The Grand State Park Tour.

We did it.

A mom, 2 kids, and a Grandmother,

50 hours,

436 miles,

Over 8 hours in the car,

0 bathroom breaks during said drives,

4 State Parks,

3 State Park Restaurants,

2 State Park Lodges,

3 Hikes totalling 6.7 miles,

1,438 pictures taken.

And it only took me a month to actually blog about it.

I had planned this trip for the Monday after the accident, but put it off one week – which ended up being just a few days before I found out exactly how hurt I was. So. Although this trip certainly did not help my damaged muscles, tendons, ligaments, and discs, I am thankful that I was able to do it. Because it was majestic.

We started at Joe Wheeler State Park in northwest Alabama – a quadrant of the state that I’ve left grossly undervisited. It’s only two hours away from Birmingham, but I had never been there despite hearing about how beautiful it was. I feared that we had missed all of the lovely fall colors from leaving a week later than I had originally intended, but we were thrilled that they still had a good bit of Autumnness I craved.

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I soaked it in,watching the birds soar across the surface of the water, and enjoying the appropriate chill in the air.

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The kids immediately found a playground, and then Ali, anxious to start her fall trip notebook, began collecting leaves off of the ground.

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I was surprised at all of the sailboats in the marina – not usually what you see at state parks – but they made for pretty pictures.

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We ate a late lunch at the restaurant in the lodge (Ali said that they had the best ranch dressing in the entire world – and even stuck to that assessment when I took her to Wing Stop later that weekend, which is the place that I think has the best ranch in the whole world), then we set off on our first hike.

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The trail we took was lovely and wide and wound up along the riverbanks. The children deemed it perfection.
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At one point when we were high up above the river, we spotted what looked like a mysterious shoreline below. We all left the trail and scooted down the mountainside (leaving the trail caused Ali to get a mortal scratch from a thorn, something that was featured heavily in her journalling of the day) to check out the Pirate’s Cove below.

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The children giddily searched for “Lost Things” or treasure or anything else they could find, then we crawled back up the hill, carefully avoiding all thorns.

We arrived back where we started, and walked down through the picnic area to find the shoreline. Despite it being overcast, the colors of the trees were so happy and invigorating.

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I sat on a rock and took a photo editing break while the kids and my mom found shells, butterflies, and other wondrous objects made even more wondrous by Gramamma’s enthusiastic educational lessons. I really should have listened to her more as a kid.

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The shore was rocky and serene and seemed just the place where you might have a mermaid sighting. Or perhaps a Lochness Monster.

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We waited, but neither came to us. An extremely extroverted Monarch did find my mom and Ali, though. So there’s that.

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After a beautiful visit at Joe Wheeler, we set out again – this time for a two hour drive east. It got dark before we arrived (WHY can’t our legislation get us permanent daylight savings time? The sun should not set before 5pm. God never intended that), but the lights of Guntersville from our lodge room at Lake Guntersville State Park were magical.

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The lodge was pretty spectacular, also. Each room had a balcony overlooking Lake Guntersville, and the rooms had high ceilings that made them not feel nearly as claustrophobic as they should have with four people, two beds, and two air mattresses.

And the view was totally worth sketching.

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The next morning, Ali and Mom worked on her school journal (seriously I should hire my mother as a full-time tutor), preserving leaves, labeling leaves, and writing about all of our adventures to that point, including that pesky cat briar.

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Then we set off on a hike to explore Guntersville State Park’s beautiful trails.

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My favorite find were these leaves, the darkest fall leaves I have ever seen. They were completely black.

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The kids enjoyed the rock outcroppings and made up superhero games to go with them.

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The fall colors were still very much around as they had been at Joe Wheeler, so I basked in my favorite season.

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We did manage to get lost and wander like the Israelites in Egypt for a bit because I didn’t bother to read the legend on our trail map before we set out – particularly the definition of purple trails, which was “Not marked yet.” And then I started attempting to use the GPS on my phone to get us to the road but kept encountering sheer rock facings.

Just follow the trail maps, people. It’s the best way.

We found our way back to the trail and hiked back out, all of us feeling a great sense of accomplishment despite our wanderings. Our next stop was Desoto State Park. By the time we wandered off of Guntersville’s trails and got lunch on the way to Desoto, we didn’t have as much time to explore before sunset as we’d hoped, so we quickly drove through the cabin area and made mental notes for a future trip,

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then headed to Desoto falls for sunset.

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Desoto Falls is just marvelous. From the top,

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to the middle,
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To the bottom.
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The kids were impressed, but fought me quite a bit about stepping away from the gated area to get this picture. They were equally cutting off all circulation to my wrists.

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We left there and headed two hours east to our last stop, atop the highest mountain in Alabama, Cheaha State Park. It was dark when we got there, so we put the kids to bed and I had a desperately needed two hours of introvert time in the dark, editing photos and blogging.

Sharing space nonstop with my children does not come naturally for me.

The next morning, we walked across the street to have breakfast, which happened to possess this view:

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Bacon and biscuits taste even better while looking at it – I promise.

We drove over to the walkway to Bald Rock, which was a beautiful half mile stroll to the edge of the mountain.

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The walkway ended here, which overlooked Bald Rock. The kids were perfectly happy to stay at the end of the walkway, but I wanted the better view.

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As I expected, it was exhilarating.

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So I forced my children to join me. They wouldn’t quite step out of the shadows, but close enough.

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Next, we visited the fairy tale-esque building that housed the highest point in Alabama.

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The inside was adorable – exactly where one would expect Rapunzel to live.

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When we got to the top of the 64 stairs, I climbed up into the windowsill and looked down upon all the people – just so I could be the highest in the state for a moment. Ali was not impressed.

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Everything about Cheaha had an otherworldly feel to it – especially this castle waterfall,

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And the group retreat lodge. I’m not sure how they won the lottery for Best State Park Architecture, but the ambiance was fantastic.

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The grand finale of our journey was to drive down the mountain to Lake Cheaha and let the children play on the playground – because of course regular old playgrounds are the best part of epic journeys. Meanwhile, I circled the lake and took my last couple pictures.
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I already loved our State Park system before this trip. We have so much rich and varying landscapes in Alabama, and I love that we’ve preserved so many of them for public use. But this trip definitely ingrained in me (and hopefully my children) a yearning to go more. To do more roadtrips. And to explore all of the magical places our state has to offer.

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And I might already be planning our next grand adventure.