Get In Touch With Your Inner Camper.
I’m not big on camping. When outdoors, I like a comfortable cushion between me and the ground, someone to deliver drinks and dinner, a warm pool to swim in and an absence of bugs.
My father, on the other hand, can’t understand how I missed getting the outdoors gene. Every year, his hike to the top of Mt. Leconte in North Carolina is a highlight, even if there is snow at the top and he has to bring extra gear to brave the un-winterized, unheated cabin.
But he’s trying to make sure that gene didn’t skip my kids, too. Last summer when we were visiting, my dad convinced my kids it would be fun to take a camping trip for a night at Stone Mountain State Park, a two-hour drive from their home in North Carolina (you can find nearby parks and activities at discovertheforest.com).
Trying Something New: Camping and Fresh Air
Thinking that I should break out of my comfort zone and get some fresh mountain air, I decided to join the camping trip. It was just one night, after all; I could take it, right? The hardest part might be going off the grid: No cell service, electricity or WiFi – unplugged. For me, that’s roughing it.
The next morning, we packed up the Mercedes Benz SUV with tents, sleeping bags, food, utensils, firewood, our suitcases, books, and the dog and headed up I-77 for the campground. We stopped for lunch and arrived to check in at the park ranger’s station and get our campsite assignment.
Since we were pitching tents, we took a non-electric site—for RVs there are asphalt pads with water and power hookups— right near the restroom building where water and sinks were also available, and paid about $17 for the night. We set up our tents and by early afternoon we were headed up a nearby trail for a hike.
Navigating Forest Trails
We decided to take one of the short trails, which goes straight up the mountain at a fairly steep incline. We hiked up the narrow but well-marked trail for about two hours and soon were near the top of Stone Mountain; we could see the trees beginning to thin, and the landscape was marked by the smooth surface of the stone that forms the mountain.
As an unseasoned hiker, my legs were beginning to turn rubbery, and since it was getting late, we decided to turn around. The trip down the mountain was much faster, but also much more dangerous: tired legs and a steep trail mean you have to be really careful to avoid tumbling down the hill (and remember, no cell service, so if you get hurt, you rely on other hikers to relay the message to the ranger station).
A Good Fire: The Key to a Successful Camping Trip
Soon we were back at the campsite where, for me anyway, the magic begins. We had unpacked and set up our tents, but my dad advised that we leave everything else, including the firewood, in the car.
The state forest service advises that only wood gathered within a 50 mile radius be burned; ours came from bit further away, and even so, we didn’t let it touch the ground, nor could we leave any unburned wood behind. This is to prevent the spread of predatory bugs and plants that can, as we have seen in story after story, devastate forests in a short time. So the wood stayed on a tarp in the back of the car until we needed it, and it never touched the ground.
The firewood was important: not only is a campfire can important part of a campout, it would also be our grill to cook the steaks. Dad got the fire started in the grill that the camping spot had, then unpacked the cooler containing steaks, vegetables, salad, butter, dressing and some cheeses. In a grocery bag we had bread, paper towels, garbage bags, coffee for breakfast, and of course, marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate bars. What campout is complete without ‘smores?
Dinner in the Rough
As the kids relaxed and read books on their sleeping bags, Dad built the fire—it would take about two hours of burning in order to be ready to cook dinner—and we relaxed with cheese and crackers as we watched the sun set. Soon it was dinner time; Dad put the steaks on while I set the table and made the salad. The smell of steaks on the grill brought the girls out of their tent and to the table.
We ate by the glow of the fire, listening to the frogs and crickets in the woods, and as the air cooled and the night darkened, a sense of peace also came over me. A foreign thing called relaxation.
After dinner and smores over the campfire, we scraped the dishes into garbage bags and stacked our dirty dishes in a Tupperware tub for washing at home. Because there can be hungry critters in the woods, including bears, all foods were put back into the car for the night.
Seeing Stars —The Right Way
After cleanup, the kids decided to head to a field nearby where they could get a better look at the stars. They laid out a sleeping bag and settled in for a bit of star watching, hoping to see a comet (but with no luck). I stayed back at the campsite, flashlight and book in hand, to enjoy a little reading time, another luxury I never seem to get enough of.
Soon the fire was fading and we were all tired; we made our way to the restrooms to wash up for bed, and soon were all sleeping peacefully in the crisp mountain air.
Morning Light That Colors Your View
The next morning I awoke to the subtle sounds of campers beginning to stir, that faint echo of voices mixed with breezes and rustling tree leaves. Opening the tent flap I was greeted with beautiful morning light streaming in, and could see that Dad had restarted the fire to make toast and coffee.
As I got up I was surprised with how rested I felt, despite sleeping on an air mattress. We sat and talked over coffee, and eventually the girls got up and joined us for breakfast. We made our plan for the day: breakfast, a short hike on the long trail up Stone Mountain, then head to Mt. Airy for lunch.
We washed up, packed up all our gear and groceries, and last, doused the fire with water to ensure it was out. Luckily, the restrooms nearby made it easy; otherwise we would have needed extra jugs of water to make sure the fire was out (with no smoking embers at all) before we left the camp site.
We drove down to the trail head, parked and started up the wooded trail, hiking to the river where the trail turned to follow the river down toward a waterfall.
Once we reached the waterfall we decided it was time to turn back; we’d been hiking the easy way down, now it would take more energy to climb back up. Luckily, the park’s trails include stairs where the path is steep, making the climb much easier.
Soon we were back in the car, headed to Mt. Airy, where we would visit Floyd’s Barber Shop and Opie’s Candy Shop, inspired by the television program The Andy Griffith Show, and explaining to the kids was black and white TV was. Getting back to the grid, as it were.