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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?

Discovering Great Smoky Mountains National Park

We were fortunate enough to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park just weeks before the park closed due to the deadly fires that have claimed several lives. We feel so lucky to have seen the Smokies before they were devastated by these fires — which, tragically, were caused by a man-made fire on the Chimney Tops trail. As we write this, many park facilities, roads, and trails remain closed — and we’re so sad to think about those idyllic woods and mountains being charred and destroyed. If you’re one of the millions of people who have visited and loved Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we encourage you to donate to relief efforts through Friends of the Smokies.

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Before we’d visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we’d heard the stats: It’s the most visited national park by a pretty sizeable amount. What we hadn’t heard was why that was the case. And that made for some pretty amazing discoveries when we arrived!

We’re both East Coast kids who have traveled and explored up and down the east coast our whole lives, and we thought we’d pretty much seen it all. Boy, were we wrong. We found gorgeous, lush woods, with species of flora and fauna not found anywhere else. We found mountains taller and more beautiful than any others in the East — I had no idea we had mountains that gorgeous! And we found a well-organized park with beautiful drives, campgrounds, and views, and cheerful, knowledgeable rangers.

We ended up staying outside the park, at a very nice KOA in Pigeon Forge. It was a bit more RV-parky than we usually stay in, but none of the open campgrounds in the park had full hookups or showers, so we ended up there, and they had tremendous amenities.

As we normally do, we decided to start exploring by vehicle. Per usual, we headed straight to one of the visitor centers to get the lay of the land. We took the parkway south from Pigeon Forge, going through Gatlinburg on our way to Sugarlands Visitor Center. It was one of the biggest and nicest NPS visitor centers we’ve visited, with a tremendous wildlife exhibit that we enjoyed, and an excellent video about the park. We grabbed some maps, a sticker for our cartop carrier, and hit the road.

We hadn’t hit the road until the afternoon, so we didn’t go far, but we followed the Little River Road down to Route 73, and looped north on 321 back towards Pigeon Forge. It was almost dark, and we hadn’t done a Wal-Mart run in a while, so we splurged on some TGI Fridays for dinner.

I'll Bring the Beers
They had Sam Adams Octoberfest on tap!

The next day, we hit the road again, ready to explore. We headed back through Gatlinburg, then hit the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which is one-way, partially dirt and gravel road, and closes in the winter. It was a gorgeous drive through the woods, slowly working our way up into the foothills, around deep ravines, and over streams.

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We saw several old homesteads and farms, and stopped at a number of beautiful overlooks, taking pictures and enjoying the muh cooler weather in the mountains. It’d been climbing into the 90s when we left Gatlinburg, but it was in the low 70s up in the mountains, and at one point, got as cold as 50 degrees! I was in heaven.

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After we finished the loop, we headed over to Newfound Gap road, and headed toward Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park. On the way, we found an overlook with a beautiful plaque where we learned something new — John D. Rockefeller had actually paid for fully half of the creation of the park! Not only that, it’d done it in honor and memory of his wife Laura. What a way to remember someone!

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We continued on towards Clingmans Dome, constantly climbing as we drove. The views became more and more vast and breathtaking with every turn.

Great Smoky Mountains

Finally, we reached the parking lot, and headed up the short trail. While somewhat steep, it was very smoothly paved, and we joined people of all ages, from children to grandparents, working their way up to the overlook. It was a gorgeous clear day on this side of the mountain, but as we neared the top …

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Fog began pouring over the mountaintop, and the trail led straight into it!

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Kinda creepy, right?

It turned out the ridge of the mountain was separating a bright and sunny day from a dark and cloudy one, and the overlook tower was right on the border! It made for some awesome pictures.

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We hiked up to the top of the tower, enjoying the nearly-panoramic views, and reading the displays about the different mountains in the distance. After a quick hike back down (in which I realized I missed my roller blades for the first time since high school), we continued our drive south, checking out the town of Cherokee, and then jumping on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Smoky Mountain Views

My hope was to have time to drive Balsam Mountain Road, a dirt and gravel loop through the mountains that promised great views, but when we arrived, we only had about 90 minutes of sunset left — and about four hours of backcountry driving. Not willing to risk getting stuck in the mountains overnight unprepared, we sadly turned around and headed back to Pigeon Forge. Next time you’re mine, Balsam Mountain Road!

The next day was planned to be our last day in the park before moving on, so we decided to take another recommended drive — this one to Cades Cove on the west side of the park. A number of friends, both personal and online, had told us we HAD to make it there, and it was every bit as lovely as promised.

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We saw a number of rural churches (some still in operation!) and farmhouses, and were able to get out and visit a few as well. We enjoyed some tremendous vistas, many of which reminded me (as a huge Lord of the Rings fan) of where the fields of Rohan back up to Fanghorn forest in Peter Jackson’s movies. Nerd or not, the scenery was gorgeous. There was quite a bit of wildlife, as well — we saw both deer and elk.

After spending a few hours slowly touring the loop, we headed back towards Pigeon Forge, stopping off to visit the Sinks, a waterfall that runs directly under Little River Road. The falls, while small, were quite pretty, and we enjoyed lounging in the sun for a while.

The Sinks Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It seemed like an ideal time for a selfie.

The Sinks Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Back on the road, we got to see some more wildlife — a full-grown black bear was hanging out right on the side of the road! Rebecca especially loves bears, and was very happy to see one.

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We left the next morning, having loved our visit, and rather sad we hadn’t had time to do more hiking and exploring. But that just means next time we go, there will be plenty to do!

Have you been to the Smokies? What did you love? Did you have any favorites? Let us know in the comments!

Planning is Half the Fun: September 2016

As I write this, we’ve been parked in Virginia for over three months — and 100% feeling the itch to get back on the road! Because planning is half the fun, I’ve been spending plenty of time with my nose in travel brochures, figuring out where we’re going to stay, eat, and play in September.

Headed For Appalachia | Our Streamlined Life

This trip is going to look a little different than some of our past adventures. Instead of a more traditional road trip, this one is all about whitewater! Our travels will center around Gauley Season; we’ll be spending at least three of these six weekends hitting the river. In between we’ll be roaming West Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

Last time we posted an overview/planning post like this, we got some terrific suggestions from you guys here and on Instagram.  So I’m counting on you to come through for us again. Comment, email, Instagram us … we’d love suggestions on camping, hiking, eating, and drinking!

On more note — it’s as yet TBD if we’ll be taking the camper or once again hitting the road with just the Tahoe and a prayer. Is it weird that after three months of all the creature comforts of our turtle house, I’m kind of longing for the simplicity of car camping? Ryan seems less convinced, but I’ll work on that 😉

Week 1 (September 5 – 11)

  • Because we have a gap between the end of our Maine camping reservation (August 27) and our first day of rafting (September 10), I’m not sure exactly when we’ll head towards West Virginia. But my first planned stop is Charleston, West Virginia — the capital city priding itself on “small town charm and a progressive attitude.”
  • I have my eye on camping in the Kanawha State Forest just outside the city. On the food front, I’d love to check out MoxxeeBluegrass Kitchen, and Taylor Books Café.
  • Because I love spooky stuff, I’m dying to check out the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum north of the city. Their tours look creepy and amazing.
  • By the weekend, we’ll be headed to Fayetteville! We have camping and rafting reservations at Cantrell Ultimate Rafting and are ready for a weekend of crazy water! Ryan has rafted the Gauley River before, but it will be my first time; we’ll be doing the Upper Gauley one day and the Lower Gauley or the New River the next. This is the only river trip with set dates, as we’ll also be joined by Ryan’s world-travelling cousin Barry!

Week 2 (September 12 – 18)

Week 3 (September 19- 25)

  • The next planned stop is a little further — I’m still dying to get to Asheville, North Carolina. It’s about four hours from Fayetteville … unless you take the scenic route and make a stop at the Hatfield & McCoy Moonshine Distillery — which, let’s be real, sounds totally worth the extra two hours.
  • I have my eye on a bunch of campgrounds in the Asheville area, from the Mount Pisgah Campground (a NPS campground off the Blue Ridge Parkway) to the Twin Falls Resort State Park to the Lake Powhatan Recreation Area.
  • I’ve heard the food in Asheville is amazing, but I haven’t scoped out anything specific yet. I do know we’ll go the Biltmore and I can’t wait to visit Battery Park Book Exchange.
  • Depending when Ryan’s next weekend back on the Gauley happens, we may be returning to Fayetteville from Asheville. If so, I’d love to take the scenic route, traveling up the Blue Ridge Parkway (great suggestion, Cat!).

Week 4 (September 26 – October 2)

  • Our next destination is Knoxville, Tennessee. I’m excited to visit, and I’ve heard that #KNOXROCKS, but I don’t have any specifics planned out yet. Apparently they have a brand new ale trail and 4,500 acres of green and open spaces, so I’m sure we’ll manage 😉 I’ll be contacting Visit Knoxville soon to get some suggestions.
  • I’m looking at camping at Panther Creek State Park and the Knoxville KOA.

Week 5 (October 3 – October 9)

  • It didn’t make my 2016 National Parks Wish List, but I’m still dying to check out Great Smoky Mountains National Park — so that’s where we’re headed next, either two hours from Asheville or four hours from Fayetteville.
  • I definitely want to camp in the park and I’m in desperate need of some hiking suggestions! Rainbow Falls and Charlies Bunion both look like great options — and maybe we’ll even do a little backpacking!

Week 6 (October 10 – October 16)

  • The western- and southernmost point of our trip will be Chattanooga, Tennessee, another city I’ve been wanting to get to for a while. I’ve heard it’s beautiful and outdoorsy and I can’t wait to check out their 13-mile riverwalk and get in some history.
  • For camping, I’m looking at Harrison Bay State Park. It’s about 25 minutes from downtown and looks super pretty.
  • Before we head to New England, I’d love to finish off our trip with my first half marathon since last September: the Four Bridges Half Marathon, through downtown and across the river.

Ready to Hit the Road | Our Streamlined Life

So: Where should we go? What can’t we miss in West Virginia, North Carolina, and Tennesee? And if you live on our route … can we camp in your yard? 😉