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

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

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!

me

 

 

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

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: