Monday, April 22, 2019

Plan B


It has been exactly a year since we last used our travel trailer, and we have a dilemma: Do we really want to keep the camper or is it time to sell it and find a different way to spend our summers? We reserved four days at Highland Hammocks State Park, near Sebring, Florida, for the Easter weekend to help us make a decision.

It has been ten years since we last camped at Highland Hammocks, only our second campground when we first started RV camping. We have fond memories of the heavily wooded sites and the friends we camped with back in the beginning of our decade-long adventure. Our first hint things have changed came when we tried to make our on-line reservations and found that even though our desired dates – Easter Weekend – were over two months away, there were only several sites left in the entire campground. The new on-line maps are no longer even close to accurate as far as layout is concerned, looking more like modern art than a real map, and we found ourselves far from satisfied with the new online information. We picked site 12, which appeared to be not far from our first site we really liked all those years before, According to the new map, it also appeared to be fairly private.

Watering hole in the dry season - Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park
All we had to do was prepare the trailer for the short 90 mile trip. We decided to pack lightly as nearby Sebring now has all the amenities and stores we would need. Picking Sebring was a chance to spend time sightseeing the area, something we hadn’t done in a while, plus visit with friends who decided to drive up from Miami for a day trip. We would have several restaurants to choose from nearby as the camper gets smaller and smaller as time goes by.

After cleaning and packing, checking tires and brakes, and checking the Toyota Sequoia tow SUV as well, and spending only a day to load the trailer, we were ready to roll. After a pleasant drive through southwest Florida, we pulled into the campground a little before four in the afternoon.

Ranger Laura was friendly and efficient and we were soon on our way from the campground office to our site, which to our dismay, we could not find. We sat looking at the campground map, then looking around the campground as we sat blocking the access road. Site 10 was to our left, and beyond that the next visible marker was site 13. Site 12 had to be somewhere in between the two, but the only markers were the site numbers painted on top of several picnic tables placed close together. A paved walkway to the campground toilet ran alongside the area we assumed to be our site, but not until we tried to back in did we realize we couldn’t even put out our awning without blocking the foot path. It was such a convoluted layout we blocked sites 12, 13 and the footpath simultaneously when I backed into the space crookedly! Back to the park office!

Ranger Laura did her best to find a site available for the next four days to no avail. She called to have a ranger move the picnic table for us, but that wouldn’t have solved our problem. Not only would I not pay $55 dollars to stay there, I would have paid $55 dollars to not stay there.

In the end we did a void and I called our old standby park, still one of my favorites, at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park, about forty miles on the other side of Sebring. Only die hard campers or nature lovers stay at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park more than once, but we have a strange affinity for the desolate place and after a quick phone call to the camp office there, we were on our way.

Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park

The ranger I talked to on the phone said the park office would be closed by the time we arrived, so just park in the walk-up site – which is not on the reservation system web site – tell the campground host we’re there and just check in with them to pay in the morning.

We soon roll across US 27 and I decide not to fill-up the gas tank because of the crowds waiting for gas. Towing a trailer through a gas station can be demanding enough without impatient drivers who can’t maneuver past you. I decide there must be more, less crowded, fuel stations on US 98. Wrong assumption. The old general store gas station just outside the park is covered in iron bars and cobwebs. OK, Google, where is the next gas station?

“Continue nine miles to US 441 and turn right,” says the generic, female voice from the electronic device made up of silicone, plastic, and minimal amounts of precious minerals. No choice now, I’m showing less than a quarter tank of gas and the park is still fifteen miles away, one way in, one way out. Towing a trailer rarely gets you over nine or ten miles to the gallon, so experience counts here; go get gas. We pass mile after mile of cabbage fields, one eye on the gas tank and the other on the flatbed trucks filled with boxes of cabbage. To make us feel really at home, we are swarmed with Florida’s famed pest, the love bug, as soon as we turn onto US 441.

We pull into the Metro Fuel Center on US 441 just north of the town of Okeechobee amid pickup trucks towing trailers with air-boats and old Mercurys with no rear windows. After filling the gas tank, we decide to head into town to buy the groceries we planned on buying in Sebring. We call the campground office to get the after-hours access code which I forgot to ask for, but they had already left for the day. All we had to do as get there before the Rangers lock the front gate, which they do religiously at eight PM. If you don’t have the after-hours access code, you aren’t getting in until the park opens in the morning. With our cabinets full, we head toward the campground. We make it with an hour to spare.

As we head up the seven mile, dusty, swirling dirt road, we feel a sense of ease and familiarity. We stop at the camp-host, who politely informs us she won’t be on duty until tomorrow. No problem, we back into our site, just glad to be there. The ever present crows welcome us back. A Florida State Park golf cart driven by a campground volunteer – we know because her over-sized, black ball cap says so - slowly drives through the moss draped hammock, stopping as we wave to get her attention. MJ welcomes us and laughs as she fills out a windshield pass for our site.

“You can stay two weeks at this site and nobody can make you move,” she said as she looks through her massive metal clip-board, filling out little papers and cards. She didn’t take my name even though I showed her my Florida driver’s license, so I wonder if I could eventually just wander off and no one would notice. I know better in other parks as they write down your license plate number just in case a camper gets “forgetful.” We look around our almost private site, bounded by massive Live Oaks, draped with Spanish moss, and think, nope, no reason to move.

We have dinner – lasagna instead of the traditional spaghetti – and as soon as it is dark, walk under the moss-draped oaks to the edge of the prairie, which we discover with a flash photograph, is filled with grazing deer. Tomorrow night is supposed to be a “Pink” full moon and we can hardly wait. I bet the campers at Highland Hammocks will have to elbow their way to a viewing spot.

Our decision whether to keep our camper or not is unexpectedly complicated by the weather. We wake up Friday morning to blustery winds, reminiscent of our first visit here when our camper was brand new exactly eight years ago. It was my first blog about the trailer, and last night was our 470th night sleeping in it. Yes, I’m either detail oriented or just plain anal, but I have all the financial details since I spent my first penny on camping. Another part of the decision making process.

Ilse meets the camp host while walking Taz, and is informed our area is under a tornado watch. The host appears quite worried. The last place you want to be during a tornado watch is a Recreational Vehicle of any type, I don’t care where you are. She tells us if the winds pick up, everyone should go to the campground toilets as they are safe. Pets are welcome as well. We walk over to the park office to find a sign on the door announcing it’s closed due to an emergency. We’ll try again tomorrow, I don’t think there will be any problems with registration or paying, perhaps just the weather.

The irony of our stay here at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park is our favorite site, site 20, was devastated two years ago by a tornado. Site 20 and the adjacent site, one hosting a Class C self contained unit and the other a fifth-wheel trailer, were ravaged, tossing the campers around like toys. No one was killed, but one of the women suffered severe back injuries. The only reason we weren’t there at that time was the site was reserved before we could get it. We have wondered about our timing ever since.

The rains begin and I scramble to unhook the Toyota so we can have an escape vehicle the way we did in Georgia when Hurricane Irma tore up our campground north of Lake Lanier near Gainesville. No sooner am I done unhooking the truck from the camper than the rains temporarily subside. I finish putting away chairs, mats, and close the camper door just as the rains start again. Ilse gives our sixteen year old Golden Retriever, Taz, a natural tranquilizer and he promptly lays down to watch the show. So far, it has been quiet here, most of the storm has passed to the north of us. We’re not out of this yet, however, as the latest forecast now says the squall line will pass over us in about three hours. More fun while we wait. We slip a DVD from our local library into the player and pass the time watching a movie we realize we’ve already seen. No matter, we watch it again.

By 5 o’clock it is dark enough outside to turn on the camper lights. The wind has been gusting on and off as two campers across from us arrived and erected two huge tents! They haven’t been watching either of the Ft Myers and West Palm Beach television stations we get, if they had, I doubt they would be setting up tents. Thunder in the distance stirs Taz – no amount of tranquilizers will ever stop that – and the rain begins to slam against the trailer. The temperature drops drastically as the squall line approaches. It rains hard for less than twenty minutes and we have a close-by thunderclap

Gradually the storm passes and we’re left with puddles in the access road but no damage, not even palm fronds laying about. The thunder clap was a singular anomaly, just a reminder of how bad it could be. The winds die down and the clouds begin to break, but not enough to see tonight’s full pink moon. By nightfall, almost every campsite is full as campers arrive for the Easter weekend. There are several campfires burning and everything is quiet in the shire. Tomorrow will be beautifully sunny and quite comfortable as the last cold front of the season is upon us.

Saturday morning breaks with a cloudless sky and 60 degree temperatures. A beautiful day in a park that seems to be on the edge of the universe. Of course it isn’t all that remote – the campers next to us loaded up and drove to town for breakfast – but most of us are content to take in the experience leisurely and enjoy the crows who scold everybody for not leaving enough food on the picnic tables.

I head over to the park office – it was closed yesterday for a family emergency – to pay my fees and see what has been added to the retail offerings of T-shirts and hats. There is an intense conversation going on between the ranger on duty and a couple of visitors when I arrived at the park office. Ranger Frank is furiously thumbing through bird identification books trying to help a lady identify a bird she just saw. He looks up and says, “I’ll be with you in a moment.”

“No problem,” I answer as MJ walks around the corner, her baseball cap pulled down, her short grey hair sticking out from the bottom of her cap. We catch up on yesterday’s non-event just as Ranger Frank decides he’s exhausted his incredible knowledge of ornithology without resolving the sighting mystery and decides to move on, so to speak. After a few moments of keying and paging through computer screens, we are set for our four day stay. It turns out to be over twenty dollars cheaper than Highland Hammocks, so I have absolutely no problem! Out of idle curiosity, I ask MJ where the closest gas station is. She says “Oh, France’s place, just outside the main gate, on the road back to US 98.”

“Do you mean the place that looks like it’s abandoned?” I ask.

“Oh, it’s being rebuilt or modernized or something, but the gas pump and the diesel pump both work fine. I was just there a couple of days ago.”

“Modernized?” I asked. “The place looks just plain awful.”

“Yeah, wait’ll you see what she charges for gas! Apparently the state or the county told her to clean the place up so she’s fixing the store up best she can.”

More local knowledge to add to the blog.

Ilse and I take Taz on a morning walk through the equestrian section of the campground, chatting with campers along the way, including a couple from Ontario sitting on a picnic table in the “red light” section of the campground who have decided, although they love the solitude, they have no need to return to Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. Ilse and I head back to the camper. The campground is full, except for the equestrian loop, the first time we’ve ever seen this park full.

Another day and a half to go and our dilemma has not been solved.

Easter morning is just beautiful. The weather is cool and sunny, the air crisp and sweet. Campers are already rolling out as Ilse fixes waffles for breakfast. Fifty seven years ago today, Ilse and I had our first “date,” walking through Bitburg, her home town in Germany. Today we walk through a canopy of moss covered oak trees in central Florida, headed for a three mile walk across a flat, shade-less prairie. No crystal ball could have possibly foreseen the future, if it had, it would have picked the wrong campground.


Thursday, October 25, 2018

Headed South, Sort of...

Headed south out of Sloppy Floyd State Park just north of Rome, Georgia, we were enjoying the beautiful sunshine and mild temperatures as we looked forward to visiting another hidden jewel in the US Army Corp of Engineers campgrounds: Bolding Mill, just outside Gainesville, Georgia. We’ve stayed at Bolding Mill before and looked forward to a return visit. Only one hundred and five miles through rolling foothills, the trip was smooth and enjoyable as we took our time and enjoyed the beautiful back-roads of Georgia.

The only site available when I made the reservations, number 45, was not among my first choices. I didn’t care much for the site until we were actually hooked up. As luck, or perhaps fate would have it, we stayed at #45 until after Hurricane Irma knocked out power to the area and we moved to the Old Federal Campground on the other side of Lake Lanier which had restored power after the storm.

My wife and I are not careless with Hurricanes. Being Floridians, we are used to the Weather Channel Labor Day Hurricane Tracking Marathon everyone who lives in South Florida is accustomed to. We lived in Kendale Lakes when Hurricane Andrew went though and demolished our daughter’s house in nearby Cutler Ridge. After promising my wife we wouldn’t go through that again, we watched the TV several years later as Hurricane Charley took its terrifying right turn and came up Charlotte Harbor, taking dead aim at our new house. We weren’t sure where the powerful storm was when the wind and rain knocked our power out. Luckily for us, Charley decided to follow the Peace River and made a fortuitous right turn away from us. Never again, we said.

When Hurricane Irma, tired and feeble as she was, slowly dragged herself over northern Georgia with only 55 mph winds, the damage was dramatic. Over eighty percent of the roads in Hall County, where we were, were blocked with fallen trees and debris. Most of the county was without electrical power, which included Bolding Mill Campground.

I don’t carry our generator with us when we plan to stay at campgrounds with full hookups, so we had no choice but move from Bolding Mill after the storm. The only question was how far would we have to go? Home was one alternative as Irma had only gently kissed our area just outside North Port, Florida, but we had family plans for nearby Athens, Georgia, and wanted to keep them if possible. Fortunately, Old Federal, also a US Army Corps of Engineers campground, had restored power within a day, and our reservation was already in place.

The decision to stay at the Bolding Mill campground as the remnants of Irma approached was not made easily. We have no desire to be inside any Recreational Vehicle or mobile home during any more than a rain storm. Anyone who thinks otherwise is foolish. They simply are not safe in a storm, and offer not much more protection than a tent. PERIOD!

But, we decided Hurricane Irma would be no more than a rain storm, not even as strong as the tropical squalls that we are accustomed to. We were far enough away from trees and even below the crest of a berm adjacent to our pad to protect us from the wind if it got excessive. Or so I thought. Our daughter, who relocated to Athens, Georgia, some 60 miles away, offered us a place to stay and we could even bring our normally unwelcome dog. We mulled her offer, but decided we would be just fine.

What I failed to consider was a fifty mile an hour storm damages the woods and forest of oaks and maples far more than palmettos and scrub myrtle of Florida.

The trailer rocked and shivered many times, but never felt unsafe. I have wheel chocks that lock the wheels, and the pads under each corner were secure. The rain blasted against the thin skin, but we felt safe even after the power went out and we were on our battery powered lamps. We were concerned, but not worried, until we had one loud, startling crack not far behind us as a tree broke and crashed to the ground. We immediately ran to the Toyota Sequoia, which was unhooked from the trailer, and we moved out into the center of the campground where we spent the next several hours waiting for the storm to pass.

The camp hosts had a terrifying near miss. 

The next morning we hooked up the trailer and decided to check with the camp hosts, who also happens to be a Hall County Sheriff’s deputy, for advice on travel out of the area. A huge oak tree had fallen across their hard-pad, grazing the side of their slide out, and confirmed what my wife and I had already decided: No next time!

Anyone who tries to ride out a storm, much less a hurricane, in an RV needs an attitude adjustment.

Next: Back to Old Fed, post Irma.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Sloppy Floyd

While we were camping at Cloudland Canyon State Park, on the top of Lookout Mountain, people asked, “Where are you headed next?” The responses we got ranged from blank stares to looks of outright surprise. We began to have doubts about the campsite reservation I made at James H. “Sloppy” Floyd State Park near Summerville, Georgia, back in April. I picked the park based on its location and campsite availability in late August, and the fact it was located in the nearby Chattahoochee National Forest.

As we drove down the center of Lookout Mountain from Cloudland Canyon – it’s really a long, thirty-five mile plateau – headed south toward our next campsite at Sloppy Floyd, Ilse and I both became apprehensive: we had no idea what to expect at our next campsite. Quite honestly, the name of the state park did nothing to whet our enthusiasm.

There is a subliminal message in the park name “Sloppy,” even if it is named after the speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives who served from 1953 until 1974. The nickname “Sloppy” just doesn’t inspire enthusiasm. His reputation doesn’t either as he’s nationally famous as the Georgia legislator who defiantly walked out of the Georgia State House when Julian Bond, the first black elected to the legislature, was sworn in. Was ‘Ol Jim sloppy all the time or just on the farm? Or, maybe only while working in the State House? More importantly, does the state park actually represent the name?

Turning onto Sloppy Floyd Lake Road from US 27 does not alleviate any fears, at least not until you get to the sign announcing the park. From there on, it is one of the prettiest Georgia state parks we’ve seen. Large, well manicured woods with picnic shelters surround two small, tranquil lakes that even offer several paddle boats. The office has free WiFi – which we didn’t have at Cloudland Canyon - and has standard park business hours. The WiFi proved to be weak and highly intermittent, but we occasionally got on the Internet without burning our precious data usage on our cellphone.

The park offered a half-price discount for camping sites during August, which I assume means they aren’t as full as they would like to be. It also meant I got half of my money back when I checked in early Monday afternoon, in addition to the twenty percent age discount that you can’t get when you make reservations on-line at

I knew was it was a smaller state park than the one we left, with only twenty-five sites, although nine of those sites are spacious pull-throughs. It is located just south of the bustling town of Summerville on US Highway 27. At over 1000 feet lower than our last campsite, it is quite a bit warmer than on top of the mountain. The park has no main gate. All of the facilities, including the campsite, four new, state-of-the-art cottages, and the picnic areas, are accessed from the rather narrow, twisty, lake-side county road that traverses the park.

The campsites and the park itself are a pleasant surprise. The twisty, narrow one-way access road to the campsites flattens out on top of the hill and campsites are spread in such a manner that gives everyone privacy, and yet easy access. The only shower/toilet facility is old, but spotlessly clean.

We backed into our reserved site 14 – this is one of the few Georgia State Parks that use the pre-selected site method – and within an hour were setup and fixing lunch. We even had time to drive back to the Visitor Center just as people began milling around outside the office as the highly anticipated Solar Eclipse got underway. Rachel, the young ranger who checked us in, lent everyone her certified viewing glasses and we all got to see some part of the eclipse. Someone quipped at the height of the eclipse – which looked more like a really cloudy day – that they could hear crickets and it was surely several degrees cooler. Smiles all around as everyone enjoyed the moment.

Solar eclipse shadows
We walked over four miles on the paved parks roads on Tuesday before it got too hot, then drove into nearby Summerville after lunch to stock up necessities. We also stopped by a local auto parts store to order two new gas-pistons for the rear lift gate on the Sequoia. Believe me, when they fail, getting anything out of the back of the car becomes a nightmare. I watched a you-tube video made by an amateur mechanic about replacing the pistons just to make sure there weren’t any procedures I wasn’t aware of. The you-tube “mechanic” propped the heavy lift gate open with a piece of PVC pipe. You know, the plastic, flexible water pipe used for sprinkler systems. I couldn’t help but wonder if he is still hospitalized. Perhaps he isn’t, but I have no doubt anyone who emulated him may either have been decapitated or currently plays the role of Captain Hook in Peter Pan.

We did the Marble Mine Trail on Wednesday, and since the trail is based on an old gravel road, we took Taz along for the hike. While the condition of the trail is no problem, the angle of the roadway sometimes requires unexpected water breaks. The old mine isn’t awe-inspiring like the vistas at Cloudland Canyon, but it is still unique.

All in all, James H. “Sloppy” Floyd State Park gets high ratings from us. Cloudland Canyon has its vistas and Vogel has two – count ‘em, two! - miniature golf courses so both of those parks are at the other end of the tourist spectrum. This is where you kick back for a couple of days when they crowds head back to the city. Don’t expect the throngs of Atlanta license plates here. A great place to enjoy the dog days of summer. Nobody here but the locals, and those who know not to judge a book by its cover.

Next: Headed South, Sort of...

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Time to Roll

Our second weekend at Cloudland Canyon State Park felt more like what we’ve experienced at other state park campgrounds than our first quiet, almost subdued, weekend here. The campground was packed by sunset on Friday, not a single empty campsite. While still subdued in contrast to the past campgrounds we’ve stayed at, the wafting campfire smoke and laughing, playing children were more like we’ve come to expect on a weekend.

Any state or Federal campground located this close to a large, urban area always fills up from Friday night until Sunday morning. These are campers who aren’t traveling, at least not more than an hour's drive from home. There are no families camping Monday through Friday with school age children after the school year starts. We are more campers than travelers, even though we travel constantly during the summertime. Unfortunately, we don’t always know what we will enjoy until we get there, regardless of the research effort we put into the location. We did well at Cloudland Canyon State Park, the vistas are beautiful, the trails are great, and we are only twenty-five miles south Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Our “mission” is to escape the heat and humidity of southwest Florida in an enjoyable, comfortable, yet affordable, manner. We tend to stay in the Georgia or North Carolina mountains high above the heat of the cities and campgrounds further south. We have found, however, that staying only a couple of days at any given campground has diminished our ability to fully enjoy areas around the campsite. We have found too much time spent in an area of minimal interest causes cabin fever, no matter how many books we have to read or how cool the mountain breezes.

When friends recommended Cloudland Canyon State Park in northwest Georgia – and research of the surrounding area showed we could expect many things to see and do – we reserved a full, two week stay and we expected to not only enjoy the weather, but to hike beautiful canyon trails and explore the area around nearby Chattanooga.

During a second trip to Chattanooga, we took the Tennessee Aquarium’ s River Gorge Explorer two-hour boat tour of the historic Tennessee River. A modern, 70 seat, high speed catamaran powered by 3500 hp water-jet engines occasionally hit speeds as high as 55 MPH, and then dramatically splashed down to a crawl to the delight of the children and those who have never driven a boat. The water-over-the-bow deceleration was done several times each way, but I noticed when we were in regular river traffic, the mundane and far less dramatic, comfortable slow throttle-back was the standard operation. No one is allowed out of their seats while the boat is on a high-speed plane, and we were warned beforehand whenever a rapid deceleration was imminent. The trip went far enough downstream – one hour – to escape the commercial river sections and show case riverfront homes at the beginning of the Tennessee River Gorge that lay farther south. The naturalist/guide was outstanding. We had a young man who knew every phase of the river and its ecosystem with personal knowledge of the entire system. That part of the tour was outstanding.

After twelve days of exploring the area around Lookout Mountain, where the campground is located, we are ready to roll. Living with high-speed bumper to bumper traffic is how I spent the most of my adult life, so in my retirement I choose to relax and kick back, enjoy the subdued pursuit of tranquility and relaxation. Driving Interstate 24 through Chattanooga is not the answer. Luckily, we’re only twenty-five miles away so that nerve-wracking Interstate construction zone driving experience only lasts a few minutes, either into or out of the city. The alternative, driving the Scenic Parkway along the top of Lookout Mountain and down into Fort Oglethorpe is a unique alternative, but not a viable one.

We did notice one major change in American restaurant protocol while eating in Chattanooga and the surrounding area. I have no doubt the MBAs who run America’s restaurants will soon implement the cost-saving procedure country-wide. There are two basic kinds of restaurants: those with settings and those with set-ups. A setting is found with table cloth restaurants and includes all the requisite silverware, such as forks – including a salad fork – spoons and knives placed carefully and sequentially on a cloth napkin. Setups on the other hand, are usually silverware/plastic-ware wrapped in a paper napkin held together with a tear-off wrapper casually tossed in the center of the table. Two restaurants we ate at, including a Thai restaurant we liked so much we returned for a second visit, and a Barbecue restaurant in nearby Trenton, had only one utensil in their set-ups: a fork! Cut your meat? Naw, just chew off a chunk. Push your veggies on your fork with your finger, although which one is considered proper. It wouldn’t surprise me if they reuse the wrapper the fork comes in. I wonder if this is catching on with restaurants country-wide?

This weekend the RVs are back in full force, except for a friendly, disciplined group of Asians which has replaced the Indian family camped in the same sites last weekend with yet another tent city. Their campsites last night were a problem for us as we tried to decide what kind of firewood they used in their campfires. Every once in a while we come across great smelling campfires, flavored with hickory or even mesquite, and conversely, sometimes we have neighbors who use old creosote-soaked, railway cross-ties. We retired early and turned on the air-conditioning.

Next: James “Sloppy” Floyd State Park, just in time for the solar eclipse, at:


Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Waterfalls Trail

After several days of hiking and walking shorter trails to build up our stamina, we decided today was the day to descend the Waterfall Trail to both Cherokee Falls, the midway waterfall, and Hemlock Falls at the base of Cloudland Canyon. It turned out to be the highlight of our stay at the state park, and not nearly as cataclysmic as we had been led to believe by several of the campers we talked to about the trail.

Most of the descent/ascent is on a metal, grated staircase, with the longest section without a terrace about fifty steps or so. Wooden decks act as terraces, several have benches so people like us can sit and recuperate and watch young people run up and down the staircase like gazelles. There are sections of the trail, however, that are reminiscent of the root/rock West Rim Trail and require attention to where you place your feet.

I certainly wouldn’t call the trail easy, taking us over two and a half hours to do the almost two-mile round trip, but there were people on the trail who acted as if it were personal training run. The trail map has it listed as strenuous and advises against taking pets because of the metal gratings. The 600 steps to the Hemlock Falls at the bottom of their staircase were far easier on us overall than the cumbersome root/rock trail of the west rim, but still, descending down 400 feet, then hiking back up to the rim is a test of knee health, thigh strength, and a healthy heart. Bring plenty of water.

We carefully maneuvered the damp, rocky approach to the Cherokee Falls, the half-way point of the trail, and watched a young woman relax on a boulder on the far side of the collection pool. She had politely passed us earlier on the descent, and now was enjoying sticking her feet in the cold water. She wasn’t hiking the trail, she was running it. Her name is Vicki, and she works as a nurse in Chattanooga. She chatted with us twice on the trail – we met her again on her way back up from Hemlock Falls – and is one of the several people we met who take advantage of the park and the trails every chance they get. After saying goodbye, Vicki quickly disappeared up the steep staircase.

Cherokee Falls is a pretty, 90 foot high waterfall, with no cascades, and a pretty collection pool at the base. It is well worth the hike.

As Ilse and I leave Cherokee Falls, we hesitate as we look down the long, twisting half-mile staircase to the Hemlock Falls below. An elderly gentleman, older even than me, excuses himself as he climbs past us, hiking poles in hand. He greets us with a robust smile and I can’t help but think this is what keeps him young.

We soon reach the platform overlook at the beautiful Hemlock Falls and once again take out our water bottles. Hemlock Falls has the shorter drop of the two waterfalls on Daniel Creek, about 60 feet, and is also a pretty waterfall, but the pool is not accessible as is the pool at Cherokee Falls. We quietly sit on the wooden bench and absorb the sounds around us, dominated by the constant crescendo of the waterfall. We are soon joined by two young women who climb past the overlook to walk along the water’s edge under the lookout platform.
The way it is...
...and the way it should read

 I have always considered myself a purist when it comes to the environment, but as we sat in silence on the bench at Hemlock Falls, looking at the huge boulder on the edge of the pool, I couldn’t help but think of the marvelous statue of the Cherokee warrior who stands in the North Carolina Arboretum. If I had an endless supply of funds, I would commission that statue or one just as meaningful, to be mounted on top of the boulder on the edge of the collection pool facing the waterfall. I can not think of a better place.

Next - After two weeks, it's time to roll, at:


Laundry Day - Housekeeping and Kicking Back

A few campers straggled in Monday, but not many. A great time to relax and do the housekeeping chores required when you’re on the road for an extended time. That means it’s time to wash clothes. The campground washing machines and dryers are available any time we want – there are a pair at both toilet/shower facilities on the West Rim Camping Loop – so it is a great time to do the mundane chores and enjoy the good weather. We’ll get back into tourist mode on Wednesday when we head for the 600 step staircase that heads down to the waterfalls in the valley below. Like my wife says, we’ll play that hike by ear. I think she’s secretly hoping for rain that will keep us in the camper. The West Rim Loop Trail we did two days ago was fun, but at times a bit tough for us flat-landers who only do this mountainous stuff once a year. Still, she was game enough to do that trail, and she’ll give it her best tomorrow, the scenic beauty is always worth the effort.

We did our best to be good tourists Monday by touring nearby downtown Chattanooga, which like any large U.S. American city is filled with contradictions. While driving through the manicured downtown Market Street, headed for the Tennessee Aquarium, we watched a pair of America’s social outcasts dumpster-diving right alongside a downtown intersection as we waited for a traffic light. I honestly wish political ideology would vanish in a cloud of humanistic concern for our country, but then again, what do I know.

After road construction near the Aquarium trumps our GPS instructions, we end up on the Bluffs overlooking the Tennessee River, looking for a place to conveniently turn around. The Hunter Museum parking lot serves as a great place to recheck the maps and GPS, and as we pull through the parking loop, we stop to watch a pair of well fed ground hogs, which ignore us until I get out to take a photo.

Chattanooga deserves admiration and praise from what we have seen, but they are fighting a tough battle, as is any large city. They have several really neat innovations including bicycles kiosks where participants can pick up or leave bicycles as they tour and traverse the downtown area. We parked in
one of many automated garages near the renovated Riverfront Area and walked to the Tennessee Aquarium across the street. We bought tickets for a Thursday tour on the Tennessee River Gorge Tour, also operated by the Aquarium. We walked around the Riverfront, then headed for a nearby Thai Restaurant with some reservations about what to expect. No need for concern, the Pad Thai was among the best I’ve ever had – sorry Royal Orchid – and by looking at Ilse’s clean plate, I don’t think she had any problem with her meal either.

We had an exit gate at the parking garage that wouldn’t process my paid-up ticket, and luckily I had no one behind me as I backed up the garage exit ramp and switched gates. I did draw strange stares from a worker who appeared from nowhere carrying a Styrofoam doggie box, obviously leftovers from his recent lunch, but since he seemed dumbfounded by my explanation, we just waved once the gate opened and just drove out.

We struggled with my GPS to find the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, which was closed, then shopped at a grocery store on the east side of town that was getting a serious construction face-lift. Off course it poured rain as we left the store in the chaos of the construction, when else would it rain?

Heading back out to the Interstate for the short, wet trip back to the campground was a grim reminder of why I don’t like big cities where three Interstate Highways intersect, especially when they have lane-changing construction that narrows three lanes down to about six feet wide each. Bumper to bumper traffic with eighteen wheelers trying to get to their destinations on schedule makes for interesting driving. The rain got heavier and traffic finally got lighter and a little more cautious. We were soon at the Trenton exit and only seven miles from the campground with a huge, tailgating pickup truck that was so close it looked like I may have been towing him, right on my bumper. As we climbed the newly-paved highway through the clouds into another realm, the old expression, so near but yet so far came to mind. I can see why this park is so popular. Soon, we had the road and the mist-filled world all to ourselves.

By the time we finish the laundry Tuesday afternoon, many of the sites empty campsites are filled, with at least three aluminum Airstreams. Pop-up campers and small towables are quietly tucked away in many of the wide camp sites, along with a scattering of tents and one new one for us: a tent mounted on a platform on top of a car carrier, aluminum access ladder and all. The little Subaru sedan seems to be bearing the additional weight well. Only one of the big Class A motorhomes and one of the extra-large fifth wheel trailers in the park. Everyone seems to be keeping to themselves as the park is as quiet as it was when we took the laundry bag to the laundry room.

We know all the campground hosts by name now, and we chat with them whenever we meet on the camp road. One campground host just signed in, traveling from Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana and he’ll be here until February. Another couple will pack up at the end of August and head for their next hosting gig in New Mexico. An interesting life style, but it isn’t for us. We toyed with the idea of being camp hosts, but we just aren’t ready to cut the umbilical cord, so to speak. We’d rather head for home when the summer heat breaks and sleep in a familiar homestead. Friends and our familiar surroundings in southwest Florida make a comfortable winter home base. I guess that makes us snow-birds of sorts, but since we never see snow, I don’t know if that is completely accurate. We’ll keep rolling with our travel trailer as long as we still enjoy RVing, escaping to the Appalachian Mountains to avoid the summer Florida heat and humidity. And, of course, doing our laundry when the campgrounds are empty.

Next - The Waterfalls Trail at CCSP, at:


Friday, August 18, 2017

The West Rim Trail

After a week of short hikes and walks, we decided to try the full West Rim Loop Trail at the Cloudland Canyon State Park to view the vistas we had seen from the easy-access, other side of the park. We were camped just a few hundred yards from the wide path that led to the rim trail and if push came to shove, and we felt we were over our heads, we could exit the rim trail at several points and walk back to the campground on the paved road that crosses the loop near the western-most top of the mountain.

We did a leisurely Sunday morning breakfast and watched the huge tent city consume itself and disappear into a myriad of car trunks. By ten o’clock, we were ready to hit the trail, and except for one remaining tent, the one with the snarling dog that stood between us and the trailhead, the campground was empty.

Great!” we thought, “We’ll have the trails to mostly to ourselves.” Compared to the number of hikers we met on the trail Saturday, we were almost correct.

We locked up the camper and took the long way around our aggressive neighbor and started down the quiet, shaded access path in a beautiful, cloudless day and mild temperatures. We had a taste of the west rim overlooks from the other side of the park when we first arrived. People on the west side of the canyon waved at us as we stood a few feet from the main parking lot, and of course, we waved back, thinking “Gee, what does it look like from where they are?” Today would be a great day to find out.

We began meeting other hikers as soon as we started the trail, including two couples hiking together – one of the young men precariously carrying a baby on his shoulder – and a young girl who ran past us like a rabbit. We also met several young couples with dogs, all on leashes. As we manipulated the often narrow path along the top of the canyon, we became adept at passing techniques with the dogs. One girl even pulled a traditional dog waterdish from somewhere in her backpack to give her young, four month old puppy a drink. We showed her our combination doggie bottle/waterdish we carry in our back pack and I think she may have actually been somewhat interested in something us old folks had to say. Well, maybe.

Several couples had young puppies, and just like our thirteen year old dog, Taz, too worn out and tired to be aggressive. The temperature stayed in the mid eighties, but we were sweating as if we were at home in Florida’s southwest coast. The dogs obviously felt the same.

Parts of the West Rim Trail have been “re-pathed” - their wording, not mine – and we found several markers to be misleading, or just plain meaningless. One marker had crude arrows scratched into it with car keys or knives, or something sharp, to add directions inadvertently or thoughtlessly left off the marker. You can’t wander meaninglessly forever as you either cross the paved road or you fall off the cliff, but it is an afternoon saver if you know where on the trail you are. Still, the West Rim trail, marked as moderate/strenuous, is visually rewarding with several great lookouts, and a few interesting caves, along the root and rock strewn trail.

We headed back from the scenic overlooks at the end of the canyon and decided to head for the walk-in campground via another supposedly marked trail. We stood at one unmarked junction and stared at two identical flashes, the markers nailed to trees to mark a trail, that marked two divergent trails, one to the left and one to the right. As we stood trying to decide which path looked more worn, two women appeared from our right.

Oh, you aren’t far from the walk-in campground,” one said as she brushed past, her chihuahua pulling on a leash, “Just keep going, it’s just up the hill.”

By the time we were back at our RV camping loop, by way of the paved access road, we were both drenched in sweat. We stripped, threw our clothes into the laundry bag, grabbed towels, flip flops, quick covers and headed for the empty, spotlessly clean showers. Even our pain-in-the-neck neighbor dog was gone. We shower not just because we get sweaty, but to also avoid the curse of trail hiking: chiggers! If you don’t shower and isolate your clothing, you may remember your hike long after the thrill of the scenery is gone.

Next - Extended Camping - Laundry Day, at:


Featured Post

The Waterfalls Trail

After several days of hiking and walking shorter trails to build up our stamina, we decided today was the day to descend the Waterfall Tr...