Review of Nathan Trail Mix 7 Liter Women’s Race Pack

For years I ran with a Nathan hydration waist belt and was pretty happy with it. I say that, but it was honestly more like a love/hate relationship. I loved having my favorite Nuun on my long runs plus a small area for my phone and Honey Stinger chews but I hated having to constantly push the belt down when it inevitably slid up my hips, further and further up my waist.

Finally, last October I took the plunge and bought a running vest, namely the Nathan Trail Mix 7 Liter Women’s Race Pack. From here on, I’m going to call it a running vest even though Nathan calls it a race pack. I had seen running vests primarily on marathoners and trail runners but also half marathoners and debated for a couple of years whether to buy one. Why the delay in buying one? Well, running vests are considerably pricier than running belts, about twice the price. Still, I thought since I could also take my vest hiking it would be dual-purpose and well worth it (plus no more struggling with it during runs).

I ran my fastest 5k ever wearing my Nathan running vest!

After looking at several other companies’ running vests online last fall, I thought I’d go to REI to try one on and see which I liked the best. I tried on an Osprey, Salomon, and this one by Nathan. I just liked how it fit better than the others plus it didn’t seem like more than I needed. The Trail Mix 7 Liter comes with a 2 liter hydration bladder, weighs just 7 ounces without the bladder and 11 ounces with it (empty of course). It’s also specifically designed for women, has multiple adjustable straps, three pockets in the front, and three zippered pockets in the back.

Another reason I bought my running vest at REI is their generous return policy. You can return anything within a year of purchase. I wasn’t sure how breathable and comfortable the vest would be for summer runs, so I wanted to make sure I had plenty of time to test the vest out, including for hot, humid runs.

So how did it hold up for those hot runs? Great! I thought for sure I’d have a hot, sweaty back and would be too uncomfortable to wear the vest during the summer months (which, let’s be honest, the heat kicks in during the spring here and doesn’t cool down that much until mid-October) but never once was it an issue. I also took my vest hiking every chance I had, including Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park- Redux. The 2 liter hydration bladder is the perfect amount for me, and believe me, I drink a ton of water when I’m hiking.

When I go out for a long run, I don’t run with the hydration bladder, but I do run with a 500 mL flask in one front pocket, a 10 ounce flask in another front pocket (each has Nuun Endurance), and Honey Stinger chews in the third front pocket. In the back pockets, I have my phone and some emergency supplies should I ever need them (things like Bandaids, tissues, a mask during COVID, migraine pills, and things like that). There’s plenty of room in the back pockets, even with the full bladder. When I’m hiking and have the bladder (it’s full of only water), that goes in one back pocket and my emergency supplies go in the other back pockets.

So far you may have noticed there are only pros mentioned here. The only con I have is the adjustable straps don’t always stay put on long runs. Occasionally I have to grab them (usually both come loose at the same time) and tighten them again. This only takes a second, though, and is really a minor point. There’s probably a way to hook them to something once you tighten them, but I haven’t researched that because it’s such a minor thing.

The Nathan Trail Mix 7 Liter Women’s Race Pack comes in the pink color I have and a blue color that was out of stock when I bought mine. I just checked Nathan’s website and the blue is currently out of stock. They only have the men’s version on the REI site. That’s perhaps also a con I have about this vest: there apparently aren’t enough blue vests that they’re consistently out of stock. If anyone from Nathan (or even a competitor brand of running vests) just happens to be reading this, make more colors of running vests for women. Not all women exclusively like pink and purple.

Do any of you run with a hydration vest? Are you on the fence about buying one?

Happy running!

Donna

My Top Five TV Shows of All Time

Even though my blog is typically about either something running-related or something travel-related, hence the name, I’m going rogue for this post (thanks, COVID!). Although I’m still running, I’m not racing and haven’t been able to run what was supposed to be my final three half marathons this year to finish my quest to run a half marathon in all 50 states (Iowa, New Mexico, and Minnesota are the ones left, if you don’t know or didn’t see my map). I’m also not traveling much this year and have had to cancel all of my spring, summer, and fall travel plans although I did have a couple of plan b vacations.

So, I’m stealing this idea from a podcast I listened to on a run recently, which you can find here: https://www.bibrave.com/podcast, episode 215, “The Best TV Show Characters of All Time.” I am going to put my own spin on the idea, however, and talk about TV shows in general, not limited to just show characters. I will also say that these are shows that while they’re no longer airing new shows, there aren’t any from my childhood, so I didn’t go back too far. You know the shows that you look(ed) forward to watching each week, eagerly anticipating what was going to happen? That’s what these shows were to me. Many of them I re-watched over and over again.

I’m not going to rank my top five TV shows because that would be way too hard. It was hard enough to limit it to five but I didn’t want to go crazy and five seemed like a good number. I’ll give some brief background about each TV show for those of you who have never seen the show. I’m also going to talk about some of my favorite moments from the shows and some of my favorite characters. Here goes!

House of Cards

This show is one that honestly surprised me that I loved as much as I did because I almost never like politically-based shows. House of Cards starred Kevin Spacey as Congressman Frank Underwood and Robin Wright as his wife Claire Underwood and was set in Washington, D.C. It aired from 2013 to 2018 on Netflix. The lengths that Frank and Claire would go to to secure the Underwoods’ spot in the White House was astounding. Every week I would just watch in disbelief as I watched some horrific acts being done by the Underwoods and would anxiously wait to see what else the writers of the show would come up with. I will say this show has some dark scenes and may not be for everyone.

My favorite character on the show was Claire Underwood because she was able to gradually reveal just how ambitious she really was. How she ended up where she was by the end of the show was truly incredible and while it may have seemed a bit too unbelievable, it was entirely possible. I loved how they often showed flashbacks of Claire’s childhood and young adulthood to reveal aspects of her character and how she got to where she was in life. The brutal killing of journalist Zoe Barnes was one of the more memorable moments for me, although I can’t say it’s my favorite. I won’t give away how she dies for anyone who hasn’t seen the show but would like to watch it.

Sex and the City

Sex and the City was based on a book of the same name by Candace Bushnell, which I devoured. Luckily for me when Sex and the City aired, beginning in 1998 and going into early 2004, I actually had the premium TV channel HBO (normally I’ve never paid for premium TV channels but it was included in a package I had at the time). Sex and the City was set and filmed in New York City and starred Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie Bradshaw, Kim Cattrell as Samantha Jones, Kristin Davis as Charlotte York, and Cynthia Nixon as Miranda Hobbes. While these four women were best friends, they had very different personalities, which just added to the draw of the show. The show focused on friendship, dating, and of course sex, in a way that was at times funny, shocking, and enlightening.

It’s hard to say which character was my favorite. Carrie Bradshaw was the main character and was kind of set up to be the favorite in many ways, but I found myself intrigued by Samantha Jones. Samantha was the extreme character of the show, who would say and do things that were edgy and pushed the envelope of what’s “normal” or “acceptable” for a woman in her 40’s. More often than not, I found myself rooting for Samantha, all the while astounded by some of the things she would say or do. The quintessential Sex and the City moment was when Carrie tripped and fell on the fashion runway. Instead of running away in tears, she got right back up and continued her walk, holding her head up high.

The X-Files

The X-Files is a science fiction drama that ran on Fox network from 1993 to 2002 and starred FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) whose job was to investigate unsolved cases involving paranormal phenomena. The two characters provided the perfect yin-yang since Mulder was portrayed as the alien-chaser, often obsessive in his quest to prove the government conspiracy to hide the truth and Scully was the skeptical, more sensible medical doctor just out to seek the truth, whatever that may be. Over the years, different plots were revealed, and I found myself curious as to where the show would go with the storyline. Although I’ve never been one to believe in government conspiracies, I found myself intrigued by the ideas on the show.

I was definitely drawn to the character Dana Scully and how her beliefs evolved over the years. By the end of the show, she had become a reluctant believer at least in some paranormal activities, though not nearly to the extreme as Mulder. She attempted to explain the paranormal using science and showed it was possible to believe in both. I liked how she was usually able to rein in Mulder and although she never came close to changing his mind when it came to aliens and the paranormal in general, she could at least get him to see the science behind it. One of the most memorable episodes for me is called “Home” and is about an inbred family of killers. Even though that was in season 4, I still remember that show in grisly detail.

Seinfeld

So far I feel like my choices have been TV shows that cover some shocking and/or controversial material. Seinfeld may have occasionally covered some controversial material, but it was first and foremost a sitcom. Created by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, the show aired from 1989 to 1998 and was set in New York City. Although it was often described as a “show about nothing,” the characters made the show one of the most widely loved and influential TV shows of all time. The show starred Jerry Seinfeld as a fictionalized version of himself, Jason Alexander as George Costanza, Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Elaine Benes, and Michael Richards as Cosmo Kramer. Seinfeld was one of those shows that made you laugh at the characters but also relate to some of the often crazy things they would say or do.

I’m not sure I could choose just one character as my favorite. They each had an important part in the show and had so many moments that stand out to me. I remember Elaine’s bad dance moves, wiping her butt on her co-worker’s keyboard, eating olives straight from the jar with her fingers at Jerry’s apartment, and her many bad dating moments. I remember the time Kramer had an elite runner staying at his apartment the night before the NYC marathon and how badly that went, a group of Japanese business men staying with Kramer and sleeping in drawers in a bedroom dresser, and all of the times he barreled into Jerry’s apartment door. Then there’s the time George killed his fiance by buying cheap wedding invitations, when he was going to eat an eclair out of the trash at his girlfriend’s parent’s house and was caught, and the many crazy things that happened when he was at work with the New York Yankees. Jerry has the “puffy shirt” moment, dating the woman called “man hands,” and the “Junior mint” episode with Jerry and Kramer accidentally dropping a piece of candy onto a surgical patient below them.

Breaking Bad

OK, back to the shocking and/or controversial TV shows because this one has it all- drugs, violence, crime, lies, and deception throughout all five seasons. Breaking Bad was created by Vince Gilligan (who wrote for many years for the X-Files) aired from 2008 to 2013 and starred Bryan Cranston as Walter White and Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman. Set and filmed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Breaking Bad begins with White, an underpaid high school chemistry teacher, being diagnosed with stage three lung cancer. Desperate for money and thinking he’s going to die soon anyway, White starts making crystal methamphetamine with his former student Pinkman. As you can imagine if you haven’t seen the show, Jesse and Walter get themselves into some harrowing situations but between Walter’s intelligence and Jesse’s resourcefulness they end up living to tell the tale, even if they end up being beaten to near-death upon more than one occasion.

I didn’t like any of the female characters in the show. Not a single one. I think my favorite character was Jesse Pinkman because his storyline was one of the best outside of Walter White’s. What drew me to Jesse was how the writers carefully and slowly over time showed just how complicated his character was. One of the more memorable moments in the show was from the first season when Jesse was told by Walter to get a specific kind of plastic tub to dissolve a body in hydrofluoric acid. Instead, Jesse put the body in his own porcelain tub. The crazy thing is hydrofluoric acid will dissolve porcelain but not the kind of plastic Walt had asked for, so the tub with the dead body and all of the bloody gore fell through the wood floor in a shocking, dramatic way. The final show from the last season was hard to top, though, as Walter went out in a blaze of glory like none other.

What about you? What are some of your all-time favorite TV shows? Did you watch any of these shows?

Happy not-running or traveling!

Donna

I Ran My Fastest 5k, but Does It Even Count?

We’ve all heard the saying, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” I thought about this when I recently ran my fastest 5k but it was a virtual race. Normally I haven’t been into virtual races but I chose to run this one because I saw there was going to be swag bags to the first 350 registrants, a virtual leaderboard, and virtual awards at the conclusion. Competitive? Me? Perhaps.

That brings me back to my thoughts about my “race” time. Both Garmin and Strava show my time for the 3.1 (actually 3.11) miles that I ran, but because I live in North Carolina where our COVID numbers aren’t that great compared to other states and we still aren’t allowed to have in-person races yet, this was a run, not a race. Or was it?

What defines a race? Swag? Check. An official course? Nope. Chip-timed? Nope. Other people running at the same time you are? Sort of; they weren’t running with me, but there were plenty of other people running, walking, and biking on the same greenway where I ran that morning. A leaderboard with results? Check. Awards? Check. A specific day and time that the race starts and ends? Not even close since people have the whole month of September to run 3.1 miles and record their times.

Even though a lot of boxes are checked, I’m not sure I would call this a race for one simple reason: there were no other runners with the sole intention of running 3.1 miles on the same exact course that I was running that day and time. To me, it was still just a run.

Catching my breath after I finished my 5k/3.11 run

It’s a shame really that I can’t claim this 5k as my fastest 5k ever, despite the fact that my watch claimed it was my fastest 5k when I saved the run. It does make me want to go out and run an official 5k just so it’s “official.” Well, kinda. To be honest, running this 5k was HARD. I had to mentally push from about 1.5 miles until I finally reached 3.1 miles. By the end I had a side stitch as well, which I never get. I’m not sure I want to suffer like that again.

Then again, who knows? Maybe once races start back again I will sign up for an official 5k just to prove to myself I can do it again, on an official course that’s chip-timed, with other people on the same course as me, starting at the same time as me. Even if I don’t finish quite as fast as I did for this virtual 5k or run or whatever you want to call it, I will know it “counts.”

How do you stand on virtual races? Love them/hate them/indifferent? Have you gotten any PR’s during virtual races you’ve done?

Happy running!

Donna

Planning to Visit Greece? Consider Going to Crete for Beautiful Beaches, Incredible Hiking, and Less Crowds

Many people choose to visit Greece via cruise ship, stopping at the popular islands of Santorini and Mykonos along the way. Often cruise ships leave from Athens or also commonly from Rome or Venice in Italy, although there are a multitude of cruise options in this area. I understand the draw; it’s much easier to let someone else choose the itinerary and take care of everything along the way.

I often travel differently than most people, however, so it’s fitting that when I went to Greece, I chose to spend the majority of my time on the island of Crete. It was considerably cheaper to fly into Athens instead of Crete, so I spent a few days in Athens and saw the major sites there. Although I liked Athens, I didn’t really love it, as you can read here: I’m Sorry but I Just Didn’t Love Athens.

Transportation

Options for traveling from Athens to Crete are by ferry, which take from 7.5 to 11 hours, or to fly, which takes a mere hour flight time. This was a no-brainer for me, so I flew and arrived in Chania on the northwest coast, where my hotel was. You can also fly into Heraklion, further east on the island. Although I wouldn’t recommend having a rental car in Athens, it’s necessary if you want to explore Crete on your own. Drivers in Greece are aggressive and some of the roads in the remote villages are not in the best condition so there are those factors to consider, but if you can manage to stay on the major highways at least the majority of the time, you should be fine.

Hiking

If you’re staying in the Chania area, just south of here is the White Mountains Protected Forest (Lefka Ori), a great place to hike. This is where you can find Samaria Gorge and Agia Irini Gorge. Both Gorges are easy to do on your own; just pay a small entrance fee and you’re off! The paths are well-marked and well-maintained. Just be sure to bring your own water, snacks, sunscreen, and sturdy shoes.

White Mountains Protected Forest

For views of Crete’s highest mountain, Mount Ida, drive east from Chania to Kouloukonos. There’s a cave and a rocky path to the summit with great views of the area. Very close-by is Ideon Andron, also called  Psychro Cave/Diktean Cave, a limestone cavern said to be the birthplace of Zeus.

Inside Diktean Cave

On the far eastern tip of Crete you’ll find Richtis Gorge near the tiny village of Exo Mouliana. As you can imagine, this area isn’t frequented nearly as much as the gorges on the western area of Crete, so it’s a great place to go if you want to get away from other people. There’s also a stream and a waterfall here, so bring your swimsuit if you want to get in the water.

Beaches

Another reason to stay in the Chania area is for the beaches, since many of the best beaches are here. In fact, one of the top-rated beaches on all of Greece is in Chania, Elafonissi Beach. This beach has crystal-clear water and soft white sand. The part with sunbeds and umbrellas gets extremely crowded so either come early or late in the day to minimize crowds or find a quiet spot on your own. Balos, Falassarna, Sougia, Glyka Nera, Krios, Marathi, and Loutraki Beaches are all in the Chania region and are all consistently ranked high as far as beautiful beaches in Crete.

Elafonissi Beach

Heraklion and Rethimno also have some beautiful beaches including Preveli, Plakias, and Rodakino Beaches (in Rethimno) and Matala and Tymbaki Beaches (in Heraklion). These beaches tend to have coarser sand than the beaches in Chania but they are still great options. Prevali Beach is actually where a river flows into the sea, forming a lake next to the sea, so it’s unique in that sense.

Historical Sites

There are four major historical sites in Crete:

Gortyn- site of the Gortyn Code, the oldest and most complete known example of a code of ancient Greek law.

Hagia Triada Royal Villa- Minoan settlement on the western edge of the same ridge as Phaistos. Not as substantial as Minoan palaces.

Knossos- controversial site due to the “reconstruction” by Sir Arthur Evans but nonetheless a significant Minoan historical site thought to have once been the center of political and ceremonial events of the time.

Phaistos- an important center of Minoan civilisation, once the wealthiest and most powerful city in southern Crete.

To avoid ticket lines, you can buy your tickets for archaeological sites, museums, and monuments in Greece in advance through the Archaeological Resources Fund e-Ticketing System found here: https://etickets.tap.gr/.

The Heraklion Archaeological Museum, located in the center of Heraklion city, is one of the top museums in Greece and in Europe as well, sits on the site of a Venetian Franciscan monastery destroyed by an earthquake in 1856. Here you can find Minoan artifacts from all over Crete.

Also worth checking out, especially if you’re staying in Chania is the Archaeological Museum of Chania. This museum in a former Venetian Franciscan monastery houses a wide collection of Neolithic and Minoan artifacts as well as treasures of the late Roman periods. 

Minoan Palace of Knossos

Crete is a big island and it would be impossible to see and do everything in just a few days or even a week but it is possible to see many of the highlights I mentioned here in a full week. If you have 10 days to two weeks to spend, that would definitely give you more time to fully explore the island and all it has to offer.

Lastly, I would like to say how friendly and kind I found the people in Crete. One morning we drove to what we thought was an open restaurant for breakfast, only to quickly figure out the restaurant was not open yet. My Greek is pretty much limited to knowing the letters of the alphabet and it was clear the restaurant owner did not speak much English, but between us, it was conveyed that our family would like some breakfast.

An older woman quickly went back to what I can assume was the kitchen and whipped up a tasty Greek breakfast for us, and the man and woman both had huge smiles on their faces the entire time. When the bill came it was reasonable and fair. It seemed clear we were their guests and they were happy to have us, even if it was before the restaurant was supposed to be open.

Have you ever been to Crete? If so, what did you do there? Do you have plans to go to Crete someday?

Happy travels!

Donna

Five Lessons in Life I Learned Through Running

As I wrote in my very first blog post, Why I Run, I feel like I’ve always been a runner. I ran for the sheer joy of running when I was a kid and other than taking a few years off during college prompted by severe shin splints, I’ve been a runner pretty much as soon as I could run. Even though I was on my grade school track team (does that even count?), I was never on my high school cross country or track team nor was I part of any running teams in college. In other words, other than my grade school track coach I never had a running coach so everything I’ve learned about running I learned on my own.

Being a runner for so many years has also taught me how to interact with people and be a better person myself. I’ve learned many life lessons through running and I’d like to share some of them here. For each one I tried to give an example that relates to running and then give an example that relates to life in general.

  1. Treat others with kindness and respect.
    • As a runner, I probably tend to notice stories about runners treating each other with kindness and respect more than a non-runner might but I feel like there have been so many examples of stories showing the kindness of runners toward each other.
    • One example is when high school track star Meghan Vogel was at the Ohio state meet in 2012. Vogel was competing in the 3200 meter race, where fellow competitor Arden McMath dropped to the ground a few meters short of the finish line. Vogel ran to McMath’s side where she guided her to the finish line, allowing McMath to finish ahead of herself.
    • This one should be obvious how it applies to life outside running and I’m not saying people that don’t run aren’t kind and respectful of others, it’s just that I tend to notice it more in runners probably because of the bond that runners have with one another.
  2. Food is fuel for your body. 
    • You quickly have to figure this one out when you start running. If you don’t have the proper amounts and types of food and hydration, your runs will be short-lived and you’ll crash and burn.
    • Famous runners have recently cashed in on this by publishing cookbooks specifically aimed at runners. Some of the more popular ones include “Run Fast, Eat Slow” by Shalane Flanagan and  Elyse Kopecky, “Racing Weight Cookbook” by Matt Fitzgerald, “The Athlete’s Palate” by Yishane Lee, and “Eat and Run” by Scott Jurek.
    • Likewise in life outside of running, food should be treated as nourishment for your body. If you fill it with junk, eventually it will catch up to you in the form of obesity, diabetes, or other health problems. That’s not to say you should always deny yourself the occasional special treat, just remember if you have it every day, it’s no longer a special treat but a part of your normal diet.
  3. Listen to your body.
    • Aches and pains can become worse over time if you ignore the early warning signs. Most of us learn it’s better to take a few days off until you feel better rather than pushing through the pain, only to injure yourself worse and having to take months off running.
    •  This one can be tough for runners to learn, but once you learn to do this, it’s key to a long running relationship.
    • Likewise in life outside running, if you feel a nagging pain in your back or other part of your body, the longer you ignore it, the longer it will take to go away, and in fact may not just go away on its own.
  4. Getting enough quality sleep is crucial.
    • Sleep is the single most important element when it comes to running. If you haven’t slept well or only got a few hours sleep the night before trying to tackle a race or a long run that will only make it harder for optimal performance.
    • Not getting enough sleep or not sleeping well night after night wreaks havoc on your immune system, hormonal system, and even makes it harder to maintain an ideal weight.
  5. Having “Me Time” is important for your health.
    • Mothers often struggle with this one. You’re busy taking care of your family and it’s often tough to squeeze in a 30-minute run, especially if you also work full-time outside the home. Not only is this important for your physical health, having time to yourself to go for a run is also important for your mental health. Find a way to make this work for your situation, whether it’s working it out with your partner, taking turns watching a fellow runner’s kids, or calling a babysitter. You should never feel guilty for taking time for yourself.
    • Even if you don’t run, it’s important to take time for yourself, whether it’s taking a relaxing bath, going for a walk, calling a friend, or just sitting down to enjoy a steaming cup of hot chocolate by yourself.
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Stopping to smell the irises on a run!

What about you fellow runners? What are some life lessons you’ve learned through being a runner?

Happy running!

Donna

Fun in the Sun in the Outer Banks, North Carolina

I’ve been to the Outer Banks of North Carolina many times. My first time was with my mother and brother when my brother and I were both teenagers. Since then I’ve been all up and down the Outer Banks, which stretches from Corolla in the northern tip, down to Kill Devil Hills/Kitty Hawk/Nags Head in the middle, and Hatteras and Ocracoke in the southern portion. At one point or another in my life, I’ve been to every portion of this series of barrier islands.

This summer I had a trip planned to Kitty Hawk after winning a story contest with the prize being two free nights at a hotel on the beach in Kitty Hawk. Even with the pandemic in full force in North Carolina, we were able to have a great time and relax a bit. Everyone we saw in public was wearing a mask, there was hand sanitizer everywhere we went such as at our hotel, shops, and restaurants, and the beaches are wide and long enough it was easy to socially distance from other people.

Like I said, this wasn’t my first time to the area but it was my daughter’s first time to this particular part of the Outer Banks. I wanted her to see the Wright Brothers Memorial and Jockey’s Ridge State Park in particular. I also wanted to take her to some of the locally owned restaurants and little beach shops. Most of all, I wanted to allow her to have a nice, quiet, relaxing weekend and have some fun before all of the stress of high school started.

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My daughter’s first time in the Outer Banks (l) and 2020 Outer Banks vacation (r)

Jockey’s Ridge State Park

Jockey’s Ridge State Park is a fun place to spend an hour or two, more if you want to try hang gliding. It’s the tallest living sand dune on the Atlantic Coast and covers 426 acres. You can go sand boarding, fly a kite, watch the sunset, go hang gliding, or just walk along the dunes. There are three very short trails, one of which has brochures at the trailhead. Most people just wander around and end up watching the people trying their hand at hang gliding with Kitty Hawk Kites, the only company that offers hang gliding lessons on the dunes.

Every time when I’ve been to Jockey’s Ridge State Park, I’ve just walked around taking in the views. It’s always been quiet and serene and the dunes are large enough that even if there are several other people there, it can feel like there’s hardly anyone else but you. The dunes seem like they go on forever but it is fairly easy to reach the point where you see the end where they meet the ocean. You can get great views of the surrounding area from this vantage.

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Jockey’s Ridge State Park

Wright Brothers National Memorial

The Wright Brothers National Memorial is impressive whether it’s your first or fifth visit. If you’re not familiar with the history behind the memorial, Wilbur and Orville Wright forever changed the world with the first successful powered airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903. The two brothers lived in Ohio but chose this area of North Carolina to test out some theories about flight they had beginning in 1900.

This is another place in the Outer Banks where you can spend an hour or two just walking around. For some reason, the memorial seemed even bigger to me this visit. There is a great visitor center that serves as a museum that’s full of historical information and photos but it was closed due to the pandemic. You can check out the First Flight Boulder and the Flight Line with boulders that mark the first flights on December 17, 1903. It’s funny to see the first three boulders clustered together and then the fourth boulder noticeably further from the previous boulders. I can imagine the Wright brothers’ excitement when they were able to fly to that fourth boulder.

There is also an area with reconstructed 1903 Camp Buildings where the Wright brothers lived and worked during the summers of the three years they spent there. After their successful flights in 1903, they returned in subsequent years but abandoned the camp site in 1911. Now you can see a reconstructed hangar and living quarters of the brothers. While I was checking it out, a park ranger pointed to the bunks at the top part of the living quarter and said the brothers were so excited when they figured out how much more comfortable it was to sleep in the top part of the wood cabin than on the ground. I didn’t think to ask why until later so I’m not sure if it was simply a softer place to sleep or an escape from the inevitable ants and other bugs on the ground.

As always, the National Park Services website for the Wright Brothers National Memorial is full of information for planning a visit or if you’re just interested in the history, which you can find the link for here.

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What about the beaches?

If you do a  Google search to ask what are the best beaches in the Outer Banks, it’s likely Kitty Hawk will come up as one of the best. Honestly, I don’t see much of a difference in the beaches whether you’re in Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, or Nags Head. The sand is consistently the same golden color and the beaches are wide and long in all three areas. There are some pretty decent waves, though nothing like you see in the Pacific Ocean. Nags Head does have Jennette’s Pier, the longest public pier in North Carolina, which sets it apart from the other nearby beaches.

Since the Outer Banks consists of more than just Kitty Hawk, Kill Devil Hills, and Nags Head, I should also mention a few of the other beaches in the Outer Banks. From Rodanthe southward including Avon, Hatteras, and Ocracoke there are unincorporated communities and villages most with only a few hundred residents. This area is quiet and not full of chain restaurants or hotels so if you like to really get away from it all, this is a great area for that. Just north of Kitty Hawk, you’ll come to Southern Shores, Duck, and much further north is Corolla, where the wild horses are.

My daughter’s first trip to the beach was to Duck, North Carolina, as shown in the first photo above. Duck is known to be one of the most dog-friendly beaches in the Outer Banks, but that wasn’t why we chose that area. Honestly, a co-worker of mine had a condo there and was renting it out at a good price so we decided to check out that area since we hadn’t been that far north. It seems to be a bit more expensive than Nags Head and the surrounding cities and caters more to the upper middle-class and upper class. However, the beaches are pretty much like what you see as you go south along the Outer Banks, just quieter.

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A word about the food

The Outer Banks is full of seafood restaurants, as you can imagine, some are over-the-top cheesy and touristy, like Dirty Dick’s Crab House (a chain restaurant), plus plenty of chain restaurants specializing in fried seafood, but there are also plenty of locally-owned BBQ restaurants like High Cotton and Pigman’s. We stumbled upon a wonderful small Italian restaurant, Josephine’s Sicilian Kitchen after an Asian fusion restaurant we had plans to eat at turned out to be closed, even though their website said they were open (no doubt COVID-related). So you see you can find much more than just seafood restaurants if you do just a little looking around (not that I don’t enjoy seafood, it’s just good to have options).

We also discovered the closest thing we’ve been able to find to true Hawaiian shave ice at Booty Treats Ice Cream and Shave Ice. I had a coconut shave ice with cookie dough melt-in ice cream sprinkled on top and my daughter had banana shave ice with chocolate melt-ins and we both loved our choices. Another of our favorite ice cream shops is Kill Devil’s Frozen Custard and Beach Fries. I had been here before a long time ago and it was still as good as I remembered. They have a huge selection of sundaes, malts, floats, milkshakes, hurricanes, but also have some pretty good sandwiches and are well-known for their fries so come with a big appetite!

Accomodations and Day Trips

There are plenty of options of where to stay, depending on if you’re coming by yourself, with a friend, family, or group of friends or family. You can find by far the biggest selection of places to stay in the middle part of the Outer Banks- Nags Head, Kill Devil Hills, and Kitty Hawk. This goes for hotels, Airbnb properties, and house rentals. Likewise, you can find the biggest range in prices of accommodations in the middle part. Because there are fewer options in the northern and southern sections, the prices tend to be higher in general.

There’s not much reason to get too hung-up on where you choose to stay because you can also easily drive from the southern portion of the Outer Banks to the northern portion in a day. Say you decided to drive from the Hatteras Lighthouse to Corolla to check out the wild ponies. It would take about 2 hours each way, notwithstanding traffic along the way. Still, that would be a pretty fun way to spend a day. Another option is to drive to Roanoke Island, which has historical sites and the North Carolina Aquarium. Say you were staying in Duck and drove to Roanoke Island for the day, that’s only a 45 minute drive each way. The point is, if you’re going to be in the Outer Banks for at least a few days, it’s easy to check out more than just the city you’re staying in, and there’s so much to see in this area, I encourage you to do so.

Have you been to the Outer Banks? If so, where did you go and what did you do? Is this a place you’ve wanted to visit but haven’t made it there yet?

Happy travels!

Donna

 

 

 





Confessions of a Mother Runner

I have one child, a fourteen-year-old daughter who loves to hear the story about how she “ran” her first half marathon while in my tummy when I was pregnant. I had been running half marathons and other distances well before I was pregnant so when I told my ob/gyn doctor that I wanted to run a half marathon in my first trimester, she just said for me to take it easy and not push too hard. I had an uncomplicated pregnancy and not only ran that half marathon, I was able to continue to run until I was about 8 months pregnant, at which point the pressure on my bladder was too much so I switched to the elliptical trainer.

Once I got the green light to run again after my delivery, I noticed some changes in my body that had happened during pregnancy. I developed iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS), which is a common running injury, apparently because my ligaments had gotten looser when I was pregnant and we runners want relatively tight ligaments to hold everything in place. Despite the pain from ITBS and not really being able to run more than a few miles without excruciating pain in the side of my knee, I ran a half marathon in Ohio, my first postpartum race, when my daughter was almost 7 months old.

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The half marathon in Arizona when I was pregnant

I had a jogging stroller that I used to run with my daughter as soon as she was able to sit and hold her head up on her own. If you’ve never pushed a child in a jogging stroller, let me tell you, it’s HARD! Not only is it hard to push the extra weight of the child plus the stroller, it’s hard to coordinate the pushing and running. Do you push with one hand, both hands, or do the push-off then do no-hands for a few steps? I ended up doing all three. Then there are the turns. Jogging strollers are different from regular baby strollers because they have three wheels instead of four, which makes it easier to maneuver them, but it’s still not easy. I ended up pushing my daughter in the jogging stroller until she was almost 2 years old. At that point she was done with strollers of all sorts and she would put up the biggest fuss you’ve ever seen when I tried to strap her into a stroller or a car seat too for that matter (but she still had to ride in the car seat for a few more years).

Being able to take your child with you on runs in a jogging stroller helps on a few different fronts. For one, it gives your spouse a break from having to take care of your child. For another, it gives you some special one-on-one time, as long as your child enjoys being in the stroller. Finally, many kids seem to enjoy being out in nature and seeing all of the new sights go by when they’re in a jogging stroller. For other kids, the rocking motion puts them to sleep. My daughter would just sit there and look around, taking it all in, so I believe she enjoyed the jogging stroller until she reached the point where she didn’t want to be strapped into anything.

When my daughter was still really little but too old for her jogging stroller, I remember how she would react when I would tell her I was going out for a run. She would always give me a big smile and when she was old enough to talk she would always say, “Have a great run, Momma!” Never did I get the push-back from her where she begged me not to go. It’s like it didn’t even occur to her to ask me not to go for a run. Seeing me go for a run was such an ingrained part of my family’s life that it was just normal to her.

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Going to races to cheer me on also because a normal part of my daughter’s life

Like any mother runner (or father runner) knows, it’s difficult to squeeze everything in. I’ve always worked full-time and have been running half-marathons since before my daughter was born, on average 3 or 4 races a year. My daughter has been what I would call fairly active in activities over the years such as swim lessons then swim team when she was older, gymnastics lessons, Girl Scouts, soccer teams, ballet lessons, piano lessons, art lessons, and on and on. Fortunately my husband and I were able to work together to coordinate all of this plus our work schedules but it hasn’t been easy. I would often run laps around the park or neighborhood where she had soccer practice or swim team practice. I would dress for a run, drop her off, then run as long as I possibly could until it was time to pick her up again. Sometimes it wasn’t as long as my training plan called for, but as mother runners, we do what we can.

As my daughter got older, she asked to run with me. At first, I was so thrilled and imagined the two of us chatting happily while we went for easy runs. Then the reality of that sunk in and the complaining began. She would whine, “Running is hard,” and “I can’t do it,” and “I need to walk,” sometimes only after being out a few minutes. I would always tell her she would be setting the pace and we would only go for about a half hour, walking when she needed to. However, the truth is, the whining and complaining were driving me crazy and after a while I couldn’t take it any more. We stopped running together.

Then I discovered Girls on the Run, a running support group aimed at girls in third through fifth grade that lasts 10-12 weeks and culminates with a 5k race at the end. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I could make for my daughter, although initially she wasn’t as big of a fan of the program as I was. The reason she didn’t care for the program is she thought it was too easy for her and wanted the coaches to push her harder, but I think it was great for her to be able to see what a great runner she was then and gain some confidence in herself. I fully believe that’s what turned things around for my daughter, and ultimately lead her to become the runner she is today. I wrote a post about her experience when she was going through it, which you can read here:  Girls on the Run Interview.

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The Girls on the Run race my daughter and I ran together

Over the years, I’ve become a big fan of products from the store Trader Joe’s. If you don’t have one where you live, maybe there’s something like it with affordable and still healthy options. On many occasions, I’ve come home from work, changed into my running clothes then gone for a run, come home from my run, and made something from Trader Joe’s for dinner, like a pre-packaged stir-fry or cut up some chicken and cooked and sautéed that in an Indian sauce, with some naan and rice (all from Trader Joe’s) on the side. Sure, other stores have stir fries, sauces, and things like that, but Trader Joe’s products often have less processing and/or less preservatives and other stuff you don’t really want in your food. But I don’t want this to sound like an ad for Trader Joe’s. It’s really my way of saying it’s OK to make a quick meal for your family and you don’t need to feel guilty for doing so. Heck, show me any mother who works full-time and trains for long distance races and I’ll show you a woman who at least sometimes cooks quick meals for her family (unless she’ s lucky enough to have a husband who doesn’t run and does all of the cooking. Now wouldn’t that be a dream?).

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A Color Run 5k my daughter and I ran together

As mothers we already feel so much guilt, right from the beginning. There’s guilt if you don’t breast-feed, guilt if you don’t use cloth diapers, guilt if you don’t stay home to raise your child, guilt if you don’t always cook organic, healthy home-cooked meals, guilt if you leave your child with a sitter, guilt if you don’t enroll your child in the “best” preschool, and on and on it goes. We don’t need to feel guilty if we’re doing the best we can and our children are taken care of. Truly, it’s OK to leave your child with your husband while you go for a run, even a long run for an hour or more.

My husband was always fully supportive of me, whether it was my decision to go back to work full-time after the birth of our daughter or my running when our daughter was young and he had to watch her. I know not all women have as supportive husbands, however, which is sad to me. The ability to get out to run is such a mental break for me and my husband was able to see that I’m happier when I’m able to run, and likewise, I’m a better mother to our daughter. If only all husbands could understand this, I believe they would also be more supportive. If you can’t rely on your husband to watch your kids, try trading off watching each other’s kids with another mother runner in your area, or ask a friend, co-worker, relative, or someone else you know and would trust your kids with.

So yes, being a mother is hard and being a mother runner is even harder, especially if you work full-time as well, but I’m here to tell you it can be done. What about work/life balance, you may ask? Honestly, it doesn’t exist, at least not in the perfect 50/50 balance. Some days you may feel like it’s a struggle just to keep your head afloat.

There will be days where you have to work late in the evening, you have to go into work late because your child had a doctor appointment, you have to leave work a little early to squeeze in a run, you skip lunch so you can get in a run, you have to set your alarm for a crazy hour in the morning so you can run before work, you have piles of laundry that have need folded for a week, your bathroom hasn’t been cleaned in over a month. Any of this sound familiar? If you’re a mother runner, I’m sure at least some of it does. We’ve all been there. And you know what? It’s OK. Now stop beating yourself up and get out there for a run!

Are you a mother runner? Do you or did you feel guilty for not being a “perfect” mother?

Happy running!

Donna

Gatlinburg, Tennessee “Myrtle Beach in the Sky”

If you’ve been to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina you’ll understand the reference. For those of you who haven’t been to Myrtle Beach, the best way I can describe it is touristy and crowded. An estimated 14 million people visit Myrtle Beach every year (compared to around 12 million people for Gatlinburg). As for the “in the sky” reference, the elevation of Gatlinburg is 1,289 feet, while that for Myrtle Beach is a mere 26 feet.

Although Myrtle Beach is a year-round destination, the majority of tourists visit during the summer months to go to the beaches, play golf (including miniature golf), go shopping at the outlets and other often cheesy beach-themed shops, go to the aquarium, and eat at some of what seems like hundreds of restaurants, most of which are either chains or serve fried seafood. If you can’t tell, I’m not a huge fan of Myrtle Beach. Traffic is horrendous and there are much better places I’d rather go to in South Carolina. However, obviously plenty of people like going there, so to each his own.

So back to Gatlinburg. Yes, it’s crowded just like Myrtle Beach. We were there during the pandemic and even then there were mobs of people everywhere; most were wearing a mask but not all. There are places to play mini golf and a few 18-hole golf courses a bit further from all of the chaos. There are also a crazy amount of attractions all piled-up on top of each other in such a small area. For example, there’s not one but two places you can go up ski lifts to take in the view, Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum, Guinness World Records Museum, Gatlinburg Space Needle, Hollywood Star Cars Museum, a Dukes of Hazzard store and museum, an indoor waterpark, a winery, a moonshine distillery, the Salt and Pepper Shaker Museum, just for starters. That’s not even including all of the t-shirt and gift shops, candy shops, restaurants, and hotels.

I like what Wikipedia says about Gatlinburg:  “Downtown Gatlinburg may come as somewhat of a shock for those on their way to a nature getaway in the national park – from the Space Needle to the amusement rides, the town hasn’t necessarily chosen to embrace its “nature” side. That said, there is plenty of lodging, restaurants, and other amenities to make this town a useful base for exploring the park.” True enough, to get to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you almost always have to go through downtown Gatlinburg first. Traffic during the day and evening is so bad you could probably walk faster than you could drive. Then there’s the issue of parking- expensive and not much of it.

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The Parkway in downtown Gatlinburg

So with all of these options of attractions and things to do in Gatlinburg, guess what we chose to do while we were there? Absolutely not one single thing that I mentioned here other than go to restaurants and a little bit of shopping. Most of the attractions seemed too tacky and just not how I would choose to spend my time. When I was younger I visited some wax museums and Ripley’s museums but I don’t care to spend my money or time at any of them now. No offense to anyone that enjoys this kind of museum or attraction. If you’re a huge car fan and love movies, then the Hollywood Star Cars Museum would probably be a lot of fun for you. That’s just not my cup of tea. Besides, we spent all day hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (you can read my post about that here), so that just left time for dinner and whatever time we had left after that before heading back to our hotel.

I probably would have gone to Anakeesta had the pandemic not been going on. This is an outdoor play area as much for adults and it is for children. You choose whether you take a chair lift or enclosed gondola to the top of the mountain. Once you reach the top, there’s an observation tower, a treetop skywalk, ziplines, a mountain coaster, gem mining, and shops and restaurants. However, although they were scanning people’s temperatures upon check-in at the base, they weren’t cleaning the chair lifts or gondolas after every group, and I didn’t feel comfortable with that, so we skipped it.

You may be thinking I really don’t like Gatlinburg, but honestly this wasn’t my first time here, although it was my daughter’s first visit. I feel like it’s one of those places that everyone should experience once in their lives, like Las Vegas or New Orleans. It’s difficult to explain places like this to someone who has never been there, other than you really just have to go and see for yourself. I do have some positive things to say about Gatlinburg, like the restaurants and shops we enjoyed.

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This was at a restaurant where our server told us there was a bear in the parking lot just across the street, apparently a regular occurrence!

Some locally-owned restaurants that we really enjoyed include:

Tom & Earl’s Back Alley Grill, a casual pub-type setting with salads, wraps, sandwiches, and burgers. We thought the food was very good and affordable.

Mama’s Chicken Kitchen, a restaurant that shares space with J.O.E. and POP’s Sub Shoppe and specializes in fried chicken. This is especially good when you’ve spent an entire day hiking and burned what feels like a million calories because this isn’t healthy food by any stretch.

Gatlinburg Brewing Company, a brewery with a limited menu (so they don’t have the huge range of items on the menu you typically find at a brewery). They specialize in pizzas and have pre-selected ones or you can create your own. Good selection of beer as well.

Sonador– a Mexican restaurant with a huge menu. Our food was quick, very good, and reasonably priced. They have your typical American-Mexican menu offerings but there are some items you may not normally see at a Mexican restaurant. My daughter had a burrito with grilled chicken, pineapple, onions, and mushrooms and said it was one of the best burritos she’s ever eaten.

There are numerous chain restaurants here, so if that’s your thing, you’ll be happy. There also seem to be plenty of pancake restaurants. If you’re looking for healthy food options, you’ll have to look a bit harder because much of the food here is fried, as is tradition for the area, but it is possible to find salads, healthy sandwiches, and other healthy or at least healthy-ish meals.

Some shopping areas and shops we liked include:

Village Shoppes- there are 27 shops here including an art gallery. Some shops are touristy but others are worth going to. I was told the Donut Friar is good but we didn’t go since we had already had dessert when we were there.

Great Smoky Arts and Crafts Community– numerous artists and artisans selling paintings, baskets, woven products, metal works, and so much more. This isn’t the kind of shopping area where you can walk from shop to shop; you have to drive around because they’re so spread out.

Mortons Antiques and Coins– one of the better selections of antiques I’ve seen. My daughter loves antique tea sets, so she drags me into an antique shop at every opportunity.

Have you been to Gatlinburg? If so, what did you think of it and what did you do when you were there?

Happy travels!

Donna

How COVID-19 Changed My Attitude About Running a Half Marathon in All 50 States

As you may at least partly guess from the title if you didn’t already know, I’ve had a goal for several years now to run a half marathon in all 50 states. I only had three states left before COVID-19 hit and the world pandemic began. Three stinking states. I was supposed to run my final states- New Mexico, Minnesota, and Iowa and finish on Labor Day weekend, 2020. Thanks to the pandemic, I haven’t been able to run a single race this year.

My half marathon in New Mexico was pushed back from April to November, so I suppose that could in theory still happen but I’m not holding my breath on that one. The race in Minnesota was also technically pushed back but the severe lack of communication from the race director made me never want to run that race ever. The race in Iowa was turned into a virtual race. Since my whole plan is to run a race in all 50 states, I’m not doing that one.

Believe it or not, I’m not feeling the least bit upset over the way my lack of races has panned out this year. Sure, initially I was sad and disappointed but I fully understand why these races couldn’t take place. At this point, I’ve come to the realization that like so many other things in my life, these races are completely out of my control.

Since I’ve started chasing this goal, it was a huge priority for me to run as many races as possible in a year and still spend some time in each state. I was limited both by time off at work and my budget. In the beginning that meant one state/half marathon in each season, so four races each year. When I had run all of the southern states, that mostly meant (there were one or two exceptions) I was down to running during the spring, summer, and fall because I had no desire to run a race in Minnesota or any other northern state in the winter.

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I also made sure my daughter was able to go to each race, which meant finding a race during one of her school breaks so I didn’t have to pull her out of school. So far she’s been to every race with me since she was born. That will change if I’m able to run the race in New Mexico in November because she’ll be in school then and doesn’t want to have to make up the school work since she’s in high school and the course load is pretty intense. So far the only state she hasn’t been to other than my remaining three states is Pennsylvania. That may change to New Mexico and Pennsylvania, but as I said, we’ll see.

During these past few months of the pandemic I’ve had some major life changes made by someone else, not me, and I’ve had to roll with the punches. I felt like the rug was pulled out from underneath me and it has taken time to adapt. With time things have gotten better but I still have a long ways to go.

As a result of the pandemic and the changes in my life, I feel like my goal to run a half marathon in every state has evolved into something different. Not less important because I still very much want to finish this quest and it’s still a high priority but it’s just different now. Before the pandemic I felt like one of my top priorities was to make sure I found a half marathon that would fit in with my family’s schedule and to run at least three races a year. Now, however, I don’t feel such a burning pressure for that to happen.

I know in my heart that I will finish this quest and run in all 50 states but I’m letting go of some of that pressure to make sure I find a race during all of my daughter’s school breaks. For example, I won’t be running a half marathon during my daughter’s spring break next year. 2021 will be the first year I haven’t run a half marathon during my daughter’s spring break in as many years as she’s had a spring break (she’ll be a sophomore in high school starting next week).

Even though I tried, I was unable to find a half marathon in Minnesota or Iowa during her next spring break. Rather than spend countless hours searching for a race, I used a couple of vouchers I had won from a contest with an airline and booked us seats to Oregon during her spring break. I’ll find other half marathons to run and if I have to wait a bit longer to run them, so be it.

For years I thought 2020 would be the end of my big journey but now I know that’s not going to happen. Who knows when I’ll be able to finish running a half marathon in all 50 states? I know it will happen and when it does it will be all the sweeter. The pandemic has changed me in so many ways, some bad, some good, but with regard to this goal, it has just put some things into perspective a bit for me.

What about you? How has the pandemic changed you?

Happy running!

Donna

 

Hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park- Redux

Even though I’m sure I visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park at least once if not twice before my recent trip, I honestly didn’t remember any part of it. Nothing looked familiar, none of the trail names sounded familiar, and no parts of it seemed vaguely familiar to me. Granted, my first visit would have been roughly 22 years ago and the other visit around 19 years ago, but still, I would have thought I would have remembered at least some of it. Then again, the first time I was with a friend of mine in high school and her family so I would have just been driven around by her parents, totally clueless about my whereabouts. The second time would have been a quick trip so I’m sure I didn’t spend much time in the area and certainly wouldn’t have had time to do as much hiking as I did this time.

I feel like I really didn’t give the park enough justice before when I was there but this time, I thoroughly got some hiking miles in and saw at least a big chunk of the park. That being said, Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers over 500,000 acres divided between Tennessee and North Carolina (so maybe just a little chunk of it). It is the most visited national park by far, with more than double the number of visitors at the second most visited park, the Grand Canyon. The elevation ranges from 875 feet at the mouth of Abrams Creek to 6,643 feet at Clingmans Dome; sixteen mountain peaks exceed 6,000 feet in elevation.

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Trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I’m primarily going to go over the trails we hiked since that’s the vast majority of how we spent our time at the park. We spent five full days plus a partial day hiking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and went to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center on our first day. This was a good place to start because you can get a feel for the history in the park. Many years ago, log buildings were gathered from various places in the Smoky Mountains and preserved at places like this visitor center. We saw a historical house, barn, applehouse, springhouse, smokehouse, and blacksmith shop. The Oconaluftee River Trail is easy and short at 1.5 miles from the museum entrance. We were also excited to see an elk by the visitor center as we were leaving.

We also visited the Sugarlands Visitor Center, on our second day. There’s a short and easy trail to Cataract Falls, but I felt like the waterfall was pretty small and disappointing (good thing it wasn’t a long, strenuous hike). One of the more popular trails we hiked is the Alum Cave Trail, a moderate hike of 4.5 miles. On this trail we saw Arch Rock and Alum Cave. After a quick lunch of sandwiches we had previously bought that morning, we hiked Chimney Tops Trail. This was listed as moderate and is only 3 miles, but it’s extremely steep with only a few switchbacks so it felt like we were climbing straight up the mountain. We saw plenty of rhododendron and wildflowers but not a whole lot else.

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Highlights from Chimney Tops and Alum Cave Trails

On our third day, we did the Roaring Fork Auto Tour. For this, you turn onto Historic Nature Trail, which merges with Cherokee Orchard Road. Our first stop was the Noah “Bud” Ogle Place, a historic house. There was a short nature trail behind the house that we took but somehow we ended up on a much longer trail, the Gatlinburg Trail, which we hadn’t planned on hiking and we ended up having to get back to the main road and walk back that way rather than backtracking, which would have taken much longer.

Next stop on the Roaring Fork Auto Tour was Rainbow Falls Trail. This trail is 2.8 miles each way, if you can actually find parking close to the trailhead, which we couldn’t, so we ended up hiking more like 6.5 miles total. There is a much smaller falls area just before (maybe 0.5 miles) you get to the actual Rainbow Falls. Don’t make the mistake of stopping at the first waterfall, as we almost did, but keep going until you see a massive waterfall.

After another quick lunch of previously purchased sandwiches, our next stop was the Trillium Gap Trail, also known as Grotto Falls Trail. This hike was pretty easy compared to the others in the area and is 1.3 miles each way. The waterfall was one of the best we had seen so far and absolutely worth the hike. We also saw a bear! It was slowly lumbering around the long line of cars, not paying any attention to any of the people. We were walking to our car when we saw it and it was far enough away from us that I wasn’t scared. That would come later during our second bear encounter.

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Sights seen along the Roaring Fork Auto Tour

There were historical sites next on the drive but we only stopped at Ephraim Bales Place. By now most of the historical sites seemed the same- small two-room log cabins, completely empty, with low ceilings and maybe one window (to save money on wood and windows). We probably would have stopped at the most “modern” of the historical sites on the drive, Alfred Reagan Place, but there were only three parking spaces and they were all occupied, so we skipped it.

The final stop on the drive is at Place of a Thousand Drips. This is a unique waterfall, as the flow of water splits into numerous channels, cascading around rocks and “creating a thousand drips.” There were several people climbing around the waterfall and of course my teenage daughter wanted to climb up. I chose to watch from the bottom and was glad for my decision when I saw so many people slipping and/or falling (my daughter was fine and never fell but said it was extremely slippery coming back down).

On our fourth day, we hiked Laurel Falls Trail, the most popular hike in GSMNP. It’s one of the few longish paved trails in the park, at 2.6 miles roundtrip. It’s an easy hike and the payoff is big, with a 25-foot waterfall that seems even bigger than that, after just 1.3 miles of easy walking. After lunch (yes, you guessed it, sandwiches we had previously purchased) we drove to Jakes Creek Trail, near the village of Elkmont in a historic district referred to as “Daisy Town.” The Little River Lumber Company logged the area into the mid-1920’s. Adjacent Daisy Town was an escape for the elite people of Knoxville. Currently, the park is restoring 19 of the former 74 homes. You can walk through some of the former homes, which we did before starting out on the trail. Jakes Creek Trail is 3.7 miles each way and runs along Jake’s Creek for a huge portion of the trail, giving plenty of water views and the sound of water flowing all around you as you hike. There was hardly anyone else on the trail, so it was quiet and peaceful.

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Jakes Creek and Laurel Falls Trail Highlights

Our last full day in the park was the most exciting, as you will see. The longest single hike for us was Ramsey Cascades Trail, at 8 miles long. We expected to have bathrooms at the trailhead, as was common at many other trailheads in the park, but alas there were none, and the tea we had at breakfast was running right through us. Maybe a mile into our hike, I found a huge boulder not far off the trail and told my daughter to go first while I waited for her, then I went to use the bathroom. As I was walking back around the boulder, my daughter said in an extremely calm voice, “Momma, there’s a bear.” Sure enough, there was a bear standing right in front of me maybe 4 feet away. My daughter started slowly walking away from the bear, going further up the trail. The bear looked at me, made a grunting sound, clawed at the tree in front of it, then slowly started walking away in the opposite direction from us. I slowly backed away and we continued on our way up the trail.

I kept checking to make sure the bear wasn’t following us, but it didn’t appear to be. When we passed people going the opposite direction from us, we were told a couple of times that they had seen a bear, but we never saw another bear on that trail. Finally after 4 miles, we reached the waterfall, which was an impressive one, at 100 feet tall. The trail was pretty intense towards the falls, with slippery rocks that we had to scramble over, but most of the trail was fairly easy, with gradual climbs. When we reached our car, we decided to dip our feet in the ice-cold water and it was so refreshing!

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Ramsey Cascades Trail (nope, no bear pics this time! We just wanted to get away!)

There are of course many more trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but those are the ones we chose to do. Some came recommended by the hotel staff where we stayed and others were ones I had researched on my own that sounded interesting. You can also easily just drive around the park, park at overlooks, and take in the views that way if you’re not really into hiking. I believe that’s what we must have done the first time I went with my friend and her family, as best as I can remember, but you obviously don’t get as much of a real feel for a place when you see it that way.

For information on camping, pets, history, wildlife, and all the information you could possibly want or need to plan a trip there, check out the Great Smoky Mountains National Park website by the National Parks Service.

Have you been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park? If so, did you hike when you were there? Any amazing trails I missed that you recommend? Did you see one (or two) of the estimated 1600 bears in the area?

Happy travels!

Donna