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Voices from the Road

Creeks, camping, and drone disasters on a Tennessee off-roading adventure

My family has camped at northwest Georgia’s Lookout Mountain KOA for the past 2 years, driving 1,200 miles round trip to chase fall foliage, seek out cooler temperatures, and enjoy the seasonal festivities in the area. Last year, we explored on foot, hiking nearby trails in Cloudland Canyon State Park—but this year, I wanted to venture off-road in my Jeep Gladiator. After looking up trails and reading reviews, I settled on Persimmon Road Loop in Prentice Cooper State Forest.

With the kids opting to stay behind at the campground with some family friends, my wife and I headed to the forest to see what this trail had to offer. Persimmon Loop Road is a roughly 6-mile loop trail with an elevation gain of more than 1,000 feet and minimal cell service. Before we crossed through the gated entrance, we checked in with the kids, letting them know that service was spotty and that we would check back in when we could. 

a beige jeep sits in a creekbed surrounded by trees

Off-roading and a creek crossing

It was a picturesque October day in Tennessee as we rolled down the trail. The leaves were a mixture of greens, oranges, yellows, and reds—and at first, this seemed more like a scenic ride through the woods than an off-roading adventure. We meandered along for about a mile until we came to a massive rock outcropping on the side of the trail. Several years ago, I would have attempted to scramble up the rock face, but an older, wiser me knew that wasn’t the brightest idea. I settled for a few pictures and we continued on.

From here, the Persimmon Loop Road quickly transitioned from a scenic ride in the woods to an off-roading experience as the hard-packed dirt gave way to a rocky trail. The trees were thick, offering limited visibility into what lay ahead beyond each curve, but I thought I heard the faint sound of rushing water off in the distance. The area has multiple waterfalls, and I was hoping we would stumble across one. We were slowly making our way toward the sound when we came around a bend in the trail and found the source: a surprise creek running across the trail. Not only are water crossings one of our favorite types of terrain, but they also make for some amazing photo opportunities.

The creek was about 30 feet wide where the trail crossed; it ran clear, exposing a rocky bottom. While I wasn’t concerned about the clearance of my Jeep, which is lifted and sits on 37-inch Toyo tires, I was conscious of potentially loose rocks in the creekbed. I rolled forward slowly, pausing to take in the views.

a woman wearing a camo shirt and jeans walks in a creekbed

I put the Jeep in park, and my wife hopped out, having the foresight to wear her rain boots for the ride. I wasn’t as prepared in my non-waterproof hiking boots. Fortunately I have side steps and racks on the Jeep that allow me to climb around on the outside. We spent about 20 minutes in the creek, snapping photos and laughing at our attempts not to slip on the wet rocks.

Drone disaster 

I remembered I had my drone in the backseat and wanted to take an epic shot. I set it on the hood for takeoff and it hummed to life, hovering in place. I navigated upstream, careful to avoid the branches that canopied the creek. After flying about 40 to 50 feet away, I spun the drone around to frame my shot. I took several photos before starting to fly the drone back to me—and that’s when everything went horribly wrong.

I knew I was in trouble when the drone’s display flashed a warning about magnetic perturbations. It started lazily listing to the right, and I fought to get it under control. I watched in slow motion as it clipped one of the overhanging branches, flipped upside down, and plummeted into the creek. 

a man wearing a puffy vest stands at the open door of his jeep parked in a creekbed

Drones aren’t water resistant and can’t handle water landings or submersion. When we got back to the campground, I placed it in a large plastic bag filled with rice, but after 24 hours, I wrote it off as a total loss.

I had forgotten about the drone until a week or so later when I was sorting out my gear and came across the case. To my surprise, it whirred to life after inserting a fresh battery pack. I attempted a test flight, but the drone hovered with erratic motion due to damaged sensors. I checked the memory card and managed to connect via the drone’s app—as the photos and videos started to appear, including the last shot I attempted on the Persimmon Road Loop, I thought to myself: Was it worth it?

Meet the Roadtripper

Don Renyer

Don Renyer is an outdoor enthusiast that spends his free time getting lost in the woods, wandering about the desert, or planning his next big trip. He’s been taking his family camping for more than a decade, from ground tents to rooftop tents to pop-up campers to his current camper, an off-grid ready 2021 Geo Pro.