Echo Bluff State Park

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echobluffRejoice fellower RV’ers, Missouri State Parks has given you another reason to try camping at one of their state park. Echo Bluff State Park opened its doors on July 30, 2016 in the heart of the Ozarks becoming Missouri’s 88th state park and its 9th state park with full service campgrounds! With 430 acres Echo Bluff State Park is designed to provide something for everyone who visits the park.

IMG_7510Located south of Salem, north http://www.gumshoegraphics.com/5th-camp-out-shirts/of Eminence on Highway 19, Echo Bluff State Park is less than three hours from St. Louis, a little over two hours from Springfield, easily accessible from Highway 60 and Interstate 44. For us Kansas Citians, it is a jaunt (five and a half hours) but worth every minute!

echobluff8 The towering limestone bluff along Sinking Creek, that is the parks namesake, is absolutely impressive but it is Echo Bluffs State Park lodging options that will draw all of you to the park. Campers are going to find a pretty impressive campground that offers 62 sites; 43 of those are full service with water, electric and sewer!  While shade in the campground is sparse right now, you will find level concrete pads, large modern shower facilities, bathrooms, and a dump station all easily accessible. Campers looking for something a little less populated and rustic will find 12 primitive walk-in camping sites hidden among the tall mature trees.

EchoBluff1For the non-campers in your life who like to tag along on your adventures, Echo Bluff has lodging for them as well. The Betty Lea Lodge (named after Missouri Governor Nixon’s mother) has 16 standard rooms and 4 suites for rent as well as a gift shop and market, a full service restaurant, a great room and a lodge deck making this lodge the center-point of the park. For families who need a little more space than a hotel room, Echo Bluff State Park has modern 2 and 4 bedroom cabins as well as 4 stacked duplex cabins that can be rented individually or for extra large groups.  While the water at the campground may not be on all year long, the lodging at Echo Bluff is available year round so guest can enjoy the Ozarks through the spring bloom, the summer sunshine, the fall leaves and even the frozen winter.

echobluff4Long before construction began on this new park the property was home to generations of campers and Echo Bluff State Park has honored some of that history. From 1929 to 1986 the land was home to a youth summer camp called Camp Zoe where youth from St. Louis spent several weeks each summer enjoying the great outdoors. Missouri State Parks has left the original Camp Zoe Lodge in place as well as the original horse barn. They have also named one of the hiking trails after a former staff member, Painter. On the contrary, from 1986 to 2014 this property was home to a different Camp Zoe but still an important piece of this lands history. During this time the land was owned by a Grateful Dead tribute band frontman who held music festivals commonly known as Schwagstock. In 2014 he was arrested and subsequently imprisoned for “maintaining a drug environment” after the government raided and subsequently seized the property.  Missouri State Park acquired the property  through auction. In talking to locals during our visit, this more recent colorful chapter lingers and lives in hushed whispers.

EchoBluff3The park has a day use area that will keep either the leisure traveler or the experienced outdoorsman busy. Sinking Creek runs throughout the park and brings swimming, wading, floating, and fishing. Wayne spent several hours in the rain fishing and was happy to have caught five or so small mouth and rock bass.  Children of all ages will enjoy a splash park as well as a playground. There were no activities scheduled during our visit but the park also has a beautiful amphitheater.

IMG_7497If bigger water activities are your desire, Sinking Creek is a tributary to the Current River and is near the intersection with another river, The Jacks Fork. Within a few short miles of the state park you will find several outfitters to help you spend a day floating down the Ozark Scenic Riverway. One outfitter, Carr’s Canoe Rental, even made daily visits to Echo Bluff to provide round trip service, at no additional cost, to guest.

Our Experiences:

We spent a four day weekend at Echo Bluff State Park celebrating the end of summer and the start of another school year. This trip we traveled with ten of us: with Angie’s Aunt/Uncle, Mom and Step Dad with us.  Coincidentally, shortly after we arrived the first night, our campground neighbors pulled in and to our surprise it was Chuck and Dana from Kansas City who we also camped next door to at Wallace State Park back in June.  The “old folks” as they called themselves stayed in the Betty Lea Lodge. We stayed in the full service campground, which is walking distance from The Betty Lea across the Wheeler Bridge. We visited the park three weeks after they opened.

 

EchoBluff2On our second day at the state park, we enjoyed a float trip down the Current River. We used Eminence Canoes Cottages and Camp as our outfitters for the day. Their staff were very friendly and helpful getting us on and off the river. This was the first time we had ever used plastic canoes and we learned they are smaller and less balanced than our favorite aluminum canoes. Unfortunately, some lessons are learned the hard way and we learned just how “tippy” the canoe was when ours flipped over on us and quickly filled our canoe full of cold water!  On a related note: If you find a Sony Cybershot at the bottom of the Current River upstream from Twin Rivers give us a shout out because ours went to the bottom when we tipped.

IMG_7524We barely made it back to the park by the time the rain clouds opened. The rest of the weekend was wet. Wayne and I got up super early Saturday morning to roam the park in between downpours. I am so glad we did because it was the last moments of non-rain we had. We decided to take a road trip to enjoy the local area as a way of dealing with the rain. We visited Current River State Park (almost across the highway from Echo Bluff). Wayne brought along his fishing pole and within three cast caught a beast of a large mouth. I think he would have stayed there all day if we would have let him. Instead, we had him drive us over to Johnson Shutins, Elephant Rock State Park, and The Battle of Pilot Knob State Historic Site. It was a long day of driving but everyone had a really fun time visiting some of our favorite places.

rockwoodAfter our long road trip and the fact that it was still raining, we opted to forgo our campfire meal and eat dinner at the full service restaurant at The Betty Lea called Creekside Grill. The restaurant is actually pretty small so they sat us and two other large groups in some conference space used as overflow seating. Our experience with Creekside Grill started off pretty rocky. As soon as we were seated, one of the other large group , who were obviously from St. Louis,  ramped up their conversation about who to root for this football season now that they are without a team. The gist of this conversation was that they had two choices; the Arizona Cardinals (formerly from St. Louis) or the Kansas City Chiefs. Well let’s just say it was not a pleasant experience when foul language coupled with bashing of our side of the state welcomed us as we were settling into our seats. I did enjoy their looks of horror as my husband introduced ourselves and proudly let them know where we were from. Jerks.

IMG_7431The dinner menu at Creekside Grill is a little upscale: Mushroom Studel, Catfish, Buffalo Meatloaf, Smoked Chicken, BBQ Ribs to name a few of the option available. Prices run between $15 to $20. (The kids meals were $5.00.) We started with slow service; the table seated after us got their drinks and salads before we even got our drinks. Overall, the food was consumed but it was not anything so fantastic that I have to tell you about it nor am I rushing back to have something again.

IMG_7516On our last morning there, the “old folks” invited us to breakfast at the Creekside Grill so we would not have to make a mess before tearing down. Our experience with them the night before was so mediocre I thought it was a good thing to give them a second try. As we approached the restaurant we were not greeted, we watched staff clear and set up tables without once speaking to us. There was no sign telling us to “seat ourselves” so we just stood watching the waitresses work until we finally asked if we could be seated.

echobluff6The buffet consisted of coffee, orange juice, fresh fruit, muffins, biscuits, gravy, sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs, and potatoes. When we arrived, it was obvious the buffet table was wrecked: food spilled all over and the food supply was depleted. The waitresses never once showed any action to attend to the buffet table until we specifically asked. Unfortunately, the quality of food was not any better. The coffee was weak, the biscuits were hard and overcooked, and I am sure the eggs were powdered eggs made to serve the masses. I have had better quality food at hotels that offer a free breakfast with your stay and this was a $9.99 per person breakfast. I think I expected more from this Lodge who is clearly trying to portray a more upscale experience. I do believe the workforce in the restaurant are young and inexperienced. I just hope someone with experience steps up and provides some training so the quality of service can match the experience before our next visit.

echobluff7While I would say we were less than impressed with the restaurant, we were very impressed with the overall park. From the impressive limestone bluff to the natural iron guard rails that run throughout the park,  from the beautiful Wheeler Bridge (named after the Governor’s Father-in-Law) to The Betty Lea Lodge, from the splash park to the original Camp Zoe Lodge the park is beautiful! It is a place we will plan to return to time and again.

Eastern Cultures consider a double rainbow to be a symbol of transformation; the inner ring representing material world and the outer ring spiritual. On our last night in the park we were blessed with a double rainbow. I think Missouri State Parks has transformed this piece of land from something questionable (Schwagfest) back to a park where all are welcome and new generations are invited to explore the great outdoors.

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Smoky Mountains: Floating The Little River

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kidslittleriverWe Missourians know a few things about floating; each year we grab a canoe and head off down a river to float the heat away. We learned that floating is a popular summer pastime in the Smoky Mountains as well.

There were several river outfitters near our campground, Big Meadow Family Campground (in fact you could walk there). We selected Smoky Mountain Outdoor Center, a fairly new company to the Townsend Scene. We selected them because they had fabric covered tubes instead of vinyl rafts. We also had had several interactions with the staff at SMOC and just really liked them.

There are a few nuances that I would like to point out so you are prepared for your floating adventure:

  • All property along the river is private. You can only put in and take out in designated spaces. There is no pulling over and hanging out.
  • There is no food or drink allowed on the river. The river outfitters do have picnic areas.
  • The course is only a mile or so long.
  • You can go down the river as many times as you would like in a day.
  • The rate to float is roughly $10.00 – $15.00.
  • Floating in an inner-tube is different than a canoe or kayak. There is a learning curve on how to protect “your assets” from the big rocks that are just under the surface of the water.

I hope you will check out our YouTube video. Our son, The Boy, brought along one of his best friends and we designated him our official videographer. He took some great footage and I have had a fun time playing with it.

During our second trip down the river we encountered a group of young men from Louisiana. These young men seek adventure on a different level that I but it was fun capturing them on video. Thankfully, no one was hurt and they went home with a very tall story. Here is their video:

 

5th Annual Family Camp Out

This camping season is going by so quickly it is making my head spin! September will be here before you know it and that means that the 5th Annual Family Camp Out is right around the corner! (Still want to reserve your space: click here!)

Here is some information for those of you planning to attend. This is turning into a record breaking year for us; we have 11 sites booked, several sites have 2 families on them. I am expecting close to 60 overnight campers and more day campers.  We will continue to do community meals for three meals: Saturday lunch, Saturday dinner, and Sunday breakfast. Friday night meal and Saturday morning breakfast is on your own. I have created a SignUp Genius to sign up for community food, I only ask that you try to be equitable. Please visit it and sign up. If you have any questions, please run them through this blog or the facebook page. The SignUp Genius does not include silverware, plates, napkins, or drinks. Please bring those for your family.

Friday Agenda

Set up: arrive at your schedule, don’t forget to get water before you arrive at the site. Water is located at the beginning of our loop between sites 361-365.

Dinner (on your own); I will try to have a fire going in case you want to cook over the open flame. Historically it has been windy and cold this night so prepare!

Bring and App to share: Just for fun, let’s each bring an appetizer to share.We have talked about finding judges to select a favorite for our first ever Family Camp Out Cook Off Award.

Saturday Agenda

Breakfast is on your own. We will have a camp stove available for use. I will make coffee. Bring your own cup.  The Smith-Taylor Family will be making breakfast grilled cheese sandwiches (a grilled cheese sandwich stuffed with eggs and sausage) so we will also have a griddle available as well.

Paint a Critter: Every year we have done a craft and this year kids and adults will have the opportunity to paint a rock and create a critter. Paint and rocks will be provided.

Tye Die T-Shirts: Every year we have done a t-shirt and this year is no exception. I am still working on these details, so please check back. We are working on two options 1) an available for purchase t-shirt designed by one of the campers himself or 2) you bring a t-shirt, screen print a design, let it dry, and then tye die away. You provide or buy the White T-shirts and a ziplock baggie for your wet t-shirt, I have dye and rubber bands.

Adult Coloring Books: If you have not joined in the craze you are missing out. No need to be an adult to partake in this relaxing pass time. Markers will be provided as is the canvas.

Lunch: A Family Camp-Out tradition for the fifth year in a row, Walking Tacos. Please use the Sign Up Genius.

Afternoon Yard Games: Ladder golf, cornhole toss, bocci, washers, yard yahtzi. Whatever it is, bring it and we will play it. Brackets will be available for friendly competition.

Camping Ice Cream: At the very first family camp-out we made tin can ice cream and we are bringing it back. Kids (and interested adults) will have an opportunity to make home made ice cream two non-traditional ways: with tin cans and Ziploc bags. I just need a headcount on the number of kids at the camp out. Parents are welcome to assist!

Can’t Stop This Feeling: We will be making a camping music video to Justin Timberlake’s body moving song: Can’t Stop This Feeling. Get your family together and work out a few dance moves! After the camp-out we will put it all together and make one super cute lip-sync video! Yep, costumes and props are totally welcome!

Saturday Dinner: We started this tradition during our second year and it is still going strong: the hot dog buffet. However you like that hot dog, you can have it: want it lightly browned or  seared and blackened, how about wrapped in bacon and stuffed with cheese, or maybe topped with chili. We got it all, you just need to fix it. After dinner there will be S’mores! Bring a hot dog stick and come enjoy our buffet!

GLOW PARTY 2.0! This was a huge hit during our fourth family camp-out and we just have to repeat it. We will supply the black lights and playlist you supply the glow and the dance moves. Kids and adults are sure to have the best time! Get creative and find the best way to glow!

Sunday Agenda:

Breakfast: Eggs-In-A-Bag: we introduced this during our third year and we are gonna keep doing it. We will supply the pot of boiling water and everything else is in the SignUp Genius. We also put dehydrated hash browns on the menu. A volunteer or two to help cook the hash browns would be awesome!

Check Out is 3:00 p.m. How long you stay is your choice. Last year many stayed and watched The Chiefs game. If you linger, as we will, plan for lunch.

A few extra details:

I have heard that the cost of day entry has increased from $5.00 to $7.00. Remember to bring sunscreen, lawn chairs, and your cameras. We are close to the large bathhouse for easy access to restrooms and showers. Fishing is near. Smithville Lake has amazing trails, both paved and unpaved, so you can take a hike or ride a bike.

Thank you to all who come out for the weekend/night/day to camp with us. This is an event that we have come to anticipate and look forward to!  See you in September!

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Smoky Mountain National Park: Clingmans Dome

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I hear stories told that from the top of Clingmans Dome a visitor can see 100 miles in every direction, including viewing 7 different states.  We would have no first hand knowledge of this because the day we visited the highest point in the Smoky Mountain National Park, the highest point in Tennessee and the second highest point east of the Mississippi River there was so much cloud coverage that we had a near zero visibility.

IMG_7097Clingmans Dome is on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. Due to road closures (Little River Road was closed because of downed trees during our visit) we had to take Wears Valley Road (Hwy 321) over to Pigeon Forge and down to Gaitlinburg on Hwy 421. It took us about 90 minutes to drive to the parking lot of Clingmans Dome from our campsite. Clingmans Dome sits at 6,643 feet (Denver, Colorado is the mile high city and sits at 5, 280 feet).

IMG_7096We left our campground by 6:30 a.m. and arrived in the parking lot by 8:00 a.m. The view from the parking lot that greeted us was nothing short of breathtaking. The view was not the only breathtaking thing: the temperature of the air (my goodness it was chilly) took our breath away as did the smell in the vault toilets also sucked all the wind right out of us! We held our breath and held the doors open to use the restrooms and luckily we found sweatshirts/jackets/blankets in the trucks to keep us warm on our hike.

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The hike from the parking lot to the top is only a half mile but that half mile has approximately 500 feet of vertical lift. Thankfully benches have been placed to give us out of shape hikers a place to catch out our breath before pushing onward…and upward! For all of you KC fans, I thought the top of Clingmans Dome resembled the spirals at Truman Sports Complex, so we even did a short LGR chant! A long concrete spiral takes you to the observation tower. Travel and Leisure actually named this observation deck one of the coolest in the world. 

IMG_7076We made the hike to the top, there was no reason to linger there for us. we could not see a few feet past our faces. The signs at the observation deck inform us that more acid rain falls here than any other national park in the country.

IMG_7066Two other trails intersect at Clingmans Dome. The most known, The Appalachian Trail, is a 2,190 mile footpath from Georgia to Maine. It crosses 14 states and six national parks. I am excited to say that we hiked the width of the Appalachian Trail!  The Mountains-to-Sea Trail is a 1,150 mile trail that starts at in the North Carolina mountains at Clingmans Dome and ends at the Outer Banks.

IMG_8280After a morning of hiking ( I reached my 10,000 step goal by 10:00 a.m.) we were famished. Allen lead us all to Atrium Pancake’s in Gaitlinburg, Tennessee. Angie and I ordered the Baked Apple Pancakes and we were not disappointed. we were both served a golden brown pancake that was the size of the serving plate. Baked in the pancake batter were cooked apples. I am telling you, I could have eaten the whole thing without syrup it was that yummy. But, they do served the baked apple pancakes with homemade apple syrup and I just had to try it. I do not know how it was possible but the syrup did in fact make those pancakes every yummier! I am sorry to say that neither Angie or I could finish our pancakes but we left Atrium Pancakes happy and ready for a nap!

Want to see more? You can check out our family video of our hike up Clingmans Dome:

 

 

Smoky Mountain National Park: Cades Cove

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cadescovealteredWhen it comes to mountains, my entire frame of reference is the Rocky Mountains. I do realize that the Ozark Mountains are in my own home state and I have visited them before and they are amazing. But the Rocky Mountains were my first mountains and will always be my frame of reference to all others. (Maybe this is why I gloss over the Ozark Mountains?)

The Smoky Mountains may not be as tall and towering as the Rocky’s but the first time I saw the clouds hanging low on the trees it took my breath away. The temperature in the area was warmer and more humid than I remember the mountains in Colorado being but once we got under the canopy of the trees the temp did drop.

We spent one week in the Smoky Mountains and visited the National Park five separate occasions. We hiked. We fished. We drove through Cades Cove. We visited the highest point. And yes, we had bear sightings.  I hope you enjoy this series of post as I walk you through our visit to Smoky Mountain National Park.

Cades Cove

IMG_5413 alteredOne of the perks of staying in Townsend is the close proximity to Cades Cove, so on our first full day we headed to the national park and straight to Cades Cove. We should start by defining “cove.” Where we come from a cove is part of a lake. It is a smaller section of water close to land that you ancher down in. That is the not the case here. Here a cove is a flat valley between mountains or ridges.   Cades Cove is an 11 mile one-way loop through the national park. It was settled in the early 1800’s and for over a century people called the cove their home. Industry soon followed in the means of mills, blacksmiths, wood working, orchards, and even a few distilleries but farming was the main occupation in the cove. The population of Cades Cove reached 685 people with around 135 families right around 1850. Churches and school were built.

IMG_5408 alteredTennessee and North Carolina began buying land that is now part of the national park and gave it to the government for park use. Cades Cove residents were given the option of selling and leaving. Some sold quickly and others resisted. Not everyone left Cades Cove. Some agreed to less money for their land if they could remain on it until they died. The last school closed in 1944 and the post office closed in 1947.

IMG_5427 applyBefore visiting The Smoky Mountain National Park I knew a little of the parks history. The land was all privately owned and lumber companies owned 85% of the land and were logging it. Besides depleting the trees the changing forest also impacted the deer and animal populations. Thankfully conservation efforts have been successful as we were able to see many deer and bears during our visits to the park.

IMG_6965 alteredIt took us a few hours to make the 11 mile loop.The view is very scenic and you never know when an animal will appear which will stop all traffic. The buildings former residents used/lived in are still available  so it is worth it to stop and hike around. Every time we found a large group of cars stopped, we stopped. It served us well. We ended up seeing a total of 6 bears that first day in Cades Cove.  Sometimes we found out people were stopped to see deer and to be honest that thrilled us less  because we have them at home. Either way, when you see a large buck with velvet on his antlers, you still stop in awe.

deer alteredWe stopped at the Visitor Center and Cable Mill area and walked around. The cable mill was still running and grinding cornmeal the day we visited. It was a pleasure talking to the mill operator as he explained how fast the mill could run and course or fine the former operates could make the cornmeal or flour.

mill alteredIt was hot during our visit and there were warning signs everywhere cautioning us to be aware of snakes. They like to find cool places to hide during the heat of the day and that can include many of the old buildings. Thankfully we did not find any slithering creatures during our visit. We did find access to the stream that runs along the mill. The Short Chic asked permission to put her feet in it. Being accustomed to the mountain streams in the Rockies I told her yes but the water would be freezing cold. Little did I know, the Smoky Mountain streams are not ice cold but actually enjoyable to be in.

IMG_6985 alteredThere are two gravel roads in Cades Cove that provide short cuts in the loop. Hyatt Lane and Sparks Lane are two way gravel roads that help you navigate the park if you want to repeat or skip parts. I think these roads are excellent for adding to the adventure of visiting Cades Cove. We traveled Hyatt Lane late in the afternoon and were greeted by some serious photographers looking for wild life and if I had to be specific I would guess bears. As we found out, bears like blackberries and like to come to the meadows that are full of wild berry bushes.

On our way out of Cades Cove, we decided to take Rich Mountain Road back to Townsend. This road is closed during the winter but open in the summer. It is one of the original gravel roads used to enter Cades Cove before the national park was opened. It is full of switchbacks as you make your way up, down, over, and off the mountain to Townsend. As our luck would be with this vacation, storms found us as we were making our way over. The sky darkened, the rains came and visibility went away. What a memorable trip down the mountain!

 

Want to see more? You can, check out our Cades Cove family movie:

Big Meadow Family Campground

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One thing is true about visiting the Smoky Mountains; there are ample places to stay and this is true of RV parks. Pigeon Forge, Gaitlinburg, and Sevierville are all very well known destination spots in the Smoky Mountains but they were not what we were looking for when we selected our destination.  We were looking for a place close to the Smoky Mountain National Park. We were looking for a place close to fishing and other water activities. We were looking for quiet place to lay our heads after hours of exploring. We found Townsend, Tennessee and Big Meadow Family Campground. Both provided exactly what we wanted and were looking for in a vacation destination.

Townsend calls themselves the “quieter side of the mountain” and I can attest that after a few trips over to the more popular Smoky Mountain destinations (Pigeon Forge, Gaitlinburg, and Sevierville) it is quieter, less commercial, less touristy, and generally smaller. Big Meadow Family Campground is not the only full service campground in Townsend but it was the right choice for us. From my observations I saw a lot of older couples vacationing with grandchildren, families just like ourselves, and even vacationing couples all enjoying their time at Big Meadow Family Campground. We also noticed that many people at the campground are repeat customers who come back over and over.

Big Meadow is a family run business. They have 78 full hook up sites, 25 of these are gravel pads with the rest being concrete, 58 sites are pull through leaving only 20 back in sites. The grounds are beautiful and very well maintained. Security and safety of all guest seemed to be a very high priority of the owners. To enter the park you have to use a key pad to pass though a locked gate.

During our check-in we were advised that there is a strict 5 mph speed limit in the campground. I can’t begin to tell you how many times we are told about a speed limit and we see people speeding through the campground during our stays but this campground actually enforced the speed limit. I, as a parent with a little girl who has only just recently begun riding a bicycle by herself, really appreciate the safety I felt during our stay at Big Meadow Family Campground.

DSC02265 alteredThe other rule explained to us at check-in was that the gates locked at midnight and unlocked at 7:00 a.m. This rule impacted us only once. We had planned an early morning departure to drive over to Clingman’s Dome and wanted to leave by 6:30 a.m. The night before we moved our trucks to the front of the campground just outside the locked gate. The morning of our departure we walked a short walk to our trucks and went about our site seeing.

IMG_7060 alteredThe campground has a splash park, a gazebo with a fire pit, a dog park, and a playground with a large pirate ship climbing structure. The little girls in our group loved playing in the splash park and found it a perfect place to make friends and cool off after our long days of exploring. The only negative thing that I can say about any of these amenities is that the girl’s clothing got stained after a short play on the playground area. I have no idea what they touched but it was a stain that did not come out of their clothing. But to be fair, it is a playground and they are little girls.

Our campsites were equipped with water, electric (both 30 and 50 amp service) sewer and cable television. The only thing that the sites did not have was a fire ring. Campers could make a fire at their campsite if they had a fire pit and made it on the gravel or concrete (not in the grass).  Other campers during our visit made fires at the fire-pit in the gazebo but we never felt the desire to add extra heat to the already humid temperatures.

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We utilized the campground laundry room several times during our stay and found it to be clean and easy to access. In addition to the laundry room members of our group used the men’s shower.  All reports from the shower room were very positive (large, clean, spotless, bug free,  really, really nice were all words used to describe when I asked). We were also invited to a Sunday Morning Church Service held on site at the campground.

We arrived on a Thursday early evening just ahead of a round of storms, which we could not seem to shake on our trip. Our check-in process went smoothly as we were shown to our  sites, given a list of cable television stations, explained the rules of the campground, and introduced to the family cat, RJ. The rain caught up with us before we could even make it to our site and unhitch. Yet another wet hitch/unhitch.

We had saved grocery shopping for our week’s stay till we reached Townsend. So, on the first night with little food in our campers and the sky’s dumping inches and inches of rain on us, we sat out to find a local restaurant. We found the Montre Real Mexican Restaurant. The food was good, the staff were friendly and the prices were reasonable. It rained the entire meal  so we said good night and turned in early. The sound of rain falling on the camper sang us to sleep that first night.

We did use the IGA for our grocery needs. The butcher there was kind enough to special cut some meat for us as they did not have what we were looking for packaged. The store had our basic needs plus a little more but I would say if you are wanting something a little out of the norm you might want to stop at a store in a larger town.

Smoky Mountain National Park is only a few short minutes from the campground and within fifteen minutes to Cades Cove. We found a back scenic road that connects Cades Cove to Townsend that was a breathtaking and exciting trip to make. (We learned later this road, Rich Mountain Road, is the original route to Cades Cove.)

IMG_8251 alteredOutside the national park, floating down the Little River is a popular pass time. There are multiple outfitters very close to Big Meadows Family Campground. Two of the outfitters are literally within walking distance to the campground and offer a mile or so float downstream. The water level of the Little River changes frequently so I think any given day the experience can be different. I promise to give you more information on floating the Little River in a later post!

DSC02287All along 321 highway is a bike path that we used to bike to Burgermaster’s Drive-In for ice cream. Not only was the ice cream amazing (super smooth and creamy) they also had this 1950’s theme.  I learned about “wet nuts.” which is a dessert topping you can add to ice cream that is basically chopped walnuts in maple syrup. Burgermaster may not have had my favorite sundae available (a turtle) but I added wet nuts to my chocolate sundae and it was pretty good!

IMG_8282 alteredWe partook in wine tasting at Cades Cove Cellars and then stopped into Apple Valley Country Store and Cafe for some shopping and a fried pie. We actually met some fellow Missourians in the parking lot of Apple Valley who were stopping by to grab a few fried pies on their way home to Missouri. We purchased our pies from the store and I wish we had ordered them fresh from the cafe. Next time.

We also stopped at several other small shops and eateries along the way.  Some of our favorites were: GSM Outfitters, The Boy purchased his first pair of Chacos from them. We were very impressed with the product knowledge and helpfulness of the owners. The local fly shop in Townsend is the Little River Outfitters. If you plan to fish in the Smoky Mountains I highly suggesting going in and talking to them, they have a huge selection of fishing gear and give some great advice . Jake’s on the River is just a cool little retail shop, and PawPaw’s Kajun Kitchen has the best catfish we’ve ever had; and we have had a lot of catfish.

Keep checking back, we have more reviews and stories to share from our time in the Smoky Mountains.

Land Between The Lakes

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A few hours south of St. Louis, Missouri and just over an hour north of Nashville, lays a peninsula between two lakes: Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley. The area between the two rivers is known as Land Between The Lakes and it is a national recreational area.  The location made and ease of access made this a perfect pit-stop on our epic adventure.

IMG_6911We selected to stay at Hillman Ferry Campground as they have full service sites. We used the online reservation system to reserve our sites as we were traveling near a federal holiday and wanted no surprises. The online reservations were easy to make and eased our concern of finding a full campground. In hindsight, we did not need advanced reservations. We pulled in to find a huge campground with many different loops and lots of vacancies. We learned from talking to locals that the majority of sites are first come first serve and that a small percentage of their campgrounds are reserve-able.  We also learned that each year they hold a lottery to give some people long term access.

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We arrived at Land Between The Lakes from the Lake Barkley taking The Trace up to Hillman Ferry. The Trace is a divided highway running north and south and appears to be the main path to get around Land Between The Lakes. The check in process was easy and soon we were on our way to campground number 4.  Our site was a pull through with near a stream with the Todd’s literally right across the road from us. We were surrounded by tall pines and we felt the weight of the humidity.

IMG_8203 alteredThe morning after we arrived we met a local man who gave me a tour of the park in his golf cart. He told us about some activities to think about participating in during our short time in this area. After breakfast, we loaded up and headed to the visitor center. The staff at the center were helpful in giving us options. Land Between The Lakes has an Elk and Bison Prairie that is a 700 acre prairie restoration project that visitors can drive through and watch out for elk and bison. We were advised to do this activity early in the morning or late in the evening for the best chances of seeing the animals.

Land Between The Lakes also has a Nature Center where many animals who historically live in this area can be seen. They also have programs and hikes available.  There is also a historical town called Homeplace 1850 which is a working 19th Century farm. In period clothing staff run this farm with task that residents from 1850 would have done; sheep sheering, planting a garden, bringing in the harvest, or even just playing music.

IMG_6931We selected to visit Golden Pond Planetarium and catch a Night Sky show. While we waited for the show to begin we wondered through the museum of how Land Between The Lakes came to be. The government used imminent domain to claim this land from the people who lived there (not once or twice but actually four different times) until the families who had lived in this area were all removed.

As we lingered in the museum waiting for the show to start, our phones alerted us to severe weather moving into our area. We realized we had left the awning out on the campers so the men decided to take a quick drive back to the campground to make sure we were secure. By the time they reached the campground a fast moving, intense storm had hit. The campground looked like a battle zone! The stream behind our camper filled, tree limbs were everywhere, and campers suffered damage to awnings. Our own awning was spared as I had grabbed the side of it that morning and lowered one corner. This allowed all the water to run off one side and not pool in the middle.

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The mom’s, little girls, and teen boys all attended the Night Sky show at the Planetarium. It was informative and inspired us to star watch the rest of the trip. After the show we rejoined the dads and we did a little geocaching and then headed off to find lunch. By the time we found a restaurant with wifi (one of the teen boys is taking an online college course) we were in the middle of a storm. On our way back to the campground we noticed leaves, limbs, and whole trees scattered all over the roads. We even spied birds perched on trees  drying out their wings.

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Upon arriving back to the campground we found that the storm had knocked all power out. The kids took off exploring on bicycles and the adults took off exploring by foot. We enjoyed meeting several other campers as we all bonded over the lack of utilities and how lucky we were to not have received damage in the storm. By the time we finished our walk, we still had no power. We had to make alternative arrangements for dinner because we had planned a crock pot meal that night.

IMG_6934 alteredA short drive from Land Between The Lakes national recreational area is a small town of Grand River, which is home to Patti’s 1880 Settlement Restaurant. We were able to get late reservations for dinner. While we wondered if our electricity was back on we dined on fried catfish, 2 inch thick pork chops, pasta, bread cooked in a flower pot, and some of the most amazing pie!

 

IMG_8217 alteredWe thought our luck had turned with this storm, by the time we got back from dinner the power was on. We went to bed happy to be on vacation and thankful we survived the days storms without any incident. An hour or so after we turned the lights out, Wayne woke me and announced that the power was out again. We went the entire night, temperatures in the high 80’s, oppressive humidity, in a tin can (you may call it a camper) with no air conditioning.

The next morning we learned the power was out to all of Land Between The Lakes area. This meant not only did we not have electricity to make coffee but we were also could not use water, or dump out tanks down the sewer lines. Despite having had plans to linger for the morning, we packed up and headed out.

I thought the Land Between the Lakes was beautiful. I wish we had been able to enjoy the swimming area. We never made it to the Elk and Bison Prairie. If we had water toys this might be a spot I would desire to return to. The locals, who were all so very nice to us, love this area and the campgrounds and spend a lot of time camping at Land Between the Lakes.