The 3.5-year-old has new a fascination with caves after seeing Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky but with a babe under two I’m having trouble finding an outing that allows young children to tag along (and that won’t cost $50 for the family outing).

These are the caves around Chattanooga we can take both children to–we’ve only made it to one so far. Honestly, I don’t love that the majority cost $20 + per ticket. If anyone has suggestions, I welcome them!

  1. Russel Cave National Monument

Location: 3729 County Road 98 Bridgeport, AL 35740

Cost: Free

Verdict: Kid Win

Location: 140 Lost Sea Rd Sweetwater, TN 37874

Cost: Adult: $23.95
Child: $13.95 (ages 4-12). Children 3 and under are free.

Location: 1437 Cumberland Caverns Rd McMinnville, TN 37110

Cost: Prices vary depending on the tour. Children Under 5 are free.

Location: 1720 South Scenic Hwy Chattanooga, TN 37409

Cost: Adults $22.95 Children $12.95

Location: 637 Cave Road Woodville, AL 3569

Cost: Adults:  $19.00
Children 5 – 12 years of age:  $9.00
Children 4 and under:  Free with paying parent or guardian

I had to get out of the house—we’d been trapped inside all morning waiting on an appliance technician. The 3.5-year-old wanted to explore and was still on a cave kick after seeing Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky.

Loaded in the car, we took the 45-minute trip down the road, to the Northeast corner of Alabama, to go 10,000 years back in time.

Russell Cave became a National Monument in 1961 because of the sheer volume of artifacts found inside the cavern—tools and spears—vital information about the past that had been found nowhere else in the Southeast on such a scale.

The cave is a quick walk from the visitor’s center along a boardwalk–seriously, quick. It only took about twenty minutes to get there with two distracted toddlers.

You can’t walk inside but the view is gorgeous.

We only needed an hour total at the cave and the boys were ready to go. If you want to explore further there is a 1.2 mile nature walk right off the boardwalk.

The 3.5-year-old was fascinated that people once lived in caves and I realized we’d never once had a conversation about our ancient origins.

So, tonight I will spend an hour on Amazon trying to find the perfect book to read to him about the early cave dwellers of the world.

Suggestions welcome.

Click here for a list of the caves you can explore with a kiddo under two.

I am the type who can read a list of how to prepare for something fifty times–and make my own list so nothing is forgotten.

Do I follow it? No.

I end up winging it every time and as a result I always forget something.

The “morning milk” that will stop an early morning meltdown? Forgot it. The condiments for our hotdogs? Forgot ’em. The bug spray? Forgot it.

So, take this list with a grain of salt. It’s for those of you who like to wing it, too.

  1. Clean your house before you leave for your camping trip. No one wants to come back from a trip to a mess–at least, I don’t.
  • Unload the dishwasher
  • Make the beds
  • Take out the trash
  • Get caught up on laundry—because there will be a ton when you get back (even if you’re only gone one night).

2. Make a list of everything you’re going to need and break it down into categories. (Yes, I make a list. Do I always follow it, absolutely not).

  • Clothes/Shoes– Think about the weather and environment. Will there be a creek? The kids will need water shoes, extra socks, etc.
  • Cooking/Cleaning Supplies– Bring lots of paper towels and trash bags (One for dirty clothes, not just trash).
  • Sleeping Arrangements
  • First Aid

3. Plan your meals

  • Make things easy on yourself. Precook something and reheat upon arrival. Think: chili or hotdogs.
  • Bring their favorite drinks–and yours.
  • Don’t forget the condiments.

4. Check your directions. The last thing you want is to get in the car and not know where you’re going. I can’t tell you how many times we don’t look at where our campsite is until it’s too late and we have two fussy kids in the backseat.

5. Don’t overpack. This is just my opinion, but the point is to be in nature, right? Do your kids really need all their toys from home when they can play with sticks?

6. Don’t over think it. Things are bound to go wrong—the point is to be with your family. Just keep things simple.

7. Stay close to home. If something does go wrong (like no one sleeping), you can load up the car and head home.

8. Take stock of what worked and what didn’t on the drive home. Each time gets easier.

Books about camping we love to read together:

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Nothing makes me feel more like a camping dilettante than pulling up to the campsite (after driving 30 minutes out of the way) with a big ADA sign in front. A call to the park ranger five minutes in doesn’t say, expert family camper.   

Things were looking up. I whipped out the hotdogs sans the buns and condiments and noticed the husband looking longingly one campsite over. Their family of four had just laid out a bountiful spread on top of a patchwork picnic blanket. Sure, they’d eat well under some twinkly lights, but we had hotdogs and an easy clean-up.

Note to self: Dinner around the campfire is supposed to be an event—twinkly lights and all.

We camped at the Foster Falls Campsite near Fiery Gizzard Trail. This is the only spot in the park where you can car camp. The spaces are big, and it is extremely close to the trailhead. (I’d recommend finding a spot away from the bathrooms if you don’t want to listen to the slamming bathroom doors and electric dryers all night).

We hiked the 2.2-mile Foster Falls Climbers Loop. The beginning is very steep and rocky to the falls. The husband wore the babe, and the 3.5-year-old hiked the whole way. I only said, “slow down, be careful,” 300 times so I’m proud.

Wanna Go:

  • Make sure your site isn’t ADA only. However, some parks do open these slots after a certain time to anyone.
  • Don’t be like us. Look at the map, even if you think you know where you’re going. South Cumberland State Park is the 2nd largest park in Tennessee—spread across three counties.
  • Wear ankle boots, this trail is rocky and steep.
  • Bring Ketchup packets.
  • If you want to volunteer Friends of South Cumberland State Park do many jobs around the park, such as maintain trails and give guided tours.

Going fishing on the Tennessee River was one of the first dates I had with my husband–I fell in love with him watching him fillet some fish in the backyard. Even still, fishing isn’t my first pick of weekend activities, but it is my husband’s and the boy’s.

I’ll bring the snacks and take the pictures. And share a few of the tips we’ve learned that make the outing a little less stressful for everyone.

  1. Have a fishing pole and tackle box for everyone. Sharing doesn’t work in our house—even the 1.5-year-old gets his own. Otherwise, the outing is over before it starts.
  2. Go to a stocked pond or lake if possible, catching something will make it more exciting for everyone.
  3. If it’s private property, hopefully the grass is mowed.
  4. If fish aren’t caught—stay positive and don’t feel rushed!
  5. Practice casting in the yard before you go. The 3.5-year-old and his dad like to play games seeing who can cast closest to certain objects.
  6. Time the outing for the morning, before it’s hot and before kids get cranky and need naps.
  7. Bring a cooler full of drinks, snacks, and beef jerky for when someone starts to fuss. (Beer for the uncles).
  8. Have the kids wear rainboots. Someone’s always getting in the water and leaving with blistered feet if tennis shoes are worn.
  9. We like to bring a bucket to fill with water and watch the fish. This was especially fun when the boys were smaller.
  10. Live bait vs. artificial bait? Husband says artificial is easier when the kids are small. If you are using live–try not to act grossed out when the hook goes through that slimy little body (I’m talking to me on this one).
  11. Forget the boat—stay on the shore. It makes for easier escapes if needed.
  12. Don’t forget a first aid kit. No one wants a hook through their finger–but if it happens, better have some wire cutters and disinfectant spray.

There are our favorite fishing picture books to read together.

The Berenstain Bears: Gone Fishin’!

We Love Fishing!

The Three Little Bass and the Big Bad Gar (This one is especially sweet because it was written by a little boy and illustrated by his mother).

When I think of caves, I think of going to Cumberland Caverns on a Gypsy Trip with the Camp Marymount girls from “Tin Roof” cabin. I remember what a stalactite and stalagmite are from that trip—but that’s about it when it comes to the cave. Mainly, what I remember is the bus ride there singing camp songs.

So, when we began our walk into Mammoth Cave my only expectation was to see some stalactites that look like dripping mud hanging from the ceiling.

The Mammoth Cave Discovery Tour was self-guided through the world’s largest cave system. It was massive, hence, the name “mammoth”. There are 400+ miles of trails under the ground. We walked for about two hours inside. The 3.5-year-old said it was “fascinating” the whole way through. The 1.5-year-old said it was spooky and fell asleep.

There are rangers throughout the cave to ask questions. The 3.5-year-old asked great questions—then played in the dirt and ignored the answers. 

Wanna Go:

  • Take your bikes! Part of the former Mammoth Cave Railroad is now a 9-mile trail.
  • Take a jacket inside the cave. It’s nippy underground.
  • Don’t forget to get your National Park Passport stamped at the visitor’s center.
  • We camped at Houchin Ferry Campground next to the Green River. I wish I had known when booking that there weren’t any nearby trails. It’s about a 15-minute drive to the main park entrance.  We ended up enjoying the smallness of it, but if you’re wanting to be closer to the “action” I’d pick the Mammoth Cave campground right near the visitor’s center.
  • We ended up camping only one night, and felt like that was ample time to see the park highlights with the youngins.

Nearby Attraction:

Dinosaur World Kentucky– I was SO excited to take my older son here. He’s been dinosaur obsessed for a year. Truth be told, I planned the whole trip around this attraction. To my dismay, upon arrival, he declared it “let him down because the dinosaurs didn’t make noise.” Thankfully, the younger tot loved it (and the playground was a hit).

Our favorite book to read about caves is the National Geographic: Exploring Caves. We also love Stellaluna, a lovely book about a little bat.

We have lots of dinosaur books that we love to read–constantly. (Which is one reason I thought Dino World would be a hit)!

These are my 2-year-old’s favorites:

These are my 4-year-old’s favorites:

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  • Stringers Ridge is a 92-acre park in North Chattanooga. All the paths are easy, well-marked, and accessible. I love taking my boys because it’s a simple outing with a quick escape if needed. There’s lots of parking (unlike trailheads en route to Lookout Mountain) and it gives the feel of being far from it all–but really being in the center of it all.

Stringer Circa 2017
  • When going to Greenway Farms I suggest looking at a map first. The first time I took my boys we went half a mile past the rock quarry–our sole mission for the day. But, if you know what you’re doing (and you will, unlike me), it is a pleasant, almost completely asphalt stroll to the quarry. The quarry was excavated by the Tennessee Valley Authority to help build the Chickamauga Dam. Now, it is a beautiful spot to sit, play in the dirt, and recover from walking a mile too far with two kids.

When you see a chain link fence down a gravel road to your right, take it! You’ve made it to the quarry.

Next time, we will take bikes.

  • Moccasin Bend Browns Ferry Road is a wide, flat path (big enough for an off-road stroller) to the Tennessee River. It is just over a mile down and back. It’s a no-fuss outing with the tots.
  • Shackleford Ridge behind Signal Mountain Middle High School has some great trails for young children and a pet. There’s a swinging bridge at the beginning, which helps get mine excited–and a covered bridge less than a mile in–anything to coax my children onward is a win!
  • Rainbow Lake, also on Signal Mountain, is a nice trail with children (as long as you don’t do it after trying Shackleford or any other athletic adventure, like the Pumpkin Patch playground). Otherwise, you’ll be huffing up a steep hill with two children on your back. Once you make it to the 0.4 miles to Rainbow Lake sign it’s all downhill–literally. It is the perfect place to play on the rocks, have a snack, and gear up for the steep climb up the hill with your kids. #worthit.
  • Behind the Pumpkin Patch playground on Signal Mountain there are trails for ultimate frisbee. My boys have more fun running behind the playground half the time than they do on the slides. This is a great place for both the playground and exploration.

  • Guild Trail starts on Ochs, Hwy en route to Lookout Mountain. There is a big parking lot and crosswalk to get to the start. The path is wide and gravel. You can see the Incline Railroad from the trail—we haven’t made it—ever. It’s an easy enough path with the children and feels very safe but is too close to the St. Elmo playground for my crew to want to stick it out—c’est la vie.

My “Not So Much” Recommendations for a Mom Only Outing (and Multiple Kids):

  • Moccasin Bend Blue Blaze Trail is a 1.5 loop about a minute down the road from Browns Ferry Road trail. I’ve seen it on several lists for kid-friendly hikes and yes, it is easy enough for tots, however, this is not one I like to go on alone with my children, nor would I recommend it. Call me a scaredy-cat but sometimes that place gives me the spooks.
  • Glen Falls Trail on Lookout Mountain. Ok. This hike is pretty fabulous for the whole fam, but no way in heck would I take two children alone. The path starts easily—it’s wide and flat—with lots of rocks and roots for kids to jump over. It smells great in the spring with all the honeysuckle blooming but dang, when you get to the falls, I’m just glad each child had a parent to hold their hand. Again, I’m a scaredy-cat. The 3.5-year-old declared he loved hiking after doing this trail (not sure if that’s because of the view or in his words, the “interesting smell,” wafting down from the cliffs). Either way, it is definitely worth seeing—with mom and dad.

Please, let me know your favorite hikes! We would love to check them out!

We have a few picture books that we love to read that are about getting out and exploring.

The Hike

Grandma Gatewood Hikes the Appalachian Trail

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Long Hunter State Park is along the shore of Percy Priest Lake. You can spend a day doing water activities, like boating, fishing, and swimming, or stay along the shore and hike, bike, and camp.

We did the 0.75-mile Inland Trail. It was a beautiful trail in a glade full of huge Shagbark hickory trees, and it looked like someone had just gone through and blown the leaves and sticks off the path.

There is a Reading Ranger Story Trail just for children with enlarged pages from children’s books, but it was closed due to flooding.

I wish we could have stayed longer at Long Hunter State Park and next time will bring my children. 

Wanna Go:

  • Dogs aren’t allowed on all the trails, so make sure before you bring your pet along.
  • Only certain marked areas allow swimming in the lake. This sign would be torture for my kids—and consequently me.
  • Couchville Lake Arboretum Trail is paved. Two miles of waterfront views that are perfect for strollers!

Parents Approval Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

For the first Saturday in what seems like forever, the husband and I were child-free for a whole day. How do you spend a day without kids? We hiked five miles in one state park and then one mile, thirty minutes down the road.

There are 10 miles of trails in Cedars of Lebanon State Park. We picked the longest, Hidden Springs Trail, named after this large sinkhole.

My first thought when I saw these sinkholes was that my almost two- and four-year-old children would fall in, but I don’t think I would have made it the several miles in with both of them on foot. (Plus, the one shown above is well-marked).

Hidden Springs Trail is an easy, flat path through a mixture of Eastern Red Cedar trees and oaks.

There are lots of playgrounds for children to enjoy as well as several easy half-mile trails to do with kids.

Since we were footloose and fancy-free, we drove down to Long Hunter State Park to kill time before a wedding. (Baby wipes aren’t just good for little bottoms, they’re also good for French baths).

Wanna Go:

  • There is lots of poison ivy along both sides of the path. If someone in your crew needs to go to the bathroom, make sure it’s away from the PI!
  • If you get a rash around your ankles (12+ hours later), aloe vera helps sooth the itch.

Parents Approval Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

These books are a mixture of some the boys favorite picture books about the Earth. Most aren’t very scientific, but they do encourage a love for being outside and taking care of our planet.

  1. Before We Eat
  2. Indescribable
  3. When Sue Found Sue
  4. What a Waste
  5. I am a Mouse
  6. Just a Baby Bird
  7. Growing Vegetable Soup
  8. Why Oh Why Are Deserts Dry?
  9. One Leaf, Two Leaves, Count with Me!

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