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)!

OSL Hits the Bourbon Trail!

Having finished up our exploration of Mammoth Caves, we continued on north, to the land of bourbon! Our plan was to explore Louisville and Lexington, and visit as many distilleries as we reasonably could in three days.

We ended up staying just over the Indiana border at Charlestown State Park, and we LOVED it. It was huge, peaceful, right on the river, and the bathrooms were some of the nicest we’ve encountered. The sites were surprisingly private, the people were nice, and we just found the whole place very relaxing. There are quite a few trails, picnic areas, and even a boat launch! This would be a really fun place to stay for a week or two at a time — you’d barely have the leave the park!

Buuuut if you wanted to get out and poke around, it was less than half an hour to downtown Louisville — and that’s where we started our journey down the Bourbon Trail.  A bit of background: I love bourbon. I have a number of favorites that I drink regularly, and I was beyond excited to see where it was all made. However, Rebecca has not historically been a bourbon drinker, generally shying away from brown liquors. However, right before we got to Louisville, she had asked to try one of my favorite bourbons, Basil Hayden — and she loved it!

Obviously I was super excited to try to find some other bourbons we could enjoy together! We decided to kick off our visit to Bourbon Country with a trip to the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience, which had tremendous reviews online, and was right in downtown.

And let me tell you, the reviews did NOT exaggerate. It was an awesome and very interactive tour. They had lights and displays and recreations — it was all very dramatic and very well done! The basic idea was that they showed you how bourbon was originally made in the 1700s, and progressed you through the advances in both science and public policy over the past hundred or so years.

At the end, they took us into a 1960s themed bar, where we tasted the Evan Williams Black, the Evan Williams Single Barrel (which Rebecca really loved), and the Evan Williams 1783.

After enjoying that tour, we walked down to the waterfront to enjoy the sunshine. It was a beautiful day, and Louisville is a beautiful city!

We then meandered over to the Jim Beam Urban Stillhouse, a store and tasting room also right in downtown. There we did another tasting, and I found out that the Jim Beam brand owns some of my favorite bourbons, including Basil Hayden! Among others, I was able to taste a very strong bourbon I’d never had before, Bookers,which I enjoyed tremendously.

The next day, we headed for a new campground, and on the way, visited two new distilleries: Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey. This was a very different experience from the downtown tasting rooms: as soon as we got out of the car at Buffalo Trace, the air was completely saturated with the smell of bourbon. It was awesome. Buffalo Trace had beautiful grounds (as did all of the distilleries we ended up visiting), and they had a great tour and tasting.

Say hello to Thunder, the Buffalo Trace mascot!

I also discovered that Buffalo Trace owned many of my all-time favorite bourbons, including Blanton’s (often seen in the show Justified, which you should definitely watch before visiting Kentucky), and my favorite daily bourbon, Eagle Rare.

Ohhhhh yeah.

After that tour was over, we moved on to the next stop on our way to the campground: Wild Turkey. I was excited for this one for a few reasons. 1) Wild Turkey Rare Breed is one of my favorite bourbons; 2) we only drink it at Thanksgiving; and 3) Thanksgiving was coming up in a few weeks! I was ready to get in the turkey-day mood early.

Another bonus tip for Buffalo Trace and Wild Turkey — they have plenty of room to park your camper! We rarely take the camper to tours and such, but we had it with us this day, and it totally wasn’t an issue. The tour was great, the staff was really nice, and they had a gorgeous rustic tasting room that we went to at the end of our tour for our tasting. The view was even tremendous:

After we finished there, we headed on to our campground: Camp on the Kentucky. And guys, I don’t like to write negatively on here — generally if we don’t like something, we just don’t mention it. BUT, since one of you may use this post as a guide for your own Bourbon Belt trip, I’m gonna go ahead and say it: Do yourself a favor and find another campground. The roads there are very narrow and super windy, which isn’t fun for towing, it’s way out of the way, there’s no cell service, the place is kind of run down and vaguely creepy, the people weren’t tremendously helpful or friendly, the bathrooms are pretty nasty … just don’t do it.

However, they DID have a super late check out time (3:00pm!), which we took full advantage of. The next morning we left the camper at the campground and headed off to round out our trip by hitting two more distilleries: Woodford Reserve, and Four Roses.

When we arrived at Woodford, we were immediately impressed by how gorgeous it is. The grounds were carefully planned and manicured, and the buildings were very rustic and elegant. It reminded us both of the small Virginia town of Middleburg where we used to live — it’s a very monied horse town with a carefully cultivated rustic charm.

Anyway, our tour guide Rob was fantastic — actually my favorite of our six Bourbon Trail guides — and the tour was great. At this point, a lot of it was review from our previous tours, but he still made it very interesting, and we still felt like we learned.

Finally came the fun part: the tasting! This was probably my favorite tasting, and it was definitely Rebecca’s favorite. We first tried the Woodford Reserve, a wonderful, very full and smooth bourbon. Then we tried Rebecca’s new favorite drink: the Woodford Double-Oaked. It was created to be a sort of dessert bourbon, so it is richer and sweeter, almost like a port. Even better, it was paired with pecan-topped chocolate-dipped bourbon balls, which were absolutely heavenly.

Once we were done, we headed over to Four Roses — but honestly, we probably just should have stopped. We were kinda bourbon-ed out, the tours were giving us mostly the same info, and we were really just ready to move along. So honestly, I don’t feel like we can give you a really honest perspective of Four Roses, although we weren’t wowed. The whole place was under construction, it was difficult to hear the tour, and like I said, we just weren’t into it, through mostly no fault of theirs.

We returned to our campground, grabbed the camper, and continued east to our final Kentucky destination — Fort Boonesborough State Park outside Lexington. This park ended up being a huge treat and special surprise for me. When I was young, we had a really cool book about Daniel Boone, and I was super into it. I had a fake coonskin cap, and a fake black powder rifle, and one year my mom even made me and my brother these great faux-calfskin frontiersman outfits. I devoured books about Daniel Boone’s adventures, and ran around the woods. It was awesome.

Anyway, Rebecca found and booked this campground, and while I figured it was named after the old fort, what I DIDN’T realize was that there was an actual recreation of the old fort! And as it turns out, it looked EXACTLY like the one in the book I’d had as a kid! I was beyond excited. I remembered the Siege of Boonesborough very clearly, and when we drove up, I walked Rebecca through the whole thing. Believe me, it was scintillating. My mom, who homeschooled my brothers and I, was so proud.

And even better, the campground itself was really nice — and was in full swing of hosting a massive camper shindig for Halloween! Everyone had their sites WILDLY decked out with all kinds of creative Halloween stuff. It was a lot of fun.

This is one of the tamer examples.

The campground even had clean, on-site laundry facilities within view of our campsite! (Our fellow full-timers know what a big deal that is. :-)) We spent a very pleasant night there; the next morning, we toured the fort, and then started back toward the Gauley River for Bridge Day Weekend to wrap up our trip!


Underground Exploration in Mammoth Cave National Park

Before our trip, whenever people would ask where we were headed on our Appalachian Adventure, Ryan would say: “We’ll be spending time in West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky.” Then I’d glare and say, “HONEY, we’re not going to Kentucky.” And yet … we ended up in Kentucky.

Welcome To Kentucky

I guess I just didn’t think we had time to do it justice — but when we ended up trimming a few Gauley weekends from the schedule, we suddenly had a week or so to kill. So to Kentucky we headed — and it ended up being one of the best decisions of our trip.

In the dead center of the state was Mammoth Cave National Park — our first destination in Kentucky.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but most of the park was quiet and wooded, with rolling treed hills and almost a dreamy quality.

Mammoth Cave National Park Woods

The dreaminess quickly ended when we locked our keys in the car. Fortunately a sassy-yet-helpful ranger was kind enough to lend us a coat hanger, and Ryan put his cat burglar skills to work in the parking lot. It’s a good thing he was able to rescue them, because we had absolutely no cell service to call AAA with!

Womp Womp

Crisis averted, we headed inside to explore the visitor’s center. Well … sort of. It turns out visiting Mammoth Cave takes a little more planning ahead than we were used to; unlike at Carlsbad Caverns, where self-guided tours were standard, the majority of Mammoth Cave’s tours require a tour guide and reservations. And … it was spring break. The park was packed. When we arrived, the tours we were interested in were all sold out. Instead, we took a short jaunt down to the one cave that was open for self-guided tours, just to whet our appetites.

We also checked out the visitor’s center at Mammoth Cave, and it was really cool. We loved this cross-section model of one of the larger caves …

Mammoth Cave Visitors Center

As well as this relief “sculpture” of the cave system. (Mammoth Cave is the world’s longest known cave system, with more than 400 miles explored!)

Mammoth Cave Model

And I loved this Find Your Park poster emphasizing the park’s history.  In 1838, the cave was purchased by Franklin Gorin, who intended to operate Mammoth Cave as a tourist attraction. Gorin used his African-American slaves as tour guides — and one of them, Stephen Bishop, would become one of Mammoth Cave’s most celebrated historical figures. Stephen was one of the first people to make extensive maps of the cave, and named many of the cave’s features.

Mammoth Cave Retro Poster

Stephen was very respected by Gorin, who described Stephen after his death as “the celebrated and great Stephen … a self-educated man [with] a fine genius, a great fund of wit and humor, some little knowledge of Latin and Greek, and much knowledge of geology, but his great talent was a knowledge of man.” Despite his contributions to the cave, Stephen lived most of his life as a slave, although Gorin freed him just a year before his death in 1857.

Mammoth Cave was an interesting contrast to Carlsbad Caverns because while Mammoth is the longest known cave system in the world, it is not nearly as deep as Carlsbad. The entrance to Mammoth felt very shallow compared to the 750-foot trail of Carlsbad’s Natural Entrance.

The interior of the cave looked totally different from Carlsbad, too! The caves were very rocky, and there were fewer formations than we saw at Carlsbad.

One of the cool things about Mammoth Cave was the wide variety of cave tours offered. We did the Domes & Dripstones tour and it was excellent. We would have loved to do the River Styx tour, as well, but there were only a few tour times offered and none while we were in town.

Mammoth Cave National Park was definitely a park where planning ahead would have served us well. You guys know we love to wing it but between the limited tour times and crowds due to spring break, this one needed a little more foresight. (We also didn’t camp in the park because it was super unclear if there were showers and restrooms available — we stayed at the solidly meh Horse Cave KOA campground — but when we took a spin through the park , it looked like there were facilities. It would have been wonderful to stay right in the park — next time!)

We had one more experience in central Kentucky: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park. Unfortunately, this ended up being another poorly planned excursion on our part. First fail: While the NHP is only a 40 minute drive from Mammoth Cave … it’s in another time zone. Yeah. Second fail: the park’s website lists its hours as 8am-4:30pm … buuuuuut the buildings all actually close at 4:00. So, we showed up at what we thought was 3:00pm, which was actually 4:00pm, still thought we had half an hour to zip through the buildings, but they were all closed.

Fortunately, a kind park ranger saw the desperation in my eyes and went into the closed visitor’s center and stamped my passport for me. And we did take a quick tour around the grounds, which were super beautiful — so it wasn’t a total loss! We would have loved to take in the visitor’s center, and check out the “symbolic birth cabin” — turns out the one in the mausoleum above isn’t the real Lincoln birth cabin, as they thought when it was constructed — but hopefully you can learn from our mistakes.

Despite a few setbacks, we loved our first foray into Kentucky! Has anyone else made the same mistakes we did? And is there anything else in the area you’d like to recommend to our readers?