Caves and Canyons in the South?

I always get a little sad when we reach the turn-around point of a trip. It feels like an end – even if we have the entire journey home. We usually travel much faster getting home – once driving from Northern Illinois to South Carolina in one grueling 12-hour day. When we left Mackinac Island in September, we still had a bit of fun to have. But first, we learned that Michigan is enormous, as we drove most of the day and we were still in the bottom of the mitten. By the time we hit the Indiana state line we were studying the distances to the Hoosier state’s Cracker Barrels. In Ft. Wayne we enjoyed a lukewarm meal and a quiet, level parking spot.

A word about Cracker Barrel. I love that they are RV friendly and let us park overnight. They’ve saved us several hundred dollars this year. But is it just me, or is their food not what it once was? My first Cracker Barrel experience was at age 15 when we moved to Florida. I remember people – adults even – talking about how good their comfort food was. Maybe my palate is more sophisticated now, but I really doubt it. Maybe it’s because we’re getting our meal just before closing. We’ll continue to eat their adequate meals when it means free camping, but man, I wish I was writing about Sonny’s BBQ instead. You hear me Sonny’s – it’s time to make your parking lots overnight RV friendly!

The next day we headed down to Kentucky to visit Mammoth Cave National Park. The campground was full, so I decided to roll the dice on a night at a Thousand Trails campground. For those not in the RV world, Thousand Trails is a large group of affiliated (but I assume independently owned) RV parks. The idea is that you pay some kind of annual, multiyear, or lifetime fee that gets you unlimited use of their campgrounds, with limits on how long you stay in one place. (All of this is based on assumptions I’m making from an unfortunate incident I had sitting through a sales pitch for a completely different family of campgrounds. Apologies to Thousand Trails if I’ve misrepresented their scheme, I haven’t opened any of the 200 emails you’ve sent me since our stay.) These are the time-shares of the RV world.

Like some of the other private campgrounds we’ve visited, it had quite a few semi-permanent RVs (read: no longer operationally mobile) with wooden decks, storage sheds, and yard decorations that looked like they’d been around a while. I think we paid $75 for the night, which is more than I’d normally want to pay, but they had a laundry facility, a full hookup, and free minigolf. We were happy and the National Park was just up the road.

Because caves are nature’s version of the “indoors,” we had to book our entry in advance as they let in masked guests in small groups.

At this point, most days started with a homeschool lesson before our outing. The iPhone isn’t the best at taking pictures inside a cave, but using filters, I was able to salvage a few good shots. It’s really quite amazing to realize that seemingly ordinary mountains are hiding giant hollowed out pathways and cathedral-sized rooms.

Outside the cave we found a hiking trail to another cave entrance that collapsed at some point. With the river nearby you could really see how the caves were formed millions of years ago. There was a fascinating story about a guy who fell into a cave in the early 1900s. Tens of thousands of people came from all over to be a part of the spectacle as the failed rescue attempt went on for days.

After our cave visit, Monica donned her running shoes and ran all the way down the mountain to the campground. We later returned to a portion of that trail which was beautiful in the dusk light.

After Mammoth Cave, we headed toward a park we’d never heard of to meet a friend and his daughter. Up in the very northwest corner of Georgia is Cloudland Canyon State Park. When friends in Florida tell me that they’re going to the mountains in Georgia, I think, “Why don’t you drive two more hours and go to the real mountains?” The way our friend described it, you’d think we were going to New Mexico or Colorado. I was skeptical. I was wrong.

Georgia has a secret. Not all of their mountains are carved into the shapes of Confederate generals.

North Georgia, where red clay gives way to the start of the Appalachian range, is really beautiful. It almost looks and feels like you’re out west and I’m so glad our friend invited us. Incredible hiking trails started just steps from our campsite. Firewood was a bargain and they didn’t mind if you gathered kindling off the ground. And we had just enough elevation to enjoy cooler weather and there were few bugs – making it very un-Southern. Add this to the long list of places I wish I hadn’t told anyone about.

It was also good to see a familiar face, for the kids to have a person their size to play with, and to have someone else to chat with around the campfire. He was taken aback when the topic of campfire songs came up and we burst into a seamless set of Peter, Paul & Mary hits. At first he was confused, with a look on his face that said, “Are they singing… the whole song?… There’s another verse?” This was followed by uncertain fear, “Am I living inside a musical?” until he finally joined in to the chorus on “Leavin’ On a Jet Plane.”

Here are a ton of pics from Cloudland Canyon:

Am I fooling myself or are you getting a slightly western vibe? Doc Holliday was from Georgia, by the way.

Trails to the bottom of the canyon reached a pair of waterfalls that were down to a trickle, but the deep holes offered lots of explore. Can’t wait to come back when they’re flowing. It was nice to have the place to ourselves.

Nary a place to carve Robert E. Lee’s face.

Monica prides herself on her campfire building, and she dd not disappoint. Cloudland Canyon offered us our last chance to wear long sleeves for a couple months as we prepared to head back into the steamy south.

As September came to a close, so did our summer travels. 2020 has been a year like no other. As the entire world has been challenged by the pandemic, we’ve all been forced to adapt. Thus far, our families have been largely spared from the tragedy of COVID – although several members of our extended family have had milder cases. For us, COVID has given us a chance get a close look at our children’s academic progress. Homeschooling has taught us all a lot about learning and it is one of the many aspects of this remarkable year that has brought us closer together as a family. In the RV we were more comfortable, more frugal, and far more relaxed. As a couple and as parents, Monica and I have had the chance pause and take inventory of the way we live and what is important. And we’ve come through 2020 with more gratitude and a better understanding of each other and how we will approach our life ahead.

As I write this, we’re past Christmas and we’ve had a several more short trips under our belt and a very busy 2021 planned. Thanks for joining us in 2020 and keep coming back for more in the new (and hopefully much improved) year.

“Don’t make me turn this van around” is written by Jonathan Kile, and approved by Monica Kile. Jon’s 2014 thriller, The Grandfather Clock, is available free for Kindle on Amazon.com and other eReaders at Smashwords. Reach him at jkilewrites@gmail.com. Monica is a non-profit consultant, grant writer, marathoner, baker, tour guide, and prolific bath taker. Also, don’t forget to follow our Instagram feed for stuff that doesn’t make the blog.


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