Monday, December 9, 2019

Smoky Mountain National Park

The Mammoth Cave trip had been such a success we were excited about what the Smoky Mountain National Park had to offer. The drive went up through Pigeon Forge, TN and what I saw there concerned me. The main strip going through Pigeon Forge is lined with tourist traps. It reminded me of Branson or a attempt to be like Vegas. Traffic was very heavy and I couldn't believe people would drive from all over for a vacation to deal with more people. Gatlinburg had some of the same problems but it wasn't as bad as Pigeon Forge. What Gatlinburg has going for it is the proximity to the SMNP. The park is within walking distance and it's a great place if you have someone who hates the outdoors in your party and just wants to shop. 

My daughter had been hounding me for years to do a horseback riding trip. I had wanted to try it in Yellowstone but the prices were outrageous. The prices at the Sugarlands Riding Stables are reasonable and the people there did a great job with my family. Especially the kids.
The ride we did was a few miles but you felt like you were actually riding in the country and one section followed a creek as it gained elevation. 
The scenery was breathtaking and I couldn't think of a better way to start our trip. My daughter was on cloud nine.
The family experience was well worth the price. At the time we did this a family of 4 could do a hour and a half ride for around $200 that's including tip. 
The next day we decided to try a hike at Grotto Falls. What attracts people to this water fall is you can walk behind it. I had heard so much about the wildlife in the Smokies and the drive to the falls gave us our first taste. Right in the middle of the road was a turkey doing a mating dance around a female.
We kept our distance and just watched but other tourists weren't as respectful. Driving right up to the birds as they did their business. 

We had to park a little further than we intended because of the upper parking lot being closed. This actually helped us enjoy the hike more. I was worried the 2mile hike to the falls might be too much for the kids but I think they were distracted having their friends along.
The kids got a kick out of this log they could climb through.
The big highlight for me was running into this guy on the trail who was hiking with his alpacas.
Eventually we could start to make out the falls from the trail.
When you first see the falls it's hard to believe you can walk behind it.
As you get closer you can see it is fairly large and there's plenty of room to fit behind it.


We took our time exploring the park for the rest of the day. There's a nice rest area right off the Pigeon Forge river where I was able to fish a little. 
This area was great for wading and with the weather being so warm the kids took advantage of playing in the water.
The water was very clear, cold and refreshing from the 80+ temperatures we were experiencing. When we had our fill of playing in the river we made our way to Cades Cove.
There are old buildings you can visit in Cades Cove but the majority of it is seen by car. There's a road that circles around the area and has a speed limit of less that 25 if I remember correctly. The views are terrific and it's not uncommon to see bears and turkeys.
We were lucky enough to see both.
There's some interesting history in this area and it's worth stopping at the old settlements and reading about them. When you drive around SMNP you'll notice right away an abundance of waterfalls and wildlife.
It reminded me of a condensed version of Yellowstone. 
The fishing pressure wasn't that bad at least when we visited. There are so many places to fish I had water to myself quite often.
Many of the streams are filled with small trout similar to this rainbow trout.
The following next few days were spent hiking and exploring the area. Rainbow Falls is a popular tourist attraction.
The hike there is fairly easy and paved most of the way.
The falls are beautiful and well worth the hike. 

Similar to Yellowstone if you see a bunch of cars parked on the side of the road that usually signaled there was wildlife not far. What's great is you can slowly pass the onlookers and ask what they're looking at then decide if it's worth stopping. This one day there was a mother and cub and we decided to join the gawkers.
The bear was about 100yds from where we were standing and I had never seen a bear in the wild until this vacation. I was a little concerned we were too close and I was ready make my way back to the car if the bear came any closer. It didn't seem to mind our presence and as we watched it we kept over hearing people talk about a cub. Sure enough up a small bear cub scampered up a tree not far from the mother. 
It was neat to witness such a thing and it wasn't long until the cub climbed down and met back up with the mother. We later learned after watching awhile there were two cubs and I was lucky enough to snap this shot. 
Where ever we stopped there seemed to be waterfalls and wildlife I guess that's kind of what the Smokies are all about.
The best part was experiencing all this as a family.
Having another family along was huge to help with lulls. When the kids felt tired the other kids would help drag them forward. It really helped with the kids moods and overall moral.
The last day we checked out Clingmans Dome. The hike to the dome was kind of brutal. It's a paved trail but it's up a ridiculously steep grade. I'm not in great shape but I 'm not super out of shape either and I had stop to rest because my calves were killing me.
The drive up to the dome dropped the temperature over 10 degrees. We went from hot and sweaty to thinking we needed a sweatshirt. There was a brisk wind which made it feel even colder. 
The path up the dome was a marvel in itself.

The curve of the path as it raised in elevation was pretty neat.
The view back looking over the valley.
You can see both sides of the Smokies from the top of the dome. It was a great view but I'm sure on a clear day it's spectacular. 

If you haven't visited the Smoky Mountain National Park before I'd say it's a must visit. The crowds may seem bad going through Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge but once you're in the park it's easy to get away. There's plenty of places to fish, hike and see wildlife. It's not hard to find your own spot where you can relax and admire the scenery.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Mammoth Cave National Park

This year in the spring my friend talked me into doing a dual family vacation. The plan was to hit Mammoth Cave National Park and visit the Smokies on the way back to NC. The drive to Mammoth Cave NP is about 10hrs from Raleigh so the drive isn't horrible. We stayed in Cave City, KY which gets most of its business from tourists. The first thing the kids did was play in the parking lot to get out their pent up energy from sitting in a car all day.
 The next morning we hit the park. 
There are several hiking trails and places to visit around the park but to tour the caves you have to pay for a guided tour. The main cave entrance is a stair case that leads down to a large door that blocks the entrance of the cave.
The first thing you notice once the cave doors open is the air temperature. The temps in the cave stay near the same temperature year round. This cave system is one of the largest in the world. You can fit a football stadium in some of the larger space areas. 
The expanse of the cave is hard to grasp and the history is very interesting. People lived for many years in the cave and it was even a quarantine for tuberculosis patients at one time. When the caves became a tourist attraction slaves led most of the tours. Most of the cave is natural but there is plenty of evidence of settlements and mining activity. 
Several places have graffiti written by tourists going back as far as the early 1800's. There's several tours you can choose from and they range in times and distances. We did 3 and my favorite was probably the lantern tour. You walk behind a guide with the only light being a gas lantern you hold. 

It gave you a sense of what it must of been like to be an explorer. It's hard to believe people first explored these caves with candle lit lanterns. During all the tours the guides will turn off all the lights just so you can see how dark it is. Supposedly the other place you can see total darkness like this is in the deep ocean. You literally can not see your hand in front of your face.
The features in the caves are incredible and the engineering to weave paths around the caves was impressive. In one tour you have to squat, squeeze and maneuver your wave through several areas. 
The kids loved it and felt like they were having a real adventure.
Water dripped down along the walls in several areas creating amazing stalactites.
I was annoyed at first that the only way to see the caves was having to pay for a tour. I quickly changed my mind after brief moments in the cave. Paths lead in all directions and you can easily see how someone could get lost. A cave can get dangerous quickly especially if you have no light to guide your way.
Another value of the tour guides was their knowledge of the caves and stories they'd tell. All of the guides were entertaining and seemed to have a genuine love with the caves. They also did their best to me make sure everyone was safe and having a good time.
Because of the artificial light it was difficult to get great pictures. It's a very humid environment and with the water dripping I had to take extra care to not get my camera wet. There were some features I couldn't resist taking pictures of.
It's worth mentioning these caves their own wildlife. There's blind crawdads and fish, salamanders and insects that only live in these caves. We were lucky enough to see a couple bats but unfortunately they are suffering from a fungus that is killing them off. The caves have a special walkway you walk across at the end. The walkway is filled with a substance that kills any fungus spores that might be on your shoes to prevent spreading it to another cave

This park truly is amazing and I don't know how I had never heard of it before. Perhaps I had but living on the west coast when I was young I figured I'd never get to it. I'm not sure when we'll be able to visit this park again but it's something everyone should see at least once. 

Monday, November 25, 2019

Fun at the Farmhouse

For a family get away this fall we booked a stay at a farmhouse in the NC mountains. It wasn't far from my favorite creek to fish and hiking spot. While we were unloading our stuff at the farmhouse we were welcomed right away by this kitty.
My kids spent a good majority of this trip trying to let the cat come in the house with us and asking if we could keep it. The cat was a sweetheart but I tried to explain that cat was going to be more happy on the property than at our house. The cat did its best to try to change my mind.
The farm was previously a working dairy farm converted into a rental property. The owners still run cattle on the property. The scenery was amazing and the house we stayed in was very comfortable.
There were donkeys and a horse you could pet and feed treats to. 
This miniature donkey was cute but it could be really ornery and every once in awhile it would try to nip you.
We spent the majority of our time hiking at Grayson Highlands.
This is a great place for kids. The hiking trails meet up with the Appalachian Trail. There's plenty of places to climb rocks and if you're lucky you'll see wild horses.
The trees were still showing some of their fall color but I think we were late to see their true splendor.
The wild horses here are smaller than your average horse. most people call them ponies and some of them have hair that has a shaggy look to it.
They aren't afraid of people but you're discouraged to try to pet or feed them. They are really wild animals. 
My kids love climbing rocks here.
There's plenty to mess around on most aren't that dangerous to climb. There's some that have a easy trail that leads to the top of one side.
The views were pretty even with the clouds.
It's not uncommon to see Appalachian Trail hikers lumbering 50lb packs looking exhausted. The elevation difference can be a little extreme in places.
This is a great place to get 3-5 hiking miles in and not feel spent. The weather was perfect and a nice breeze kept us from getting over heated.
It's always neat to see the horses and I like seeing the variety of their coats.
If you're ever near Grayson Highlands it's worth checking out. You can camp here and there are some decent sized towns that aren't far. There's West Jefferson on the NC side and it's not far from the 81 in VA.