Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Rock Town/Pigeon Mountain - LaFayette, Georgia

So far off the beaten path, it's not even on the map. Rock climbers love the vertical walls at RockTown
Rock Town is located in the Crockford/Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Management
Area near LaFayette (pronounced luh-fay-ett) in northeast Georgia. Rock Town should not to be confused with nearby "Rock City," a popular tourist attraction near Chattanooga. Nope, Rock Town is just about as non-tourist as you can get, unless you are a rock climbing or spelunking enthusiast. Rock Town is off the beaten path, but it's well worth the extra effort.

The attraction to Rock Town varies based on the visitor. We love Rock Town because of the scenery, the hike, and small (safe) amounts of climbing. For many others, the towering formations present a free-face rock-climbing challenge. Don't worry, there are plenty of relatively easy and safe climbs, but be careful up on the enormous blocks of stone, especially with small children. Additionally, be smart about where you put your feet and fingers. There are snakes up on Pigeon Mountain. To me, that's one very good reason to go in cold weather when snakes are hibernating.

In order to enjoy Rock Town's beauty, you have to take a little hike. At two miles (round trip), it's not a long hard walk, but it can take a bit longer than you might expect. Various diversions such as scenic mountain views, local wildlife, and enormous rock formations tend to slow the progress in both directions. Don't worry, just make sure to reserve enough daylight to make it back to the parking lot at the trail head.

On a side note, Pigeon Mountain has a secret it keeps hidden deep within, literally. It's a secret that draws people from all over the globe. Like most limestone ridges in this region, Pigeon Mountain is riddled with caves. Pettyjohn's cave provides almost 7 miles of mapped caving. The entrance is located just up the old dirt road from the DNR check-in station at the base of the mountain. Ellison's Cave, also located on/in Pigeon Mountain, features the almost 12 miles of passages and two of the deepest vertical drops in North America.

If you plan to visit Rock Town, go with someone and be very careful. It's very rugged country up there. Stick to the trails and you'll be just fine. Take a walking stick and good walking shoes. Dress appropriately and by all means, HAVE FUN!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Don't Winterize, UTILIZE!

Why you should use your RV during the "off season"

When we purchased our first motorhome, we knew very little about RVing
and the culture that surrounds it. We certainly didn't realize that, even in the southern US, most people park their RV for the winter season and deprive themselves the joys of year-round camping. We were also confused as to why many campgrounds are often partially closed or completely shut-down for the winter season. After all, it's not uncommon for 50-70 degree days in the dead of winter where we live. We have since learned some of the reasons winter is bad for camping, but we choose to ignore any obstacle that can be easily overcome. Why so eager to camp in the winter? Well let's see...

There are many ways to justify keeping the RV on the road year-round. For instance, in winter, campgrounds are much less crowded, so it's a lot easier to get a prime spot. Winter days and nights in most national and state parks are incredibly quiet and peaceful. Have you ever laid in a camper listening to the snow fall? One of our favorite benefits of cold weather camping is the fact that snakes and bears are hibernating. Granted, the colors tend to be grayish, but there are still many beautiful sites in the winter. Frozen waterfalls, frosty leaves, massive pipe organ icicles, bright sunny days, and crystal clear night skies. Views in the mountains are exceptional because the leaves have already fallen. Winter activities like snow skiing and tubing can also be enjoyed while camping. Homer II (our motorhome) was our home during our recent Cataloochee ski trip in Maggie Valley, December 2011

I will be the first to admit there are also inconveniences of winter camping. We learned early-on that RVs aren't typically designed for temperatures far below freezing. The windows are usually single pane (non-insulated), and not well sealed around the edges. In really cold weather, water supply lines can freeze causing the  inconvenience of waking-up with no water as well as possible damage. Other negatives of winter camping are shorter days (later starts, earlier endings), condensation, tons of winter clothes, coats, and boots to pack, and the fact that sometimes your favorite campground is closed (call ahead about off-season closures and available amenities such as water, laundry, and a heated bath house). 

The weather can't be controlled, but most cold-weather camping issues can be resolved with a little common sense. For instance, techniques used to winter-proof a home also apply to an RV. We use plastic sheeting over the windows at the head of our master bed to help seal out the cold air. A heated cord wrapped the water supply hose and spigot helps prevent the loss of water and busted hardware. A small, safely placed space-heater can help conserve LP gas and maintain a more constant temperature in the camper. Many other simple practices can make camping in the cold more enjoyable, including making good decisions about the clothes you wear. Everyone in our family owns a trapper hat, one of the best inventions since fire.

Can't stand the cold? Head south. Florida is a great way to escape the cold of winter. Last year we spent our Christmas-Break camping and canoeing with the manatee in the warm waters of Salt Springs. It was a nice break from the cold winter days of north Georgia. Sometimes that doesn't work though. We once headed south to Albany, Georgia for warmer weather, and it snowed on us (see first picture to the upper right).

To make a long story short, no one told us we weren't supposed to camp in the winter. We just did, and we happened to like it. Don't let anyone tell you camping in the winter is too much hassle. It's different, yes, but if you prepare, winter camping can be very rewarding.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Cataloochee Ski Area - Maggie Valley, NC

Adventure Journal - Entry Date: December 2011
The Richardson Tribe has been to Maggie Valley several times over the past few years, but never in the winter when Cataloochee Ski Area was open. This Christmas, Santa brought the children gift certificates for ski school at Cataloochee, so we felt compelled to check it out. When visiting Maggie Valley in the past, we have always stayed at Stonebridge RV, so we booked their best creek-side site for the week leading up to the new year.

When we arrived at Stonebridge RV park (now owned by NASCAR), we were extremely disappointed in the seemingly poor condition of the park. It turns out, it pretty much shuts down for the winter. No laundry, no game room, inner roads blocked, and on this particular holiday week, the office was closed and no one was around. We couldn't even get horseshoes for the awesome looking horseshoe pits. There was a tarp on the office's roof, and there was a busted water pipe at one of the sites where the water ran all week. Rebecca spoke to the manager on the phone once, but he told her "Lady, I'm on vacation this week." He never returned my call. So, here we are, six of us for six days, with tons winter clothes and no laundry room. Fortunately, Rebecca had over-packed, so we managed. In all fairness, campgrounds winterizing and shutting-down for the season is pretty common. However, prior to our visit, we were receiving daily emails advertising how wonderful the place is in the winter. We'll have to reconsider where to stay on our next trip to Maggie Valley.
On our first full day in Maggie Valley, we thought we'd survey the situation at Cataloochee to determine when and where we needed to be the next morning to enroll the kids in ski school. Unfortunately, we were turned away a the base of the mountain because the ski area was filled to capacity. We were told to get there very early the next morning, and that's just what we did.
The kids' ski day was on the Friday before New Years Eve. Cataloochee Ski Area was packed with folks on holiday, but that didn't hinder the fun. Even with the crowd of people, everything went off without a hitch. We had all the kids in some exceptional rental boots and skis in no time. Although Santa brought some silly ski hats, we put helmets on the kids. The helmets were to protect the kids from other klutzy skiers more than falls. There were a lot of beginners out there.
After registering the kids for ski school, we left them in the care of the competent ski instructors (as we lurked in the shadows). They spent the entire day spoiling the kids with snack breaks and pizza for lunch. By mid-day, our four kids were all working with a single instructor that gave them lots of personal attention. By mid afternoon, the entire Richardson Tribe papooses were loading-up on the lift and skiing down the big hill. They seemed like naturals rarely falling at all. We expected them to be exhausted and sore after so much ski time, but we practically had to drag them away (especially Lainey - see group picture as we were leaving).

For lunch and occasional warm-up breaks, Rebecca and I visited the lodge. This two-story structure is very much utilitarian with a cafeteria-like food service area, a bar, and lots of tables and seating. The place was packed though, and finding a seat was a challenge. In general, the ski area is quite different from some of the ski resorts Rebecca and I have visited out west. It's a ski area, not a resort. We have to keep reminding ourselves not to compare. After all, flying west, renting a van, and finding affordable housing with four kids in Colorado would probably require a second mortgage. Yup, Cataloochee will do, and do quite nicely thank you.
For a complete write-up and dozens of pictures click here.


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Biltmore Estate - Asheville, North Carolina

Unimaginable Beauty and Luxury
The Biltmore Estate is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. The home was built between 1889 and 1895 as a Summer home by George Vanderbilt, one of the wealthiest men in the world at the time. Over the course of six years, hundreds of designers, architects, artisans and craftsmen were employed to complete the 135,000 square foot chateau. The home features 250 rooms, an indoor lighted pool, a two-lane bowling alley, a work-out room, an intercom system, elaborate horse stables, and hundreds of priceless antiques, artworks, and various other furnishings. Visiting the home is a memorable experience (and you will have to remember it, because no interior photography is allowed). The adult admission (as of 01/01/2011) is $75 which seems a bit steep, but Kids nine and under are free. That makes it a decent value for a large family, especially considering it's an all day event.

In addition to the home's lavish interior, the grounds are breathtaking. The landscape was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the architect of New York's Central Park. Plush gardens and native flora and fauna abound throughout the 8.000 acre estate. Keep in mind, landscaping was completed in the 1890s, so much of the shrubbery is very very old and massive. The "tree trunks" you see in the image to the right is wisteria.

Also on the estate is Antler Hill Village that hosts a winery, shops, and farm (including a petting zoo). Honestly, the farm is the biggest hit with the kids. The animals are very friendly, as is the staff. The old barn at the Biltmore farm has been restored and features a black smith and wood artisan demonstrating their craft. Additionally, the barn is a sort of museum displaying dozens of old farm implements. The highly-rated winery features a tour and tasting session.

The Biltmore Estate caters to active families by providing miles of biking and walking paths. Bikes can be rented on-site. Additionally, visitors can  enjoy exclusive activities such as a Land Rover driving experience or an off-road Segway tour.

If you're considering a stay at Biltmore Estate, there are cottages and an
Inn (starting around $480 per night for two) on the property. No, you cannot stay in the "big house."  We typically stay on Jonathon Creek in our RV in nearby Maggie Valley for about $33 per night.

In summary, the Biltmore Estate is a wonderful place to take the family. The kids will be remarkably entertained, even in the house. Our best advice, however, is to arrive early and plan on staying the entire day. You will not be disappointed.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Chattanooga Zoo - Chattanooga, Tennessee

An Unexpected Surprise - More 
Adventure Journal - Entry Date: November 2011
It's been a few years since we last visited the Chattanooga Zoo. In fact, the last time we came to the park was in 2007 on our very first camping trip in our old motorhome (Homer I). We really liked the zoo back then, but its location and entry left a lot to be desired.
Now, fast forward almost five years...

When we arrived at the zoo on this visit, we were pleasantly surprised to see a beautiful new entrance and gift shop. Apparently, the Chattanooga community is investing a lot of money into make their zoo a top-notch facility, and they spared no dime on work completed thus far. Even in Winter, it's obvious the landscaping is beautiful. A family of sculptured bronze chimpanzees welcomed us as we passed through the front gate.

Once in the park things began to look more familiar. It's a relatively small zoo, but there is a wide variety of animals on display. The kids were immediately drawn to the large chimpanzee exhibit in the center of the zoo. The chimps have a large outside area which resembles a jungle with vines draped around for play. Only glass separates visitors from the chimpanzees, and the animals seem to like the attention. They will come up to the glass and make gestures at the strange humans on the other side of the glass.

As we wandered through the zoo, the children were constantly entertained by the animals. We really love goats and other domestic livestock, so the "Warner Park Ranch" part of the zoo was especially popular for us. We also enjoyed the red pandas, parrots, snow leopards, and various monkeys. There is something really special about seeing these animals up close.

As a part of the park's renovation, they will be updating many of the habitats as well as adding a whole new section. We are excited at the prospect of having such a nice zoo in Chattanooga, and can't wait for the changes to take place. If you are interested in visiting, don't wait for the changes. The zoo needs support now, and you will not be disappointed.

For more information about the Chattanooga Zoo including dozens of pictures, click here.