One of the benefits to moving, is having an entire new state’s worth of new trails and campgrounds to explore. After Billy finished his first week at his new store he ended up with Sunday and Monday off, so we decided to escape the humidity of Chattanooga and travel up to South Cumberland State Park to camp for a couple of nights at Foster Falls Campground.
I chose Foster Falls due in part due its proximity to Chattanooga, in part for its elevation (at over 1700 feet I knew the temperatures would be better than they were at home), and in part because it was in a book my mom had on Tennessee camping. Like most campgrounds now, you have to reserve your site in advance, though I did call ahead and found out that you can at least get there and drive through, then choose a site and reserve it on your phone (if you get cell signal), provided the dates you want are all available. Unfortunately there is a $5 reservation fee attached to your first night that is unavoidable, so be prepared to add that to your budget.
The campground itself was…underwhelming. I wanted to like it. The sites are very spacious, and very flat; some have gravel tent pads while others are mostly dirt, but I don’t think I saw a single site that would not fit our 6 person tent. My mom ended up able to join us, and we could fit two 6 person tents at our site (site 8), while still keeping both of them away from grass or saplings. There was also plenty of firewood; bundles are available for purchase in town about 5 miles from the campground, and there were plenty of logs from felled trees laying around. The scenery was also quite lovely. As is common in looped campgrounds, the middle sites are more open and grassy, while the sites on the outer side of the loop are wooded and often separated from each other by underbrush. We were on the western side of the loop, and both nights we had the most beautiful golden light streaming in through the trees directly onto our site. The picnic tables are large and are on concrete blocks, and the fire rings are large but shallow, making it easy to cook over a campfire.
I had three complaints, however, which made it hard for me to say this is a place we are likely to come back to, except as a base if we ever want to hike the Fiery Gizzard Trail. The first two are noise related–a rooster lives near the campground, who crowed. And crowed. And kept crowing. He started sometime in the pre-dawn hours and kept going for most of the day. If you’ve never been around roosters this might sound like a cool experience, but if you have, you know how annoying they actually are. This is no fault of the campground, and became a joke by the end, but if you have little ones who are easily distracted or light sleepers, it could definitely be an issue. The second issue, is how loud the sound of traffic was. While the campground is not super remote, it’s far enough from the interstate that traffic seemed an unlikely disturbance–but it’s right off of US-41, and apparently there are more heavy vehicles on that road at night that we predicted.
My last complaint though is the biggest, and that was the overall cleanliness of the campground. I had read in advance that the bathroom was home to a lot of creepy-crawlies, which didn’t deter me. It’s camping, it’s the woods, I expect to see spiders and bugs in the bathhouses. What stuck out to me was how much human trash was everywhere. The place had obviously been highly occupied over the weekend, and it was evident in the amount of beer cans, paper towels, and bits of plastic strewn into every site we walked past. On Monday, we walked past a site near the bathrooms that had been occupied Sunday night–and they had left their fire ring FULL of paper towels and banana peels. I reported it to a ranger (leaving the trash there as evidence), and I went to see if he had actually cleaned up, and he had only taken the paper, but not the banana peels. He also said, when I was reporting the trash, that there was no record of people in that site the previous night so they had camped illegally.
A park vehicle drove past AT LEAST twice from when those people arrived, and when they departed the next day. So to say there is minimal ranger presence here is an understatement. And while that is not always a bad thing, for such an accessible campground that draws in a lot of people who obviously are not following LNT principals, it creates a place that is not only unfair to other campers, but disrespectful and downright dangerous to the overall environment.
All that said–the hike down to Foster Falls was amazing. It’s a steep half mile descent to a swimming hole at the bottom of the 60′ waterfall. We did our hike early in the day so it was still a little chilly for swimming, but it meant we had the place to ourselves, and it was…it was magical. It was everything I love about hiking, camping, and spending time outdoors. There’s a feeling of insignificance you get when standing on a mountain peak, or, in this case, in a gulf at the bottom of a towering waterfall, that reminds you of just how strong our planet is, and just how huge our world is. It makes human problems feel manageable. Hiking with kids does not always take me to places where I get that sensation (or if it does, it’s overtaken by the constant not so close to the edge! admonitions), but even the kids seemed to understand the scope of where we were, and how awe-inspiring it was. There’s a viewpoint at the top of the falls, but it’s nothing compared to looking up at 180 degrees of sheer cliff face, and the sound of pounding water drowning out all the noise in your own head.
Overall family-friendly rating: 3.5/5. I want to give this a higher rating. It was so pretty, and we really did have an amazing time while we were there, but the trash–and the noise–makes it hard for me to be too positive. Very young children may find it hard to settle and go to sleep, and we found a lot of broken glass. If you want to combine your trip with a hike down the falls this would be a good place to stay (provided you get there early–as the day grew a lot of young adults journeyed to the falls–we even saw one person reckless enough to JUMP OFF THE TOP OF THE FALLS–which is a crowd that I would be hesitant to have my children around). However, if you are just looking for a quiet place to camp, this doesn’t entirely fit the bill.