew older, my husband and I trading in a camper for a tent and electric hookups for the kind of backcountry spots you find off a hiking trail. I got good at cooking my own food over a fire, and my husband developed his way around a lantern mantle. We loved camping together and, as we set off on our grandest adventure yet – having children – we knew we would want to instill that love in them as well.
So, I love camping. And, obviously, I love my children. But the two together? As our summer inched closer to our first camping trip as a family, I felt almost nothing but dread.
Before you come down on me too harshly, remember – camping is hard, even if it is fun. And kids are harder still. Camping, at its core, forces us to reevaluate the comforts of modern living against the backdrop of survival. If you want to sleep, you’ve got to build your own shelter. If you want to stay warm, you’ve got to build a fire. If you want to eat, you’ve got to cook your food. For all the ways that state park campgrounds have made camping easier (running water, toilets, electric hookups), you’re still faced with the fact that you’ve got way more work than you’d have at your own home to make accommodations livable. And, as anyone who has ever spent time with toddlers knows, basic life skills are already hard to master in the company of small children.
Let me put it to you another way – I have a hard enough time getting my children to fall asleep in their soft beds in their temperature-controlled room after they’ve eaten their favorite snacks and are snuggled up with their favorite stuffies. If that moment is a nightly battle, imagine it in a tent, on the ground, at the whims of the weather and with the sound of other campers piercing the night air. I’m the kind of person who used to look-on condescendingly at the folk in their mammoth RVs and argue that I preferred tent camping. I like to sleep on the ground, I’d assert. It helps me feel connected to the earth. Now my argument is more like: I like to sleep. Can I please do it for more than four hours at a stretch tonight? Please?
So, yes, I dreaded the camping trip.
In selecting the spot for my kids’ first camping trip, my husband and I wanted something far enough away to merit the effort, but close enough that we could still escape for home in the event of a toddler-related emergency – i.e. ceaseless crying. We wanted good hiking trails, a stunning view, and the promise of essential amenities, which to me meant a flushable toilet and, to my children, meant a playground. We ultimately decided on Leonard Harrison State Park, a quiet campground located on the eastern rim of the Pine Creek Gorge, known to most folks as the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon.
Over 800 feet deep and 4,000 feet across, the PA Grand Canyon is one of the most popular outdoor destinations in the state and essential viewing for any serious PA Wilds explorer. It’s 45 miles long and features the kind of outdoor wonders that delight visitors young and old – canyon walls, waterfalls, scenic overlooks, and a renowned rail trail that offers easy hiking for novice hikers.
Leonard Harrison itself boasts the best birds-eye view of the canyon from its Overlook Trail. It’s a smaller campground, but with plenty of picnic and day-use areas. And, anyway, what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in proximity to the canyon. Besides, the scenic views of the gorge are genuinely stunning.
And, most importantly (to my kids), there was a playground.
As for camping, we were very lucky in several regards. First, we had our puppy with us, which meant that nearby neighbors who were distracted by her antics might be willing to disregard the toddler exploits my kids manage to get into (most of which are often messy or loud). Second, the weather was perfect – a hot, sunny day with barely a cloud in the sky. We would not have to worry about the cold or the rain; the overnight low was a balmy 70.
Finally, the grandest stroke of luck – other young kids at the campground.
I work with kids for a living (and I have children of my own), so I am naturally immune to many of the annoyances that other folk report with children. Whining rolls off of me like lakewater on duck feathers. I believe in taking children to restaurants and other public places, even if they might be a bit loud or uncouth. That’s how they learn. But I also recognize that other people actively seek out childfree spaces. And I get it. Again, kids are hard. So I am often anxious about taking my children places overnight where their cries have the potential to annoy others around me. When it comes to adventure destinations, “child-friendly” is highest on my list of demands.
So, to see other children – other young children – camping around us allowed me to breathe a sigh of relief. Sure, my kids may still be loud, but at least we weren’t alone.
Indeed, later that night, as my husband and I laid down to sleep on the ground beside our blissfully asleep children, I heard the distant sound of a young baby crying inconsolably in the arms of her mother. I murmured a soft prayer to the gods of infant slumber and made a mental note to offer the mom a warm smile and a kind word the next day. Camping is hard. Kids are hard. It’s all okay.
I’m not saying there wasn’t fighting. Or tantrums. We certainly had enough of those. Children are fickle, and everyone knows that the second law of toddler dynamics is that for every “whoa” or “this is amazing” there is an equal amount of “I hate camping” and “how will I watch cartoons?” We had a drama-free night of tent sleeping only to hear the sound of my boys staging a truly remarkable fight over the same camping chair in the morning. The tears and screaming put the sleepless infant’s crying from the night before to shame. At several moments I told myself that we would never go camping again. I likely meant it too.
But: overall, the trip was fun. Hindsight might even prompt me to say: near-perfect. At one point my older son, worn out from skipping his nap and bored after going down the swirly slide at the playground for the thousandth time, leaned his head against my shoulder and whined, “I want to go home.” I paused in that moment, sitting with the feeling of wanting to fix what he was feeling, and chose a different path.
“I know how you feel,” I told him. “I’ve felt that way before too. It’s called being homesick.”
“Homesick,” my son repeated softly.
“Homesick. But, you know what?”
My son looked at me attentively.
“We can still have fun and have adventures, even though you miss home. Then, when we finally get home, you’ll feel good because you are home and you’ll have all of these fun memories from camping.”
My son looked at me skeptically. I, perhaps, felt skeptical too. But we sat together in that moment of our homesickness and dread. Before long, another camping adventure presented itself, and we were back to enjoying ourselves. What’s more – when I ask my kids now about their first camping trip, they tell me how much fun they had. I feel the same way too. The stressful moments seem smaller, now, and the fun moments grow only more precious in my memory.
Take your kids camping. They will whine. They will fight. They will complain. You will feel stressed. You will spend weeks preparing for the trip, only to have unexpected obstacles present themselves. It will possibly be too hot. Or too wet. You may be truly unfortunate and discover there’s no playground there. But you will have fun. I promise. And you will look back on the experience fondly. So will your kids.
And – I’m excited to go camping with my kids again.
About the Series:
The Wilds Child: Exploring the PA Wilds with Little Adventurers is a monthly series that features stories, travel tips, landscape recommendations, and the occasional piece of unsolicited parenting advice. Whether you’re a family in town for a visit or a local looking to show their own children your region’s rich heritage, let local writer, community organizer, and fellow-parent, Tia DeShong, help you plan your next adventure in the PA Wilds.
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