8/16/09 - 8 days prior to start. All hotel reservations are confirmed with exception of possible 9/2 stay someplace on the way back to south Jersey. Biltmore Estate tickets also reserved for Day 5, but Monticello, Dixie Stampede, Cherokee and caves are weather dependent at this time. Possible activities and restaurants are just grouped within the date ranges by areas we are staying. However, may only do some as National Park hiking/outdoor views time will be maxiimized.
9/03/09 - post-trip view! I'm filling out what we actually did and when per the schedule function on the trip plan. Items that are now unscheduled were not done due to time/place/weather circumstances. Please note that certain places are more than one day like Shenandoah and Smoky Mountains (+ hotels and BRPkwy). Saw alot! Much more to still see...! We were glad to get a glimpse...hope you enjoy too! If anything, we're going to do the Smokys again, but this time from Tennessee side...it appears closer to most things and better convenience with time. Beth and Chuck
All packed and off by 7:50am from Philly area (Jersey side) to 1st stop at Manassas BF in VA. Got there about 10:45 and walked around the battlefield (BF that is...nahhh...no boyfriend or BFF here! lol). See the movie and exhibits at visitor's center first if you can, as gives good perspective on the historical significance of the sites and time. Walked some more around the site - Henry House and BF (1st battle), then on the auto-tour (2nd battle) to Stone House (had park ranger guide there - good info), "unfinished RR grade" and ultimately "Stone Bridge" (cool pics!). [2 hours minimum recommended or whole day to walk the trails]. Pack a lunch as we did to conserve time....
Off to Shenandoah NP North Entrance (Front Royal arrived 2:15; 7 day pass for park = $15 per car) and cruise down Skyline drive with stops (pics) at most overlooks on the way to Rt 211 Entrance/Exit. Lots of easy/short trails on way, if you have time...we did North Marshall (MP 15.9) to a cool view. "Big Devil's Stairs" next time we hope...too little time (5.4 miles)...so much to see! Headed west out of Thornton Gap on 211W to I-81S.
Off to hotel in Harrisonburg about 5:30ish. We picked here because: great place to stay per reviews and proximity to Shenandoah NP entrances. Nice hotel and jacuzzi suite reasonable for 3 nights! Out to dinner around 7 after check-in, but Pueblo Grande was closed (Monday night). Went to El Charro right up the road (Rt 11 - not address on trip plan, though one there too). Decent meal...ok price.
Fine day...and jacuzzi eve!
USA today, coffee, internet access plus fridge/microwave in room to start, every day. Fine hot breakfast at our HIExpress too (cheese omelets, sausage, biscuits & gravy, french toast, bagels, fruit, etc...) and then off on rt 33 toward Shenandoah's Swift Run Gap entrance. Headed north on Skyline Dr. Couldn't hold back at 9:30am and hit the South River Falls loop (MP 62.8 picnic area) Fun trails to 83 foot H2Ofalls - third highest in Shenandoah. Go in spring and you get a wildflower bonus they say.... Go on spur trail to base of falls after overlook!!! Return via fire road and catch the AT back to parking lot. 4.7 miles and about 1000' elevation difference to fine views! Moderate and do the DEET to ward off buggies always in summer...but think i heard a bear as well...no see. 3 hour trip for us suburbanites who hike for our health and catch a breath going uphill.
Darn! Timber rattler (6 footer) spotted on Skyline heading north! Pics, but snake looked injured...park workers came by to rescue though.... Keep on heading north with fine views....until...Bearfence Mountain trail! Rock Scramble near the top to 360 view and fine pics to boot!!! Not recommended for acrophobes...my gal got a bit dizzy and retreated only 40 yards from the top. Couple of bruises on the way of less than mile round trip (300 ft elevation climb), but worth the view and serenity...downhill back to parking lot. I'll do full loop next time down the other side...lol...more bruises of geology to conquer!
Onwards to Big Meadows...famished...ate at Wayside (very fine sandwiches and reasonable $$ - soft ice cream to go for treat on the walk into the meadow). Deer, chipmunk and bird (including wild turkeys) sightings prominent. WOW! Already 4:00pm and keep heading north on the Skyline back to Thornton Gap and rt 211 back to hotel taking in the views via auto (bypass Skyland till tomorrow...).
HIExpress R&R included indoor pool and hot tub...relaxing and nursing our rigors of the day! Up rt 11 toward Harrisonburg downtown for Buffalo Wings...BUT...Overcrowd with James Madison U students for cheep chicken wing night LOL (Tuesdays & Thursdays)! Couldn't get near the place...went to Texas Saloon instead and had fine steaks (medium price). Back to HIE for more private jacuzzi!
Up and at 'em after breakfast (bacon and scrambled eggs replaced sausage and omelets...all else same but good) and heading reverse route up I-81N to rt 211E...here we come Luray Caverns! Got there about 8:30 for tickets at first tour at 9 (no reservation req'd today). (10% AAA discount = $19 per adult). Do the Audio or else u'll be lost!!! Awesome views and info+, and not as chilly as they make out to be...tho my gal got a souvenir sweatshirt to wear thru (worth the $$ guys!). Very recommended to see the caverns, but who cares about the tourist bs there unless u got kids with you?...lol...back to Shenandoah NP!
Re-entered at Thornton Gap entrance and headed south on Skyline...cool tunnel and history viewed about 11am. Onward with overlook stops to Skyland entrance...and Stony Man (2nd highest point in park they say...) Nature Trail - To a view of Page Valley and Massanutten Mountain . This is an interpreted trail, using a pamphlet ($1) keyed to numbered posts. 1.6 mile round trip (about 300' elevation climb across part of the AT) to a real cool view and pics (including chipmunks, deer and the lodge below the summit)! We had lunch at the lodge with good sandwiches (lil' pricey) after hike, but good meal and view to the west where we were seated. I was not convinced to reserve here though, because of the price of rooms to stay here which are outdated (more $$ too)...we'd rather drive and be comfortable with amenities and options. Your choice...we made ours.
Back to Big Meadows in search of bear...lol! Nahhh...had to stop at: Mile 49.4 - Rose River Falls
Arresting, 49.4 foot falls that splits into two then four parallel cascades. 2.6 miles roundtrip. Moderate. So we explore again! Very rugged 1000'+ elevation down to falls you can only see from above...unless you're a bushwhacker and willing to spend much more time for something probably better in Spring. We saw one H2Ofall split into 2 medium and 1 little ones only...sort of a bummer view for the distance, work and time. Option to continue, but would have taken an extra 2.5 hours per hikers we met coming the other way on a loop by dark hollow falls. Licked our choice after an hour+ back, but we'll be back someday to make better choices and views...like White Oak Canyon (the backway!)
Once again, south on Skyline till our first bear sighting a mile past Big Meadows! Cars along the road means = check it out! Yup, there was a small black bear wandering thru some berriesh roadside and attracting attention. Cool! Pics were dark due to angles, but saw the roadside soul of the park in a minute. It's obvious we have only brushed the surface of sights here...next time will be more as our times permit.... Driving south on Skyline Dr. to Swift Run Gap exit (always fine views!), and rt 33W back to Harrisonburg.
Headed back to R&R at HIE...pool and hot tub again! And then off to that Buffalo chicken wing place...better night with no "Big Sale"! We got in on Karayoke night...LOL...no singing after the entrance! But we had a fine server who gave us good recommendations for our meals! Yup...we tried the hottest sauce on the menu to make sure it was HOT...it was! Fun time and he spent some time to chat as well...earned his 30% tip as the meal was worth it and reasonable despite the luke warm sauces most popular! Another fine day...and zzzz's to tomorrow's travel day to Asheville, NC. Oh well...still luv a fine jacuzzi anyway!
Not too bad, as we got off after another fine breakfast and check-out at HIE hotel. Too much on our plate, and decided to go different route through Charlottesville on way back (home) to see Monticello, plus possible Moorman river trail accessible on south/east side of Shenandoah via rt 250 + northern to reservoir (2nd highest H2Ofalls in park + good trail with stream crossovers so told). We drove through the southern part of Shenandoah via rt 33E from Harrisonburg and south on Skyline Dr. instead...then back to I-81S via I-64W. A fine 3 hour auto drive through the park as we stopped and saw the fine views all along the way. In other words, the Skyline drive was totally driven...but only a miniscule fraction of Shenandoah NP was experienced! Months should replace a few days...so we'll have to make it happen somehow. Makes ones' soul feel purified, free and alive!
Long drive to Asheville starting at the South exit of Shenadoah at 12ish and getting to Biltmore Village via downtown (easy directions off end of I-26E) about 6pm. We stopped for dinner at the "newest" Wayside, and the food was delicious! Small portions though and do recommend getting an appetizer or salad if you're hungry (added $), because it's excellently priced for the quality (fine deal!). Real cool trains go by the refurbished station restaurant as well, and worth the experience! We walked around the pricey Biltmore Village after many stores had closed (Lucky Me!...lol), however the architecture and store windows were a fine gaze as was the walk into yestercentury modernized.
Hampton Inn very close via I-40W to I-26E, and a nice hotel to check-out Asheville! But only the one night for us and worth the stay.... In late...out early after fine hot breakfast, fruits, all included. Nice pool and spa not utilized tonight...long day and off to the Estate early tomorrow!
Arrived at the gate to Biltmore Estate at 8:20 and wandered the pricey gift shop until we were allowed to enter and pick-up our 2 adult tickets at 8:30 ($97.75 on-line reserved) for the 9am manse tour. Almost 3 mile beautiful drive and onto the parking (lot "A" for us) to pick up the shuttle (also a trail if you have time to walk the exterior prior to tour - we took back). Jaw-dropping magnificence is best way describe this castle-like estate! The tour was excellent as long as you got the audio for $10 extra per person, which is a must. The pamphlet is not much without the audio, and people who didn't get missed a whole bunch of history and info. It took better than 2 hours to make our way through 5 floors AND there are additional area tours available to see even more! Only bummer was no pics allowed inside...with closed-circuit cameras watching u...LOL...no quickie in the chambermaid's closet allowed!!!
After we toured the mansion and checked out the stores and stable areas, we walked through the ultimate gardens for more than an hour. Awesome as well, and then drove to the Bass pond and walked around. Next the lagoon, which has a dirt road to the left and if you follow you'll get a great pic of the manse on the hill about 3/4 of the way around back to the road you came from. Onto the Winery and Farm village where we had lunch at the pricey outdoor Arbor Grill, then took a tour with free tasting at the Winery! All in all...this experience was worth the time and $$$, but only once for us! Sure would be nice to have Vanderbilt $$$.....'s back in the day!!!
On the road again about 3:30pm and onto the Blue Ridge Parkway (heading rt 25S from the Biltmore gate). Our plan was to take all the way from Asheville to the Smoky Mountain NP however, we ran into some clouds and heavy rain on the way there. Got some great pics especially at Mt. Pisgah which had ties to the Biltmore Estate via George Vanderbilt (hunting and forestry), before visibility made the driving treacherous. We ended up getting off near Balsam near MP 440 (after many miles of bad weather on the scenic route!) and headed rt 23S/74W to rt 441N to Cherokee and the Comfort Inn on rt 19, which was our home base for the next 4 nights! We were going to stop at the MP's listed on the trip plan for pics (and walks), but weather didn't cooperate....only on the BRPkwy! Rest of trip views were great!
We had reserved the "whirlpool for 2" suite and got unpacked and settled in around 7:30pm. We called the local "Granny's Kitchen" and they were already closing on Friday night! The Indian reservation does close early everywhere (except the casino) always. We ended up heading across the street to the Holiday Inn which had a good seafood and prime rib buffet served till 9pm on Fridays (lucked out!). We got our internet access box at the front desk on return and plugged-in easily, before zzzz's. Whirlpool looked smallish "for 2"?!...but the bed was comfy and room was adequate.
Ready to rock new again! Hotel room was ok as had coffee pot for brew and working fridge for our snacks. Microwave unused but available! Shower and shave for me around 6ish after internet checks. Shower ok, but did note known pressure issues based on reviews...still adequate in my mind as a male with short hair.... Nice view of the Tuckasegee River from our balcony...luv the fishies! Went for the "continental breakfast" off the lobby and was a step-down in quality in comparison to prior hotels, but the hostess was friendly and gracious. She helped us with the waffle iron, which made good waffles. Cereal, pastry, breads for toast, juice and coffee...PLUS...cut cheese in squares with toothpicks! Whoo-hoo!! Same breakfast everyday to boot as checked over the days we stayed...so first time was last 4 us. Not even fresh fruit!!!
Hello Peter's Pancakes and Waffles for real breakfast, and worth the nourishment! When ur ready to get out and play, here's the only place in Cherokee, NC and right near the Smoky entrance! Had a western omelet that was awesome, served with fried potatos and fresh baked biscuits on Day 7. Other menu items were good as well....
Anyway, we packed our cooler and Smoky info (got Starter kit on-line prior to trip) and headed for Oconaluftee Visitor Center, which had just opened at 8am as we walked in. Checked out the information available, then walked around the Mountain Farm Museum (cool rooster followed and cockled at us around the farm....lol) and checked out the river trail (partial - as had problem with the camera that we got fixed on return to car). Then headed north on Newfound Gap Rd to the Mingus Mill! We were first ones there, and a Park Guide started up the Mill for us opening up the flume so creek water could drive the turbine which ground corn into flour! Guide was very informative and we took some fine pics. Excellent start to our views!
After we continued toward Sugarlands, stopping at various overlooks along the way getting the true meaning of why the park is called Great Smoky Mountains! We did the visitor center at Sugarlands which had a great nature display and movie, then did the quick nature trail with spur to a 40' waterfall which was cool. By now it was time for lunch, so we headed into Gatlinburg. WOW...what a tourist trap with lots of traffic and people! We cruised the main drag, then decided to park and walk around...oops...got fleeced for $10 parking. Could have parked for free if we knew where we were eating. We ended up stopping at Smoky Mountain Brewery, and had some decent sandwiches (reasonable $) while I tried the 6 pack beer sampler, which was interesting and recommended for a true buzz around Gatlinburg! We walked the area some more after lunch taking in the various scenes, while avoiding the "carnival" attraction fees.
It was 3:30 already when we headed back to the Smokys and we started heading to Clingman's Dome to do the short but steep trail to the observation tower. However, an accident ended up closing Newfound Gap Rd half-way there, and we got stuck in the jam. We reversed field and decided to do the Roaring Fork Motor Trail instead back near Gatlinburg, which was very scenic and I'm glad we did. Headed back to Cherokee (road re-opened by that time - seeing elk along the way) and the hotel, picking up tickets to "Unto These Hills" on the way, as it was the last showing of the summer (as noted from web site). Did the general admission ($18 - $2 AAA discount per person), as there really wasn't a bad seat in the outdoor theatre and the play was well done and informative about the Cherokee history. We also did some of the stores in the area during our stay passing through, and got some good values for trip memories. Not enough time for the museums tho...maybe next trip.
Got back to the hotel and ordered pizza (we did Domino's but Pizza Hut was available 2)...only thing open and available at 10pm (think Gatlinburg has more options???...lol). Came prepared though...bought beer in Gatlinburg as was ready to unwind some more and Cherokee is a dry town. Whirlpool was small and only two jets, disappointing. NOTE: when we got home, i checked out the hotel pics on the web site again. Knew something was amiss when I saw a different and bigger jacuzzi shown in their photo gallery. Strong complaint letter to follow!
We had planned to meet friends from Georgia in Franklin (40 minute drive) to go "grubbin'...". LOL...1st time 4 me, but is slang 4 gem mining. We were going to Rose Creek but they were closed (our friends picked up on this and we changed our plan Saturday eve) and we did Sheffield instead, getting there about 11am. After orientation (and $15 for two buckets of dirt each), had choice of local or rainbow to look for rubies and saphires. I did one of each (rainbow much easier with cool rocks too), and mined for a good 3 hours which was ok.... Not much booty found, but laughed and had fun with all anyway! Our friends brought a picnic lunch, so we went to a nearby visitor center to eat afterwards around 3. From there, we drove down rt 64 to Dry Falls which was really cool as it had a trail which went underneath the falls and we took some cool pics. We had seen Callusaja falls on the way, but there was not enough room to park for the three car caravan, and the signs alerting that view appeared non-existent. We tried on way back to Cherokee to stop, but missed the pull-over again on the narrow forest road (Nantahala National Forest). There was supposed to be a trail to Callusaga Falls as well, but we couldn't find the trailhead off rt 64...c'est la vie....
We headed back to Cherokee via a stop in Bryson City for beer, but got there minutes after 6pm to learn "no sale" due to local ordinance on Sundays. Anyway, we ended up going to Sylva to get ATM $$$ (closest Wachovia), beer and dinner at O'Malleys (advertised in Comfort Inn local info directory) which was not worth the time, but we were hungry for dinner. Food was so-so as was the service. I had chili and chicken quesadilla appetizers (ok), and Beth had grilled chicken with green beens and slaw (less than ok). Green beens were from a can....time to call it a night.
Well...we were all geared up to blitz the Smokys with a great plan! First up...Deep Creek Loop - 4.6 miles and moderate hike! Check out - http://www.hikinginthesmokys.com/deepcreek.htm (this is a real cool web site, with good Smoky trail details). Alas, this opportunity was shot down as we found our front driver's side tire flat in the parking lot. Lucky we had AAA as we had problem lowering the spare in back of the Trailblazer (rookie 1st timer me!), and they came timely and then we drove on spare to Cherokee Tire to get the tire fixed (mystery about why went flat...). We were finally ready to roll at 10:30am, but we had lost 2 hours and decided to go to Cades Cove, which was a must see for us.
First, we decided to check out 120' Mingo Falls (this is subject pic on this trip plan) outside the park boundary and it was a cool side trip with good pics... a short .2 mile hike up about 300 feet elevation - mostly stairs. Then, did the Newfound Gap road to Sugarlands and then stopped to do the easy 2.3 mile round trip hike at Laurel Falls (per NPS web site...recent bear sightings in this area). We had gotten the interpretive trail guide as part of our starter kit and off we went around noon. The falls were fine, but of course lots of people...no matter! I spied what looked like a way down to the base on trail continuation and we got down there to take some fine full falls pics! LOL...looked like everyone up there was awed by these 50 year old hikers! On the way back...sure enough...heard the crack of a branch on the hillside! After some stillness...saw a small black bear about a 100 yards up and was able to get a fair zoomed pic of the nature.
Onwards to Cades Cove, we caught "the sinks" and "Meig's" falls which are viewable from road side. The Little River which parallels the road somewhat is quite scenic on the way. as well. We got to Caves Cove, and stopped at the entrance to get the auto tour guide. The Park Ranger was surprised it wasn't part of the "starter kit", but informed him we got ours on-line ($5 + 4.50 on-line by USPS delivery = 2 days) apparently differing in contents than what is sold at Sugarlands Visitor Center...we paid our $1 and onto the tour. Lots of wildlife view opportunities, including another black bear "treed" and eating after the visitor center and farm exhibit on the loop road back. Not a good photo-op because you only got partial glimpse when he moved (though the parking lot throng of masses blocking the road tried!...lol). Last bear we saw on trip, but was cool as much wonder to see everywhere. Lots of remnants of historical residents and info about the Cove, and we recommend visiting your first time to the Park. Better trails next time!
We were headed back toward Sugarlands and decided to go back into Gatlinburg for dinner at Bennett's BBQ! Darn...forgot our coupon at the hotel (10% off web site, but also found same at TN visitor center I-81S on the way to Asheville), but we were deviating from plan due to the late start. Anyway...BEST dinner (and reasonable $$) we had on our trip, plus free parking in rear!! Beth had ribs and chicken combo (w/ fries and slaw), while I had chicken, brisket and ribs (BBQ beans & fries). Sauce was very good as well, and we tried with the Bennett's hot sauce too (not too spicy, but good with regular sauce including after-taste). Nice atmosphere, but a little chilly inside in our shorts and t-shirts. Service was fine! Very recommended!!!
Well, we hoped to catch Clingman's Dome on the way back to Cherokee, but by the time we got to the turn-off on Newfound Gap Rd...it was almost dark with 7 miles to get there. We decided to possibly try on the way back to Monticello in Charlottesville after our check-out in the am. Accomplished alot today, even with the late start. I wished we could spend more time, but reality beckons back home...once again...another bare scratch of surface explored...oh well...SAW BEARS!
Woke up to a drizzle and dreary morn, but drizzle stopped early as we packed. Yup...felt a cold coming on for me...lol...too much excitement! Had some vitamin C and decongestant (musta been the temperature deltas experienced from valleys to mountains) and a fine breakfast at Peter's again after checkout from Comfort (lil') Inn. Bummer...knew Clingman's Dome would be clouded...so passed this time...and saved 54 miles...maybe more! We decided to try the Blue Ridge Pkwy again from Smokys entrance to rt 19 (unexplored from earlier planned), but once we elevated past overlook to Oconaluftee River...in the clouds again. So, just took our time...(BRP is weather dependent!)...and got to rt. 19 exit (foggy as well) to head toward 276 and west I-40 to I-81N on to Charlottesville, VA stopover at Holiday Inn (reserved on the fly yesterday morn...knew we wanted to see Monticello anyway!).
Too much excitement again, as the same tire blew out going 70mph on I-81 in Tennessee heading toward VA border. Fine job by Beth controlling the Trailblazer during the incident!!! (on return, mechanic ruled tire was defective and replaced no charge from local shop here!) Our angels on the wing were with us (...much better than "Wingman"!!) Pheww! A good summaritan from Tennessee stopped in a minute as we were getting out the spare and helped get our full spare tire on with much better jack than we were equipped. In fact, needed both as the frame was too low (on rim...no tire) to get our jack underneath to frame! On our way again...half hour later and I rewarded the fine man for his help as I could. Southern hospitality appreciated!!! LOL...wouldn't do in Jersey...way to end up on the 11pm news with tale of woe or worse! We had a long drive to go, despite my sniffles and coughs.
We got to the nice Holiday Inn (one on rt 29N...they say "University") about 5:30 (McD's quik lunch off highway on the way). Checked-in and chilled...(so much for that possible Moorman River - Shenandoah hike on the way...oh well...we'll find a way next time....). They had restaurant and lounge, so we ate there for dinner...just light meal...nothing special and reasonable $$. Just relaxed after long day on the road, driving on fine spare! Room was good, even though needed to ice the coolers be4 bed....
Felt a bit better in the morn...vitamin C's are my cold kicker! So, Monticello here we come! Did "light" pack as only one night planned (as we did in Asheville). No free breakfast here with the room though, but $19 with tip was cool (had free coffee as well in lobby, and got roadie). Onto Thomas Jefferson's pad! This was a 15 minute trip from our hotel and no weekday traffic issues. Check-out their web site for info, but i wouldn't do a pre-reservation for tour. We were there 9:55 am...and were given the 10:30 guided tour ($20 each), viewing a 20 minute movie (decent) and a shuttle ride to entrance prior. This is fine history for all...though felt our group was oversized. Better to wait and check grounds as they say "you have to reschedule" if you don't make your time...Really???...others were there who had diff times and were welcome to tag along (not a weekend mind you). Nonetheless, the 40 minute tour with 20+ people was good...just take your time and make it a longer tour till you're happy to see and ask what you want while waiting for others crammed to exit (we took 55 minutes! Such a pain we are when dealt over-rated hand!)!
We then checked out the outside and wings with stables one side...beer and wine cellers under house...and kitchen, etc. on other side. Gardens (tour available included) are glorious, plus where (regrettably per Jefferson in his day) the slaves lived close to tend the early 19th century manse. Do like the architecture and many fine pics taken. There is room to roam thru vegetable gardens, family grave site and vineyards as well, plus additional museum at the visitor center and more. Plantation tour was also included, but we were ready to get going home around 1pm. Other options in the area including UVA (Jefferson build influence and could see from the south wing!), James Madison's homestead and Fredericksburg Civil War history...another time. Took rt 29N to I-66E and Washington DC beltway to Baltimore on I-95N...what a traffic mess around 3pm! LOL...all our elected officials/staff get off early every day! Yup...must be another Holiday!!! No wonder!!!... Know our country's forefathers didn't and neither do we! AND that's...another true story!
Enjoy your travels all...! All Congress should pay Social Security and get rid of this self-voted, taxpayer financed, tycoon attitude, luxury retirements of those asses! "We the People"! They are not included in this healthcare change proposal either! Wake-up America!!! Not as designed by OUR Forefathers!