A Family Hike + Picnic Date

Fun & Free Family Date IdeaEvery summer we're excited to ditch our rain and snow boots and enjoy being outside again. Though the warm weather finally gets me out of the house and into the great outdoors, I rarely feel in tune with nature where we live. Usually our family and friends head to the pool, the park, or the suburban walking trails that run by Starbucks and the football stadium. Other times we lug out the stroller and pound the pavement to our favorite ice cream parlour or loiter on sidewalks by coffee shops downtown. But this summer I realized how restricted my experience of the great outdoors has become. Our little family needed some natural stress release, and that meant ditching the manufactured environments we're used to in exchange for exploring the national parks near our home.

This past Labor Day weekend, we finally put aside my whiny baby concerns (but I don't have hiking boots! But we have a toddler! But… but…!) and drove out to the wilderness for a family adventure alongside cliffs and through caverns and rocky forests. We had a fun hike through the ledges of the Virginia Kendall Park in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Northeast Ohio, and rewarded ourselves with a light picnic afterwards. It was the perfect family date—and you guys, besides the gasoline for our car, it was completely free! Can't beat that.

Fun & Free Family Date IdeaFun & Free Family Date Idea
Fun & Free Family Date Idea
Part One: The Hike

The Cuyahoga Valley National Park is full of great trails, bike paths, and historical spots that wind around the Erie Canal. I'd like to head back out to the Virginia Kendall trails again soon and hike by my lonesome for some extra soul rejuvenation, but it was really an enriching experience for our little family to go on such a hike with our toddler Lucy in tow. I was worried she wouldn't like being in the Ergobaby carrier for so long, or that my experience would be dampened by a whiny toddler who might try to jump over all of the cliffs. Talk about a bummer, eh?

Well, we were pleasantly surprised that Lucy loved being in the Ergo during the dangerous parts of our hike (along cliffs and over bridges), excitedly pointing and nodding her head as we talked about the rivers and caverns below. When we let her down on the lower parts of the trails to scale small rocks and collect pebbles from streams of water, she was absolutely elated. I realized how important experiences like this are for small children whose lives increasingly revolve around technology or manufactured environments that we're accustomed to in the suburbs and cities. Next time we'll definitely leave the camera at home, too, and see how many rocks Lucy can fit in my bag instead.

Fun & Free Family Date Idea
Fun & Free Family Date Idea
Fun & Free Family Date IdeaFun & Free Family Date Idea
Nature really does have an amazing restorative power over the human soul, and I'd really like to make it a point to get out and experience it more often. The National Park Service has a website where you can find all kinds of great preserved natural sites near your home. I've discovered some of the best local places to explore just through word of mouth, but I wouldn't mind just finding a place online and heading out there without any expectations in mind.

Fun & Free Family Date IdeaOne of my favorite things about exploring the Cuyahoga Valley National Park (our favorite local park) is the connection I feel to history when I'm there. Indians used to live near the caverns and caves where we hiked, and I like to imagine Mohawk women my age gathering supplies for their homes on the very paths we walk today. Maybe their young sons followed along, darting behind cliffs with their bows and arrows, pretending to be hunters like their fathers.

When the Erie Canal was built in the 1820s, it went right through this park and brought a lot of industry and trade that transformed the place that would one day become my home. The canal isn't in use any more, but the old buildings and towns that popped up around it are still oozing with the history of those days. I get chills when I walk through landscapes with such history, knowing there were countless other people who walked here before me, giving, taking, and transforming this place before I came along.

Fun & Free Family Date Idea
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Part Two: The Picnic

We packed a cooler and left it in our car during our hike, knowing the trail we set out on would circle back to where we began. National Parks are nice because while most of the park is still wild and untouched, there are also maintained restrooms, picnic tables, and mowed lawns to enjoy as well. We sat down along the tree line and enjoyed eating a light meal while Lucy ran around on the open lawn. We let her run around as much as she wanted while we sat in our shaded spot. It was a nice break from worrying if she might run near a cliff during out hike! No cliffs in sight. Just lots of trimmed grass and a lingering sense of peace from our hike.

Fun & Free Family Date IdeaFun & Free Family Date IdeaFun & Free Family Date IdeaWhat a fun day! I have a feeling if Lucy could find the words, she would be asking to go back again and again. –Mandi

Credits // Author and Photography: Mandi Johnson. Photos edited with Color Pop and Magnolia (B&W) from the Signature Collection and Pearl from the Fresh Collection.

  • Hi Laura! It’s not a new tattoo. It’s a few years old. I’ve been wanting a new tattoo, but probably won’t get one for many years because I just don’t have anything in mind. 🙂 -Mandi

  • This is lovely! Where we live in the UK we can really easily access some lovely wild walks but working weekends when the boyf works weeks has interupted best laid plans!
    By the way – have you (Mandi) go a new tattoo on your arm there? Slightly obsessed with getting something but how to choose!!

  • Now that we finally seem to be getting settled into our new place, I’m hoping that we can check out some of the National Parks near our new place! It’s always great to get outside and relax in this way!

  • Mandi is right, the ice box caves at Virginia Kendell. I haven’t been there in year so it’s sad to hear that they are closed!

    Waterfall! Yes! There is Brandywine Falls. It’s in the same vicinity, but a little out of the way. It’s beautiful to see! Here is the website: http://www.nps.gov/cuva/historyculture/brandywine-falls.htm Wonderful if have a chance to come in the winter.


  • It’s an Ergo baby carrier, and you can find them at most Babys R Us stores and baby specialty shops, or you can even buy them on Amazon, of course. What can’t you buy there? 🙂 -Mandi

  • There are caves, like the Ice Box Caves that we hiked next to, but currently they’re closed to protect the habitat. They have 2x4s in front of them with signs for people to stay out. The Ledges at Virginia Kendall are a great spot, and the lookout over there is a great view! -Mandi

  • I was just on these same trails a few weeks ago! I love CVNP and live near another part of it, a little further north of you (Macedonia, to be specific). The old canals are so neat to walk by and I definitely remember going a few times when I was in Girl Scouts as a youngster. Another favorite park system is, of course, the Cleveland Metroparks (I’m very glad they acquired the beachfront parks too, because this year they’ve looked the cleanest they have been in a long, long time). This area is full of gorgeous scenery, and I couldn’t be more proud to be from the great state of Ohio!

  • This blogentry is sooooo lovely!!!
    Really enjoyed reading it and looking at the pictures!
    Awesome! 🙂

  • I loved the emphasis on State Parks in this article. I am a huge fan of them as well. We’ve gone camping twice this summer with our kids at State Parks and loved the experience. We probably need to get out for some day trips more too. Thanks so much for sharing!

  • It looks like you had a wonderful day. And being outside just kind of makes you feel better about life doesn’t it?

  • The last three photos on the picnic blanket! Awww super adorable!


  • Great info Jen – thank you so much!! I’ll definitely look up Indigo Lake and Beaver Marsh and see what I find. I read there are caves there too?? Although, I doubt they’re puppy-friendly. I also think there’s a waterfall that we plan on checking out.

    Thanks again!

  • Thank you so much for replying Mandi! We plan on driving straight from Grand Haven, MI to Cuyahoga Nat’l Park (about 5ish hours)- and then spending the rest of the day hiking around the park. Then we’ll stay over night, and try to get another hike or 2 in the next day (Sunday) before coming back to York, PA.

    The shops sound like a great reason to take a mini-getaway weekend to Cuyahoga – but I was wondering if you had more must-do hikes or scenic spots to recommend within the park. Thanks again!

  • What a lovely post?! So glad you had a wonderful day, Mandi. I love this style of post on ABM because your pictures are always stunning and you all have such fun voices to read! Thanks 🙂 Kath x

  • lovely photos 🙂 hikes are really the best, nothing beats being out in nature~
    xo, cheyenne

  • I would like for my family to go out on more hikes too. Our area unfortunately does not have many parks around us. Also, thanks for sharing the link for national parks!


  • Love this series 🙂 And hiking in the great outdoors is one of my favorite things! Such a great way to spend a day with your family.

  • Beautiful! Have a look at Project Wild Thing – it’s all about nature play and getting kids (and adults) outside to play. They did a documentary last year and it is SO good, funny and enlightening. Well worth watching when you have a minute, it’ll get you back out there so quick 🙂

  • The Cuyahoga Valley National Park is one of my favorites! I grew up in Cleveland and have a ton of great memories in that park as well as the Metroparks system. Looks like you guys had a lovely time!

  • I love all those vintage shops on the Riverfront! I bought my prom dress from one of those shops, it was from the ’80s and was less then 100 dollars! I’ve also acquired beautiful vintage luggage and jewelry. The Cashmere Cricket is a great spot to eat at down there, too!

    I would love to know if you’ve found any hidden gem craft stores in Cleveland. I’ve been searching everywhere from Cleveland Heights to Lakewood and I can’t seem to find them anywhere! I would love to know where some of your fave spots are!

  • I actually grew up in the area (I was shocked when I went to my first national park and had to pay an entry fee!). My favorite parks in the valley are Indigo Lake and the Beaver Marsh (although I don’t think that is the proper name?), and both are puppy friendly! Saturday’s are a great day to go because the farmers market happens right around the corner from both of those spots. Szalay’s, the local farm, is also a great place to stop (they are open daily). They have fresh corn and local produce, and is wonderful in the fall! If you want anymore ideas, feel free to shoot me an email jenn.ruper@gmail.com (there isn’t a park that I haven’t been to in the area!)

  • I love this post! I actually live in CVNP, in Peninsula to be exact, and I’m so lucky to have all of this beauty right in my backyard. Kendall Hills is such a great place for a hike. Glad to see you represent the park so well and that you and your family had fun!

  • What a lovely thing todo. I live in a city so I love getting out into the country/nature for a little getaway. I always return refreshed and at peace. Cute picnic!
    bec x www.dancingthroughsunday.com.au

  • Yes! My brother and his gf went there the same day we went to Virginia Kendell. I can’t believe I’ve never been. But my cousins go all the time and take all (TEN) of their kids. They have a blast. -Mandi

  • Will you be driving through Akron and Cleveland too? In Cuyahoga Falls, the Falls River Square district is worth a stop. They have a couple of vintage clothing shops and other cute little shops there in a quaint area. Just make sure they are open on the days you are there. Mondays are dead. The Bomb Shelter is also nearby off of Route 8 near the University of Akron. It’s a warehouse kinda deal jam packed full of vintage furniture, nostalgic home accessories and toys, and a great selection of reclaimed industrial pieces, like affordable marquee lighting. Cleveland has an amazing selection of everything, so if you’re driving through there, let me know what kind of things you’re interested in and I’d like to tell you a few of my favorite spots! 🙂 -Mandi

  • Absolutely beautiful (family and scenery)! Can you please advise where you got that lovely baby/toddler carrier from?!

  • These pictures are so lovely. What an amazing and relaxing time spent with family! Love it!


  • Mandi, you totally have me feeling homesick for northeast Ohio! The Cleveland Metro Parks are the best. You should totally check out the Hocking Hills next. Old Man’s Cave is awesome and could make a really fun weekend trip. And is only maybe 2.5 hours from Canton!

  • Such cute pictures! Happy Family!

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  • What a perfect family date! Some of my greatest memories with my mom was when she brought me and my brother & sister to the nature trails by our house. We’d pack hot dogs and grill them at the designated areas afterward.


  • What great timing – we plan on stopping at Cuyahoga in 3 weeks on the way home to PA from MI. I’ll definitely look into the cliffs of Virginia Cliffs Park – but I’d also love to hear what you think is a must-see for us (and our dog) over 2 half-days. Great pics! I’m even more excited now!

  • I loved this post. The photos were gorgeous. Makes me want to go hiking this weekend. I really enjoyed this post a lot.

  • Being a Northeast Ohio resident as well, that is my favorite park to visit! I grew up visiting there, and go back several times a year. It is absolutely beautiful, especially in the fall.

    My family has always has a tradition of going to Virginia Kendell, visiting the same tree stump, and taking a picture. Afterwards, we go on a hike and explore our beloved park. 28 years later, and the tradition continues. Keep bringing Lucy back! I’m sure she’ll love it more and more as she grows.

  • Love getting outdoors and letting nature take charge. I’m such a beach lover that I never think of the mountains, hiking, and picnicking (they are only an hour away from me). Beautiful family and photos!!

  • Such a cute baby she is! Lovely photos!


  • Great photos..and i love outdoors..especially in Washington state, all you have to do is get out of the house, and you have beautiful trails and hikes.. you always return feeling refreshed and one with nature.. glad you found the time..



  • I think teaching the wonders of nature to kids is SO important. Looks like you guys had a great time!


  • OOoooooo, really, really amazing and sooooo cute pics. Looks like a so nice day and great trip. I wish you all the best. xa


  • these photos are gorgeous! what a beautiful place to be present, to be outside, and to be little. your munchkins are darling, btw!

    love, arielle
    a simple elegance

  • This is so inspiring! I use the “we have toddlers” excuse a lot to keep us from doing things like this. I shouldn’t let it hold me back so much!


  • That looks and reads beautiful!!! I try to convince my man how important getting out of the house- despite stressful jobs and so on- really is! Thanks for sharing!!

    Love from Germany,



  • This is beautiful! I love breaking out of routine and enjoying nature every now and then!

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