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The South is NOT Warm - A Road Trip

Late fall is a slower time of year for me: my backpacking trips are done for the year, and most of the boaters are done for the season, so I don’t get many dive calls. In the past I’ve enjoyed traveling during this time. This year, in the late summer and early fall I experienced a series of unexpected and severe personal losses and have had a lot of grief to manage. Because of this I didn’t have time to plan anything. I still thought it would be good to go; for me it’s helpful to be out in nature getting some exercise and experiencing new places. I initially thought I would go kayak camping at the Outer Banks, but with Hurricane Nicole it really wasn’t feasible.


I found one location to start with and figured that was close enough to a plan. Grayson Lake in Kentucky was supposed to be pretty, so seemed like a good start. However, what was a bad start was that I was rear-ended in Detroit, only twenty minutes after leaving! Fortunately, everyone was okay and the damage wasn’t bad, but between that and me timing the trip to coincide with a hurricane, plus the events preceding the trip, it didn’t seem too promising.

Some wonderful Ohio scenery.

But whatever. I did get to my destination as planned, with a few stops. I really can’t drive for very long without breaks, so it takes me a long time to get anywhere. The bad thing about traveling solo is that I do have to stop often, but the good thing is that I can take however much time I want and stop to look at anything I find interesting. I really am in awe of long-distance drivers.


With that, I arrived at Grayson Lake State Park closer to sunset than I would have liked, but I decided to just go on the hike I was hoping to do anyways. I really needed to stretch my legs after all that sitting and I have a headlamp. It was about three miles total, out to see a waterfall that runs into the lake and to an area I was thinking about paddling to the next day. It was that time of day when the deer are very active and I saw quite a few, even though I was very loud walking in all the fallen leaves.

The falls were dry; I found out later that this area had been in a drought for quite a while. But the lake has sheer sandstone canyons and was absolutely beautiful in the sunset light. After seeing it I was glad I picked that location. The lake is a reservoir from an impounded river, but it has many forks and you could spend a lot of time exploring.

 

Paddling at Grayson Lake State Park - Kentucky


In the morning it was raining (as it had been all night) and very foggy, but quite warm. I launched at a very long, steep ramp near a bridge and had a lot of water to pump out of my kayak before I could start paddling. It was too warm even for a wetsuit, and the water felt balmy after being in Michigan. I first paddled maybe four miles one way to the spot I saw on foot the previous day, exploring some of the coves along the way. Some unfortunately had graffiti, but many areas felt very remote and natural. I didn’t see anyone all day, likely because of the weather. I believe it’s a popular area in the summer.

I saw a few hawks and managed to get a blurry picture of a bald eagle. It’s not a good picture, but its slightly better than any I’ve taken before. This area was even more beautiful from the water. After reaching my goal, I went back and went about two miles past the boat launch to get to a very popular spot called the Grotto. I believe it’s mostly popular because it’s close to the launch. Because of the draught, the water level in the reservoir was quite low, so I couldn’t really get all the way back deep into that area (and that waterfall wouldn’t be running either), but it still didn’t seem quite as remarkable to me as the first area I visited.


By this time the rain had picked up and was no longer a drizzle. For the two-mile paddle back to the launch, it was pouring. I even had to take off my headphones! I did see one river otter really enjoying a swim; they’re always fun to see. Along the way I also saw big gelatinous blobs attached to submerged branches. I had to look it up, but they are bryozoan colonies, invertebrates that are typically a sign of good water quality. From the time I got out of the kayak to the time I walked to the car and drove down the ramp, the boat had filled up with enough water that I had to pump it out again.

I learned the heavy rain was from the hurricane and was going to continue for at least another couple of days. I saw slightly drier weather on the radar map to the west, so decided to drive towards Mammoth Caves to visit the next day. This involved crossing into the next time zone, and I thought 5:30 was too early for sunset... in that area sunset was 4:30 PM!


 

Mammoth Cave National Park - Kentucky


At Mammoth Cave I was up early with thoughts of a morning hike before the cave tour I had booked. Because I hadn’t planned ahead and perhaps also because it happened to be a Saturday, most of the tours were full. Just one tour had spots open, and it was one of the earlier ones which sounded good to me. Booking a tour is important at this park as you can’t go into the caves otherwise. I was told they ended up with too much graffiti when visitors were unsupervised. We are ridiculous. It was raining heavily again this morning and my boat had ice on it. I waited until the rain lessened and then walked about two miles to see an overlook to the Green River and a few cave entrances.

View of the Green River.

The tour group was very big, perhaps thirty or forty people. The guides did a great job and there was a lot of interesting history. The Mammoth Cave system is so far known to be over four hundred miles, all naturally formed. Seven of those miles are lit for tours, which seems like a pretty incredible feat. The tour I was on covered perhaps two or two and a half miles, and there was a lot to see. Something that surprised me was how long tours have been the primary activity there; the early tour guides were enslaved and brought in for that purpose.

Afterwards I did buy a souvenir mug, which is a little ridiculous as I drink out of the same mug every day, but I liked the design and maybe a guest will use it. I also went hiking a bit more, maybe four miles. There were a lot of stairs, both on the trails and in the caves, and compared to the freezing outside temperature the caves were very warm! There was some nice scenery by the river and it was an enjoyable hike. Afterwards I decided to go to one more cave for a tour. Mammoth Cave doesn’t have the stalactite and stalagmite formations because water doesn’t come in from above, but the tour guide had mentioned a privately owned cave that did have those features, Diamond Caverns.


This tour was much different from the first one: it was led by a teenager instead of a National Parks employee, only had a few people besides myself, and was a much shorter walk, perhaps a half mile or so. The guide did a great job and it was interesting to hear about the competition between the various cave tour operations during the Depression years; it was apparently very cutthroat. The formations were incredible to see, and I’m glad I went to both places.


 

Waterfalls at Burgess Falls & Rock Island State Parks - Tennessee


The next day I was up very early for some reason, and drove a couple of hours to Burgess Falls State Park, in Tennessee. It was very cold (around 30 degrees) and I arrived before the gate (on a timer) opened, but I didn’t mind waiting. One thing I like about Tennessee State Parks is that admission is always free; every one that I stopped at had a gift shop instead of entry fees. One thing I don’t like is that some of them have gates that don’t open until 8:00 AM. I like hiking in the morning, especially when the sun sets so early; I like to be up for all the limited daytime, so this seems a little late to me.