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

 

 

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