Five Days in Paradise

We motored along two-lane highways through piney woods and marshlands. Traffic was sparse. Cars were outnumbered by rv’s. Tahquamenon Falls State Park is an enormous piece of land. It is almost 50,000 acres of wilderness punctuated by few roads and little else. This is the stomping ground of Hiawatha and the Chippewa Indians.  The Tahquamenon River runs through the park down to Whitefish Bay. The river is 89 miles running though woodland with the Upper and Lower Falls punctuating along its length.

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The park features four campgrounds. There are two campgrounds at the Lower Falls and two campgrounds where the river empties into Lake Superior. We were staying at Rivermouth Campground which has both a modern campground as well as a rustic loop.

This park books up early in the season and we considered ourselves fortunate once again to have gotten a site. In our case, our site was in the modern loop (electric hookups) right next to the bathhouse. While many people would love the proximity to the bathhouse, we prefer to be further away, but, hey, we had a site!

With a five day stay, Jim let it all hang out and broke out all of his bling. We had the palm tree, the glowey flowers, the pineapple, the flamingo, the flip flop/flamingo lights along the awning and my five American flags. One thing about being next to the bathhouse, you get good visitor traffic. We like to think we brightened a few people’s evening trip to brush their teeth.

Despite weeks on the road, we had yet to enjoy a real hike and that was first up on the agenda. The most exciting hike runs along the Tahquamenon from the Lower Falls to the Upper Falls. The beginning and ends of the trail are paved for accessibility, but the middle is a lovely run through the woods and along the river. Signage warned of rough going and roots along the trail in addition to elevation changes.

It was a really nice run. The weather was delightful. The sunlight filtered through the woods and clouds skidded across the skies. It was easily five degrees cooler under the leafy canopy. At exactly the right moment, a rough wooden bench appeared with a prospect of the river below. We broke out our sandwiches and enjoyed lunch.

Dakota showed no signs of his recent surgery. He was hot to trot along the trail. Trails are his favorite and we like to imagine all the scents he picks up as we walk along. There were plenty of wet spots along the trail. Dakota can be relied upon to head for the muddiest bits. I carried him over those parts. He does, after all, sleep on our bed. At a bantam weight 24 pounds, I didn’t want him to lose any more weight. To his delight a lunch was served and would be moving forward each time we hit a trail.

We emerged from the trail to an unpleasant scrum at the Upper Falls. Now I understand why the DNR claims 600,000 people visit Tahquamenon Falls State Park each year. They all park at the Upper Falls and walk the pavement to the viewing stations. After our extremely pleasant hike, we couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

An enterprising social studies teacher from Newberry runs a summer season shuttle back and forth from the Upper to the Lower Falls ferrying hikers back to their starting point. Dogs are free. We arrived back at the Airstream dreaming of hikes to come.

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The Highest Waterfall in Florida Wasn’t Really

Falling Waters State Park boasts the highest waterIMG_5173fall in all of Florida. Sign me up! I gotta see this. When we pulled into the park and up to the ranger station at the gate, the ranger on duty surprised us. Rather than the normal enthusiasm most rangers express for their parks, this fellow said, “yep, not much to do here. About a day is all most people can take and then they head out to find something better to do. You might want to check out the town.” Really? This is how you feel about the park you represent? Were you exiled from some plum park assignment elsewhere and now you spread discontent to all your guests? The park web site says, “this park has something for everyone…” The ranger didn’t seem to feel the same way.

Falling Waters is actually one of the highest hills in Florida. Rising 324 feet above sea level, Native Americans inhabited the area until British and Spanish settlers slowly pushed them out. Tall pine forests cover the hillsides augmented by magnolia trees with deep green leaves and dense clumps of saw palmetto and grasses. The area around the eponymous waterfall is punctuated by sink holes nestled in the underbrush and covered with moss. Peering through the foliage which is dense even in winter, it is difficult to see the sink holes clearly and the overall effect is one of decay, danger and mystery. Several streams wind their way through the brush keeping the air moist and humid. It was hard to imagine the earlier settlers making their way through this terrain.

IMG_5169The waterfall is not quite what you might expect. Rather than looking up to view a tall cascade of water, this waterfall is actually underground! The waterfall is formed by a confluence of streams. The water from these streams thunders 100 feet down into one of the sinkholes. To view the waterfall, one stands on a platform and peers through the gloom to watch the roiling water disappear into a deep moss and vine-lined tunnel.

Our camp site at Falling Waters was nestled on a curve of the campground loop. It was a pretty intimate campground with only 24 sites. After so many weeks on the flat Florida terrain, it was a pleasant change of pace to be perched on the top of the hill. There wasn’t a huge amount of space between sites and tall pines circled our trailer. There were only a few hiking trails at the park. Many of them were actually painstakingly built board walks which wound a path between the shaded sink holes. A good portion of the trails had succumbed to the ever encroaching sink holes and were blocked off from passage.

Taking the ranger’s advice, we did check out the local town, Chipley. Chipley made Chiefland look like a metropolis. Chipley did have a historic district. We followed the signs and did see a couple of old houses in fairly good repair, but other than that it was the usual mix of modest houses, some buildings which were downright shacks and the ubiquitous mobile homes. There wasn’t much else to speak of in Chipley. I hate to sound like a northern snob, but I am not sure I could live in a place like this. Of course, a big part of the lifestyle is hunting and fishing, but if you weren’t looking for outdoor recreation, you were looking in the wrong place.

Whether it was the ranger’s initial ambivalence to the park’s attractions or our disappointment at the tallest waterfall in Florida, this was not our favorite park. Some of our estimation might also have been influenced by the tremendous affection we felt for Ochlockonee. But, hey, every park can’t be a home run hit, there have to be some walks to keep the game moving forward.