Hike and Picnic | Roaming the Hills at Virginia Kendall

Cover photo: E.J. pulls Indigo and Che over the hills in our renovated all-terrain wagon.

Virginia Kendall Area is part of Cuyahoga Valley National Park.
Pine Hollow is located at 5465 Quick Road, Peninsula, Ohio 44264

words and photos by M. Sophie Hamad

When I first feel a chill float in on the late summer air, two things happen. First, I cry a little while hunting for my sweaters and scarves. Next, I turn into a little kid again, remembering all the vivid colors and earthly smells that come with autumn.

Che enjoys grapes from our picnic dinner at the Virginia Kendall Lake Shelter.

As that inner child, beholden to Ohio’s autumn beauty, begins to overpower the whiney adult who can only think of impending winter, she reverts to her first-grade self and runs for the Virginia Kendall Hills. She seems to have forgotten that leaves don’t actually begin to change until October, though. Oops.

So, half-disappointed at my own ignorance of seasonal changes, I roam the hills with my husband, E.J., who pulls an all-terrain wagon-load of toddlers along in front of me.

My fondest childhood memory of Virginia Kendall Hills involves a roll of wax paper and an iron. And leaves. Lots and lots of leaves. Any native Ohioan can likely relate. The school project that took me to these hills with my father so many years ago required collecting a variety of colorful autumn leaves, ironing them between two pieces of wax paper, identifying them properly, and then turning each wax paper leaf-tomb into a page. All the pages were bound together into a book entitled “Fall Leaves”.

The recreation of this memory with my own children will have to wait. In the meantime, I marvel at the mid-September Midwest views all around us while my husband toils with the wagon.

It is late afternoon, and we are racing the sun. The warm-green glow of the hills is intermittently blanketed in cloud-shadows. As I stop at the crest of one of the shorter hills to take a photo of some type of dead-but-still-beautiful plant, I hear my sons crying. I run over the top of the hill to find the wagon tipped over. E.J. and I stifle a laugh, as we brush the kids off and help them up and back into the wagon.

Maps are extremely helpful at the Virginia Kendall Area (which includes the Hills and the Ledges), as there are numerous trails headed in different directions. We make a bee-line for Kendall Lake, travelling along one of the grassy paths connecting Pine Hollow parking lot to our picnic destination, complete with tables and shelter.

A monarch butterfly rests on a stalk of goldenrod.

Just before heading out of the hills and meadows and into the forest that surrounds the lake, an orange something flutters in my periphery. I turn my head in time to see two monarchs circling each other on the wind. One stops to rest and drink nectar on a stalk of goldenrod. As it takes flight again, I look around to see countless more flitting around the flowers and tall grasses. I’m standing in the midst of a kaleidoscope of monarchs migrating through Northeast Ohio on their trip south. It’s ethereal.

“MOM! Where are you? Are you coming, Mom?” Indigo, 4, snaps me out of my dream state, and I jog a little to catch up to the family.

They’ve turned left off the grassy trail, into the woods. Both boys desert their wagon in favor of running down the dirt path that leads to the lake. The sun reflects off the lake and shines through the trees, illuminating my children and husband. Che, almost 2, runs with his arms outstretched, free and exhilarated, the sun glowing through his curls like a halo.

When we reach the shelter at the lake, everyone is exhausted and ready to eat. I unpack our picnic cooler. We’ve brought a homemade dinner:

1. Kale, fresh from our garden, massaged with olive oil, salt and pepper, tossed with blueberries and crushed walnuts, and dressed with Ohio maple syrup and Dijon mustard.
2. Tuna salad sandwiches made with Sustainable Seas tuna, mayonnaise, dill pickles, celery, Honeycrisp apple, and red onion on Udi’s gluten free bread.
3. Honeycrisp apple slices tossed in lemon juice to keep them from browning.
4. Big, juicy red grapes.

We devour our dinner as the sun falls lower in the sky. There’s something melancholy about eating outside in the last days of summer. We know we have only a few more of these adventures before winter holds us hostage for too many months. Che’s dimpled smile warms me, and I let the winter doom fade into the back of my mind for now.

We clean up our mess, pack up our leftovers, and load the kids into the wagon. We go back the way we came, until we come to the crossroads of the connector trails on the hills. On our way to the lake, we went around the big hill, to save time and energy. This time, E.J. wants to climb the big hill, so we can see everything.

“Are you sure?” I ask, as he begins the ascent. He is sure. We climb up and up and up.

M. Sophie Hamad is preparing for winter hibernation, like a grumbly mama bear.

10 Things to do (for every season) at Virginia Kendall Area:

1. Fly a kite in the big meadow by the Ledges Shelter, or over the Hills at Pine Hollow.
2. Hike or run any of the eight main trails, ranging from the easy .5 mile Forest Grove Trail to the challenging 3.3 mile Boston Run Trail (not to mention countless connector trails).
3. Winter sports, including snowshoeing, sledding, and cross-country skiing. Pine Grove even has a warming area where you can thaw your hands and hats, and enjoy your thermos-full of hot cocoa.
4. Reserve one of the three picnic shelters for a group event.
5. Take in the scenery—view the fabulous fall foliage from the vista at the Ledges Overlook, admire the wildflowers at the Hills, or watch the icicles drip from the rock outcroppings along the Ledges Trail.
6. Go fishing or ice fishing.
7. Enjoy the big field which the Ledges Trail encircles. Bring a picnic basket, a blanket, some hula-hoops and various types of sporting goods. Swing your hips, or play ball.
8. Go on a ranger-led hike or walking tour—check the calendar of events on the Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s “Plan Your Visit” page on the National Park Service website.
9. Roll down the Hills at Virginia Kendall Hills, as long as it didn’t rain the day before. Or even if it did.
10. Watch birds and see abundant wildlife.