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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.

Water crossing #1... tempting if it was a little warmer!

I decided to skip the first hike at Window Cliffs because there was a series of nine medium-depth unbridged water crossings, and it just sounded too cold for my interests and reduced constitution. I went to a few shorter waterfall hikes instead. Burgess Falls was especially scenic; there was a group of people there all with tripods, and I don’t blame them.


After that, I went to Rock Island State Park, which had some huge waterfalls, and did a few short walks there. Lastly I walked just a bit at a waterfall at a nature center near my destination for the night, for a total of perhaps eight miles.


 

Paddling at Tims Ford State Park - Tennessee


After not kayaking for a couple of days, I was starting to feel like my kayak was just my emotional support boat; along only to reduce my gas mileage and make the car easier to find in parking lots. I wanted to fix this, so went to Tim’s Ford State Park for a nice long paddle. I arrived at the boat launch around gate opening time; it was nice and sunny but cold, and my boat had a lot of ice in it from all the rain the previous days.

Looking for a snack.

Tim’s Ford is a pretty area, although in a more subdued way than some of the other areas I visited. Again, I saw very few people all day, presumably because of the weather. I did see a family of racoons hanging out by the water. It seemed like their home was a big cave near the shore: they ran into there when I got too close. Before that, one was in the water looking for a snack. I love racoons; they are clever, bold, and persistent. When I guided kayak camping trips in California, they always challenged my clients by sneaking up as soon as their backs were turned to try and steal from the kayaks. Earlier this year, one even liked a collapsible cooking pot I had and took it into the woods to examine!



I also saw a group of five or six deer by the water, a dead armadillo on the shore, and quite a few vultures. The water was again much warmer than the air temperature, which was drysuit-appropriate. I had an early lunch at one of the backcountry campsites the park offers, and stopped at one of the islands for a bit. It ended up being eighteen miles with a headwind on the way back.


 

Hiking at Savage Gulf State Park - Tennessee


This day I decided to do some hiking at Savage Gulf State Park, in Tennessee. It was in the general direction I wanted to go and had some long hiking options. The first hike was Greeter Falls, which was very steep and rocky, and very beautiful. I enjoyed a couple of miles here, but once it started raining heavily I cut it a little short to wait for it to slow down. The next hike was longer, at trailhead called Stone Door. The two trails do connect, but it was going to end up being a longer hike than I wanted with the rain. Stone Door is a rocky cliff with a wide crack, it’s very cool to see! I stayed on the bluffs for a great view of the valley and hiked about seven and a half miles in a loop. It rained the entire time, but not too heavily, and the valley was very pretty in the fog. When I was done I considered another walk, but I was tired of being in the rain, so I decided to instead drive to the next spot I had found.


 

Paddling at Fontana Lake - North Carolina


I woke up early and drove the two hours to Fontana Lake in North Carolina, which is a reservoir of the Little Tennessee River, in the Nantahala National Forest. That whole area is beautiful, and I’d like to try a whitewater paddle over there sometime. But my sea kayak isn’t up for that, so I went to the reservoir. Fontana Lake is over 400’ deep in some areas, and the dam is 480’ high: the tallest east of the Rocky Mountains. This time of year the water levels are lowered, which was interesting to see. There were steep drop offs covered in some interesting shale, and in residential areas, floating docks were tied up far above the waterline. The boat ramp was a longer drive than it usually is, based on the waterline. It was very cold and very windy. The waves were enjoyable, but the map wasn’t really accurate with the low water: some of the islands were connected.

One of many floating cabins.

Except for my hands, I stayed warm enough, especially when I had a headwind. I hadn’t brought my really warm mitts, because I was under the mistaken impression that the south was warm. Fortunately, the water temperature was so high that I could use it to warm my hands up. I did get out of the boat for a bit to stretch and have a snack, and the wind blew my seat pad into the water and I had to paddle after it. My hat blew off shortly after that. I paddled about fourteen miles and enjoyed the Smoky Mountain scenery, and the floating cabins were fun to look at.


That night, I saw elk in the motel parking lot.


 

Hiking at Mt. LeConte - North Carolina


On the last day of my trip, I went hiking in the Smoky Mountains, to Mt. LeConte. I started early and saw the sunrise on the drive to the trailhead; it was about sixteen degrees. I left my spikes in the car foolishly; they would have been very helpful in some places. The first part of the hike followed a river, then the trail goes under a natural rock archway and then past Alum Cave Bluffs, which is an impressive rock overhang about halfway to the peak. On the way back, the sun was strong and the ice on the bluffs were melting, big chunks were falling off onto the trail.

Sunrise in the Smoky Mountains

The trail is about twelve miles round trip and 2,700’ of elevation gain to the top, and it was slow going with the ice. At the summit, there is a lodge with rooms that you can rent. It’s only accessible by foot, although I saw some llamas tied up outside. The llamas carry supplies for the lodge, food, linens, and trash. Apparently, they do well on the rocky trail. The trail had some great views. I hadn’t seen many people on my way up, but by the time I headed back, there were quite a few. It’s a popular trail.


I’m sure I could have found a ton of wonderful hiking at that park, but I decided to start heading back. I drove part of the way back to Michigan that evening, and the next day I only stopped for a short walk at Big Bone Lick State Park to see the bison herd there. It was very cold and windy, so I didn’t hike for long or stop anywhere else.

It was unusually cold and rainy weather most of the trip, but it was nice to see some new places and explore. All in all I drove about 2,000 miles, and funny enough, when I added up my Strava recordings, I both kayaked and hiked about 47 miles each. If I had known that, I would have gone a little further for both and made it an even 100.


~Lisa