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.
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
Our first “big” adventure of the year began on Memorial Day Weekend, we packed up and headed southeast to the mountains of Virginia, the Blue Ridge Mountains specifically, and Shenandoah National Park. It’s a long narrow park, with Skyline Drive (basically the Blue Ridge Parkway extended) running on top of the ridges straight through the heart of the park for it’s 105 mile length. These are ancient mountains, over 1 billion years old, weathered to half their original size. Evidence of volcanic activity abound.
We arrived early Sunday morning, entering the park from the south end, cruising past more overlooks than you can count. We decided to find an easy leg stretcher of a hike to wake us up, so we headed for Blackrock Summit. But shortly before arriving at the trailhead, we were treated to our first black bear sighting, a big boy off the side of the road eating in a grassy area. We admired him for several minutes, of all our bear sightings in the Smokies in the past, this was by far superior!
We continued to Blackrock Summit, a short 1.5 mile hike mostly following the Appalachian Trail to a very rocky peak. You could spend hours climbing on the rocks, we chose to simply hike through and around them (not quite awake yet). It is believed this is the remains of an ancient volcano, primarily made of greenstone (a metamorphic rock originally formed by magma). Mountain Laurel was just blooming at this elevation. A nice hike.
Check out our Blackrock Summit video:
We continued up Skyline Drive, stopped at the visitors center at Big Meadows, and continued up to Skyland, where we parked for our next hike, up to Stony Man Summit. Another short hike, but with a little more elevation gain. Stony Man is the second highest peak in Shenandoah, at 4011′ it’s only 40 feet below the highest peak (Hawksbill). As expected, Stony Man was crawling with tourists. No way to avoid it, it was a holiday weekend, and right beside Skyland. Still, we carved out our own little spot atop Stony Man and enjoyed the veiws, and watched the Peregrine Falcons. We’re all about stone outcrops with big views.
Check out the video experience of Stony Man:
After that, we headed out of the park to the Shenandoah Valley town of Luray, Virginia. Rare for us, we actually rented a cabin for this trip instead of camping. We knew we were going to do some hardcore hiking, so having a soft bed to sleep in and a hot tub to recuperate seemed like a wise decision. Our cabin was right on the south fork of the Shenandoah River (Gander Island Cabins). The history of the area couldn’t be missed, many civil war battles raged in this valley. The bridge over the river 1/4 mile up from our cabin was burnt down by Stonewall Jackson himself to slow the union army.
That following Monday, Memorial Day, we headed east to Washington, D.C. Our original intent was to split this vacation, every other day, between hikes in Shenandoah and exploring D.C. But this was the only day we went to D.C., seen the White House, monuments, and visited the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. The Washington Mall was completely torn up as they try to repair the surface, apparently. Just not a very pretty sight. There were more things we wanted to do in D.C. (visit the Smithsonian Zoo, Smithsonian Castle, Air & Space Museum) but ultimately, the one day experience there tired us out way more than hiking mountains! So that was our only day in D.C. One cool thing was on our way back to our parking garage, just to the side of the White House, Secret Service came out and held us back while some VIP officials in multiple black vehicles came racing through the streets and straight into the White House compound. The President? VP? Unknown. We did enjoy ice cream from one of the many food trucks there as well!
Walking for miles in sandals around D.C. probably wasn’t a good idea considering we had all these hikes we wanted to do in Shenandoah! So the next couple days we did some “easier” hikes. Or so we thought when we planned them. The hike out to Overall Run Falls was only a 2.5 mile hike out, so 5 mile round trip, not hard at all for us…other than the fact there was more uphill than we expected. It was an awesome hike though, seen two black bear, nearly stepped on a rattle snake, and a milk snake. Now that’s adventure! We played in the first waterfall, but it’s the second waterfall that will take your breath away. There was no trail down to the second falls, probably for the best considering the view point is from the top and that would be a long climb down and back. Overall Run Falls is the highest falls in the park, and I’d say the most spectacular. This is a view that could rival the big views of larger Western parks.
Check out our video for the full experience!
On Wednesday, we headed further into the north section of Shenandoah, up to Compton Peak. An easy-ish hike of maybe 3 miles round trip, with a gradual climb from the trailhead. It follows the Appalachian Trail to the top, where there is an east and a west spur off of the A.T. We took the east one first, which goes down to an amazing rock outcrop, that can only be fully appreciated when you go below it. It is made of huge columnar basalts, 800 million year old lava flows that cooled and solidified into these geometric columns. I stood in awe of them, while Robin challenged herself to climb the loose rock back to the top.
We then took the west spur to the other side of the mountain, where we ate lunch atop a rock outcrop with amazing views across Shenandoah Valley.
Check out the full video:
So Thursday finally arrived, the weather was overcast with the threat of rain, but this was our big day, the hike up Old Rag Mountain. We had been planning for months to do this hike. At 9 miles, 2200′ elevation gain, and a rock scramble that requires some rock climbing skills, we were pumped. Arriving just before 9am, we set off. It’s .8 mile from the parking area just to reach the actual trailhead, then it enters a dense forest with a gradual climb, dotted with boulders the size of a house. Awesome! But that climb all at the beginning of the hike wears ya down quick, so it took us a couple hours before we even reached the rock scramble. Once in though, wow! We’ve never experienced anything like that. Kaden was a bit overwhelmed, but he took direction and powered through it. There is no way to describe that rock scramble, but our video gives a really good account. Once to the summit, we rejoiced. We still had over 5 miles to hike to get back, but we knew it was all easy and downhill. We made it back after 6pm, a long day, but one that still puts a smile on our face.
Watch the video! Just do it!
Friday, we were completely spent. As much as we wanted to be out on the trails, we need to recuperate. We relaxed at the cabin, and then took an afternoon drive into the park. Heading south on Skyline, just watching for wildlife. We hit the jackpot too! On this drive, we ended up seeing 5 bears. Two individual either on the roadside or just inside the woods. But the best was right by the stables at Skyland, Robin spotted a mama bear and two cubs. We watched them play in the woods, then they came out and crossed the road into another stand of woods. We probably watched them a half hour. Kaden loved it!
Here is Kaden’s video when we first spotted the bears:
On Saturday, Kaden and I spent the day together, went for a half day hike out to Hazel Creek Falls & Cave. It was the best hike as far as not seeing other people go, it was just he and I until our return trip almost back to the car. The hike was easy enough out on Hazel Mountain, with a hard climb down to the falls for the last 1/4 mile. The falls were more of a long cascade of falls, and the “cave” wasn’t long at all, just enough for an animal to make a den in maybe. Still a very serene place, that doesn’t get many visitors.
Hazel Creek Falls:
Sunday came, our 8th and final day, time to pack up. But not until one more hike! We drove down Skyline to the Big Meadows district, and hiked the Dark Hollow Falls Trail. It follows Hogcamp Branch, which drains the Big Meadows swamp. The creek quickly turns into multiple cascading waterfalls, very beautiful. Lots of quartzite in the rocks everywhere. We took our time and enjoyed the sights and sounds, knowing this was our last hurrah in the park. On our climb back up the trail, we rounded a corner almost right into a bear family! Less than 30 feet in front of us, on the hillside, was a mama bear and two cubs. We froze, then slowly all three of us grabbed our cameras, LOL. The mama bear didn’t see us as any kind of threat and just kept on munching and moving, the two cubs following along. It was surreal. That made our final tally, 12 bear sightings for the week. What a great way to end our vacation.
Salamanders, waterfalls, and bears, oh my! Video evidence:
When most people think of Illinois, they either picture Chicago in their mind, or miles and miles of corn fields. But there are some hidden gems, including the southern tip of the state where you’ll find Shawnee National Forest and it’s many special places.
We were looking for somewhere to go backpacking on this Mother’s Day weekend, May 7-8, but the forecast had rain and thunderstorms predicted for most of Indiana as well as Kentucky. I had been interested in seeing the Garden of the Gods in the Shawnee N.F. for some time, and it just so happened the forecast there was sunny for this weekend.
Typically I do a lot of homework for new places we plan to explore, but honestly I couldn’t find a whole lot of information (trail maps, backcountry camping areas) for the Shawnee. I printed out a simple map I found online for the Garden of the Gods Wilderness, and off we went. From Lafayette, it was about a five hour drive, we arrived about 8am Saturday morning at the Garden of the Gods Recreation Area. First thing we wanted to do was take a hike on the Observation Trail around the park’s main feature, sandstone outcrops that have been weathered in amazing patterns. Getting out there so early beat the crowds, so we mostly had it to ourselves. We love geologic formations out in nature, whether it’s the canyons and ravines of Indiana state parks, or the gorges and arches in Kentucky. Looking upon such features and trying to comprehend the millions of years it took to form these layers of rock, the elements within them, and the erosion and weathering to create what we now see is truly awe inspiring.
Observation Trail is only about a quarter mile long, not much of a hike, but there is so much to explore in and around the rock formations. We spent nearly two hours weaving through the many crags, jumping from boulder to boulder. The views out over the wilderness were simply beautiful.
We finally went back to the car, grabbed our backpacks, and hiked out Indian Point Trail to find a place to set up camp. We passed by a few campers set up not far from the trail head parking, and passed a cool little pond full of lilly pads and lots of frogs. Some were simple leopard frogs, other species were absolutely HUGE! After awhile, the trail goes out on a ridge, and we spotted a campsite that was a few hundred feet away from the main trail. We investigated, and to our delight, the site was empty (though previous campers had left a bit of a mess) and best of all, there was a large rock outcrop with an amazing view. We had found our camp.
After setting up camp and eating some lunch, we put on our daypacks and headed out into the wilderness for a hike. Unfortunately, there are no trail maps onsite, not from the trail heads, nor from the informational billboards. I had a small map I had downloaded, and thought surely that would be enough for a loop hike. And it started out okay, we hit all the intersections we expected to at first. We found the first landmark that was on my map, “H Rock”, which is an eroded arch high up on a cliff side that is indeed in the shape of an H.
However, that was about where the fun stopped. The wilderness trail was extremely rugged, not from roots, not from rocks, not from ups and downs. No, it was rugged because of the massive trail damage done by horses. Shawnee National Forest is very popular with trail riders, which tears up the trails immensely, and making us constantly avoid the “road apples” left behind. Like many national forests, there are many “unofficial” trails that veer off from the main trail, but with all the trail damage, it was nearly impossible to tell which trail was the right one. I knew from my map that we had missed something, so we finally backtracked a bit and found a trail up the side of a hill that looked like it would take us where we were supposed to go. It kind of did, we came out at an intersection with an actual trail sign (something they don’t have nearly enough of in this forest, nor trail markers). The sign pointed left to go back to the Garden of the Gods parking area, so that’s the way we went. However, after another hour of hiking, we found ourselves back at the same spot we had stopped at earlier! It was like a scene right out of The Blair Witch Project, where they kept coming back to the same spot when they were trying to escape the forest. Kaden thought we were lost, but I knew how to get back from this point, it just wasn’t the loop trail we had expected. But after nearly 7 hours of hard hiking through rutted trails, we made it back to camp. I would say this was the first time in all of our adventures that I couldn’t keep my bearings and find the proper trails. One thing is for sure though, we got a heck of a workout, and spent a lot of time in nature, hardly seeing anyone else on the trails.
We ate dinner and watched the sunset. Though the wilderness hike was exhausting and disappointing, our spirits were still up, looking forward to a good night’s sleep and more exploring the next day.
Sunday we got up bright and early, drank our coffee and ate breakfast, wished Robin a very Happy Mother’s Day, then tore down camp and hiked back out to the car. The only downside we discovered with our campsite there off of Indian Point Trail were ticks, lots of small ticks crawling all over. But that is the risk we take being in nature! On our way back, we took a few minutes to admire some butterflies and checked out the frog pond again, and then went back to the Garden of the Gods Observation Trail and did some more exploring around the cool rock formations. Check out the highlights in our video:
That afternoon, we drove east to Pounds Hollow Recreation Area, and hiked the Rim Rock National Recreation Trail. Also not a long hike, but heavy on history and features. Hundreds of years ago, Native Americans lived on this hill, called the Pounds Escarpment, where there was only one way to the top. The Indians built a stone wall at that point to safeguard their village on the hill. In the 1800s, settlers moving west took the land. Most of the hike around the top is an easy hike and has some excellent views from sandstone outcrops, but the best feature is a wooden staircase that goes down the backside of the hill, through giant fissures in the rock, down to the creek below, and “Ox-lot Cave”. The cave is actually a huge rock shelter in which settlers fenced in and used as a stockade for their oxen, even with a natural spring in the back. We played around on the rocks and cliff side, and cooled off in the giant cracks before heading back to the top and finishing the hike.
Check out the highlights from our Rim Rock hike:
Afterward, we had a couple hours to spare before the drive back home, so we stopped at Pounds Hollow Lake where Robin and Kaden played in the chilly water. This trip might have been more of a true “adventure” than most of our trips, as it was mostly done on the fly without too much planning or knowing what to expect. While these areas were very neat to explore, we know there is much more to the Shawnee National Forest that we still haven’t seen, including numerous waterfalls, canyons, and more cliffs. In Illinois, of all places!
Family at Garden of the Gods
Prickly Pear Cactus in our campsite, Garden of the Gods Wilderness
Happy Mother’s Day from Garden of the Gods
Creek and cliff near Ox-lot Cave, Rim Rock Trail
Ancient steps off of Rim Rock Trail
Kaden in the giant fissures of Pounds Escarpment at Rim Rock
Interesting flora growing from the top of sandstone outcrops on Rim Rock Trail
You probably know that Slone’s Wilderness Expeditions has taken a real liking to the Red River Gorge Geologic Area in east central Kentucky over the past year. So it probably comes as no surprise that on a weekend in January, when temps were predicted to approach 60 degrees, that’s where we headed! No camping this time, we headed down before the crack of dawn Saturday morning with a one night reservation in the Natural Bridge Resort State Park lodge.
We arrived in the area just after 10am, and took the obligatory cruise around the scenic byway (Nada Tunnel is not to be missed). Our plan was to hike Tarr Ridge East, as it is a little known ridge with amazing views. However, upon arriving at the trail head parking, it was full. What I hadn’t counted on was that all the park gravel roads were still closed due to a snow storm from a week before, meaning all the weekend hikers were left to the border trails off the scenic byway, instead of the more popular trails in the heart of the park. As we continued driving around the byway, the story was the same with most all trail heads. We finally found a spot off the Angel Windows trail, so we went for it. Angel Windows is a short half mile hike out to the main attraction, two small arches just tall enough to walk through. One of the arches looks like a horse bending it’s head down, at least that’s how we see it! We continued around the arch and explored cliff faces and rock shelters, admiring the landscape still covered in snow and ice.
Afterward, we continued around the byway and back to Slade and the state park. With all the RRG trail heads full, we knew there would be plenty of parking here. We decided to hike the Whittleton Arch Trail (part of the larger Sheltowee Trace), which starts at the back of Whittleton Campground and follows Whittleton Branch. While the temps in the sun were quickly climbing into the 50s, this trail follows the stream at the bottom of a long ravine where little sun reaches, keeping the temps hovering around the freezing mark. The trail was only listed as a mile long, but it sure seemed longer than that, as hiking on snow covered trails is about as difficult as hiking on loose sand, but more slippery. Once you reach the Whittleton Arch, though, it was all worth it. The stone arch is actually the longest in the geologic area, because it was originally a deep rock shelter that had the back side cave in. Somewhere around 50 feet of ice was hanging off the front as the snow above melted and trickled down into the colder ravine. The only thing that can make this landscape even more spectacular is the ice formations of winter.
After a good night’s sleep at the lodge, we stayed close and headed straight up the Original Trail, the very first trail created by the logging companies from a century ago when the logging companies owned the rights to this land. The Original Trail is the most direct route up the cliff to Natural Bridge, and was very slippery in spots with trampled down snow turning into ice in spots. But the beauty can’t be denied, at times surrounded by the greenery of mountain laurel, the sounds of a trickling stream, and cliff faces pock marked with crazy erosion designs. The trail comes out right under Natural Bridge, a true spectacle, but only one of many such natural arches in the geologic area. Getting to the top involves shimmying through Fat Man’s Misery, a narrow crack between the rock face just wide enough to pass through sideways, made more difficult when wearing backpacks! Once on top, the view is expansive. Crystal blue skies above, snow down below (none on top as the sun had melted most of it the day before). We walked across and up the ridge to Lookout Point and Lover’s Leap. At the point where the ski lift reaches top, a crew of men were working on a new landing deck for the lift, should be nice this summer for those who prefer that route vs. the hike.
I had expected the state park to be very busy, but the trails we were on were much less crowded than those out in the gorge the day before. We walked back across Natural Bridge and took the Balanced Rock Trail down. It is a longer, more scenic route, with more mountain laurel and more cliff faces and rock shelters to explore. Stairs were plentiful, definitely glad we were going down instead of up. Once to the bottom, Balanced Rock stood out like a fossilized UFO sitting atop it’s landing post. Shortly after is another rock shelter, but this one actually has a cave entrance (gated to protect the bat population) that exits on the other side of the ridge, where the Original Trail begins.
And so went yet another awesome hiking weekend in the Red River Gorge. That’s five visits to the area in the past year, and we’ve still just scratched the surface. Looking forward to spring and getting back into backpacking!
Angel Windows trail head
“The Horse” at Angel Windows
Nature is my gym! Whittleton Arch Trail
Whittleton Arch Trail
View from the ski lift
Family on the Lookout
Climb mountains not so the world can see you, but so you can see the world.
In 2014, our vacation options were very limited due to the wife’s new job, which lead to a quickie vaca over Thanksgiving weekend to Pensacola Beach and the Gulf Shores National Seashore. While 2015 has been much nicer to us for getting away, our wanderlust and eagerness to get out of Indiana lead us to another Florida adventure over Thanksgiving weekend. Being our third trip to the Sunshine State this year, we’re getting to be pros. Black Friday has no appeal compared to the sea.
We made plans for our final camping trip of the year, with reservations at St. Andrews State Park near Panama City Beach. Typically we stay away from the tourist areas, but with my daughter living in Panama City, it seemed like a perfect excuse to stay there. Those plans got changed a bit at the last minute, as just days before Thanksgiving, my daughter moved back to Indiana! It meant no Thanksgiving dinner with her, but she would be home for my birthday. Onward we went to Florida for Thanksgiving.
After a long night of driving, we took the scenic route from Pensacola through Fort Walton Beach, Destin, and finally Panama City Beach. We set up camp at St. Andrews St. Park, which frankly exceeded our expectations. When Florida says they have the best state parks, I’d have to agree. You literally drive out of a tourist trap and into a serene wooded region complete with wetlands, ponds, gators, shore birds, deer, ocean beach, bay beach, jetty, etc. The campground is at the back of the park with the Lower Grand Lagoon as the backdrop. There are trails to be hiked, history to be found, beaches to swim, shells to be collected, wildlife to be viewed. Lots of opportunities for fishing and kayaking too, though this time of year the local outfitters were closed which meant no kayak or boat rentals from the park. That was literally my only complaint for the entire weekend. Just gives us more to look forward to whenever we make it back.
We took a stroll down to the beach that first day, it was mid-70s and Kaden went swimming in the “kiddie pool” section, which is simply a protected swim area between the beach and jetty that makes it safe from waves and rip currents. Kaden could play to his heart’s delight while Robin was shelling along the shore and I explored and took photos. We were surprised at just how fast the sunset came on, as the park is just inside the Central Time Zone, meaning the sunset was at 4:42pm there. We were able to watch the gorgeous sunset and still get back to camp, change clothes, and make it to Margarittaville by 6pm for our Thanksgiving dinner.
On Friday, we took a quick trip in tourist land for supplies (wood, ice, alcohol) and then back to the park to enjoy the amazing weather. Last year at Pensacola Beach, while it made it to 70 by mid-afternoon, it was just too cold to get wet. Not this time. Night temps fell to about 60, day temps were at 80. The water was chilly, but honestly, no worse than Lake Michigan in July at Indiana Dunes, and we’ve swam in that plenty of times. So Kaden had a full day of swimming and playing, Robin collected more shells, and I hiked around the peninsula, taking photos of birds, deer, and even a dolphin. I also hiked around Gator Pond, but no gators wanted to show anything more than their beady little eyes poking out of the water for a few seconds at a time.
The deer in this park obviously have a very limited range. Being surrounded by salt water or tourist town, they only have the 1200 acres to make home. They are extremely accustomed to people, wandering through the campground, and one even walked right up to me while I was hiking the trails behind the park. Watch video for the experience:
That evening we enjoyed cooking over the campfire and watching the full moon rise over the bay.
Saturday, we drove down to our favorite beach in Florida, at St. George Island State Park. It’s about an hour drive south of Panama City, but the worst part was just getting through Panama City. From the campground and through town took nearly another hour. And that is why I don’t much care for staying near tourist areas, heh. Once we arrived, we paid the fee to drive the extra 5 miles through the protected section of the park, where they recommend only off road vehicles go. They didn’t question us when they seen the Subaru! The eastern end of the island is fully protected from development, mostly fishermen go out to this end. They stay at the end or along the bay for fishing, which means we had the entire beach side to ourselves. We only ran across one other person during all the hours we walked the beach. Now that is paradise. Just like last time we went out here, it had some of the best shelling we’ve ever seen.
Once again, the sunset caught us off guard, leaving us to walk the beach back in near darkness. It was beautiful and serene, except for the mosquitoes. We hadn’t planned for them. Here are some videos of our St. George Island experience:
Sunday was pack up day, but Robin and Kaden got another two hours of beach time while I tore down camp and loaded the car. It was a 14 hour drive home through horrible traffic, we got home at 4:40am and I was at work at 6am.