School’s out, and camping’s in.
For thousands of Americans, vacation is just a campground away. And with soaring gas prices, more people may choose to stay closer to home.
Fort Mountain State Park in Murray County offers plenty of amenities for those seeking to get back to nature — in varying degrees. Terri and Rick Carter’s family was one of several from a Florida-based, off-road adventure club camping on Fort Mountain last week.
“It’s absolutely beautiful here. This campground is really clean and well-kept, and we’ve stayed at several between Florida and Tennessee,” said Terri, a crime scene investigator for the Palm Bay Police Department. “We sleep in tents and RVs, use ice chests, and cook outside on propane cook stoves. We bring everything but the kitchen sink.”
The Carters’ sons, David, 15, and Steven, 11, said they enjoy all the amenities offered on Fort Mountain — bicycling, hiking, swimming, fishing, horseback riding — in addition to campfire favorites such as roasting marshmallows and catching fireflies.
“We like to use our flashlights and play ‘man hunt,’ like hide-and-seek at night,” Steven said while leaning on his dirt bike.
Tim Shinn and his son Brandon, 20, spent the day off-roading in their red Jeep Wrangler as part of “The Pavement End” off-road club.
“We go trail-riding on gravel trails that have been improved. We leave at 9:30 in the morning, pack a lunch, and ride out to look at the scenery,” said Tim, who recently retired from the fire department that serves Cape Canaveral and moved to Maryville, Tenn. “All of us use GPS (global positioning) systems when we go Jeeping so we can get in and out.”
Brandon said he’d gotten to cook bratwurst over the propane cooker before going Jeeping.
“It wasn’t too bad,” he said. “Mostly, I’m just having fun being in the company of other people.”
The Florida group was staying at one of Fort Mountain’s 70 tent and recreational vehicle camp sites, which include modern showers, rest rooms, and coin-operated washers and dryers just a short walk away. Fort Mountain also offers 10 walk-in camp sites, four backcountry sites, and three “pioneer” sites (with platform shelters for groups such as Scout troops).
“We recommend making reservations because we fill up just about every weekend,” said Tommy Crabb, assistant manager of the state park. “We also have a naturalist here during the summer.”
Naturalist Ruby Mitchell has planned a snake demonstration for today, a Native American artifact program for Monday and an animal recognition game for Tuesday — part of festivities surrounding the July 4 holiday.
Melinda Owens, park secretary, said bears are not as active this year as last, though concern is high among campers since a child was recently killed in a bear attack in the Cherokee National Forest in nearby Polk County, Tenn. Camp sites offer “bear-proof” trash receptacles, and signs suggest keeping food supplies inside locked cars.
“People ask about bears a lot more. I think the raccoons are worse than the bears,” Owens said. “If you see a bear, don’t run. Keeping your food up away from your tent is the best way to avoid them.”
Last Wednesday, a group of four 20-year-old college students were on their way to camp at one of the backcountry sites. Carey Owens of Atlanta, Jack Robie of Sandy Springs, Arwyn Becker of Vail, Colo., and Dan Owens of Fayetteville were on leave from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
The students were outfitted with external-frame backpacks, and were getting ready to hike to their camp site, a site off the Big Rock Nature Trail with no facilities.
“We’re roughing it on top of the mountain,” said Robie, wearing a red Boy Scouts T-shirt. “We don’t even have a change of clothes — just water, food, tents and sleeping bags.”
They said it’s important to bring a lightweight, “full-fly” waterproof tent when staying in the backcountry. Dan Owens said he would try to make their stay comfortable.
“We’ve got a propane stove, and I’m planning to make a pizza tonight,” he said. “For breakfast, we’ll have eggs and bacon, if we’ve not already broken the eggs.”
The cadets recommend the trip farther up the mountain to see the the Stone Tower and the Old Fort Wall, a mysterious ancient stone wall that gave the mountain its name. It’s accessible by car and a 1.8-mile hike, or by the 8.2-mile Gahuti Trail, which offers the park’s three other backpack camp sites along its route.
Members of the Florida group said they prefer the conveniences of the tent and trailer campground. Temperatures ranging from the 60s to the mid-80s, with low humidity, were a big change for them. Doug and Cheryl Farnham of Malibar, Fla., said it feels much cooler here than in Florida.
“It was 92 and humid when we left,” said Doug, also a police officer in Palm Bay. “You couldn’t stand outside, or you’d be soaked. Go to Florida, and you’ll see the difference.”
The Farnhams, along with their children Heather, 13, and Shawn, 8, were staying in their 31-foot Winnebago alongside others who had pitched tents.
“We’ve got all the hookups except sewer, but the bathrooms are clean, and there’s good hot water in the showers — which is important if you’re last in line,” Doug said. “We’ve got electricity, but our TV’s a lot smaller than what we’re used to, so we’re roughing it a little bit.”
The Farnhams said it takes $175 to fill the 79-gallon tank in their RV, but they can make the 450-mile trip on one fill-up, and they can tow their Jeep behind the Winnebago.
Like the Shinns, the Farnhams say many Floridians are relocating to the mountains since the devastating hurricane season of 2006.
“My aunt’s buying a place, and a friend’s finishing a cabin,” Cheryl said. “We sit around the campfire at night and talk about retirement.”
School’s out, and camping’s in.