Category Archives: Travel

Part 4: How much bob can a bobcat bob?

Part 1: Waiting for the Bears to Attack

Part 2: It doesn’t look any bigger than the Mauritania

Part 3: Didn’t see many ashes in Asheville

And now for the final installment of blogging recaps for my summer trip. This might be a record as far as how much time passed (it’s only been a little over two weeks) since I got home and finished blogging about the trip. You’re welcome.

For the last stop on our road trip, I decided to book a campsite at Cades Cove Campground. I had the idea that we would repeat the hike we did a few years ago, and it would be glorious.

But first: we left Asheville and followed the Blue Ridge Parkway and some other roads into the Smoky Mountains again.

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We stopped at the Oconulufte visitors center and farm museum right after entering the park. It was really informative and interesting. I think I’ve mentioned this in an earlier post, but I found it so fascinating how many people lived in this area before the park was founded.

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We wandered around the Farm Museum, which was a real farm that had been relocated to be more accessible to visitors. It was very interesting. Plus, chickens!

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And pigs. They smelled. Quite a lot.

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It was a beautiful day.

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We had a little lunch out of the car, then got on our way again. We stopped at Mingo Mill shortly after that. It was an old mill, and quite interesting. There was a volunteer there who started talking to me about various musical instruments and played the ten whistle for me.

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One of the things we definitely wanted to do was see Clingman’s Dome. The parking lot was SLAMMED though, and we had to wait a bit to get a spot. We did the hike up to the lookout tower and it was harder than we anticipated. The views were unfortunately pretty bad due to fog and cloud cover, but it was still beautiful.

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If I’d been more myself, we might have done a little hike from the parking lot. There were some really neat ones in my books, but we weren’t up for it, and I was still, at this point, trying to figure out what was going on with my uncle’s services. Luckily, shortly after leaving Clingman’s I was able to talk to my mom and sister and figured out the plans. So instead of three nights camping at Cades Cove, it would be two nights, and then we’d head home. No big deal, and it meant we’d just have to make the most of it.

We got to the campground in the late afternoon, and got QUITE a lecture on bear safety by the check-in ranger. Luckily we know what we are doing Smile Bear safety is my jam.

This campground wasn’t as beautiful, and the sites were super packed together. We did luck out and nobody was camping next to us, so we had more privacy, but if they had been, it would have been close quarters. I guess we were towards the end of the season and the campground wasn’t full! We were a little farther from the bathrooms than we like, but it was fine. The most important thing was that it was DRY.

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We set up camp, made a fire, and just relaxed. We had a long hike ahead of us!

The next morning we got up and started getting ready to hike. We planned to hike up Anthony Creek Trail to Bode Mountain Trail, and then the Appalachian Trail to Rocky Top, then back across to the AT to the Russell Field Trail, then home. This would be over 15 miles, and I wasn’t sure about it, but was hopeful.

As we were getting packed up, I noticed some people down the road in the campsite pointing into the woods. I looked over, and low and behold it was a small animal, sort of trotting along. We thought a fox, at first, but then realized it seemed to be a bobcat! It had something in it’s mouth that might have been a bra, which seemed SUPER weird, but who knows!

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That’s the zoom in. You can perhaps see it has something in it’s mouth. Or not.

Anyway, that was pretty nifty to see. And then we headed out.

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I made a few mistakes off the bat. We’d taken our boots apart, well, taken the insoles out, the other day to dry them and I’d forgotten, so I didn’t properly tighten my shoes but instead left them how I’d thought I’d wanted them. By the time I remembered they were actually too loose, my feet were already killing me. So that didn’t help, and it seemed like just a stupid thing to have done. I wasn’t feeling great generally, and felt like I was really letting Louie down by not keeping up as well.

We got to the top and then turned onto the Appalachian Trail. The previous time I remembered this was quite magical (it was after a rain.) This hike, it was still very nice but lacked the same quality. We went further than before, though, because we really wanted to get to Rocky Top.

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Somebody had a little too much fun with the cairns. Probably several somebodies.

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We ate our lunch up there, but I was quite frustrated because there were hundreds of bees crawling on the ground. Why???

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We should have stayed longer, but I was cranky because of the bees. We didn’t get a selfie, unfortunately, and we just started heading back. I didn’t feel that great, my feet hurt, and I was disappointed in myself across the board. We decided to cut the hike “short” and just head back the way we came. It was still nearly 13-14 RT miles, including the hike from the campground to the trailhead, but I just felt like we had failed. The hike down was a little sad and I just felt bad about everything. It was a hard day.

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We decided to cut across the stream near our campground—to get to the trailhead we had walked around this creek on a bridge, but it added probably 1/4 to 1/2 mile.  We managed to ford the creek on the return, making it across at a place that seemed easy enough and we didn’t get too wet. We showered, made dinner, and relaxed. It was a nice night, and we made a fire, finished some leftover s’mores, and tried to make the best of our last night. Overall it was a nice day, and I know we made the right decision on the hike, but I can’t help but wish I had been able to do better! I am such a slow hiker and I often feel clumsy and out of shape. I know I’m being hard on myself, but…that’s one of my skills Winking smile

So there you have it. A wonderful trip somewhat spoiled by my worries and anxiety Winking smile Nah, it wasn’t. Just that one part of the hike. I had a wonderful time overall, and I think Louie did too. While the Smokies aren’t as “exotic” as Utah, they are beautiful, and we had a great time getting out and seeing the world. We didn’t have any major disasters this trip, other than our tent being so wet and getting a lot of moisture through the bottom…not a disaster, just an inconvenience. And our trip home was uneventful—we got started fairly early, stopped for a delicious Thai lunch in Nashville, and made it home around 6 pm. The house looked great, we got mexican food at Amigo Joe’s, and enjoyed sleeping in a bed. I did some laundry and packed for my short trip to Ohio, including my violin and getting music for Leslie and I to play at my uncle’s memorial. It wasn’t the way I’d hoped to finish vacation, but it was how things were.

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Final Thoughts:

Asheville is great! Go, visit! Great food, very walkable downtown, lots to do.

Cataloochee campground was just awesome! And Elkmont quite good too. Our campsites were especially good.

Cades Cove is a lovely area. We’d already spent some time there. The campground isn’t quite as nice, too crowded. Or my site choice wasn’t as good, hard to say, I guess, since we didn’t explore as much.

Next time we’ll do more hikes in the Clingman’s Dome area, something up higher where there are more views. That’s what you miss in the Smokies, so many trees, less views. Still beautiful though, and better than what we get at home for sure!

I’m glad we did this trip. It was a really nice time, and a relaxing enough cap on a stressful summer (especially for Louie) before a stressful fall (for both of us.) Every time I plan a trip I learn new things, and this was no exception. But overall, good itinerary, good times, great memories. Thanks for reading!

Part 3: Didn’t see many ashes in Asheville

We left you in Cataloochee…Part 1 and Part 2. Lots of camping and talking about hiking and the rain.

So, after spending about 6 days in the wilderness feeling rather…damp…(the humidity!), Louie and I drove to the civilized world. We had three nights booked at an AirBNB so we’d be sleeping in a bed, using a bathroom with HOT water (fun fact: the campgrounds in National Parks never seem to have hot water, only cold), and who knows what else? Wearing real clothes, eating food at restaurants, and more!

First stop: the electro bike tour. A few years ago we’d done a bike tour in the Rocky Mountains (that was all downhill, so much fun) and I wondered if there was anything like that to do. A little searching brought me to a company that provided a tour on electro bikes—bikes that gave you a little assist with the hills. We met the tour guide in a park in Asheville, and it would be just us and another couple on the tour. The guide’s name was Torin, and he brought the bikes, helmets, and water for everyone.

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You can see the bikes look very similar to regular bikes. In any case, we took a few minutes to ride around the parking lot and see how we felt. I thought the bikes were great! You could have the assist off, but that’d be crazy, and then there were a few levels, low, med, and high. Torin told us he’d warn us when to turn up to high and otherwise we’d probably want to keep it on the middle level. You still had to pedal and otherwise steer/ride the bike as normal, but if you are comfortable riding a regular bike, you can do this. I personally thought it was amazing, because it made bike riding more fun and more easy, and you definitely still get a little workout!

We went to a variety of places, and got off the bikes and walked around a bit as well. You do ride in the street some, though the guide does his best to make things comfortable and safe, but there will be cars on occasion. I don’t mind at all, but the other party seemed to have some trouble with that.

We went to the Grove Park Inn which is an old historic hotel which overlooks Asheville.

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Then we biked to downtown Asheville and had a quick look around, tried to see the Basilica but it was closed to the public, and then headed to the Botanical Gardens.

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On the way, it started POURING buckets of rain. We all got completely soaked. We decided as a group to skip the last stop and just head back, which was a little disappointing, but probably for the best.

It’s important to note that we now each had two pairs of completely soaked shoes, and unfortunately for Louie, the only pair of shoes he had that wasn’t soaked was his tall hiking boots! I had sandals.

Anyway, our next stop was to the AirBNB to check in and do some laundry! We got a room with a private bathroom, private entrance, and shared laundry facilities. It was in the basement of the owner’s house, but it was great, and we’d highly recommend for an easy stay. It was only a short drive from downtown, in a neat neighborhood, and was just a great place to stay at a good value.

After doing some laundry and getting cleaned up, we took a lyft to downtown Asheville and went to Curate (our bike tour guide had recommended it)…OMG this was one of our top ten meals. We got there around 5 pm with no reservation, and were seated at the bar. I think we got very lucky, because the restaurant was absolutely packed from that point on. Based on the current menu online: here’s a sampling of what we ate:

ensalada de sandía y tomate
salad of compressed watermelon, heirloom cherry tomatoes, sheep cheese, sweet onion, and corn nuts with petite lettuces dressed in a honey-sherry vinaigrette

sardinas curadas
salt cured sardines, pickled raspberries, toasted pistachio (inspired by an elBulli flavor combination)

rossejat negro
thin noodles prepared paella style, squid in its ink, shellfish stock, garnished with all i oli and salsa verde, the essence of the ocean

We had a few more things too, but nearly every dish was a hit and was simply delicious!

I should backtrack and tell you a funny story from our lyft. We got into the car and the driver asked us if we had been camping. Here we are, finally all cleaned up and we thought, respectable looking, and yet we looked like we’d been camping? But she said, well she smelled campfire. We were baffled, but we agreed, we smelled it too. Later I realized the smell came from the umbrella! I’d been holding it over the fire the previous day to give Louie a fighting chance at starting it. Sigh.

After dinner, we decided to walk around a bit and headed to a few breweries as well. We’d been told to try the Wicked Weed so we started there and then went to the Green Man Brewing Company as well. After that we were exhausted and headed back and fell asleep.

The next morning my parents were coming up to visit for the day, so we waited a little bit for them to arrive. We had a light breakfast in the room, and luckily had a wonderful coffeemaker to use! Once my parents arrived, we managed to fit everybody in one car and headed out. Our first stop was the NC Arboretum. There was a lot to see there, but we headed for the gardens first.

The gardens were designed by Frederick Olmsted, who designed Central Park, parts of University Circle in Cleveland, the Danforth campus of the Washington University in St Louis, and the Biltmore Estate Grounds.  Basically he seemed to be the only landscape architect worth using for a period of history and had a long and busy career!

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The most interesting part was the bonsai garden, I thought. I didn’t know all that went into making a bonsai plant, that you had to cultivate it to grow exactly how you want and how much work it took!

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Next we decided to head on the Blue Ridge Parkway for a bit. We got some amazing views of the mountains, and ended up at the Pisgah Inn at a good time for lunch, so we ate in the restaurant there while enjoying amazing views.

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I know there were pictures taken with my Mom and Dad but I guess not on my camera! Anyway, they were totally there also.

After lunch we went to downtown Asheville and walked around again. We tried to follow the “Urban Trail” but found it very difficult. We had a good time anyway, and were able to see more things than the day before. We also went back to the Grove Park Inn and wandered around there more than the day before, saw an art gallery and a car museum in the area too. We thought of going to the Botanical Gardens too, but they were closed by the time we tried.

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My parents weren’t staying overnight though, so after a long day of sightseeing, we all got a coffee, visited for another hour or soon, and then they headed on their way. Louie and I looked up a place for dinner and ended up at a fun place called ‘‘Nine Mile” which featured Caribbean cuisine. It was great. We just went back home afterwards because we were exhausted.

The next day we had tickets for the Biltmore House. I’d been two previous times in my life, but not for about 8-9 years, and Louie had never been. We decided to get breakfast at a place called Biscuithead, which was kind of on our way.  I had the fried green tomato biscuit.

The day took a turn after breakfast though, because that’s when I found out my dad’s brother, my uncle Sam, had died overnight. He’d been sick for awhile with pancreatic cancer, but still. The news is never expected. I wasn’t sure what to do—it seems ridiculous to just continue your vacation after getting such news, but there’s nothing to be done otherwise…send words of condolence, know how sad you are and how sad you are for your aunt and cousins and grandmother…it’s just so sad.

So I wasn’t in the greatest of moods at the Biltmore House, nor did I know if we’d be cutting our vacation short, or what, but we went anyway, and made the best of it. And then I kept thinking of our last family trip to the Biltmore House, which was right around the time my grandpa died…of pancreatic cancer, and it all just totally sucked.

But we had prepaid, and there was nothing more to be done. We got the audio tour with our tickets, and I’d recommend that as well. We both enjoyed the tour and learned a fair amount. I always love the library and the pool was also really fun, along with so many other amazing rooms. (The Biltmore house is a house built by the Vanderbilts, and it’s like a palace. )

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I didn’t take too many pictures, but there’s a few. The pool couldn’t hold water for long because this was before the modern pool chemicals! And these days it doesn’t hold water at all—there is evidently a crack or something that makes it not work. Anyway, I encourage you to look up the history of the Biltmore House if you are so inclined.

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After the house tour we walked around the gardens. It was a hot day though, and we didn’t enjoy them as much as we might have.

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We went to the winery next and ended up getting a few bottles of wine to take home.

After that Louie wanted to check out the Moog museum, which was near downtown Asheville again. Unfortunately the museum wasn’t open, but there was a showroom with a bunch of stuff, including a few theremins. So we tried our hands at playing theremin!

We had dinner reservations at Rhubarb, a local “farm to table” restaurant. We really enjoyed our meal! Afterwards we went to a few more breweries: Burial and High Wire.

The next morning we were both pretty sad to leave. I was also struggling with knowing what to do next with my uncle’s passing and waiting to hear what would happen as far as a service. I was very hesitant to go to our next destination as I knew I’d be out of phone service there…and I was also hesitant to leave our creature comforts to go sleep on the floor again, ha! Maybe I shouldn’t have split up the camping…I’d thought, in the planning, that it would be a nice break, but it was hard to leave.

But we did. We loaded up the car and set out for the Smoky Mountains again. Since I’m going to stop this post before going on, I will tell you that I was able to make plans for attending my uncle’s service before we went into the wilderness again, and it did involve leaving one day early, so we only had two more nights camping ahead of us. I was happy to do it, because I really wanted to go to see my family and pay my respects.

Asheville: we would return. More restaurants to eat at, see the Moog Museum (for Louie), the Botanical Gardens, and we didn’t do any hiking in the area—evidently there is plenty! They say fall is a beautiful time to visit. We are hardly ever able to travel in the fall, but maybe someday.

Next stop: Cades Cove.

Part 2: It Doesn’t Look any Bigger than the Mauritania

If you haven’t, first read Part 1 of my trip report. Well, I can’t tell you what to do, but I recommend it!

We left Elkmont Campground around 9:30/10 am and headed to Pigeon Forge. I hadn’t originally planned for us to go to any of the touristy areas around there, but at some point I noticed there was a Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge…that looked like the Titanic. You may not know this, but I was, at one time, and still somewhat am, completely obsessed with the movie Titanic. I saw it, I believe, 11 times in the theater. I’ve seen it countless times since. I read many books on the ship; I even went to the library and looked at microfilm to see the original reports from the sinking. So, I couldn’t pass up a trip to the museum! There’s evidently one in Branson too, which would technically be closer for us, but the internet told me the Pigeon Forge one was better, so my decision was made!

Before Louie got the camping shower, I’d thought we would need to seek out a place to shower, but luckily we didn’t need to do that! So we just headed straight for the museum. Our reservation was at 11 am, but we got there a little early and it wasn’t very busy at all.

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When you enter the museum, they give you a “boarding pass” and each one has the story of a passenger on the Titanic. At the end of the museum you learn his or her fate.

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I liked the one they gave Louie because he was a violinist!

The museum admission comes with an audio tour, which was quite helpful and informative. There is mostly no photography allowed in the museum, except in one area where they were showing off some of the actual costumes from the movie.

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This is the corset from the scene in the movie where Rose’s mother is telling her “This is not a game. Our situation is precarious. You know the money is gone.”

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And of course, the dress we first see Rose in! “It doesn’t look any bigger than the Mauritania…”

Although I think the museum is more of a “one and done” type of place, I thought it was well done and quite interesting. There were loads of actual artifacts from the ship and great information. I didn’t learn as much as Louie only because I already knew the information, ha! They even had an area (very cold) where you could feel what the iceberg and the cold water would have felt like. We couldn’t even stand to be in the room at that point, much less spend time in the water! There was another part with the deck at various tilted angles. And tons of stories of the people, both the survivors and those lost. I highly recommend taking the time to go if you are in the area. We probably spent about an hour there, so it wasn’t terribly long, but I felt it was worth it, at least for me.  Who am I kidding, I loved it. Total guilty pleasure, and I’m grateful to Louie for tagging along.

Afterwards, we decided to grab lunch at a nearby restaurant called the Local Goat. I got a really nice portabella mushroom and goat cheese sandwich while Louie had less luck with fish tacos. Then we headed to our next campground destination, Cataloochee!

Before you go to Cataloochee, you need to know there are no services there, no ice, no wood available, so be sure to stock up. We made sure we had plenty of both and all the groceries we needed to, and then we were ready. You go up a winding gravel road for several miles, but it was no problem for the Corolla (unless I had been driving and then I might have had a panic attack, but Louie thrives on this windy mountain driving. ) After about 2 hours we arrived at the campground. This place was even more beautiful than Elkmont, and more remote. I had reserved site 7, and again, I think it was one of the best if not the best site. It was fairly private, and had lots of room and backed up to the creek.

We started unpacking, and noticed this right behind our campsite.

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Was it what we thought? We headed up to chat with the camp host to see what he thought. He told us that yep, the past two nights a bear had been in the area, but the night before the rangers had trapped the fellow and relocated him about 20 miles away. Okay, good to know. Be on the lookout. Be ready to make some noise to scare the bears away!

Cataloochee campground had no shortage of trash cans. Only one bear box for those without cars, but every site had its own little bear proof trash can, which we thought was hilarious. We kept all our food stuffs in the trunk when we weren’t using them, though we noticed our neighbors weren’t quite as careful, which is frankly upsetting and annoying to me…we work really hard to keep a very clean campsite, and if everybody doesn’t, then the bears are coming.

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The tent from the backside. How beautiful is this setting??

After we got set up, we decided to go looking for the elk…we were told to turn left out of the campground and continue into the Valley and we’d see them, especially around dusk, so we set out before dinner.

The elk were reintroduced to the Park in 2001, after being gone from the area for over 150 years. It took a little work, but the herd is now doing well and part of them even moved away to another area of the park.

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We did the typical Park “pull over on the side of the road, roll down the windows and start snapping pictures…”

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Cataloochee Valley used to be full of people, so there are quite a few historic buildings left.

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Anyway, we spent some time just watching the elk and taking pictures, and after awhile we started heading back. We popped into a few of the old buildings, when there weren’t elk around.

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And then! A smallish black bear crossed the road right in front of our car. Louie stopped the car and we both kind of froze and panicked! Then we watched it in the woods next to the car and hoped it didn’t notice us. I took this excellent photo.

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I’m pretty sure that black blobby bit is the bear.

We were pretty close to the campground then, so we went back and told the camp host what we’d see. He was a little alarmed and said “Maybe they got the wrong bear!”. I think I was a little freaked out that evening! It started raining a bit after that so we waited for a break in the rain to make dinner, and then we relaxed a bit and went to bed.

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In the morning we got up fairly early to do a hike called the Big Fork Ridge Trail Loop, about 9.1 miles. It was still fairly raining (light, off and on) and the humidity was high. Once we got started on the hike, we never saw another person!

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The terrain varied over the course of the hike, from a wide gravel road, to narrow bits, mud, rocks, you name it! About 5 miles in the trail was completely blocked by a giant tree, and we had to crawl around it. Here’s what the trail looked like after we got around the tree!

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Going around was a little tricky, but we could see the trail way on the other side so we felt good about it.  We had forgotten our chain saws though Winking smile

There was a little side trail to see the “Big Poplars” which were actually Tulip Trees, evidently.

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That’s a big tree!

We ate our lunch at a campsite, since there were nice places to sit. We definitely needed to reapply bugspray! It was buggy and muggy.

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Another side trail went to a gravesite from the Civil War.

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Anyway, the hike took us about 5 1/2 hours. On our short drive back to the campground, yep, we saw more elk! We took camp showers after that, and then just did a variety of things around the campground, planned the next day, relaxed, made a fire, etc.

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This is the view from the back of our campsite. We would have set up our tent further back if we hadn’t been required to use the tent pad.

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You can see there was a lot of extra room!

The next morning we didn’t jump out of bed because we’d chosen a slightly shorter hike, called the Boogerman Loop. It was about 7.5 miles around, and the trailhead was within walking distance of the campground.

It started with a wooden bridge…

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We ate our lunch around this giant tree. It was a bit warmer than the day before, and less raining, so we saw a few more people on this hike.

There was a lot of evidence of people having lived here before: old rock walls, grave stones, even old farm equipment. Not all of my pictures turned out well– sometimes I don’t spend enough time standing still.

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During the hike there had been a variety of creek crossings, mostly with those little wooden bridges. It seemed like each crossing was getting more difficult…for instance, a bridge seemed quite broken and we walked very carefully, another crossing that didn’t have a bridge, but probably needed one…at one point Louie joked that the trail was presenting us with increasingly difficult obstacles, like a game. And then suddenly we came to a place where there was no bridge, just a creek…and it seemed there once was a bridge and now it was gone. There was no way around it: we had two choices, turn around (4-5 miles back) or forge the creek. It looked scary, but we had two hiking sticks, good shoes, and I figured, the horses do it. We plotted our course, took some deep breaths, and waded through the water.

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This was, I believe, one of the earlier challenges, but you can see there’s plenty of water and not an obvious trail.

And here’s me going across!

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And Louie…

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After the first crossing, the second didn’t seem so bad…that’s always the way of it! Though I wasn’t super happy to see the second bridge out.

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It wasn’t so bad though, and the worst was really all the mud on the trails afterwards!

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But I was pretty relieved to see this guy later…

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When we finally finished the hike, we noticed there had been this warning at the beginning, which I’d seen but hadn’t really read.

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Anyway, we walked back to the campground, dipping our feet in the creek along the way to wash off the mud…and then we hung things up to dry and took showers.

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This is a little swimming area at the campground. People swam, though the water would have been too cold for me! Not as a kid though, I would have made it work like kids do.

While we were getting cleaned up a woman drove by and told us about a ranger talk in a nearby house, so we decided to go check it out before dinner. We got there late but were only 2 of the 5 watching. As we listened, it started POURING rain…and just so you know, we weren’t so smart and left a bunch of stuff hanging on the clothesline back at our camp. We were dry under a porch (well, fairly, as it leaked) so we listened to the ranger talk about the Elk and various other things and it was very interesting. Then, as the rain let up a bit, we watched some male “bachelor” elk head our way.

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This guy was right by our car. The ranger told us about another ranger who had had his car damaged by an elk, got it all scratched up. We were lucky this time.

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The caution tape was actually for the front of the house, the Palmer House, as the porch had been repainted that day. I like it in the picture though.

After that, we headed back down to the valley area of the other night, and watched the elk there again. And…get this. In almost the same place, ANOTHER black bear crossed in front of us. We didn’t get pictures, because it was just too fast, but WOW. Two bears crossing the road in front of us? CRAZY.

We got back to the campsite and of course most everything was soaked. We decided to make the best of it and try to make a campfire anyway, and Louie managed! I also managed to cook dinner and then we hung out a bit. At one point…we were sitting at the campfire and then heard a loud crash from the bushes/trees behind us. We both jumped up and ran towards the car…I was certain a bear was going to be heading out the bushes towards us…I had my light pointed at it and was ready to start yelling, and nothing happened. Louie said he’d thought a bear fell out of a tree, because he’d heard a branch snap and then a lot of rustling. I don’t even know what really happened, because we never saw anything. Maybe just a branch fell and then made a lot of noise—the bushes and trees were thick and maybe that was the rustling. Or the bear ran away and was scared. In any case, we worked up the nerve to sit back down after awhile.

The next morning we had to pack up even though pretty much everything was wet. Our tent stayed FAIRLY dry but even that had some dampness from the floor. Our hiking shoes were soaked, our towels were soaked, everything was at least damp, but the good news was: we were heading to Asheville to stay INSIDE and could do laundry and take a real shower when we got there. So we packed up and headed out, stopping to get a few pictures at a viewpoint.

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A few more thoughts on Cataloochee: We would come back again for sure. Site 7 was awesome! And there were more hikes to do. An overnight hike would also be great, though perhaps terrifying. All the backcountry campsites had wires and pulleys to hang your food.

Also, in a different vehicle, we might have driven in a different way. We took the “short” way in and only had to drive on about 3 miles of gravel roads, but there’s a more scenic way which means about 10 miles of gravel roads (decently well maintained), which in a different vehicle could be awesome. I guess I wish we’d had another night or two, though it was nice to get out of the rain.

So next stop: Asheville!

Part 1: Waiting for the bears to attack

As long time readers and friends and family might know, the past few summers Louie and I have gone on some very extensive and long camping road trips…full of adventure, of course, but sometimes very tiring. (Check out the “Travel” tab for those posts!) When brainstorming our plans for this summer we thought, well, let’s keep it easier and go back to the Smoky Mountains and spent a lot of time in one place. After some research, I booked 3 nights in 4 different places, 3 of them camping, one staying in an AirBNB in Asheville. 

Our first stop would be Elkmont Campground in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, not too far from Gatlinburg. And, my friend April, who had moved to Atlanta a few months before, would be joining us for two nights!

I planned the trip to leave the morning after the last performance of Carousel with Union Avenue Opera. This meant the two days before we spent getting ready: packing, dealing with all the “going away” stuff. Camping trips always require more assembly and packing than a non-camping trip. We had a few new “toys” this trip, the highlight of which was a camping shower tent and portable shower. Louie had found them on Amazon, and since each portion of our trip would be 3 days at a campground without a shower, he thought it would be amazing to be able to rinse off better. We also switched up a few things with how we packed the car, and we had recently purchased a new large cooler.

In any case, I believe we hit the road by 8:30 am on Sunday morning. We had to make a few stops, many of which were annoying and fruitless, but we were happy to be on vacation. Around lunch we stopped and got a quick lunch at a McDonald’s (guilty vacation pleasure) and then kept driving. April was going to be meeting us at the campground that night and we wanted to get in before dark in order to get set up before the bears come out.

(Just kidding) (though there are lots of bears in the Smokies, but we were mentally prepared to deal with bear safety.)

We lost an hour as well (time change) but got to the campground around 6:45 pm, I believe. April was already there and waiting! We found our beautiful campsite and started setting up. The campground was very wooded and lush, and our site was right next to a creek and the sounds were lovely and made everything seem more private.

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I thought they were closer when I took the picture.

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We brought our extra orange tent for April to use.

A few notes about camping in National Parks: They seem to have a lot more rules and regulations than other campgrounds. Not even counting all the bear safety regulations, there are rules like, you must pitch all your tents on the tent pad. On the one hand, this is nice because you know you’ll have a relatively flat place to pitch the tent and you don’t have to think too much. On the other hand, your tent is very close to your friend’s tent! We didn’t mind much for two nights though.

Bear safety rules: never leave any food products out when you aren’t actively using them. This means dishes, stoves, soap, and of course, coolers and food. They told us to put these things in the car, but we naturally put them in the trunk now (we were told that no bears in the Smokies had broken into a car by one camp host, but I’m not sure that’s true). It can be annoying—you finish dinner and just want to relax a bit, but it’s more important to clean up first. And they only have cold water to wash your dishes in, and you can’t wash your dishes at your campsite, you must wash them at the sink near the bathrooms. You also shouldn’t leave any food products or anything with a scent in your tent: for instance, no toiletries. Some places even say no water bottles in the tent and others say it doesn’t matter. It seems like there isn’t as much consistency as we’d like: some places have so many bear proof trash cans you are tripping over them, others make you walk a long way. Some places have bear proof boxes at the campground to store food, others only have one for people arriving without cars. Some places confiscate coolers that are left out, others seem to be fine with people leaving out greasy cookwear all day long!

So, camping isn’t easy, but it can be a lot of fun. Sometimes the work required to camp and cook outside is annoying, but mostly it’s just how we do it, and you just do the clean up and then finally get to relax by the fire for a bit.

I know I’m going on and on, but I want you to understand what all this is like! And to tell you why we do all this: not because the bears will hurt us, but because we will hurt the bears. If you feed bears, if you teach bears that people provide food, then they end up hanging out near people, and then they get hurt, either hit by cars, hurt by eating cans and things they shouldn’t, or killed because they start to think people are the source of food. It’s best if we leave them alone and don’t teach them otherwise.

So, when we pulled into the campground (before 7 pm) there was a note on the ranger station saying that those of us with reservations needed to check in the next morning from 8 to 9. Which I thought was odd, because it wasn’t very late yet—usually people are working later than that. The little general store was still open selling firewood, but we were too late to check in? We had a reservation in any case, so I wasn’t too concerned.

After setting up our tents, we made dinner over the campstove and made a campfire too. We always cook dinner on the stove and just have a fire to relax in front of. Louie loves the challenge of building a fire with as little wood as necessary.

It was great to see April and the three of us stayed up late talking and laughing and catching up!

The next morning we got up and tried to check in at the time we were told. The ranger station was STILL closed, so we decided to try again later. We were going to do a bit of sightseeing and some hiking. I’d found a loop road called the “Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail” (say that three times fast, or even once fast) and wanted to drive it and maybe do a short hike or two from the road. We finally were able to check in, and the ranger acted like we were delinquent for being so late to do so…okay…but then we headed towards Gatlinburg.

We stopped by the Sugarlands Vistor Center first and looked around a bit. I got a few brochures including the one for the Motor Nature Trail, which ended up being one of the best purchases ever. They also had an extensive collection of stuffed animals (taxidermy) which was pretty interesting to see, though I prefer my animals alive! I was surprised by how small the bobcat was (not too far off from a normal housecat) and it was interesting to see all the kinds of foxes and things. I didn’t take any pictures though—sometimes it takes a little time to get into vacation mode and picture taking mode, and then later I regret that I didn’t take more pictures! I don’t really purchase many souvenirs as I figure my photos are enough.

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You can read upside down, right? So sometimes the road seems to be called different things—I’d seen Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, but the brochure says Auto Tour, and then honestly, I forget what the signs said when we tried to find the road, but it wasn’t as easy as it could have been. We had to go out of the park and through Gatlinburg (whoa, that’s a tourist area!) and then ended up missing the first turn since it wasn’t marked the way anybody expected. (It turns out we needed to be looking for Cherokee Orchard Road…) In any case, we did find it eventually and then headed on. And I started reading from the brochure, and realized this wasn’t your typical brochure…

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Reads: “In the moments ahead, the forest will close in around you, spreading over the road and creating a mood of isolation—a serene detachment from the hurried pace of the highways. We invite you to stop often, get out, and smell the woods, feel the soft mosses and springy humus. Lean against the bark of a tree or sit on a rock along the way. Listen to the songs of birds and the humming of insects. “

That’s how you get the mood for vacation. I thought it would be an informative brochure telling me about what I was seeing and instead the whole thing covered how I should feel and the mood around our visit. It was amazing. We didn’t know what “humus” meant, but we tried to guess and kept talking about it for days.

In addition to the natural beauty of the Smokies, the other main feature of the park is the old houses of those that lived there before. When the park was founded, some people were allowed to stay on their property for their lifetimes, but some left earlier, and now some of the houses are being maintained and others not. I’m not sure where the choices are being made, but I’m sure there’s some reason for it.

We first pulled off and explored a little area at Ogle Place, right before the trail officially started. This was a sleeper hit—we didn’t realize there was a very lovely trail near a creek, and we were happy to have found it!

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Louie on a wooden bridge. These bridges would become a familiar and welcome sight! They are really a mainstay of the park.

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April and I on the same bridge.

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I love how lush and green everything is. Granted, it was very humid and damp all the time, but still…the beauty can’t be denied.

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It seems I underestimate how small people will be in my photographs.

After that walk (about 1 mile) we continued on the Trail, stopping along the way at various sites.

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This seems to be park of the burned area from the fires last fall. We didn’t explore it too far, though in retrospect (always these things are in retrospect, right?) I wish we had!

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The Haze—another stop on the trail as indicated on the guide. I highly recommend purchasing the guide pictured above. It’s one dollar the visitor’s center or at various stops along the way.

We got to Grotto Falls and wanted to hike to it, but the parking lot was jammed with cars! We ended up parking quite a ways down the road and had to walk back up to the trailhead (Trillium Gap Trail). We had some hummus (not to be confused with humus) and pita chips first for a snack, and then headed up the hill.

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The path was fairly crowded, but not too bad—we knew there would be crowds as there are at all Nat’l Parks but we didn’t find the Smokies to be overly crowded except at a few places here and there. Remember, no matter how many people are there at the Visitor’s Center, far less will be hiking more than 1/4 to 1/2 mile!

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We had our pictures taken by the Falls, but there aren’t any falls in these pictures, so that confuses me. It was a huge line for photos, and it felt more like Disneyworld or a Cruise than a hike. We decided to hike further for a bit, and it was quite difficult to fight through. After we passed the falls it really thinned out.

I should have brought my hiking sticks on this hike. I don’t know why I didn’t—I think with them I could have gone further. I also (I’m just going to admit this!) wasn’t as in as good of shape as in previous summers. I got so busy during the year and let things go, and then I started working out again but it was too late. I’m going to work harder this year to get back into better shape and be able to (hopefully!) enjoy hikes more! In any case, it was wonderful company and nice views even though going uphill was a real challenge. We probably went about 7 miles round trip! It did rain off and on which was annoying, but not a huge problem as we all had rain jackets.

After that, we continued along the trail, stopping to see various houses and landmarks. I was struck by how different various houses were built from one another: I suppose if I had to build a house it might not be very good, but my dad built an amazing dome house, so I’m glad I’m not in charge today. All the house we saw were better than what I would do, but some were better than others.

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After the tour, we went back to the campground and Louie and I decided to try out the camping shower!

Here’s what it looked like:

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It set up quickly, like one of those sun screens you can put on your front windshield! We had a bucket to put the water in, and then added some boiling water to heat it up a bit. The showerhead itself is battery operated and takes water from the bucket up a tube and out the shower head, and it worked surprisingly well. We had to be careful not to spill the water on the ground because of camp regulations, but we stood in a plastic catch basin and did pretty well. It was great to be clean, though I had a hard time washing my hair!

We made dinner and then roasted marshmallows for s’mores!

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Oh, and at one point, we noticed across the creek our neighbors suddenly had a tarp on fire! It was over their firepit, and I guess there was a surge! It was scary at first, but they acted fast and it seemed they quickly got the fire out and nobody was hurt, so we settled back down with a few beers in front of our fire. (Louie is a master of getting a somewhat wet fire going).

After we were relaxing a bit, the storm hit. It started pouring rain around 9:30/10 pm and then never really let up. It had been raining off and on all day, but nothing too bad, and then suddenly it just wouldn’t stop. We tried to hang on in the big tent, but then we realized the floor was wet and parts of the sleeping bag, and UGH, it was just wet. We gave up and all just went to sleep.

The rain continued through the night, with some big storms rolling through. THIS is when camping is pretty annoying and terrible, when the weather isn’t as good. When it’s pleasant and lovely outside, camping is amazing, but inclement weather is just that much harder. But we persevere…even though both Louie and I thought, if it keeps up raining we might give up.

We decided to take a short hike from near the campground called the Cucumber Gap Loop. We started on the Little River Trail to the Cucumber Gap Trail to Jake’s Trail, which would be about 5 miles all together.

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The first part of the trail was really pretty, along a river. There were ruins of old buildings—evidently this area used to be a private club where wealthy people from Knoxville would come out for the summer.

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Build your hearth out of stone and it will last a long time. Wood, not as much. Well, never build your hearth out of wood, actually. Bad idea.

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So many waterfalls in the Smokies!

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April touching what we hoped was springy humus.

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April’s first creek crossing over rocks. She couldn’t believe the trail made us cross on roads. Spoiler Alert: things got worse/harder further in the trip, but this was a fun crossing. I wonder if it was a little harder due to the heavy rains.

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This tree had lifted up the ground! But it just kept trying.

At the end up the hike we passed by more old buildings. And then there was a little area with some buildings that the park service was restoring which used to be part of the Elkmont Club. I find the history equally fascinating to the nature.

April needed to leave that afternoon, so after the hike we went back to the campground to eat lunch. It was sunny so Louie and I hung up all our wet things—if it hadn’t been a sunny afternoon I don’t know that we could have stayed there again, but we managed to get everything dried out over the afternoon! April left around 3, and then Louie and I decided to be a little lazy and just relax at the campground all afternoon. We took a little walk around the campground too, and decided I’d picked one of the best sites for sure! (B-11).

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It was fairly private, close enough to the bathrooms, by the river, and just very pretty.  I could have camped there a few nights longer, and I would return for sure. I read a book and Louie occupied himself, and we felt the stresses of our everyday lives slip away. Or something. At least, we were enjoying ourselves and happy to be out in nature.

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We didn’t stay up too late, because we were tired AND because the next day we had plans: to the Titanic Museum in Pigeon Forge and then to our next stop, Cataloochee Campground.

We woke up and packed up, and headed out. It would be about 30-45 minutes drive to Pigeon Forge, so we waved goodbye to Elkmont Campground, and said “see you soon” to the Park.

To be continued…

So close

I’m done teaching for over two weeks! This is the longest I’ve gone since Christmas Break, so I’m really pumped. Two more opera performances and then BOOM vacation time!

The bad news is the weather forecast doesn’t look fantastic. It might rain every day of the first week, at least. But I’m hopeful for scattered showers, and I do have a nice raincoat, and lots of tech fabric clothing to wear that dries. I’m not going to worry, as there’s absolutely nothing that can be done.

I am going to worry about the usual, fitting everything into the car, leaving the dog behind (not alone, obviously!), being out of touch and having people not be able to get ahold of me for a few days. But I think it’ll be a fun trip, less epic than the past two summers, and I’m thankful for that. We will explore, hike, camp, relax, and sightsee. We have tuna and beans and couscous packed (well in bags, among other excellent camping meals), sparkling water, hiking shoes and sticks, and of course a lot more. I’ve printed the itinerary already, so I’ve decided the advance planning is done, and now it’ll just be the doing and any in the moment decisions. My kindle is loaded with library books, and I’m ready!

6 more hours of work until then, not counting practice.

Oh, and we are going to try to do this hike again! Such fun!

Traveling People

It seems like the entire summer is one big vacation for most of my friends on facebook. And I’ll tell you: I love it. I love seeing the pictures! I also know that most of them aren’t actually spending the whole summer traveling, because I’m old enough to know that facebook isn’t real life. Though Louie and I start talking and we start dreaming about taking the summers off to travel…it IS possible. I’m teaching a few students this summer that are taking with me because their regular teachers are out of town or taking off for various reasons. This summer we haven’t traveled as much as previous times, and that’s okay. But I’m daydreaming about going to New England, to Glacier National Park and Banff, on a cruise, and to Japan. There are reasons for all of them, but I don’t think they will all fit into next summerSmile

Time hop is fun for this reason also. This is the time of year that I traditionally take vacation, and so I get to relive those memories.

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Isn’t Colorado the most beautiful? I always want to return there. Maybe I should seek out a summer festival after all…the older I get, the less I want to stay in one place. Then again, I’m torn, as a pet owner, because travel can be hard. Do I want more pets or do I want to be able to run away?

On a more home related side: I’ve been running 3 times a week and actually started running a little faster (shocker!) and feeling better about it. And I made these muffins and they are really quite delicious.

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I’ve been practicing every day too, teaching, and getting ready for my next trip. I’m looking forward to meeting up with April, my parents, hanging out with Louie more, doing some beautiful and challenging hikes, going to the Titanic Museum, the Biltmore House, and an electrobike tour, among other things, and of course, surprises and adventure I’m sure. (Please no bears. Please no bears!)

Off to get dog medicine and a hair cut. How’s your summer going?