As I mentioned in my previous post, the Daniel Boone National Forest is massive. The forest lies in eastern Kentucky and extends from the Tennessee border to almost the Ohio border. The forest is broken up into four Ranger Districts. We visited the Cumberland District to the north and the Stearns District to the south.
We head next to southern Kentucky and the Stearns Ranger District.
Great Meadows Campground
Since we “retired” early, didn’t win the lottery or inherit money from a long-lost relative, we have to find a certain amount of free camping to complete our journey without running of money in our later years. With the many forests, mountains and cliffs in the Midwest, it has been very difficult for me to locate public land that a 33 foot 5th wheel can be wedged into. Once we get out West, boondocking opportunities should open up.
After reviewing the National Forest map and website, I located a free campsite in southern Kentucky within the Daniel Boone Forest. Jackpot! Part of being free, means there are no full hook up. No electric, no water, no sewer and no garbage. You need to haul in what you need and haul out your waste. This would be a great first test of our dry camping capabilities. The Great Meadows Campground is located about ½ mile from the Tennessee border (if you want to drive to Tennessee, however, you’ll have to drive 45 miles to do it). According to the National Forest website, the campground can accommodate up to a 38 foot rig. What the website didn’t say was there was only one site, period, that could accommodate a rig up to 38 feet.
As luck would have it, the site was available, but I’m getting ahead of myself. This campground is truly in the middle of nowhere. The closest town, Stearns, is 30 very difficult (for a big rig) miles away. This is where I made Rookie Mistake #5. The campground was still 30 miles away. Up to this point the drive was very hilly and putting quite a drag on my fuel economy. I figured I better fill up. I pulled into a run down gas station as it looked to be the last station before heading out-of-town. The gas station sits up on a hill from the road and normally this would not be a concern, but as I was about to find out, this can be a concern if you are pulling a long trailer. In order to leave, I had to go down the hill and immediately transition into going back up to get on the road I was traveling. I was a little nervous for the sewer drain, so as you can tell I was somewhat aware of the hill. Turns out the sewer drain should not have been my concern. The drain cleared just fine, so I got on the gas, then BAM the rear of the trailer smacks the hill on the way down. What I didn’t know until I reached the campground was the spare tire rack was completely mangled and the wheel was barely hanging on. I was lucky the wheel did not fall off before I reached the campground.
Turning onto the road that leads to the campground, I immediately became aware that this was going to be a very tricky road to drive with a 33 foot trailer with a combined weight of 19,000 Lbs. (This would be the second time I would question my decision to purchase a Hemi over a diesel motor.) People had to stop way back from the intersection to allow me to complete my turn. The road started out just fine, nice two lane black top road, but then got much narrower, more curvy and the hills became much steeper the further we traveled. The sign said, “Great Meadows Campground, 17 miles”. I’m no math genius, but at an average speed of 20 mph average, this was going to take a while. At 5 miles to go, the road turns into a 1 ½ car gravel road, with nice trees and drop offs on each side.
I’m starting to get religious, praying that there is indeed a campground at the end of this road, if not, I’m screwed! Luckily we only ran into one vehicle coming the other way and they were able to get over enough that I could squeak by. We would not be as lucky on the way out.
There are technically two separate campgrounds to Great Meadows. The Deer Loop and the Raccoon Loop. We pulled into the Deer Loop first and it became quite obvious, that this campground was a little different, not a travelers destination, but rather a locals get away. The stares that I felt as we drove around were a little concerning. We were way out-of-place with a brand new 33 ft, 5th wheel.
I learned another lesson on this adventure to Great Meadow and that is, if you find a suitable camping spot in a tight campground, take it! Not me, there might be a better one in the other loop. Well, there wasn’t! After sticking the camper into the trees, I thought I might just leave it there and call it good. I eventually got back to the Deer Loop and put the trailer comfortably in the only spot that I could with my current skill set. If it had been taken, we would have had to drive out.
It’s quite odd at a pretty full campground for nobody to come talk to you. But nobody did. Needless to say, I felt a little creep’d out, but there was no way I could have handled pulling that trailer out of there that day.
We made it through the night despite the full moon; no bears, wolves or crazy locals bothered us.
It turns out I might have been just a little paranoid (too much TV watching). As I went for my usual morning coffee walk, the neighbor across from us introduced himself and offered me all his fire wood since they were leaving. As I was starting to carry it over, another neighbor carries a pile of wood over from his site (we became good friends with these people). Shortly after that, another gentleman who was leaving brought over even more fire wood. As we suspected, everyone we met, grew up very close to the campground, visit the campground many times during the year and were great story tellers. We met some very interesting characters and learned a lot about southern Kentucky.
Just when I was starting to feel comfortable, Friday afternoon rolls around and people start arriving in droves. More cars than you could imagine realizing that this campground is 30 miles from the nearest town. Car after car. They would drive in our loop, not see what they were looking for, pull out and go down to the next loop. Maybe come back to our loop or drive on out of the area. I thought maybe there was a nice little Meth Lab operation going on (again too much TV). Turns out that the Raccoon loop is known to be the local party hot spot. People must make the drive just to check to see if there is a party going on. Sounded like there was, but it was far enough down the road that it did not bother us. Same parade on Saturday, except throw in a random horse carriage. Where did they come from?!!!
By Sunday afternoon, almost everyone was gone. At first, I was freaking out that we were going to be the only ones there. By the end of the day, there were only 3 of us in the entire campground. One of them was this guy below. I guess I didn’t need to buy a brand new 5th wheel to do this adventure.
It turned out to be a very nice area. Since we befriended a great family, I felt comfortable leaving to go explore the area. We found out about a great hike to a hidden arch from a father and his sons who were camping in hammocks (I’m telling ya, a 33 ft, 5th wheel was way out-of-place).
We found out from another local about another Arch that you could drive out to on some fire trails. Unfortunately, as you can imagine, if you can drive to it, it’s probably been ruined by people. It was cool to see, but was plastered with graffiti and carvings.
One guy we met tried to convince me it would be easier to go out the back way. I went on a scouting mission and I’m so glad I did. I don’t think I could have made it up one of the grades with just a Hemi. The road was gravel with heavy washboard and no way to get a run at a very steep section. Might have been able to make it up in 4 Low, but my nerves were too much on edge just thinking about going back they way we came. The bonus from the scouting trip, we came across several overlooks. The leaves actually looked like they had more color than further north.
The day of our dreaded departure arrived. Though we are not following an exact schedule, we do want to hit the Gulf shores by the end of October. It was time to negotiate our way out of the canyon. 17 miles of torture, wondering if we can get to the pavement before something big comes along. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it. Here comes a truck hauling a big trailer with a Gator on it. How in the heck are we going to pass each other. It took a little bit of effort with vehicles, trailers, trees and drop offs coming way to close for comfort. By the time we hit the main road, we were totally exhausted and sore from tensing too much. We were so frazzled in fact, that when we hit our next campground and saw how hilly, non-level and tight the campsites were, we decided to move on to our next location.