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Backyard Adventures

When I was a kid, my parents had one rule about our annual family vacations: we had to go somewhere new. But to be clear, new didn’t have to mean well-known or exotic. In fact, most of the time it didn’t. You’d more likely find us at the Kentucky Horse Park than the beach. Or in the Badlands rather than New York City. Or checking out the little rock that gives the Arkansas capital its name.

As a kid, I appreciated all the wrong things from these vacations. I treasured the highway stops for McDonald’s, the hotel swimming pools, and the museum gift store cheapo toys that had nothing to do with our travel destination (Yes, I’m talking about you, off-brand appaloosa horse figurine). As an adult, the larger lesson has hit home – there are a million interesting places in the world, and they don’t have to be expensive, or far, or famous, to give you a totally new experience. Plus, you’ll have like, a million chances to stop for McDonald’s along the way.

So, in honor of my mom and dad, who put Pigeon Forge on the map for me, here are three cool, quirky spots within a few hours’ drive of Maryland/DC/Virginia where you can have a lot of fun and get out of your comfort zone – without breaking the bank.

Titusville and Oil City, PA:

Want to know what crude oil smells like? Look no further than Titusville, the birthplace of the American oil industry. While the Drake Well Museum gives you a hands-on history lesson, a hike through Oil Creek State Park or a ride on the Oil Creek and Titusville Railroad gives you a chance to enjoy the honestly beautiful scenery. But what really tops off this trip is a visit to the world’s oldest continually producing oil well – the McClintock Well #1. It’s off a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gravel driveway, and it only takes about 10 minutes to really check out, but here’s what got me about this place: there’s so much oil here that it actually seeps up naturally through the ground.

International Water Tasting, Berkeley Springs, WV: This little mountain village’s hot springs have made it a destination since the 1700s, when a young George Washington stopped to take a dip on his way through town. While the spas, hotels, restaurants, and shops make for a great weekend getaway, check Berkeley Springs out in February for the International Water Tasting competition. Called, “The Academy Awards of Water,” countries from around the world compete to win titles like “Best Municipal Water,” “Best Bottled Water,” and “Best Mineral Water.” Join in the water tasting fun, just be prepared for the questions you’ll get from hard core water enthusiasts. Like: “Are you catching the notes of granite, red raspberry leaf, and cigar ash in the finish?”

Carroll County Fair, Westminster, MD:

Since 1897, Carroll County’s annual fair has been showcasing the best that Maryland agriculture has to offer. The only county fair in Maryland without an entrance fee, Carroll County’s annual fair is about as authentic as you can get. There are no carnival rides. There are no arcade games. But you won’t have time to miss them amid the horse pull, racing pigs, cake auction, demolition derby, and nightly live music. You can wave to Miss 4-H in the annual parade, dine on pit beef and homemade milkshakes while you watch a livestock show, or test out the latest John Deere models.

Blair, an avid traveler, earned her Masters in International Relations from American University. With extensive experience living and working in Africa, Blair is proficient in French and regularly works to promote entrepreneurial ventures within the Masaai communities in Kenya. Blair is a native of Maryland and has been involved in the Maryland 4-H program for over 20 years.

Tips, tales + takeaways from our favorite go-getters

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