So many years growing up, my family made an annual trek to southeast Kentucky to visit relatives. Almost always, we would stop at a little rest area just off of the Bert T. Combs Mountain Parkway near the small community of Slade. Also nearby, Natural Bridge Resort State Park. After a quick stop, we’d finish the drive to Floyd County and that was that. That state park was always a mystery to me, and I had no idea it was surrounded by a National Geological Area. We finally explored it in early 2015, nearly 30 years since my last family trip through the area. Many trips later, and we still can’t get enough.
Our last family backpacking adventure was in July 2016, down Wildcat Creek to Swift Camp Creek in Red River Gorge’s Clifty Wilderness. The ONLY camping we’ve done since then was that August, at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park in Florida. Many day hikes, but we were way overdue for an overnighter. Back to the Red we went!
I’m not going to go into detail on our hike, as we actually already did that in a Vlog on our Youtube channel. Let’s just say, it was full of wild flowers, shear cliffs, butterflies, and forest beauty as far as the eye could see. We camped on an unofficial trail with one of the best views in the Gorge, overlooking Cloud Splitter (a huge sandstone butte). We had a lot of new backpacking equipment to test as well, including new Osprey packs, hammocks, backpacking chairs, even a bear canister. The highlight of the expedition was our hike to Cloud Splitter itself. We didn’t fully climb it, but it was an adventure anyway. Watch the video to see for yourself!
It was the last week of March, the weather had been up and down, but Catfish was on spring break so I took a day off to get him out of the house and out into nature. As luck would have it, it was a clear day and temps climbed to 60. We decided to go somewhere we’ve never gone before, but that’s a tough decision since we’ve hiked most places within a 2 hour drive from home. We decided to check out a place we’ve driven by many times, Eagle Creek Park on the northwest corner of Indianapolis.
Eagle Creek Park is located right off of I-65 and is only about a 45 minute drive, so why we’ve never gone before might seem confusing. It is considered a municipal park, and when I hear that, I think “city park” and tend to overlook it. But this is more on the level of NYC’s Central Park, with woods, ponds, a reservoir, and miles of trails. Covering more than 5000 acres, it is actually larger than some state parks.
There is a $6 entry fee, as this park fully funds itself, no tax money supports it. We parked down at the Earth Discovery Center (same parking lot as Go Ape climbing adventure) and set off from there on the Red Trail, listed as 6.75 miles and the longest single trail in the park. You can really design your own adventure, as there are many trails here and they are all connected. We went north on the trail, which hugs the lake side for a good 3 miles. The highlight is the section of trail that literally goes out into the lake; on one side is the reservoir, and the other side is the bird sanctuary. The trail is barely above lake level, and is just so peaceful to hike on. We watched ducks swimming on the lake, and the constant honking of geese, along with a few small birds such as chickadees, finches, sparrows, cardinals, downy woodpeckers, swifts, etc. We did the small loop at the north end of the park, where we got to view several small butterfly species. Spring flowers were just popping up, including bluebells.
We made our way back around to the east side of the park, where the Red Trail meets up with the Fitness Trail. Of course we couldn’t resist trying out some of the workout equipment, but not too much because by this time we had hiked 4+ miles and were getting hungry for lunch. Eventually we made it back to the Lilly reflecting ponds where we picniced whiled watching the geese and sunbathing painted turtles. Afterward, we went to the Ornithology Center but it was closed. We still got to see their caged birds, including very up close with a turkey vulture. Catfish thought it was “cute”! We also viewed some of the birds and nesting geese through telescopes out in the sanctuary on the lake.
We continued on the Red Trail around Lilly Lake, although admittedly we did get off trail a couple of times when we…okay I…made the wrong turn, mistaking the Orange Trail signs for the Red Trail signs. Oops! But really the only downside was wading through all the mud, as some of the trails had standing water. We made it around the the south end of the park and back to the Earth Discovery Center, for about an eight mile hike total.
Eagle Creek Park definitely has more to it than I would have imagined, and am very glad we finally checked it out. Perhaps a return trip is due, once the beach opens for swimming and perhaps even some kayaking.
It’s no secret that nature is good medicine. We can all benefit from getting away from the daily stress in our lives and reconnecting with nature, that’s what this blog is all about. But how does it relate to those on the Autism spectrum? Just look at our family, we are living proof.
Our son, now 12, was diagnosed with autism in 2007. Over the years, we’ve pushed him out of his comfort zone. Sure, he’d prefer to stay at home in his safe place, playing video games or drawing pictures. But that is counterproductive (for all kids), they need to get out and experience the world. Whether it’s interacting with animals, getting over a fear of heights, or even having problems with the feel and texture of rocks, we’ve put him in those situations to help him understand and get over his fears. He’s now to the age of not always finding it “cool” to be out with mom and dad, and we certainly still have issues to overcome. It is an adventure, and not one that will work for everyone. This is our story. Please take a few minutes to watch.
Less than an hour drive west of Chicago sits a series of state parks that beckons to the adventurous spirit. Starved Rock State Park is the largest and most visited, but nearby Buffalo Rock and Matthieson State Parks are similar in terrain and history. We spent a day at Matthieson in 2014, but had only briefly seen the splendor of Starved Rock during a stop on the way home from Iowa back in 2010. We knew we had to go back someday, and that day had finally come.
It’s a rare occasion to see temps near 70 degrees in February, but that’s what this weekend called for, with almost no chance for rain. We had hoped to go camping, but unforeseen circumstances limited us to a day trip only. Not wanting to waste it on a local trip that we have done a hundred times, we chose the 3 hour drive from Lafayette, Indiana to Utica, Illinois. We arrived at the park by 9am, thinking we would beat the crowds of weekend warriors also getting out to enjoy the unseasonably warm winter weather. It appeared pretty crowded already, but we had no idea just how crowded this place can get. It is the most visited park in Illinois with an average of 2 million visitors per year. Only 11 national parks host more visitors per year than this state park does!
We stopped in the Visitor Center first, learned some of the history, and picked up a trail map. The parks boasts 13 miles of trails, through 18 canyons and multiple waterfalls. We decided to take the River Trail, which would lead to most of the river overlooks, sandstone buttes, and entry into the canyons. While the trail system is only 13 miles, when you add in all the canyons and everything to explore, it is considerably more. Our first stop was on top of Starved Rock itself, which got it’s name back in the 1700s when a tribal council meeting between the Potawatomi, Ottawa, Illinois, & more native tribes resulted in the murder of the Ottawa Chief Pontiac by the Illinois. Chief Pontac’s followers chased the Illinois looking for vengeance, and trapped them on top of this sandstone butte, where legend says they trapped them until they starved to death, resulting in the name Starved Rock. This sandstone butte was once also the location of the French Fort St. Louis, which was both a trading post and a fort to keep the English from colonizing further east.
Our hike continued through many canyons, the most scenic of which were French Canyon, Wildcat Canyon, Tonti Canyon, and LaSalle Canyon. While most of the early trails were well maintained and often on boardwalks, the canyons were all natural, muddy, which made for an entertaining time watching many unprepared people trying not to get their hip colorful shoes dirty. On the spur trail that leads to Tonti Canyon, a bridge that crosses a stream was out, blocked on both ends for safety reasons. People didn’t know what to do, so many actually climbed the barriers and took their chances on the rotting bridge, while others attempted to cross the creek on some unstable logs. We chose the latter. From here, we seen many other examples of bridges and steps that were quite weathered and unsafe, most of which were easily avoided by going around them. It appears that Illinois State Parks have the same problem that Indiana does, lack of funds for proper maintenance. Even so, I enjoyed these distant trails more, as they were more rugged and natural. Tonti Canyon featured a frozen pool beneath it’s waterfall, which we crossed but not sure we should have! The ice creaked and even cracked under my feet. Not that it was deep had we broke through. LaSalle Canyon was as far as we went (about two thirds through the length of the park), but it was by far the most scenic of all the canyons we had entered this day.
The crowds had noticeably increased at this point, so we backtracked a bit and took a spur trail up some steep steps to reach the Bluff Trail for our hike back. This trail winds along the uplands, looking down on the Illinois River and offering views into the canyons from above. Some of the canyons can only be seen from this trail, as there are no trails into some of these canyons. The Bluff Trail dumped us out at the park lodge, which was humming full of people. This was by far the most crowded park we had ever hiked in at this point. Glad we got an early start! We tried to find a secluded spot to do our “final word” spot for our video, but even while doing it, we had people walking right through us and around our camera. My advice, go visit this park! But do so through the week when it’s less busy, and get an early start.
Unlike other national forests we’ve visited, the Hoosier National Forest is very splintered, parcels of land that are often separated for miles. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some awesome places worth going out of your way for though! The Charles C. Deam Wilderness at the northern end of the Hoosier is an extremely popular area for backpacking, and Brown County State Park borders the northwest corner of the forest as well. But I like exploring the less known, harder to find places sometimes, so I took a day off work and did just that.
Check out our prior adventure in the Deam Wilderness:
I started the day driving 3+ hours down the interstate almost to Louisville, then west and up some old country roads and ultimately dirt forest roads to my first destination. It was a cold day with the occasional flurry, but I was excited to adventure in a new place. It’s considered one of the most beautiful & scenic trails in the Hoosier. Hemlock Cliffs National Scenic Trail is only 1 1/4 miles long, but so much to explore inside this canyon. The trail starts along the top of the wooded cliffs, but quickly descends through a crag in the rocks on stone steps that gives the place an ancient feel. But this place is ancient; archaeological evidence has proven Native American occupation in the canyon as much as 10,000 years ago! The trail continues along the cliff side, pock marked with honeycomb features and even small arches within the rock shelters. But all this is quickly overshadowed by the towering waterfall, close to 100 feet high, at this end of the box canyon. I noticed rock features within the waterfall that resembled a face:
I continued exploring the canyon, finding small caves along the cliff base. The creek babbled quietly as I waded through it. I climbed the steep cliff side about midways in the canyon, what a view winter offers! I also observed multiple campfire scars, even though camping has been banned here for nearly a year. It was being loved to death, too much trash being left behind, and really just ruining the serenity of this special place. I explored a bit off trail to see if there would be viable backcountry camping options away from the actual trail, and I did find some. However, since the trail has now been classified as day use only, no overnight parking is allowed. So if you go here to camp, you do so at your own risk, as they will give fines up to $5000.
The trail makes its way around to another canyon, with an even more impressive waterfall. This one features a rock shelter almost midway up the cliffside, taking the trail up through here takes you behind the waterfall and a panoramic view of the canyon. One could sit here for hours and reflect. The remainder of the trail is on even ground, following a scenic stream with cliffs on either side, before heading back to the top of the cliffs. To see my adventure within Hemlock Cliffs, check out the video:
WESLEY CHAPEL GULF
I traveled north from Hemlock Cliffs, through odd towns such French Lick, and into Amish country where there are as many horse drawn buggies as there are cars on the road. Here it was, the last week of January, and the Amish were out plowing their fields, sitting on their plows being pulled by literal horse power. On up to near Orangeville, Indiana, sits an extremely unique feature right in the middle of cornfields. Indiana has a river that runs 85 miles, but 23 of those miles are underground. Here at Wesley Chapel Gulf, a designated National Natural Landmark managed by the Hoosier National Forest, is a large collapsed sink hole, so large you feel like you’re entering small canyon. The bottom of this gulf is approximately 8 acres, surrounded by porous limestone walls. At the southwest corner of this gulf rises Boiling Spring, one of the only spots that Indiana’s Lost River rises from it’s subterranean path. The river rises some 125 feet into this gulf, where it enters from this large spring and then drains again into swallow holes along the multiple channels all along the base of the gulf. When the water is low, caves are exposed that can be entered, but generally still have water. I wasn’t being that adventurous this time around. The color of the spring was striking, when you think of rivers in Indiana, you picture muddy water. But the spring water was a creamy blue green, very surreal for Indiana.
There was no evidence of anybody visiting this landmark in a long time. But there was abundant evidence of wildlife, with tracks from raccoon and deer all along the muddy banks of the spring. Birds sang and woodpeckers pecked. After exploring the base of the gulf, I took the trail along the upper perimeter for a different view. What I found, though, was further evidence of the karst topography here, with many small sinkholes surrounding the gulf. This gulf will continue to enlarge over the years as more limestone erodes. It was one of the most unique places I’ve ever visited. For the full experience, watch the video adventure:
Out with the old, in the with the new…at least that’s the typical thinking when a year ends and a new one begins. For us, it was kind of both. Adventuring is our norm, but this little trip was anything but the norm.
We’ve driven down I-65 through Kentucky and right past Mammoth Cave National Park many times, usually on our way to adventures in Tennessee or Florida, but have never stopped for a visit. When we decided to take a 3 day trip over the New Year holiday, we considered all of our usual haunts that were within a decent driving distance, but also had to consider what the weather might be like. But when it comes to caving, it doesn’t matter what the weather above ground is, it’s always mid-50s down below. Of course, we hoped to do some winter hiking as well. Mother Nature had different ideas.
We left home extremely early the morning of Dec. 31, and since I-65 is literally 3 miles from us, it was a quick 4 hour drive straight down the interstate to Cave City, Kentucky. The weather forecast for the weekend was highs in the 40s-50s and constant precipitation, very gloomy. Which is almost fitting, since one of the words often used to describe Mammoth Caves is “gloomy.” We arrived at the Mammoth Cave visitor center just as it opened, but we didn’t realize we would be crossing into the Central Time Zone, so we had an extra hour to kill before our pre-scheduled tour. We roamed the center, learning about the history and geology of the area.
At 10:30am CST, we boarded the buses to travel four miles to the “new” Mammoth Cave entrance, created back in 1921 by a businessman blasting his way into the caverns in hopes of becoming rich from a show cave. The downside to Mammoth Cave tours is the shear number of people. We were on the “Domes & Dripstones” tour with over 100 people. The first 10+ minutes of the tour is descending 300 steps through a vertical crag, before reaching “bottom” of this particular cave level (they say there are 5 levels of caves here.) From there it was mostly walking through varying sized caverns, occasionally stopping while the Ranger explained the history of the cave, and the background of the Kentucky cave wars, including the original owner of this particular cave. It was neat to know the limestone caverns we were walking through was formed hundreds of millions of years ago, when Kentucky was at the bottom of the ocean and south of the equator. Kaden even discovered a fossil sticking out of the cave wall! But overall, this portion of the tour was a little on the boring side. When we think caves, we think of formations like stalactites & such. Turns out, *most* of Mammoth Cave has no formations. These caverns have a sandstone and slate layer above them, protecting them from water seepage, meaning no formations. These were the “domes.” We worked our way to the front of the crowd, following directly behind the Ranger for unobstructed views. Finally, we reached the bread and butter of this tour, known as Frozen Niagara, the one spot on this tour where formations are alive and growing. Frozen Niagara itself is a HUGE flowstone, literally looking like a waterfall frozen in place. Below that formation is what they call the Drapery Room, full of dripstones and stalactites. The rest of the tour had more formations, but many were behind chainlink fencing to protect them from tourists touching them. The tour was about 2 hours long. Check out this video for the highlights:
The following day, we did our “First Day Hike” on the trails surrounding the Visitor Center. It was a foggy day with constant drizzle, but the fact we were out in nature for the first time in several weeks made it worthwhile. We hiked about 3 miles, down River Styx Spring Trail, and then up and around Green River Bluffs Trail. There were multiple springs to be seen, Dixon Cave entrance, the Green River flowing through it’s gorge, and rolling cliffs shrouded in fog. If it was this pretty on a dreary wet winter day, just how pretty would it be in the spring? Check out the video for the full experience:
Our adventure felt pretty much complete at this point. We had experienced a new place for us, done a cave tour for the first time as a family, and worked in our first hike of the year. So that Monday, Jan. 2nd, we packed up and got ready to head back to Indiana…but decided to do one more thing. While all the attention in this area is on Mammoth Caves, there are several private caves too. We decided to see what one of them had to offer in comparison to what we had experienced on the National Park tour, so we decided to visit Diamond Caverns. They are literally surrounded by the national park, even sold some of their land to the park when it formed back in the 1930s. Their cavern is one of the oldest in the area, discovered in 1859, and has been operating tours for more than 150 years. Our biggest hope was that Diamond Caverns would offer more cave formations than what we had seen on the Domes & Dripstones tour. We arrived at the caverns a little before 10:30am, but the family in front of us had just bought the last tickets for the next tour. So we had to wait until the next tour a half hour later. As luck would have it, NOBODY else showed up during that half hour, so Slone’s Wilderness Expeditions would be going on a private tour, just the three of us and our guide! Our only disappointment was that they don’t allow video on their tour (for safety reasons), but we could take all the pics we wanted, and we did. As soon as we entered the cavern, we knew this was going to be a very different experience than what we had from the national park. There were formations everywhere! We practically walked in on a flowstone (not really but right beside), and every step of the way from there were stalactites, dripstones, pretty much every kind of formation you could hope for. Our tour guide Natalie was patient with us as we took pics and asked questions. You could literally see the awe in our faces. The tour itself was about an hour long, not as long as our tour at Mammoth Cave, yet so much more to see! This is what we had come for, and what a way to end our trip. Check out the pics and video:
Florida has something for everyone. Whether it’s the high rise hotels overlooking tourist-filled beaches, theme parks with all your kids’ favorite cartoon characters, or wildlife preserves filled with great hiking, camping, fishing, birding, kayaking, etc., Florida has it all, and they have it year round. One day you can be in tourist heaven, the next day you can be lost in a swampy tropical forest. But one thing is for sure, you’ll need some money to make it happen. How much, is totally up to you. This story is how a family from the midwest makes lifelong memories in the Sunshine State on a budget.
When talking about vacationing on a budget, we can throw out several of the things listed above. High priced beach hotels, theme parks, and all such tourist traps are extremely non-budget friendly. So what is? Probably the same things that are in your own state. Florida has one of the best state park systems in the nation, and one of the most varied. They have parks that feature history, natural springs so big you can swim with manatees in them, caves, rivers, lakes, dunes, bays, wildlife refuges, and of course…secluded beaches. Look for where the locals go to get away from it all. For us, we found paradise along a stretch of the panhandle known as “The Forgotten Coast.”
From our location in northcentral Indiana, it is about a 14 hour drive to the Forgotten Coast. In our Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid, it cost us around $160 in gas, round trip, far cheaper than flying and renting a car. So we packed it up with just enough supplies for a week long camping trip! This was our fourth camping trip to Florida’s panhandle, and our second time to this destination: T.H. Stone Memorial St. Joseph Peninsula State Park. It’s on a long narrow peninsula about 45 minutes south of Panama City Beach, bordered by the Gulf of Mexico on one side, and the pristine St. Joseph Bay on the other. This park features about 9 miles of secluded beach on the Gulf side, with some of the tallest dunes in Florida. There are two campgrounds; last year we stayed in Shady Pines, which has larger sites with more privacy and shade, but this year we stayed in Gulf Breeze, which is more open but much closer to the beach (you can literally here the surf from the campground). Both are great campgrounds with easy access to the beach, but Gulf Breeze definitely had the nicer bath houses. A campsite here includes your own water and electric hookups, all for $26/night. For the week, we paid $156 in camping fees, less than a single night would cost in a tourist hotel.
So what does a family do for a week on St. Joseph Peninsula? Live the good life! On the Gulf side, we swam, wave jumped, went shelling, sunbathed, walked the beach, enjoyed amazing sunsets; and after sundown, we walked the beach with our red LED lights watching for sea turtles (2016 has set a new record for the amount of nesting sea turtles), playing with the ghost crabs, observing bio-luminescent phytoplankton, and star gazing in the darkest skies we’ve ever seen. The Milky Way is amazing over the ocean. On the Bay side, we went snorkeling and kayaking. St. Joseph Bay is unique in that there are no rivers or streams that empty into it, keeping it pristine for observing all sorts of crabs, starfish, sea urchins, sea snails, sea cucumbers, sand dollars, and if you’re lucky, manta rays. On the peninsula itself, there are two nature trails, plus a much longer wilderness trail that goes out into the seven mile wilderness preserve. There is plenty of wildlife to observe, but we mostly seen deer, egrets, herons, small Florida island mice, anoles, and crabs.
South of the park on the peninsula is Cape San Blas, a small community with lots of locally owned shops and eateries, and vacation rentals. We really only went into the community to buy ice, and the occasional ice cream treat. Cape San Blas does have several public beach access points.
One thing to keep in mind when visiting St. Joseph Peninsula is that it sits right on the time line, so your smartphone will constantly be switching between eastern and central times. The only time this was an issue for us was when we rented kayaks; the park goes by central time, but Scallop Cove II (rental store) goes by eastern time. This messed us up and caused us to lose an hour of kayak time.
There is really no way to describe the memories we make on such trips without seeing it for yourself. Sure, Disney would be nice, but what is more amazing: seeing a six foot tall MIckey Mouse, or holding a starfish you found yourself while snorkeling? The answer is simple for us, and much cheaper.
This how we do Florida…on a budget.
Gas: $160 Camping: $156 Food/Ice: $200 Kayak Rental: $95/two