Life is Better at the Beach

The sound of waves breaking along the shore. The slight saltiness of the sea air. The cool silkiness of the water. There’s something about the beach that can wash away the stress of everyday life, even if just for a few moments.

As much as I am awestruck by mountains, canyons, and deserts; the beach will always be my happy place. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Florida or because my parents took me on some great trips to the beach when I was younger. Whatever the genesis, my love of sand and waves runs deep.

Thankfully, we only live a few hours from the beach, but the craziness of life means we don’t make it to the coast as often as I’d like. We were scheduled to visit Edisto Beach State Park for our first beach trip of the summer a few weeks ago, but a stomach bug decided we needed to stay home instead. The South Carolina State Park system graciously allowed us to move our reservation to the next available weekend, which happened to be in August.

I knew I couldn’t wait until August for some beach therapy, so I started stalking the park system’s reservation site, and luckily, found a great spot at Myrtle Beach State Park for this past weekend. We packed up our camper and headed east.

When we arrived, we were pleasantly surprised by our campsite. It was huge, shaded, and steps from the bathhouse and the playground. It was also full hook-up, all for $55 a night, which is almost half what the large RV resorts charge this time of year.

We (okay, mostly Steven) made quick work of setting up the camper. Set-up is definitely getting easier and quicker the more we venture out. Then we decided Steven would drop me and the boys off at the beach while he went and picked-up some groceries. The plan was for us to just walk on the beach and play in the sand, but Everett had other ideas. He has definitely inherited my love of the water, and was begging to go play in the waves. I stripped him down to this shorts and let him go at it.

Juggling an enthusiastic toddler and an infant at the beach by myself proved to be a bit stressful. So, when Everett asked to play with some kids nearby who were splashing in a pool that had been dug on the beach, I obliged, relieved to have him a bit more contained. Soon after making our way to the small pool, I realized one of the boys Everett was playing with was actually a friend of his cousin’s, who we’d met a few times before. Small world!

Before long the sun began to set, so I convinced Everett to head back to our campsite (not without some three-year-old angst). Steven grilled up some steak for fajitas, and we enjoyed some quiet time as a family.

We had a bit of a rude awakening the next morning when I realized it was thundering. We rushed to secure our site, then ate breakfast while the storm blew over. This was the first time we’d weathered a storm in the camper, and I was really impressed with how well it did. There was practically no sway or rock from the wind, and with the air conditioning running, you could barely even hear the rain.

Once the rain passed over, we headed back down to the beach. With a return to a one-to-one parent-to-child ratio, it was much more relaxing. Jase dipped his toes in the ocean for the first time and enjoyed a nap in the sand. Everett splashed in the waves with Steven, built some epic sand castles, and hunted for buried pirate treasure.

After a few hours, we reluctantly left the beach to find lunch. We decided to head south toward Murrells Inlet to grab some seafood. We ended up at Graham’s Landing. The food was good, and reasonably priced. But the drinks were another story. When the bill came Steven realized they’d charged us $10 for two sweet teas. I guess we should have checked the drink prices, but we didn’t even think about it. Lesson learned.

Huntington Beach State Park is a few minutes south of Murrells Inlet, so we decided to check it out after lunch. We made a stop at the gift shop to get our park stamp, drove through the campgrounds and took a walk on the board walk over marsh.

Huntington Beach also is home to Atalaya, the Moorish-style winter home of Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington. The home was originally built in 1931, and is now open to the public. After walking the board walk, the boys both fell asleep, so we didn’t walk though Atalaya. However, after we got home we saw a YouTube channel we follow, Less Junk More Journey, had posted a great video featuring the park and Atalaya, if you want to check it out.

Overall, Huntington Beach State Park was beautiful, but with its playgrounds and nature/activity center, I felt like Myrtle Beach State Park was a better fit for young families. Plus, the nightly rates at Myrtle Beach are actually a little bit less than the rates at Huntington Beach. But, you really can’t go wrong with either park!

By the time we made it back to the campground, it was about time for dinner. Steven cooked another great meal, then we enjoyed sitting around the campsite. Everett tested out my new hammock. He seemed to be a fan, so much so, that I can’t give you any feedback on it because he didn’t want to share! Soon the storms threatened a return, so we made our way into the camper for the night. This was the first trip we’ve done where Everett actually fell asleep in the camper both nights without one of us having to go drive him around the campground, so we must have worn him out.

In the morning, it was time to pack up and head home. As we pulled away, I actually got a bit emotional seeing the ocean disappear in our rearview mirror. When I said I didn’t want to leave, Everett echoed my sentiment from the backseat. Two nights just wasn’t enough. We all agreed that we needed to stay at least three nights in the future. We’ve only been back a few days, but the call of the ocean is already getting louder. I have a feeling we’ll be heading back soon!

The Beginner’s Guide to Adventure

When we lived in Texas, we took several trips to Broken Bow, Oklahoma. On one of those trips, we decided to go canoeing.  

I was a little nervous because coordination isn’t exactly my thing. (I even did a magnet program in high school so I could get an exemption from the PE requirement.) On the short ride to our drop point, we noticed a very athletic couple. Their clothing had more spandex and their bodies less fat than ours, and I grew more concerned that I was going to embarrass myself.

We all climbed into our canoes and set out onto the water. And you know what? Steven and I looked like we’d been canoeing for years. And our sporty friends? They kept paddling in circles.

Even six years later, I still think back on that trip. That hour or two taking in the sights in Southeastern Oklahoma taught me an invaluable lesson: the only thing stopping us from living life and chasing adventure is ourselves.

You don’t have to be an endurance athlete to go explore. We definitely aren’t.

You don’t have to have a ton of money to make memories. We definitely don’t.

Since we’ve added the boys to our family and made it an even bigger priority to seek adventure, we’ve often had people say, “I wish I/we could do that!” And our response is always “you can!” Then we usually get one of two responses: 1) “I can’t afford it.” or 2) “I don’t know how.”

Okay, yes, purchasing a 4WD vehicle or a camper may not be an option, if you are on a tight budget. But are either of those things necessary? No! We love our truck and our camper, but we were exploring before we had either of them. If you have enough money for a little bit of gas and a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, then you can start exploring.

Which brings us to the “I don’t know how” response. I’m here to tell you, it’s not as hard as you might imagine, especially in the age of smartphones and Google. You can start small. Look at the map and choose a town you haven’t been to, then Google it. Almost every town has something it’s known for, whether it’s a natural landmark, a great local restaurant or even just beautiful, old buildings.

If you want to get a bit more adventurous, start checking out start parks, national parks, or a historic site. The South Carolina State Park system includes 80,000 acres at 47 parks, and offers a wide range of activities appropriate for beginners. Most of the parks we visit have lakes or rivers, short nature trails, education centers and more. The state parks are a great place to get your feet wet (both literally and figuratively.)

We’re lucky that we can drive two hours one direction and be in the mountains or drive two hours the opposite direction and be at the beach, but every state and region has its own awe inspiring sights to visit.

As you become more comfortable exploring, you might want to try longer hikes or try camping. Many of the campgrounds we’ve visited offer areas to tent camp. They usually also have bath houses with restrooms and showers within walking distance, in case you’re like me and not quite outdoorsy enough for primitive camping. A lot of parks also have cabins to rent, if glamping is more your thing.

You also can find some unique opportunities through social media. I found out about the spider lilies at Landsford Canal while looking at the State Parks website, but later that same day I saw an article about them on the “Only in South Carolina” Facebook page. If you are traveling with kids, the local mom groups/pages/blogs are a good place to find kid-friendly activities. Pinterest is another place to find inspiration.

So, pack your sunscreen, some water, and lunch and start exploring!

Landsford Canal State Park: Blood, Sweat, Tears and FUN!

Our unwritten camping rule (so far) has been to avoid camping two weekends in a row. This allows us time to get things done at home and recoup between trips.

So, since we had our Gatlinburg trip last week, this was an “off” weekend. But even when we aren’t camping we still like to get out and explore.

Typically, on the “off” weeks we do a day trip to a state park. So, on Saturday I started researching parks we hadn’t visited and happened upon Landsford Canal State Park.

I discovered Landsford Canal is home to the world’s largest population of spider lilies, which happen to bloom between mid-May and mid-June. And our agenda was set!

The trip to the park was about 80 miles, mostly on interstate 77. We arrived around lunchtime and enjoyed a picnic overlooking the Catawba River. Then after a quick stop at the playground, we set-off down the Canal Trail to find the spider lilies.

Once again the toddler’s “feet hurt,” so we trekked down the trail with Everett on Steven’s shoulders and the baby strapped to my chest.

Since the heat index was in the triple digits today and we were both carrying extra weight, the 3/4 mile trail seemed a lot longer! Luckily, the trail was shaded and there was a bit of a breeze to help make the South Carolina heat tolerable.

The lilies are only found on one rocky shoal in the middle of the Catawba, so there were times we started to worry we’d missed the season or we’d get to the end of the trail only to find a single patch of lilies.

Thankfully, that wasn’t the case!

Soon the trail began to rise up to a scenic overlook, the view when we arrived made the short hike on a hot day more than worth it! The clusters of snow white lilies stretched as far as the eyes could see.

We snapped some pictures, had a snack, and just enjoyed the view.

This is where the tears portion of the “blood, sweat and tears” comes in. A nice couple (Patsy and Scott) asked if we could take their picture in front of the lilies. So, I asked Everett to move out of their picture. He didn’t like that. Tears ensued. So, now the aforementioned couple has several pictures that include our dirty toddler.

After the crisis was averted we headed back down the the trail, reluctant to leave the beauty of the lily patch. Along the way we decided to cool off in the crisp waters of the Catawba. We found a shallow pool where we splashed around and did some rock hunting.

Invigorated by the water, we set back down the trail. We made a quick detour to the park office to get our Ultimate Outsider book stamped, then headed back to the 4Runner. When we got to the truck, we realized Steven had picked up an unwanted hitchhiker, a leach, while playing in the river (thus, the blood portion of the story). He did some quick first aid and we were back on the road.

At only 448 acres, Landsford Canal State Park might not look like much at first glance, but it’s truly a hidden gem! In addition to the spider lilies, the park also is a nesting site for eagles and home to the remains of the canal system built in the early 1800s to make the river commercially navigable. The area also was significant during the Revolutionary war and there are several historic markers along the route in and out of the park.

After a great first visit, we can’t wait to go back. We’d love to return with a kayak or canoe to get an even better view of the spider lilies.

We continue to be amazed by the beauty in our state and we can’t wait to see what we discover next.

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!

Mountain in the Midlands

There’s a mountain… in the Midlands!

Last fall we started a quest to visit all of the state parks in South Carolina. So, on days we don’t have a particular destination in mind we let the toddler pick a dot on the map of the parks and point the 4Runner that direction.

This past Sunday morning we woke up itching to spend some time in the great outdoors. Unfortunately, it looked like forecasted storms might thwart our adventures. So, we decided to head out early and stay relatively close to home. The destination selected by our young Navigation Specialist (with a little guidance from Mom) was Poinsett State Park in Pinewood, S.C.

We loaded up with drinks and snacks (though clearly not enough as we would learn later) and headed east. Along the way, we noticed a sign for the Wateree River Heritage Preserve. Having never heard of the preserve we decided to consult Google for more information. We learned the more than 3,600 acre preserve was created in 2015 as part of a mitigation agreement with a mining company. The description said the preserve offered hiking and equestrian trails, hunting, a fishing pond and a mountain! The concept of a mountain in the Sandhills of South Carolina piqued our interest, so we made a mental note to explore the preserve on our way back from our state park visit.

After driving a bit further and detouring down a newly wet and spongy dirt road, we made our way into the park. The forested park was quiet and peaceful, with a slight sense that it could be the setting for a horror movie – I think it was the darkness combined with the trees draped in heavy moss.

We made our way up to the Overlook Shelter first. The small, historic shelter was in a clearing with a nice view of the valley below. Next we drove through the campground. At first I had assumed the area designated by the wooden sign must be the tent camping area since it was off some pretty rough and steep roads, but upon turning the corner, we saw some pretty large travel trailers and motor homes (those are some braves folks!).

In addition to the challenging roads, there didn’t seem to be much to do within walking distance of the campground, other than hiking, of course. However, there was a large fishing pond and a nice office and camp store further into the park. They also had some cabins down another side road.

Still trying to beat the storms we set back out. The park is actually set into the Manchester State Forest, so we drove a few side roads through the forest. Around this time we were getting hungry, but discovered we should have packed lunch since the nearest restaurants were a ways off. Following our stomachs, we started back toward Columbia, but not before we went looking for the mountain supposedly hidden in the Midlands.

We were shocked by what we found upon entering the Wateree River Heritage Preserve! After driving through an ornate iron gate we found immaculate gravel roads and large modern street signs. As instructed by signs, we stopped at a check point soon after entering the preserve and filled out a day use pass. Then we set out to find the mountain.

Despite the street signs, the preserve wasn’t particularly easy to navigate for first-timers. The map at the check point clearly indicated the roads, but didn’t mark any points of interest. So we drove. Eventually we saw a small white sign. It had an arrow pointing left to the fishing pond and right to Cook’s Mountain. We turned right. We expected to make the turn and find the “mountain” was just a small mound in a clearing, but instead the road began to weave upward. Our excitement began to grow as we continued up the hill. Could there really be a secret mountain in the Midlands?

Then we came to the end of the road. The top of Cook’s Mountain.

And it was beautiful!

Maybe not a mountain in the typical sense, the land mass only rises to 372 feet above sea-level, but the scenic overlook provides a breath-taking view of the Wateree River below. Pictures really don’t do it justice.

In fact, I’m a little hesitant to even tell anyone about this hidden gem because I want to keep it to ourselves, but what fun would that be? So, if you find yourself near Columbia, S.C., make the 17 mile drive to Eastover, S.C. and drive up Cook’s Mountain. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. We weren’t! My only word of caution is to bring your chosen bug repellent. The mosquitos seem to be fond of the view, as well.

After our mountain voyage, we made the short drive home, promising to be back for further exploration. It’s amazing the things you find in your own backyard just taking a lazy, Sunday afternoon drive!

The Accidental Overlanders

TripSavvy describes overlanding as a style of travel that involves “covering long distances in a motorized – usually off-road – vehicle, with the emphasis placed less on the destination and more on the journey.”

Dunes on Corolla Beach in the North Carolina Outer Banks.

About a year ago, we found ourselves driving from the Outer Banks of North Carolina in our 2009 Dodge Ram 2500. This trip was like many we’d taken before, except for one important difference: we didn’t have any power steering.

Wrestling that massive hunk of metal more than 400 miles home to the midlands of South Carolina was the beginning of our overland journey, though we didn’t know it at the time.

After several fruitless attempts at resuscitating the old goat, we realized we had some important decisions to make. Ultimately, we decided it was time to cut our losses, give her an honorable retirement, and begin the hunt for a new vehicle.

We looked at every 4WD truck for sale in South Carolina (ok, that might be a very slight exaggeration), but we couldn’t seem to find the right fit for our growing family. We started asking ourselves, do we really need a truck?

At first the thought of driving something without a tailgate was too much for Steven. As a former bull rider and ranch hand, driving a truck was part of his identity. However, having hung up his spurs and begrudgingly moved to the suburbs, even he knew times had changed.

Slowly, the idea of driving an SUV became palatable, but his search became comical as one vehicle he went to test drive got stolen from the lot while he was on his way to the dealership and another got hit on the lot and heavily damaged.

Then the power steering on the Dodge went out. Again.

At this point we were ready for this particular saga to end. The dealership who couldn’t seem to fix our truck offered to give us a good trade-in offer and a good price on a car on their lot. I was more than a little skeptical. A point I (and my pregnancy hormones) made clear to the salesman. But Steven, not wanting to sink more funds into the truck, agreed to hear them out.

We met on the lot, and discovered the 4WD options in our price range were limited. The one vehicle that seemed to tick off all of our boxes was a 2016 Toyota 4Runner. After giving her a quick test run, I left the decision up to Steven.

Later that evening, to my surprise, he returned home with his first non-truck.

We began watching vlogs featuring 4Runners and became more and more excited about the capabilities of our new ride. We started hitting local dirt roads and trails (did I mention I was four months pregnant?!). Before long we were loading up our toddler and taking mini-adventures every weekend. 

We became passionate about making the most of our time together. Hitting the road gave us an escape from the daily grind we hadn’t even known we’d been seeking. Now, as a family of four, we’re continuing our quest to unplug, explore, and make memories.

So, I guess you can say, we didn’t find overlanding. It found us, and we’re so grateful it did. 

We can’t wait to see where the road takes us next! See you down the road (or maybe off the road)!