When I started planning my State Park project, Cloudland Canyon was on the shortlist for an early visit. The summer is unbearably hot here in Georgia, so anytime you can retreat to the cooler mountain air, you take advantage, and I had also heard how beautiful the canyon was. To make the trip even more special, I was joined by Teri (Sommer Days Photography) and our dear friend Brian, who was also celebrating his 40th birthday. Our hiking adventure to Cloudland was his birthday adventure.
Teri and I started planning the week before. I did online research, perused some other photographers work, checked weather patterns, and researched hiking backpacks. Both Teri and I knew we had to find a solution for our camera gear, and none of the dedicated camera bags were cutting it. They’re great for short hauls of heavy gear, but we needed something comfortable over the long haul. So with that, we headed to REI with ALL of our camera gear in tow.
A very helpful employee found us the PERFECT pack for our gear, the Women’s REI Trail 40, and we loaded it up with our gear and packed it around the store for an additional hour while we looked at additional gear to add to our wishlist. We both ended up buying the exact same pack, which I think makes us hiking twinsies!
Once we had procured our perfect camera hiking pack, we loaded up with our gear, our snacks, our mini emergency kits, and various other odds and ends. We also drug out all of our accumulative camping gear, pitched our various tents and picked out exactly what roster we wanted to take to the canyon with us. We settled on Teri’s huge (I think 12 person?!) Coleman tent, packed up sleep pads, sleeping bags, generator, cooler, and various other necessities for our adventure. The plan was for Brian to sleep in the tent, with all of our accompanying gear, and Teri and I would camp in Posie, her Nissan Pathfinder. We have been contemplating buying a tiny teardrop camper for our adventures, but before we make that kind of financial commitment, we’re going to give car camping a try.
On the morning of our adventure, we loaded everything up, and hit the road. We enjoyed the summer sun, the summer tunes, the summer breeze. The drive to Cloudland is about three hours, but when you’re in the company of friends, the miles slip by.
It took us no time at all to set up our mini camp, having just practiced pitching the tent the week prior. We had learned a lot of time-saving tricks, and had that monster up in no time. I think we got it done so quickly in part because we were SO EXCITED to hit the trail.
It took us a few minutes to get our hiking packs situated just right, but as soon as we got them into the proper position, we hit the trail with gusto. It was far rockier than we anticipated, but beautiful none the less. It wasn’t too hot, and the sun peeked through the trees in gorgeous sunlit dapples.
We never make it very far without pausing for photos (that is the point, isn’t it?) and Brian entertained our multitude of pauses, selfies included.
The first cool geological find on the Western Loop was a shallow cave. It would be a pretty good find if you were stuck in the wilderness during some rain. Just past the cave, the trail began to descend down into the creek bed, and Teri commented cheerily “what goes down must come up!”. If we only knew!
As the trail continued its descent to the creek bed, large rock walls presented themselves on the edges of the trail. We spent a really long while exploring this area, carefully picking our footing along the rocks and exploring different photographic angles. I checked the map, and I could see we were headed towards the waterfall trail (and not the Canyon itself) and we made a decision to photograph the falls in the afternoon light, and then hit the canyon rim the next morning. We cross a small bridge, and then began a short climb to the waterfall trailhead.
At the top of the first set of stairs which climbed from the Western Rim trail to the trailhead of the Waterfalls Trail, we saw approached a large rock outcrop, and a sign directing us to Cherokee Falls or Hemlock Falls. Having looked up the map of the falls during the previous week, I knew that we were closer to Cherokee, so we headed in that direction – down down down many flights of stairs. What goes down must come up?
The descent into the creekbed was worth it – we were treated to a beautiful pool of tranquil water with a cairn stacked on the edge – a perfect photographic opportunity – and we probably spent a good 45 minutes exploring the area and trying different settings and varieties of gear.
While the photographers played, Brian explored. He found a giant millipede – Narceus americanus – and I followed the critter around for several moments capturing his multitude of legs. Our squirmy friend finally departed up a hardwood trunk, and we also decided to take our own exit. But now that we were down down down in the gulley, we had many many steps to climb to get out. This is where the hike earns it’s difficulty badge. We took several long pauses on the stairs as we exited.
Once we were through the most difficult section (the stairs!) we still had a bit more than a mile of rocky and uphill terrain to get back to our campsite. We took it nice and slow, taking multiple photo breaks to capture photos of local flora. We were a little sweaty and winded, but we finally arrived back to our campsite – tent, sweet tent!
We all took a few minutes to freshen up and change clothes before we headed out for Brian’s surprise birthday dinner. Cloudland Canyon is on the very northwest border of the state, in close proximity to Chattanooga, TN, so I had selected a restaurant that I experience previously that I knew Brian would love!
Taco Mamacita is known for their killer nachos. I had visited them for a night of carb loading before the Chattanooga Half Marathon in March, and I knew that they would hit the spot for our hungry hikers! We ordered all three flavors (chicken, brisket, carnitas) and sampled each others nachos. We agreed that carnitas were the winner, followed by brisket and then chicken, but none of the nachos really stood a chance against our appetites!
With full bellies and tired legs, we headed back to our humble abode and put ourselves to bed. Teri and I hurriedly threw our sleeping pads into the Nissan and threw the mosquito blanket over the top of the car and passed out. The night was warm, but the temperatures dropped steadily until they were comfortably cool, and we felt nice and secure.
The next morning, we awoke slowly, fumbled through making our camp coffee and putting our camera gear together. We set out on the western rim trail, bound for the first picturesque spot we could find to quietly eat our breakfasts.
We found a really pretty granite outcropping, several large rocks separated by narrow (but deep) ravines. We carefully skipped our way across them to the one with the prettiest and sunniest view, and plopped down to munch on our breakfasts. Brian and Teri had something sensible, like granola bars or protein bars, but I ate a Lenny & Larry’s Complete Snickerdoodle Cookie. I think that is perfectly reasonable – or at least perfectly delicious!
As we hiked around the canyon, we were given amazing views, but not so great lighting conditions. The sky was perfectly clear, and the morning sun was harsh and directly in our lenses. This hike would be best photographed in the afternoon or evening hours, probably especially so during the autumn leaves. Its definitely on our list for another trip. Despite the harsh light, we still enjoyed the hike and the views.
The hike is a loop, but only one side of the loop faces into the canyon. The other side is a wooded hike with lots of hardwoods and shaded paths. We turned out lenses on photographing the details around us, which was probably a good thing for me since I was finding myself frustrated by the lighting.
If Brian had hoped to make up time during the ‘less’ photogenic part of the trail, those hopes were quickly dashed as Teri and I ran amuck on the trail, photographing the smallest details we could find. This was when we discovered that we have an affinity – no, a LOVE – of fungi.
When you really start looking around, there are tiny things to capture around every bend, which is part of why I love being in nature so much. Teri and I determined that a group or 2 or more photographers is called a “slowpoke”, considering that we average 1mph for our entire hike, barely making it back in camp in time to break camp and roll out before checkout time.
We spent the three hour drive home listening to all of our favorite Spotify tunes, and sharing stories and laughter. While there were some things we certainly learned on our first State Park trip, I would say it was a definite success!