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’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.
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:
In between our adventures into the wilderness, we like the wide open beaches and wildlife preserves of northwest Florida. We prefer the stretch between Mexico Beach to the west, and St. Mark’s to the east, often called the “Forgotten Coast.” It features all the sugar-white sand beaches the panhandle of Florida is known for, but without the hustle & bustle of the tourist traps. This particular adventure, we camped at St. Joseph Peninsula State Park, with the Gulf of Mexico to our west, and St. Joseph Bay to the east. My daughter and her hubby live in Panama City, so we got to spend some time with them as well.
This particular week, the tides on the Gulf side were very strong, with dangerous rip currents, so we spent more time playing in the bay. We spent hours upon hours snorkeling, finding scallops, sea snails, horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs, sea urchins, and lots of fish. It was a first for us, and we are hooked! We also got to kayak, first near Tyndall Airforce Base, where we kayaked with dolphins in Pearl Bayou, another first. Then another day we kayaked in St. Joseph Bay, where we witnessed a huge stingray “flying” out of the water, wish I could have gotten that on video! The campground was nice, just too hot for us in August in a tent, but it was so worth it.
We also took a day trip down to St. George Island, which was the site of our very first trip to Florida, ever. We absolutely love that island, it has the most amazing beach and quaint community. We collected shells, starfish, seen cownose rays, crabs, and played in the surf. Once we left, we took a long ride down through Carabelle and back up through Apalachicola, and surrounding areas. We got stopped in the middle of the road once while a small alligator crossed the road, so cool! Someday, we’d love to call the Forgotten Coast our home.
My description doesn’t do the area justice. Pics are pretty, but video captures the experience:
Sorry about my absence in adventure blogging. Time to do some catching up! This past July, my son and I had some bonding time on a three day excursion into the Red River Gorge, part of the Daniel Boone National Forest, in east central Kentucky.
We set up camp just off of Tunnel Ridge Road, near the Gray’s Arch area. There was a forecast for storms in the area that evening, so as they moved in, we decided to go for a scenic drive instead of waiting it out in the tent. Little did we know it was actually a derecho with immense straight line winds! It hit full force as we were driving around the scenic byway 715, when trees literally started crashing down around us. We turned around to try to get back out, only to find our way back was blocked by more trees across the road, so we quickly parked at a trailhead parking space with no trees overhead to wait it out. A truck came by shortly later, a family also trapped in the byway, so we followed them after the main storm subsided. Once a signal was found, 911 was called and road crews were sent out. We sat out in the dark for nearly 3 hours as road crews cut up trees and pushed them off the road. In the meantime, my son Kaden dealt with the delay and destruction by imagining it was all the result of us going through a time portal and dinosaurs causing the mayhem. This became the theme for our entire three day trip!
The next day, we were up bright and early to start our hike. We had planned to hike near the Red River and up Sheltowee Trace, but the road was closed due to power lines down, and the alternate trail to reach our destination was washed out by flash flooding. So we went back to our camp, and then hiked sections of Pinch-em-Tight, Rough Trail, and Rush Ridge. Also hiked down to the Daniel Boone Hut. We actually set a record for steps taken that day (only to be beaten later by another trip to the Red). The entire time, we hiked with the theme that we were being chased by dinosaurs. It kept Kaden interested and going.
The following day, we went back to our original destination to hike Sheltowee Trace up to Cloud Splitter. What an amazing jungle atmosphere, with lots of small streams, waterfalls, and huge rock walls. We found our way up to Cloud Splitter, even crawled into the crack that “splits” the rock, but couldn’t quite make the rope climb to the top. Still an amazing hike. Afterward, we crossed the suspension bridge over the flooded Red River just to say we did, and then drove to Chimney Tops and hiked out there for some amazing views, and then out to Princess Arch. Another great day, again with dinosaurs chasing us.
Each night, we sat around the campfire, relaxed in the hammock, and made Dubsmash videos that we sent to mom.
Great adventure, check out the movie we made if you have the time:
Back in September, the family and I took a camping trip to Clifty Falls State Park, near Madison, Indiana. It’s not one of Indiana’s bigger state parks, but it is huge on features, especially if you like creeks, fossils, canyons, and waterfalls. There are numerous waterfalls within it’s 1500 acres, a tunnel that was dug in the 1800s for a proposed railroad that never happened (currently closed to safeguard the bats), and a creek bed littered with 400 million year old marine fossils. Clifty Falls is a geologic wonder. The park also has an Inn overlooking the Ohio River, a nature center, large campground, swimming pool, and 10 hiking trails. Of those trails, Trail 2 is possibly the most scenic (and rugged) in Indiana. It follows Clifty Creek from just below the fire tower up on the hill, through forested hills and into Clifty canyon, culminating just short of the Clifty Falls themselves. There are also small tributaries that lead up to other waterfalls as well. The trail is littered with fossils and boulders that give you a sense of awe. During times of high water, trail 2 is impassable, but our hike was during a dry period, with the creek being extremely low. This made for low waterfall flows, but a great hike regardless.