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

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. ***

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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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

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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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

 

 

 

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!

It’s been almost a month since National Summit Day, so I am very, very, very overdue in sharing this trail! Between camping trips and writing about Virginia, I’m behind in covering some of our TN hiking adventures, and this one is a great place to start.

We did this trail shortly after getting into our new house. After a week of unpacking, painting, and unpacking some more, we knew we wanted to get out on the trail as a family. And since the buzz around Backpacker’s National Summit Day tugged at my instagrammer heart, I figured, we’re in a place where the mountains AREN’T a two hour drive now, let’s take advantage of it and find some views! So I set out to find a summit. And was quickly reminded of why I started blogging about our hikes in the first place–it is so hard to find trail recommendations for small children that aren’t just nature parks!

Sunset Rock on Lookout Mountain came up in my searches repeatedly however, and after looking at several websites I decided we would hike to it from Cravens House. The internet promised ample parking and the option of a 1.5 mile out and back, which seemed more than doable for us–long enough to feel like a hike, but short enough that it wouldn’t eat up our entire day.

The trailhead is easy to find, and the trail itself starts off relatively flat, before taking a left turn after a couple tenths of a mile. From there the trail follows a gentle incline up the west side of the mountain for the remainder of the first mile. This stretch of trail is wide, well-worn, and had we not been worried about time, I would have definitely let Sebastian walk on his own. At one mile, a second trail branches off to the left to go to Point Park, and the Cravens Trail continues to the right. Here, the elevation gain increases a little, as do some hazards that would make this a little more difficult for a toddler–bridges, steps up onto rocks, and some pretty severe drop-offs on the west side of the trail. That said–there is so much to look at. The views themselves – even through trees thick with summer leaves – gave us a wonderful taste of the lowering sunlight, and on the east side of the trail water runoff created several mini-waterfalls, which both kids loved watching. We also saw several really intricate spiderwebs, which was a highlight for my arachnid-obsessed five year old.

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We could still hear traffic which was a bummer, but what a change having an elevation hike so close to home!

The last tenth of a mile on this trail is the kicker. After passing the sandstone bluffs that make up the overlook, a set of stone steps jack-knives back towards them, and those steps are no joke. They are steep, narrow, and have a very high rise. Even with the benefit of a handrail, tiny legs will definitely need grown-up assistance, as some of them I’m pretty sure are taller than Sebastian’s legs.

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While she probably could have aced this trail in the morning, by dinnertime even a 5 year old needs a lift!

The top though–the top is so, so worth it. Spectacular views over the watershed plains, the iconic Moccasin Bend, and the city itself, and a wide open view of the western sky to watch the sun sink behind the mountains in the distance. From a kid-friendly standpoint it was a little nerve-wracking, just because of the severity of the drop-off, but there is enough space at the top that both kids were able to run, climb, and even splash in a few puddles leftover from the week’s rains. We had a picnic dinner while we admired the golden light spilling over the landscape, and chatted with several other families who came in from the .1 mile hike from a parking lot at the top of the mountain.

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Dinner with a view–in reusuable snack bags from LuvBug Company! 

Unfortunately, we did not get a chance to see how the trail is heading back down the mountain. As Billy was getting Sebastian into the deuter, it tipped backwards and Bastian cut his head on a rock when it fell–not knowing just how bad it was, we accepted the help of a family who offered to drive Billy back down to our car, and I hiked the short trail up with both kids to the upper parking lot. It turns out Bastian was fine–he calmed down before I had even started walking–and it afforded me a chance to see this stretch of the hike. It is obviously much shorter, and it’s downhill to the viewpoint, but I think the hike from Cravens House was definitely the way to go. Fewer people, more chance to soak in the woods, and it makes the view that much more rewarding once you’ve done the extra work to get there.

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Overall Family-Friendly Rating: 4/5. The are definitely hazards on this trail, but with attentive adults and a carrier on hand, it’s a great option to combine a little adventure with breathtaking views. There is enough space at the top to be able to enjoy the overlook while keeping the kids a safe distance from the edge, while still giving them rocks and trees to play on. Honestly the biggest detractor for me was just the sheer number of people who had congregated the closer we got to sunset–but we expected that, knowing this was one of the most popular views in the city. I can see this easily becoming a place we come back to, and I look forward to seeing how different it looks as the seasons change.

Note: There is signage everywhere indicating this, but the parking lots close at dark, and I have heard this is very strictly enforced. If you are planning a sunset hike, make sure you are aware of how quickly you can make it back to your car, as if you don’t get back until after dark you may not be able to drive out. Have a carrier on hand for young walkers to make sure you can move at an adult-pace on the way out if necessary. 

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.

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Learning to use tent stakes

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.

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Admiring a caterpillar. One of the many species who needs us to leave our parks better than we found them!

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.

We are officially residents of Tennessee, now. The kids and I have been here almost three weeks now, and I am daily longing for my RVA Hike It Baby family, and despite living almost at the foot of Lookout Mountain, every time I see a picture of the Blue Ridge Mountains I feel a huge pang of homesickness. Richmond is well over an hour from the mountains, closer to two hours for most of the places we would camp and hike, but the mountains of Virginia were my home as much as the River City was. (And we won’t even talk about how much I miss the beach!)

So as a tribute, here are five of my favorite kid-friendly trails from my home state. Some I’ve written about on this blog already, some I haven’t, but if you have kids in VA, or are just passing through, I highly recommend checking these out!

Blackrock Summit, Shenandoah National Park:

I love this trail so much that I submitted it to HIB founder Shanti Hodges’ book, Hike It Baby: 100 Awesome Outdoor Adventures with Babies and Toddlers. This is a great hike for kids and parents: for one, it’s short. It’s a 1 mile loop, with minimal elevation gain, but an incredible payoff, and it connects to the Trayfoot Mountain trail, so can be made longer if you want to add mileage. The talus slope at the top makes for a great rock scramble, which is fun for older kids and provides good risk-taking for younger kids, but it can be avoided entirely for parents who aren’t comfortable letting their kids scramble up (although the views are SO worth it). It’s also part of the Trail Tracks for Kids program: at the trailhead kids can get a small pamphlet with information on some of the flora and fauna that live on the mountain, and because the ascending part of the trail follows the AT, it’s a great opportunity to talk to kids about thru-hikes and exercise their imagination by pretending they are on their own long-distance hike.

Crabtree Falls, George Washington National Forest:

This is definitely a challenging hike for little legs–it’s only 2.8 miles to the top of the falls and back, but that comes with an elevation gain of 1,128 feet, often in the form of stairs. The falls themselves are also treacherous: there are signs at every viewpoint warning hikers not to climb out onto the rocks due to deaths that have occurred. That said–it’s a beautiful hike, and well-worth the drive to get there. The falls are the highest cascading falls east of the Mississippi (I’ve seen both 60 and 70 feet listed as the total height), and the trail affords several viewpoints on the ascent, with an observation deck to the left of the bridge that crosses the creek at the top of the falls. Once at the top, the creek provides a great place for water play, and the option to extend the hike another mile and a half along the Upper Crabtree Falls Trail. The trail in this section is wide, well-maintained, with little to no changes in elevation, making it a nice addition for your toddler who probably wants to run after being worn up the climb to the top of the falls.

As a bonus: the parking lot at the end of the upper falls trail connects to the AT via a short walk on a gravel road, allowing for a much longer hike for those looking to make it a full day, or two-day trek: going south takes you to Spy Rock, and north connects to The Priest.

Larus Park: Richmond, VA

A branch-favorite for HIB RVA, and also where I went on my first ever Hike It Baby hike. My favorite part of this park, is how no two experiences are the same. There are several trails that wind through the woods; many of them connect to a stream that makes for wonderful water play, one takes you through a long tunnel underneath Chippenham Parkway and to another section of creek, one to a place less maintained where kids can climb over felled trees. Because this trail is so easy, and so toddler-friendly, it’s a great place to make a regular hike, so kids can observe the changes in the seasons from week-to-week. Plus, with the park being in the city, it’s an easy place to have a picnic when you want to immerse yourself in the woods without the long drive that comes with going somewhere more remote.

Belle Isle, Richmond, VA:

Right in the middle of the city, it’s unlikely anyone from the metro area hasn’t done this hike at least once. It’s popular with cyclists, trail runners, history buffs (Belle Isle was once used as a prison during the Civil War), photographers, bird watchers, and of course, hikers. And for parents, it’s a great hike for kids of all ages. From the Tredegar parking lot, there’s a footbridge that runs half a mile across the James River, and from there, you can either take the dirt path that makes a stroller-friendly circuit around the island, or if you want to add more adventure, can explore the criss-crossing singletrack paths through the rocks and hills in the center of the island, or cross another pedestrian bridge on the southeast side to connect briefly with the Buttermilk Trail, and then rock-hop back to a ladder that brings you back to the main island. Kids love the rock hopping (although this side of the island can be impassible when the river level is too high), there are ruins of the old prison camps and old factories to explore, and plenty of places to splash, as long as you avoid the treacherous Hollywood Rapids. Belle Isle offers a great view of the city, with the sounds of the city blocked out by the rushing of RVA’s urban whitewater.

Powhatan State Park, Powhatan, VA

Not a single trail, but I love this park as a great day trip to get out the city and into the quiet of nature without the long drive that comes with going to the mountains. There are roughly 12 miles of trails total, ranging from very easy to semi-moderate difficulty, and covering wooded, meadow, and riverside terrain. The trails are easy for little legs to explore on their own, and there is a playground near a couple of picnic shelters for post-hike playing. Powhatan also has two campgrounds; one that has electric and water, and a primitive campground that is hike- or canoe-in only, along with three yurts. This is a fairly new park, and in our experience is still largely undiscovered; we have rarely had company on the trails. With the wide open skies of the Virginia piedmont, and the beauty of walking besides the James River, this quickly became one of our favorite day-trips.

There are so many trails in Virginia I never made it to, and so many I would love to go back and hike again. Prior to our move, I was making plans to section hike the 105 miles of the AT through Shenandoah National Park with the kids. I know that future visits back home will include checking off several of the summits I missed, and visiting old favorites with old friends. If you make it to any of these trails, I’d love to hear what you think. And comment below with your own favorite trails in the Virginia area, kid-friendly or otherwise!