I love family camping. LOVE it. The fresh air, the simplicity, the mindfulness that comes from unplugging and worrying about nothing but where to pitch your tent and make the perfect campfire. But let’s be honest, sometimes family camping doesn’t exactly go the way you had planned.
When we headed down to Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky for a long weekend last Thursday, I really thought I had it all together. Camping totes organized and categorized – check! Campground reservations made – check! Car filled up with gas – check! For the first time in our family camping history, I even had a checklist for the food. Check!
There was just one thing beyond my control – the weather. As our family camping trip drew closer, I anxiously checked the forecast, which called for temperatures ranging from low forties to mid-fifties and rain. Lots of it. (Before you throw my catch phrase “There’s no such thing as bad weather” back at me, please be aware that my mom already took care of that.) Now, I’ll happily stomp around in the pouring rain all day long, as long as I have a way to get warm and dry afterward. Which is hard to do in a tent, especially when it’s forty degrees outside and so wet you can’t even make a fire.
Family camping at Mammoth National Park
Mammoth Cave National Park is a four and a half hour drive from our home, and since we knew we’d arrive late Thursday night, we had already decided to stay the first night at a Sleep Inn near the interstate in Cave City. Friday morning we woke up to overcast skies, rain and more of the same in the forecast. At least it would be a good day to go underground and explore the longest cave in the world. Given the weather, I wanted to get us on the Grand Avenue tour, which at four hours total is one of the longest tours available. But while I had been busy patting myself on the back for making a food checklist and organizing my camping gear, I’d completely missed that the park “highly recommends” booking your tickets in advance. Now the Grand Avenue tour was already sold out. Worse, the tours for Saturday and Sunday were more or less sold out too.
Adding insult to injury, the weather wasn’t getting any better and I sheepishly found myself longing for our hotel room. The night before it had seemed so generic and bland, but now it beckoned with luxuries like heat, dry sheets, television and wi-fi. I couldn’t help but wonder if our family camping trip to Mammoth Cave National Park would be the first in history that would feature neither camping nor caves.
But no, at the very last minute I was able to snatch up tickets for two shorter, back-to-back tours of the caves for Friday. I then turned my attention to the camping situation. The girls had spotted a cluster of small, rustic cabins on our way in to the visitor center, and rather than risking a camping disaster, I booked one of them for two nights. As it turned out, the cabin was only a small step up from a tent – it had beds and a small bathroom, but no insulation or heat. At least the girls were excited. So excited, in fact, that they quickly came down with a case of cabin fever and ended up in endless fights over some brochures of the caves. I capitulated and went to bed early that night, wearing three layers of clothing and fleece blankets piled high on top of my comforter.
Saturday morning, I woke up in a sour mood, wishing I could just build an ark and sail away from this botched family vacation. It was forty degrees outside, but somehow it felt even colder in the dark cabin. The girls were snuggled up right next to me, but I was still freezing to my core. Then, when I reluctantly dragged myself out of bed and got working on breakfast, a couple of things struck me. A) The girls hadn’t complained at all about the situation. In fact, they had rolled with the punches better than I had and contentedly ate their raw oats and milk without complaining about the lack of a hot breakfast. They were still really excited about this vacation and couldn’t wait to get out and make the most of the day, rain or shine. B) Even though we had been pretty miserable the night before, I knew that we had made the right decision by staying at the cabin in the park rather than throwing in the towel and heading back to the hotel. Sure, the Sleep Inn would’ve been more comfortable. But the cabin was definitely more memorable.
As my mood improved, so did the vacation. Saturday morning we were able to get tickets to Diamond Caverns, outside of the national park, which proved to be nothing short of spectacular. Chances are we never would’ve found them had we pre-booked our tickets for the tours in the park. Then, around lunch time, it finally stopped raining. We set out on a 5.5-mile long hike through the park and made it around just in time for dinner. Back by the cabin that night, I made mac and cheese on the camp stove, while three deer quietly passed by, not even fifty feet away. After dinner, the girls found a group of kids to play with, and several of them quickly became their new “BFFs”. The cabin was still cold, but a little less so than the night before. After a game of tag in the dark with their newfound friends, the girls fell asleep the moment their heads hit the pillow.
Sunday morning – our last day at the park – we woke up to sunshine and birds chirping in the distance. We finished our trip on a high note, with hot oatmeal and a short hike without rain gear on. As the girls and I ate dinner back home in Indiana that night, I asked them what they liked the most of our trip. “Everything!” they said in unison. Proof enough for me that even a camping trip gone wrong beats no camping trip at all.