I was able to work into my trip a planned rendezvous with old coworkers from the nonprofit KaBOOM!. I lent a hand helping build a playground in Indianapolis for the kids of School 31. It was certainly very nice to have friends to talk and eat with for a couple days too! Check out KaBOOM!. It’s a great nonprofit that promotes active play and helps communities build playgrounds.
When I left western South Dakota, my mindset was that the highlights of my outdoor adventures were behind me. Sure, I had outdoor destinations planned through the eastern portion of my trip as well, but I didn’t think they would compare to the west. Well, the east gave me a huge wake up call. While the east can’t match the west in terms of mountain grandeur and scale, the mountains and outdoors of the east match up toe to toe with anything out west in terms of beauty and fun. And the forests of the east? They take a backseat to nowhere.
From Indianapolis, my destination was Daniel Boone National Forest. When I did my research before the trip, I noticed this big National Forest in Kentucky but came across few details. There was no mention of it in Let’s Go! USA either. I figured it would offer decent camping and probably some good hiking. What I discovered was one of the best kept wilderness secrets of the entire US. Before I go into this though, let me first mention that I had the world’s best bourbon on the way to Daniel Boone NF. Kentucky is famous for their bourbon and you’ll see highway signs driving through the state directing you to distilleries. There’s even a Kentucky Bourbon Trail complete with a passport!
It just so happened that the distillery I checked out was Woodford Reserve, which has received the distinction on more than one occasion as the world’s best bourbon. I’m no bourbon connoisseur, but it was good. There was also the bonus of having to drive through a beautiful Thoroughbred horse farm to get there. Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Bourbon. Anyway, I stumbled from there to Daniel Boone NF. Just kidding. At over $100 a bottle and something like only 100 bottled a week, they can’t exactly hand out glassfulls.
Ok, back to Daniel Boone NF. I ended up in the Red River Gorge area of the National Forest, which is absolutely spectacular. Though largely unknown to the general public, Red River Gorge is well known to rock climbers as a premier spot due to the abundance of limestone cliffs. I was talking to Judy Braden, who owns a local canoe and kayak rental business with her husband, and she showed me a recent article about the area that appeared in Southern Living magazine. I’m paraphrasing here, but the article described the place as if you took the renowned parks of Utah and Arizona and surrounded them with lush green forests. The article described the place as “awe-inspiring.” Both points are dead on.
I was driving towards a hiking trailhead when I saw the rental place. For a reasonable $25, I was dropped off seven miles up river with a good kayak at my disposal. With the Red River calm and perfect weather above me, I enjoyed one of the most relaxing moments of my trip. Towards the end, there was a nice swimming hole with a big boulder 20-25 feet high next to it perfect for cliff jumping. There were four local kids about my age hanging out there too so I kicked it with them for about an hour.
The water was plenty deep but there was one concern and that was the numerous snakes swimming around. Apparently, they were copperheads which are poisonous. We saw about five swim past and the locals mentioned how they’d never seen so many before. With no current health insurance since I left KaBOOM!, I really didn’t want to get bit, though I can still opt into COBRA (how ironic would it be if I opted into COBRA because of a snake bite)! But, they were easy to spot as they swam on the surface, so I wasn’t too worried as I dove in. After returning the kayak, I did a couple wonderful hikes before making the late night drive to West Virginia. Though it was hard to leave such a fantastic place, I was comforted by the fact that I was heading to another gorge in West Virginia – the New River Gorge.
You’ve probably seen coverage of the New River Gorge before. Every October, there’s Bridge Day where the famed bridge spanning over the New River turns into a extreme sports showcase as base jumpers hurl themselves from it.
Right before you drive over the bridge, there’s a sign proclaiming it as the longest arch bridge in the western hemisphere. And at 876 feet above the ground, it’s an impressive sight. Viewing it from a lookout point, I kept thinking what if a car careened off it. Let’s be honest, we all have these thoughts sometimes. Whenever you see a daredevil stunt, part of the thrill is envisioning that it could go wrong.
The hiking in New River Gorge was incredible and very similar to the magnificent scenery of Red River Gorge with lush forests engulfing the area and ridiculous knee-wobbling cliff drop offs. I read that 80% of West Virginia is untamed forests. I really got a sense of that driving and hiking around. The state slogan is “Wild. Wonderful.” and perfectly fitting.
From New River Gorge, I headed to my final destination of the trip – Shenandoah National Park. Shenandoah boasts a beautiful 105 mile scenic drive that runs directly through the center of the park with a plethora of overlooks along the way. I decided it was only appropriate after driving cross country that I end my trip by driving the entire scenic route. Being pretty tired from everything over the past few weeks, I opted for just one hike along the way – a relatively flat 6 mile out and back trail to one of the park’s nine waterfalls.
With the recent rain, the water was running strong and the forest seemed even greener. I tried over and over with all types of camera settings to capture the greenery of the forest around me, but the pictures just didn’t do it justice. The passing rain also reminded me of the stifling humidity in the region and how much I love it. After the hike, I finished the rest of the 105 mile scenic drive and from there it was a short 2 hours to my parent’s place in Maryland. At just after midnight on Memorial Day, my 23 day 4,850 mile journey was over.
When people hear of the traveling I’ve done, I often hear the word lucky. That’s inaccurate though. It’s about planning to do it AND actually doing it. I simply make traveling a priority. People often say that they can’t afford the money or time, but if you truly want to do it, you’ll save up money and find the time. For instance, I want to return and raft the whitewaters of West Virginia, hike Old Rag in Shenandoah, and further explore the Sawtooth Region of Idaho, so I’m already thinking of future opportunities. As the great philosopher Nike says, “Just Do It!”
And one piece of advice: If you’re ever in Rexburg, Idaho, don’t eat at the Chinese restaurant on the main street. Shockingly, it’s not very good 🙂