This past weekend I went camping for the 1st time in 2 years, returning to Fall Creek Falls, a personal favorite, for the 1st time in 4 years. One of the reasons I was so excited to move my family back to Northern Alabama this summer is because I missed easy access to the outdoors. Now that I am a stay-at-home dad, I also have the flexibility in my schedule to take the kids on camping trips to see some of the most marvelous places that God created. I ran outside nearly everyday in Indiana, but the outdoors in Indiana is not the same as the outdoors here. My memories of the scenery in this part of the country were brought back to life as I drove 4 kids from Guntersville, AL to Fall Creek Falls State Park in East Tennessee last Thursday morning. From Lake Guntersville, to the Tennessee River, to the foothills of the Smokies, to Cane Creek to the curvy roads along the way, the entire 125 mile drive was beautiful, often times even breathtaking after spending the last couple years in barren North Central Indiana. I was eager to get to Fall Creek Falls because it has always been one of my favorite places in the world, and for quite awhile I have been wanting my kids to experience it. I knew the park would be beautiful, but I was delightfully surprised that the drive was also so scenic.
4 KIDS ON A CAMPING TRIP
Not only did I take my 3 kids (ages 3, 4 & 6), but I also brought my little 10-year-old brother-in-law Kalon on the camping trip. Kalon and Sam (my youngest) were both on their 1st ever camping trips. Kalon is a typical 10-year-old who struggled to go without Netflix and his Xbox for 3 days, but he survived. I knew Will would do great, and I hoped that Julie Beth had not become too girly for camping since her 1st camping trip 2 years ago. As a 3-year-old, Sam was a total wildcard. I really wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into taking 4 kids camping, but I luckily had some help. My dad joined us at Fall Creek Falls for most of the trip, and my father-in-law came for 1 night too. Having them helped tremendously, especially cooking dinner and keeping the kids safe on hikes.
CAMPING IN A THUNDERSTORM
It rained… and rained… and rained the whole 1st day… and night, all night. When I say it rained, I mean it stormed hard for awhile. When the Weather app said the chances of rain were only 20%, it still poured. When the Weather app said the chances of rain were 5% and even 0%, somehow it still kept raining well into the 2nd day of the trip. Now this was not my first time camping in the rain, as this has happened countless times in the past, but I was concerned that it would derail this camping trip with the kids and make them miserable and whiny. They actually had fun with it though, and accepted that they would just be wet. Kalon immediately made-up Indian names for everyone and focused everyone on the adventure of it all, rather than the negatives of the situation.
During especially bad downpours they got to play in the car or take shelter in the tent. On Amazon Prime Day a few weeks ago, I found a great deal, nearly 50% off on a new 8-person Coleman tent. Rather than using 2 small tents, I opted to go for 1 mega-tent, and it worked out really well. It did leak slightly in 1 corner of the tent, but I will Scotchgard it before I take it camping in the rain again. Overall I was very well pleased, and it was plenty big for everyone, fitting 4 ground-pads and 3 twin air mattresses. It kept us mostly dry at night, and that is more than I can say for some other tents I have owned in the past. All in all, the rain was annoying but made for a memorable trip, and I was impressed with how all the kids handled the constant rain and were able to see it as all part of the adventure.
HIKING & CLIMBING ADVENTURES WITH KIDS
Even more impressive and surprising than the way everyone handled the rain was the way the kids handled the hiking and climbing on often slippery rocks. Even 3-year-old Sam was great on the trails! We hiked to the bottom of Fall Creek Falls, the 256-foot waterfall which is the tallest waterfall in the United States East of the Mississippi River. The trail was less than a mile each way, but it was very rocky, and while adults can easily hike over and around the medium sized rocks, Sam had to climb up and over basically every rock along the way. This made the hike take awhile, as I held Sam’s hand and helped him every step of the way, but Sam LOVED it! It was such an adventure for him, and he felt like a real explorer.
At home Sam screams for a napkin the moment he gets a drop of jelly on his hand, but on the trail he got filthy and wet without complaint. He probably slipped and fell (no major falls) 20+ times on this trip, and he would often laugh and say “that was fun!” He had a few small scratches and tons of mud/dirt all over his legs, arms & bottom, but he was having the time of his life! Not knowing what to expect from Sam on his 1st camping trip, I quickly became a very proud Daddy.
While I was very impressed with Sam for the way he handled the hike/climb down to the bottom of Fall Creek Falls (and back up), the other kids made me proud too; super-girly Julie Beth handled herself well as the only girl on the trip. She loved hiking and climbing on the rocks too, and she was very adventurous. Julie Beth especially loved the Cascades, which is an area of small waterfalls that create nature water-slides. The same girl who I had to drag up the stairs to go down a small, kiddy water-slide at Spring Valley Beach a month ago wanted to ride these rocky waterfalls over and over again!
After we finished hiking up and down the Fall Creek Falls trail, they wanted to do more and more hiking. The rest of the trip they wanted to do every little trail we could find. When we were hiking I was actually constantly yelling at Julie Beth and Will off in the distance as they kept getting too far ahead of me and Sam. They were just loving the experience and didn’t understand that they could get lost in the woods or fall off a cliff, so I had more than 1 stern conversations with them. I think we can have some really great hiking/camping adventures together in the future as they get older and I can loosen up that protective leash a bit.
IN AWE OF GOD’S BEAUTIFUL CREATION
I have been going to Fall Creek Falls State Park my whole life, including family camping trips as a kid, church camp as a teenager, numerous trips with friends in college and multiple youth group camping trips I led as a youth minister. I have been there quite a bit, and every time I go I am always overwhelmed by the beauty, creativity and amazing power of God’s awesome creation. I can say the same thing about National Parks I have visited all over the country, but this is like my home park, the place I love the most. I really enjoy the waterfalls at the park, but my favorite view in the park is actually a gorge overlook called Buzzard’s Roost. It is a natural rock platform that protrudes from the surrounding terrain, so you have an amazing view from 3 different sides of numerous valleys and gorges. Not only is the view breathtaking, but it is also secluded from most of the tourists. There is a parking area at nearby Millikan’s Overlook, which has a great view too but nothing like Buzzard’s Roost. Just to the right of Millikan’s Overlook is a trail that leads Buzzard’s Roost, but the trail is unmarked. It is also not mentioned in the official park flyers and trail maps. When we went hiked down to Buzzard’s Roost for the 2nd time on this trip, it was noon on Saturday, and the park had become very crowded. While the parking area at Millikan’s Overlook was packed full, we were the only ones at Buzzard’s Roost because the dozens of other people simply did not know about it. Because I’ve been coming my whole life, I know several other secrets like this, but my kids are not old enough yet to do some of the more dangerous unmapped excursions. One day they will see this already beautiful park in a whole new light when I take them on some new challenges.
EVERYONE’S FAVORITE PARTS
Buzzard’s Roost has been my favorite spot in the park for awhile now, but I figured the kids would be more impressed with all the waterfalls. However, Will especially loved Buzzard’s Roost. Perhaps my 6-year-old is just wise enough to appreciate the quiet, remote beauty of such a place. He did say, “This looks like a great place to just sit and rest for awhile.” Or perhaps he was just enthralled by the dangerous possibility of falling hundreds of feet from all 3 sides of the rock face, which has no guard rails. Either way it felt good knowing that Will loved this particular spot as much as his father, and I look forward to appreciating more of God’s marvelous creations with my son in the future!
Julie Beth says her favorite part was hiking and climbing over so many rocks. She kept asking for more and more hiking trails.
Sam says his favorite parts were the swinging bridges (we walked across 3 of them) and the waterfalls.
Kalon’s favorite parts were walking around with his “spear,” playing with the campfire and getting home to air conditioning and Xbox.
Lastly, the kids did get to see a bit of wildlife, but luckily we did not come across any bears, skunks, snakes or angry raccoons.
FUTURE CAMPING TRIPS
It was great to end the summer with this fun camping trip right before everyone starts back to school this week. In the days since we came home the kids have been begging to go back, so I think we can count this as a very successful trip. Praise God for keeping us safe as we endured the storms, climbed on slippery rocks and inched close to the edge of deadly cliffs. It went well enough that I think the kids will be ready for another trip later this Fall when the leaves are changing, and I look forward to countless camping trips with my kids in the future!