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Camping Connection: The Eastern Canyonlands of the U.S.

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By Bill Steiden

Google “canyonlands” and you’ll pop up images straight out of the old “Roadrunner” cartoons – dream visions of impossible chasms, soaring arches and surreal colors. The dry and treeless West strips bare the dramatic geology of wind- and water-carved sandstone in unobstructed vistas both beautiful in their intricacy and frightening in their barrenness. It’s no wonder that these images have become so imprinted on Americans’ minds that when they think of such landscapes, they instantly associate them with the high desert of Utah and Arizona.

It may come as a surprise, then, that the East has its share of sandstone canyons – not quite so grand in scope, perhaps, but as dramatic up close as almost any you’ll find in the West. Cloaked in forest, they present a less-iconic image than their cactus-bearing counterparts. But for those intrepid enough to pitch their tents close to the edge, they’re every bit as thrilling. And most are far more accessible than their remote Western counterparts.

Traveling south to north along the I-75 corridor, one of America’s most heavily traveled highways, aspiring canyon campers willing to venture onto the side roads will find four superb examples:

Wagon Arch at Big South Fork River National Recreation AreaWagon Arch at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area
  • Cloudland Canyon State Park, cut into the escarpment of sprawling, flat-topped Lookout Mountain in far northwest Georgia, a few hours from Atlanta and a quick drive from Chattanooga, Tenn. This 800-foot-deep chasm offers something you won’t find out West: year-round waterfalls, formed by tributaries of Sitton Gulch Creek, which carved the canyon in a process that continues today. The falls along Daniel Creek are accessible along a short but strenuous trail, part of a network that includes a backpacking loop with designated camping areas. For less-ambitious campers, there are 73 campsites, ranging from developed trailer pads with electrical hookups to a walk-in loop near the canyon rim.
  • Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, straddling the Kentucky-Tennessee line a few hours northwest of Knoxville. The Cumberland River cascades through this breathtaking canyon, where in season you can stand atop one of the many overlooks and watch daring paddlers challenging the Class V rapids 600 feet below. Covering a huge expanse, the 123,000-acre park offers myriad camping options, including the hike-in Charit Creek Lodge. But for family campers, it’s hard to beat adjacent Pickett CCC Memorial State Park, with its helpful and friendly rangers, an adventurous network of canyon trails that even include a ladder climb, a heated bathhouse and a swimming lake.
  • Red River Gorge. The most remote of these Eastern canyonlands, it’s at the heart of the Daniel Boone National Forest in the mountains of eastern Kentucky. The state operates Natural Bridge State Resort Park, with developed camping and a homey lodge centered on the massive sandstone arch from which it takes its name. But this canyon more than the others rewards the camper who wants to strap on a backpack and explore its extensive network of back-country trails. Especially in the fall, when the leaves are turning and the days are warm and dry, it’s a magical place to seek out a high, lonely, lichen-covered ledge and bask in the sunshine while gazing across the gorge’s wide expanse.
  • Hocking Hill State Park. A quick drive south from Columbus, Ohio, in Ohio’s Appalachia foothills, this park — actually a network of parks — offers sandstone formations reminiscent of the bizarre features in Utah’s Zion and Canyonlands state parks. Ash Cave, with its free-falling cascade; Old Man’s Cave, with its narrow, rock-walled passages; picturesque Cedar Falls; and Cantwell Cliffs, the Rock House and Conkle’s Hollow provide surprises at every turn. As with Cloudland Canyon, 500 miles to the south, there are camping options for every preference, including a 23.5-mile backpacking trail in nearby Zaleski State Forest.
At 133 feet Yahoo Falls is Kentucky's highest and inside Big South Fork River National Recreation Area.At 113 feet, Yahoo Falls is Kentucky’s highest and can be found inside Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

Let’s be clear: None of these gorges is the Grand Canyon. For the full Roadrunner experience, you’ll have to make the Westward trek. But some of the best camping experiences in the East can be found amid these gorges. Just remember, as you explore these close-by canyonlands, to heed the lesson of Wile E. Coyote, and watch your step!

4MoreInfo

Cloudland Canyon State Park
Rising Fawn, Ga.
931.879.5821
gastateparks.org/info/cloudland/

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area
Bandy Creek Visitors Center
Jamestown, Tennessee
and
Stearns Depot Visitors Center
Stearns, Kentucky
423.286.7275
www.nps.gov/biso/

Pickett CCC Memorial State Park
Jamestown, Tennessee
931.879.5821
www.state.tn.us/environment/parks/Pickett/

Daniel Boone National Forest
Galdie Learning Center
Stanton, Kentucky
606.663.8100
www.fs.fed.us/r8/boone/districts/cumberland/gladie.shtml

Natural Bridge State Resort Park
Slade, Kentucky
800.325.1710
parks.ky.gov/findparks/resortparks/nb/

Hocking Hills State Park
Logan, Ohio
740.385.6842
www.dnr.state.oh.us/parks/tabid/743/Default.aspx

Top photo: Natural Bridge State Resort Park

However often he gets the chance to camp, it still isn’t often enough for Bill Steiden, a Decatur, Ga.-based journalist. Got a suggestion or a question about a camping destination? E-mail him at bsteiden2@yahoo.com.

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