Category Archives: Awesome Trip Stuff

Our Eclipse Trip (Part 1)

The total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017 was the first one that we would be able to get to and view.  Buffalo had an annular  eclipse (the moon is farther from the Earth, producing a ‘Ring of Fire’) in 1994, but it was too overcast to see, and the previous visible total eclipse was in 1925!   So we had planned for this for a couple of years to get the right place to be to see it well.

LOOK BACK: Walter Cronkite covers the 1979 eclipse

I had scoped out the Dixon Springs State Park in Illinois as a nearly perfect place to stay.  It was about midway between the point of maximum coverage and maximum duration.  I emailed back and forth with one of the park officials who identified the best sites to fit our bus, and let me know that the site reservation window would open on January 1, 2017 for the August reservations.

However, when I logged into ReserveAmerica to grab one of the sites, I found them ALL booked.  It turns out that the state of Illinois had decided to capitalize on the eclipse for tourism, and had rolled their reservation window back to November and promoted their state sites!  Scrambling a bit, I found the Fort Massac State Park, adjacent to Metropolis, Illinois.

French Fort De L’Ascension/Massac on the left and reconstructed American Fort Massac on the right.

Fort Massac was originally founded by the French in 1757 as Fort De L’Ascension, and was rebuilt and renamed Massac during the end of the French and Indian War.  While the British nominally owned the territory afterward, the fort itself was burned by the local Cherokee by the time the British got there.

Reconstructed American Fort Massac (minus the log palisades).

The Americans got into the act when General George Washington ordered the fort reconstructed in 1794, and for the next 20 years it served as a military post, sometimes called the ‘Gibraltar of the Ohio’ due to it’s elevation and view of the river. Notable figures of Merriweather Lewis and William Clark camped at Fort Massac in 1803 as they made preparations for their Corps of Discovery expedition to the newly purchased Louisiana Territory.

The sign says it all …

Metropolis was laid out as a formal town in 1839, and it was hoped that it would be a transportation and commerce hub. It is now a city of about 6000 people, and is best known as the home of Superman (this is official, both from DC Comics and the Illinois State Legislature!).


A tiny fraction of the stone tool collection at Fort Massac.

As we were to find out, the Fort Massac Visitor Center there is mostly museum! They have a great collection of native american stone artifacts (from all over Illinois), and French and American artifacts recovered from the forts.

But most important for me was the fact that Fort Massac was still within the band of totality for the eclipse, and was only about 16 miles from Dixon Springs, so we wouldn’t lose much (about 10 seconds of totality) from being dead-center along the eclipse line. Within a few minutes, I had a site chosen and booked.  We had a place to camp for the eclipse!

Then we had to get there.  The longest trip that we’d taken the bus on was from Buffalo to Ohiopyle, PA (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) and back which was a measly 600 miles or so.  This was going to be some 1600 miles, so it would be our biggest foray to date.

Our (rather grainy) route map for the Eclipse Trip

We had limited time to make the trip, and decided on a few key places to stop on our trip.  We had some friends in Cincinnati, OH who we could stop and see, the Embroiderer’s Guild of America Headquarters were in Louisville, KY, as was the Bulleit Bourbon Distillery tour (at the historic Stitzel-Weller Distillery), all on the way to Fort Massac.  On the way back, we could stop at Mammoth Caves and Big Bone Lick (where we could camp for the night).

With all this planned out, the next thing was packing and provisioning the bus. And then, of course, setting out on the journey …

(Continued in Part 2)


Destination: Central(-ish) New York Locations of Geological Interest (to us)

nysparksCentral New York has a number of geologically significant sites, and some of them are places that we would want to go/be able to go with the bus.  Many of the areas are State Parks, rather than National Parks, as New York State started to preserve its own natural areas about the same time that the National Park Preserves were instituted (Yellowstone was the first in 1872).

Niagara Falls in an 1882 Lithograph
Niagara Falls in an 1882 Lithograph

As proof of this, look to the Niagara Reservation State Park (protecting Niagara Falls, Goat Island, and ‘mainland’ areas adjacent to the Bridal Falls), which is the first State Park in America in 1885 (though legislation had been argued over since the late 1860’s)

A view of some of the Gorge at Letchworth.
A view of some of the Gorge at Letchworth.

Anyhow, the first place, going from west (Buffalo) toward the east, is Letchworth State Park, sometimes called the ‘Grand Canyon of the East.’  This is a State Park with camping near(ish) the Gorge Rim, and miles of hiking trails.

Falls and fall foliage.
Falls and fall foliage.

With more than 14,000 acres of space, there’s three waterfalls,  including the tallest falls in the State.  There are historic sites, like Mary Jemison‘s gravesite and the restored Seneca Council House, and the Glen Iris Inn.  There are plenty of winter activities too, but the camping sites aren’t open then, so it’s a day-trip for those.

Some of the cool stonework-lined walking trails through Watkins Glen.
Some of the cool stonework-lined walking trails through Watkins Glen.

Watkins Glen State Park  is another really scenic location we’d like to hit. The narrow gorge has several levels of trails, from right down by the water, to much farther up along the rim of the gorge with more view.  Run as a private park and resort from 1860, it was purchased by the State as a public park in 1906.

More of Watkins Glen
More of Watkins Glen

The gorge itself is as much as 400′ deep, and has 19 waterfalls, making it a continually visually enticing hike.  Unfortunately (for us), while they have almost 150 RV/trailer spots (and many more camping sites) that will fit a 30′ or smaller unit, our 35′ bus is too large to stay there.

Chimney Bluffs formations
Chimney Bluffs formations





The third place is Chimney Bluffs State Park, which I mentioned in a previous post. There’s no camping here, but the Lake Bluff Campground is only a mile and a half away.

Taughannock Falls
Taughannock Falls

Taughannock Falls is another camping spot, though there’s only one (1!) site that would fit a 35′ RV, so book well in advance!  There are actually two falls within the park, and the creek flows along through the park to the shore of Cayuga Lake (one of the Finger Lakes) where they have a boat launch and beach!

the-salt-museumWhile not as geologically scenic as the other locations, the Salt Museum, in Liverpool, NY examines the history of the industry the salt springs along the shore of Onondaga Lake allowed, so productive that Syracuse, NY was known as the ‘Salt City’.  These springs of brine were slowly leeching away the salt from huge underground domes of salt evaporates from ancient seas.

Herkimer Diamonds in a cavity 'cache'.
Herkimer Diamonds in a cavity ‘cache’.

Farther east, the ancient seas also produced Herkimer Diamonds, pointed, faceted quartz crystals of high clarity.  There are two highly productive ‘mine-your-own’ mines right next to each other in Middleville, each with camping available.

People mining out Herkimer Diamonds
People mining out Herkimer Diamonds
A cleaned up Herkimer Diamond.
A cleaned up Herkimer Diamond.

The Ace of Diamonds Mine  has what seems to be a no-frills camping site and the Herkimer Diamond Mines is affiliated with the KOA thst is just across the road from it.  You can bring your own (non-power) mining tools, though the fee to get in to the Herkimer Diamond Mines gets you the use of a rock-hammer.  Closed shoes, durable pants, and eye-protection a must!

Howe Caverns
Howe Caverns

And lastly, Howe Caverns, its nearby rival of the Secret Caverns, and the relatively recently re-opened Cave House Museum of Mining & Geology.  Near Bramanville, the lower limestone bedrock has been eroded by water in places, making it pitted with cave networks, both large and small.

The signs for the Secret Caverns are all really awesome.
The signs for the Secret Caverns are all really awesome.

Some of the tours of Howe Cavern are undertaken by boat along flooded caves, while the Secret Caverns boast an underground waterfall (which depends on seepages from a swamp above for water – if you go during a dry spell, the waterfall may not be very impressive).

Tour boats 150 feet underground ...
Tour boats 150 feet underground …

And don’t think you need to spend all your time underground. Howe Caverns has also added a Zip-Line, Bungee, Climbing Wall, and High Ropes course, so you can really make a day out of your stay.  There’s a convenient RV campground just a few miles to the east in Central Valley, Hide-A-Way Campsites.  They have 60 spots, and look to have nice amenities.

I’ll be making another post about the Historical sites we want to go to, which will cross with some of these locations, making Central New York really rich and complex for our trips.

Destination: Great Smokey Mountains National Park and The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History

NPSGreat Smokey Mountains National Park

So, yet another National Park destination, and this one is not only in the Appalachian Mountain Range, but also is at the south-western end of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  But instead of being in Virginia, here we’re located in North Carolina and Tennessee, with more wilderness in the park.

Cades Cove (Elev 1807), Elkmont (Elev 2150), and Smokemont (Elev 2198) are the only campgrounds that can accommodate an RV as long as our 35′ bus, but there are others that can fit smaller campers and RVs.   All of these are “frontcountry” campgrounds located around the edges of the park, with trails leading in farther.  But even with these edge locations, there are no showers or electrical or water hookups in the park (except for a few 5 amp sites for those with medical needs).  All the sites farther into the park are hike-in “backcountry” sites.

The 360 observation tower atop Clingman's Dome, on a nice, clear day.
The 360 observation tower atop Clingman’s Dome, on a nice, clear day.

One of the places I want to hit here is Clingman’s Dome,  which at 6643 feet, is the highest point in Tennessee and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi.  There is a seasonal road to get up there, but the Appalachian Trail crosses over Clingman’s Dome as well.

The night sky at Clingman's Dome.
The night sky at Clingman’s Dome.

There is a 45 foot observation tower to make sure that you get a chance to see as far as you can (on some days over 100 miles).  Just seven miles from the Newfound Gap Road (Route 441) (Newfound Gap is the lowest altitude drivable pass through the Great Smokey Mountains) that traverses the park from south-east to north-west.   Just along this road to the south-east is the Smokemont campground and the start of the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway that runs from there to Charlottesville, VA (Right up along by the Shenandoah National Park).

The 'Tree of Shame' at Deal's Gap motorcycle resort.
The ‘Tree of Shame’ at Deal’s Gap motorcycle resort.

On the western end of the Park is the (infamous) ‘Tail of the Dragon’ road (Route 115) from Chilhowe, TN to Cheoah Dam, NC.  This section of road has been seen as a ‘proving ground’ for motorcyclists and sports car drivers as it borders the Park and has thus stayed undeveloped.  This 11 mile section of roadway has nearly 320 curves to it, and even with the reduction of the speed limit from 55 to 30 miles per hour, there are numerous accidents, commemorated at the ‘Tree of Shame’ at Deal’s Gap Motorcycle Resort, decorated with bits of wrecks.

So lots of scenic drives and hikes through the area, but just over 100 miles to the south is the:


The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History
The General
The General

An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History of Kennesaw, GA, houses The General, a famous locomotive stolen by Union spies during the Civil War who tried to run it to Chatanooga, TN, a story that inspired Buster Keaton’s 1926 silent movie The General.  And while much of the museum is apparently built around preserving the historic locomotive, it also focuses on how important the supplies and mobility provided by railroad networks were for both sides during the Civil War.  They even have an machineworks exhibit that details the process of building a locomotive, from casting to assembly.


And, because it’s available, here is the full-length comedy classic: