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road trip

2017 Travel Plans

A constant surprise in our 18 months of full time camper life is just how cyclical it has been. Instead of endless days on the road, a pattern has emerged: six (or so) weeks of intensive travel, twelve (or so) weeks of localized travel. And while our parked weeks have proven immensely valuable in terms of cost-cutting and business-building, another constant is just how itchy we get to hit the road again after being in one place too long.

With that in mind, 2017 is going to be different. We have a full nine months of travel in the forecast, and the big challenge of our year will be learning how to balance travel, life, and work without the “breaks” that extended parking have afforded us up until now.

We have one other big adjustment planned for this year: When we head south later this week, we’ll be leaving our camper behind at my parents’ house. Yup, that’s right — we’ll be hitting the road with only our trusty Chevy Tahoe. We’ll share more on that decision when Ryan writes about the sweet new camping rig he and my brother have been hard at work building. For now I’ll just say that we learned on our last extended trip that dragging a 26′ trailer with you everywhere you go is actually kind of annoying.

So, without further ado — our planned itinerary for 2017!

January //

Congaree National Park Our Streamlined Life

  • We’ve kicked off January still at my parents’ home in New Hampshire — the plan is to head south this weekend! While I love winter, it has been freakishly cold here, and I’m just a little excited to stick my toes in the Gulf.
  • Our journey south will be pretty speedy, and peppered with stops to see family and friends. We played around with revisiting Charleston and Savannah on our way, but nixed that idea in favor of getting to the southwest as quickly possible.
  • It will probably take us a little over a week to get from New Hampshire to Baton Rouge, with tentative stops planned in New Jersey, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. Most of those will be visits to friends and family, but we’re also hoping to stop off at Congaree National Park and Andersonville National Historic Site on the way. We’re also playing around with taking a longer route and visiting Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, which we’ve been trying (and failing) to visit since last January. After catching up with family in Baton Rouge, we’ll head west!

February //

Big Bend National Park

  • February will be all about TEXAS! We’ll be taking the coastal route to South Padre Island, where swimming and beach camping are on the agenda. (We’ll also be taking tips from Amanda’s super-adventurey list of 10 Things to Do on South Padre Island. I’m dying to paddleboard!)
  • Once we’re all beached out (so, maybe never?) we’re headed north again towards Big Bend National Park. We loved it so much last time that we’re planning on staying a full two weeks (the longest you’re allowed to visit during the popular winter months). We’ll probably do some repeat activities, but this time we’ll also do some primitive camping, hopefully snag a spot in the gorgeous Chisos Basin Campground, visit Boquillas, and get in some river and mountain hikes (after lots of desert hiking last time!). Last time we visited the moon was full and crazy bright, so we didn’t get in any stargazing … this time we’ll try to time our visit a little better. And I know Ryan would love to get in a river trip as well! (Suddenly, two weeks doesn’t seem like nearly enough time.)

March //

Rocky Mountain National Park

  • The last time we explored New Mexico we headed west across southern New Mexico, then east through northern New Mexico on our return trip. This time, we’ll be travelling north – south. Planned stops include Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Roswell, Santa Fe, and Los Alamos. (Hopefully we’ll be out of New Mexico before the juniper — which almost destroyed Ryan last winter! — starts blooming.)
  • We’re taking a bit of a risk heading to Colorado in the winter — but we passed it up last time and I’m determined not to skip it again. We have three awesome national parks on the agenda — Rocky MountainBlack Canyon Of The Gunnison, and Mesa Verde — and if we’re feeling fancy I’d love to do a little skiing. I’m thinking Colorado would be a great place to try to land some housesitting gigs as well, and I’d also love to visit my brother at Fort Carson.

April //

Zion National Park

  • We are both DYING to get to Utah — it’s a little crazy that, other than a quick stop-off in Salt Lake City, we’ve managed to skirt it during all our western adventures. Obviously, the big five national parks are calling our name, and Currently Wandering’s recent post has me totally drooling to visit Snow Canyon State Park, too. I have the feeling Utah is going to be difficult to leave!
  • Fortunately, we have a little love affair going on with Arizona, which should soften the blow of heading south again! Our itinerary is a little up in the air. We’re debating retracing some of our steps from last winter, and hitting up the Grand Canyon, Phoenix, Sedona, and Prescott again … but we’re considering skipping some of the southern portion in favor of spending some time in Vegas.

May //

Yosemite National Park

  • We’ve allotted ourselves a month to travel through California, but I’m guessing a big chunk of it will be spent in southern California. Our current route is pretty zig-zaggy — we’re going back and forth between the coast and inland wonders like Yosemite! We’ll probably revisit San Francisco and the redwoods, too. Even though I was born in California, I’ve only been there a few times — but in my imagination, at least, California in May is weather perfection!

June //

Mount Rainier National Park

  • June should see us in the Pacific Northwest, enjoying early summer in Oregon & Washington. Since we’ve spent some time exploring coastal Oregon, we plan to head inland and check out Crater Lake National Park as well as Bend. Next we’ll take a few weeks and criss-cross Washington state!

July //

Denali National Park & Preserve

  • Six months later, we finally reach the whole point of this trip: ALASKA. Honestly, it seems totally surreal even typing that! We’ve had a little trouble planning out the route due to current road closures (because, January in Alaska) but we plan to make our way up through Yukon, to Anchorage, and ultimately all the way up to Prudhoe Bay. Naturally, we’re also going to hit up as many epic national parks as we can, including Denali and Glacier Bay. If you’ve been to Alaska, or are planning to go to Alaska, let’s talk — we need All Your Wisdom on things like avoiding the legendarily horrible mosquitoes. And bears. And serial killers.

August //

Banff National Park Photo by Tony Webster
Photo by Tony Webster
  • After 4-6 weeks in Alaska (guys, that place is HUGE) we’ll make our way back to the lower 48 via Canada. After some great travel experiences in Niagara Falls and Quebec City, we’re excited to spend some time in British Columbia and Alberta. But really it’s all just part of my grand scheme to lure Ryan into spending a night or two at Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. (Hi, my name is Rebecca and my birthday is in August.) Anyway — Banff National Park is a bucket list stop for both of us, and we’re excited to spend some time exploring our friendly northern neighbor.

September //

Glacier National Park

  • In September we’d love to still be pretty far north — but the weather will play a big part in that decision.  We’ll be slowly tracing a path home via Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Michigan & Wisconsin — and with lots of gorgeous national parks along the route, I know we’ll be eager to linger as long as temperatures remain friendly. (Last summer when we were in Acadia I had a mild case of traveler’s envy seeing everyone’s end-of-summer travels through northern Michigan in particular — I’m dying to get there!)

October — December //

Acadia National Park

  • Fall and winter finally bring unknown territory. Our late summer & early fall plans hinge on mild weather continuing in the northern reaches of Canada and the United States, and I’m guessing we’ll probably be pretty happy to get back to our camper! We’ve tossed around the idea of spending fall in upstate New York and New England, and at this point the holidays are also a question mark. Either way, we’ll have to head back to New Hampshire to reunite with our home on wheels!

By the end of 2017, our hope is to have visited the majority of the continental United States! At that point, we’d love to turn our attention to international travel, because we’ve both been totally itching to get overseas. (Dream destinations include Germany and Iceland for both of us, Scotland and New Zealand for Ryan, and Thailand and Greece for me.) I have the feeling that our 2018 travel plans are going to look totally different, and totally epic! What do your 2017 travel plans look like?

2017 Travel Plans

Road Trip Recap: Appalachian Adventure

Road Trip Recap Appalachian Adventure

I love posting these recaps of our trips because it’s such a fun way to look back on our adventures and see all the ground we’ve covered. This trip definitely looks different from some of our previous trips — more on that below!

Appalachian Adventure By the Numbers:

Total travel days: 41 (September 6 – October 17)
States visited: 7 (Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Indiana, Kentucky)
Nights camping: 41
Nights in hotels or with family: 0 (!)
Campgrounds visited: 12

First of all — this trip was fun. In some ways it was more mellow than other trips we’ve done (no crazy off-roading, lots of KOAs) but in some ways, it was definitely an adventure (all the whitewater and all.the.bourbon). We definitely enjoyed getting to know a part of the country we’ve neglected. And we picked a great time of year to do it — let me tell you, West Virginia, Tennesee, and Kentucky in fall are gorgeous. The trip was also a study in contrasts; we stayed at both the swankiest campground we’ve ever visited (Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg KOA) and the sketchiest (Camp on the Kentucky RV Park). We spent quality time in four states, and traveled through three more.

Every extended trip we take, it seems like we experience something new — and this trip was no different. This was the first extended road trip we’ve taken where we pulled the camper with us, and it was pretty eye-opening. First, we learned that it’s a lot easier to be lazy with a camper than when car camping; this trip definitely saw us doing a lot more TV watching and lounging indoors than we’ve done on previous trips. We also learned that pulling the camper is a little bit stressful, slows you way down, wreaks havoc on your gas mileage, and puts a major damper on spontaneity. Yikes! This trip was a bit of a test run, as we’re planning some pretty extended on-the-road time for 2017, and it was certainly instructive. So we’re taking it as a lesson to figure out how to improve for the future.

Traveling with the camper definitely changed our travel style. In the past we’ve often rolled into off-the-beaten path campgrounds, cooked dinner over the fire, went to bed early, and rolled out with the sunrise. This trip we averaged 3.5 nights per campground — unheard of for us! — and definitely traveled more slowly. We actually spent six nights each at two different campgrounds. Now, I know that for many full-time travelers that’s nothing, but for us, that’s the definition of S-L-O-W travel, which definitely had its pros and cons. (One thing that hasn’t changed: we’re still terrible at making reservations in advance. We actually got turned away from our very first full-to-capacity campground on this trip! I guess after 18 months on the road, it was bound to happen eventually.)

Now, without further ado — here is the official link roundup/recap of our Appalachian Adventure! We loved our time in the mid-Atlantic mountains, and we hope you enjoy reading about it, too.

Car trouble, camping in Coopers Rock State Forest, and excellent beer! (Morgantown, West Virginia)

Whitewater, whitewater, whitewater! (#GauleySeason kickoff weekend)

Books and burritos in West Virginia’s capital city! (Charleston, West Virginia)

Our new favorite West Virginia state park! (Pipestem Resort State Park)

Yeah, we’d like to be a guest of the Vanderbilts … (Asheville, North Carolina & the Biltmore Estate)

It’s America’s most-visited national park for a reason … (Great Smoky Mountains National Park)

Celebrating Ryan’s birthday in “The Gateway to the South” (Chattanooga, Tennessee)

One night in Nashville + our new favorite campground! (Nashville, Tennessee)

Caves for days! (Mammoth Cave National Park)

Three days. So much bourbon. (The Kentucky Bourbon Trail)

We didn’t jump off a bridge — but other people did. (Bridge Day, Fayetteville, West Virginia)

If you’re interested in reading more of our road trip adventures, check out our 2015 Road Trip recap here (where we travel from the East Coast to the West Coast and back) and our 2016 Road Trip recap here (also known as our Great Southwest Adventure)!

Our Surprising Road Trip Must-Have!

Over the past 17 months of full time travel, we’ve pretty much become road trip professionals.

Road Trip 2016 Recap | Our Streamlined Life

And as any professional knows, a key to success in any endeavor is having the right tools for the job.

When it comes to road tripping, that means lots of things. Really good snacks, for example, are critical to the success of every road trip mission. A well-stocked emergency kit will save you when your tire blows out 30 miles from civilization in the middle of a national park. (Ahem.) An atlas keeps you on route when you’ve been driving for hours and — nope … still no cell service.

And then there’s the surprising road trip must-have we discovered just a few months ago on our most recent road trip.

Ladies and gentleman, drum roll please …

It’s Audible!

If you’re reading this, I’m guess you fall into one of three camps.

  1. You are obsessed with Audible and can’t wait to talk about your amazing recent “read.” (Welcome. We’ll get to that in a later post!)
  2. You’ve heard of Audible, but never tried it — and you’re not really sure why you’d need it for road tripping.
  3. You just said, “What’s Audible?”

If you’re new(ish) to Audible, here’s the first thing you need to know: Audible is Amazon’s audio book subscription service.

And here’s the second thing you need to know:

If you sign up using our link, you get TWO free audio books!

If you’re anything like me, your first thought is, “Free sounds awesome, but I don’t want to deal with the hassle of calling someone to cancel it if I decide it’s not for me.” Well, you can relax — because cancelling Audible may actually be even easier than signing up for Audible! It’s easily be done through your online account with just a few clicks (and no guilt tripping, even if you’ve decided to just keep your two free audio books and bounce).

With that out of the way, I’m excited to share a few of my favorite things about Audible — and why it has become one of our road trip must-haves.

  • Audible makes the miles fly by. I first discovered this when I was commuting forty-five minutes each way to work: books on tape make you just a little sad when you arrive at your destination. Seriously. On our most recent road trip we put in some long (for us) driving days, and an engrossing audio book turned “Are we there yet?” into “Wow, we’re there already!”
  • Audible makes time to read, even when you don’t have time to read. I love reading, but it can feel hard to squeeze into a busy schedule, especially when you’re spending hours traveling and exploring. Audible is perfect for turning chore time into reading time, whether you’re waiting at the laundromat or driving down the Interstate. (And, depending on what book you choose, it can be totally educational — or purely entertaining!)
  • Audible is a great alternative to TV (especially when you’re spending lots of time on the road without access to streaming Internet). Many times on our last trip we opened the door to the camper, turned off all the lights, and lay on the couch listening to an audio book. It was peaceful, engaging, and pleasant time spent together. Speaking of which …
  • Audible turns reading from “me time” into “us time.” Now, don’t get me wrong — we both love getting totally immersed in our own little world of a terrific book. But Audible has opened up a whole new world of shared reading — not just reading a book separately, but listening together, pausing occasionally to chat about it, and anticipating together moving on to the next book in a series.
  • Audible is super-duper easy to use. We’re both pretty tech-comfortable, but I put off using Audible for a long time because I didn’t know how easy it was to use. Just download the app on your phone or tablet (you can also stream from your library at Audible.com). Then browse the store, view your own library, create a wish list, and more. And once you’ve downloaded your selection, there are lots of great ways to listen. Use headphones for a solo read, use bluetooth to listen using a portable speaker, or send it to your car or camper’s audio system using a cable … all controlled right from your phone. Seriously, we’ve tried it all. As soon as I saw how usable the app’s interface was, I knew my real problem was going to be buying too many audio books, not figuring out how to get the ones I wanted. It’s addictive, guys.

If you still have questions about Audible, here are a few more things you might like to know:

  • How do I get my two free books? When you sign up using our link, you’ll immediately have two credits in your account. Find the first book you want to read, through Audible.com or on the app’s store. Then add it to your cart. At checkout, click “Apply Credit.” The price of your book will change to $0.00 and you’ll be able to download your book for free. (Just repeat when you’re ready for your second book!)
  • How much does Audible cost? Audible’s base subscription rate is $14.95/month. At that price you’ll get one monthly credit good for any audio book, and you can buy additional audio books for 30% off retail. There’s also a two-credit monthly plan available for $22.95, and you can even get an annual plan and purchase 12 or 24 credits at a time. (When I first signed up, I wasn’t sure how many credits I wanted or if the $14.95/month would be worth it … but I very quickly found myself purchasing additional credits!)
  • What if I don’t like the book I chose? No problem! Audible says they want you to “love every listen” — which means if you don’t like your book, you can return it and get your credit back to use on another book! No questions asked, and again, you can do the return easily through your account … no phone calls or guilt tripping required.
  • What happens to my audio books if I cancel my account? Your audio books stay in your Audible library, where you can keep enjoying them. This includes the books you got with your free trial!
  • How can I save more money on Audible? There are a few tricks you can use to make your Audible credits go further. One is returning books you didn’t enjoy — you’ll get that credit back to use on another title. I’ve also learned that when you go to cancel your account, Audible will offer you a variety of incentives to stay on as a customer. These offers may change, but in the past they have offered incentives such as “50% off for three months” (so, just $7.49/credit) or a $20 coupon to stay (if you select “I get too many credits” as the reason for cancelling).  You can always use the incentive, then cancel later once the price goes back up! And before you finalize the cancellation, they’ll also offer you the ability to pause your subscription, if you think you might want to come back later or are just taking a long time to finish the book you’re working on. (I’ve been working a lot the past month, and we’ve been doing very little driving, so I just put our account on hold until I have more time. As soon as I’m ready, I’ll be back in business with a new audio book!)
  • Is Audible worth the price? Ultimately that’s something you can only answer for yourself — but I can say wholeheartedly for us that Audible is truly a wonderful, surprising road trip must-have. The hours of enjoyment we get out of a single audio book are well worth the $11.50 we pay per credit. (That’s less than we’d spend grabbing lunch on the road!)

In an upcoming post, we’ll be sharing how to use Audible to keep your New Year’s resolutions, along with some suggested titles for using those two free audio book credits! Stay tuned for that … we love sharing book recommendations and can’t wait to hear yours, too! And tell us in the comments: What books are you going to download using your two free audio book credits?

When you sign up for Audible using our link, you get two free audio books, we earn a small commission, and we all get the joy of audio books. It’s a win-win for everyone! (We use affiliate links to help support the blog and our travels; we appreciate your support, and promise to only share products we find useful, lovely, and occasionally astonishing.

Our Surprising Road Trip Must Have

Underground Exploration in Mammoth Cave National Park

Before our trip, whenever people would ask where we were headed on our Appalachian Adventure, Ryan would say: “We’ll be spending time in West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky.” Then I’d glare and say, “HONEY, we’re not going to Kentucky.” And yet … we ended up in Kentucky.

Welcome To Kentucky

I guess I just didn’t think we had time to do it justice — but when we ended up trimming a few Gauley weekends from the schedule, we suddenly had a week or so to kill. So to Kentucky we headed — and it ended up being one of the best decisions of our trip.

In the dead center of the state was Mammoth Cave National Park — our first destination in Kentucky.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but most of the park was quiet and wooded, with rolling treed hills and almost a dreamy quality.

Mammoth Cave National Park Woods

The dreaminess quickly ended when we locked our keys in the car. Fortunately a sassy-yet-helpful ranger was kind enough to lend us a coat hanger, and Ryan put his cat burglar skills to work in the parking lot. It’s a good thing he was able to rescue them, because we had absolutely no cell service to call AAA with!

Womp Womp

Crisis averted, we headed inside to explore the visitor’s center. Well … sort of. It turns out visiting Mammoth Cave takes a little more planning ahead than we were used to; unlike at Carlsbad Caverns, where self-guided tours were standard, the majority of Mammoth Cave’s tours require a tour guide and reservations. And … it was spring break. The park was packed. When we arrived, the tours we were interested in were all sold out. Instead, we took a short jaunt down to the one cave that was open for self-guided tours, just to whet our appetites.

We also checked out the visitor’s center at Mammoth Cave, and it was really cool. We loved this cross-section model of one of the larger caves …

Mammoth Cave Visitors Center

As well as this relief “sculpture” of the cave system. (Mammoth Cave is the world’s longest known cave system, with more than 400 miles explored!)

Mammoth Cave Model

And I loved this Find Your Park poster emphasizing the park’s history.  In 1838, the cave was purchased by Franklin Gorin, who intended to operate Mammoth Cave as a tourist attraction. Gorin used his African-American slaves as tour guides — and one of them, Stephen Bishop, would become one of Mammoth Cave’s most celebrated historical figures. Stephen was one of the first people to make extensive maps of the cave, and named many of the cave’s features.

Mammoth Cave Retro Poster

Stephen was very respected by Gorin, who described Stephen after his death as “the celebrated and great Stephen … a self-educated man [with] a fine genius, a great fund of wit and humor, some little knowledge of Latin and Greek, and much knowledge of geology, but his great talent was a knowledge of man.” Despite his contributions to the cave, Stephen lived most of his life as a slave, although Gorin freed him just a year before his death in 1857.

Mammoth Cave was an interesting contrast to Carlsbad Caverns because while Mammoth is the longest known cave system in the world, it is not nearly as deep as Carlsbad. The entrance to Mammoth felt very shallow compared to the 750-foot trail of Carlsbad’s Natural Entrance.

The interior of the cave looked totally different from Carlsbad, too! The caves were very rocky, and there were fewer formations than we saw at Carlsbad.

One of the cool things about Mammoth Cave was the wide variety of cave tours offered. We did the Domes & Dripstones tour and it was excellent. We would have loved to do the River Styx tour, as well, but there were only a few tour times offered and none while we were in town.

Mammoth Cave National Park was definitely a park where planning ahead would have served us well. You guys know we love to wing it but between the limited tour times and crowds due to spring break, this one needed a little more foresight. (We also didn’t camp in the park because it was super unclear if there were showers and restrooms available — we stayed at the solidly meh Horse Cave KOA campground — but when we took a spin through the park , it looked like there were facilities. It would have been wonderful to stay right in the park — next time!)

We had one more experience in central Kentucky: Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park. Unfortunately, this ended up being another poorly planned excursion on our part. First fail: While the NHP is only a 40 minute drive from Mammoth Cave … it’s in another time zone. Yeah. Second fail: the park’s website lists its hours as 8am-4:30pm … buuuuuut the buildings all actually close at 4:00. So, we showed up at what we thought was 3:00pm, which was actually 4:00pm, still thought we had half an hour to zip through the buildings, but they were all closed.

Fortunately, a kind park ranger saw the desperation in my eyes and went into the closed visitor’s center and stamped my passport for me. And we did take a quick tour around the grounds, which were super beautiful — so it wasn’t a total loss! We would have loved to take in the visitor’s center, and check out the “symbolic birth cabin” — turns out the one in the mausoleum above isn’t the real Lincoln birth cabin, as they thought when it was constructed — but hopefully you can learn from our mistakes.

Despite a few setbacks, we loved our first foray into Kentucky! Has anyone else made the same mistakes we did? And is there anything else in the area you’d like to recommend to our readers?

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!