Friday, May 7, 2021

Junior Waterfall Keepers program

If your family enjoys participating in the Kids in Parks program and earning Junior Ranger badges at the National Parks, then the new program from Waterfall Keepers of North Carolina will have you excited to get out exploring!

What is the Junior Waterfall Keepers program?

The Junior Keepers program was kicked off this year as part of the Waterfall Keepers nonprofit, because kids love waterfalls, too!  The free program is all about exploring and learning about waterfalls and streams: water play, learning about the critters that call the creek home, exploring waterfalls, and identifying the mushrooms, wildflowers, and other plants that grow near them. The program focuses a lot on safety and good habits around a waterfall, and encourages junior waterfall keepers to leave a place better than they found it. Learn about how litter affects wildlife and water quality, and earn badges while doing it!

How do I sign up?

When you sign up to become a Junior Waterfall Keeper you’ll receive a special Junior Keeper patch and sticker. Signing up is easy; just fill out the Junior Waterfall Keeper Signup Form (find the link here: Junior Keepers | Waterfall Keepers of NC). There’s an added benefit for adults to sign up to become a member of Waterfall Keepers; family members of Waterfall Keepers who sign up for the Junior Keepers program will also receive a free pass to Chimney Rock State Park.

I’ve signed my children up – now what?

As a Junior Keeper, your kids can work on two Badge Challenges: the conservationist, and creek critters. The challenges concentrate on observing the critters and plants you find on your hike, and on improving the waterfall experience by making good choices to help our environment. New badges will be announced each year so work hard to earn them ALL!

The Waterfall Passport will be added to the program in 2022, but all the work done this year will count. The Passport includes five state parks that feature some of North Carolina’s most beautiful waterfalls, and Junior Keepers will receive passport books to keep track of all the waterfalls they visit. Currently waterfall passport info can be found online on the Waterfall Keepers website; you can download the pages to start working on these challenges now.

As a bonus, the Waterfall Keepers have developed a curriculum that adults can use with their kids or homeschool group. They can be used as a standalone adventure with kids or combined with Junior Keeper badge challenges for a fun, and educational waterfall experience.

But wait – we’re in South Carolina, isn’t this in NC?

While the Junior Keepers program is based in NC, there are dozens of North Carolina falls within an hour’s drive of Greenville! I’ve featured Chimney Rock State Park (one of the parks featured in the Park Passport) here on Femme au Foyer, and have another dozen articles with inspiration for your next waterfall adventure, in North and South Carolina, here:

Remember to stay safe while exploring - people have died at many of our Upstate SC waterfalls! I wrote about some of the local incidents in my article Humans Vs. Nature, and following Leave No Trace ethics is always a good decision.

There’s no denying summer is here, along with the hot weather that has every kid longing to cool off at the closest swimming hole. As you explore the beautiful waterfalls of our region this summer, earn badges with the Junior Keepers program while also learning a little something to help keep you safe, our trails enjoyable, and the tremendous beauty of these natural places intact!

Monday, April 26, 2021

Leave No Trace

With the recent celebration of Earth Day still fresh in our minds, the reports coming from many of our local natural areas are disheartening; many of our Upstate parks and green spaces are being negatively impacted by the increase in visitation due to a year of covid-influenced activity. “Loved to death” is a phrase we have been hearing more often about some of the most stunning places in our region; Max Patch on the Appalachian Trail and Chimney Tops in Great Smoky Mountains National Park are only a couple of places that have required intense clean-up efforts, even closures due to abuse and over-use. But the effects are being felt much closer to home as well, as places like the State Parks, Lake Conestee Nature Preserve, and Upstate National Forest facilities enact closures, policy changes, visitor caps, and in the case of Congaree National Park, an implementation of a lottery system during synchronous firefly season to limit disturbance to critical habitat and try to reverse harmful user trends.

We need to be better stewards of our region if we want our children to be able to experience the wonders of the natural world, and the tenets of “Leave No Trace” are a great place to start. You may have heard the acronym “LNT” – this refers to the Seven Principles of the Leave No Trace outdoor ethic, which provide a framework of minimum impact practices for anyone visiting the outdoors. 

Why practice LEAVE NO TRACE?

While we enjoy the natural world, Leave No Trace teaches us how to minimize our impacts. Following the basic principles of LNT helps prevent the trashing of our natural areas, water pollution, damage to trails, the harming of wildlife and overcrowding, all while connecting youth to nature and providing enjoyable outdoor adventure. LNT will not cost you a cent – these are all free things you can do while enjoying the great outdoors as you normally would! It just means taking a few extra steps when preparing for your next adventure, as well as thinking things through while out and about.

Although Leave No Trace has its roots in backcountry settings, it has been adapted so that the seven principles can be applied anywhere and to almost every recreational activity — from remote wilderness areas, to local parks and even in your own backyard.


How can I practice LEAVE NO TRACE with my children?

The 7 Principles - Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics website details these seven tenets, with invaluable info on each of them. Here are the 7 Principles, and seven ways you and your family can recreate responsibly!

1. Plan ahead and prepare, looking into the regulations, weather, and special concerns for the area you’ll visit.

Do: Schedule your trip to avoid high times of use, and have a Plan B in case the trailhead/park is full or the park doesn’t allow pets and you’ve got your new puppy along.

Don’t: Get lost! Bring a map as back-up to your navigating app, and know what the hazards will be in the area you are visiting. Is there a lot of recent bear activity? A burn ban? Is it gnat season? Knowing these things in advance can help you plan your time outdoors so that it is relaxed and enjoyable.

Did you know that building rock cairns is considered vandalism in most of our local parks? Moving rocks around can lead to resource damage by exposing soil to wind and water erosion, and also disturbs the many critters that make their home in the protected underside of a rock. Only rarely are cairns used to mark trails in the Upstate; most often you’ll see trees “blazed”, or painted with a line to mark the trail.

Rock stacks on Cedar Rock Mountain in DuPont Forest

2. Travel & camp on durable surfaces, protecting our trails, waterways, and fragile ecosystems.

Do: Stay on the trail and utilize switchbacks, avoiding shortcuts which often cause water to wash out plants/soil and erode gullies.

Don’t: Hike on muddy trails; wet trails are fragile, and muddy/icy trails can be slippery and dangerous for kiddos.

Did you know that trying to avoid getting mud on your shoes and going around muddy spots causes what is called “trail braiding”? This widening of trails contributes to both compaction and erosion of soil. (Check out this article on hiking in wet weather!)

3. Dispose of waste properly – pack it in, pack it out!

Do: Pack a bag for your trash, and do a quick check of your campsite/trail rest stop before you leave. Apple cores, spilled trail mix and paper are still garbage – they bring animals into increased contact with humans leading to wildlife becoming sick & diseased, getting hit by cars, or becoming problem animals.

Don’t: Leave human waste and toilet paper lying around! Not only is it stinky and unsightly, but it degrades our water quality when bacteria enter our waterways!

Did you know that Googling “how to pee and poop in the woods” will bring you hours of entertainment?

Red trillium

4. Leave what you find, preserving cultural/ historic artifacts and leaving rocks and plants as you found them.

Do: Leave flowers for those who come after you to enjoy. This also ensures that our rare plants have the opportunity to reseed for healthier populations.

Don’t: transport firewood, as you can introduce pests/disease to new areas. (For more info, visit

Did you know that it is illegal to collect plants, animals and artifacts from most of our public lands?

5. Minimize campfire impacts!

Do: Use a cook stove for cooking and utilize established fire rings where fires are permitted, making sure your fire is completely out when finished.

Don’t: Be the person to start a wildfire with your Insta-photo-op!

Did you know nearly 85% of wildfires are caused by humans?

Elk, as photographed from vehicle in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

6. Respect wildlife by observing from a distance, and never feed wild animals!

Do: Respect trail closures and barriers! Sure, it’s tempting to climb the fence to get that great photo out on the ledge, but many times those barriers aren’t only there to protect you from yourself, they also help minimize effects on nesting areas and protect fragile ecosystems.

Don’t: Stack rocks in rivers! Moving rocks and creating dams to make chutes or pools in a stream causes serious damage to the delicate river ecosystem; aquatic plants and animals make their homes on, under, and around these rocks, and when people move the rocks, the nest is destroyed and the eggs and young fish die.

Did you know that waterfalls have some of the most sensitive plant ecosystems in their spray zone? When you climb up the rocks on the sides of waterfalls, you are not only endangering yourself (and possibly the lives of the first responders who will have to carry you out), but you are inadvertently creating social trails in the spray zone, encouraging erosion, and possibly helping to create slippery, unsafe areas.

7. Be considerate of other visitors.

Do: Follow social distancing guidelines as suggested by medical experts and local authorities.

Don’t: Lower the quality of other visitors’ experience by playing loud music, allowing off-leash pets, and leaving behind your trash.

Did you know that there is a hierarchy of right of way considered proper hiking etiquette? Check out this National Park Service article for the full story, but in general, hikers coming uphill have the right of way, bicyclists should yield to hikers & horses, and hikers should yield to horses and other pack stock. As a mom hiking with small kids, I yield to really just about everyone; it’s considered courteous to yield to other hikers who are setting a faster pace. 

Peachtree Rock, before and after (source 1st photo here)

Leave no Trace principle #8

Wait, I said there were only 7 principles… Well, technically there are, but in the last decade another tenet is being considered for inclusion, concerning geotagging. While LNT is not anti-geotagging, serious consideration should be given to whether or not a location is shared with every photo.

Do: Post a photo that specifies your location along with appropriate Leave No Trace information, as that is a great way to invite people into the outdoors. A geotag can empower people to research safety measures, learn about the location’s history and culture, and find out what to expect when visiting.

Don’t: Post the location of places that can’t handle increased visitation: the site of a rare flower, a sensitive waterfall ecosystem, a protected wildlife area.

Did you know that natural areas across the state are seeing an increased amount of poaching, with rare animals and flowers being targeted due to their perceived value to collectors? If you observe illegal activity on public lands, please contact SCDNR Operation Game Thief – see something, say something!

Enjoy your world, leave no trace!

There are a growing number of examples of places suffering from the negligent attitudes of visitors, such as Bald Rock Heritage Preserve – once home to protected plant species such as Piedmont ragwort and grass-of-parnassus, but today mostly housing graffiti, broken glass, cigarette butts and illegal fire rings. Or Peachtree Rock Heritage Preserve, whose namesake sandstone rock was toppled in 2013 by a combination of erosion and visitors carving their initials into the base. Luckily, the colony of rare Oconee Bell growing in Devils Fork State Park is thriving after State Park officials installed boardwalks and fencing along the Oconee Bell Trail to keep visitors from trampling the tiny flower, but other sites such as Bunched Arrowhead Heritage Preserve has seen theft of plants over the last decade.

For my family it comes down to is this – the natural areas in the Upstate have given me so much in the last twenty years: trail time with the man who would become my husband and the father of my children, later an escape to the woods with a fussy baby, exercise to help get back into shape after a couple more kids, and most recently therapy in the form of time outdoors as our family struggles to retain some sense of normalcy in an anything-but-normal year. In return for all of that, the very least I can do is bring a trash bag when we go out, to help leave each place a little better than we found it!

Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints, kill nothing but time. For future generations to have the opportunity to enjoy our beautiful natural areas like you and I do, to see undisturbed landscapes and enjoy an abundance of wildlife, leave everything as you found it — it’s really that easy. Enjoy Your World. Leave No Trace!


For a ton of resources on LNT, visit the Center for Outdoor Ethics LNT website. The resources there include Bigfoot’s Playbook, a collection of activities, games and initiatives that explore Leave No Trace principles, as well as youth education info and ways to get involved!

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Nine Times Forest, a.k.a. Big Rock Mountain

Now that autumn has descended to the Upstate, we’re revisiting our favorite local spots to watch the progression of color as we fall into winter. One of those is Nine Times, the area named for the creek named for the nine bridges that had to be built to gain access to Nine Times Preserve, beloved for the seasonal display of wildflowers.

Also see my posts:
Nine Times Preserve
Spring Comes to Nine Times Preserve

However, just across E Preston McDaniel Road from the Preserve is an area with a similar name, but with a much different claim to fame; Nine Times Forest is known for its rock climbing and spectacular views of the Upstate. 

Located near Pickens, Nine Times Forest (a.k.a. Big Rock) was protected by Naturaland Trust in 2013 and was opened to climbers in 2017. A grant from R.E.I. partially funded the construction of a parking lot off Big Rock Lake Road, allowing easier access than the Nine Times Preserve trailhead which had provided entry up until then. Then, in 2019 after the Carolina Climbers Coalition contributed another $5,000, Naturaland Trust was able to secure a 1-acre lot north of the new parking lot – creating a buffer for future expanded parking. Big Rock is the only significant cliff open year-round in SC; it faces south and can therefore be a destination during the winter months. With around 50 routes and several hundred boulder problems, there is plenty of room to spread out. And while the trails to the top of Big Rock Mountain (1,801 ft in elevation) do require scrambling up some more challenging spots, it is still accessible to non-climbers (such as my family) who do not have the safety equipment for rock climbing. 

Two main trailheads and one or two more informal trailheads provide access to the network of trails in Nine Times Forest. The main trailhead is on Nine Times Preserve, on the corner of E Preston McDaniels Rd. and Nine Times Creek Rd. From the gravel lot, cross E Preston McDaniels to enter Nine Times Forest. You’ll see the creek trail fork to the left; also called Appalachian Lumber Trail, it parallels E Preston McDaniel Road and begins and ends at connection points to the Cedar Rock Trail on the opposite side of the road. Continue up the wide gravel road instead, and when you reach the power lines you will have two options: take a left on Naturaland Way that climbs up into the Gap, or hop onto Big Rock Mountain Summit Trail and begin your ascent up (700ft of up, to be precise) to the summit. About ¼ mile before reaching the top there is an intersection with the Gap trail, and then at the top Big Rock Mountain Road provides access to the rest of the trails within Nine Times Forest – Pink Mountain is just across the gap and is 4 feet taller than the Big Rock summit. All Trails lists this route as 2.2 miles round trip, though with all the little detours we took for scenic vantage points we tracked almost 3 miles on our most recent visit. Loops that include Pink Mountain and Big Rock will be upwards of 6 miles…

An unassuming trailhead...

The second main trailhead is at the newly constructed parking lot off Big Rock Lake Road, coordinates here: 34.954252, -82.787584. Follow the trail up to the base of Big Rock and shortly thereafter hop on the Big Rock Mountain Summit Trail to finish your ascent to the summit. This option is shorter – somewhere around 1-mile round trip – but still climbs about 500ft of elevation. The last stretch of trail to the summit has the most scrambles up rocks, but this route has a few extra challenging sections. My children have been able to navigate without problems, but it helps to have an extra set of hands, especially if you have a little in a carrier. As always, exercise caution, hike within your limits, and be aware that there are inherent dangers involved in hiking in the mountains of the Upstate. Once you venture off trail all bets are off – there are no guardrails protecting you from a fall, and steep drop-offs occur in many places! 

On the summit of Big Rock Mountain you’ll find several strategically placed rocks forming a table of sorts on a level spot, perfect for a picnic. We have celebrated my birthday here with cheese and crackers, as well as taken a breather from the baby carrier; it is a safe spot for kids to run around, a gently-sloping playing field for a break from the steep sections. There are views, although the most spectacular views are from short spur trails on your climb up (though I repeat my warning about getting off-trail… some of these spur trails are used by climbers who are clipped in to safety harnesses!). 

Every time I hike this trail, I find a new view of Upstate SC to admire. While I am still on the hunt for the spur trail that will give me a view of the ‘mushroom rock’ chimney I once saw in a photo, I am grateful for these mountains that are right here in our backyard – no need to venture to North Carolina for blue ridge views! 

For more information, please see the following resources:

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Mountain biking with kids in Upstate SC

Greenville has made headlines and received national recognition for the Swamp Rabbit Trail, but did you know the Upstate is also well-known for its mountain biking? With a dozen parks to choose from, there are options for all skill levels. We recently set out to compile a list of the best places to get some dirt under your tires! This article was originally published on the local family website, Kidding Around Greenville.

My family has recently explored a few Upstate bike parks and trails with the goal of finding some new favorites; having ridden the same local trails numerous times, the boys were getting bored. As parents, we also felt that reaching out beyond the familiar would boost their skill levels by giving them a bit of a challenge. That being said, we have one little that still needs a bit more experience before being set loose on his own, and a newborn – which means mom is hiking along more often than she’s on two wheels. With all those factors in mind I set out to put together a list of places to go mountain biking with kids in the Upstate.

A factor that comes into play when we are choosing a park is whether there is an admission fee. If we are headed out for a quick bike ride, I would rather go to a free course – and save the parks with admission for a time we can spend the whole day there. I also pay attention to the difficulty level listed; for this article difficulty ratings listed as according to MTB Project. Remember: always wear a helmet, ride within your ability, follow the local regulations, and respect trail and park closures. 

Greenville county

Sliding Rock Creek Trail: this mile of mountain bike trail is just off the Swamp Rabbit Trail, providing some urban trail that gives you the “out in the woods” feels. 
Entrance fee: none
View trail map here
Difficulty level: easy to intermediate

Riverbend Equestrian Park: 74 acres with numerous natural-surface trails are open to mountain biking, hiking and horseback riding at this county park.
Entrance fee: none
Difficulty level: easy to intermediate
Website here

Pleasant Ridge County Park: Over 6-miles of trail are located in this former state park that is located just off scenic Highway 11 in Cleveland.
Entrance fee: none
Download map here
Difficulty level: mostly intermediate, with a few sections of easy and difficult 
For more information on the park, please read my post Pleasant Ridge Falls.


The brand-new Vic Bailey Subaru Bike Park is located off the Mary Black Rail Trail near South Pine Street. The park has features for bikers of all skill levels including a pump track, dirt jump area, a boulder garden and a perimeter trail.  
Entrance fee: none
View map here
Difficulty level: easy to difficult

Duncan Park Bike Trails: Six miles of trail in the woods of Duncan Park feature plenty of jumps and pump turns.
Entrance fee: none
Difficulty level: easy to intermediate
Website here

Edwin M. Griffin Nature Preserve/Cottonwood Trail: This 116-acre urban preserve and trail system is located minutes from downtown Spartanburg.
Entrance fee: none
Difficulty level: easy to intermediate
Website here

Holston Creek Bike Park: The park is located in Inman and is managed by the Spartanburg County Parks Department. In addition to the mountain bike course, the park also has a disc golf course and a playground.
Entrance fee: none
Download map here.
Difficulty level: intermediate

The South Carolina State Parks

Paris Mountain State Park
: The Paris Mountain trails were the first trails my boys went mountain biking on! With 15 miles of hiking/biking trails in the park, there are sections appropriate for all skill levels. Please note that that biking is not allowed on any of the trails on Saturdays.
Entrance fee: yes
Download a trail map here.
Difficulty level: easy to difficult
For more information on the park, please read my post Paris Mountain State Park.

Croft State Park: Bike one or all of the more than 20 miles of mountain biking trails in the park! The multi-use Croft Passage of the Palmetto Trail is also located within the park, but be advised that the bridge near the southern terminus washed out in February and has yet to be replaced.
Entrance fee: yes
Download a trail map here.
Difficulty level: mostly intermediate with a few difficult trails mixed in.
For more information on the park, please read my post Croft State Park.

Sadlers Creek State Park: The loop bike trail is 6 miles long with a trail rating of easy. Its location near I-85 makes this an appealing choice for residents of Anderson.
Admission fee: yes
Download a trail map here
Difficulty level: easy

Palmetto Trail 

Stumphouse Mountain Passage and Stumphouse Mountain Bike Park
: The 1.5-mile passage of the Palmetto Trail is a multi-use connector that serves as the gateway to the 10+ miles of mountain bike trail within Stumphouse Mountain Bike Park.
Entrance fee: yes
Download a trail map here
Difficulty level – intermediate to difficult
An article on Stumphouse Mountain Bike Park here.

Oconee Passage: From Oconee State Park to Oconee Station State Historical Site, the passage drops about 1,000 feet for a challenging, one-way descent from ridgeline to cove.
Entrance fee: Oconee SP yes, none at Oconee Station SHS
Download a trail map here
Difficulty level – intermediate/difficult

Croft Passage: The 12.6-mile Croft Passage is shared by hikers, cyclists and equestrians! Please be advised that the bridge near the southern terminus washed out in February and has yet to be replaced.
Entrance fee: yes
Download a trail map here. 
Difficulty level: difficult

Blackstock Battlefield Passage: Four miles of nature trails, camping, and first-rate mountain biking along a remote section of the Tyger River where Revolutionary War patriots defeated the British.
Entrance fee: none
Download map here.
Difficulty level: intermediate/difficult

Enoree Passage: The 36-mile Passage along with the numerous trails on the Enoree Ranger District of Sumter National Forest provide extensive opportunity to experience biking on natural surfaces.
Entrance fee: none
Download Enoree Passage maps here.
View additional Sumter National Forest maps here
Difficulty level: easy to intermediate

For the full Femme au Foyer guide to the Palmetto Trail, click here!

More trails and bike parks!

Town Creek Bike Park
: This is a local favorite! With everything from a pump track, dirt jumps, wall climbs, rollers and singletrack, the park also has a multi-use paved trail that is great for the little ones to ride while their older siblings are on the mountain bike trails. Signed waiver required.
Entrance fee: none
View map here and read more about Town Creek here
Difficulty level: from easy to difficult 

Bike Skills Flow Park at Gateway Park: Just off the Swamp Rabbit Trail, the bike park at Gateway has a pump track in addition to a technical flow track. The trail progression with the various challenges and terrains are designed to introduce riders to the sport while sharpening their skills. Bonus: littles can play on the playground while older children ride on the course.
Entrance fee: none
Difficulty level: easy to difficult

Central SWU Bike Trails: This brand-new trail system in Central has more than six miles of singletrack tucked into the forest next to Southern Wesleyan University's Central, SC campus. Open to hiking as well as biking, the park is park is open 365 days a year from sunrise to sunset.
Entrance fee: none
View map here.
Difficulty level: easy to difficult

Clemson Experimental Forest: The trail system is divided into three primary areas: Fant's Grove, Issaqueena/Keowee Heights and Todd's Creek. The trails are a component of a working forest used for teaching, research and extension education for natural resource management while also allowing for recreational use. With dozens of routes to choose from, there is something for everyone.
Entrance fee: none
View maps here
Difficulty level: from easy to difficult

Overmountain Victory Trail - Lake Whelchel: This 6.7-mile trail in Gaffney is part of the Overmountain Victory National Historic Trail which traces the route used by patriot militia during the Kings Mountain campaign of 1780.
Entrance fee: none
View map here.
Difficulty level: easy to difficult

For learning more about individual trails and parks, I have found MTB Project to be a valuable resource. In addition to descriptions and photos of many of the trails, there are also ratings and recommendations to help choose a destination. Another good resource is Bike Upcountry SC

What are your favorite places to go mountain biking in the Upstate? Let us know if we missed anything!

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Hike with llamas at Earthshine!

I knew we were in for an adventure as soon as Mark, our llama guide and self-proclaimed “all things llama dude,” asked my husband if he would watch the llamas.... 

We had driven 1.5 hours from Greenville into the Blue Ridge Mountains to Earthshine Lodge, our basecamp for adventure for the weekend, with the express objective of participating in a llama hike. Mark met us with exciting news – one of the Earthshine llamas had given birth a few days ago!

Earthshine Lodge is home to four female llamas, who can be seen grazing in their pasture as visitors drive the winding road that leads up to the Lodge. We admired the llamas and the four-day-old cria (baby llama) with their colorful autumn backdrop, and then headed back up the hill to relieve my husband of his llama-care duties – of course all the hiking llamas were still happily grazing, and our infant son contentedly watching the show. 

After a quick orientation, my three older children had a rope in hand, and were each leading a llama off across the meadow. The 76-acre Earthshine property has multiple trails for exploration, and we had a mile-long loop planned. As we hiked across the meadow and into the autumn-cloaked forest, we learned more about the llamas; not just what they can and can’t eat and how to properly guide them, but also about their individual personalities. My 8yo led “Vision,” a gentle but very alert llama who evidently has the best eyes of the group, while the 6yo and 10yo followed with “P Diddy Peaches” and “Legend.” All the llamas were well-behaved, responded to the guidance of their novice guides, and provided the boys with an extraordinary experience that they are already asking to repeat! When not out on Earthshine hikes, the llamas are offering wilderness therapy to special needs kids through the S.O.A.R. 3-day, 2-night Llama Trek Expedition in Panthertown Wilderness area, being ringbearers at weddings, or surprising guests at birthday parties; think of an occasion that wouldn’t be livened up by a llama… these are some exceptional llamas! 

As we descended into the valley’s magical mist, I marveled at the scene before us; the wooden Earthshine Lodge rising stately on the ridge overlooking the surrounding valleys, reminiscent of the great lodges of our national parks. The views from the lodge stretch into the distance on a clear day, and on this autumn afternoon the sight of my boys traversing the meadow was storybook-perfect.

Having returned to the lodge and each hugged our llama a couple of times goodbye, we sat down for a delicious dinner prepared by Earthshine Lodge chef, Shelley. A perfect end to the day included warming up from the chill of the evening with a cup of hot chocolate – all the while soaking in the magic from the mountain view. Once darkness fell, we tucked in the boys in their loft nook and snuck away to one of the several chairs on the outdoor terrace for a minute. However, the lure of a warm bed proved to be too hard to resist, and soon we too were dreaming llama dreams… 

There is a good reason for their slogan “Your Basecamp for Adventure”; Earthshine is located right in the middle of some of the most breathtaking public lands in the Carolinas. Sandwiched by the Pisgah and Nantahala National Forests, the Lodge provides access to popular Gorges State Park, DuPont State Recreational Forest and Panthertown Valley. The proximity allowed us to reach popular trailheads before they got too crowded, although it was hard to leave the property because there was more to do on site – an example being the hammocks in the trees just calling for a daytime nap. 

Gorges State Park is only 15 minutes away!

Earthshine started thirty years ago with a mission to provide environmental education and family vacations, and then in 2018 new owners stepped forward to continue the legacy as well as add to it; all that time the natural beauty of the Lake Toxaway region has nourished and grown the experience to what is today. Earthshine Lodge is not just a place to stay – it is full immersion into a Blue Ridge adventure! Whether you choose to book a family vacation and take a wilderness skills workshop, or want to celebrate an anniversary with a romantic weekend away, the mountain oasis is a retreat from the chaos of the year. 

Speaking of the chaos of 2020… Earthshine is taking all precautions to keep visitors safe, including even small details like disinfecting the llama lead lines. For those e-learning, homeschooling and learning remotely, Earthshine Lodge has wi-fi, and offers multiple programs to incorporate into your curriculum such as Cherokee Village (pottery making), Pioneer village (where guests can try their hand at blacksmithing, wool felting and candlemaking), art-based activities (nature art and seasonal crafts), the before-mentioned wilderness skills classes (including shelter construction and fire-starting), geology and hydrology (creek hikes with gem mining), and more! During the week the Lodge caters to school groups with programs that have been updated to support state standards, while on weekends various retreats are held, with workshops on everything from mindfulness to fly-fishing. On our visit we had the option to join in outdoor yoga, archery/tomahawk throwing, and a “paint & wine” – check the calendar on their website to see what fun opportunities are available during your stay. 

The llama hikes continue through the year, occurring two or three days a week at several different times. For three weekends in December they will take a backseat as an add-on to Earthshine’s Appalachian Christmas, an all-inclusive holiday package featuring meals, caroling, pioneer village activities, crafts, a movie and the highlight – brunch with Santa! For rates and times, please visit the Earthshine website. And for the cutest baby llama pics, check out their Instagram and Facebook pages! 

We thought we had signed up for a hike with a llama. What we didn’t realize was that we would return from our weekend feeling so well-rested and healthy after a peaceful yet high-adventure weekend in the Blue Ridge Mountains. And we certainly didn’t imagine we would be among the first to greet an hours-old llama to the world! As we were leaving, we stopped by the llama barn where the tiny cria was shakily standing on four legs, marveling at the world from under the gaze of her protective mama. Unforgettable moments for the kids, thanks to the Earthshine family! 

Earthshine Lodge
1600 Golden Road Lake Toxaway, NC 28747
(828) 862-4207

This post was first published on Kidding Around Greenville

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