Monthly Archives: May 2019

Hangin’ In The Hometown


I’ve returned to my roots — literally — to Anderson, Indiana. As they say in the Midwest, I was “born and raised” here. I took my first steps, had my first job, my first crush, and graduated through college in this town before moving away in my mid-twenties. Although I’ve visited at least once per year since, I haven’t spend this length of time here since I left.

A lot has changed over the years. Once a booming General Motors town, the automotive industry pull-out has left the town struggling financially. Although some new businesses have moved in, the impact can be seen in the overall population decline. Empty commercial buildings and homes are numerous and obvious. Where once there were three high schools in town, now there is only one.

And speaking of high schools, mine no longer exists! Well, the building exists, but it has been re-branded. During the consolidation effort, the old Anderson High School facility was demolished. The newer Madison Heights High School facility (my alma mater) was renamed Anderson High School. What’s up with that?! R.I.P. Madison Heights.

It’s not all gloom and doom, though. The south end of town, near the new Harrah’s Hoosier Park harness race track / casino appears to be thriving. Jeff was pleasantly surprised to find a small network of mountain bike trails near our campground. There is a thriving arts scene, a lovely small State Park (Mounds Park), and the people are just super nice. If there’s not much in the way of “fine dining” in town, Indianapolis isn’t far away with all sorts of dining, shopping and entertainment options.

The main reason we’re here is to visit family. Fitting back into everyone’s daily lives is like slipping on a pair of comfortable shoes – just so easy. It’s back to family dinners, helping with projects, going to church service, catching a movie, or just hanging out. My sister is Assistant Directing the musical “Into The Woods” at the local Mainstage Community Theater, so of course I volunteered to help. I was able to help paint scenery and attend the “preview” dress rehearsal. When the play opened, we went out to dinner and the show as a family group. Jeff purchased Indy 500 “time trial” track / pit tickets and spent days hanging out at the track with his brother. It’s been just wonderful.

Jeff is starting to get a bit antsy, ready to move on to new things and new places. Part of it has been the changeable weather – I grew up here, but forgot what it’s like! The early-summer temperature swings from hot to cold also lead to frequent rains and sweeping severe thunderstorm fronts. We were at a movie theater with my sister and brother-in-law on Memorial Day night when the movie was halted due to a tornado warning in the area. It is a bit nerve wracking during severe weather when everything you own is sitting in a big metal box – especially when you’re not there! After 40 minutes or so, the Warning was lifted, the movie resumed, and everything at the bus was fine when we returned.

I could easily stay longer. Being in the familiar surroundings, near beloved parents and siblings, just feels so wonderful. But, a part of me also feels the pull to new experiences. And that’s the fundamental struggle I’ve experienced during our RV journey. At heart, I’m an adventurer, who craves novel experiences and places. I want to climb the mountain, learn new things, meet new people. But there’s the other piece of me that wants to be in familiar surroundings near the people I love. It’s hard to reconcile.

Routine vs. new adventures. The familiar vs. new places. Maybe you can’t ever reconcile those needs — maybe you just have to feed each need in turn. The RV life is actually a great way to have it both ways by alternating adventures in new places with stays in familiar haunts near friends and family.

It’s a good life.


To Every Thing There Is A Season ….

Last weekend, I flew back to Orlando to share in two momentous events for our family.

First we celebrated the culmination of many years of hard work — Marissa’s graduation from medical school. Compared to the huge and almost impersonal undergraduate ceremonies, the ceremony for the 117 member medical school class felt intimate and very meaningful. I sat with Sean and Marissa’s family as we proudly watched her walk across the stage to accept both the doctoral hood and medical school diploma. The officiates spoke of what it was to be a good doctor, and I have no doubt that Marissa is well on her way to becoming a wonderful doctor. Truly a significant milestone, and one that I wouldn’t have missed for the world. Following the graduation ceremony, we regrouped at her Dad’s house to celebrate!

The rest of the weekend was occupied by helping Sean and Marissa pack up and prepare to move to Greensboro, their home for the next three years. A little back story here — their Orlando home is actually a house that we purchased and renovated for them to rent from us. When Jeff and I transitioned to full time RV living, we began using their address as our mailing address. In a small way, it felt to me as though Sean was still living at “home”.  Now, they are truly going to be on their own, in their own space.

095I helped to pack up, clean, and make Goodwill runs. We enjoyed a last celebratory dinner out with Marissa’s family. Sunday morning, Sean picked up the moving truck and the family assembled. With all of the willing hands, the truck was loaded in very short order. After a break to eat lunch, they climbed into their respective vehicles (Sean driving the truck, Marissa in her car), and drove off.

There was more to do, though. Marissa’s brother and his girl friend have been rooming at the house for a couple of years and will now take sole possession of the house. So, with all of the family help still available, we shifted their furniture around and helped them settle in. Early the next morning, I caught the first flight back to Indianapolis. A busy weekend, most certainly!

img025I was a little surprised at the depth of my emotional reaction to their departure. Although, technically, we haven’t lived with Sean for 8 years, it somehow felt as though he was leaving for the first time. I felt happy and excited for their new life adventure, but grieved to see him go. Does this Mom thing ever get easier? From the time we give birth, our primary job is to love, teach, and equip our children to be happy, moral, fully independent adults. We give them roots and wings to fly. But then we’re sad when we’re successful …. and they leave to live their own life.

It’s all worth it, though.


Rule #1 of RV Life: It’s Always Something

its-always-something.jpgI used to be a runner …. trained for and completed more than 25 half marathons, 6 full marathons, even two 50K ultramarathons. Early on, my more-experienced runner sister shared a truism about running events:  It’s Always Something. Conditions are never “perfect” for a race. Maybe the weather is less than ideal (hot, cold, rainy, windy), or you are experiencing a wardrobe malfunction (something chafing or not right for the conditions). Maybe the race organization is less than stellar (poorly-marked course, too few water stops, disorganized start/finish) or the course is too crowded. Maybe the terrain is different than you trained on, or perhaps you just don’t feel 100% that day. There is always something. But you learn to roll with it, persevere, and aim to finish despite the issue du jour.

RV life seems to be the same. We bought one of the nicest RV’s available from a manufacturer with an excellent reputation and two year warranty. But it seems that SOMETHING is always broken, glitching, malfunctioning or otherwise causing some level of aggravation.  All of the time.

Some of the issues we’ve experienced are due to our own learning curve. For example, the day we were panicked over our generator not charging the house batteries — that was caused by the Spartan shop not re-engaging a breaker after generator service. Later, we thought our house batteries were shot, but discovered that the auto-gen start settings were incorrect (they were resetk to default during the aforementioned service). After the programming was adjusted, the system has oworked well since. We’ve learned how to recognize and correct this type of problem.

Other items are to be expected due to the stresses of being in a moving home. We’ve encountered a window shade mount falling out, kitchen sink faucet handle broken, wall board popping loose in one spot, tear in slide topper, etc. Many of these problems are cosmetic, minor, or easily fixable, just part of daily life on the road.

And, I guess you have to expect that all of the bouncing around can reduce the life of appliances and accessories.  The JBL sound bar on the outside TV isn’t working. Our rear Girard awning is out of commission – it trips the circuit breaker when we try to extend it. Our Samsung microwave went out and had to be replaced. The rear Coleman air conditioner unit failed and was replaced. Our Winegard Trav’ler satellite dish motor has failed and been replaced twice! Dealing with these issues under warranty is a bit of a hassle, but they don’t stop our progress. It’s more of an inconvenience – and usually incurs some expense on our part.

But we’ve also had serious issues that stopped us in our tracks. Like, severe (undiagnosed) tire alignment issues which forced premature (emergency) replacement of the steer tires and, later, the tag axle tires. We might have recognized the issue earlier if we’d been more vigilant, but we just didn’t expect the alignment to be so severely out of spec on a brand new coach. That learning experience was not cheap – new tires and alignment ran north of $3000. And then there was the day our Blue Ox tow bar failed on the road. THAT just shouldn’t happen. Still, we figured out solutions on the fly and were able to stay on track.

This last issue though, just about sent Jeff over the edge. When we fired up the engine to leave Cosby Tennessee after sitting for a month, the Check Engine Light came on. A call to Spartan customer service revealed that the error code was related to the diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) head in our diesel emissions control system. We have an appointment at the Spartan factory in a few weeks, so customer service thought we should be fine to make it there, just keep an eye on it. What the customer service did NOT advise was that every time we re-started the engine, the computer advanced the severity of the code. By the time we reached our campground destination, the Stop Engine Light came on, rendering us effectively immobile – more than an hour from the nearest repair facility. The engine was perfectly fine, but due to EPA regulations, the computer was throttling the engine because it thought we had no DEF.  ARRRRRGHHH!

Jeff’s worst nightmare is having the bus towed – a non-trivial exercise that includes disengaging the drive shaft! We’ve heard horror stories about damage incurred due to towing. The idea of being towed an hour away to sit in a repair shop parking lot for days waiting for parts wasn’t exactly life inspiring either. So, after considerable research, several calls to Spartan and not a little angst, a plan was developed. Although the needed part (a new DEF head) wasn’t readily available, Spartan arranged to drop ship the entire tank assembly (containing the DEF head) to us. Once we had that, emergency roadside service was dispatched to swap out the tank unit at our campsite. As we are still under warranty, it was done at no cost to us. We were good to go!

We set off to our  next destination, my home town of Anderson, Indiana. Not 15 miles down the road – you guessed it – the check engine light came on again. Same error codes – no DEF.  By the time we reached Indianapolis, the error was already advancing in severity and de-rating the engine, so we headed directly for the nearest Cummins service center in Indy. It was Saturday and nothing could be done until Monday, so we unhooked the toad, packed up Pumpkin and drove to my sister’s house to wait out the weekend in comfort. Monday, it was revealed that the DEF pump supply and return hoses had been reversed during the tank swap, causing the DEF pump to suck air. A simple fix, and we were back on the road. Since this particular problem was caused by human error and not equipment failure, we had to front the almost $500 repair cost, and are being forced through a convoluted process to get reimbursed. We are now sitting in our nice Anderson campground for several weeks, hoping that this particular problem is permanently fixed. In the next few weeks we have service appointments at both the Entegra factory AND the Spartan factory, which should address any and all pending warranty repair items — including fixing the rear slide out which got tweaked during our Brown County DEF repair process and currently won’t fully retract. <sigh>

The moral of the story is that this life is not for the easily frustrated. Due to the variables and stressors involved in moving the beast from place to place, failures WILL occur, with regularity. There’s nothing that can’t be fixed if you throw money at it, but some aggravation is inevitable. That’s part of the price of living this life of exploration and adventure. You have to roll with it, persevere and endeavor to travel on, despite the issue du jour.

Because it’s always something.


Throwback Thursday post: In the Land of Giants

Of all the incredible National Parks we visited last year, I think Sequoia National Park had the most profound impact on me. Standing amongst the giant organisms makes one feel incredibly humbled. I hope you enjoy this Throwback Thursday post, first published last April.

IMG_3864There are some things on earth that are so magnificent that they stop you in your tracks. All you can do is gaze upon it in awestruck wonder. That’s what we felt upon seeing our first giant sequoia tree.

These trees are just massive! Reaching a height of over 25 stories, with a diameter of 25 feet or more, these are the largest single trees in the world. In fact, we saw the “Largest Tree In The World”, the General Sherman tree in the Sequoia National Park. There are taller trees, there are wider trees, but this is the largest in sheer volume.

The story of these trees is quite interesting. They require just the right conditions for optimal growth – not too wet or dry, not too cold or hot, at an altitude around 5,000 – 7,000 feet, with sufficient space around it to grow. These conditions are found in the western slopes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. When they do have that magic combination, they grow and grow, for years and years. Hundreds and thousands of years. The oldest known was estimated to be around 3500 years old!  Whoa. The sequoia trees we wandered under were standing tall when Jesus walked the earth.

IMG_3866Unfortunately, before they were protected by a national park, many of these special trees were cut down. From the 1880’s to the 1920’s, logging was conducted in many groves. However, the wood is fibrous and brittle, and generally unsuitable for construction purposes. Due to the brittleness, the giant logs often simply shattered upon hitting the ground. Ultimately, the logging companies went out of business, leaving a sad trail of huge stumps in their wake. But by that time, public outcry caused most of the remaining groves to be preserved as protected land.

When sequoia trees sprout, they shoot up quickly to their full height of up to 275 feet. After that, they no longer grow taller, they just get wider. I resemble that. For such a tall tree, the root system is quite shallow, only 5-6 feet deep. However, the roots spread over several acres, intertwining with other trees’ roots, to help the trees stay upright. Most sequoia trees die by simply falling over. If the roots get damaged, or the soil is too wet, the massive tree can begin to lean and ultimately topple over. I guess after 3000 years, I’d be tired and fall over too.

IMG_3386Fire plays a crucial role in the sequoia life cycle. Sequoia seeds are found in small green cones sprouting from the upper branches. These green cones can wait patiently for up to 30 years for a forest fire, which dries and opens the cones to release the seeds. Fire also clears underbrush and creates bare, ashy soil that is needed for seeds to sprout. For the first years of park management, fires were viewed as “bad” and prevented/stopped. But they found preventing fires also inhibited the seeding of new, baby trees. Now they allow for controlled natural or prescribed burning in the park so that the natural reproduction cycle can continue.

IMG_3881It’s a metaphor for our life, I think. We view the “fires” in our life (troubles and trials) as bad, something to be prevented or stopped. Yet, sometimes the fires force us to clear away the extraneous underbrush choking up our life. Only then will we have the space, and fertile soil, to plant something new.

I’ll share more about the Sequoia National Park later, but I felt these incredible giant trees deserved their own post.


Campground Review: Brown County State Park, Indiana

003Campground Review Summary

  • Name: Brown County State Park
  • Dates of stay: May 4 – 7, 2019
  • Location: Nashville, IN
  • Type of campground: State Park
  • Cost: $28.53/night
  • Additional fees: $9 entrance fee
  • Stay limit: 2 weeks
  • Accepts mail / packages: at the Lodge
  • Cell reception: AT&T fair
  • Website:
  • Pros: beautiful park with lots to do
  • Cons: electric hookup only (30 amp)

Full Review

Following the mountain bike trails up the Midwest led us to this gem of a State Park. Growing up in Indiana, I had been here before, but it was many years ago. Much has changed since my youth!

Many State and National parks cannot accommodate big rigs like ours. Happily, this park has a few sites that fit our size. The Reserve America website offers detailed descriptions which aid greatly in site selection. I perused the options and chose a likely site for us (Site 19) in the Buffalo Ridge campground that was described to be long enough and level, and I booked 6 months ahead (the earliest possible reservation date) to lock in my spot. The winding road into the campground can be navigated (with care) by the largest rig and the site I selected worked perfectly, as advertised.

Our back in, gravel site was easy to get into, was long and wide, and equipped with a fire ring and picnic table. Only 30 amp electrical hookup is provided at each site, but sewer dump stations and water spigots are available. Our campground also included two bath houses, playground and camp store. Our AT&T data hotspot was slow, but usable. We were parked in a clearing, but for some reason the DirectTV satellite couldn’t lock on to a signal. However, quite a few Indianapolis channels are available over the air.

Our site was just lovely –  roomy and peaceful. The campground was reasonably full on the weekends, but almost emptied out during the week. One little niggle was that hot water was only available at one of the two bath houses for showers. And the shower water temperature was pre-set, you couldn’t adjust it. It was comfortable enough, but I like to have the option to adjust the temperature to my liking. Otherwise the bath houses were fine –  clean and functional.  Being on only 30 amp hook up meant going to water conservation mode and having the ability to only use one AC unit at a time. But the weather was only AC-worthy two days out of our stay, and we can easily go a week or more on one fresh water tank, if we’re careful. If we were here during the hot summer months, the 30 amp hookup may have been more problematic.

The park itself is beautiful. Hiking and biking trails are accessible right from the campground – and the mountain biking trails lived up to their stellar reputation. The Park amenities include a Lodge with full service restaurant, an aquatic center, nature center and horseback riding concession.  The small nearby town of Nashville offers restaurants, shopping, and an IGA grocery store.

The cost for our 7 night stay, including booking fees and tax, ran just shy of $200. On top of that, you are required to pay a park entry fee ($9 for out of state vehicle) the first time you enter. The total daily rate is more than we paid at our last campground near Mammoth Cave for a large full hook up 50 amp site. But, staying in the park was far less expensive than staying outside the park at a higher priced campground and paying entry fees every day, not to mention far more scenic. Staying in a beautiful park like this makes for much more of a traditional camping experience, which we don’t often get at a commercial RV park. Priceless.

Bottom Line: Beautiful State Park with big rig capabilities; only 30 amp hookup, but worth it.

Beautiful Brown County State Park

014I remember (vaguely) coming to Brown County State Park (Indiana) as a kid. I remember the green forest, rolling hills and winding roads, evoking the feeling of being in the Smoky Mountains. In fact, the area is known as the “Little Smokies” because of the similarity in topography and flora/fauna, just without the really big mountains! We found Spring in Brown County was about 2-3 weeks behind the Smokies, with dogwood blooming and trees half-leafed when we arrived.

Since I was here last, the park has constructed a network of renowned  mountain bike trails; they have even been designated as an “IMBA Epic Ride”. Jeff just had to ride them, so we made plans to stay at one of the campgrounds inside the park. Normally we are too large to fit in a State park, but we were pleasantly surprised to find a few big rig capable sites. Only 30 amp hook up (no water/sewer), but that is completely manageable for a one week stay.

I’ll do a full review later, but our campsite was wonderful. Easy to get into, huge, solid and level. Being here a bit off season (early May) meant that the campground almost completely cleared out during the week. We just about had the place to ourselves!

Brown County State Park is just beautiful. The spring weather was occasionally wet, but mostly cool and lovely. It was early enough that bugs weren’t much of a nuisance (summer might be a different story). We could access both hiking and biking trails from the campground, without having to drive anywhere. It felt like we were really camping, for a change. Fancy RV parks are comfortable, but they provide a completely different experience.

Jeff was out on the bike trails at every opportunity and declared them to be “sweet”, flowy single track. He was delighted. I explored several of the nearby hiking trails and found them to be quite pleasant – well maintained, pretty, and not particularly difficult. My brother and his son even joined us for our first night here to enjoy pizza, a campfire, and hiking.

Nearby Nashville had all of the necessary conveniences such as a grocery store, auto parts store, restaurants and wineries. We even were able to catch dinner and a live show at the Nashville Playhouse on Friday night. We saw “Superstar”, a concert sharing the music and story of the Carpenters. Entertaining show, and I knew ALL of the songs!! Our stay was slightly overshadowed by a pesky engine issue (more on that in another post!), but we still were able to enjoy our visit.

We would absolutely stay here again, at the exact same campsite. I’m not sure we would want to do hot summer or frozen winter, but spring or fall would be perfect!

Campground Review: Singing Hills RV Park, Cave City, KY

062Campground Review Summary

  • Name: Singing Hills RV Park and Campground
  • Dates of stay: May 1-3, 2019
  • Location: 4110 Mammoth Cave Road, Cave City, KY 42127
  • Type of campground: Private / Independent
  • Cost: $30/night (Passport America Rate)
  • Additional fees: none
  • Stay limit: no
  • Accepts mail / packages: did not ask
  • Cell reception: ATT good
  • Website:
  • Pros: Inexpensive, close to Mammoth Cave, nice sites
  • Cons: none

Full Review

This was a short stay (for us) but quite pleasant. We chose the park because of its proximity to Mammoth Cave National Park (our primary goal) and good reviews. Singing Hills did not disappoint!

For a “no frills” park, the interior roads were surprisingly big rig friendly. We were assigned site 37 at the very end of the campground, which turned out to be a giant pull through / turn around site. We were able to pull right in without even unhooking our toad, which is quite unusual for us. The drive was sloped but the RV gravel pad was solid and nicely level. We were almost out by ourselves, surrounded by a very large grassy area. Other sites were much closer together and some were obviously sloped, so I guess we just got lucky! It was very peaceful and quiet at night, only the sounds of birds and the occasional frog intruded.

The full hook-ups worked great (50 amp electric). Since we were a bit of a walk from the bath house, I used my own shower facilities, but theirs looked fine – not fancy, but clean. Our AT&T cell/data coverage was adequate and Direct TV locked on with no trouble. We had a LOT of rain during our stay, but the site was well drained and we had no issues with standing water. Since we were there to tour the cave, the rain didn’t affect our plans.

I made my reservation here over the phone (they don’t have an automated web-based system) and was surprised that they did not require any deposit. They just asked that we call if our plans changed. I called again the day before check in just to verify we were on the books, and yes, we were! So their system isn’t fancy, but it seems to work efficiently.

The lady who checked us in was super-friendly and gave us information on the area as well as the campground. The normal rate for our site is around $45/night, but with Passport America discounts we were charged only $88 for our 3 night stay. The office has a lending book library and fairly extensive DVD library, which we didn’t take advantage of.

All in all, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the site and campground. It was easy in and easy out, we had a huge level site, and perfectly functional hookups. It’s all I really want in a campground, at a reasonable price. Mammoth Cave National Park is just a few miles down the road, which makes this RV park a perfect home base for exploration. Two thumbs up!

Bottom Line: Affordable and pleasant home base for exploring Mammoth Cave.

Mammoth Cave National Park

007I had visited Mammoth Cave once before – when I was about 4. I have a vague memory of traipsing through a cave and lots of steps … and begging Daddy to carry me when I got tired (which he did!). I figured after 50 plus years it was time to visit again! On our way from the cabin up to Indiana seemed an ideal time to plan a brief stop to explore this National Park.

Folks have been touring this cave system for centuries. Evidence of Native American presence in the cave dates back 4000 years while American settlers re-discovered the cave in the late 1700s. The cave was mined for saltpeter (a precursor for gunpowder) for the war of 1812. Over time, more and more people just wanted to come to see this massive cave system. Mammoth Cave became America’s 26th National Park in 1941.

One interesting historical side note is that the cave served as the site of a tuberculosis sanatorium during the winter of 1842-3. A physician named Dr. John Croghan became interested in the cave, noting how well timbers and bodies of bats and Native Americans remained perfectly intact and undecayed. He hypothesized it was due to the cave air, purchased the cave, and convinced 16 “consumption” patients to live in the cave as an experiment. After some months, it became evident that the cool/damp environment combined with smoke from lanterns and fires did NOT improve their condition and the experiment was terminated (failed). Ironically, the doctor himself succumbed to TB and died a few years later.

The network of tunnels, chambers and channels that make up the Mammoth Cave System is currently measured at over 400 miles, the world’s longest cave system. Nobody really knows how big it is, and exploration continues today. The Park offers hiking  / biking trails, rivers for boating, horseback riding and camping, but the big attraction is, of course, the Cave.

A dozen or so different tours are offered at the Visitor Center, all exploring different areas of the cave system and offering varying walking distances and levels of difficulty (easy to very strenuous). Tours can be booked online and should be reserved in advance during busy seasons as they do sell out! But our two-day visit was during a not-so-busy time, so we were able to simply walk up at opening time the first day and book all of our tours. We booked 4 tours, two each day. I’ll give the highlights of each.

Historic Tour:  This (2 mile, 2 hour, moderate) tour led us through the original (historic) cave entrance, down dozens of stair into this enormous, dripping cave opening. We walked through giant electric-lit chambers past the remnants of the old saltpeter mining operation, while our tour guide brought history to life. We perused thousands of names scratched or burned onto the cave walls and ceilings – early tours encouraged the practice. Now it’s called a felony! We stooped through low ceiling areas and squeezed through “fat man’s misery”, emerging finally at a mammoth dome area.  We climbed many stairs up a vertical shaft, back toward the entrance, finally emerging where we began.

Violet City Lantern Tour: The 3 hour, 3 mile tour is considered strenuous. Lit only by kerosene lantern, the tour enters by the original entrance (again), but continues one way down a path built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC). It passes by remnants of the TB sanitorium, past ancient Native American artifacts, and streaming underground waterfalls (called cataracts). All of the rain we had during our visit added to the waterfall’s effect! Touring the ancient caverns by lamplight is a whole different experience! It’s certainly light enough to navigate, but the flickering light and shadows evokes what it must have felt like 100 years ago. This tour doesn’t really have “squeezes”, but does have steep ups/downs in spots and quite a few stairs to enter and exit. We emerged into daylight at a different spot and were bused back to the Visitor Center.

Domes and Dripstones Tour:  This 2 hour, 0.75 mile tour is considered moderate and begins on a bus to the “new entrance”. This entrance starts off the tour quite dramatically with over 250 steps winding down a vertical shaft, through some fairly tight spaces at times. Claustrophobes might have some heart palpitations here. The passage opens up to wide spaces and winds around to the classic “Frozen Niagra” features that made Mammoth Cave famous with its dripstone, drapery formations, stalactites and stalagmites. The previous two tours led through dry sections of the cave system, which didn’t have these kind of formations. We climbed a few stairs out a different exit, to be bused back to the Visitor Center.

Great Onyx Lantern Tour: Our last tour of this journey (2.25 hours / 1 mile / easy) began again on the bus, this time to a cave outside the Mammoth system (at least, so far as they know). This cave was “discovered” by a land owner who blasted an entrance open – there was no known entrance previously. The owner launched a cave tour operation. This cave was not part of the initial Mammoth Cave National Park land acquisition process, not becoming part of the Park until the 1960’s. The cave sat idle for at least 10 years after that, and has been open for only limited tours since. As a result, the cave is extraordinarily well preserved, with none of the “autographs” seen in the heavily-trafficked tour areas. A 20 minute bus ride took us to the nondescript cave entrance, down a few stairs, into an immediate wonderland of limestone cave features – stalactites/stalagmites, columns, and flowstone formations.  A smaller cave overall, the gas lanterns lit the space adequately. As we wound back from the wet area into drier parts of the cave, delicate gypsum formations began to emerge. Gypsum was mined out in the main cave system by Native Americans, but it remained untouched here. The cave was virtually pristine. One cool thing that the guides did on our way back out of the cave was to give us a cave “sunset and sunrise”. Gathering up all of the lanterns, the guides walked away around the corner as the light became progressively dimmer – finally disappearing altogether leaving us in total darkness. A few minutes later a glimmer of light appeared, growing and brightening until we could see our guides trudging back around the corner with our lamps. REALLY cool effect and a fantastic ending to our Mammoth visit.

Our stop here was great fun. The main feature, to me, of the cave system isn’t it’s crystalline limestone features, it’s the sheer size/scale/scope of the caverns. Truly Mammoth.

Campground Review: Cosby Run Campground, Cosby, TN

058Campground Review Summary

  • Name:  Cosby Run Campground
  • Dates of stay: March 30 – May 1, 2019
  • Location: 311 South Hwy 32, Cosby, TN 37722
  • Type of campground: Private / Independent
  • Cost: $400/month ($13.80/night)
  • Additional fees: electric
  • Stay limit: none
  • Accepts mail / packages: Did not ask
  • Cell reception: ATT good
  • Website:
  • Pros: inexpensive, decent location, nice owners
  • Cons: very basic amenities

Full Review

This review is a bit unusual in that we didn’t really stay in this campground except for the first and last nights. We stayed in our log cabin in nearby Gatlinburg and essentially used this campground as a parking lot (with electrical hookup)  for the month of April. The alternatives would have been to simply park it in a lot somewhere farther away (not on power) or to pay high daily rate fees at one of the other nearby campgrounds. Parking at this affordable campground a half hour away from the cabin was by far the better option for us.

Cosby Run campground is under new ownership as of a couple of years ago. The prior owner was, shall we say, eccentric. Stories of his (lack of) customer service is legendary. The new owners are working hard to repair the aged campground’s reputation and to bring it up to acceptable standards. A lot of work has been done, but a LOT of work remains.

Our site was a long gravel pull through, quite long enough for our bus plus toad. The utilities had all been re-done recently so the 50 amp electrical service, water and sewer worked perfectly. We deployed our satellite dish so that our favorite episodes could continue to record while we were away. Our ATT signal and data service worked adequately here.

Here’s the good stuff:  Our site and hookups worked out beautifully. The owners couldn’t be nicer or more accommodating. The cost was very affordable at $400/month. We paid extra for the electric but since we were there so little, it was only $22 for the whole month. The campground setting is scenically wooded and very quiet. The coin laundry machines are brand new. It’s very near the Cosby entrance of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and some awesome hiking trails. The campground is about 30-40 minutes from the hustle-bustle (and amenities) of Gatlinburg, which is a plus or minus depending on what you want.

Here’s the not as good stuff: Being an older campground, the layout is cramped and the amenities are run down. One side of the bath house was under renovation during our visit, so both genders had to use the same (non-renovated) side which wasn’t optimal (knock first!).  I didn’t even try to use the showers. We were able to carefully pull straight in to our site upon arrival, but there was insufficient maneuvering room to pull out forward, so exiting required slow and careful backing-out all the way to the street using several spotters. Smaller rigs may not have that issue. The campground feels a bit like a construction zone currently as workers expand sites and lay gravel, and unfortunately we got a sizeable rock ding in one of our basement doors as a result. (The owners were most apologetic and have offered to pay for repairs)

This campground will only get better. I applaud the owners for taking on the challenge of refurbishing an aging campground. They have big plans to make it big rig friendly and really nice, but it will take some time to get everything done. It isn’t the place I’d choose to actually live in for a few weeks, at least not until the bath house renovations are done and big rig access is improved. But for a parking spot, it worked great, and in a couple of years I expect the campground will look very different.

Bottom Line: Budget priced option in the peaceful Cosby area and the amenities will only improve over time.

Best of: Gatlinburg, TN

Over many years and many weeks spent in and around Gatlinburg, I’ve developed my own “best of” list that I thought I’d share with you. I have my opinions (and biases) and I make no apologies!

Dining:  Most of the restaurants in downtown Gatlinburg are either chain restaurants or, frankly, overpriced for what you get – that comes with tourist towns. But, one decent choice on the south end of  town is the Smoky Mountain Brewery. Their local beer is quite good and the restaurant offers a basic menu (pizza, sandwiches, dinners) at a moderate price in a pub-type atmosphere. It’s tucked back behind Calhoun’s Restaurant, and parking is free with your dinner receipt.

If you are willing to venture out of town, my favorite locals spot is Carver’s Applehouse Restaurant in Cosby, a 30 minute drive. The restaurant is open 8 am – 8 pm, serving up delicious home made food at a bargain price. Next door is Carver’s Orchard barn which houses a farmer’s market of fresh produce, local  honey, jams, jellies, pickles, cheese, eggs, and fresh cider. If you’re interested in jam or pickles, you’ll save at least $1/jar over the downtown gift shop prices. Worth the drive at 3460 Cosby Highway, in Cosby TN.

I’d like to pause a moment to remember my all-time favorite Gatlinburg restaurant, the Mountain Lodge, who served THE best breakfast and lunch in town, hands down. Tragically, the restaurant burned down in the November 2016 wildfires and is no more. R.I.P. Mountain Lodge, you are sorely missed.

Shopping:  For groceries, go to Food City on Hwy 321, stoplight 2B. They have everything you need including a great selection of prepared foods you can grab and go. If you take a minute to get a Food City Value Card and use it for shopping, a couple of visits can net you discounted gas at their pumps. Food City also has a well-stocked Red Box for video rental.

Walkable downtown Gatlinburg is fun to browse with lots of kitschy T-shirt shops and moonshine tasting opportunities. During the summer, the city hosts “Tunes and Tales” with sidewalk performers, including a hammered dulcimer artist that is divine. It’s also fun to people-watch downtown, especially the ones that have availed themselves of the moonshine tasting opportunities!

But, for an entirely different shopping experience, do not miss the Arts & Crafts loop, starting off of Hwy 321 Stoplight 3. Over 100 artists have shops and studios along the 8 mile loop including painters, pottery, woodworking, leather working, textiles, etc. The loop is wooded, cool, and never as crowded as crazy downtown. I people-watch downtown, but I find my treasures on the Loop.

If you really want to just hit an outlet mall, then the Tanger Outlet Mall in Sevierville is the place to go.

Smoky Mountains National Park: For me, must-see’s in the park include the Sugarlands Visitor Center (watch the free movie), drive the Cades Cove Loop (go early!), see Newfound Gap, walk up to Clingman’s Dome on a clear day, and drive around Roaring Fork Motor Trail.

If you have time, drive through the park to the Oconoluftee Visitor’s Center to see the Farm Museum and the elk that come out around dusk. The nearby town of Cherokee offers an interesting Cherokee museum and the Harrah’s casino.

I love hiking and have hiked literally hundreds of miles in the Park. A good resource for hiking trail information is Hiking in the Smokies which provides trail descriptions and elevation profiles. You can select what is best according to your fitness level, interests, and experience. Here’s my short list of faves:

Best walk in the woods:  Gatlinburg trail. Pick it up on the south end of town and go as far as you want. 1.5 miles takes you to the end of the best part, 2 miles takes you all the way to the visitor’s center. It’s a wide gravel trail, gently rolling, and well used.

Best short hike:  Grotto Falls, 2.2 miles round trip. The trail head is close to town, the elevation change is modest and the waterfall payoff is great. It’s better than Laurel Falls because it’s a real trail, not paved.

Best moderate waterfall hike:  Rainbow Falls, 5.2 miles round trip. A challenge for the modestly-fit, it is eminently doable if you take your time. The trail was recently refurbished and is in great condition. The waterfall payoff is beautiful and worth it.

Best moderate views hike:  Charlie’s Bunion, 8 miles round trip. Take the Appalachian Trail from Newfound Gap east to Charlie’s Bunion knob which offers spectacular panoramic views on a clear day. There’s not a tremendous amount of elevation gain, but it’s up and down, and a fairly long hike.

Best hard hike:  Alum Cave trail t Le Conte Lodge, 11 miles round trip. It’s my favorite overall trail with lots of features along the way: log creek crossings, arch rock, the alum cave bluff, spectacular views, and  the Lodge at the top of the mountain. If you have legs left, go to the Cliff Tops right above the lodge, another half mile up. This trail is uber-popular and the parking lot fills up so go early!

Favorite epic loop hike: Park at Rainbow falls trailhead and pick up Trillium Gap trail just up the Rainbow Falls trail. This will parallel the road for a couple of miles then turn up the mountain past Grotto Falls and continuing on up to Le Conte Lodge. After a break at the lodge, take Bullhead Trail or Rainbow Falls Trail down the mountain back to the Rainbow Falls trailhead. It’s a good 17 miles and 4000 ft elevation gain, so it’s not for the out of shape!

So there you have it!  Some of my “best of” picks for the Gatlinburg area. Enjoy!