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camping

Discovering Great Smoky Mountains National Park

We were fortunate enough to visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park just weeks before the park closed due to the deadly fires that have claimed several lives. We feel so lucky to have seen the Smokies before they were devastated by these fires — which, tragically, were caused by a man-made fire on the Chimney Tops trail. As we write this, many park facilities, roads, and trails remain closed — and we’re so sad to think about those idyllic woods and mountains being charred and destroyed. If you’re one of the millions of people who have visited and loved Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we encourage you to donate to relief efforts through Friends of the Smokies.

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Before we’d visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we’d heard the stats: It’s the most visited national park by a pretty sizeable amount. What we hadn’t heard was why that was the case. And that made for some pretty amazing discoveries when we arrived!

We’re both East Coast kids who have traveled and explored up and down the east coast our whole lives, and we thought we’d pretty much seen it all. Boy, were we wrong. We found gorgeous, lush woods, with species of flora and fauna not found anywhere else. We found mountains taller and more beautiful than any others in the East — I had no idea we had mountains that gorgeous! And we found a well-organized park with beautiful drives, campgrounds, and views, and cheerful, knowledgeable rangers.

We ended up staying outside the park, at a very nice KOA in Pigeon Forge. It was a bit more RV-parky than we usually stay in, but none of the open campgrounds in the park had full hookups or showers, so we ended up there, and they had tremendous amenities.

As we normally do, we decided to start exploring by vehicle. Per usual, we headed straight to one of the visitor centers to get the lay of the land. We took the parkway south from Pigeon Forge, going through Gatlinburg on our way to Sugarlands Visitor Center. It was one of the biggest and nicest NPS visitor centers we’ve visited, with a tremendous wildlife exhibit that we enjoyed, and an excellent video about the park. We grabbed some maps, a sticker for our cartop carrier, and hit the road.

We hadn’t hit the road until the afternoon, so we didn’t go far, but we followed the Little River Road down to Route 73, and looped north on 321 back towards Pigeon Forge. It was almost dark, and we hadn’t done a Wal-Mart run in a while, so we splurged on some TGI Fridays for dinner.

I'll Bring the Beers
They had Sam Adams Octoberfest on tap!

The next day, we hit the road again, ready to explore. We headed back through Gatlinburg, then hit the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which is one-way, partially dirt and gravel road, and closes in the winter. It was a gorgeous drive through the woods, slowly working our way up into the foothills, around deep ravines, and over streams.

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We saw several old homesteads and farms, and stopped at a number of beautiful overlooks, taking pictures and enjoying the muh cooler weather in the mountains. It’d been climbing into the 90s when we left Gatlinburg, but it was in the low 70s up in the mountains, and at one point, got as cold as 50 degrees! I was in heaven.

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After we finished the loop, we headed over to Newfound Gap road, and headed toward Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park. On the way, we found an overlook with a beautiful plaque where we learned something new — John D. Rockefeller had actually paid for fully half of the creation of the park! Not only that, it’d done it in honor and memory of his wife Laura. What a way to remember someone!

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We continued on towards Clingmans Dome, constantly climbing as we drove. The views became more and more vast and breathtaking with every turn.

Great Smoky Mountains

Finally, we reached the parking lot, and headed up the short trail. While somewhat steep, it was very smoothly paved, and we joined people of all ages, from children to grandparents, working their way up to the overlook. It was a gorgeous clear day on this side of the mountain, but as we neared the top …

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Fog began pouring over the mountaintop, and the trail led straight into it!

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Kinda creepy, right?

It turned out the ridge of the mountain was separating a bright and sunny day from a dark and cloudy one, and the overlook tower was right on the border! It made for some awesome pictures.

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We hiked up to the top of the tower, enjoying the nearly-panoramic views, and reading the displays about the different mountains in the distance. After a quick hike back down (in which I realized I missed my roller blades for the first time since high school), we continued our drive south, checking out the town of Cherokee, and then jumping on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Smoky Mountain Views

My hope was to have time to drive Balsam Mountain Road, a dirt and gravel loop through the mountains that promised great views, but when we arrived, we only had about 90 minutes of sunset left — and about four hours of backcountry driving. Not willing to risk getting stuck in the mountains overnight unprepared, we sadly turned around and headed back to Pigeon Forge. Next time you’re mine, Balsam Mountain Road!

The next day was planned to be our last day in the park before moving on, so we decided to take another recommended drive — this one to Cades Cove on the west side of the park. A number of friends, both personal and online, had told us we HAD to make it there, and it was every bit as lovely as promised.

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We saw a number of rural churches (some still in operation!) and farmhouses, and were able to get out and visit a few as well. We enjoyed some tremendous vistas, many of which reminded me (as a huge Lord of the Rings fan) of where the fields of Rohan back up to Fanghorn forest in Peter Jackson’s movies. Nerd or not, the scenery was gorgeous. There was quite a bit of wildlife, as well — we saw both deer and elk.

After spending a few hours slowly touring the loop, we headed back towards Pigeon Forge, stopping off to visit the Sinks, a waterfall that runs directly under Little River Road. The falls, while small, were quite pretty, and we enjoyed lounging in the sun for a while.

The Sinks Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It seemed like an ideal time for a selfie.

The Sinks Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Back on the road, we got to see some more wildlife — a full-grown black bear was hanging out right on the side of the road! Rebecca especially loves bears, and was very happy to see one.

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We left the next morning, having loved our visit, and rather sad we hadn’t had time to do more hiking and exploring. But that just means next time we go, there will be plenty to do!

Have you been to the Smokies? What did you love? Did you have any favorites? Let us know in the comments!

Amazed by Asheville and the Biltmore Estate

[If you’re planning a trip to the Biltmore Estate, use our link to save up to $20 off your tickets!]

Asheville, North Carolina had long been on my radar as “a city I’m sure we’ll love.” Mid-sized East Coast city? Check. Thriving food and beer scene? Check. Quirky, but not weird? Check.

Yet somehow, in all our years in Virginia, we’d never managed to make the seven-ish hour drive to Asheville. Our travels to North Carolina always brought us to the Outer Banks, and Asheville was juuuust far enough off the I-81 corridor we traveled to visit Ryan’s family in Louisiana to make it an inconvenient stop.

So, on this trip we were excited to check in with Asheville — and we loved it so much, we ended up staying six nights instead of the three we planned on!

Our visit started inauspiciously: we’d planned to camp at Lake Powhatan Campground, just south of the city. When we called ahead that morning as we left Pipestem, it was too late to make a reservation, but customer service rep at Recreation.gov assured me there were “plenty” of campsites available.

As we pulled into the campground, the attendant had a look of despair on his face. “Boy, I sure hope you folks have a reservation,” he said mournfully. Womp womp. The campground was full — although the attendant seemed to think we weren’t really missing out. “We’ve been stuck here all summer!” he grumbled. “There’s no wi-fi and you have to drive ten minutes just to get cell service.” We weren’t particularly distressed by that, but with no room in the inn, we were forced to find new digs. KOA, here we come.

The next day we headed into Asheville to explore. First stop: Coffee! We found this awesome coffee “shop” — Double D’s Coffee and Desserts — and I ordered my first pumpkin spice latte of the season.

Double D's Coffee and Desserts Asheville North Carolina

Baristas served drinks and desserts downstairs, but the upper deck was also gorgeously renovated. I was already smitten with Asheville!

Double D's Coffee and Desserts Asheville North Carolina

We spent the greater part of our first day in Asheville just wandering around — there were so many little shops and great restaurants down each main street and side street. And the architecture was phenomenal, with everything from Victorian to Arts and Crafts, from Art Deco to Modern design. We later learned that the Great Depression preserved Asheville’s historic downtown, as the city’s debt was too crippling to allow them to add modern skyscrapers.

Asheville North Carolina Architecture

We also enjoyed some really great meals in Asheville, although we barely scratched the surface of the food scene. It was definitely tempting to eat at a new restaurant every single meal, although we restrained ourselves for budgetary reasons. A few highlights: Ryan raved about his sandwich at Gourmet Chip Company, and we enjoyed a sunny afternoon on Rhubarb‘s patio.

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Their menu was pricey, but we ordered fall cocktails and a truly fantastic cheese plate, and enjoyed some people watching and delicious food.

Rhubarb Restaurant Cheese Plate Asheville North Carolina

While we enjoyed exploring Asheville itself, we couldn’t leave without exploring the Biltmore Estate, the jewel of the city that is also the largest private home ever built in the US. It was built by George Washington Vanderbilt II with architect Richard Morris Hunt and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. The Biltmore Estate had been on Ryan’s must-visit list for years, and we were both excited for our visit!


It’s kind of funny; when the house finally came into view, we both said, “I kind of thought it would be … bigger.” Now, don’t get me wrong; at 178,926 square feet, the Biltmore is definitely the polar opposite of streamlined living. But while the house is absolutely gorgeous, it didn’t feel as overwhelmingly massive as I’d expected.

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This was my favorite piece of the exterior; inside this portion, to the left of the entrance, is the twisting 102-step staircase that takes you to the second and third floors, spiraling around a four-story, wrought-iron chandelier.

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And one of my favorite interior rooms was just to the right of the marbled Entrance Hall: the octagonal, sunken Winter Garden. The windowed ceiling, the hanging lanterns, and the central fountain were all gorgeous.

Biltmore Estate Winter Garden

One of Ryan’s favorite rooms was also on the first floor — the massive Banquet Hall, which is the largest room in the house. It felt positively medieval, with its rare Flemish tapestries, triple fireplace, and table for 64. Across from the fireplace is an organ gallery housing a 1916 Skinner pipe organ … accommodated nicely by the 70-foot-high barrel-vaulted ceiling.

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It was difficult to get photos in some rooms, but another favorite was the library. It reminded me of the library from My Fair Lady, with a second story balcony reached by a spiral staircase. We also loved the huge basement kitchen and the indoor swimming pool!

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I was surprised to find that the house truly was only half the attraction of the Biltmore Estate. The grounds were phenomenal — and while much of that was owed to Frederick Law Olmsted’s masterful landscape architecture, the views of the Great Smoky Mountains certainly made his job easier.

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Vanderbilt envisioned a park-like setting for his home — and while the formal gardens were lovely, the meandering paths and charming ponds definitely delivered.

One thing that we kept hearing reiterated as we toured the house and gardens was that different elements of the home and grounds were designed with the comfort and pleasure of guests in mind — from the 35 bedrooms and 43 bathrooms to the beautifully-designed property. The grounds were designed so guests could spend their days wandering the grounds, enjoying the coolness of the woods, boating on the pond, or picnicking on grassy hills … and I certainly thought that if I’d had a book and a picnic, I would have been content to never leave. We left feeling that being a guest at Biltmore would have been a wonderful thing!

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A storm was rolling in over the mountains, so we cut our ramble around the grounds short and headed indoors to the Biltmore Estate winery and a free wine tasting! The pours were generous and we enjoyed the chance to sample some North Carolina wines.

While our visit to the Biltmore Estate was pricier than many of the attractions we choose to visit ($65 for a weekday ticket), it was definitely worth the cost for a full-day experience of history, architecture, and enjoying the outdoors. If you’re planning a trip to the Biltmore, you can use our link to save up to $20 off your tickets! That’s a pretty good deal as these tickets rarely go on sale and coupon codes are next to impossible to find.

We also added the daytime audio guide to our tour, which was $11. It’s not easily shared, so if you want to do the audio guide you really need one for each person or you’ll effectively double your tour time. I did find that a lot of the audio guide information was listed in the tour brochure, which is included with your tickets, but there were some interesting facts and background information only found on the audio guide.

I’d recommend starting your day early to give yourself ample time to wander through the house, explore the grounds, and visit Antler Hill Village. We ate lunch at the Courtyard Market just behind the house itself, which was one of the less expensive options (we spent around $25 on lunch for two), but there are quite a few dining options ranging from cafe-style food to luxurious seated meals. And don’t pass up the free wine tasting at the Biltmore Estate winery in Antler Hill!

Those are the highlights of our visit to Asheville! What should we do next time we go back? (Because that’s definitely happening!)

18 Holiday Gift Ideas For the Camper, Traveler, and Adventurer

For a traveler, adventurer, or camper, few gifts make your heart sing quite as much as new gear! Today we’re sharing our 2016 Holiday Gift Guide: 18 Gift Ideas For the Camper, Traveler, and Adventurer. These are mostly items we have and love, along with a few that are making an appearance on our own Christmas lists this year!

2016 Holiday Gift Guilde

This post contains affiliate links, which help support the blog and our travels! We appreciate your support, and only share products we find useful or lovely (and occasionally astonishing).

Gifts for the Traveler

Gifts for the Traveler 2016 Gift Guide Our Streamlined Life

  • F1 Spacepak Toiletry Bag. Because we spend a lot of time in campground, hotel, and friends’ bathrooms, I’ve been looking for the perfect toiletry bag for almost two years now. Ryan got me this one for my birthday, and it’s perfect. It has a hanging hook, room for large toiletries (not just travel-sized ones), and I can easily carry all my stuff from bathroom to bathroom.
  • Ebags packing cubes. I never check luggage if I can help it, and packing cubes help me fit everything in my carry-on, every time. Ebags’ version come in lots of sizes and lots of colors so you can customize to your needs. (I like the small size cubes, but the mixed packs are great too.)
  • Away Carry-On. I finally retired my carry-on after 10 years of use and abuse, and I’m determined this Away bag is going to be the next one I purchase. It’s a hardshell. It has a built-in charger. It comes in gorgeous colors. I’m obsessed.

Gifts for the Camper

Gifts for the Camper 2016 Gift Guide Our Streamlined Life

  • OuterEQ 8pcs Lightweight Cookware SetThis set is small, but it has just about everything you need for cooking for two on a propane stove. It’s a great size for backpacking and short camping trips (although I rely heavily on it for longer trips, too.) When I bought it I was concerned about the quality, but we’ve had it for a year and it’s still going strong!
  • Lodge L5SK3 Cast Iron Skillet, Pre-Seasoned, 8-inchThis is on my list. Because fire food is the best food. (And this one is a great price point and size.)
  • Coleman Bottle Top Propane Stove. This is meant for backpacking, but I cooked almost exclusively on this guy for about a year with no problems. Upgrade: The Coleman Classic Propane Stove.
  • evrgrn Starry Night 2P Tent. My sister has this tent, and I’m planning how to steal it from her. (Shhhh!) The coolest part about it is seamless mesh moonroof and two large doors. It’s also super easy to setup — always a plus.
  • Wild and Wolf Enamel Mug. I got my enamel camping mug for Christmas last year, and I love it.
  • Kindle Paperwhite E-reader. Hear me out on this one. Of course, camping is a time for disconnecting from electronics. That said, there are few things I love as much as reading a good book in front of the campfire. This one is the best of every world. It’s backlit, so you can see the screen at night. It’s not a tablet, so you won’t be distracted by the wonders of the Internet. And it has built-in 3G, which means in all but the most remote regions, I can always have a new book at my fingertips. (Bonus: my favorite case, the Fintie Smartshell, which has kept my Kindle safe from one end of the country and back.)

Gifts for the Hiker

Gifts for the Hiker 2016 Gift Guide Our Streamlined Life

  • Hiking boots. The avid hiker goes through shoes like crazy. Ryan is on his third pair of Merrell Moabs (they come in a mid-height as well). Rebecca hikes in Brooks Cascadias — technically a trail runner, but super lightweight and sturdy.
  • Waterproof shell. This year we both added nice hiking rain jackets to our wardrobes. Ryan’s is the Merrell Cascadia, and fits like a dream. Rebecca’s is The North Face Venture Jacket. And in orange and sea foam green, respectively, we’re very easy to spot on the mountain.
  • The perfect hiking jacket (for him and for her). Ryan has one. Rebecca has one … on her Christmas list. These jackets are lightweight, warm, and nice enough to cover the transition from the mountain to dinner out.
  • Outdoor Products Vortex Backpack. We’ve been looking for just the right hiking daypack for a while, and this summer we finally found it. This pack fits both of us comfortably, carries snacks, maps, and extra layers without being too big, and comes in lots of colors. It’s also ridiculously inexpensive compared to a lot of the bags we looked at.

Gifts for the Adventurous Homebody

Gifts for the Adventurous Homebody 2016 Gift Guide Our Streamlined Life

Gifts for Adventurous Kids

Gifts for Adventurous Kids 2016 Gift Guide Our Streamlined Life

(I couldn’t do a gift guide without adding books … but this time, it’s my picks for the little ones!)

Our Visit to Pipestem State Park

pipestem

After another awesome weekend rafting the Gauley and spending time with friends, we left Fayetteville again and headed toward a new destination that Rebecca in particular was very excited about — Pipestem Resort State Park in West Virginia. Way back, before she was even a twinkle in her parents’ eyes, they had honeymooned at one of the park’s two lodges. They had always told her about how beautiful it was, and we were excited to check it out!

Turns out that if anything, they undersold it. This place was phenomenal. Trails and interesting things to see all over, and everywhere you turned, another gorgeous vista! We got in mid-afternoon, and were immediately impressed with how quiet and pretty the campground was, and with how nice the bathrooms were! We picked a great spot, set up, and decided to do some quick exploration before it got dark.

The first thing we went to see was the Bolar Lookout Tower. Only a 5 minute walk up a mostly-paved path from the parking lot right inside the park entrance, the tower commanded some amazing vistas.

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Seriously amazing. We could see for dozens of miles in just about every direction.

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From there, we gave ourselves the driving tour of the park, stopping to check out some of the sites and attractions. Probably the most amazing was this gorgeous overlook, right across from the gorgeous rental cabins that we’re totally going to come back and visit one day. It was the kind of place you could stay all day with a book and maybe some binoculars.

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Unfortunately, I woke up the next morning fighting some kind of illness, so we spent the next 2 days pretty well inert. Rebecca used it as an opportunity to get ahead on work, and I did a lot of sleeping and reading.

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By the second afternoon, however, I was getting antsy, so we decided to go take advantage of one of the highlights of Pipestem — the tram down to the valley resort!
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This part of the resort was where Rebecca’s parents had stayed on their honeymoon, and it was easy to see why. The lodge had a beautiful dining room with 20 foot windows looking at the river and up the mountain (which you can see below on the left).

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The river was very beautiful, and seemed very tame after our time on the Gauley!

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Tame enough that the Yoga Queen was at it again.

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After we finished exploring and took the tram back up, we decided to end the day with a hike out to Heritage Point, a beautiful overlook less than a mile’s steep hike from the Canyon Rim Center parking lot. It was a beautiful and challenging hike, and we were rewarded with even more tremendous views.

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Overall, we spent four days in Pipestem, and loved our time there!

Have you ever been to Pipestem Resort State Park? What did you love about it? Let us know in the comments!

Awesome Acadia, Part II

After kicking off our first week in Acadia with a bang, we made a concerted effort to enjoy the perfect August-in-Maine weather and some needed rest and relaxation.

For Ryan it looked a lot like this …

Hammock Camper Our Streamlined Life

… while I spent plenty of time in my chair with a book contemplating the trees.

Mount Desert Campground Lounging Our Streamlined Life

But our second week in Maine wasn’t all lounging! One sunny afternoon we took the Tahoe out for a spin on the Park Loop Road, a gorgeous scenic drive which included a detour to the top of Cadillac Mountain.

Cadillac-Mountain-Our-Streamlined-Life

While Ryan had previously enjoyed the sunrise from Cadillac Mountain — the tallest mountain along the North Atlantic seaboard of the United States — I had never been before. The panoramic view of Schoodic Peninsula, the Porcupine Islands, Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor, and Eagle Lake was absolutely stunning! We could even see a cruise ship in the harbor … one of those amazing New York to Halifax cruises I’m dying to do!

Later in the week Ryan went for a bicycle ride which took him past one of the amazing bridges for which Acadia National Park is famous.

Acadia-Carriage-Roads-Our-Streamlined-Life

The Carriage Roads and stone bridges in Acadia National Park were financed and directed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. to allow visitors to enjoy the park’s natural beauty, free from motorized vehicles. The 17 stone-faced bridges on Mount Desert Island are each unique, and designed to blend seamlessly with their surroundings.

Another Acadia National Park must is visiting Jordan Pond. We hiked the Jordan Pond Shore Trail — an easy 3.3 mile loop around the pond. The western side of the loop is a rough-hewn log path with pleasant pond views and lots of shade.

Jordan-Pond-Trail-Our-Streamlined-Life

Of course, the best way to follow up a hike around Jordan Pond is with popovers at the Jordan Pond House Restaurant. You’ll need reservations to get in (we didn’t have them this time around), but enjoying tea and popovers smeared with fresh blueberry jam while relaxing on the lawn is quintessential Acadia.

We spent another extremely pleasant day touring the “quiet side” of Mount Desert Island, which includes Bass Harbor and Southwest Harbor. We made a stop at the Bass Harbor Head Light, and even clambered out onto the rocks to stick our toes in the chilly water.

Bass-Harbor-Light-Our-Streamlined-Life

 

If you’ve been to Acadia, you know that a very serious component of the experience is choosing The Best Blueberry Pie. We’ve tried a few, but our favorite is found in Southwest Harbor at IslandBound Treats. Mary Musson works tirelessly all summer long lovingly making, from scratch, what is indeed The Best Blueberry Pie Ever. They’re fresh, packed with fruit, and just the right amount of sweet. In fact, they’re basically Maine in a pie.

 

Acadia National Park BEST Blueberry Pie Our Streamlined Life

I half wondered if we’d have enough to do to stay busy for two weeks in Acadia National Park, but as it turned out the days flew by and we didn’t even accomplish everything on our list. Next time we head that way, we’d love to:

And that, folks, concludes the story of our two beautiful weeks in Maine! We know a lot of our traveling friends spent time in Acadia this summer and fall … so tell us, what are your Acadia musts and insider secrets? We’d love to hear them, because we’re definitely going back!