Fear not! The road trip must go on. Read on for family vacation tips on how you too can get stuck in an underground river in Kentucky, bed down in a band’s tour bus in Nashville, almost get “taken” on Lookout Mountain in Chattanooga, and picnic atop the amazing Stone Mountain in Georgia.
The Good Stuff
Athens, Ohio: Cicadas, Garage Sales and Horse Country
Our first stop was Athens, Ohio, where we grabbed a delicious breakfast at the Union Street Diner and toured the Ohio University campus while dodging the thousands of dive-bombing, 17-year cicadas (yuck). After that we drove along Scenic Byway Route 68 and were amazed by the dozens and dozens of yard sales we passed as part of the annual 400-Mile Yard Sale. Fortunately the Hyundai was already packed to the gills; otherwise I’d have been tempted to stop at every sale in search of my next vintage typewriter (I already own 30+). After passing through miles and miles of horse farms, we finally arrived in Lexington, Kentucky, where we checked in at the lovely Campbell House before grabbing dinner (and a nice IPA for Daddy) at Drake’s.
Bowling Green, Kentucky: Getting Stuck in Lost River Cave
Our original plan was to stop at Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest known cave system in the world. I had heard great things about it – but, unfortunately, I didn’t hear that you need to book ahead. There are a limited number of daily tours and reservations are highly recommended. By the time I tried to make a reservation, just about everything was sold out.
So on to Plan B: Lost River Cave. After my Mammoth fail, I started searching for other options and came across this lesser-known jewel, which boasts itself as “Kentucky’s only underground boat tour, full of history and wonder!”
The tour starts with a brief history lesson of the cave and its surroundings. Then your guide leads you into the massive mouth of the cave (they actually were holding a wedding inside it later that day!), where you slowly and very carefully load into a flat-bottom boat. Since there was such a large group of us that day, they had to put us in two boats; my family and I were in the second.
When you first enter Lost River Cave, the opening is so low that you actually have to lean all the way forward in your seat so that your head doesn’t get dashed against the rock above. If you’re claustrophobic like me, this part can really get your heart racing. Luckily it only lasts a few seconds and then the cave opens up greatly. It almost feels like you’re on some type of boat ride at Disney.
When we turned around to make our way out of the cave, we found the opening blocked by the other boat, which had become grounded on a large, submerged boulder. It was a little dicey for a while as both tour guides did their best to get the boat free. Finally, after about 15 minutes they got free of the rock and we finished the tour. Although I think the kids were a little worried we’d be stuck in there forever, they really had a great time and it’s definitely something they’ll remember for years to come.
Nashville, Tennessee: Bluegrass, BBQ & Bachelorettes in Nash-Vegas
Sleeping with the Band My wife booked all the hotels for our trip, and she really likes to see if she can find the best deals. Being on the road for two weeks, you really need to save a buck or two wherever you can. While perusing the options on Airbnb, she came across a great deal — get this — on a bluegrass band’s tour bus!
The bus belongs to Whitney and Johnny of Johnny Campbell and the Bluegrass Drifters (check them out—they’re really talented!) and is parked in the back of their house just two miles from downtown Nashville. The kids really got a kick out of sleeping in the bus’s bunkbeds (it sleeps 6) and playing with the goats, chickens, rabbits, and cats that roam around Whitney and Johnny’s backyard. It was a wonderful, memorable way to spend the night in Music City, and we’d definitely do it again.
During our stay in Nashville, our first stop was the Antique Archaeology store, made famous by one of my favorite shows, the History Channel’s “American Pickers”. Honestly, I felt a little embarrassed going there, since I prefer to avoid doing the normal “touristy” type of things. So I’ll just blame it on my son.
The store is super cool and features a lot of artifacts a fan of the show would recognize (like the legendary 1966 XAVW “Von Dutch” motorcycle). However, I found most things were waaaay out of my price range (i.e., $9.99 and under). It’s more museum than actual store. But there was a band playing inside while we were there, and overall it was a really fun experience.
After that we grabbed a quick, cheap, and delicious dinner at Bajo Sexto Taco, located inside the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum, and just across from the Bridgestone Arena and Convention Center in downtown Nashville. While we ate out on the patio, we must have seen a dozen or so of those pedal-powered mobile taverns pass by, most of them loaded with loaded bachelorette parties. Meanwhile I could hear at least two bands playing out on the street. It was easy to see why they call this “Music City.”
Next we walked a couple blocks up to Main Street to explore the downtown district. I had never been to Nashville and really didn’t know what to expect. Well, there’s a reason they call it “Nash-Vegas”. Though only a couple blocks long, Main Street is a complete sensory overload of light, sound, and smell. Vintage neon signs jut out from nearly every one of the historic, brick buildings that line the street, blinking and flashing to grab your attention. The scent of beer and BBQ envelops you as you walk along the crowded sidewalks. And of course, at any time you’ll hear a dozen or so bands playing in any of the town’s many restaurants and taverns.
It’s not really the best place to take the kids, unfortunately. If you’re a 20-something, single college kid or even a married couple sans kids, you’ll have a blast in downtown Nashville. But if, like me, you’re a middle-aged dad with young children, it is all one big tease. Plus, with hundreds of inebriated individuals stumbling around and riding by on pedal-powered pubs, it’s not exactly what you’d call a “family-friendly” environment. (But it did make me wish I had gone to college in Nashville.)
Chattanooga, Tennessee: Lookin’ Out for Ripoffs at Lookout Mountain
Years ago I had taken a business trip to Chattanooga and got a chance to visit Lookout Mountain. So when we planned our family road-trip, I knew it was a place I wanted to take the wife and kids. It had nothing to do with the fact that I’m a huge Civil War buff and that the area played such an important role in it. (Well, maybe a little.)
From what I could recall, there was a place at the top of the mountain where you could see out literally for dozens of miles, and I knew my wife and kids would enjoy it as much as I did. Unfortunately, finding the top of a mountain isn’t as easy as you’d imagine.
As we made our way up the steep, winding road to the top, suddenly we turned a corner and saw a huge “LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN” sign and a parking attendant guiding cars into a lot. So, like a lemming off a cliff (or mountain), I just followed the others and parked. But when we got inside the welcome center, we realized it wasn’t the top of the mountain but Ruby Falls, an attraction you have to pay to see and which would’ve cost us over $70 bucks. So we hiked back to our car and continued up the mountain.
Unfortunately, I’ve never really been a fast learner, so when we saw signs for “Rock City”, again we obediently followed and fell into yet another tourist trap. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard that both Ruby Falls and Rock City are great places to stop, but we just wanted to get a good view from the top without breaking our very tight budget.
Finally we found the top of the mountain at — go figure — the top of the mountain. There, for just $5 a person (kids 6 and under, free), we explored scenic and historic Point Park, which offers breathtaking vistas of Chattanooga and the Cumberland mountains far below. Although it had taken us a while to get there, it was well worth the trip.
If you don’t do your homework (like we didn’t) and you head to Lookout Mountain, you can easily end up spending well over $100 bucks at places like Ruby Falls and Rock City, when the main attraction at the top will only run you $5 bucks a head. I’m not saying those places don’t have their merit, but if you’re on a budget and you want to get the best view you can find, skip the touristy places and head straight for the top at Point Park.
Although time didn’t permit us to make a stop on this trip, the Tennessee Aquarium in downtown Chattanooga is supposed to be one of the best aquariums you’ll find anywhere (it’s on our list for next time, for sure!). This trip, I settled for sampling some local brews and a delicious blue-cheese burger at the Terminal House in Chattanooga.
Stone Mountain, Georgia: That’s One Big Mountain
The next morning after a quick breakfast at the hotel, we hit the road for Stone Mountain, Ga. Again, this was one of the spots I had visited years ago on a business trip. But unlike Lookout Mountain, hopefully we wouldn’t have as much trouble finding it.
After pulling into the Stone Mountain Theme Park lot, we piled out of the car and — BOOM! — there it was! You really can’t believe how big this chunk of rock is (1,686 ft. tall, more than 5 miles in circumference at its base, and approximately 1 trillion lbs.!), and it just seems to appear out of nowhere from behind the Georgia pines.
The plan was to have a picnic at the top, but first we had to get there. Since I didn’t think the kiddos could make the mile trek, I reluctantly purchased round-trip tickets ($51) on the Summit Skyride, which brings to mind the great ski lifts of the resorts in the western U.S. On the way up, you get a close up view of the incredible 90-foot-tall, 190-foot-wide Confederate memorial on the side of the mountain of President Jefferson Davis on his horse, Blackjack; Gen. Robert E. Lee on Traveler; and Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on Little Sorrel. The controversial carving is 3 acres in size and is actually larger than Mt. Rushmore.
Once we reached the top, we had a lovely picnic while enjoying the incredible view. On a clear day you can see nearly 60 miles away. This day it was a little hazy, but you could still make out the skyline of Atlanta, a good 30 miles off.
When it was time to go back down, however, my daughter, in reference the Skyride, announced that she was “never riding on that thing again!” So instead of scarring her for life, we decided to just hike back down the mountain, which although long and somewhat arduous in the humid Georgia heat, turned out to be another fun and memorable adventure.
Although the Summit Skyline at Stone Mountain is a convenient way to the top that offers some truly amazing views, I thought $51 was a little steep for four round-trip tix. Luckily they refunded me for the return tix when we decided to hike back down instead.
Atlanta, Georgia : Sugar High Before a Five-Hour Drive
After Stone Mountain, we were fortunate to stay overnight with one of my wife’s friends in Atlanta, saving us the expense of a hotel room. (Epic Road-Trip Insider Tip: Whenever possible, don’t turn down an opportunity to stay with friends.) Plus, their pantry was stocked with sugary cereals, which basically made the kiddos’ day.
We hit the road mid-morning, but before leaving town, the doughnut freaks that we are, we had to first make a stop at Sublime Doughnuts, which features some unique flavors like Smores, Nutella, and Red Velvet Cake. I went for the Chocolate Wild Berry Fritter, and it did not disappoint. In hindsight, the resulting sugar crash may have contributed to my difficulty keeping my eyes open for the five-hour drive to Pensacola later that day.
Keywords: family vacation, family travel, travel with kids, family road trip, road trip with kids, nashville family vacation, lookout mountain with kids, stone mountain with kids, tennessee family vacation, mammoth cave with kids, lost river cave with kids
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