Last summer we drove from Akron to Fort Collins, Colorado. Although it was a great experience, we wanted to drive a little less this summer. So we came up with a new adventure idea. We wanted to find a place which was off the grid, but had front-country amenities, like running water, toilets, and great food. And, it had to be within about eight hours of Akron. It seemed like an impossible ask, and I was fairly sure that we would have to compromise on at least one aspect. Then I found Charit Creek Lodge in Tennessee. Amazingly, it has all the desired amenities and is just seven hours and fifty minutes away. As an added bonus, it costs about the same as a stay at a major hotel chain.
Rather than driving straight to Charit Creek, we decided to break our trip up. We were going to do a mix of backpacking at Zaleski, car camping at Cumberland Lake, and lodge camping at Charit Creek.
We left a little latter than we had originally planned. It’s a World Cup (soccer) year and Germany was playing Mexico in the first round. So, we watched the match before leaving. After Mexico surprisingly beat Germany one to zero, we headed to Zaleski State Forest for a night of backpacking. By the time we arrived we were short on daylight. We parked at the overnight parking lot and hiked the short 2.2 miles in to point D. It was supposed to be a clear night, so we pitched our tents in a spot with a clearing rather than under the shade of trees. Still, not much of the sky was visible, there was still a lot of canopy. The open spot in the forest canopy was just directly above the tents, but we still didn’t see that many stars.
Since we had a long drive to Cumberland Lake State Park, we headed back out of Zaleski the same we came in. It was Heather’s birthday, so we left a birthday card in the car for her to find when we got back. We also left her some Twinkies, but decided to save them for latter. Next we drove to Cumberland Lake State Park in southern Kentucky.
When we arrived we realized that our reservations were actually for Cumberland Mountain State Park, two hours away in Tennessee. The people at Cumberland Lake State Park were very helpful and tried to get our reservations switched over. In the end the two parks used different reservation systems, so we paid for both stays. We were happy to have a spot available without any additional driving.
Cumberland Lake was very quiet when we arrived. There were not nearly as many used camping spots as I expected. Out of the five spots in our area, only one other spot was in use. There were two good old boys, and I say that in the sincerest of ways, in that other spot. Jimmy B and James B, no relation, were from Kentucky and Georgia respectively. They were sleeping in the capped beds of their trucks. They had pop-up shelters that fit off the back of their tail gates, propane lights and stoves, electric fans, and music. They were living #vanlife, and had probably been doing it since before it was a hipster thing to do.
As we each came and went – they were there for fishing and we were there for hiking – we had some brief conversations. Jimmy was telling me about his preferred whiskey, which is supposed to be the off label version of Crown Royal. I wish I could remember what the name of it was. We were supposed to get together at the end of the day to share drinks, but our schedules didn’t match up.
We packed up early and said goodby to the two JBs. When I went to close the hatch on the Outback, it wouldn’t go down. I went to the drivers seat to use the inside button, but that didn’t work either. I went to start the car and found that the battery was drained. Luckily, Jimmy had cables and was able to give us a jump start. We were on our way to Tennessee.
As I drove through southern Kentucky, I thought of how much it reminded me of Ohio, just a bit more hilly and with more red clay soil. It’s nice. Also, like Ohio, I noticed how many closed, old, off-the-beaten-path roadside shops there were. I wondered how long they were around and how long they had been closed. And then we ran across one that wasn’t.
We crossed into Tennessee, but, like across almost any artificial boundary, it was hard to tell. What we noticed was a sign for a shop that sells homemade fudge and ice cream. It was a hot, humid June day, so we were already interested. But it wasn’t just one sign, there were little reminder signs as we got closer. One just read “Ice Cream,” and a few more read “Homemade Fudge.” Then we arrived.
We pulled off the road in front of the General Store. There were old white men sitting in rocking chairs on the well worn front porch. Inside, the store was dimly lit, though the confederate flag hanging on the side wall was clearly visible. From the looks of it the flag had been hanging there since the beginning of the civil war. I had a feeling that taking a selfie in the store might not go over well. The busy server already seemed mildly annoyed with us pulling her away from tending the griddle. I was sure that the stocky leather vested man eating a hamburger was harmless, but why chance it. Honestly, I may have been more worried about what a selfie in front of the stars and bars could have implied about me. I was probably just projecting my preconceived notions onto these good people. I looked for some sort of souvenir, but this wasn’t the type of place to sell tchotchkes. We got our ice cream and headed on our way.
When we finally reached the spot where we had to turn off of the asphalt road and drive down the long dirt and gravel path leading to our trailhead, we needed to stretch and get some water. We drove past our turn off and ended up at the nearby Pickett CCC Memorial State Park. The park was more interesting than we had expected. It had a suspension bridge over a small lake, and it bounced when you walked across it. Awesome! We decided to hike the path with the suspension bridge. There were wild blueberries along the trail, as well as some of the local snakes. The park was very well maintained. It probably looked just as good as when it was created during the Great Depression.
Feeling refreshed, we headed back down the road for the long dusty drive to the Charit Creek Trailhead. We kept driving until we reached the waypoint we had marked in our GPS. We were clearly not there yet. The in-car GPS showed a field of green, no more road appeared on the screen. There was no cell signal. We just continued following the dirt road until it ended and there were signs for two adjacent trailheads.
The hike to from the trailhead to Charit Creek Lodge is supposed to be pretty short. It is not long, but I’m pretty sure it is at least twenty-fve percent longer than advertised. On the way in the trail heads downhill. There is one spot which has a very steep wooden staircase. I was worried our dog would fall on the way down, so I grabbed the adventure handle on the back of her backpack to carry her down if she slipped. She had no problems getting down, though I had to provide more of a nudge and assist role on the way up when we left.
We arrived at the lodge around five o’clock. It was humid and the bugs were starting to come out for the evening. So, it was nice to drop our packs, grab some cold water, and have a seat on the screened porch. We had enough time to freshen up a little before dinner would be served.
At dinner our company was a little different than what we had at Cumberland Lake State Park. One of the other guests was a law professor. Another was foreign service staff for the State Department who would be heading overseas after this vacation. All of the other guests knew each other, so we didn’t mingle too much with them. We did hear a little about how the State Department is coping with the current administration.
The meals were served homestyle, but each group of people was served independently. So, our family dished out chicken and dumplings from a common serving dish, but we didn’t share with the other guests. The meal was great. And, not just in a “great compared to dehydrated backpacking meals” kind of way. The chef (caretaker, and manager of the lodge) described some of the meals ingredients and how they were grown on site.
We planned our stay a few months in advance, but given how few rooms there are available and the quality of the accommodations, I was surprised it wasn’t harder to book. There are only two rooms and two cabins, but each can sleep quite a few people. Like dinner, you have to share a room with your group, but not with people outside of your group. The operator said that since taking over four years ago he has went from 500 to 4000 guests per year, so it may get more difficult to get reservations as word gets out. I almost don’t want to share this place with anyone else, but I do want them to be successful and keep providing this great service for years to come.
After a a great breakfast at the lodge, which included absolutely perfectly cooked bacon, we hiked up to the twin arches. Charit Creek is the perfect place for someone who is normally very connected to get away. There is absolutely no cell reception at the lodge. You can get some service at the twin arches, though that was not the purpose of our hike. The hike is shorter than ten miles if you do the short side as an out and back.
After the morning hike we filled out water bottles and began the trek back to the car. The only challenge was getting our dog up the steep set of stairs. Once we got to the car we though that we would just go straight back out the way we came in. Of course we made a wrong turn along the way though and had to backtrack, which cost us about a half hour of driving. We found a little bit of cell service, got back on track, and started looking at the weather.
A major storm front was cutting across the midwest, so we were questioning our plans to camp near Lake Vesuvius. We started looking for cabins around the Lake Vesuvius Recreation Area. Finding nothing we started searching further north. We ended up finding a dog-friendly cabin available at Lake Hope State Park. We were glad that we made the adjustments to our plans, as we got closer to Ohio it started raining.
By the time we got close to Zaleski we ran into roads which were under water. We made a few detours. It wasn’t clear if we would be able to make it the last few miles to Lake Hope. We finally found a road where the water covering it was spread over a wide area and thus was only two inches deep. The asphalt wasn’t visible through the muddy water, so I walked down the road ahead of the car to make sure there was nothing unexpected. My shoes were wet, but we made it through to Lake Hope State Park. We were happy to have a dry cabin where we could take showers and make a hot dinner. The next day we headed home, just stopping briefly at Hocking Hills. And that brought our adventure to a close.
Many trail signs ... for trails which do not appear on the Zaleski map at the information kiosk