On summer days at South Mountain Creamery, a 2,200-acre dairy farm in Frederick County, Md.’s , cows roam freely in rolling green pastures. Families stroll through the milking plant, or to the farm market for fresh super-premium ice cream that they can enjoy at outdoor picnic tables overlooking the countryside. But the pace picks up each afternoon ahead of bottle-feeding time for the baby calves, which visitors can participate in.
“We have people that show up a half an hour early or so, and they’ll stake out their calf,” said farmer and South Mountain Creamery owner Tony Brusco. On some days, there are as many as 40 or 50 calves to feed, so the extra help is not only useful for the farm, but also contributes toward one of its key missions. “It’s important for people to have a connection to, and understand, what it takes to put food on your plate,” said Brusco. Inviting school groups, locals, and out-of-town visitors to this working dairy farm gives Brusco and his team “an opportunity to share love of farming and how food is grown and created.”
Kids can help feed the calves every afternoon at family dairy farm South Mountain Creamery. Photo credit: Visit Frederick
That sort of interactive experience is typical of Frederick County, an easygoing area tucked between the Catoctin Mountains and Potomac River, just an hour outside of D.C. From hiking trails traversing Civil War territory to old-fashioned passenger trains rumbling over a historic track, there are ample opportunities here for locals and families to enjoy the great outdoors and learn something at the same time. Combined with downtown Frederick’s evolving cultural and restaurant scene, the county has the recipe for a memorable weekend getaway.
Arrive at South Mountain Creamery in the afternoon. Take a self-guided tour of the farm, learn about raising grass-fed cows, and finish by helping feed the calves in the barn (daily at 4 p.m.) At the on-site market, Karen’s Kountry Store, sample and take home the farm’s fresh, non-GMO, antibiotic- and hormone-free cheese, yogurt and ice cream, as well as meats and other locally-sourced items.
Spend the evening at Attaboy Beer, a family-friendly (and dog-friendly) brewery and beer garden just outside of downtown Frederick. At this casual spot, where guests seat themselves at long communal tables, the rotating tap list includes bold brews. The Juicemaster 5000, for instance, is a New England double IPA flavored with orange and papaya. Food trucks are parked outside from Wednesday through Sunday, and Fridays feature tasty wood-smoked barbecue from Blues BBQ.
Start your day early by exploring the Heart of the Civil War GeoTrail, an outdoor scavenger hunt that tells the story of Frederick County’s role in the war. Participants use GPS-enabled devices to find geocaches, which in this case are small plastic containers with inexpensive trinkets inside; the idea is to choose a trinket to take with you, and leave another one that you’ve brought with you in its place.
The Heart of the Civil War Geotrail is a fun way to discover historic landscapes and buildings in Frederick County. Photo credit: Visit Frederick
Included on the trail is Monocacy National Battlefield, located two miles from downtown Frederick. It features Civil War buildings, like Thomas Farm House, which saw brutal fighting during the Battle that Saved Washington.
The battlefield, a unit of the U.S. National Park Service, also offers six walking trails of varying difficulties, and about two miles of Monocacy River are accessible for canoeing and kayaking (but remember to bring your own equipment). A canoe/kayak tour with Frederick County Parks and Recreation during the summer provides a fresh perspective on the battlefield from the river, while monthly twilight hikes from May to October offer the chance to see owls, bats, lightning bugs and other nighttime creatures.
In the visitor center, young kids can try on soldiers’ coats and hats from the Civil War period. Older kids and parents are often drawn to the realistic fiber-optic map, which depicts confederate and union soldiers moving across the landscape on the day of the battle.
“This whole area is just steeped in Civil War History,” said Nissa Fink, chief of resource education and visitor services for Monocacy National Battlefield. “Something that I think our park does incredibly well is looking at the Civil War history, and offering other features too, including for people that have more of a nature bent.”
Next, kick back and take in the views on a ride along Walkersville Southern Railroad. Remodeled 1920s passenger cars travel over historic track built by the Pennsylvania Railroad in 1872, passing parkland and woods, a century-old lime kiln, and farmland with views of the Catoctin Mountains, before crossing the Monocacy River along a reconstructed 19th-century railroad bridge. Trains never surpass 10 miles per hour, making for a leisurely 70-minute experience.
“You might see wildlife in the water. People are outside kayaking and canoeing down the river,” said Brooke Kovalcik, director of special events and general administrator for the railroad.
Summertime brings special events, like teddy bear- and superhero-themed train rides, followed by picnics at Walkersville Community Park. Back at the station, visit the Walkersville Southern Railroad Museum, filled with railroading artifacts and historic photos, plus a Children’s Corner with wooden trains and books.
Remodeled 1920s passenger cars and open-air flat cars in the yard at Walkersville Station. Photo credit: Visit Frederick
Move on to bustling downtown Frederick for lunch at family-owned Pretzel & Pizza Creations, where the signature dough, containing a secret blend of flours, is used in thick Bavarian-style soft pretzels and pretzel-crust pizzas.
After lunch, stroll up a block to North Market Pop Shop, a retro and craft soda maker run by biochemist owner Michelle Schaffer. More than 500 rotating glass-bottled varieties run the gamut from outlandish (buffalo-wing soda) to traditional (root beer)—a good choice for a make-your-own-float with locally sourced Trickling Springs Creamery ice cream.
Once everyone has fueled up, explore Adventure Park USA, a family theme park with a slew of indoor and outdoor rides, games and activities. Ride the roller coasters (including one with four-passenger cars for families), try out the bumper boats, play a round of miniature golf or drive go-karts around the track. Older kids can play laser tag and virtual reality games, and there’s a carousel and mini roller coaster for very young children. The four-level Wild West-themed soft playground also has an area devoted to toddlers.
Wind down over dinner at Family Meal, led by celebrity chef and Frederick native Bryan Voltaggio. The modern industrial space features an open kitchen serving updated diner-style and Southern fare, like kale caesar salad and shrimp and grits, plus a kids menu and hearty breakfast dishes all day.
Pay a morning visit to Catoctin Wildlife Preserve & Zoo, where 319 species from around the world are found in authentic habitat areas. See black-and-white ruffed lemurs in the Madagascar zone, American alligators in the North America area and wallabies hopping through the Australia habitat. One-hour wildlife safari rides in army surplus troop carriers roam 25 wooded acres for up-close encounters with exotic birds and mammals.
Wildlife safaris at Catoctin Wildlife Preserve & Zoo offer closeup encounters with exotic birds and mammals. Photo credit: Visit Frederick
Spend the afternoon at The Original Playhouse Children’s Museum, where owner Ellen Przybocki, a former Frederick County schoolteacher, was inspired by her students’ love of dramatic play centers—classroom corners devoted to imaginative play and filled with toys and props. “I would see how much joy and how much learning was happening,” she said. “And I just think it’s an invaluable thing for children to have.” The museum has six themed rooms. Kids can build structures with blocks in the Engineerium or experiment with plastic funnels and siphons in the Wonders of Water room. There’s a stage with costumes and props, and an outdoor garden with a wooden castle. While the museum is best for kids ages three to nine, toddlers are welcome, and families are encouraged to drop by and play for as long as they’d like.
“The philosophy is to turn your phones off and engage with your kids,” Przybocki said.
Close out your weekend in downtown Frederick with dinner at Pistarro’s, which serves wood-fired pizzas along with craft beer from Frederick-based Monocacy Brewing Company. There are plenty of creative combinations to try, like the Ananas, which brings together tomato sauce, pineapple, speck, jalapeño and house-made mozzarella. Kids get pizza dough to play with while they wait for their food, so you can keep relaxing until it’s time to head home.