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Road Trip Recap: Appalachian Adventure

Road Trip Recap Appalachian Adventure

I love posting these recaps of our trips because it’s such a fun way to look back on our adventures and see all the ground we’ve covered. This trip definitely looks different from some of our previous trips — more on that below!

Appalachian Adventure By the Numbers:

Total travel days: 41 (September 6 – October 17)
States visited: 7 (Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Indiana, Kentucky)
Nights camping: 41
Nights in hotels or with family: 0 (!)
Campgrounds visited: 12

First of all — this trip was fun. In some ways it was more mellow than other trips we’ve done (no crazy off-roading, lots of KOAs) but in some ways, it was definitely an adventure (all the whitewater and all.the.bourbon). We definitely enjoyed getting to know a part of the country we’ve neglected. And we picked a great time of year to do it — let me tell you, West Virginia, Tennesee, and Kentucky in fall are gorgeous. The trip was also a study in contrasts; we stayed at both the swankiest campground we’ve ever visited (Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg KOA) and the sketchiest (Camp on the Kentucky RV Park). We spent quality time in four states, and traveled through three more.

Every extended trip we take, it seems like we experience something new — and this trip was no different. This was the first extended road trip we’ve taken where we pulled the camper with us, and it was pretty eye-opening. First, we learned that it’s a lot easier to be lazy with a camper than when car camping; this trip definitely saw us doing a lot more TV watching and lounging indoors than we’ve done on previous trips. We also learned that pulling the camper is a little bit stressful, slows you way down, wreaks havoc on your gas mileage, and puts a major damper on spontaneity. Yikes! This trip was a bit of a test run, as we’re planning some pretty extended on-the-road time for 2017, and it was certainly instructive. So we’re taking it as a lesson to figure out how to improve for the future.

Traveling with the camper definitely changed our travel style. In the past we’ve often rolled into off-the-beaten path campgrounds, cooked dinner over the fire, went to bed early, and rolled out with the sunrise. This trip we averaged 3.5 nights per campground — unheard of for us! — and definitely traveled more slowly. We actually spent six nights each at two different campgrounds. Now, I know that for many full-time travelers that’s nothing, but for us, that’s the definition of S-L-O-W travel, which definitely had its pros and cons. (One thing that hasn’t changed: we’re still terrible at making reservations in advance. We actually got turned away from our very first full-to-capacity campground on this trip! I guess after 18 months on the road, it was bound to happen eventually.)

Now, without further ado — here is the official link roundup/recap of our Appalachian Adventure! We loved our time in the mid-Atlantic mountains, and we hope you enjoy reading about it, too.

Car trouble, camping in Coopers Rock State Forest, and excellent beer! (Morgantown, West Virginia)

Whitewater, whitewater, whitewater! (#GauleySeason kickoff weekend)

Books and burritos in West Virginia’s capital city! (Charleston, West Virginia)

Our new favorite West Virginia state park! (Pipestem Resort State Park)

Yeah, we’d like to be a guest of the Vanderbilts … (Asheville, North Carolina & the Biltmore Estate)

It’s America’s most-visited national park for a reason … (Great Smoky Mountains National Park)

Celebrating Ryan’s birthday in “The Gateway to the South” (Chattanooga, Tennessee)

One night in Nashville + our new favorite campground! (Nashville, Tennessee)

Caves for days! (Mammoth Cave National Park)

Three days. So much bourbon. (The Kentucky Bourbon Trail)

We didn’t jump off a bridge — but other people did. (Bridge Day, Fayetteville, West Virginia)

If you’re interested in reading more of our road trip adventures, check out our 2015 Road Trip recap here (where we travel from the East Coast to the West Coast and back) and our 2016 Road Trip recap here (also known as our Great Southwest Adventure)!

One Night in Nashville

I was very curious to explore Nashville on our way from Chattanooga to Kentucky … but my wife was not so convinced. She had actually been to Nashville in college for a journalism conference, and felt ambivalent about returning. But I’d never been, and we were driving right past it — so we decided to spend just one night there, and poke around the city a bit to see what was up.

Some quick research brought us to our first Army Corps of Engineers campground, Seven Points Campground. With only a few hours to travel from Chattanooga, we arrived so early, our site wasn’t even ready. (That was also due to the very late checkout times — 2pm! — which we actually loved. There’s nothing worse than having to rush out of an epic campsite by 9am! ) So, we parked the camper in the public beach-front lot, and spent some time exploring the campground.

Honestly, there aren’t enough good things we could say about this campground. If the bathrooms had been just a little nicer, it would probably be on par with our favorite campground of all time (Mount Desert Campground in Maine)! The grounds were really well kept, the sites were wooded and spacious, there was a swimming beach, a great playground, and the lake was beautiful.

We loved it! And apparently lots of other people did, too … we snagged one of just a couple of remaining campsites. (If we ever head back that way, we’ll be sure to plan in advance so we can snag one of the gorgeous waterfront sites; the odd numbered sites 13-23 were some of the prettiest, largest, and most private campsites we’ve ever seen.)

The people in the site we were waiting for finally left (at 2pm on the dot!) and we parked and set up the camper. We also realized we desperately needed clean laundry — so we found a local laundromat, and took care of business. After that bit of housekeeping we were ready to roll, and drove in to downtown.

Guys, Nashville is pretty.

Not only that, it was tremendously clean. We parked downtown, and walked towards the water, enjoying the bridges and waterfront views. We arrived just in time for sunset, and that only magnified the views.

We made our way back downtown, and spent some time just walking up and down the streets. We saw street performers, recording studios … even the Johnny Cash museum! Sadly, it was just closing up as we walked by, so we didn’t get a chance to explore it.

We walked down Broadway, which is the street absolutely littered with bars. Many of them had open fronts, and there was music spilling out of them all. It was a really fun scene — and I say that as someone who isn’t a country music fan!

However, I AM a Connie Britton fan. For the uninitiated, she is a lovely actress who we first discovered as Jack Bauer’s girlfriend in one of the later seasons of 24. Since then, she’s been in Friday Night Lights, which Rebecca adores and is currently rewatching. Most recently she is starring in Nashville, a popular show centered around country music. And much to our surprise, we stumbled upon a filming location where Connie Britton was actually filming while we were there!

So, we ended up spending about an hour across the street from where she was doing an outdoor shot in front of an actual country music record label, and we got to see her film a scene! Totally unexpected and fun. (Between the bright lights of the film crew and the darkness on the street, the pictures didn’t come out at all. So you’ll just have to take our word for it that we saw Connie Britton’s hair in person.)

After that, we called it a night, and headed back to camp. We hit the road the next morning, but Nashville is definitely a city where I could spend some more time exploring!

Have you been to Nashville? What are your favorite things to do? Please let us know in the comments — we’ll be passing that way again in January!

 

My Birthday Week in Chattanooga

After an awesome time exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we headed south towards Chattanooga, Tennessee — the southernmost point on our itinerary. We arrived on a sleepy overcast Sunday afternoon, and set up shop at Harrison Bay State Park. Not wanting to waste an afternoon, we drove into downtown to poke around and give ourselves the walking tour. We expected everything to open and hopping — it was a balmy Sunday afternoon with no rain in the forecast — but the town was basically dead. We walked five blocks of downtown before we even saw another person!

After heading back towards the river, we stumbled upon this beautiful water feature cascading down towards the bank. This waterfall is called “The Passage,” and it marks the beginning of the Trail of Tears — the journey of the forced removal of the Cherokee people from Chattanooga to Oklahoma.

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The seven, six-foot ceramic disks on the wall tell the story of the Cherokee Nation from hundreds of years of Native American habitation in the southeast. And a ‘weeping wall’ represents the tears shed by the Cherokee as they were driven from their homes and around 4,000 of them died on the Trail of Tears. It was a beautiful and thoughtful monument to the Cherokee tribes!

After spending a while exploring the waterfront and the interesting parks surrounding the riverfront Tennessee Aquarium, we headed back to camp for a quiet evening. The next day though, it was adventure time: we were headed to Ruby Falls — an underground waterfall in a cave system inside of Lookout Mountain, which faces commands a tremendous view of Chattanooga.

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Rebecca had done all the research on this one, and she was quiet excited. As it turns out — her anticipation was well-placed. This place was SWEET. And not only that — they had UNDERGROUND WIFI. But not content to have the deepest underground wifi short of NORAD, they even got punny with the motto. “SmartCave: Connect on a Deeper Level.” **Cue rimshot**

We signed up for a tour, and were lucky to get one of the smallest tour groups of the day — about 10 of us with a very fast-moving tour guide …

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… so fast, in fact, that after asking us not to straggle behind the group, she promptly lost me as I tried to get pictures of the formations she was showing us. Eventually I stopped rushing and just went at my own pace. There was some cool stuff down there!

One of my favorites was the one shown in the picture below — the Niagara Falls formation. Rebecca and I had just visited Niagara Falls in June for our anniversary, and and it was neat how much the formation looked just like the falls!

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We saw a number of other formations, including the “tobacco leaves.” Unlike Carlsbad Caverns and Mammoth Cave, which are both owned by the NPS, Ruby Falls is privately owned and operated, and they have no issues using colored lights to jazz up the caves. Personally, I feel like it made the amazing landscape even more dreamlike and otherworldly, and we enjoyed the theatrics.

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Nothing, however, came even close to matching the grandeur and magnificence of Ruby Falls itself. Towering at 145 feet tall, this is the tallest subterranean waterfall in America, and it was awesome.

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Here the lights and sounds had been put to work again. When you enter the chamber, it is completely dark. The music starts, and the lighting slowly comes on around you as the music builds. As it reaches its crescendo, the falls are suddenly illuminated, and it is nothing short of stunning. (And with the underground wifi, you can Instagram it immediately!) You get about 15 minutes to enjoy the falls and take pictures, and we enjoyed every minute.

We emerged blinking into a beautiful sunny afternoon, and decided to drive up to the top of the mountain to explore the views. At the very crown of the mountain, we found Point Park, guarded by a beautiful castle gateway.

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Point Park is part of the Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, managed by the national park service. Chickamauga & Chattanooga NMP is a sprawling park site encompassing at least four different sites (we’re still not totally sure!) — and this was the first time we felt let down by a national park website. There was no clear list of the sites, or what to do there, although this map was the best resource we could find.

Anyway, Rebecca actually discovered Point Park online when researching Ruby Falls and its sister attraction, Rock City. Rock City is famous for its beautiful “Lover’s Leap” waterfall, and its panoramic “See 7 States” view. But at $20/ticket, it seemed a little pricey for a view. During her online research, Rebecca discovered a mention on Trip Advisor about Point Park, which several locals recommended as having views just as good as Rock City — without the crowds and pricey admission. We decided to give it a try, and simultaneously check a national park off our list.

There was a $5 fee to enter (or free with your America the Beautiful national park pass!), payable on the honor system at a kiosk inside the gates. Unfortunately since we arrived after hours, the little visitor’s center across the street was closed — so no passport stamp for us. We headed into the park to explore  — and we certainly found the views we’d hoped for!

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This was a historically significant spot, as it was a military dream, controlling the river and overlooking the city. After the Civil War, it had also helped start the tourism industry in Chattanooga, as painters would bring their subjects to the point and paint or sketch them.

The highway Rebecca and I have driven for years to visit my family in Louisiana runs right alongside the river, and it was fun to marvel at how many amazing things we had been driving right past for years, completely unwittingly.

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One more recommendation on visiting Point Park. Inside the park is a 2 mile round trip hike to Sunset Rock, which is apparently a perfect spot to — you guessed it — catch the sunset. We got there too early (and too hungry) to wait for sunset, but I’d definitely love to check it out in the future! The only caveat is that the park technically closes at sunset, so you have to hustle back to your car to leave before the park rangers show up.

The next day was a special day for me — my birthday! I spent a sunny morning relaxing and enjoying Rebecca’s apple cinnamon pancakes. She had a few work items to take care of, but once that was finished, we headed into town to celebrate the day with some indoor climbing at High Point Climbing Gym!  Rebecca isn’t much for heights, but after some birthday pleading, she agreed to give it a try with me.

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I had done some climbing in high school, but not since. I was excited to see if I was in any kind of shape — rafting and climbing work very different muscle groups!

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High Point was an awesome facility, and if we lived nearby, they would definitely be my gym. They had a ton of walls (including some outdoors), areas for bouldering, and they offered yoga classes and childcare! High Point even had a traditional weights gym available as part of your membership or day pass! We had a fantastic time, and would definitely go back.

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We capped off the day with dinner at the Big River Grille and Brewing Works across the street from High Point, and headed back to the campground. Thanks Chattanooga for a great birthday!

If you’re interested in more of Chattanooga, we’ d highly recommend checking out the Chattanooga Visitor’s Bureau suggested itineraries. They’ve got recommendations for everything from week long family vacations to weekend girls’ getaways. We know one thing: we only scratched the surface of everything Chattanooga has to offer! Tell us in the comments: what’s your Chattanooga must do/see/eat?

They Say “OKC-ing Is Believing” … (Days 35-36)

One way our Southwest Adventure ended up being very different from our last big road trip was overnight accommodations. During our fall 2015 trip we ended up staying in hotels 14 out of 42 nights — one third of the trip! This time around, mostly due to our upgraded car camping setup, we hadn’t felt the need to reserve a single hotel room.

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Home sweet home!

But all good things must end, and after five weeks on the road, we were tired. Ryan had also been battling some pretty killer allergies throughout New Mexico and Arizona, and we were pretty sure that the car was full of the juniper that was leaving him with red, swollen eyes and sleepless nights. After a long driving day from Los Alamos to Oklahoma City, we turned to Priceline Express Deals and snagged a pretty good rate on a comfortable hotel room.

In fact, we were so comfortable we ended up just staying in the hotel room all day, sleeping, popping Claritin and watching TV. We reserved the room for another night and the following day were off to explore Oklahoma City.

Our first stop was Bricktown, a former warehouse district now full of restaurants, shopping, and other entertainment options. I loved this mural with postcard-like scenes from Oklahoma City’s history!

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It was a lovely day out so we spent some time following the river walk, which felt like a much smaller and quieter version of the San Antonio river walk I’d so loved.

OKC Riverwalk 1 Our Streamlined Life

The river walk was lined with shops and restaurants, and the trees were just beginning to bloom.

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At the very end of the river walk was this mosaic mural, depicting a sunrise, a buffalo, a redbud tree, and the names of Oklahoma’s 77 counties. The mural is cleverly designed so it looks like water is pouring from the buckets of three Native American women into the river walk.

OKC Riverwalk 3 Our Streamlined Life

It was pretty early in the day, and the river walk was very quiet. I’d imagine in the evening and on weekends it becomes much more lively.

We had one more stop to make before leaving OKC: the Oklahoma City National Memorial.

OKC Bombing Memorial Our Streamlined Life

This memorial stands at the site of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. It is a beautiful and thoughtfully-designed memorial, and very sobering. If you’re planning a visit, I’d highly recommend reading the Wikipedia article first, to learn more about the symbolic elements represented at the memorial. Every piece of the design, from the “Gates of Time” at either end of the memorial, to the “Field of Empty Chairs,” has some deeper meaning.

We only spent a few hours exploring Oklahoma City, but I’m sure there’s lots more we could have done. We’d just reached what I call our “road trip breaking point” — that moment when we’re just ready to be off the road and back in our own bed. Does anyone have any recommendations for OKC, in case we ever go back that way?

A Petrified Forest in the Painted Desert (Day 31)

The Petrified Forest National Park in the Painted Desert is totally alien landscape that, if I’d never seen it for myself, I would never have imagined existing in the United States. And yet, in northeast Arizona there are 109,000 acres of land that look like this:

Petrified Forest 3 Our Streamlined Life

I knew very little about the Petrified Forest before we stopped there while traveling from Sedona, Arizona to Santa Fe, New Mexico. But I’m so glad we took the time to see it. It’s an easy-to-get-to stop off I-40, and can be explored in a few hours!

Since we were traveling east on I-40, we took the NPS recommendation and started at the south entrance of the park. We then traveled north through the park and picked up I-40 a little further east. (Westbound? Use the north entrance.) This map shows the layout of the park, which lies both north and south of I-40.

We stuck with our tried-and-true park exploration process, and headed straight to the Rainbow Forest Museum and Visitor Center near the south entrance of the park. The visitor’s center had some great geological exhibits that explained how the petrified forests were formed, a nice little gift shop where we picked up another set of postcards for family (something we’d been trying to do at every park we visited this trip), and of course, a fascinating video that  gave us a great overview of what we were about to see.

We started our exploration right out the visitor’s center’s back door on the Giant Logs Trail, which showcased some of the biggest and best samples of petrified wood in the entire park — including “Old Faithful,” which is almost ten feet wide at the base!

Petrified Forest Collage

It was super windy that day, so after a short hike around the trail, we quickly returned to the car for a driving tour. Petrified Forest National Park is quite large, and the easiest way to see the park is by car. The scenic 28-mile road running from one end of the park to the other is an excellent way to experience the park’s highlights. The park map highlights many scenic overlooks and other points of interest that you can stop at on the way.And let me tell you, the views were spectacular.

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We drove past a number of stunning vistas and overlooks, no two the same, and some simply showcasing the natural beauty of the Painted Desert. Newspaper Rock is an archeological site that is actually neither a newspaper nor a single rock. It’s a high concentration of petroglyphs — over 650 petroglyphs covering a group of rock faces within a small area. The petroglyphs were created by ancestral Puebloan people living along the Puerco River between 650 and 2,000 years ago. You can’t walk down to the rocks, but there is a catwalk and overlook for viewing, and free spotting scopes to get a closer look. Hard to get good pictures of without a great zoom lens, but really fascinating!

Eventually we ended up at one of the highlights of Petrified Forest National Park: the Agate Bridge. This natural stone bridge is a pretty cool stop just off the road. While visitor center photos show Victorians merrily walking across it, you’re no longer allowed to cross the bridge, despite the concrete reinforcement you can see in the photo below.

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If you walk to the end of the bridge, you can see a cross-section of the tree, and the vibrant colors formed over the years. 2016-03-12 13.07.48

We absolutely loved Petrified Forest National Park, and are excited to go back (hopefully when it’s less cold and windy!) to do some hiking, exploring, and maybe even some backpacking! PFNP really offers a variety of experiences, from a 2 hour quick tour, to days of up-close exploring and sight-seeing.

Have you been there? What was your experience? We’d love to hear in the comments!

Petrified Forest National Park “Extras”

  • Backcountry camping. Petrified Forest doesn’t have any developed campgrounds, but you can get a (free!) backcountry camping permit to hike into the park. It seems like such a cool, eerie place to spend a night!
  • Listen to Criminal‘s Triassic Park episode. If you’re planning on visiting the Petrified Forest, I’d highly recommend this podcast episode. It’s short — just about 20 minutes long — but it’s a super interesting behind the scenes look at the “problem” of petrified wood being stolen from the park. (If you listen to the episode you’ll learn why I put “problem” in quotes.)