Winter Adventures for Families — Camping is Not Just For Summer!

In my last post I talked about some of my favorite small businesses specializing in outdoor gear for kids. But what if you already have rainsuits and sunscreen towels, or would rather spend your money on experiences instead of things?

Winter is still a great time to get outside, and there are new experiences that benefit kids and parents alike. Whether you make one of these trips a gift, or plan something for the family to recover from the hustle-and-bustle of the holidays, there is so much fun to be had outdoors when it’s cold outside.

Tent Camping

Every winter I see pictures of people building tables and benches into the snow, bundled up and enjoying a great camping trip in spite of the cold. And every winter, I wonder what that would be like with kids. And while we have been camping with our kids when the overnight temperatures have gotten close to freezing, we haven’t quite made the jump to snow-camping yet. Although, I want to! Back in Virginia, there weren’t as many options for tent camping in the wintertime outside of the backcountry, as most of the campgrounds closed for the winter. Now that we are in Tennessee, there are some year round campgrounds at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as well as more backcountry options along the Cumberland Trail that don’t require a long walk. Further south, there are parks in places like Florida that are open year round as well, so depending on how far you want to travel, a winter camping trip could be the perfect way to have a winter family vacation on a budget, and escape the snow if you are seeing a little too much of it at home!

When planning a tent camping trip in the winter, your gear is obviously going to be more important than in the warmer months. Check out a couple of these resources on winter camping when making your packing list, and then get outside! My daughter has been asking to go camping every other day for the last month, so a tent camping trip will undoubtedly be in our future this winter.

Vacation Rentals

While most resorts and ski towns have plenty of condos and hotel rooms, those may be a little too close to the crowds if your goal is to spend time in nature. But wanting to escape the crowds doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t want easy access to activities like skiing, or visiting state and national parks. Whether you don’t have the winter gear for tent camping, or are trying to accommodate a large group of people with varying ideas of what “adventure” means, look to sites like vrbo.com or airbnb when planning your winter getaway! One of my fondest memories of time with my mom and sister was a trip to Wintergreen Resort in the Blue Ridge Mountains one January. We didn’t go anywhere near the slopes or resort itself, but enjoyed time spent in a small house nestled in the woods, walking to hiking trails and enjoying the quiet away from suburbia.

These rentals are also a great away to explore National Parks or Monuments outside of tourist season. And when traveling with children or large groups with varying needs, a rental home allows you to tailor your accommodations to exactly what works for your family.

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Sunrise outside the Pocosin Cabin in late November

Cabin Camping

Cabin camping is the “goldilocks” of winter camping for us. Finding a cabin isn’t usually difficult, and cabins come anywhere from fully equipped with electricity, a full kitchen, and television (such as in Tennessee State Parks), to primitive, with nothing more than a woodstove and bunk beds (such as the PATC cabins, stretching from Virginia to Pennsylvania).

Even in a primitive cabin, you have more shelter from the elements than you would tent camping–and more freedom to move around when you come in from a hike and want to stretch out! Both the Pocosin Cabin and Doyles River Cabin in Shenandoah National Park offer incredible views from a porch with an outdoor fireplace, where you can sit bundled up and soak in the stillness. Virginia State Parks have a nice balance between these two, by offering cabins with electricity, kitchens, and central heating, but without televisions or phones, so you can come in from a winter hike and thaw out, and still watch the snow fall outside, without ever having to get in the car.

 

And last but not least….

A Beach Trip! 

Okay but hear me out. Maybe this isn’t “outdoors” in the way that typically comes to mind when you picture winter adventure, but it is a new way to experience the outdoors, and can do so much for your mood if the bare trees are starting to get you down.

As mentioned above, there are some beach campgrounds that are open in the winter, but you could also look for RV parks if you have an RV/camper, or again, just find a vacation rental and book a trip. Billy and I LOVE the beach in winter. Sometimes I think I like it even better than the beach in summer. There is a peace that comes from listening to the crashing surf while bundled up and drinking a cup of coffee or hot cocoa, feeling the warmth from the sun despite the chill in the air, and watching the sand and waves without the crowds of people summertime brings. A long walk on the shoreline in hats and coats is as much a hike as trekking through the forest, and with a stretch of empty sand, it’s a great way for the kids to breathe in fresh air, and burn off energy by running as far as they can in a place where you can see where they are.

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Virginia Beach Oceanfront in January

Whatever your plans are this winter–make the cold weather part of them! The world is such a beautiful place. And while winter is still probably my favorite season to hike, it’s becoming one of my favorite seasons for overnight adventures as well. It takes more planning and preparation, but getting out–whether it’s to the beach or the mountains–gets you up close and personal with the change in seasons, gives you a change in your personal scenery, and offers some excitement to kids that makes the darker months that much more fun.

Gear Guide: Best Gifts for Outdoor Kids (and Families!)

In early 2017, we took our kids on a hike across the newly constructed T. Tyler Potterfield Memorial Bridge over the James River in Richmond. It started raining on our way back, and after more or less running to the car, Billy and I looked at each other and decided it was time to invest in better gear. If we wanted to get outside more during the cold months, we were going to have to find it in our budget to buy clothes that would keep us warm and still allow us to move comfortably. And that’s not a superfluous purchase; spending time outdoors in the wintertime is associated with better health and stronger immune systems, on top of being something we just flat out enjoy.

Outdoor and performance gear have hefty price tags, but in the end, you’re paying for something that lasts longer, and makes it easier to get out no matter the weather. Even on our tight budget, we plan for what we need so we can save to buy the right gear the first time, rather than having to replace something because it either didn’t suit our needs, didn’t last, or simply didn’t work. And while a lot of times off-brands are just as good as the big-names in outdoor gear, if you are looking to support smaller companies this year it can be hard to know where to start.

As a photographer for Hike It Baby, and a Ranger for The Dyrt, I have been exposed to a lot of great brands this year, and I’ve been even luckier that I’ve been able to test out a lot of this gear for free in exchange for reviews or photography. So just in time for the holiday gift-giving season, here are my top 5 gear recommendations of 2018 for outdoor families:

  1. Oakiwear Rain Suits. I cannot say enough good things about these suits. People love to throw out the buzzword “game-changer” but these suits really are. Their waterproofing is not an exaggeration. My kids have played in puddles up to their thighs, and come out of their suits with nothing but their socks wet. The one-piece nature of the suits mean you don’t have to worry about pants falling down, jackets riding up, or water splashing in at the waist. And they cinch down in three places–at the wrists, ankles, and an inner band at the waist to ensure a snug fit, which means you can buy 2-3 sizes over what your child is currently wearing. If the price intimidates you, just remember you’re buying a piece of gear that will last the next several years! Plus the wide range of jewel tones look SO CUTE, especially if you have several kids in their suits all playing together. And even if your family are more fair-weather-hikers, Oaki suits mean the kids can play outside to their hearts content on rainy days, and they zip well over warm layers for snow play, so you can send your kids outside and watch them play while you sip coffee from the warmth of your kitchen. 

  2. Sunday Afternoons Hats. This is a multi-age recommendation! We have a set of summer hats and winter hats for the whole family, and I love them for every season. This company has so many styles and designs it will be easy to match a hat to everyone on your gift list. We had the Kids Play Hats for summer for our kids, which even our two year old liked wearing (most of the time, at least). And I am one of the pickiest people I know as far as winter hats go–I have one hat that has been the only one I’ve liked for going on a decade now, so I was skeptical about how much I would wear a new winter hat. Well–I like this one. I have the Aurora Beanie in mixed purple, and it is so comfortable, and incredibly warm. Billy loves the sunglass holders built into his, and I think Kairi’s winter hat was custom-made for her; she put it on as soon as we opened the box, and wanted to sleep in it. 

  3. KidOrca Boots. A new company, these adorable boots have BUILT IN GAITERS. Remember how I said in the Oaki-suits, my kids socks were still wet? If you combine an Oakiwear suit with a pair of KidOrca boots, that won’t be the case–and I have tested this combination on a cold day on the river. They have a limited number of colors, but the over-the-knee gaiters cinch down, and can be worn over or under a rain suit/rain pants. These are admittedly a bit cumbersome for hikes, but if you are looking for something to wear on the playground, around the neighborhood, or in the backyard, where your kids will be doing more playing and puddle-jumping than actual walking, these are awesome.boots
  4. LuvBug Company. LuvBug, for us, solves a couple of problems we have frequently run into. The first: how to pack a towel when we know there’s going to be water play. Towels are heavy, bulky, and collect every stick and leaf you lay them down on. LuvBug’s Sunscreen Towels are the perfect solution to this: they are super lightweight, wicking, and quick-drying, and have 50+ UFP protection, so they make perfect coverups as well! LuvBug’s snack bags are just as useful: one thing that has ALWAYS bothered me about hiking is how many single-use plastic bags hikers use. My previous workarounds were reusable containers (which again, are heavy and bulky), or to just reuse Ziploc bags, which is hard if you have anything other than dry snacks in them. I have now used LuvBug’s snack bags for everything from sandwiches to fresh mozzarella cheese, to pre-mixed oatmeal for backpacking–and a DIY first aid kit! As with the towels, they are lightweight and easy to clean (machine washable!), and come in several adorable patterns. 

  5. VivoBarefoot Shoes. I didn’t realize that “barefoot” style (or zero-drop) shoes were popular until I got my pair of VivoBarefoots and had people start asking me about them! This is kind of a cheat item since I only have a pair for myself, not my kids, but as they make a variety of kids sizes, if you are looking for shoes for your littles, they are definitely worth checking out. When I first got mine (I have the Gobi 2.0’s) I was skeptical–the shaft of the boot felt really stiff, and as someone with extremely high arches I was not confident in how comfortable a shoe that mimicked being barefoot would be for me. As as far as being on them for long periods of time–they aren’t great. I’ve worn them on 2 mile hikes, and I’ve worn them on marathon errand-running days, and the errand-running days definitely left my feet sore and wishing for more support. But they were great for the trail–once I got used to being able to feel roots and rocks more clearly through my shoes! They are warm, comfortable, and that initial stiffness has gone away now that I’ve broken the shoes in. With all the research being published right now about the benefits of going barefoot, these shoes are a great solution for wintertime and indoor activities, in addition to little (and big) feet on the trail.

Bonus Stocking Stuffer! 

Wild Zora Meat Bars

Want a hiking-and-outdoor minded gift you can stick in a stocking and know it will get some use? Food. If your kids are anything like mine, snack time is their favorite part of any hike, and getting a special hiking snack will guarantee they want to get outside as soon as all the presents are opened. Healthy hiking snacks though…well, they aren’t always easy to come by unless you spend a lot of time trying to make your own. Wild Zora uses real meats and veggies in their bars, making it a snack that is high in protein and vitamins, low in carbs and processed ingredients, and has an almost melt-in-your-mouth texture. I have only had the BBQ Beef flavor so far, but am planning on trying out some of the others because I was so impressed.

With these recommendations, click on those links and start ordering! While I was able to get a lot of these products free, there is nothing on this list I would not be willing to pay full price for–I am actually planning on Wild Zora bars in everyone’s stocking this year, and will likely buy a new LuvBug towel next year so both of my kids can have their own. If you have outdoorsy kids or adults to buy for this year, make sure at least one of the above companies is on your list!

Trail Review: Soddy Creek Gorge South (Cumberland Trail Segment)

I’ve gotten more ambitious in our hiking distances. Kairi being old enough to walk 4-5 miles on her own, inspiration from other Hike It Baby families, and a desire to hike as much of Chattanooga as I can are mostly to blame for this. These factors have all combined so when I am planing a “family hike” day, I look for trails at least three miles in length.

Since our plans to backpack on the Cumberland Trail keep getting foiled somehow or another, a couple weeks ago we planned to do a longer day hike to try and make up for lost time in the woods. Our winter hats from Sunday Afternoons came in while I was in Virginia, and Billy and the kids had just gotten their brand new Merrells in the mail, and I was itching to get out and take some pictures of our new gear while there was still plenty of color on the trees.

The nice thing about the Cumberland Trail, is that it isn’t hard to find long trails that aren’t too difficult. On the flip side though–a lot of these segments are too long, even with my new ambitions. 11 and 12 mile stretches just won’t work with our kids, and while it’s easy to plan an out-and-back to waterfalls in this area, the weather was cool enough we didn’t want our family hike day to be cut short by a soaked toddler.

We settled on the southern stretch of the Soddy Creek Gorge segment. It isn’t far from home, and at 4.9 miles one way and only 450′ elevation gain, if we left a car at each trailhead it was more than doable for us. Based on the descriptions we read it seemed to have enough interesting points along it to keep the kids engaged, without being so interesting that they wouldn’t want to keep walking.

Our assumptions from reading about the trail turned out to be correct–other than in length, this is a relatively easy hike, with a lot of diversity in what you are walking past.

We started at the Mowbray Pike parking lot (after passing it several times–the turn-off is kind of hidden in the side of a hill!). Past the trail sign, the trail goes up a few wooden steps, and then starts a gentle decline through a pine forest. From the beginning you can see signs of the coal mining that used to happen in this area, from scraps of equipment to chunks of coal itself in the seams. At just over a quarter mile the trail opens up to the only real viewpoint you get outside of winter time, overlooking the town of Soddy-Daisy and the Sequoyah power plant cooling towers. Giant power lines are a big scar on an otherwise beautiful landscape, and we spent a decent amount of time here looking at the colors changing on the trees, with the kids exploring the edges of brush and being a little too brave while looking into the gorge below.

Enter the forest again and cross the Mikel branch; as predicted our kids wanted to play in the stream, so this may be the end of your hike on days with nicer weather if you have little ones. We managed to keep them out of the water, but it was hard since all I wanted to do was stare quietly at our surroundings rather than chase them back to dry land. Across the bridge was the last in our major kid-distractions; huge boulders just perfect for climbing on. There were a few other adults there who had packed in thick mats to place beneath them while they did some bouldering, but our kids wasted no time scrambling up the rocks with or without protective measures. We probably could have ended the hike here and let them play for a good hour, but as we’d gone through the effort to bring a car to both trailheads and were only half a mile into our hike, we did what we rarely do and pulled the kids away from their exploration in order to keep moving.

From here, the trail becomes–not boring, but faster-paced. The landscape changes more gradually, passing below bluffs, by a rock house that has been confirmed as a shelter for Native Americans, and across more coal seams. At just past two miles there is a large stone bench. Just as we were starting to worry about our pace as we hadn’t seen this yet, we finally did–only to realize this was the second stone bench, at mile 2.4. Right before the second bench we also saw some really awesome rock formations, including one that looked like a stack of pancakes, one that looked like a raven, and a tree growing up directly through a large boulder. The kids did a little more climbing, we stopped for a snack, and then continued on.

The next stretch of the trail was definitely my favorite part of it; after leaving the second stone bench, the trails winds along an escarpment with the valley to the right, before the left side drops into a former mine trench around mile 2.9, leaving a narrow strip of land at the top for the trail. We saw a lot of beautiful color in the trees, and it almost felt like were were gliding across the mountain. And while there are fewer places for little ones to play here, the many coal seams and the mine trench make for great conversations with about clean energy and the way the earth heals itself. (As an aside–since making the decision to homeschool this year I am always on the lookout for ways to bring learning into our everyday activities, and hiking is one of THE BEST ways to do this.) At the end of the trench the trail winds down, crosses the trench, and then follow a set of switchbacks back up; one of only two sections with any real elevation gain to speak of.

Now begins my least favorite part of the trail. By now the kids were starting to get tired and it was spitting rain at us, so I admittedly was just nervous about getting to the car before any meltdowns happened, but the weather and season made this section mostly just wet and dreary. The trail follows an old road from the mining days, so it is wide with heavy tree cover, and, at least when we were there, is very soggy. I suspect in springtime when the rhododendron is in bloom I would feel very differently about this section, or even summertime when the thick overhead and proximity to Soddy Creek would be a reprieve from the heat. In October with kids? I just wanted to be done.

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Don’t look for the blue-blazes until you see this sign!

The section ends after crossing a small bridge. We got very turned around here, as my guide referenced a blue-blazed trail spurring off to go to the Sluder Rd trailhead (where our other car was), and crossing a bridge to continue on the CT. There are two bridges. The first passes over a heavy drainage area before reaching a very well-marked intersection between the blue-blazed trail to the left, and the bridge over Soddy Creek to the right. On our trip even the stepping stones in this area were completely covered due to recent rain, and we kind of Gimli’d Sebastian over a particularly wet section, much to the amusement of all four of us.

From here the trail goes into its second elevation gain–a steep 200 feet in about .2 miles–while passing through the Little Soddy Historic Mining Area. Small historic markers make a good excuse to stop and catch your breath while you read them. Once at the top, cross a final bridge before arriving at the trailhead on Hotwater Rd. The parking lot is about 200ft to your left, at the intersection of Hotwater and Sluder.

Billy and I agreed once we were done, that this was one of our favorite trails in TN so far. Even at the end, with the threat of rain pressing in on us and the soggy ground zapping our energy, we could tell this was a trail that would have something to offer in any season, and we were both independently planning a trip here in the winter when you could see more of the valley as you walked. I have already recommended this to a local mom friend who was looking for a new place to take a group of older kids, on the basis of the bouldering. And in so many of the trails near Chattanooga, especially on Lookout Mountain and near Signal Point, there is still so much civilization to contend with–whether it’s seeing houses built onto the mountains or hearing traffic, there is a human impact you can’t escape. That was not the case on this section of trail, and that above all else may be why we all enjoyed it so much.

Overall Family-Friendly Rating: 4.5/5 The hardest part of this trail is definitely in its length, as far as going out with young kids is concerned. We managed the trail in about five hours, including our stops to play, eat, and one point when I realized I had dropped my phone and Billy backtracked for almost a mile before he found it. I think a mile per hour seems to be about our normal pace when the kids are doing most of their own walking however, so even with the length, the ease of the trail enabled us to maintain a child-friendly pace. The gorge presents a hazard because of its drop-off, but with the brush field to the left it’s not treacherous provided you keep your kids close during this stretch, and and creek/bouldering play should of course be done–or not done– with your kids limits in mind. To bring it up to a 5/5 rating I would suggest doing an out-and-back from the Mowbray Pike parking lot. Go as far as your kids feel comfortable with mileage-wise, but this is definitely the section very young kids are going to appreciate the most. In half a mile you get views, a creek, and rocks to climb on, with very little change in elevation–and if that doesn’t constitute a toddler-friendly hike then I’m really not sure what does!

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Trail Review: Julia Falls Overlook

The hike from Signal Point to Edwards’ Point has been on my Chattanooga trails list since we first started talking about moving down here. My parents got married at Signal Point, and I’m an Edwards on my dad’s side, so there is a lot of personal connection to a place I had never managed to see.

My goal was for us to take a family backpacking trip out there. There is a shelter and designated campsite less than two miles past the Signal Point trailhead, and Edwards’ Point is just a mile from the shelter. If we wanted we could extend the hike and do the first 8.4 miles of the Cumberland Trail, or we could just do an out-and-back. The kids were excited about it, Billy was excited, I requested our backcountry permit…and then realized we had two major roadblocks. One–we couldn’t find the poles to my backpacking tent. And two–there is no overnight parking at the Signal Point trailhead, nor at the Suck Creek trailhead at the other end of this segment of the CT, and we couldn’t figure out how to work out alternative transportation.

Well, damn.

We decided we would go anyway and hike as far as we could before we needed to head back to be at the car by sundown.

It turns out that wasn’t far–we made it to the Julia Falls Overlook, which is only about half a mile each direction. Even being much shorter than we planned, it was still a wonderful hike, and one I recommend for young kids, or for adults looking for a quick hike to some incredible views.

The trailhead is located in the town of Signal Mountain, at the Signal Point Overlook–part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, operated by the National Parks Service. The parking lot can fill up quickly on the weekends, and there is not a lot of overflow parking as it is located on a residential street. Carpool if you are going with friends, and plan to get there early if you want to watch the sunset.

From the parking lot, there is a paved path that leads to the overlook, which is worth an afternoon even if you don’t plan to hike. There are bathrooms with flush toilets by the parking lot, and a small picnic shelter next to the overlook where you can bring a lunch while you take in the views of the Tennessee River Gorge, and Raccoon Mountain across the river.

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Heading down the “mousetrap”

To access the trail, follow the stone wall towards the right of the overlook until it opens onto small steps down to the trail marker. Here you’ll see a map of the area and a sign marking trail lengths to Julia Falls (.4 miles), Edwards Point (2.9 miles), and the next access point off US-27 at Suck Creek (8.4 miles).

The trail drops quickly at first, 200 feet down a combination of steps and ramps that form “the mousetrap,” built in 1998. The final part of the descent is a very steep set of rocky steps, with a cable strung as a railing on the left hand side. There is a small side trail directly in front of this once you get off the steps that takes you to a small overlook, but the main trail continues to the right, marked by white blazes. At this point the trail is fairly level, passing through large boulders but without making many turns. You’ll start to climb just a little and the trail will get rockier, until you get to the Julia Falls Overlook.

Here you can enjoy the views. As with the Signal Point overlook you can see the Tennessee River and  Raccoon Mountain, but now you have westward views of Edwards Point across the Middle Creek Gorge, and when there has been rainfall you can see Julia Falls to the right. Stop here for a snack or to take some pictures, stay for the sunset, and retrace your steps to the parking lot for a short trip with a beautiful payoff.

Part of what took us so long the first time we attempted this hike, is there are a couple of places where the trail is not well marked, leading to a lot of backtracking. Once you descend the mousetrap the trail does not make any turns until you get to the Julia Falls overlook, but a lot of side trails have been carved out to interesting rocks and smaller overlooks. This was great for our kids in some ways! The place we lost the trail was mostly because there were so many interesting boulders they wanted to play on, which is a lot of why I recommend this trail despite it being a bit tougher for toddlers than I would usually suggest. There are several “slides” the kids had fun playing on–we have lost so many pairs of pants to them sliding down rocks, but they love doing it!

 

I ended up coming back several weeks after our trip to Julia Falls and doing the entire 8.4 miles solo. I hiked in the 1.8 miles to the Lockhart’s Arch shelter/campsite and spent the night there, and then did the remaining 6.6 miles to Suck Creek the next day where Billy and the kids picked me up. I will do a separate write up on this stretch of the trail, and some of the thoughts I had on my first solo backpacking trip!

Overall Family-Friendly Rating: 3.5/5 This is a trail I want to give a higher rating to, but also want to be cautious in how enthusiastically I tell other families to head out. I think the trail is great. The Mousetrap is not an easy hike back up, but as the trail is so short even the littlest walkers should still have enough energy to tackle it–just have a carrier for toddlers since some of the steps are almost as tall as they are and that may slow them down or intimidate them. There are also very sheer drop-offs at the overlook itself. It’s a wide area, but the hazard exists. If your kids have trouble listening or staying close, this might be a good trail to skip–or at least don’t plan on staying at the overlook if they aren’t safe in a carrier.

And finally–it can get very crowded here depending on the weather and time of day you come. When I did my solo hike, I set out on a Sunday just before sunset, and there were a lot of younger adults hanging out in groups (I feel SO OLD saying that!), who may not be appreciative of a bunch of kids playing around.

All the risks stated though, this hike is short and beautiful. And as Signal Point is the southern terminus of the Cumberland Trail, if you have any interest in checking off the miles on that, this is a good place to start!

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Julia Falls Overlook

On Thru-Hiking

I hiked the Camino de Santiago in 2008, fresh out of college. My last semester of classes, in fall of 2007, my favorite professor announced he was going to be leading a class on the Camino the following summer, and I jumped at the chance to go (which may not be an exaggeration–I’m pretty sure after class was over I probably tripped over a desk trying to get to him fast enough to ask if I could still go even though I would have graduated by then).

The Camino has influenced my life, undoubtedly in more ways than I’m even aware of. Even though it’s been over a decade, I think about it all the time. Places, people will come back to me. I’ll hear a song and can tell you exactly what the cafe I heard it played in looked like. I tell stories about it–my husband has probably heard me start more stories with “On the Camino” than he has any other period in my life before him, and I was amusing my five year old the other day with tales about bridge-jumping. I’ve been thinking about it a lot more lately, in part because of my ever-increasing involvement with organizations like Hike It Baby and websites like The Dyrt; in part because of moving to a new state, and being forced to reevaluate just about everything about our lives; and in part because I just finished reading the second book by Lucy and Susan Letcher, aka: The Barefoot Sisters, about their yo-yo hike on the Appalachian Trail.

On the Camino, I met several pilgrims who were Walking the Way for their second, third, or even fifth time. Thru-hikers seek out the “Triple Crown” of long-distance trails in the US, or repeat thru-hikes after their initial completion. We discussed this on the Camino frequently, both as a class, and with pilgrims I met while over there. I even used these repeat thru-hikes as the topic for the paper I wrote as the graded portion of that class.

If you’ve ever done any sort of long-distance hike like this, there is a peace on it that you really can’t find anywhere else. You have one responsibility–to walk–and you understand intimately (and usually painfully), how much your possessions can weigh you down. Thru-hiking is a privilege. There are far too many people in the world who don’t have what they need, much less have the luxury of being able to decide what is actually essential and what isn’t. And the social norms in a long-distance hike allow for a lot of the simplicity that underprivileged people in the “real world” just don’t have. You can get by with wearing the same stinky outfit several days in a row. You can sleep in an open space beside total strangers, knowing that your gear will still be there the next day. You have the freedom to live unencumbered by material possessions, while knowing it is a choice you made, not one made for you.

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First day on the trail. I think my pack weighed around 40lbs. I regularly carry more than that now when I hike with my kids, but on this trip I mailed home some gear I quickly realized I wouldn’t need.

In my early twenties, I came home thinking it seemed to easy to “keep the Camino.” To take that minimalist lifestyle and move it off the trail. Fewer things. Fewer responsibilities. Comfort in the unknown, and in just trusting in the universe, and in the kindness of strangers.

Now, I’m older. I’m married, and have kids, and responsibilities, and debts. I find that more and more, I am scattered. Moving from Virginia was far more complicated than it needed to be, because of how scattered we are. Our new home in Tennessee is a lesson in chaos, with Christmas ornaments, hammers, unpaid bills, and empty picture frames piled on our bookshelves. We are halfway. We were, halfway. And we can attribute it to our move, but it is also just the heaviness of stagnation.

On a long-distance hike, you are always moving. You are forced to become aware of your place in the galaxy; and of your smallness. At home, we dissolve. In the same way we scatter our possessions, our minds scatter. We exist in too many places. In our bedroom. Our kids’ rooms. The kitchen. At work, at the homes of our family and friends. In the errands we have to run. In our digital lives.

I am not alone, when I say this is a large reason why I hike–to get just a small taste of the feeling that we are just a tiny part of a much larger universe.

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Sunrise, a month into our trip. Near the highest point we would reach on the entire pilgrimage.

I sit here now, looking at piles of paperwork for a dozen chapters of my life. Dirty clothes and clean clothes nearly intermixed on the floor. A box of paint supplies from a project my husband completed while the kids and I were visiting family in Virginia.

It isn’t easy to “keep the Camino.” In addition to the lack of showering, the food that would barely be palatable if served in someone’s home, and the blind–and well-placed–trust in strangers, the level of oneness with the world around you found on a thru-hike is almost a break from social schemas in and of itself.

I miss the Camino. I am ready for another thru-hike, for another living reminder of those lessons. I seek the trail in an effort to get back, but haven’t been able to find it. And I need it–not just for myself, but so my children are not growing up tangled in my mess, and can find their own Camino.

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The border between France and Spain, approximately 13km into our first day of walking.

*** These are all unedited pictures from my trip in 2008. I wanted to edit them, but felt it better to keep them as they were. ***

Campground Review: A Tale of Two Parks

After planning our trip to Bear Creek Lake State Park for Kairi’s birthday over the summer, I realized we had a pattern of unique adventure trip for our birthdays. We went to the desert for Sebastian’s, the beach for Billy’s, and a lake for Kairi’s. So I announced that I wanted to go to the mountains for mine. It’s been awhile since we’ve had an October camping trip and we were due, and after winning the VSP Get Outdoors photo contest over the summer, we had credit to use for a stay at a VA State Park.

We debated the state parks in southwestern Virginia, but I settled on Grayson Highlands. I’ve heard so much about it, mostly from AT thru-hiker stories, and once Billy discovered there were ponies he was all in. Plus it’s equidistant from Chattanooga to Richmond, so we could work it into a trip we already had planned to go back home.

With the stress of moving, this trip has been the light at the end of a very winding tunnel. Back to the Blue Ridge. Back to the mountains that have my heart. A three night camping trip with all four of us. I started watching the weather a month out, and we were excited about chilly nights and truly fall weather.

And then…a week before our trip, Hurricane Michael started forming. At the time, we had no way of knowing just how devastating the hurricane would end up being, but we did know that the rain was going to stretch as far north as Virginia, and would be hitting at least by the end of our trip.

We were not deterred. We weren’t deterred even on the day we left, when the forecast had changed to show rain for the entirety of our trip. Billy and I are no strangers to camping in the rain, and I had been looking forward to this trip for far too long to cancel on account of weather.

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When we were still saying cheers to camping! No matter the weather!

We got to Grayson Highlands State Park around 6 on Tuesday night. We’d had off and on rain since the Virginia border, but when we got there we only had cooler temps, and the coolest, creepiest October fog we could have asked for. We set up camp, failed to get a campfire going, and shared a bag of freeze-dried Pad Thai for dinner, and sleep came fairly easily for all four of us.

The rain came sometime during the night. I woke up a couple of times and heard what could have been rain, or could have been water droplets blowing off the trees, but by the time Sebastian woke me up at 6, there was no doubt. It was still a gentle rain, however, and we were dry in the tent. I zipped the kids into their Oakiwear suits and we took a short, wet walk around the campground while Billy slept in, tried to visit the (closed) camp store, and all the while the rain continued to fall. After Billy got up, the debate started: did we tough it out, knowing we were going to be in the rain the entire time…or did we see if a cabin or yurt was available, even if it meant going to a different park?

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So. Much. Rain.

Our decision: delay our decision and go for a short hike and see if the ponies were out in the weather.

The hike itself is not something I feel like I can write about. We left from the Massie’s Gap parking lot and started on the Rhododendron Trail, but by this point it was raining in earnest, and we couldn’t see much except the trail.

Which is not to say it wasn’t still fun. We didn’t see any ponies–I heard one twice, but between the rain and the fog our visibility was limited, and my glasses were so spattered with water that I was mostly just guessing when it came to any pictures I was taking. What little we could see was more than enough to convince me that this place is incredible, however. As with the Smokies, hiking among coniferous trees was such a treat, and the wide stretches of fog promised that when it’s wide stretches of open skies the views can’t be beat. We turned back after about half a mile, once Billy and I were starting to get wet through our rain gear, and Sebastian’s nose and fingers were starting to turn into little pink icicles. Without mentioning it out loud, we both knew our answer: we were leaving.

We rushed through breaking down camp, and headed into part two of our trip: a two bedroom cabin at Hungry Mother State Park.

I’ve never stayed in a VSP cabin before. I’ve considered stopping at Hungry Mother more times than I can count, on the long drive from Richmond to my mom’s house in Tennessee, but with their nightly price roughly that of a hotel, we always opted for a place closer to the interstate, with continental breakfast the next morning. However, when I won the contest this summer, I mentally planned to use the credit on a cabin at some point, and this seemed like as good a time as any.

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Friends. It. Was. Amazing. The only cabin left when we got there was a two bedroom (we could have gotten a yurt, but…we were soaked. And cold. And just wanted to cozy up by a fire). The cabins are modern, with electricity, a bathroom, and a small kitchen. One of our bedrooms had two sets of bunk beds, and the other had a queen bed, and the living room had ample seating and a fireplace. We didn’t get much of a chance to use the outdoor space, but our cabin (Cabin #10) had a covered porch with two rocking chairs, a raised, uncovered deck with a picnic table, a charcoal picnic grill, and a fire ring. We didn’t have much of a view, or hardly any privacy–although the cabins were still spaced further apart than tent sites typically are.

We stayed so warm and cozy. We were able to turn the heat on immediately, dry our clothes and gear out by draping them over everything, and we watched the rain fall heavier and heavier through our windows, all the while congratulating ourselves on being humble enough to abandon our original plans.

And then, our hike. I’d heard of Molly’s Knob, but knew very little about it, other than it was supposed to have great views. The rain was supposed to let up Thursday afternoon and I said I wanted to give it a shot, but at 3.6 miles round trip, and rated as the most difficult hike in the park, Billy was skeptical about our ability to do it with such a late start. And I almost listened to him–we still didn’t know the full extent of how powerful Michael had become due to a promise that we would severely limit our phone usage on this trip–but our hike started with rain, going the wrong way out of the cabins loop, more rain, taking a “shortcut” that turned out to not be a shortcut at all, and more rain. This was the only time I lost it on this trip, as we finally stood at the trailhead almost an hour after we first set out, and it was still raining. Kairi, bless her amazing, compassionate heart, tried to comfort me; “I’m sorry mommy. Sometimes it just rains, and that’s just the weather and we just have to wait for it to stop.” And when your five year old is talking you down from a temper tantrum, you kind of have to listen. So off we went.

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Cold and windy, about half a mile up the trail.

The rain stopped before we got to the first intersection, at .4 miles into the trail.

The sun came out before we’d gone another mile.

And the summit. The summit.

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This view, though.

If I could take every person I know on this hike, I would. The difficulty rating was not overstated; while most of it is fairly moderate, the last leg of the trail has an elevation gain of almost 400 feet in the last .4 miles–this was made even more difficult by the rain from the week, but the views at the top were just incredible. There are a couple of benches at the top (the result of an Eagle Scout project), and we got to them just before sunset. Even knowing we’d end up walking back in the dark, we let Kairi talk us into pulling out our snacks for a picnic because it was just too beautiful–and too glorious having actual sunlight on our skin–not to.

The hike backtracks to return to the trailhead, and we treated ourselves to wine, hot cocoa, and a blazing fire on our return, and woke up to bright sun and blue skies the next morning.

I told everyone the next day, that while wasn’t the trip we had planned, it was still perfect. Kairi talks about it as two separate trips, and she’s not wrong–we really got two trips in one. Tent camping with a rainy, foggy hike, and cabin camping with incredible sunset views.

I never expected to miss Virginia State Parks as much as I do, but I do. If you are in Virginia, seriously–check one out. From mountains to seashore, there’s a park for you, and you won’t be disappointed.

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We Are Nature’s Guests: In Memory of Susan Clements

I had planned on adding a new trail review this week, or possibly even a list of some of my favorite fall camping recipes. But the story of Susan Clements, a hiker who went missing in the Smokies last week, has me rattled in a way that missing hiker stories rarely do. The reason why isn’t hard to see: last month on our trip to the Smokies, we hiked Clingman’s Dome. I’ve seen so many pictures in my social media feeds this week of places where my kids were walking, climbing, and laughing. We did not do the Forney Ridge Trail where Susan went missing, but I looked at the trail sign for it for a good minute or so trying to decide if I wanted to ask the rest of my group if we should, and put it on my list of places to return.

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The rocks at the trailhead. The same rocks shown in a lot of news stories about Susan.

Whenever I hear about hikers that go missing in places I’m not familiar with, my brain kicks into self-preservation mode, and imagines terrain I’ve never hiked before, and am not likely to hike. I’ve been on narrow trails next to steep drop-offs, and I’ve stood at a trail marker after dark, just praying that I was reading it correctly. Once, before we had kids, I went on a solo hike, and I know I walked into a predator’s den. The air went completely silent and still, and I had the very distinct feeling of being watched. I started banging my hiking pole on rocks and singing, and eventually the feeling left and the sounds around me returned to normal–but it made my hyper-vigilant for the remainder of my hike. Regardless, I hear these stories, and have to comfort myself with the thought of “it can’t happen here.”

Susan Clements hits home because, the tragedy of her circumstances aside, her death is a sharp reminder that it can happen here. The Smokies are the most visited National Park in the country, and Clingman’s Dome is so highly trafficked it felt more like walking through a theme park than walking on a trail, but step off the trail, and all that goes away. Kairi was disappointed we hadn’t seen any white blazes since I told her Clingman’s Dome was the highest point on the entire Appalachian Trail, so I took her down the spur to the AT so she could see them–we might have walked a dozen yards before connecting with the AT, but it was astonishing how quickly the crowds of the Dome gave way to dense, silent forest. It’s easy to see how, in the fog and growing darkness, someone could lose their way.

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Dense forest, right across from the spur to the AT

I LOVE seeing the growing movement to get more people outside. And to get people outside beyond the fit white men and women who look like they stepped off the cover of Backpacker. Groups like Adventure Mamas, Hike It Baby, and Switchback Chics, or Latino Outdoors and BrownPeopleCamping. The efforts to diversify the outdoors. It’s encouraging. And as a mom, I know that seeing other blogs and organizations dedicated to getting kids outside, I have had the courage to go out with my kids on my own, or to tackle trails I might previously have felt were too ambitious for little legs. In the age of social media, we inspire each other to get out–but we are usually only seeing the good. The pride, the joy, the feelings of peace. Not the struggles, the tears, or the giving up and turning around.

There’s a lot of speculation already about Susan’s level of preparation–a lot of conversation about people who approach the trail as tourists vs people who approach the trail as hikers. That conversation bothers me, honestly. It makes assumptions about Susan that we have no way of knowing anything about, for one–but it also makes assumptions that all you need to avoid Susan’s fate are experience and preparation. Which is not true.

The truth is–there isn’t a way to avoid it entirely. There’s a reason we label hiking “adventurous.” Whether it’s a copperhead snake in a city park, a 200 foot drop off a rocky bluff, or fog so thick you can’t see what’s trail and what isn’t, there is always some degree of risk.

And I hear you–there’s always some risk in everything. Driving, walking down the street, even children aren’t safe in their classrooms anymore. Avoiding the activity isn’t how we avoid risk. In civilization, we look at all the ways we can reduce or eliminate threat. But outdoors, in addition to proper preparation, the best thing we can do is remember that we are just guests, in a world where everything else there knows more about the trail than we do.

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Thick fog at midday

The Benefits of Bailing

Raise your hand if you’ve bailed on your hiking plans due to weather.

I have. A lot. I used to feel ashamed of admitting to this–like it made me less of a hiker or camper, if I only wanted to do it when the weather was nice. After Billy and I spent a cold, rainy week tent camping in Maine, we came home early from a camping trip the next time we were in Shenandoah, because we just couldn’t take another trip with all of our gear cold and damp. Mental health, physical health, and once you have kids, their needs, all factor in, and at the end of the day, you don’t have to justify your decision to bail to anyone.

On our trip last month to the Great Smoky Mountains, Jordi and I wanted to get in as much hiking as possible. Our first day there we did Clingman’s Dome, but between drama trying to get our Junior Ranger packets, and the task of herding five kids through a crowded national park, we ended up not having time to do a second trail that day. She had Alum Cave and Chimney Tops on her list of trails to check out, and since the trailheads are not even a mile apart, we figured we’d do one–or maybe even both–the next day.

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Roadside overlook of Chimney Tops the day before our failed attempt

Unfortunately, by the time we got to the Chimney Tops trailhead the next morning, it was raining so hard we could barely see each other through the windows of our respective cars. We sat in the parking lot grappling with our desire to get out and do the trail anyway–hoping the rain would ease up one we got out there–and the understanding that it was irresponsible for us to take such small kids out in that kind of weather. Chimney Tops is rated as moderate, but involves a steep elevation gain at the end, with rocks along the entire path: two conditions made dangerous with heavy rain. We decided we just couldn’t do it. Both of us disappointed that we only managed one trail on our trip to the Smokies, we said our goodbyes, and left the parking lot with the intention of going our separate ways.

Half a mile down the mountain, the rain stopped.

The day before we had seen signs referencing a “Quiet Walkway,” so with the rain gone, we quickly looked it up and decided we would give it a shot. It wasn’t a technical trail, it didn’t have the panoramic views of Chimney Tops or the wonder of the “cave” on the Alum Cave Trail, and looked to be a short hike, but it would give the kids a chance to burn off some energy before the three hour car ride each of us had ahead of us.

It turned out to be the best decision we could have made.

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So much joy!

 

The Quiet Walkway is just that–it’s a wide, flat trail through the forest, down to a creek filled with salamanders and the smoothest rocks I’ve ever seen. The kids had a blast running down the trail and squishing their toes in the mud from the morning rain, and we probably spent an hour letting them splash in the creek before hunger-fueled meltdowns led us back to our cars.

It was perfect. I see people asking a lot about kid-friendly trails in the Smokies, and now that we’ve found this, I don’t know why it isn’t recommended. Because it’s too easy, maybe? But if you have toddlers, you need easy. It’s short enough for the most inexperienced walker to manage, and the creek at the end allows for enough playtime to keep the kids from getting bored. And, as the trail is only a few miles from Gatlinburg, it’s quick to access if you are staying in town instead of at a campsite.

This was the perfect end to our trip, and a much-needed reminder to Jordi and I that it’s okay to change plans and to bail out when weather gets in your way. If we’d dug in our heels and faced Chimney Tops, we would have had cranky, soaked children, undoubtedly would have turned around before completing the trail, and never would have discovered the Quiet Walkway. Instead, we had the soothing sound of rushing water, sunshine on our skin, and five children, happy in the muddy and exhausted way that brings us back to the trail again and again.

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Campground Review: Balsam Mountain

After we announced we were leaving RVA, a close friend in HIB told me she and her family were taking a southeastern road trip in August that included two nights in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and asked if we wanted to camp with them. Of course I was more than happy to make the drive, not just to see friends I knew we would be missing terribly by then, but also to see the Smokies. Jordi gave the names of a few campgrounds they were considering, and we settled on Balsam Mountain, due to its higher elevation, and the promise that it would be less occupied than the other GSMNP campgrounds.

The first thing you notice about this campground, is the fog. At 5,310′ elevation, it sits comfortably in the clouds–or at least it did while we were there, and it was present the whole time we were at the campground.

Our plan was to try and share one site between both families. However, when I got there with my kids, it was obvious the tent pad was not large enough even for two small tents, and as rest of the site was very hilly I chose to book the site next to hers. Between the intense fog that kept a layer of dampness all over the ground, and the promise of rain at night, I wanted us in our six person tent rather than my “two person” bivvy style backpacking tent.

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There’s a dishwashing station somewhere in all that fog…

The campground itself–or what we could see of it through the fog–is very lovely. And the fog and cooler weather gave it an eerie, late October feel that all of our kids really enjoyed. The elevation is high enough to have coniferous trees mixed in with the hardwoods, and despite the crowds on the trails lower on the mountains, there were hardly any other people at Balsam Mountain. Our sites were very near the entrance and just a couple of sites down from the campground hosts, and aside from them we only had one other occupied site nearby. We were also near bathrooms with flush toilets and a solar light for after dark, as well as a separate dishwashing station. On a future trip I would definitely choose a site further back in the loop, but considering the utter lack of privacy our location allowed, between the fog and the low occupancy, we still had the impression of having the place to ourselves.

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Exploring the upper GSMNP flora

Positive elements of this campground:

  • Low occupancy, even during one of the busiest weeks of summer.
  • Temperatures around 15 degrees lower than at the foot of the mountain–a welcome escape from the 90 degrees temps of the south in late August.
  • Varying privacy of sites–we stayed in sites 38 and 39 which were right on the road and right next to the camp hosts, however on exploring the rest of the loop, there are sites that step down from the road and offer more room for kids to run around, and “walk-in” sites only a few dozen yards from the parking area, but without separate driveways per site.
  • A trailhead at the campground. We did not end up hiking this due to the fog and how close to dark it was when we got to camp each night, but it allegedly has incredible sunset views, and is easy for all skill levels.

Negative elements of this campground: 

  • Small tent pads. Our Coleman Evanston 6 *barely* fit; I was not able to stake down one corner because it hung just over the edge of the wooden barrier.
  • “Helicopter” campground hosts. A bear sighting was reported right around the time we arrived, and it led to the hosts being far more involved in the supervision of our children than either family was comfortable with. Particularly when one of the hosts tried to use fear as a method of keeping Jordi’s three-year-old from leaving the campsite. I understand their concern, and they probably thought we were not taking the bear threat seriously (we were), but few things annoy me more than having to helicopter my children because I’m worried about other adults interfering.
  • Everything is damp. I don’t know how seasonal this is; this campground is closed November-April, and earlier in the summer may be drier, but be prepared for your stuff to get wet. We also had torrential rain our second night there.
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The two big kids working on their Junior Ranger badges in the car, while we took down camp in the rain

Overall Family Friendly Rating: 4/5. Families who are not used to rugged spaces may find Balsam Mountain intimidating because of its isolation and the presence of wildlife, but I think that makes this an excellent place to give small kids a touch of backcountry while keeping the comforts of car camping. I hope that our experience with the campground hosts is not common; we got there late Sunday and spent most of Monday exploring the lower parts of GSMNP, but I got the feeling that either Jordi or I would have ended up unleashing our inner Mama Bears had we stayed up there during the day, just to remind the hosts who the actual parents were. The only other element of this campground that would make it hard for kids was just how damp it was. The fog was incredible, but keeping clothes/diapers/toys dry is more important with very young kids than if you were just there with teenagers/other adults. Fortunately as it is car camping we just kept anything we didn’t want to get wet in the cars.

Of note: this was my first camping trip with kids where I went the entire time without Billy, and I had absolutely no issue at this campground. There are very few environmental hazards other than wildlife, so as long as you follow proper food storage procedures and make sure the kids are within sight, this is a great place to let them explore.

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On the way to Clingman’s Dome; not Balsam Mountain, but an idea of the clouds settling on the mountain peaks

 

 

 

Trail Review: Ozone Falls

Ozone Falls is the first wilderness hike that Kairi ever went on. At the time, I was a new mom and still very nervous about anything other than flat surfaces while babywearing, so we didn’t even make it halfway. Now that we live in TN, when I heard about a trail clean-up day at Ozone it seemed like a perfect opportunity to give back, get the kids involved in trail stewardship, and finish the hike.

Located in Crab Orchard, Tennessee, Ozone Falls is only a few miles off I-40, and is thus extremely popular due to its ease of access. Fun note–It was also used in filming of the live action version of The Jungle Book, adding to its notoriety, along with its beauty. I have family very near the trailhead so have driven past a lot since moving, and it’s not uncommon to see both the parking lot and overflow lot across US-70 full on weekends.

The hike to the top of the falls can hardly even be called a hike–it’s about a tenth of a mile along flat slabs of sandstone to Fall Creek, where the water rushes quickly over a ledge. If you are careful, you can stand at the edge and watch the water crashing into the pool below, but getting in the water up here is not recommended; the current is strong, and there are deaths reported each year from people who go over the edge of the falls.

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A long, long drop. And me trying not to have a panic attack behind the camera.

The hike to the base of the falls is short. Adults and older kids shouldn’t have an issue, but younger kids and babywearing moms will probably find it difficult, especially if there’s been rain recently. From the parking area off US-70, head west for about 100 yards, and after a short scramble down to the road, the trail turns left. From here it is very rocky, descending beside the sandstone bluffs you walked on if you went to the top of the falls. The rocks are very slippery when wet, and a small creek can form along the trail during rainy periods. About halfway down the trail levels out, leading to another view of the falls. To hike the rest of the way to the base, the trail continues its descent to the right of the bluffs, following another short rocky pass before leveling out again between the pool at the bottom of the falls, and where Fall Creek re-emerges from its brief journey underground a few feet west of the falls. Down here you can swim, picnic, or explore more along Fall Creek, before retracing your steps out to get back to the parking lot.

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The view from the halfway point. Toddler for scale.

Because we were doing clean-up on our more recent trip we moved at a slow pace, but it had rained that morning, which meant Kairi needed extra help on the rocks. I had Sebastian in our Beco carrier and let him out halfway to the falls. He attempted the final descent on his own, but quickly decided he’d rather be carried after slipping and sliding several times on the wet rocks and muddy ground. Going back up, the biggest challenge was again the slick rocks.

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Lots and lots of water after the morning rains–but fun “caves!”

Overall Family-Friendly Rating: 3.5. On a drier day, and with another adult, this would be a great challenging trail to do with kids. Kairi enjoyed herself quite a bit–the trail afforded plenty of opportunities for rock scrambling and puddle jumping–two of her favorite hiking activities–and the bluffs have a couple of recesses that look like small caves that she wanted to climb in. She did need a hand getting back up, but she made it down just fine on her own, and was upset when I told her we weren’t going to swim in the pool at the base of the falls. And Sebastian liked being on his own in the flatter areas–he is going through a “scared of everything” phase or I think he would have liked climbing the steeper, rockier areas as well, and adventurous toddlers should be able to do this trail with a grown-up close by.

However, the hazards here should not be overstated. I would not let a toddler on their own at the top of the falls, and was nervous having Kairi walking up there. There is a brief part of the trail where you are right beside US-70, and then of course if the rocks are slick there are fall hazards the whole way down. As mentioned before it can also get quite crowded here, so take into consideration your child’s comfort level around other people when planning this hike.

All that said however, the trail is so short, and the falls so beautiful, that as long as your family is adequately prepared, Ozone Falls is a great addition to any waterfall-chaser’s bucket list. And because of its proximity to I-40, is a great addition to any road trip through Tennessee!