Just off Interstate 20, up winding Alabama 281 South, lies Cheaha State Park — home of the highest point in Alabama and Cheaha Lake — a jewel in northeast Alabama, say park visitors.
Franklin, Ga., residents Kenny Cheeves and his sons Taylor, 10, and Tanner, 9, were lounging under their recreational vehicle’s awning Saturday morning as they decided what to do with their day. They arrived on the Fourth of July.
Cheeves said it was their first time at the park. They had planned to camp in north Georgia, but the parks were full when he got around to making a reservation about two weeks ago. A friend of his at work recommended Cheaha, Cheeves said.
“He showed me some of the pictures and I said, ‘Man, that’s beautiful. We’re going over there if they’ve got any spots,’” he said. “I’m glad we got one.”
They were lucky, according to Kay Mitchell and Kayla Reaves, who were manning the park’s store and reservation desk on Saturday.
The Fourth of July weekend is always a big one at the park, said Mitchell. The park’s 73 RV spots were all rented for the weekend and 25 of the 55 tent sites were also taken.
“All the cabins and chalets are booked, too,” Reaves said. “We advise people to call three to six months in advance for a cabin or chalet.”
As busy as the campgrounds were Saturday, the women said Talladega race weekends are even busier.
“We are completely packed,” Mitchell said. “Our race fans, before they leave book for next year.”
Mike Strohl, from Ozark, found out the hard way, not that he’s complaining. He intended to go camping with his friend Vince Clark this weekend. Clark had made his reservations last September. Strohl waited until Tuesday and there were no RV spaces left.
“The only thing left was a king-sized motel room,” Strohl said. “Now, I’m not going to kid you. It ain’t bad.”
Saturday morning, they were at Lake Chinnabee in the Talladega National Forest, just a short drive from Cheaha State Park. They camp to escape daily life, they said.
“No work,” Strohl said. “No kids or grandkids.”
But not everyone at the park was camping.
Hank Parsons, who works the gate for Lake Cheaha, said he’d set a record on the Fourth of July. There were 211 paid admissions — there is no charge for children or for campers — 33 paddle boat rentals and two fishing boat rentals, for a total of $1,057 for the day, Parsons said. That beat his Memorial Day take, he added.
Kenny and Jamie Patterson were at the lake for the day Saturday. They discovered the park while out riding last weekend, they said, and promised their kids they would bring them back.
The Pattersons, who moved to Heflin in February, said they were a party of eight or nine on Saturday because they brought some friends from Buchanan, Ga., to enjoy the day at the park. Parked in the shade in the parking lot, the group was hauling coolers, towels, inner tubes and other toys to the beach by 10 a.m. The parking lot wasn’t full, but it was slowly filling up.
“It’s nice, quiet, clean,” Jamie Patterson said.
The weather was cooperating. Wisps of clouds floated in the blue sky and a breeze tousled the leaves in the trees shading the picnic tables and benches. The 70-plus degree temperature was more fall-like than summer and promised to stay that way with a high that stayed below 90. Boaters were paddling on the peaceful lake which would no doubt get much busier as the day wore on.
Tonya Paro from Atlanta, said she had arrived at the park Thursday night. Although she and her husband had discovered the lake Friday, they had avoided it because it was so crowded.
This was their first time at the park.
“We wanted to add a new state to our U.S.A. map,” Paro said.
The two keep a map of the states in their camper and mark a state each time they camp in a new one. Alabama was the ninth state they marked on the map, she said.
Cheaha is just two hours from Atlanta and made an easy camping trip for a long weekend, Paro said. And it is pretty, she added as she set up a table for lunch.
As she worked some young boys who were riding their bicycles through the park stopped to ask Paro about her dogs, which were in the camper barking.
Bobby Green, who was set up in the shade down the hill from Paro, said he’d been bringing his family to Cheaha for 20 years. It’s the only campground they use, said Green, an Attalla resident. He was one of the few tent campers set up in the lower campground. But he wouldn’t have it any other way, he said.
“It’s more camping,” Green said. “If you bring you a camper, that’s more like being at home. It’s true to the word camping.”
The family truck was running and its radio was providing music for the lunch they had just grilled and spread on the picnic table. Green hummed along to the music.
This is the family’s “getaway from the real life,” Green said.