5 Tips For Hosting a Large Camp Out

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For the past five years we have found a way of sharing our love for camping with our friends through our annual Family Camp Out. What started off as a desire to go camping and finding a friend, or two, to join us tent camping in the cooler fall weather has grown into something I never could have imagined. This year we had nearly 60 people (16 families) join us as either weekend warriors, overnighters, or day campers  for a weekend of games, activities, camp food, fun, and relaxation.

As you  can imagine organizing, planning, and hosting a camping event does not happen overnight and requires some attention to detail. Here are 5 tips to help you plan a large camp-out for your family or friends.

img_7661altered1. Select a Setting: The setting to any gathering is important and a camp out should be no exception. Finding a campground that will allow a large group to gather and has sufficient parking can be a little tricky. We originally selected Smithville Lake because it is beautiful and we could pick a loop that was close to the public restrooms which was super important when we were all tent campers. We keep returning to Smithville Lake because I have not found another campground that will let us buy day parking passes and park on the grass near the sites we have rented.  One last tip about the setting, find a place that allows advanced reservations or will do group reservations.

friends2. Select a Date and Invite Some Friends: We live in the Midwest and have a lot of weather considerations; spring and fall are unpredictable and the summer is humid and hot. We selected the fall and hope each year for sunny days and cooler nights. Most of the families attending the camp out are no longer in tents but we still have some tent campers who do prefer fall to summer. Each year the weather has challenged us and surprised us; we have encountered near freezing temperatures, wind, storms, and even sunshine.

friends2Once you have a date set, start inviting friends. I did not look for friends who liked to camp, I started with friends who had children. My goal was to create a weekend of camping that my kids would enjoy and playmates were central to that. One friend I invited was so shocked she literally asked if I had sent the invitation to the wrong person as she had never been camping in her life. As she laughed about it, she actually let the idea sink in and she decided to join us. My dear friend Deanna has been at every single camp out and tells me every year that without this opportunity her two kids would never experience camping.  So, when looking for guest, don’t limit yourself by looking for campers instead open the opportunity to  others and they might surprise you and themselves!

friends53. Activities:  There is absolutely nothing wrong with free play but no parent wants to hear the words, “I am bored” especially during a weekend camping trip.  Each year we attempt to plan a few activities we think the kids will enjoy just so we can proactively ward off those three dreaded words. Pinterest can provide you with a plethora of ideas: nature scavenger hunts, wood chip necklaces, stamped metal, painted rocks, and one year we even had our very own raingutter regatta. In addition to the activities we have also do crafts. Every year we have either tie dyed, reverse tie dyed, or screen printed a t-shirt. It makes me very happy to see a returning camper wearing shirts from previous years.

This year, our fifth year, we started the morning with an oversized adult coloring book poster that I found at 5 and Beow. It allowed for quiet time while parents fixed breakfast or just enjoyed a cup of coffee in the quiet morning hours. Mid morning we a painted pet rocks. By late morning we had started tie dying t-shirts and by the afternoon all the kids had migrated to the lake to play in the warm water and the cool clay mud.

tiedye4. Food:  As I have previously stated, this camping event has morphed from tent camping to mostly RV camping (although we still have several tent campers) and many of those camping had never been camping prior to our first year.  The menu for the weekend was fairly prescriptive at the request of the guest. By our second year, we had a menu that pleased everyone and we have kept it year after year. You would think someone would complain but they have not, and until they do, I am going to keep doing what works.

We have a balance between community meals and on your own meals. One of the main reasons we do community meals is because of the amount of children we have at the camp out. Small children, as well as picky eaters, tend to shop between their friends to see who has the most desirable meal. So to avoid one parent being targeted to feed a large number of kids, we chose to organize community meals. We use a Sign Up Genius  for the community meals and campers bring their own drinks and paper/plastic wear. Determining how much of each item we will need is probably the hardest part of the entire planning. How many hot dogs per person, how many bags of marshmallows, how many eggs for breakfast? Each year the attendance at the camp out changes so the amounts change as well. This one aspect of the planning probably causes me the most grief so I start mapping this our early so I have time to gather as much input as I can. Despite the grief, you know what? Only one time have we came close to running out of food and more often than not, we walk away from the weekend with very little leftovers!

Here is a sample of our tried and true menu: Friday Evening and Saturday Morning are on your own meals. Saturday lunch is a community meal of walking tacos (a camp favorite). Saturday evening we light a huge bon fire and have a hot dog buffet: chili dogs, bacon wrapped dogs,  dogs stuffed with cheese, and even corn dogs in a pie iron! After dinner we break out the smore’s to round off the night.  Sunday morning we have a community meal of eggs in a bag and hash brown potatoes.

If you select to do community meals, I would suggest that you ask for volunteers to help get the food heated up, fire pit made, and to help keep things rolling. An event this large takes multiple hands and there is no harm in asking for help in the set up, the delivery, and the clean up of community meals.

friends35. Continue the Fun After the Sun Goes Down: Fun can be found around every corner at the family camp out all day long. For years, the kids played on a picnic table at an empty campsite next to ours and somehow the water fountain just accidentally gets the kids soaked EVERY SINGLE YEAR. The lake is great for fishing or wading and the sandy beach is perfect for building sand castles.  But my final tip is simply, the fun does not have to end when the sun goes down. Find a way to keep the young guest and their parents engaged right up till bedtime.

glow2A few years ago, we found ourselves with some old florescent light fixtures and we decided to recycle and reuse them by hosting a glow party every Saturday night of the camp out. We fix the lights to our awning, open a few bottles of glow-in-the-dark body paint, add a few glow sticks, create a play list, and we have ourselves an instant child friendly dance party at the campground. Young and old guest alike will enjoy watching their clothing change appearances under the black lights. Seeing parents and kids dance together for a few hours is just another memory that makes me happy.

glowDancing and glowing the night away is one option for using night time but there are other ideas worthy of consideration. Night hikes are awesome and with limited sight other senses increase creating a whole new learning experience. If you plan a night hike, I strongly recommend introducing a whole new crop of campers to the sparks Wintergreen Lifesavers make.  Star gazing is another fun activity if your camping setting is dark enough.

I hope these 5 steps help you create a weekend camping trip with your friends or family that is just as memorable as our Family Camp Out. To all the folks who came out and attended our camp out, thank you. I had a great time and look forward to next year!

I am going to leave you with a collection of short video’s of the glow party. They are so cute I can’t keep it to myself!

Growing Up Camping

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This week we have a special guest post by our friend, Meeghan.  Meeghan grew up being a camper; something I did not. Today, she shares her childhood memories as well as her camping hopes for her own children.

 

Growing up, camping is what my family always did for vacation. We camped at many of the state parks in Nebraska. Camping seemed to be the most affordable thing for our family of 6 six. I credit my mom for always making these camping trips fun and of course memorable. We always had good meals and dessert; we always rode our bikes or skateboards all over the place, went on hikes, swam at the pool and if available went horseback riding. Camping was one of my most favorite things to do as a child and is still to this day.

FullSizeRender (1)As a very young child we always camped in a big green tent (see picture above from Louisville State Park Louisville, NE near Omaha). The tent was an old Boy Scout tent that my dad received from a friend. The tent was quite complicated to put together. I remember my dad cursing the entire time because it never seemed easy to find which pole went with which. But when he finally accomplished this task I vividly remember standing in the middle of the tent and feeling it was so HUGE! I remembered the plastic tarp that covered the ground was so loud to walk across – nothing quiet about it. I remember the big metal zippers that this tent had – weird thing to remember, huh, but many of you may remember the old camping tents and pop-up campers had these types of metal zippers. Do any of you remember these kind of zippers? My older brother, Colin, remembers camping during a rainstorm and water rushing through the bottom of the tent – obviously this tent was not up to waterproof standards of tents today!

IMG_4843We eventually graduated to a popup! (See picture above – Two Rivers State Park in Waterloo, NE also near Omaha). I loved this camper! Some of my fondest memories are camping in this popup!  My dad paid next to nothing for the popup and traveled out of state to get it.

There was no electricity – we always used the faithful old Coleman lantern for light at night. I can still recall getting ready for bed in this old camper by that light.  The only hook up was water. Everything else was manual – you had to crank the handle by the hitch to raise the tent part and then you slid the beds out. I used to be so excited to take my turn at cracking the handle. There was an old ice chest that you had to use a block of ice to keep the food cold – normally we just used coolers to keep our food. The camper came fully stocked with bowls, plates, and silverware – I mean real silver! I now have all the silverware in my camper and use it regularly!

The one table in the camper was always pulled down for a bed. If I remember correctly, my older brother always got to sleep on the table bed and he never had to share with anyone else. It’s lucky to be the oldest!  The rest of the family bunked-up on either of the side beds – mom and dad on one side and my little sister, little brother and I bunked on the other.

All our meals were eaten outside on the sites picnic table and/or foldable table we carried around with us. I don’t remember eating extravagant meals for breakfast – always cereal. Although, for dinner my mom always did something fun. Many times mom cooked over the fire in a pie iron. And for dessert we made tin can ice cream.

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Tin can ice cream was always a must whenever we camped and you automatically made friends with other campers while making it.  The photo above is my sister and a family friend rolling the can back and forth to mix the ice cream. Inside the big can is a smaller can with all the ice cream ingredients. Surrounding the smaller can is ice and rock salt. As you the roll the back and forth the cans get colder and colder with the motion and the ice cream is made. This whole process takes about 30 minutes – with the making and the rolling included. It’s one of my fondest memories camping.

I’m not exactly sure when we stopped camping. The popup was eventually no longer able to be camped in and purchased by a man who made it into a trailer. It was sad to see it go but the memories will forever remain.

Summer Days 2006 050When I met my husband we always camped in a tent on air mattresses. We did this for a few years including some wonderfully fun trips with Pam and her family!

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(Smith Fork Campground Smithville, MO)

We started building our family and once we had children we never made it back to roughing it in a tent. In 2012 we purchased a travel trailer, a 34 foot 2007 Summerland with one slide. It has bunks for the kids and queen bed for us. It has been the best thing ever! My children love it! It’s the perfect size.  As I am writing this I realize my children have really never slept in a tent. Shocking I know! I’m not sure if this makes us officially bad parents but we have been able to provide them with some wonderful camping with good meals and campfires

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My husband’s family has a family campground near White Cloud, KS right on the Mighty Missouri River. This is the only place our camper has ever been and the only place our children have ever camped.

Nine other campers sit on the property all family.   Our campground has full hookups. We leave our camper there all summer and we go up on the weekends from April to October. The campground has a boat ramp and a dock for all of the family fishermen.

We also have a building that we call a cook shack which all of our meals are cooked in. You haven’t had a breakfast until you’ve eaten breakfast at a the river. We also cook our dinner meals in the cook shack where we have anything from fish to steaks to fried chicken. Lots of laughter has taken place in the cook shack. Great memories have been made here.

To us our family campground isn’t like any other campground around. The memories we have made as a family and that our children have made will never be forgotten. Our children and their cousins have the best time in the world each and every weekend. Without the camper I’m not sure they would be as close as they are.

 

IMG_8601We worry as our children grow and become more active in sports that our time at the river will be less and less. As we see this happens our hearts begin to hurt a bit. We know there will also come a time when our children are “too cool” for the river. This too will be a hard day for us. But before this happens there plenty of camping trips that I would like to take! I’m ecstatic to have the river and I know each and every time we’re there is a great time; but I very much want to take our camper other places! I want my children to experience setting up our camping site and making friends with other children who are camping too and to ride their bikes throughout the campground. We definitely have many luxuries at the river and I want my children to see what camping can really be.  Our next big family vacation will be taking the camper somewhere. Not sure where because there are just so many place we would like to roam.  I can hardly wait!

 

Camp Katmandu

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campkatmanduJust south of where Missouri, Kansas and Nebraska meet right on The Missouri River near mile marker 486, is a small campground called Camp Katmandu. You won’t find this campground in any Good Sam directory or even with a Google search. Camp Katmandu is a private campground and so are the invitations to visit. We recently accepted our second invitation to camp at what is affectionately called “The River” by our good friends Meg and Jeremy.

img_7588alteredFor the past two decades members of Jeremy’s extended family have worked hard to evolve Camp Katmandu from farm land to a weekend fishing spot to a family campground. Fishing was and remains central to this camp. Several members of the extended family have belonged or do belong to fishing clubs and participate in catfish tournaments. The weekend of our visit the family was getting ready for their annual community fish fry and Wayne volunteered his extra two hands to help skin the Buffalo and Catfish they had caught.

theriverThere are approximately twelve full service hookups at Camp Katmandu; eleven of them are used by members of the extended family. They leave their campers there from spring to fall each year and visit “The River” every weekend they can during that time.  Most of the “regulars” have built wooden decks/front porches for their campers. They have also built themselves some “extra’s” that make camp life a little sweeter:  a boat ramp, a large boat dock with fish cleaning stations and a live well, a community bathroom, an outdoor shower, an octagon shaped porch swing with a campfire ring in the center, as well as a community food shack.

Given the close proximity to the Missouri River, most everything at this camp is move-able or designed to withstand flooding. And it does flood here. In 2011 the entire camp was submerged in flood water for the summer, just ask Uncle Bud and he will proudly show the water line in the cook shed.

mealtimeFood is central to so many family gatherings and at Camp Katmandu it doesn’t seem to be any exception. The family shares at least one meal a day but often multiple meals. They select a main dish and each family adds to the community meal. My friend Megs joked that as one meal finishes they immediately begin talking about and planning the next! Moments are made as members sit around and cook, eat, and even clean together sharing stories and laughing as new moments unfold right before their eyes.

You never know what you will see or find at  “The River”.  Family members tell us that you never know what will come floating down the river, or what animal you will catch site of. We passed the time eagle watching and a fairly large water snake picked the boat ramp as a warm resting spot during our stay.  I was even treated to a boat ride upriver to an L-dyke to see the jumping Asian Carp.

Sometimes the unusual sites you see are not animal related; sometimes they are human. On the weekend of our visit, we encountered a man canoeing down the Missouri River. He told us as he approached camp that he had been on the river for 66 days on a quest to set a new Guinness Book of World Record for the longest solo kayak or canoe trip. He had started in Montana at the headwaters of the Missouri and was headed to the Mighty Mississippi and ultimately The Gulf of Mexico! Adventure Aaron might have thought he had found a public campground but in fact he found Camp Katmandu.  Extended family members offered up space for a tent and a home cooked meal to Adventure Aaron. We are all watching his journey and you can follow him too on Facebook!

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I realize that most of you will likely never visit Camp Katmandu, that is not the purpose of this post. The purpose of this post is to introduce you to another type of RV lifestyle. One where members of a group (in this case a whole extended family) enjoy each others company and decide to build a place so special that they return to it over and over. The families at “The River” may not be roaming and exploring new places together but they are group camping with multiple generations and they are creating a love for the outdoors, nature, and camping that will influence future generations. That is what we have in common and I think that is something we can all buy into.

Thank you, Camp Katmandu, for opening your campground and your lives to us!

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Our Very Close Encounter With A Black Bear

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This is a story that will now live forever in our family memories. I know our daughter, The Short Chic, will be passing this down to her kids and grandkids and retelling this story throughout her life. This is the story of the time we went hiking and almost got eaten by a bear in The Smoky Mountains.

As our time in The Great Smoky Mountains was coming to an end, I had hoped for one final hike in Cades Cove. All week I had read the “warning” signs of bear activity in the park. Abraham Falls was always on that list. Abraham Falls was also on another list: that of great fishing places in the Smoky Mountains. Wayne was hoping to catch a fish, I was hoping for a bear sighting, so we set off to hike Abraham Falls on our last day in Townsend.

Abraham falls6 The entire crew traveled to the welcome sign and the majority of them bid us adieu so they could hang out at the campsite and rest. Wayne, The Short Chic and I headed to Cades Cove. Going into this hike, we were a little ill prepared. We had eaten breakfast but had not had lunch. We did not pack snacks (because we were not hungry when we set out). We did not realize Abraham Falls was a 5 mile hike round trip (2.5 in/2.5 out). We did pack several water bottles but if I am honest, I carried in more photography equipment than anything.  I give you this background information so you will understand that after hiking the 2.5 miles into Abraham Falls we were HANGRY and to make matters worse, The Short Chic talked nonstop about having ice cream for lunch the entire hike!

abraham falls5The Abraham Falls hike terrain is rocky, uneven, and generally follows the Abraham Creek although the creek is often not accessible due to the terrain of the forest. Wayne took his fly rod and practiced catching wild Appalachian Brooke Trout any chance he could access the creek. The path dipped and climbed as the terrain did and it took us through moments of no shade/full sun, to the coverage of dense tree canopy and full shade, as well as up and over a rocky ridge. Several times the path took us over offshoots of the creek where we walked over wooden log foot bridges.

abraham falls2IMG_7159The falls were a welcome site after hiking 2.5 miles! Numerous hikers had shed their shoes and clothing (yes they had swimsuits on underneath their clothing) to wade and splash in the water below the falls. The Short Chic had fantasized about getting wet in the water the entire hike and as we walked up to the waters edge the first thing we saw were dual water snakes! Wayne may have spent some time fishing there but The Short Chic and I got no where near that water and kept a diligent eye open for any additional reptiles during our short stay!

abraham falls3We chose not to linger for a long time at the Falls, we still had 2.5 miles to go to get back to our car and it was getting late. I think we began our return around 2:45-3:15 p.m.. The Short Chic started making up songs about food on the way back and first Wayne attempted to hush her but I had the thought that it was approaching dinner time….not just to us but for animals as well. We let her sing at the top of her lungs just to make our presence known. We also hiked in a very specific order: me, The Short Chic, and Wayne just in case any predators were eyeballing us and looking for our weakest member.

abraham fallsAfter we passed the ridge line and about 45 minutes into our return I notice some wild blackberries growing along the trail. You should all know that I love wild blackberries and was so hungry that I started picking the berries and eating them right there on the spot. I did notice that the berries were small and most of the larger ones where not yet ripe. As I picked berries for myself, Wayne picked them and gave them to The Short Chic.  Wayne spied a larger ripe berry just an arms s t r e t c h off the path and he decided to reach and pick that one berry.

I never saw her. I heard the noise first. Then I heard Wayne yell. He saw her. He heard her. Just as he was about to reach that berry, a black bear who was hiding in the blackberry bush let her presence be known by woofing at him. As I turned back up the trail, there was my husband doing some Fred Flintstones thing with his feet, trying to run but yet not being able to move. I see the people who were behind us on the trail turn and run one direction and others who were in front of us run away from us. We were left to defend our ground and ourselves against this bear not knowing if the bear was going to charge us or not.

Abraham Falls10I grabbed The Short Chic’s arm and swung her around me. I stood as close to my husband as I could and in what felt like hours (but really was only a few seconds) we realized that bear had no interest in charging us; she wanted Wayne to leave her berries alone!

Abraham falls8We moved safely up the trail. I am no judge of distance but we put enough space between that bear and us so that I felt safe. Ironically, that bear was completely hidden in the dense forest prior to letting us know she was there but after she gave us announced herself, we watched as that bear shook the living dickens out of the trees and the berry bushes. As the trees were shaking, we stopped everyone who was walking on the trail and explained there was a bear right there and I could see people up the trail hiding around a bend, their numbers growing as well.

abraham falls7As we stood in safety waiting for our hearts to stop racing and for us to feel strength in our knees the next part of this story occurred. A baby bear walked down from the hill, crossed the trail, and went into the trees to the bear who woofed. The realization that we inadvertently had been standing/hiking in-between a momma bear and her cub hit us like a ton of bricks.

Abraham falls9I think Momma Bear had been shaking that tree to knock the berries to the ground so Baby Bear could eat them with ease. A few moments after the Baby Bear joined the Momma Bear the shaking ceased. A few minutes later, both bears walked back onto the trail. Momma Bear never looked at us, she looked up the trail in the opposite direction of us but that Baby Bear turned and looked right in our direction. I had carried all of that camera equipment just hoping to spy a bear and here I was on the same trail and total strangers had to suggest taking photos!

Abraham Falls11Momma Bear and Baby Bear walked up the trail away from us. In fact, just as they were reaching the bend with all the hikers hiding they turned to the forest and walked off the trail to not be seen again. It was as if time held still. I have no idea how long we all stayed in our safe spots before finally one of the hikers behind us came around the bend. I signaled where the bears had left the trail. He made it by safely so the masses decided to get finish the hike and get off the trail.

abraham falls12The Short Chic never got her ice cream for lunch. By the time we got back it was nearing 5:00 p.m. and time for dinner. We met the rest of our party at PawPaw’s Kajun Kitchen in Sevierville on Wears Valley Road for some of the most amazing cajun food I have ever had. As we told our friends our story of the bears we guzzled sweet tea and munched on boudin balls and catfish. There was a lady sitting behind me who kept advising me on the menu so I struck up a conversation with her. Turns out she was the owners Momma visiting her daughter from New Orleans. Her accent was thick and she was a delight!  I gave her every opportunity to take credit for raising such an amazing cook but she never once did. We ended the night with the white chocolate bread pudding and left that place happy that the bear did not eat us so that we could enjoy such amazing food!

Whitewater Rafting on The Upper Pigeon River

bigbearGrowth occurs outside of our comfort zone.

As much as I love being near water or even on the water, I do not always like being in the water. I really don’t like my face and water touching. Like never.

Whitewater Rafting has been high on my families bucket list and even higher on The Todd’s list. It is non-existent on my list but that did not stop me from agreeing to a whitewater rafting trip during our vacation to Tennessee.

We traveled from Townsend, TN to Hartford, TN. In our one and half hour journey we passed through Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and we even stumbled onto the home office of Bush’s Baked Beans in Chestnut Hill.

Our Aunt Adela, who lives in Ashville, NC found us Groupons through Big Bear Expeditions. The float was on the Pigeon River, a damned and controlled river. There was a minimum age of 8 years old, which was perfect for us as we had two short chics that are 8! The check-in process was easy. Everyone signed waivers, changed clothing,  assigned a guide,  and then we received our gear (helmets, lifejackets, and paddles). After a safety meeting, we bordered a bus that took us on a short ride to the border between Tennessee and North Carolina.

 The Walters Hydroelectric Plant sits on the North Carolina side and releases water down the Pigeon River every day. When we arrived the Pigeon River was a stream until the buzzer rang and the plant began releasing water and we watched that stream transform into a full river. Our whitewater adventure down the Upper Pigeon saw Class I, II, III, and IV rapids.

Big Bear is not the only outfitter in this area and since we were the first float of the day, we got to see all the outfitters in the same place at the same time and that sight was nothing short of overwhelming. Our group was too large for one raft, so we had to be split in half. Despite unbelievable levels of anxiety, I got in the raft and before I knew it we were on our way down the river. The water was everywhere. We were bumping rocks. My face did get wet. Towards the end, I think we might have gotten a little caught up on a rock, which caused The Short Chic to get jolted out of her position. I was so proud of her, she controlled herself to fall inside the raft and not out of the raft.

Our guide, Billy, and The Todd’s guide, Molly, were both amazing! They were entertaining, knowledgeable, and they kept us safe. If you are in the area and looking for some fun, please give this company a shout out!

Before I knew it the adventure was over; in reality it lasted an hour. Whitewater rafting may not have been on my bucket list before but given the opportunity, I might do it again. That my friends is personal growth.

 

Echo Bluff State Park

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Rejoice 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 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.

echobluff9

Smoky Mountains: Floating The Little River

kidslittleriver

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: