Sunday, December 2, 2018

Fall Creek Falls State Park- Tennessee (November 2018)

Our visit to Fall Creek Falls State Park started with a GPS fail. Two out three of the GPS units we use called for a turn on a road that quickly turned into a single lane gravel trail. We were in too deep to back out when the road became mostly dirt.

As a point of reference, we call our built-in truck GPS “Jack,” our Garmin GPS is known as “Jill” and Google Maps on our iPhone hasn’t developed enough personality to earn a name. Jack and Jill agreed that we needed to drag Rosie, our 25 foot Airstream trailer, down the substandard roads. Google was napping at that time and wasn’t around to participate in the decision.

Two miles later, we were on a paved but narrow road entering the park from what had to be the wrong direction. I doubt many people would bring their campers down those roads.

Fall Creek Falls State Park sign

We were amazed at the lack of signage in this park needed to get poor lost souls on the right path. As expected, our GPS systems were equally confused as to where the campground office was located. 

By chance, we stumbled on the office and were given a map to our campsite. It was easy to follow and we quickly found our site.

Our site in Fall Creek Falls State Park

This wasn’t our first visit to Fall Creek Falls State Park, but it was the first time we took Rosie there. We camped in the park several times during our tent days. Those visits were probably a dozen years ago. 

Our memories from our tent days were mixed. Weekend campers there during the summer tended to ignore quiet hours, loved sharing their loud radios and TVs with their neighbors and depended on the other campers to keep an eye on their children. I don’t think these were problems unique to this park. We always enjoyed Fall Creek Falls more during the week when the weekenders were gone. 

We noticed that the RV camping sites were significantly more spacious and private than how we remembered the tent sites. Since we were there during November, only a few hardy souls were in our camping loop. 

The weather wasn’t our friend during this visit. The leaves were past peak colors and were quickly falling from the trees. There was a small team of employees driving through the park with leaf blowers attached to their tractors trying to clear the roads. The frequent rain showers encouraged the leaves to fall faster.

Becky on the suspension bridge

A trail in Fall Creek Falls State Park

At Fall Creek Falls

Another weather factor was the temperature. Daytime highs were in the low 50s and lows were in the low 40s. We decided to leave a day early to avoid the predicted low temperature of 22 degrees the next night. Sure, we could keep Rosie nice and warm in during subfreezing temperatures, but the thought of hooking up in those temperatures wasn’t appealing. We decided it was time to head south. 

Between rain showers, we were able to visit the famous swimming hole.

The swimming hole

We also worked in hikes to several waterfalls and to one suspended footbridge over one of the creeks. We kept saying during our hikes that this is a great park with lots to see and do.

The Falls

Becky at the base of the falls

Another view of the falls

We missed several things from our previous trips. On that list was renting a canoe to explore the lake and eating dinner in the lodge. We guess the boat rental area was closed for the season and the lodge was demolished so the State can build a new one. 

We were amazed at what was open in the park. The General Store, Camping Outfitter Store and several snack bars were open for business in what could only be described as the off-season for the park. 

Here are some specifics about this campground:
  • Our site was in camping loop B
  • Our site was paved
  • Our site was level
  • Our site had 20, 30 and 50 amp electrical service 
  • Our site had a water connection 
  • Our site had a sewer connection 
  • The park provided four days of free WiFi access. It appeared that there was a fee for additional days of service 
  • AT&T placed two bars of 4G LTE service over our site 
  • We were able to see only PBS using Rosie’s TV antenna. Our over-the-air DVR that we record our favorite TV programs and movies on helps when our TV options are limited. 
  • The bathhouse and restroom near our site was clean and warm. 
  • This is a surprisingly expensive park. While the camping fees are somewhat on the higher side of what you would expect for a state park, the tack-on fees and taxes push the nightly costs to well above the norm. 
We frequently mentioned how much we enjoyed this park and noted that we needed to return soon. 
We saw several deer in this park

Steve and Suzy
Steve on the suspension bridge
Becky and Suzy
Another waterfall in the park

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Townsend/Great Smokies KOA - Tennessee (November 2018)

“Your timing is perfect,” said the Townsend/Great Smokies KOA campground staff person as she checked us in. “The leaves are turning late this year and are reaching peak colors this weekend.”

Townsend/Great Smokies KOA Campground
The KOA Office

Fall colors were simply a bonus when we booked this campground. We were trying to come up with something to replace our scheduled trip to Florida’s Gulf Coast after our reservations were canceled in the wake of Hurricane Michael. 

We wanted a river site, but the park was sold out for the weekend and we ended up with an interior site. We knew we would miss the sound of running water.

River behind the campground

Most KOA campgrounds have someone in a golf cart who escorts visitors to their sites. This person also attempts to help campers back into their sites. 

Our escort brought us to our site facing the wrong direction. After we discussed the perils of making a 130 degree turn while backing into a site, our escort led us on a tour of the campground to get us facing the proper way to back into our site. 

The campground sent reinforcements over to see what the problem was with us getting in our site. The other campground escort said that the person who attempted to help us was new and still learning how to park trailers. We would have been fine parking on our own.

Rosie in the campground

Once parked, we noticed an unpleasant smell and saw a sewage truck pumping out a septic tank. I asked one of the  park staffers about the smell and learned that Townsend doesn’t have a sewer system. That was one of the reasons the community hasn’t grown in relation to others near the Smokies. Every business and resident in Townsend must have septic systems. This was a decision made by the community help keep it from becoming another tourist town on the edges of th National Park. 

I asked how often we should expect to smell the sewage truck. His response was that the truck shows up monthly in season and every two or three months during the off season. I guess we were lucky to park there at the same time the sewage truck arrived.

Sign at the entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

We think someone must have blabbed the news about the leaves being at peak colors because the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was full of people taking in the sights. It wasn’t too bad on Friday when we drove along the Little River Gorge Road. Things were very different on Saturday and Sunday when we toured Cade’s Cove and drove to Newfound Gap. Cars were bumper-to-bumper. We were surprised to see some snow on the side of the road as we drove up to Newfound Gap.

Snow along the road near Newfound Gap

The colors of fall

Smoky Mountains National Park

A tunnel

Peak color!

We were amazed at how fast the leaves changed colors then dropped. We were also amazed at how fast the campground cleared out on Sunday. We were the only trailer in our row on Monday morning. 

The reason people were abandoning the campground became clearer when the weather alarms on our iPhones woke us up around 4 a.m. the next morning. We were in a severe thunderstorm area, had a high wind advisory and under a tornado watch. We could hear the heavy rain pelt Rosie and we also heard the winds. 

The campground looked like a battlefield when we looked outside that morning with tree branches and leaves everywhere. As we were getting ready to leave, several KOA employees were picking up the branches and blowing the leaves away from the roads and sites. Chances are good that the park looked spic-n-span by the time the new visitors arrived that afternoon.

Rosie alone on our row

Here are some specifics about this campground:
  • Our site was a back-in
  • Our site was gravel and level
  • Our site had 20, 30 and 50 amp electrical service
  • Our site had water connection 
  • Our site had a sewer connection
  • Our site had a cable TV connection that delivered 40+ analog signals. That was good because we couldn’t find any over-the-air TV signals 
  • The park had Wi-Fi service. It worked better than the WiFi services at most campgrounds 
  • AT&T placed a marginal one to two bars of 4G voice and data service over our site 
  • The restrooms in this campground were clean and in good shape
  • The showers in this campground lacked ventilation and heat. That was an issue since the weather dipped into the 30s during our visit there. 
This is one of the best KOA Campgrounds we have ever camped in. We emptied one of propane gas tanks while there and asked at the office where we could get it filled. They quickly sent one of their staffers to our site. He took our tank in his golf cart and returned it filled about 10 minutes later. There was no charge for pickup and delivery service.

Working with the LP gas tanks

The Smokies hold a special place in our hearts. This was a favorite vacation spot when our children were growing up and a family favorite when I was a child. Our drives through the Smokies were full of great memories of our children climbing the rocks along the creeks and taking hikes to the waterfalls, the Chimney Tops and Mount LaConte. I also could not help but think of my visits to the the Smokies with my parents.  

There is lots to love about the Smokies. This was our first late Fall visit and we enjoyed the mountains and this campground.
Rosie in the campground
In the Smokies

Bumper-to-bumper traffic in Cades Cove

The Smokies

The fall colors
Suzy acting as our scout

The state line

Fall in the Smokies

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Cloudland Canyon State Park -Georgia (October 2018)

If you ask Google to list the best campgrounds in the South, Cloudland Canyon State Park is usually in the top ten. After reading the reviews, we knew we needed to explore Cloudland.

Sign at Cloudland Canyon State Park

You have to plan your arrival time when visiting a Georgia State Park. This is because you don’t reserve a specific campsite, you simply reserve the right to select the best one you can find from the remaining sites. This means you have to come up with a strategy for when you arrive at the campground. You cannot arrive too early because campers in the best sites may be slow to leave. You cannot arrive too late because campers arriving ahead of you will claim the prime sites. 

There are two loops in this park and the person who checked us in said the bigger sites were in the west Rim Campground and the East Rim was closer to the hiking trails and the waterfalls. We decided to take a quick spin through the East Rim first then head to West Rim if we didn’t see what we were looking for. 

Our timing was perfect. There are only a handful of sites in the East Rim Campground that we classify as prime spots and two were open. We quickly backed Rosie, our 25 foot Airstream trailer, in the site that looked best to us before another camper slipped in.

Rosie in our East Rim campsite

After disconnecting Rosie, we drove over to the other campground to check it out. Our impression was that most sites in the West Rim were larger and probably better than 90 percent of the sites in the East Rim Campground. We felt fortunate to have claimed one of the really good sites in the East Rim. 

We also noticed that the restroom serving West Rim appeared to be newer and in better condition than the one for the East Rim Campground. The East Rim Campground restroom may have skipped a few repair and renovation cycles.

One of the advantages of the East Rim is its close proximity to most trailheads in the park. Several people mentioned that the trail to Cherokee Falls was a must-see. This was our first hike there and it wasn’t disappointing. You have to descend a couple hundred steps to get to this waterfall, but it is worth doing so.

The stairs to the falls
Sign to the falls
Cherokee Falls

You can continue down for another 600 steps to reach Hemlock Falls. Our knees voted to skip that hike. Besides, another person in the campground said that we could hike to Hemlock Falls through a trail that traveled along the canyon's floor. 

We hiked the West Rim trail the next morning. This goes around the top of the west canyon rim and offered some great views at the lookouts. The leaves were approaching peak fall colors during our visit and this helped make a beautiful park spectacular.

View from the West Rim

The West Rim
We hiked the Sitton Gulch Trail the third morning. According to our Fitbits, this was a five mile round trip hike through the canyon’s floor and it ended at Hemlock Falls. There were small waterfalls, cascades and a rushing creek with large boulders that we enjoyed along the trail. 

Along the Sitton Gulch Trail
It was easy for us to see why a hiking magazine once rated the the trails in this park as among the nation’s best. It was also easy to see why this park is considered to be one of the best in the South. The campground itself isn’t spectacular, but the park, the canyon and the trails are. 

Here are some specifics about this campground:
  • There are two camping loops in this park. The West Rim Loop has what appears to us to be larger sites. The East Rim Loop is walking distance to the waterfalls and several popular hiking trails. 
  • Our site was a back-in
  • Our site was gravel and level
  • Our site had 20, 30 and 50 amp electrical service
  • Our site had a water connection
  • Our site did not have a sewer connection
  • We could not find any WiFi service in this park.
  • AT&T provided two bars of 4G service over our site
  • We were able to watch ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS using Rosie's TV antenna
  • We were able to see ME-TV, COMET, Charge and GRIT digital TV channels. 
  • The restrooms in the East Rim Loop were clean and warm. They were also in need of being renovated because some things either didn’t work or appeared to have been quickly patched back together 
Temperatures were chilly while we were visiting this park. It dropped to 37 one morning. Of course, it was very cozy inside Rosie and we didn’t mind the cold temperatures.

Rosie in Cloudland Canyon State Park

We noticed that many of the people camping here were very passionate about this park and it was easy for us to see why. The park is beautiful and we enjoyed its hiking trails.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

Lake Guntersville State Park - Alabama (October 2018)

Here we are in Lake Guntersville State Park working from a hastily created Plan B. Why? Hurricane Michael shredded our original plan.

We had reservations to spend two relaxing weeks at Grayton Beach State Park in Florida. Then Hurricane Michael came along 10 days before our trip and devastated Florida’s Gulf Coast. 

We called Grayton Beach State Park a few days after the hurricane and found out it escaped serious storm damage. The news got better because the iconic trees just outside the park survived the weather. 

One ranger said he thought the park would reopen in a few days. That was partially correct in that the park reopened, but not to the public. It served as a staging area for the rangers and volunteers who worked to restore some of the other state parks damaged by Hurricane Michael. The State of Florida cancelled our reservations. It is hard to get too upset since the park was being used to help others.

But we could not help feeling sorry for the victims of this storm and sad that we would not be able to camp there this year. 

Evidently, Hurricane Michael didn't care how beautiful the state parks on Florida's Gulf Coast were. Evidently, Hurricane Michael didn’t care how hard it was to get reservations in Florida state parks. Hurricane Michael inflicted some serious damage to several of our favorite parks and communities along the Gulf Coast and we felt bad for the areas and people who suffered damage from that storm.

So, we were in a scramble to plan a new Rosie adventure. (Rosie is our 25 foot Airstream trailer.) Instead of heading to the beach, we decided to point Rosie in a northerly direction.

It is easy to get reservations in the parks no one wants to visit. Of course, there is a reason as to why these parks are mostly empty. The trick is to get into the good parks that everyone wants to camp in. It took way too much effort to come up with a replacement trip, but we ended up with plans that were worthy of a true Rosie adventure.

During that process, we kept saying how much we appreciated the WBCCI (Wally Byam Caravan Club International, the Airstream Owners Association) caravans. They take care of all your reservations plus make sure you see  some very interesting sights along the way. We decided that we need to sign up for more WBCCI Caravans.

Lake Guntersville was a last second addition to our trip. We were approaching three and a half years on Rosie's tires and most Airstream forums say you are living on borrowed time once your tires cross the third year mark. This is because of the weight and stress factors acting against trailer tires. Having survived a blowout in Arkansas, we didn't want to risk another possible tire problem. 

Lake Guntersville State Park

The recommended tire dealer near our home said he could install the new tires on Friday. Our trip was to start on Sunday. The thought of pulling Rosie out of storage on Friday, getting new tires, taking Rosie back to storage and going back two days later to connect again wasn't appealing. Wouldn't it be better to simply leave for our adventure from the tire store? 

There were a couple of parks along our route that we wanted to visit. As expected, they were full. We were able to squeeze in for two nights at Lake Guntersville State Park, a park that wasn’t on our list of “must visits.”

It was raining when we pulled into Lake Guntersville State Park. It appeared that it had been raining for a while because we saw an ample supply of mud around our site.

Entrance to the camping area

Rosie's site

The other factor that greeted us at the park was the cold wind. We were glad we replaced our beach clothes with warmer ones. 

The rain stopped during our first night and we were able to explore the park the next morning. Our impression as we walked around the park was that it was huge, the lake was huge and there was a huge lodge on the hill above the campground. It seemed as if everything was huge in this park.

Shore of the lake

Speaking of the lake, one fisherman said that Guntersville Lake is known as one of the best fishing lakes in America. While we cannot verify his statement, it was easy to see that a large number of the people in this campground loved to fish.

The playground

A fellow camper said that the lodge was a highlight of the park and recommended eating lunch there. That sounded like a plan to us.

View of the lodge from the campground

The Lodge Sign

We were glad we drove up to the lodge. It was worth visiting the park to see it. First, it was big, just as we thought. There were two high school reunions and three weddings taking place in the lodge during our visit.

The Lodge

The Lodge
Inside the lodge

Looking into the dining room

Second, the lunch was reasonably priced and very good. The oversized picture windows in the restaurant overlooked the lake and the campground.

Lunch at the lodge

We noticed that many deer live in this park as we drove around it. The deer seemed to be used to traffic as they continued to graze as cars passed by the areas they were in.

Grazing near the lodge

A deer

Here are some specifics about this park:
  • Our site was a back-in
  • Our site was gravel and level
  • Our site had 20, 30 and 50 amp electrical service
  • Our site had a water connection
  • Our site had a sewer connection
  • We could not find any WiFi service in this park. We did notice a WiFi antenna system suggesting they had WiFi at one time.
  • AT&T provided two bars of 4G service over our site
  • We were able to watch ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC and PBS using Rosie's TV antenna
  • We were able to see ME-TV, Antenna, Bounce, My-TV, COMET and GRIT digital TV channels. 
  • The restrooms in our camping area were clean and warm. As the temperature dipped into the 40s one morning, the heated restrooms and showers were appreciated. 
Our opinion of the park changed during our visit. It turned out to be a great park and one we will visit again.

Rosie in the campground

One side note to our visit: While walking around the campground we started talking to a couple also in an Airstream trailer. We learned through out conversation that he was in a prominent position with one of Alabama's well-known college football programs.

No, I’m not going to identify him or his university as he deserves a little privacy. 

There are two colleges in Alabama with football teams typically in the national Top-25 ratings and both of those teams had "bye" weeks the weekend we were camping at Lake Guntersville State Park. The “bye” weekend was a perfect time for him to slip away for a small break from the season. 

I will say that I earned a degree from one of these “nationally known” football schools and served on the faculty at the other. We enjoyed swapping old "war stories" about that university and its former coaches. This chance meeting made our visit to Lake Guntersville State Park more memorable. 

An overview of the lake