The Great Escape: Lake Greenwood State Park (Take II)

(Super belated. Sorry!)

I have a confession. I hate fireworks.

Okay, let me clarify that a bit. I don’t hate all fireworks. I just hate when my neighbors shoot off commercial grade fireworks in my subdivision for days before and after any “fireworks holiday.” I know that may make me sound a bit like a Karen, but so be it. I’ve just never understood spending hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars on something you literally blow up. My aversion only got worse once we had kids that we had to try to put to bed in what sounded like a war zone.

Each to their own, I guess.

So, since I can’t stop everyone from living out their pyrotechnic dreams, I made the vow that we were going to get out of dodge for the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve for the foreseeable future. This year we put the plan into action, and headed to Lake Greenwood State Park to celebrate the Fourth.

After our first trip to Lake Greenwood, I was a bit nervous to return, but thankfully, everyone was healthy this time around. We stayed at Campground 2, on site 121. It was a fairly short site, but we didn’t have any issues parking our 24’ Jayco and our Jeep. And the view was awesome! I know I say that a lot, but what do I say, we’ve found some pretty awesome lakefront sites lately.

The only drawbacks of the site were the lack of substantial shade and large rocks that made accessing the water challenging. But did I mention the view? It would be the perfect site for fall or winter, but for July it was HOT. My in-laws tagged along in what Steven affectionately calls the Monstrosity. They stayed on site 124, a large pull through on top of a hill. They struggled to get their 36’ fifth-wheel level on the site, and had even less shade than we had.

We also had a strange incident where some fellow campers decided our site was their personal boat launch. If they had approached us and politely asked if they could tie-up at our site, we probably wouldn’t have thought much of it. But they didn’t say a word to us as they trekked across our site smoking and hauling coolers of beer. Plus, they came back from the fireworks display on Friday night in the wee hours of the morning on Saturday. They may have been great people, but I wasn’t comfortable having people on our site in the middle of the night, so Steven finally had to ask them to move. Interestingly, some of our friends recently had a similar encounter at Lake Greenwood where a family set-up their chairs right in front of their site. So, maybe it’s just something about that park?

Steven caught a fish… by hand! 😂

But despite the heat and small inconveniences, we still had a good time, especially since fireworks were prohibited inside the park. Actually, our site provided a great vantage to watch the fireworks that were being launched on the other side of the lake, but was still quiet enough for us all to get a good night’s sleep. Perfect! I’m sure we’ll give Lake Greenwood another shot, but as mentioned in my Lake Greenwood post, I think we’ll be looking toward the mountains for the Fourth of July next year!

Tried to get a cute Fourth of July picture, but this captures their true personalities better!

Exploring the Upstate: Lake Hartwell State Park

Note: I’m behind. I was planning to write a post about our trip to Lake Greenwood State Park, but… life. So, I decided to go ahead and write about our more recent trip while it was still fresh in my mind.

During our Fourth of July trip to Lake Greenwood State Park, which was beautiful, but sweltering, I repeatedly said that next summer we needed to spend more time in the mountains. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait a whole year. In fact, we only had to wait a few weeks to escape to Lake Hartwell State Park and the mountains of the South Carolina Upstate.

We’ve made a few trips to the mountains, including a trip to Greenbrier Campground in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and a great trip to the Yogi Bear Golden Valley in Bostic, North Carolina, but this was our first time truly exploring the mountains in our own state. I booked Lake Hartwell on a whim last November during the South Carolina State Parks’ Black Friday Sale, which meant we got three nights for the bargain price of $42.

I’d heard mixed reviews of the park, and didn’t have overly high expectations. So, when we arrived I was very pleasantly surprised. We were on site 46, arguably one of the best sites in the park. As is the case at a lot of lake front parks, the sites were a bit tight, but we still had plenty of room. Plus, the view was amazing, and we had shade (win-win)! We also had great water access right from the back of our site. The bottom of the cove was pretty level and didn’t have a lot of rocks or branches, making it perfect for wading. (The only word of caution that I’ll offer is that there is a good bit of red clay on the bank and on the lake bed, so you WILL stain your bedding if you happen to bump into it with wet clothes.)

The drive up to Lake Hartwell was easier than expected too. From Lexington we took 178 up to 85, and we were able to make it in about three hours. Somehow, miraculously, we actually made the whole trip without a single stop, and both kids took naps! We spent Thursday evening relaxing with my Dad and his girlfriend, who drove down from Indiana (they were on site 48, which was smaller and didn’t have great access to the water).

On Friday, we ventured across the state line to Georgia to Harbor Light Marina (highly recommend) to rent a pontoon boat. Everyone at the marina was very friendly, and the boat was practically brand new (we rented the 65hp 18ft pontoon). We cruised up the Tugaloo portion of the lake looking for fish, but didn’t have any luck since the water was so warm. Even without fishing success, we had a great day, and the boys had a successful first boat trip.

On Saturday we decided to venture out and explore. First, we headed up to Stumphouse Park to see the Stumphouse Tunnel and Isaqueena Falls. The tunnel, built in the 1850s, was intended to be part of a railroad line connecting Charleston, South Carolina, to Cincinnati, Ohio, but the project ran into financial trouble and was never finished. (Fun Fact: It was later used to cure blue cheese.) The tunnel really is an impressive sight and a refreshing place to explore since it stays cool inside even in the summer.

The waterfall, one of many in the Upstate, was beautiful too. Unfortunately, our time admiring it was cut short when a thunderstorm brought a lightning strike a little too close for comfort. While we waited for the storm to pass we decided to stop at Mountain Mocha, a coffee shop and café in Walhalla, South Carolina, to get lunch. The food was great and the atmosphere was even better.

But the most memorable part of trip was still to come.

We decided to trek north toward Lake Keowee, and realized we were close to Lake Jocassee. For years Steven has been saying he wanted to drive Horse Pasture Road and take me to Jumping Off Rock Overlook, so we figured this was the perfect opportunity. We almost gave up on the mission when the directions from my iphone sent us to a dead end into a gated community. But after a little research and consulting SC DNR’s maps, we found the correct route. From HWY 178 to Jumpoff Rock is about 10 miles on Horse Pasture Road. The road itself is in good shape, but very winding, so it took almost an hour to make it to our destination.

Finally, we made it to a pipe gate marking the end of the road. The only other indicator we’d found our destination was a small sign nailed to a tree and a rough trail up the side of the hill. From the road you’d have no idea what waited at the top.

After a short walk, you crest the hill and are left awestruck by a panoramic view of Lake Jocassee and the surrounding mountains.

It is truly breathtaking. I didn’t want to leave, but Steven said DNR wouldn’t take well to me homesteading on their land, so eventually we made our way back to civilization.

The next day we even more reluctantly (a common theme on these trips) packed to head home. I may or may not have tried to convince Steven to stay another day. Our little weekend camping trips are our one escape during these crazy times, and even the boys seem more relaxed and centered when we’re out enjoying nature. Thankfully, we have more trips scheduled for August to look forward to, and until then, we have our memories and lots of pictures!

Summer in the South: Edisto Beach State Park

Summer in the South has a way of sneaking up on you. Around late July you start thinking “we’ve made it through the worst of it. Fall will be here soon.”

Maybe it’s all the Back to School activities, the excitement of football season looming, or just a defense mechanism we’ve developed to survive in the sweltering heat. Regardless the origin of this false hope, I’m here to warn you to resist complacency. As soon as you let your guard down and start daydreaming about campfires and pumpkins, August will smack you right across the face with its big, sweaty hand.

If you are thinking I sound like I’ve been personally victimized by August, you are right. You see, I let my guard down.

The last few weeks of July were milder than normal. Thoughts of mosquito free evenings and crisp fall mornings crept into my mind. In my delirium, I decided we should take a camping trip to the beach before summer faded away.

We packed up and headed to Edisto Beach State Park, excited to enjoy the crashing waves and ocean breeze. Instead we singed our feet on the hot sand and nearly melted into puddles of sweat.

Don’t get me wrong. The campground and beach were beautiful. We even were treated to an awe-inspiring rainbow, gorgeous sunrises and tiny sea turtle hatchlings being rescued from their nests.

But it was just too hot.

It was manageable on the beach with the breeze coming off the water, but once we climbed back over the dunes to our campsite the heat became unbearable. But did I mention the walk to the beach from our site was literally less than 60 seconds? You can’t beat that!

We did decide to check out the Edisto Island Serpentarium on Saturday morning to distract ourselves from the oppressive heat (and humidity). They had a great collection of snakes, alligators, crocodiles, turtles, and more. The toddler enjoyed checking out the critters, as did Mom and Dad. (Tip: If you have a state park pass, they offer a 15 percent discount and kids 4 and under are free.)

We scoped out some great sites and can’t wait to plan another trip in the late Fall or Spring.

So, for those of you suffering with us, stay vigilant! Officially, there are 39 days left until Fall, but let’s be honest, sometimes Fall doesn’t show up at all. It was 80+ degrees on Halloween last year.

So, until that magically day when we wake up and discover jacket weather has arrived, you can find us huddled around our air vents and fans. And next August we’ll be smarter and head to the mountains!

Rocky Top: Our Trip to the Great Smoky Mountains

After our excursion to Cook’s Mountain a few weeks ago, we were ready to spend some time in the actual mountains. Luckily, we already had a long weekend planned in the Smokies.

It was a pretty big adventure since we’d never even taken our camper on the interstate yet, let alone into the mountains. We had been pretty nervous about towing up (and down) Saluda Mountain and Green River Gorge, but the ‘ole family truckster did amazing. In fact, we were really surprised at just how well the 4runner pulled in the mountains.

It took us about six hours to get to Gatlinburg from Lexington, S.C., including bathroom breaks, baby feeding breaks, and a lunch stop. We’d been warned to avoid the Foothills Parkway on our way into Gatlinburg, so we stayed on 321 through Cosby and didn’t encounter any treacherous roads.

We stayed at Greenbrier Campground about five miles east of Gatlinburg, and right across from the Greenbrier entrance to Smoky Mountains National Park. Our site was in the newly developed section of the campground. The site itself was amazing. It backed right up to the Little Pigeon River and was perfectly level. The sites were fairly close to the road, but we didn’t have any issues with road noise. The older part of the grounds was being renovated and featured a nice, modern bathhouse and a well maintained playground.

Our only complaint was the lack of the advertised amenities in the new section. We were excited there would be a playground right across our site to entertain our toddler, but when we arrived we discovered an empty field where the online map had shown the playground. The bath house in the new section also was still under construction. When we mentioned our disappointment about the playground to the front office, they brushed it off and said a lot of people had been disappointed. If that was the case, then it seems like they would put a disclaimer on their website about construction being behind. Thankfully, the beauty of site itself made up for the elusive playground.

We spent our first evening relaxing at the campground. Steven found a nice grocery store about 3 miles from the campground and grabbed some items to make a great dinner. He did mention prices did seem to include a bit of a tourist tax, so keep that in mind when planning.

Day 2: Great Smoky Mountain National Park (Greenbrier and Roaring Forks)

The next day we set out to explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Well, at least some of it, since it covers 522,419 acres or 816.28 square miles. We drove the trials through the Greenbrier section of the park first. And holy butterflies! As we drove 1,000s of brightly colored butterflies fluttered over and around the truck. After following the river deep into the park and enjoying the pristine scenery, we made our way back toward the entrance. We decided to pull off at a parking area right before the entrance to do some exploration on foot. The boys (and mom) quickly stripped off our shoes to dip our toes in the cool water, which was particularly nice since the mercury was starting to rise.

Next, after a lunch break, we drove through downtown Gatlinburg to enter the park further west and do the Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail, a one-way, 6-mile, scenic loop. Roaring Forks was a fun drive filled with lots of twists and turns. There were several trailheads tucked into the trail, some roaring (thus the name of the area) rapids, small waterfalls, and a couple of scenic overlooks. The end of the trail put us back out on the eastern side of Gatlinburg near our camp, so we went back to the campground to enjoy dinner and a campfire.

Day 3: Sky Bridge and Clingman’s Dome

In the weeks leading up to our trip we’d seen several stories about the new Gatlinburg SkyBridge. The attraction, which just officially opened on May 17th, is the longest suspension bridge in North America at 680 ft. across. Excited by the opportunity to be among the first to cross the bridge, we decided to give it a try on Sunday.

After finding a parking spot ($10), we stood in line for the chair lift up to the bridge. Tickets for the experience are $19.95 for adults (12-64) with discounts for kids age 4-11 and seniors 65+. Children 3 and under are free. The line moved quickly and we were soon being shepherded onto the SkyLife (aka chair lift). The view from the SkyLift was beautiful, but there are no seatbelts, so be prepared to hold on tight to any small children.

Just before we boarded the SkyLift we heard an announcement that they were going to pause ticket sales because of high winds on the SkyDeck. We didn’t give much thought to the announcement other than to be thankful we got our tickets when we did. However, once we got to the top, we realized the high winds meant the SkyBridge also was temporarily, but indefinitely closed. Employees suggested we get back in line to head back down the mountain because there was a chance the SkyLift could also be closed. We decided to take a closer look at the SkyBridge and SkyDeck while the line died down. What a view!

After milling around for a few more minutes, we accepted defeat, and made our way back to the SkyLift. But wait! Seconds before climbing onto the lift, I turned around and saw people pouring onto the SkyBridge. It was open! We made a beeline back to the entrance of the bridge, not wanting to miss our opportunity to cross before more wind rolled in. We stepped out onto the wooden planks and slowly began to cross. The bridge had a bit of the bounce and sway you’d expect from a suspension bridge, but overall felt very sturdy. The middle of the bridge features three glass panels that allow you to look down on the 100 feet tall trees below: a truly special experience!

After conquering the bridge (with two kids in tow), we made our way back down to street level. We ate an early lunch and did some window shopping at that Nantahala Outdoor Center. Then we headed to Clingman’s Dome. The highest point in Tennessee at 6,600+ feet. From Gatlinburg it’s a 20-mile drive to the top of the mountain, but it takes about 45 minutes to drive, luckily it’s a beautiful drive. Once you reach the end of the road, there’s a trail that takes you the last half mile to the highest elevation.

We were exploring with my Dad and his girlfriend, who were in town from Indiana for the week, and they assured us it wasn’t a bad climb; however, we were still nervous about hiking with a toddler and infant. So, when both kids fell asleep on the ride up the mountain, we decided to take turns trekking up to the observation deck. I headed up first. Everyone who had told me it was an easy climb, clearly didn’t take my life at sea level or lack of regular cardio into consideration. After more than a couple stops at benches the park had thankfully provided, I made it to the top.

When I was able to breathe again, we started back down the trail. I told my Dad I was glad we decided not to try bringing the kids up, since we’d surely have ended up having to carry the toddler. At about that time, I saw a crazy man trudging up the mountain with a baby strapped to his chest and a toddler riding on his shoulders. Then I realized that crazy man was my husband and those were my kids! Apparently, the kids had woken up and wanted Mommy, so he loaded them up and started up the trail. The toddler made it through the parking lot to the trailhead before he said his feet hurt and requested to be carried. I offered to lighten Steven’s load and took the baby back down the mountain, while he and Everett went up to the observation deck.

Finally, everyone (except the baby) having summited Clingman’s Dome, we loaded up to head back to camp. We had another relaxing (other than the occasional tired toddler meltdown) evening listening to the rapids and enjoying the campfire.

Day 4: Santa Claus-et and Home

Since checkout was at 11 a.m., most of day four was packing up camp and getting ready to head home. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our quick trip to Santa Claus-et since it was our son’s favorite activity of the weekend!

We had planned to visit the Christmas-themed store on our way back to camp after Clingman’s Dome, but, unfortunately, it was already closed for the day and wouldn’t reopen until 9:30 a.m. So, after breakfast we made a quick stop. I’m a sucker for a year-round Christmas store because they just make you immediately feel the cheer of the holidays. I also like them because we collect Christmas ornaments on our travels. Our toddler also LOVES Christmas. He also LOVED that Santa Claus-et had a toy room. When I picked him up from daycare on Tuesday and asked him if he told his friends about our trip, he said “yes, I told them I went to the Ho Ho store.” So, it clearly left an impression.

Even if you don’t have kids or a particular affinity for Christmas décor, Santa Claus-et also had their own line of butters and jams, a whole wall of camper flags, and a lot of other fun items.

We left Santa Claus-et with our pockets a little lighter and went back to the campground to finish packing up. It sure was tough to hook-up the camper and say goodbye to Gatlinburg. There was so much more to do! We can’t wait to go back. In fact, I have a feeling this trip was just the beginning of an annual trip to the Great Smoky Mountains!