The Organic Growth of Del and Marte's Lilly Pad Campground

Campers can gather by the perma-tarp for campfires.
Campers can gather by the perma-tarp for campfires. Sarah Anne Perry
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When Del and Marte Scruggs bought Obed land in 1997, they didn’t know they’d soon share a home with hundreds of dirty climbers and their dogs.

“There wasn’t really a business plan or an idea to have a campground,” Del says. “It pretty much just happened.”

But when the couple’s friends realized the new property sat in the middle of one of Tennessee’s rock climbing meccas, they didn’t wait long to start staking tents.

“Specifically Kelly Brown—the author of the new Obed guidebook—was like, ‘Hey man, you think it’s okay if I just stay here instead of driving back to town?’” Del says. “And then it was like, ‘Hey, I’m a friend of Kelly’s, and he said maybe it’d be okay if I stayed here?’ And then it was like, ‘Hey, I’m a friend of a friend of Kelly’s’ and ‘Hey, I’ve heard that there was a climber campground here?’ So around 2000, we realized that it had organically just altered itself. It just took off on its own.”

Forgot a guidebook? Pick one up at the Lilly Pad's General Store.
Forgot a guidebook? Pick one up at the Lilly Pad's General Store. Sarah Anne Perry

Now, Del and Marte’s Lilly Pad is a bastion of Tennessee climbing. A few minutes’ walk or drive from the Obed’s seven crags, the Scruggs property offers 40 acres of primitive camping at $5 a person per night. Climbers camp wherever they can stake a tent or hang a hammock, but Del estimates that there are around 70 carved-out campsites.

“Really, the possibilities are limitless,” he says.

At the front of the property is a log-and-tin lean-to—nicknamed the “perma-tarp” in honor of its tarpaulin predecessor—over a large fire pit. There are also tables for cooking, a corn hole court, a rainy-day cooking area, and an honor-system “general store” stocked with guidebooks and other essentials. There’s a second, newer fire pit at the back of the campground too.

Payment is done on an honor system.
Payment is done on an honor system. Sarah Anne Perry

“I didn’t want fire pits all over the property,” Del says. “We’re very, very rural, so we don’t have very good fire protection out where we are. So I wanted to keep the fire concentrated in one spot. And we found out also that that brought people together.”

The fire shelters are where strangers become friends.

“You know, you go climbing or camping in a lot of places, and you never even get to meet the people next to you, right?” Del says.

A campfire is just the way to melt the ice.

“In a while, folks come together and start talking to each other without being awkward about it, you know?” he says. “So we have two nice little shelters where people come together and get to drink beer and tell stories.”

Del grows his own hops and brews beer on-site.
Del grows his own hops and brews beer on-site. Sarah Anne Perry

Beer is a big part of life at the Lilly Pad. Del grows his own hops and has been home-brewing for years, but now he’s in the process of establishing a nano-brewery on site.

“It got to where I never had any beer because everybody liked my beer,” he says. “So I built a building. So if I built a building to make beer, then my idea was—I better be legal.”

Del just finished the first round of government paperwork, and once the rest is finished, Lilly Pad campers will be able to buy his brews in growlers and pints.

The hops garden sits beside a small house on the road into the campground. Here, climbers can get water from the garden spigot, watch football on game days, and wait out bad weather with card games and snacks. Sometimes Del and Marte live here, and sometimes they don’t.

Campers can fill up on water in the Scruggs' flower garden.
Campers can fill up on water in the Scruggs' flower garden.

“We bounce around from house to house,” he says. “We live there sometimes, and then we live in the log cabin sometimes—but you know, we don’t have a big house. Our living room is the campground and our outside.”

On any given day, there’s bound to be a jubilant gaggle of dogs at the campground. Three of these are Del and Marte’s—Tipsy, Del’s canine shadow; Monster, often found dropping sticks onto unsuspecting climbers from the perma-tarp roof; and the aptly named Big, the self-appointed coyote alarm.

“The campground’s dog-friendly,” Del says. “It’s just basically what I say about people—if your dog’s nice, and you’re nice, you’re more than welcome. If you’re not, you’re probably not what we’re looking for.”

Campers can gather by the perma-tarp for campfires.
Campers can gather by the perma-tarp for campfires. Sarah Anne Perry

Not everyone at the Lilly Pad climbs—kayakers and other nature lovers also set up camp. The Lilly Pad hosts an ever-changing crew of friendly folks from every walk and corner.

“We’ve always said that our kids were pretty much raised by people from all over the world,” Del says. “Wartburg here is a great community, but there’s not a lot of diversity. But our kids were always exposed to folks from all over the planet, really.”

Del doesn’t do much climbing these days—his heart is in the Lilly Pad. “I guess if I would go out of town I would climb again, but when I’m at the crag, it just seems like there’s always something to do back at the campground,” he says. “And so I can’t wait to get back there. That’s what makes my foot start tapping.”

For directions and other relevant beta about Del and Marte's Lilly Pad Campground, check out our destination review.

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