Smoky Mountains, Asheville & Blue Ridge Parkway
We just returned from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park outside of Gatlinburg Tennessee and the Blue Ridge Mountains outside Asheville North Carolina.
Duration 12 days. Driving approximately 1913 miles in our trusty Smart Car!
This is the daily trip dialogue of what we did and saw on our trip in mid-May 2014 to the Great Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge. The weather was wonderful for the most part, some cloudy days but temperatures were between 65 and 75 most of the time. Just great for hiking and a bit of exertion required to see some of the Wonders of the USA!
Day 1 – May 11, 2014 – We packed up and headed out around 10 am. I had purchased a new 'shorter' tarp/cover for the back platform on our Smart Car, but darn if we just had too much to carry. We added some trip essentials like proper backpacks that take up more space than I had figured. So we used our old tarp from last fall and it was a bit long but fit just fine. I know we are taking too much again, but time will tell (and did!).
We headed out of Orlando and up Interstate 4 which wasn't too busy on a Sunday morning towards Jacksonville Florida. We picked up Highway US-1 (US-23) North and passed into Georgia skirting the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge (have to put that on a future place to visit). We proceeded up through the heartland of Georgia and it was a most pleasant and uncrowded drive. One of the benefits of staying off the major interstate highways is you get a chance to actually SEE something as you travel along.
We arrived at my sister, Marie's house late afternoon in Vidalia (yea the onion capital of Georgia). Vidalia is known for the famous 'vidalia onion' which is absolutely DELICIOUS; such that you could eat one like an apple! Yes, fact! We spent a pleasant evening and then to bed to be off early (well pretty early) in the morning.
Day 2 – May 12, 2014 – We packed up again (got plenty of practice at this last fall!), and headed out North once again. We picked up US-123 (GA-17) about 75 miles North of Vidalia off US-1. The roads were perfect and lots to see of the wonderful Georgia farmland, the Chattahoochee National Forest, and small towns along the way!
We picked up US-23 (US 441) North past Tallulah Gorge State Park (another potential for the future) at a tricky intersection but not much else around to make you miss the turn! We continued the drive Northward through the Chattahoochee National Forest into North Carolina where it turns into the Nantahala National Forest. The roads continued to be terrific and mostly 4 lanes even in this seemingly remote are of the country.
There is a great visitor's center on the left just before you get to US-64 where you can get some information, gifts etc. regarding the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
As we headed North on US-23 you come up to Oak Hill North Carolina and US-64, which winds it's way East. You will take a right onto US 64/441/23 for a short distance and head East (we missed a couple of turns but looped back until we asked some folks directions to the Falls on the Callasaja River. Don't miss these falls. There are a series of them if you continue on for a few miles (about 8 miles east of US-441). The first falls are just off the road and few places to safely park, but pull off the road as far as possible and you can get out (carefully) and walk down the side, over some rocks to view the first set of falls. They are impressive!
A short way, about 5 miles you will come to 'Dry Falls' which is a real misnomer! There is a large public parking area with restrooms. There is a lovely staircase that will take you down to the falls with great overlooks to snap a few pictures along the way down. At the base of the staircase, you can continue along a pathway and walk UNDER/Behind the falls for a great view. You will get a pretty good spray but not soaked as long as the wind isn't blowing too hard.
If you travel on just a bit you will come to 'Bridal Veil' falls. This is not near as impressive as other 'Bridal Veil' falls (especially the one at Multnomah Oregon in the Columbia River George), but they are cute and you can drive your car beneath them for a quick snapshot! This diversion took about two hours but was well worth it as we continued on Northward towards The Great Smokys.
As we continued North on US-441 we drove through the Cherokee Indian Reservation and Cherokee North Carolina. There is a cassino there and it looked nice but we didn't stop. There is a very tricky turn as you go through Cherokee and I think the sign was missing! As you drive up US-441 you will merge for a short distance with US-19. At Cherokee as you come to the Oconaluftee River you need to take a sharp left turn to stay on US-441. If you miss it (like we did) you will drive through the Cherokee Indian Reservation residential section; not that it was a bad drive but very poorly marked. We stopped and asked a nice gentleman, got corrections and backtracked a few miles.
In any case, you will proceed further Northward and finally enter the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As our destination was Gatlinburg, where we had rented a condo for a few days, it was a great drive. Be prepared for some REALLY twisty turns along the way so don't be in a hurry. It may not be far in miles but you will be traveling at 30 to 45 mph most of the way. We finally arrived at our condo and unpacked and crashed after a pleasant dinner cooked by Nancy.
NOTE on Gatlinburg – There is only ONE grocery store (Food City) and while it does have a nice selection of fresh vegetables and fruit (several actually organic!), there is almost no place that is remotely vegan friendly here. Be prepared to bring some of your own staples and you can pick up some items at the grocery here.
Day 3 – May 13th, 2014 - Smoky Mountains National Park – First, if you are staying in/near Gatlinburg you should visit the visitors center. There is a short movie that is very informative and it is well staffed with friendly and knowledgeable folks. Nice gift shop too. Don't forget to get your 'Passport' stamped and pick up a medallion for you walking stick and maybe a pin or two for you hat!
We spent the day in the Cades Cove Area; just a short drive from the Visitors Center along beautiful twisty roads. There is a nice parking lot with helpful park rangers (we met Nancy there and she was delightful). Restrooms and water are available here so make sure to fill your water bottles before embarking on your hike. There are many places to hike and picnic but we picked Laural Falls to see first.
– The trail-head is a short drive to the falls and is well marked; parking is limited. The trail is paved to make this a decent hike but must be considered moderate as it is very steep in parts. Views of the Great Smokys along the way are terrific. It is about a 2.6 mile hike and will take a good two hours or more. The view of the falls is up close and you can wet your feet if you like. Do not climb on rocks around the waterfall. Over the years, several people have fallen to their deaths and many others have suffered serious injuries from climbing on rocks near waterfalls or along the riverbanks. These rocks are slippery due to mist and algae so watch your kids if they are with you. The falls are lovely and the trail leading up has several 'mini springs' that cross the trail (be careful of loose/slippery rocks). Laruel Falls Pictures
Elijah Oliver Place - The weather was getting a bit sketchy so we opted to pass up the hike to Abrams Falls (5 miles) and take the shorter hike (1.2 miles) to the Elijah Oliver Place. There are several trails that lead here but taking the one from the Abrams Falls Trail-Head parking lot is the easiest. It was an easy hike through the forest and we were all alone. Along the way we saw several deer on the trail and grazing just off the trail. We also saw several wild turkeys in the bush but no bears although several had been seen in the immediate area. We did see a small cub off in the field as we drove to the trail-head, but not close enough for a decent picture. NOTE** At Elijah Oliver's cabin there are trail markers to the 'parking lot'; unfortunately they do NOT tell you WHICH parking lot! We took what we thought was an alternate back to the Abrams Falls trail-head parking lot where we left our car but NOPE. We, with another couple ended up in the wrong parking area and had to walk an additional couple of miles down the roadway back to your car. So be careful; we plan to get a hand-held trail GPS for our next trip. You cannot count on a cell phone in these areas!
Day 4 – May 14th, 2014 - Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail & Grotto Falls Hike - The 6-mile-long, one-way, loop road is a favorite side trip for many people who frequently visit the Smokies. It offers rushing mountain streams, glimpses of old-growth forest, and a number of well-preserved log cabins, grist mills, and other historic buildings. We stopped at the Grotto Falls Trail-Head for our hike.
Grotto Falls Hike - The parking lot for the trail to Grotto Falls will be on the left side of the road after driving roughly 1.6 miles on this one-way loop. The trail-head is just beyond the parking area on the opposite side of the road. Because of the extreme popularity of this trail, there are additional parking spaces beyond the trail-head.
The trail is about 2.6 miles round trip. The path is marked by lots of rocky terrain and multiple tree roots in the middle of the trail just waiting to be tripped over! Some of the trail guides make this as 'easy' but it is not. The trail is often steep in spots and several small streams cross the path on unstable rocky terrain; be cautious! The most distinctive feature about Grotto Falls is that it's the only waterfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that a person can actually walk behind. The rocks around the falls and the climb up to them to go beneath is steep and can be difficult.
Day 5 – May 15th, 2014 - Gatlinburg R&R (rain & rest) – Well every trip has a rain day or two. It was pretty rainy and overcast so we decided to rest a bit after some strenuous hiking and walk around and explore Gatlinburg. I hate to tell you this but Gatlinburg is just one tourist trap after another. We spent a good bit of time walking around and looking for any hint of a Veg or Vegan friendly spot. We actually did find a coffee shop (Coffee & Company) that could do a soy latte and soy mocha. We did find the lone and only regular grocery store in the area, Food City. It had a decent selection of organic vegetables, fruits and such as well as regular fare. There must be some folks in the area who care about their health or they wouldn't stock it. Also, we did find a small shop, Whole Earth Grocery provide healthy alternatives in Gatlinburg. They had a very limited selection of food items but we found a delicious organic peanut butter there. They are open for lunch and while they are mostly vegetarian, will do a vegan preparation (wraps and salads).
Day 6 – My 16th, 2014 - Leaving the wonderful Smoky Mountains and headed to Asheville NC. The condo we rented was not that great but the bed was pretty comfortable and the accommodations were decent for the price. The check-out time was an unheard of 09:00 in the morning and the owner was there at 09:00 to get the key or charge us for an extra day! Another reason to NEVER use Booking.com for anything! We didn't let the bastard get us down and we had a very pleasant drive to Asheville. Just about 1.5 hours on Interstate 40. Not the Blue Ridge but not a bad drive.
We arrived in the Asheville area mid-morning and Nancy wanted to visit the Biltmore Estate. We had been there once before about 8 years prior on a business trip to the area. It was a pretty day and we paid the high fee ($136) for just the two of us plus Nancy got that audio thingy to listen to while we walked through the place. Unfortunately, it started to rain as we finished the tour so we passed on the gardens and went on into Asheville.
After walking through the Biltmore, we were hungry. I had heard of and wanted to try the Laughing Seed Cafe
in downtown Asheville. It was also highly recommended by several friends so we decided to have a bit of a late lunch/early-dinner. Well we were not disappointed. I had a sort of combination bowl (hot/warm) called the Harmony Bowl – Excellent! A LOT of food. Nancy had a veg-burger that was just OK. The best was the Jalapeno Onion Fries; try some!
We used airbnb.com to book a lovely little two bedroom cottage not far from downtown Asheville. We were not at all disappointed, in fact so very pleased with the location and cleanliness and features. We quickly unpacked, stored our food in the fridge. Then it was a bit of relaxation and reading!
Day 7 – May 17th 2014 - Chimney Rock State Park & Hickory Nut Falls – We arrived at Chimney Rock after a nice drive of about an hour. The drive South Easterly down US-74 was very pleasant and you drive through some interesting little towns. One that stood out was Bat Cave NC.; yes, Bat Cave.
The town of Chimney Rock was small and lovely with lots of cabins to rent and a lovely stream ran right through the town. The Park Entrance was just off the road up a twisting country two lane road. The entry fee was $16 ($2 off because the elevator was broken – more on that later). Lots of parking space available with Park Rangers on duty for questions and such.
One of the claims to fame with Chimney Rock, is this was the location where The Last of the Mohicans (movie) was filmed some years ago. Chimney Rock Park is a 5,942-acre wilderness that features a wonderful water fall; Hickory Nut Falls. The 'Chimney Rock itself is a tall 26 story tower of rock that overlooks the valley below and Lure Lake. Spectacular view if you make it up the 500 steps (26 story walk-up). We did, see out pictures!
Hickory Nut Falls – This 3/4-mile trail offers a leisurely walk that’s chock-full of wonder! Hardwood forests of oak, hickory, maple, beech, poplar, locust and basswood harbor abundant plant life, which includes rare and endangered wildflowers as well as old favorites like Jack-in-the-pulpit and Solomon's-seal. Cross the bridge and you’re near the grand finale: Hickory Nut Falls, all 404 feet of it! Dainty white blossoms of Lady Rue and fronds of Deerhair Bulrush thrive in the waterfall’s mist. Deerhair Bulrush, a grass-like plant with small knobs at the end of shiny, wiry leaves, is found growing out of the cracks along the rock and cliff wall at the Hickory Nut Falls.
There are several other trails to explore in Chimney Rock State Park but we will have to consider them during a later visit!
Returning to our quaint little bungalow, we decided to try to replenish some of our food stores. Asheville is VERY Veg friendly but you do have to seek them out. Naturally check with Happy Cow for local reference and directions! For great organic selections (they have a buffet counter to eat-in or carry-out) and lots of great food choices be sure to visit Earth Fare
. There are a couple of locations in Asheville area.
Day 8 – May 18th, 2014 – We wanted to explore downtown Asheville and walked around a lot. We walked and shopped and Nancy bought a unique hand made (locally) ceramic steaming pot, Yunnan Steamer. I'm looking forward to some delicious meals with that puppy!
We had wanted to try out Rosetta's Kitchen for lunch but they had an electrical problem this day and were closed. We decided to return 'home' and have a quick/light lunch as I had reservations at Plant; 5 stars on Happy Cow and one of the best rated Vegan Restaurants on almost every register.
Dinner at Plant
– The restaurant is not far from the downtown area so easy to get to. Located in a pretty nondescript building (mostly gray) with a simple sign: PLANT
. There is limited outdoor seating and not an over abundance inside. Make reservations!
We were greeted pleasantly and the service was excellent. As I love plantains, I really was looking forward to their Fried Plantains. We also wanted to try some other appetizers so also ordered the Iron Skillet Olives and the Roasted Jerusalem Artichokes. Well the olives in a hot skillet were interesting, nothing to get worked up about; just olives. The Artichokes were good but not spectacular. Now the Plantains, Those WERE Spectacular. I could have just done a few orders of those for dinner but held off. While the main menu was lovely and the presentations on neighboring tables looked great, we both decided on the Applewood Smoked Porto'House for our main course. That was DELICIOUS!
For desert, I had the Blackout Pie of peanut butter fudge! YUM. Nancy had the Blondie which was also very good.
After this we were pretty stuffed and left with a quick goodby and compliments to Jason Sellers the chef!
Day 9 – May 19th, 2014 – The Blue Ridge Parkway – We took a wonderful drive of about 100 miles down the Blue Ridge Parkway. Starting out in Asheville at our little bungalow we headed south down US-25 through the Biltmore Forest to the Blue Ridge Parkway. We stayed on it stopping many many times for photos along the way, reaching the highest point at 6053 Feet along the way. The road winds along the crest of the Blue Ridge through wondrous vistas; you just have to stop at every overlook along the way. Most are marked with location and elevation. At Wagon Road Gap, we picked up State Road 276 through the Pisgah National Forest (once mostly owned by the Biltmore Estate). Taking 276 North and then West to Waynesville then North on US-23 where we picked up Interstate 40 back to Asheville.
Day 10 – May 20th, 2014 – Dupont State Forest & Triple Falls Hike - DuPont State Forest is located between Brevard and Hendersonville. Located about 40 miles southwest of Asheville, this 10,000-acre North Carolina state forest is home to 90 miles of hiking trails. A three-mile round-trip hike (mostly level with a couple of climbs) takes you to three beautiful waterfalls.
The Hunger Games, the major motion picture released in 2012, was filmed at various locations at DuPont State Forest, including Hooker Falls and Triple Falls.
High Falls is the largest waterfall, a 150-foot cascade down an inclined plane of granite. After a few turns and a short, steep hill, see a wonderful view of High Falls on the left.
Triple Falls has three cascades with a total 120-foot drop. Just past the overlook, a trail forks off to the left and heads down to land on a large rock area below the top two falls and atop the third.
Covered Bridge is a short hike up beyond the Triple Falls. Well worth it and a beautiful view of the topmost cascade.
Hooker Falls is a short walk to the right to Hooker Falls Trail-head and parking area. There is an observation area above the falls, and you can continue on the trail to reach the base of the falls. This is a popular spot for wading and swimming in Casade Lake at the foot of the 12-foot waterfall. Hooker falls is also popular with kyackers as they are permitted to ride over the falls and to swim and go under the falls. We were fortunate and watched five intrepid international kyackers go over the falls; several times. From the overlook and then again from the base of the falls and Casade Lake.
Day 11 - May 21st, 2014 - We drove East to Hilton Head Island for an overnight. I had planned to visit my Brother Bob in Walterboro SC but he was in hospital under treatment for his cancer so could not visit. Next time Bob!
We drove out to Hilton Head Island and drove down to the beach area and stopped at the Urban Vegan for dinner. This was once a fish resturnt (Captain Fishy's) and has kept some of the menu but has a totally separate kitchen for Vegan Food preparation! Had a delicous meal with the Black Beans & Chili-Lime Quinoa Plate with a side of pink potatoe salad. Nancy had the Vegan Crab Cakes and vegan cole slaw. Delicious and the chef/owner talked to us for quite some time; interesting lady!
Day 12 - May 22nd, 2014 - Homeward bound but first a stop in Savannah for Nancy to do some shopping. We had been to Savannah before and it is truly a jewel of the South/Georgia. We had a delicious lunch at the Kyak Kafe in downtown Savanah. We both had tofu/vegan Quesadillas and was able to treat a Serviceman to lunch!