Written by Susan Gallagher
It’s a parental rite of passage: plan what you hope will be an exciting family trip, stow the luggage and pack up the kids. Then it’s time to sit back and relax as an endless stream of complaints issue forth from the back seat.
“Are we there yet?”
“I gotta go to the bathroom!”
There is no easy fix for the stressful family road trip, but rest assured, if Jim Thorpe, PA is your destination, our abundance of natural areas will offer plenty for the kids to do on arrival.
Children and nature go together, well, naturally! A growing body of evidence supports what common sense already tells us – that spending time in “green places” can have positive impacts on a child’s physical and emotional development. One study, in particular, found that simply playing in a natural area is as effective as medication (or perhaps even more so) in treating Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in children.
Opportunities for nature play abound in Jim Thorpe and its surrounding Pocono areas, northeast of the Lehigh Valley, where there is something for every age and interest. For the youngest visitors, Bear Mountain Butterfly Sanctuary is a must-see and just a few miles north of downtown Jim Thorpe. These people literally invented the word “flutterarium” to describe their walk-in butterfly feeding room. Here, kids can feed monarchs, painted ladies or other butterfly species on nectar-soaked sponges and brushes, or browse the nature-themed gift shop, well stocked with items that won’t break the piggy bank. Bear Mountain Butterflies also has plenty of space and supplies for crafts, games, and puzzles. The staff is especially accommodating for developmentally challenged children and can provide programs tailored to special needs groups.
Equally kid-friendly is Mauch Chunk Lake Park on the west end of Jim Thorpe off of Lentz’s Trail. Visitors can enjoy not only the standard fare of camping, fishing, and boating, but also a “Tot Lot” playground for the little ones, some easy hiking trails, and plenty of friendly ducks to feed. Sections of the historic Switchback Gravity Railroad cut through the park, great for easy hikes and favored by local walkers and runners.
At the west end of the park sits Carbon County Environmental Education Center, a wildlife rehabilitation facility housing injured, non-releasable raptors. Nowhere else in the Poconos can kids get as close to a red-tailed hawk, great-horned owl, or bald eagle. A handicap accessible boardwalk trail circles the raptor enclosures for easy viewing of the birds at any daylight hour.
As a county-operated park, Mauch Chunk Lake Park is unaffected by the budget cuts that often leave state parks without lifeguards to monitor their swimming areas. If you are looking for a lake swim on a not-so-crowded beach, Mauch Chunk may be your best bet.Jim Thorpe is the county seat of Carbon County and at the foothills of the Poconos. Carbon County’s three (yes, three!) state parks are not to be missed and are just a short drive from the downtown area of Jim Thorpe. They offer a range of opportunities for family fun.
Lehigh Gorge State Park bisects Carbon County from north to south, with a crushed-stone trail paralleling the scenic Lehigh River. Three trailheads allow entrance to the Lehigh Gorge, beginning in White Haven with access from the parking lot of the town’s small shopping center (Pssst! This shopping center is home to Wood’s Ice Cream, one of the Pocono area’s best-kept secrets). Here, a local outfitter runs a small shop offering mountain bike rentals, drinks, and snacks to get the whole family set for a riverside trek. You can also set off into the Lehigh Gorge from the park’s opposite end in Jim Thorpe and head up-river; another outfitter in the center of town offers everything you will need, including specific directions to the Lehigh Gorge State Park entrance.
“The Gorge” can be reached by car at Rockport, a tiny town situated about halfway along the park’s 20+ mile stretch. Though the only accommodations here are a drinking fountain and restroom, this is still a popular access point. From the parking lot, take the kids for an easy walk either 2/10’s of a mile down-river or 3/10’s of a mile up-river to check out the waterfalls. Up-river, the falls cascade down to where children (and pets!) can splash in a small, icy-cold pool of spring water; the perfect destination on a hot summer day. Note: Rattlesnakes and copperheads are not uncommon sights in Lehigh Gorge State Park. Supervise children accordingly.
For the fossil enthusiast, Beltzville State Park is the place to be. Visitors to Beltzville can expect to find five kinds of fossils here, including the coveted trilobite! Just check with park staff to find where digging and collecting might be permitted. Beltzville also offers picnic areas, easy walking trails, and a picturesque covered bridge. This bridge once housed a huge colony of little brown bats, now sadly reduced due to white-nose syndrome, a fungal infection affecting many of the Poconos’ bat populations.
At the northern end of Carbon County is Hickory Run State Park, where you will find hiking opportunities to suit every age and ability level. Of Hickory Run State Park’s 23 trails, Deer Trail, Lake Trail, and Nature Loop Trail are especially suitable for young visitors. Hickory Run State Park is home to Boulder Field – a 20,000-year-old collection of sandstone boulders in an area measuring roughly 400’ wide by 1,800’ long. This geologic oddity is a great place to let your kids roam freely; not only can you keep an eye on them from a distance, you can also put your mind at ease if worried about ticks or snakes – there simply aren’t any of them here! Just be sure to outfit everyone in sturdy shoes, ideally with rubberized soles for traction on the rocks.
All of the above-mentioned destinations offer formal programming for children and families. If a structured experience is what you’re after, check their websites for schedules and fees (many programs are available for free or at a nominal cost). Planned adventures can also be had through any of the area’s rafting companies, most of which welcome young children on certain sections of the river. Some of these facilities also provide skirmish, mountain-biking and hiking tours.
The great thing about nature exploration is that you don’t need a park, a planned activity or a guide to have fun. Kids are particularly good at creating their own adventures when given a bit of freedom, and there’s tremendous value in this “unstructured” type of play. Damming a stream, planning and building a tree fort, falling down and getting back up – these all provide the kinds of life lessons you won’t find in any book. So, don’t be afraid to relax the rules a bit. If you’re anxious about things like ticks, wasps, or venomous snakes, talk with staff at any of the above-mentioned Pocono area parks. They can provide more information on potential threats in any given area. You can encourage safe, rewarding nature play on any trip with a bit of planning and some inexpensive materials.
Here are a few tips for putting together a simple “nature exploration kit” to accompany your little trailblazer on his or her Jim Thorpe adventure. Pack light for your Pocono family adventure so you can include some of these items!
Start with a junior-sized backpack and the basics such as tissues, hand wipes, first aid supplies, sunscreen, and snacks. Then add a few of the following to tailor it to your child’s age and interests:
· Whistle – A loud whistle is the outdoor equivalent of 911. Teach your child to deliver three strong blasts if lost or separated.
· Notepad and pencils (or crayons for younger children.)
· Hand lenses (attached to key chains or lanyards so they won’t be easily lost.)
· Tweezers, a small garden shovel and a net for “collecting expeditions”.
· Specimen containers such as small plastic bottles or cups. Sandwich bags work well for rock and leaf collections.
· A home-made scavenger hunt list of ten or twenty things kids should be able to find. Acorns, feathers, worms, bugs, and different kinds of leaves or seeds are a few ideas. (Avoid over-collecting and release any live animals back into the habitats where they were found. Keep in mind some parks may not allow the removal of plants, animals or minerals, so check the rules before taking anything with you.)
· A collection of the color sample cards found in the paint department of any hardware or home improvement store. Yes, paint samples! Ask kids to find natural objects that match the colors exactly. You’ll be amazed at how many shades of green are to be found in nature, not to mention the pinks, blues, and purples of flowers in bloom.
· If you have a serious junior naturalist in the family, check out “Acorn Naturalists” online. This company offers everything from bug collecting kits and posters to kids’ laminated field guides and quality student-grade binoculars.
Whether you choose to sign up for a planned program or set out to make your own fun, the family has assured a memorable, meaningful experience in any of Jim Thorpe and its surrounding Pocono natural areas. Of course, there’s no guarantee the ride home will be a quiet one. That stream of complaints may very well issue once again from the back seat.
“No! We’re not leaving already!”
“C’mon, why can’t we stay?”
“Awww, when do we get to come back?”