Christmas Camping Magic: James Island County Park Campground

So, I’m a little hesitant to write this post because I’m worried if I tell everyone how magical James Island County Park Campground is during their Festival of Lights it’s going to be even more difficult to find a spot for next year!

I don’t remember where I first heard about the Festival of Lights, probably one of the many camping related Facebook groups, but I decided it would be a fun destination for the weekend of Thanksgiving since I’d have some time off of work. When I went to make our reservation back in August, I thought I was lucky and found the very last available site, but knowing what I know now, I think it was likely that I actually stumbled upon a cancellation. Regardless, we were able to secure a spot thanks to a little Christmas magic, and am I so thankful that we did.

Though after all our multitudes of misadventures earlier this fall – from the “do we have a site or not” fiasco at Hamilton Branch State Park to the late night ear infection at Lake Greenwood State Park – I had some serious anxiety going into our trip. Luckily, most everything went smoothly. Having the day off work meant we were able to take our time packing and getting on the road, and also meant our first daylight set-up in three months.

When we arrived I was pleasantly surprised. I’d had an image in my head of a Myrtle Beach style RV resort with cramped sites and no privacy, but the sites were actually well-spaced and there was a good amount of tree cover to provide a bit of buffer from the neighbors. We were on site 109 – since it was the only one available – and where a little concerned what we’d find when we arrived since the website had a note that said “a tree on site may prohibit awning use.” However, the site was perfect for our camper. We were able to back the camper to the edge of a beautiful oak tree and still have room to put out our awning and park the 4Runner: one of the benefits of a smaller camper and tow vehicle. It also was a large corner lot diagonal from the bathhouse, which worked great for us since my Dad tagged along and camped on our site in his tent. There was a trash dumpster at the edge of the site, but it didn’t cause any issues and seemed to be emptied regularly.

After getting set-up, we were able to relax and enjoy some perfect weather before heading over the Festival of Lights activities. Again, I had a mistaken concept of what the Festival of Lights would entail. Not only did it include a drive through lights display featuring an estimated 2 million lights, but there also was an entire festival village that include gift shops, food vendors, visits with Santa, story time with Mrs. Claus, a carousel and much more! Staying at the campground meant we didn’t have to pay the $20 entrance fee, wait in traffic or fight to find parking to visit the village. It was truly a magical experience. The toddler didn’t even complain about the walking!

On Saturday we spent the morning enjoying the park’s playgrounds and hiking trails, then we took a side trip to somewhere I’ve wanted to visit for years: the Angel Oak. It was a quick jump over to John’s Island, probably about 15 minutes from the campground. The tree is tucked behind a chain link fence along a dirt road, and traffic can be a bit tight getting in and out, but it’s worth it to see a true spectacle of nature. After we got back, the boys and I took a nap and Steven and my Dad went and tried their luck at a fishing hole. Steven was excited to reel in a good size catfish! Later that evening Everett took Steven on a guided tour of the lights, then before we knew it, it was time to start packing up.

Sunday morning Everett and I did make a quick detour into the camp store, which had some great items, including a special addition ornament to commemorate this year’s festival – take my money! I think we could have spent several more days at the campground and not been able to enjoy all of the festivities. I’m definitely hoping we can make a trip to the Festival of Lights an annual tradition. In fact, I tried to book a stay for next year upon returning home, but discovered Thanksgiving weekend 2020 is already booked-up! So, fingers crossed we find another lucky cancellation. I’m also hoping we can visit the park again this summer to enjoy their water park and spend some time offer at Folly Beach.

We’re taking a bit of a break from camping this month because we are going to go to Grandma’s house in Florida to celebrate the boys’ birthdays. So, until next time, see you down the road!

A North Carolina (and Tennessee) adventure to remember

Instead of waiting God knows how long for me (Alyssa) to write a post about our most recent adventure, Steven decided to take things into his own hands this time. Below is his first blog post, and I must say, he did a great job! I’m excited for us to share the writing duties going forward!


I’ve always had a sense of adventure. I’ve always seemed to pick a job or career that would keep me staring out of a windshield in one way or another. I could never stand office work where I was only allowed to step outside for a quick 15-minute break once a day. So, when it came to picking my partner in life I wanted someone with just as much of a free spirit. A woman who wanted to see beautiful places.

Which finally brings me to the most recent adventure in the series we call “Life.” Alyssa and I recently celebrated 10 years of marriage and wanted to have a little getaway to celebrate. After some thorough searching (entirely on her part), we decided on Hot Springs, North Carolina. Hot Springs is a small town located in northwest North Carolina just south of the Tennessee state line. The town sits on the famed Appalachian Trail (no actually the side walk is the trail) and is a welcome sight for hikers who need to resupply or for an adventurous, slightly out-of-shape, youngish couple with two kids who want to enjoy a long weekend in the mountains.

Now I must digress for a moment. The argument still persists today as to the definition and application of just what overlanding is and means. Here at EASYRunner we don’t care what you drive, where you go, or where you stay. Don’t have a 4-wheel drive? Solution: see beautiful places and don’t drive off road. Don’t like tent camping? Solution: buy a camper or caravan, base camp and travel around during the day doing fun activities in nature. Stay in a hotel for that matter. The point I’m trying to get at is overlanding to us is traveling, by land, and seeing beautiful things along the way. Don’t let anything stop you from getting out in nature.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming.

After much deliberation we decided that since this would be a solo venture sans kiddos we would forego the camper, and instead rent a cabin on the outskirts of Hot Springs, overlooking the French Broad River. It came well stocked with beautiful views of the mountains complete with a hot tub on the back porch and a fire pit in the yard. I know, we were really roughing it this time. After a scenic drive through the Blue Ridge Mountains on Saturday we arrived late in the afternoon.

We had stopped in Marshall, North Carolina, about 30-minutes away to get supplies for dinner and some firewood. So, when we arrived I cooked a wonderful, home cooked anniversary dinner. Then we spent the evening enjoying the intoxicating sound of a crackling fire and the rushing river, the most relaxing sounds you could ever imagine.

The weather over the weekend was perfect. So, after a dip in the hot tub to wake-up, we headed into town for brunch on Sunday. Our noses led us to Iron Horse Station in town, which had wonderful food and good prices. Just be warned that Hot Springs is a small town and finding certain things open on a Sunday can be a chore. We found this out later that night when we were confronted with dinner options (or a lack thereof). We chose to go back to the Iron Horse, but were pleasantly surprised by a totally different dinner menu. It was delicious and did not disappoint.

After lunch on Sunday we traveled north of town up an array of Forest Service roads to Max Patch. This short hike varies in difficulty depending on the path you take, but leads to an absolutely breathtaking 360 degree view. If you’re a novice hiker, like us, the trek up to the summit of Max Patch will leave you with a sense of accomplishment.

After working our way back to the truck via a short stretch of the Appalachian Trail, we decide to head back to town for some dinner. Not wanting to retrace our steps we decided to head further north on Max Patch Road, which eventually led us to what we’d later discover was Tennessee State Route 107. The road is very well maintained, but is very windy with steep drop-offs, so caution should be taken. The road back was beautiful; however, during the 30-second window where we had a phone signal, we discovered that we had travelled far west and were actually well into Tennessee. Despite our meandering route, we eventually made it back to town. We spent our last night at the cabin sitting by the fire holding hands like we were dating again, and listening to the sound of the river in the background.

When Monday morning came, we reluctantly left our wonderful little getaway. On the drive home we detoured to Fireside Restaurant and Pancake Inn in Hendersonville, a little breakfast joint that had the best biscuits and gravy I have ever eaten. After eating far too much we detoured once again, and took a short, but scenic drive to Saluda to knock one last activity off the list.

Alyssa has been talking about hiking to see a waterfall for some time. And while we were in the area she picked one with a small hike, due to our enormous breakfast, which was close by. Pearson falls lies on private property and there is a small $5 fee for entry. There is parking and restrooms available at the trail head and a short .25 mile hike to the falls. Though not a strenuous hike at all I would recommend good footwear as the path had many slick rocks and roots. The waterfall itself is 90-foot tall and was a wonderful end to our trip. It really must be seen in person, as photos just cannot capture its beauty.

With that checked off our list, it was then we realized we must head south back to our lives. Our beautiful children and jobs awaited us. Until next time North Carolina (and Tennessee, I guess)… Get outside and travel on.

Review: Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park™ Camp-Resort: Golden Valley, NC

Last spring I started seeing chatter on Facebook about a new Yogi Bear Jellystone Park opening in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The pictures looked amazing! But as a family that typically stays at state or federal parks, the nightly rates of $79 to $99 during “shoulder season” (the span between Labor Day and peak fall season) made us a bit reluctant to book a trip. Fortunately, after some quick searching, I discovered the park offered a lot of discounts, including 20% off for first responders during their “Heroes Weekend” in September.

With the discount, the nightly rate came out to $63 a night, a much more reasonable amount. So, we decided to give it a try. After all, everyone deserves to splurge occasionally!

The drive up to the campground, which is located in Bostic, N.C., and use to be a Girl Scout camp, was uneventful. But beware, the last 15 miles or so were on pretty narrow mountain roads, and the last few miles into the park were very curvy. Make sure you make a bathroom and fuel stop, if needed, before you get off the interstate because there aren’t many places to stop.  

Check-in is located at the Ranger Station across from the entrance to the park. The entrance itself is gated, once inside staff will guide you to your spot. We went with one of the basic, back-in sites, and were pleasantly surprised! The sites were huge and easy to back into. The only drawback was the lack of shade, but the size and layout of the site still made it very private. Since the campground just opened in July, all the hook-ups were in perfect condition, and all of the sites offered full hook-ups.  

We did find it a little odd that our fire pit was almost on our neighbor’s site, and there were clear instructions not to move it. When we mentioned it to Bruce, a staff member who was rounding through the campground, he said he’d see what he could do. We figured that would be the end of things, but the next morning Bruce was back moving the pit to a more convenient location. Golden Valley and Bruce definitely get an A+ for customer service!

Once we made it to the park and got settled, we decided to check out the water park. Wow! Not only was the water area huge, but it also had lots of interactive activities for kids. Our toddler loved it, and if we’re being honest, so did the adults! We easily spent a couple of hours exploring and splashing.

Saturday included another trip to the waterpark and pool, some gem mining, a round of putt-putt, a walk to the campground pond and more. We also enjoyed that the campground had cable, but were a bit disappointed that the Wi-Fi didn’t quite reach our site (though it did work well up at the store area). All of the amenities definitely made the higher rates worth it!

Before we went to the campground, we read a number of reviews that suggested renting a golf cart. But at $50 a day, I just couldn’t justify the extra expense. However, I didn’t realize before we went that there would only be very limited vehicle parking near the amenities. We missed the interaction with Yogi Bear Saturday morning because we tried to drive up, only to realize there was no parking. Walking wasn’t bad, but I think next trip we’ll try to get a spot closer to the activities.

On Sunday we were able to take our time packing up, and even hit the gem mine one more time since the check-out wasn’t until 1 p.m. Overall, we really enjoyed our trip! Given the cost, it’s not somewhere we’d go all the time, but I can definitely see us splurging on a special weekend once or twice a year.

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.

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)!