Niagara Falls

August, 2016 – Niagara Falls, New York & Ontario I have wanted to visit Niagara Falls for many, many years. I can’t claim I’ve never been as there is evidence to the contrary.

I’d guess I was around 2 in that picture so it must be circa 1971 or so. It only took me 45 years to return. I’m so glad I did.

We spent the first full day there seeing everything we could from the American side. Our first view of the falls from Prospect Point took my breath away. The enormity of it is just hard to wrap your head around.

Goat Island is between the American Falls and Horseshoe Falls. Here is the view from Goat Island of the American Falls …

…and Horseshoe Falls. There is a perpetual rainbow, often two, over the falls, because of the large amount of mist.

Everything I read said we would be paying $10 per day to park but we were pleasantly surprised to find free parking at the Niagara Gorge Discovery Center. We bought trolley tickets there for $3 each. We hoofed it most of the day but it was nice to be able to hop the trolley back to the truck at the end of the day. The trolley driver said that on slow days they also don’t charge for parking in lot #3.

Our first day at Niagara had really wet our appetite and we could not wait for the next day so we could visit the Canadian side. We had every intention of driving over until the very last minute when Jim suggested we walk. We went back to the free parking we had found the day before, grabbed our backpack, and set off.

It was just two miles from the parking lot, across the international Rainbow Bridge, and all the way to head of the falls. Getting through Canadian customs at 8:30 in the morning was a breeze. There were only a couple people in front of us.  The official  asked us just a few questions and didn’t search us.

Here is the view as soon as you get past customs. The Canadian side was very beautifully landscaped all along the edge of the gorge.

We bought WeGo shuttle passes at the first welcome center we came to so we knew whenever we got tired we could get a lift. The shuttle passes were $7.50 each Canadian so after the favorable exchange rate and with the finance charge my credit card charged for the conversion we paid $6 American.

We weren’t in any hurry to leave the walkway along the gorge for a while. The view of the falls from the Canadian side is so much more complete than the American side. The view across from a waterfall is always better than from the top of it which is basically what you get from the US.

Here some brave souls zip line in front of the American Falls.

The crowds gather early above Horseshoe Falls.

We walked another half mile past the falls up the river admiring the landscaping, river views, and cool buildings. Then we decided we needed a rest so we hopped on a shuttle and rode it the 8 miles that it traveled down river. We rode past neighborhoods, and through downtown, and past every conceivable tourist attraction.

We were actually surprised how crowded the bus was at that time of the day. There were times when it was standing room only and at another point we were the only people on it. The bus turned around at Queenston Heights Park and we continued to ride it back through all the same stops and finally got off when we got back to the first stop after Rainbow Bridge.

We had our lunch in a lovely shaded garden and now that we were rested and nourished we set off to see more sites on foot. A couple people had suggested we visit Clifton Hill, a popular street near the falls. One person even compared it to the Vegas Strip.

So off we went up Clifton Hill. I was surprised to find the main section of this strip was only about a quarter mile long. And we found it to be more comparable to Branson than to Vegas.

But it was entertaining to see and at least the walk back to the falls was downhill. We had seen everything we came to see but I requested a return walk along the falls as the afternoon lighting would make for better pictures.

So we made our way along the now incredibly crowded walkway and admired more of the Canadians’ gardening.

We gazed a final time at the entirety of the American Falls.

And we got more pictures from the bridge, the best place to get a good shot of both falls together.

We were surprised by the 50 cent toll the Canadians charge to get back on the bridge but grateful they provide both a Canadian and American change machine and we actually had a dollar on us. The pedestrian and car lines waiting to get in to Canada in the early afternoon were extremely long. The line of cars waiting on the bridge to get into the US was shorter but we walked back through customs with hardly any wait, answered a few questions, and were back at our truck in no time grateful we had chosen to walk.

Our campground was an easy 15 minute drive from the falls on nearby Grand Island. The bridges to the island charge a toll to get onto the island but not to get off. So we paid something like $3 to get the fifth wheel onto the island and then paid $1 every time we left and wanted to return home.

We camped at Cinderella Motel and Campground where we got an electric site. The sites were close but they were extremely dark and quiet tucked way back behind the hotel. Those are traits we treasure as so many campgrounds have a lot of traffic noise and security lighting.

The Passport America rate was $30 for the first two nights then they charged us their regular rate of $40 for the second two nights. That was almost half what most campgrounds in the area charged. The very best deal in the area is free boondocking at the casino right by the falls. But it was just too hot during our visit to consider going without AC.

Mackinac Island & Shipwrecks

St. Ignace to Alpena, MI – August, 2016 I’m pretty sure every person I know that ever visited northern Michigan has told me I just had to see Mackinac Island so there was no question we would be going there. The island sits just to the east of the Mackinac Straits which separate Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas and connect Lake Michigan to Lake Huron. The Mackinac Bridge is an engineering marvel that spans the waterway.

Ferries to the island operate from both St. Ignace on the upper peninsula side of the bridge and Mackinaw City on the lower peninsula. The cheapest of the three ferry operators was the Arnold Mackinac Island Ferry at $18 pp. It was the slowest ferry and a bit like a cattle car but got the job done. We caught the first ferry at 7:15 am and had a leisurely cruise to the island with great views of the bridge. Here one of the other ferries races to pass us and get his passengers to the island first.

Some of the best views of the town are from the boat.

The traditional way to see the island is by bike. If you own a bike bringing it on the ferry at a cost of $8 is the way to go. Renting one at $60 per day was out of the question so we chose to hoof it. Since the island has absolutely no motorized vehicles you only had to share the road with bicycles, horses, and buggies.

We walked around the edge of the island till we reached this great view of Arch Rock.

Then we climbed the stairs to get the opposite view.

We continued our walk through the interior of the island where they have a couple great old cemeteries. This one’s earliest occupant was buried in 1833.

Then we made our way back to town where it was starting to get crowded. People were constantly loading into carriages in Marquette Park below Fort Mackinac.

We had a lovely lunch at Millie’s on Main. It was the perfect place to people watch and cool down from our 5 mile walk. We then took a stroll down Main Street and visited several fudge shops. They each offer free samples of fudge which made for the perfect dessert for me as I’m a huge fudge fan.

We made our way back to the docks to wait for our ferry. We were pleasantly surprised when our afternoon ferry was a little nicer than the morning ferry. The upper deck was furnished with comfy patio furniture and there were less than a dozen passengers.

Mackinac Island is definitely worth seeing. Staying on the island a couple days and bringing your own bike would be the ideal way to visit. We enjoyed the town of St. Ignace where we stayed as well. Tiki RV Park was extremely nice. Our water and electric site was only $16 with our Passport America discount.

We made our way from there down the east side of Michigan’s lower peninsula. We spent a couple days in an electric site at Cheboygan State Park, $28 pn. The highlight of this stop was kayaking a mile south to visit a couple shipwrecks in less than 30 feet of water.

Jim jumped out of his kayak and snorkeled over these huge wrecks. One was the Genesee Chief, a 142 foot schooner, that was scuttled here in 1891 after it was determined she could not be repaired.

There were some huge fish like this sucker. That board was a 2 x 12 so the fish is around 4 feet long.

The visibility around the wrecks was around 50 feet. Jim had a ball and snorkeled back and forth for almost an hour. I didn’t mind staying with the boats as I was just a bit uncomfortable swimming that far from shore. I feel so much more vulnerable snorkeling than I do scuba diving.

Next we spent a rainy weekend in Alpena. This was a great little town with an awesome downtown full of fun shops, beautiful old buildings, and lots of cool art.

The Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center is a free museum devoted to the hundreds of shipwrecks in the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. It was exactly the kind of stuff we were hoping to see at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, but didn’t. It was also the perfect place to spend a stormy Saturday morning.

We stayed a couple miles south of town where we paid $25 pn for an electric and water site at Thunder Bay RV Park. We had hoped to kayak to some shipwrecks in Thunder Bay but the weather didn’t cooperate and after several days of rain we doubted the visibility would be all that good so we moved along.

Lake Michigan

Belgium to Sheboygan, WI – July, 2016 We had been looking forward to heading north after my family’s reunion for the whole summer. The last two weeks of our stay in Missouri the temperature hovered around 100 degrees. I will never complain about the heat. I love heat! But the closer our departure got, the more we could be found checking the weather at our destination and happily anticipating a break from the high temperatures.

We didn’t have an exact destination in mind but we knew we wanted to get to Lake Michigan ASAP. We also wanted to avoid Chicago completely and didn’t care about stopping in Milwaukee. A brief look at the atlas led me to believe the town of Sheboygan, Wisconsin would be a good place to aim for. We could skirt Chicago, and Milwaukee as well if we chose, it was on the lakeshore, and it was fun to say. “Where are you headed next?” everyone wanted to know. “Sheboygan!!” I happily replied.

The reality was that Sheboygan only has one campground, a state park 7 miles south of town that was booked solid around our intended visit. So I set my sights on Harrington Beach State Park, 23 miles south near Belgium. We made the drive from Missouri in two days traveling 5 hours each day.

I hadn’t made a reservation but was lucky enough to get one of the last electric sites that was available for two days. We would have liked to stay longer but they were all reserved for Thursday. The cost of the site was steeper than I expected. The electric only site was $33 and the day use fee was $11 for a total of $44 per day. Ouch!

The whole park seemed to be just cut into the fields. The sites were plenty large but beyond your mowed site the grass, weeds, and wildflowers were head high. One advantage of this was that it gave you a lot of privacy in camp.

It was still plenty warm during most of our visit, mid 80’s with full sun in the afternoons. But at least you could take a walk in the middle of the day without having a heat stroke. We saw very few bugs while we were there and not a single mosquito. It was pleasant to be outdoors all hours of the day and we took full advantage of that.

We enjoyed walking along the shore of Lake Michigan. The state park’s shoreline, a mile from camp, was sand with some grassy patches. Jim took this panoramic one morning. It skews the shot a little but gives you some idea of how beautiful and vast the lake is.

The park has some lovely, paved paths. Our favorite was the Quarry Trail. An old lime quarry is now a lovely lake. The water is unbelievably clear. You can see the bones of the mine’s abandoned structures under the surface.

The next day we packed our lunch and headed the short distance to the town with the fun name.

We made our way to the visitor center downtown first. We were able to leave our truck there and see the town by foot. We walked along the riverfront boardwalk for quite a ways until we came to the lakeshore and found this.

The Lottie Cooper sank in 1894. But she was salvaged in 1992 and her remains were reconstructed in the town’s Deland Park.

Next we cooled off with a visit to the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, a lovely and free art museum. The exterior gardens are filled with sculptures by the late Carl Peterson.

Inside are tons of fascinating exhibits. One of several collections we enjoyed was that of T. L. Solien Madison. Probably didn’t hurt that the large painting in the rear has an RV as its centerpiece.

We thoroughly enjoyed a lengthy visit and emerged from the air conditioning refreshed and ready for more. We continued our walk downtown ogling the numerous fine old buildings.

Their farmers market was in full swing in Fountain Park. There was a lot of produce at reasonable prices and we managed to walk away with two full bags for $8. The polka music, which you could hear throughout the park and a block away, certainly added to the fun and festiveness.

After some more wandering we made our way back to the truck down historic 8th Street. Our visit to Sheboygan, although brief, had been fun as the name implied it would.

Roaring River State Park

Cassville, Missouri – June, 2016 Jim and I enjoyed a week living in the city, getting caught up on annual appointments, and visiting our kids. Then we were ready for some fresh air and fresh fish. So we headed to one of our favorite Missouri state parks, Roaring River. I mentioned it briefly last summer. But it has so much to offer it deserves its own post.

We have visited this park at least once a year for about 20 years. I clearly remember tent camping near this very spot when our baby was about 4. We have visited in a succession of campers since then; from our first 1970 Coleman popup, to our Trailmanor, and finally graduating to 5th wheels. We have so very many wonderful memories here!

I was really looking forward to hiking all my favorite trails again. There are 7 trails totaling just over 10 miles. You can also add a lot of mileage to the hikes by walking to the trailheads instead of driving.

The most interesting trail in the park is Devil’s Kitchen. It is a mile and a half with quite a bit of elevation gain. The payoff is beautiful bluffs along much of the trail followed by the highlight. Devil’s Kitchen is a half-hazard looking pile of rocks that form a cavern.

Supposedly the cavern hid guerilla soldiers during the civil war.

My favorite part of the Fire Tower Trail is the less than 1 mile section between the end of campground C and where the trail crosses the highway. The path leads you between the river and a very scenic series of bluffs.

The shortest hike in the park is Deer Leap. It is 100 steps leading to an overlook with a view of the hatchery and the spring pond.

The pond is where they keep the big momma trout they use to stock the remainder of the stream.

Spring water gushes out of the ground under this cliff and there is often some runoff from above creating a waterfall.

It’s fun to watch the fish in the stream even if you have no interest in catching and/or eating them. The water is so clear there are many great fish photo ops.

Trout is our favorite freshwater fish to eat so thankfully Jim did have some luck and caught enough for two plentiful meals. Here is day one’s catch.

You probably see some sad, dying fish. I see trout almandine!

It was super hot during our visit but thankfully there are plenty of places to keep cool around here. In the middle of the park is a popular swimming hole that is very family friendly and has enough water coming in and out to keep it fresh when the water is reasonably high.

Later in the summer this water can become a bit stagnant. Then people tend to gravitate to the camp swimming pool, which can be a lifesaver if you have kids in tow.

Some parts of the trout stream are designated multi-use and wading and swimming there can be fun. Our favorite swimming spot is a short drive past campground C. It is the first right after the Fire Tower Trailhead on the left. There is a memorial gravesite for the Russell’s, the original homesteaders, who wisely located their home next to a perfect little swimming hole. The water is usually about waste deep and has its own scenic bluff and waterfall.

We have visited this spot many times and never ran into another soul. I’m sure someone had swum their before our arrival one day because the generally clear water was mucked up. But it was still refreshing.

The campground here is extremely well maintained. Our spacious, electric only site averaged $24 per night including the reservation fee. The park has lots of cabins and a lovely lodge so it is a great place to meet family and friends that want to enjoy the great outdoors with you but aren’t thrilled about camping.

The Chatooga

Long Creek, SC – May, 2016 The Chatooga River is in the very northwest corner of South Carolina. In fact, the river is the state line between SC and Georgia for a good ways. It is in the foothills of the southern Appalachian Mountains and is considered South Carolina’s high country. The hilly landscape was a welcome change after a couple months circling the relatively flat areas around our property which they call the lowcountry.

This river drops dramatically and has many class 3 and 4 falls. We really wanted to kayak it but decided to wait until our next visit as the water could be better if it was a little higher. We also agreed we would probably do it in rented kayaks. The reason we came to this conclusion is twofold. Their inflatable kayaks are perfect for these falls and they are lighter to carry. Most of the put ins and take outs on this river are a quarter mile walk. There is no way we are hauling our heavy plastic kayaks a quarter mile.

Instead we visited all the access points we could reach. The river is most accessible where Highway 76 goes over it. Here the quarter mile path to the river is paved. There is a short spur where you can view a beautiful class 4 falls called Bull Sluice.

If we do float section 3 someday this will be the only class 4 we will face and it is right before the takeout. Apparently you can port around it on the other side of the river if you are not up to it. That’s probably what I would do, although if their boats handle the class 3’s upriver as well as they claim maybe I’ll have enough confidence to tackle this one when the time comes.

Our favorite spot on the river was Woodall Shoals. It was an easy drive on back roads from our campground. The path down to the river was not paved and in fact was a little confusing until you learned your way around. But the reward for the short walk was outstanding. When you reach the bottom you have to scramble over these cool rocks to get to an awesome swimming spot just above them.

Or you could hang out on the left end of them in the shallows and watch the entertainment.

We enjoyed Woodall Shoals so much we went there to swim and watch people run the rapid every afternoon of our stay.

This area is known for its many, many waterfalls. There are road signs everywhere that say such and such falls this way or that. The only problem is they don’t tell you how far you might be driving to reach them or what kind of trail you might have to navigate to see them. After some research we discovered quite a few require a strenuous hike of several miles. We visited Issaqueenna Falls because we read you can easily see it from an overlook after a short walk. We discovered that foliage has grown up there and completely blocks the view of the falls. The best view we managed was this behind the falls view of is first drop.

Its frustrating knowing there is a gorgeous 100 foot fall right in front of you and you can’t see it. At the same park though is a very cool tunnel that was well worth the visit. I love the tree roots in this pic.

Stumphouse Tunnel is 1600 feet deep. It was dug pre civil war as a train tunnel. The mountain proved too hard and when the railroad ran out of money they gave up on the project. You can apparently walk in about halfway before a gate stops further progress. But if you want to do that bring your rubber boots.

An easy waterfall to visit is Chau Ram.

It is the centerpiece of a county park.

One morning we headed over the state line to Georgia to explore the Tallulah Gorge State Park. It is a beautiful place that is worth a visit if you are in the area. We made about a two mile hike that included over 600 stairs. Here is the path down and the bridge that crossed the gorge.

When you get there the views aren’t really that spectacular. Here is the view straight down from the bridge.

We enjoyed the walk but the best views are from the easily accessible viewpoints near the visitor center. Like this one of L’Eau d’Or, French for “water of gold.”

It wasn’t easy finding a campground in this area. We finally found one that wasn’t on any of our camping apps. The Chatooga River Resort and Campground has some hotel rooms, a large tent camping area, and 8 RV sites with water and electric but no dump station for $38 per night.

We got site 5 which is the only one that was available all 4 nights we were there. It was extremely unlevel and we ended up using all our leveling blocks, a 6×6 we keep in the truck, and some landscaping blocks someone left in the site and we still weren’t as level as we would have liked. We would go back as long as we could get site 6 or 8 next time.

The campground was a short drive from a winery and a distillery. The Chatooga Belle Farm had a neat store and was a popular lunch spot by the looks of the crowd. They charge $5 for wine tastings so I didn’t bother since their price for bottled wine was twice what I would have considered paying.

The farm’s distillery had their grand opening while we were there. I don’t know if they will always be that generous with their free samples or if it was just a grand opening thing. But they gave you about 5 shots at the bar and then had little shots of mixed drinks made with their moonshine as well.

Jim owns a still with one of his buddies so he enjoyed getting to look at their equipment and talk to them about their process. They had a big deck off the back and a bluegrass band was playing both Friday and Saturday afternoon.

We really loved this area and only saw a small fraction of what we wanted to. We added it to the growing list of places we hope to spend a month or possibly a whole season in some day.

Georgia

Macon to High Falls State Park, GA – March, 2016 We planned a visit to Georgia’s High Falls State Park with two objectives. Most importantly, we wanted to see our eldest daughter who lives in Atlanta. And if we happened to make it to Macon’s Cherry Blossom Festival, well, that would be cool too. High Falls SP is smack dab between Atlanta and Macon.

We arrived on a Thursday and were immediately blown away by the falls. I expected there to be some falls we would need to hike some distance to. No, the falls are right next to the state park’s office and straddled by the road. They begin with the spillway from a dam that creates an adorable little lake.

But they continue for some ways. Here is the view downriver from the other side of the bridge.

We hoped to attend the Cherry Blossom Festival’s parade on Saturday afternoon but the weather forecast was looking dismal so we decided to visit Macon on Friday, even though there were no festival events that day. We hoped to see a city in bloom. We found a lovely little city with many beautiful churches.

It also had amazing old homes.

Not many people can get away with a cannon for a yard ornament but they pull it off because a cannonball actually went through the house during the civil war.

We did find a city in bloom.

Unfortunately, the Yoshina cherry trees that the city is famous for were not yet in bloom. We were told it would likely be another week or two before they were. Next time we are in the vicinity in late March or Early April we will check that they are in bloom and then spend a few days exploring Macon at its pinkest.

We had a wonderful weekend at the state park and lured our daughter and her boyfriend out to camp on Sunday with the promise of a large breakfast over the fire and plenty of fresh air and hiking.

Near the campground is an old mill that was converted to an old power station. Now it’s just a cool, abandoned building.

We drove up to the dam then walked down the other side of the river, opposite the campground. They have great trails along the river with lots of great spots to enjoy the falls that just keep going and going.

Then you can return through the woods for a little variation. Check out this very crooked tree.

We decided we could do with a little more walking to work off that big breakfast so we drove 9 miles to Indian Springs State Park. It has some great buildings built by the CCC, Civilian Conservation Corp, in the 30’s. This is the back of what is now the museum. I love the rock used.

The spring is under a dome inside this springhouse.

We thought we might walk around the lake but instead found this.

Apparently they drained the lake to repair the dam’s valve; glad we didn’t choose to camp here. The park does have a nice little falls near the entrance.

Indian Springs was an OK place to kill an hour and worth seeing but High Falls definitely stole the show. There is a private and free nature center with trails and animal exhibits between the two state parks called Dauset Trails. We didn’t have time to visit this trip but it got rave reviews and we’ll definitely check it out next time we are in the area.

High Falls has two campgrounds, one near the lake and the one we stayed in near the river. It was $32 per day for a water and electric site. It was a well-cared for campground with the friendliest campground hosts. They welcomed us the first day and they delivered the firewood we bought to our site and refused to even let us help them unload it. We will definitely return.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Ajo, AZ – January, 2016 Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was the last item on my list of must see places in Arizona for this go around. I wanted to see it primarily because my father said my late mother had loved it there. It isn’t really on the way to anywhere and I was tempted to save it for another visit. I am so glad we did not as we enjoyed the area immensely. We decided to spend two nights and one full day exploring there.

We started the day visiting the town of Ajo. I wasn’t expecting much of the town so I was pleasantly surprised. It was a rather large mining town until the mine shut down in the 1980’s. What remains is a town of around 1,800 people and some rather impressive buildings. This was their school during the town’s heyday. It has since been renovated to house artists.

They also have a town plaza, some pretty churches, and lots of cute homes. The town has an obvious artistic bent. We spent a pleasant couple of hours walking the town and then driving a scenic loop around it. It was a lovely drive, but all the drives in the area are scenic. We just love the craggily mountains here.

After a morning exploring Ajo we returned home for lunch and then made the 25 mile drive south to Organ Pipe. The afternoon was a perfect 75 degrees and sunny.

We checked out the visitor center first then made a short drive to the head of the Desert View Trail. We wanted to stretch our legs and this trail was a nice 1 and a quarter miles up and over a hill. It had some nice views and the largest concentration of Organ Pipe Cacti we saw all day.

After our walk we didn’t mind getting back in the truck again. This is a very large park so the choice was primarily which scenic drive did we want to make. Since it was already 1 pm we chose the 21 mile Ajo Mountain Scenic Loop. It was a good choice. The views were spectacular, especially during the trip in.

We stopped about halfway at the Arch Canyon viewpoint.

We decided to take the Arch Canyon Trail which was said to have good views of the arch and was supposed to be 1.2 miles out and back. It turns out the best views of the arch were from the trailhead and at 0.6 miles when you’d expect to be at the end of the trail it was really just the beginning of a climb up the rocks that appeared to promise a good view of the back of the arch but never delivered.

You could see a tantalizing small part of the arch and it seemed certain that if you climbed higher the view would appear. Just a little farther we told ourselves, as soon as we get to the other side of this boulder it will materialize. We climbed another half mile and the view never improved. We finally turned around. It is a great hike, and even a fun climb, as long as you don’t expect anything more.

It was a long and rewarding day. This area could easily keep us entertained for a week or more when we return some day.

We boondocked outside Why, Arizona, at Gunsight Wash BLM area which I found on freecamping.net. It is free with a 14 day stay limit. We pulled in on a Monday afternoon and saw around two dozen rigs while we were there. They were fairly spread out. We found a place pretty far in with a lot of space between us and our nearest neighbors.

There are supposedly two roads into the area but really there are a hundred paths in and around the small shrubs that cover the area and it is impossible to tell which is the main one. We broke the handle on our dump tank while maneuvering through one tight spot. It’s not too bad just a little confusing but if you have a large motorhome, or a new rig you don’t want to scratch, I’d recommend staying near the entrance.

We awoke to a cacophony of coyotes each morning. And they continued to serenade us throughout our morning coffee. Other than that the area was incredibly quiet and had the most amazing sunsets!