Marie decided that early June would be a good time to visit her family. Her dad and step mom live in northern Ohio, right on the southern edge of Lake Erie, and her mom and step dad live relatively nearby in southern Michigan, as do her brother and his family. I’d tagged along with Marie on one previous visit, but that was about eight years ago, so I was overdue for another round.
I also realized that this might be a good chance to visit two new National Parks. Back in 2017 I finished my personal goal of visiting all 59 US National Parks. But since then four more parks were added: Gateway Arch (2018), Indiana Dunes (2019), White Sands (2019), and New River Gorge (2020). I’d already been to Gateway Arch and White Sands, but not the other two.
A quick look at the map made it clear that if Marie and I made a road trip to the Ohio/Michigan area it would be pretty easy to reclaim my “Visited Every Park” status. We could drive by Indiana Dunes on the way there, and then I could make a side trip down to West Virginia to see New River Gorge. Lots of driving, for sure, but worth it to see her family, check out the new parks, and help pass the seemingly endless number of days before we take possession of our new cabin in Montana.
We took one dog with us – Thunder, the Border Collie – thinking he would enjoy the trip. And we left the other dog – a little white Maltese – with my mom, given that he hates car rides. In hindsight we should have left both dogs with my mom. Thunder panted constantly and was so hyped-up that we couldn’t tell if he was stressed out or having fun. On the first day of our drive we didn’t leave until mid-day, and by the time we stopped for the night somewhere in Nebraska we were very happy to take a break from being engulfed by endless clouds of Thunder’s stinky breath.
The next day we reached Indiana Sand Dunes National Park, a nice stretch of beach along the southern edge of Lake Michigan, not too far from Chicago. Oddly, the newly-designated National Park kind of surrounds Indiana Dunes State Park, which is apparently where the sand dunes are. Marie and I stuck to the National Park, so we didn’t see any dunes. The only decent photo I managed to get was one of Marie and Thunder enjoying some beach time.
To use my dad’s polite way of saying he didn’t really like something, my verdict on Indiana Dunes is that “it’s not in my top 10.” It’s a perfectly fine shoreline, it just doesn’t seem to belong in the same category as places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon.
Marie had reserved our hotel for that night, apparently the only one in the area that allowed dogs. Historically Marie has chosen much nicer places than I have (most memorably in Cambodia), but this hotel was definitely an exception. There were stains on the furniture, carpet, and pillow cases. Nothing smelled right. “I never thought I’d say this,” I told Marie after taking a minute to look around, “but you’ve managed to outdo me when it comes to booking dumpy hotel rooms.” Marie slept in her clothes, Thunder never stopped panting, and at the first sign of morning light we made our escape.
About four hours later we arrived at Marie’s dad and step mom’s place on Catawba Island in northern Ohio. They live right by the water, and all of us – Thunder very much included – enjoyed watching the wildlife in their back yard. At one point Marie went to tie Thunder to a tree and stumbled on a rabbit nest, sending baby bunnies scurrying in all directions. Herons and egrets hunted bullfrogs in a nearby pond, geese soared overhead, and snakes slithered though the grass.
Marie’s dad and step mom are extremely nice, and it was great to catch up with them. After a couple of days we took Thunder out for his first-ever boat ride. I expected him to be almost frantic with excitement, but instead – for the only time on the entire trip – he seemed relaxed to the point of boredom. Thunder is a strange dog.
Over the weekend we drove to southern Michigan to spend a night at Marie’s brother and sister-in-law’s place, and the next morning we stopped by her mom and step dad’s house. I hadn’t been able to spend much time with them before and it was great having the opportunity to get to know them better. Marie’s mom showed us around their beautifully landscaped backyard, complete with koi ponds and a family of groundhogs nesting underneath a storage shed. I’m pretty sure it was the first time I’d ever seen a groundhog in the (kind-of) wild.
From there we returned to Catawba Island, and the day after that I left on my side trip to visit New River Gorge National Park in West Virginia. The drive only took six hours, including the delay when an Ohio state trooper pulled me over for using the right lane of a 4-lane divided highway to pass a slow truck. “You’re a long way from home,” the cop said suspiciously. My story must have satisfied him because he let me go with a warning. I know passing on the right is generally frowned upon, but I hadn’t realized that in Ohio it’s criminal behavior.
My first stop at New River Gorge was the Canyon Rim Visitor Center, where I hiked a short trail to an overlook and took a few photos of the iconic New River Gorge Bridge. When construction was completed in 1977, it was the longest single-span arch bridge in the world. The record has since been broken, but the New River Gorge Bridge is still genuinely impressive, towering majestically over the river and lush green treetops below.
Early the next morning I set out on Long Point Trail, which ends at an overlook with a clear view of the bridge. I don’t know how common it is, but that morning the gorge was filled with low fog, making the bridge even more scenic that usual. Thankful for my luck, I spent almost two hours taking photos as the fog slowly burned away.
That afternoon I hiked the Endless Wall Trail along the east side of the gorge. The scenery was nice, but I’d been spoiled by the beauty of the foggy sunrise on my morning hike. Scattered thunderstorms passed through the area during all of my time at New River Gorge, and I had to sneak in my hikes between rain showers. On my second morning I woke to flat gray skies and drizzle and decided to just make one quick stop at Cathedral Falls before driving back to Catawba Island.
Marie and I spent one more relaxing day with her dad and step mom, including another first for me: a few rounds of bar poker at the local Elks Lodge. I can honestly say I’ve never experienced anything quite like it.
Finally it was time to make the long drive home. Marie and I left before sunrise, thinking we might want to power through the full 19 hours in one shot, which is what we ended up doing. Loopy and drained, we sputtered back into Longmont and collapsed. All those miles on the road were tough, but we were glad to see Marie’s family, and now I’m no longer forced to live with the shame of having only visited 61 of our 63 National Parks.