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!

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.

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!