Saturday, March 17, 2018

Great Smoky Mountains: SO Great!

We're in Atlanta at my aunt and uncle's very beautiful, very Southern lake-front home. A pork butt has been smoking in the Big Green Egg since 4:30 a.m., the potato salad, pasta salad, and peach cobbler are all prepped, and the margaritas are being blended by my aunt as I type. The big kids are running errands with my uncle, Cora is taking a forced nap upstairs (we've reached the stage of vacation where we've broken the third baby), and James is working while wishing he was napping on the couch. We leave tomorrow morning for the long haul back home, but what an excellent vacation it has been!

Let's go back to Days 4 and 5. We woke up at Mammoth Cave to snow and deer grazing right outside our window. We packed up and headed out, dropping off our key at the front desk of the lodge (something we almost forgot to do because what hotels have actual metal keys anymore?) and headed out to the Great Smokies!

4.5 hours later we were back in Tennessee and rolling in to the Sugarlands Visitor Center (Great Smoky Mountains NP has 4 visitors' centers! What a bounty of extra memorabilia and passport stamps you can gift yourself with there!) to pick up the kids' next round of junior ranger packets and talk to a ranger about a suggested hike. It was already about 3 p.m. and we knew we'd be hungry for dinner early since we'd refused to stop and just fed the kids PBJs and the last of our fruits and vegetables while riding in the car, so we needed something short, but we also really did want to DO a real hike. Something to make our legs a little shaky and our hearts feel like they were in the Smokies.

The ranger with the delightful dangly bear cub earrings suggested the Laurel Falls hike a 5-10 minute drive up the road. A 1.3 mile semi-paved path hike to a beautiful waterfall sounded perfect, so we drove over, ooohing and aahhing at the views along the way, and pulled right up to the trailhead sign. As it turns out, 3:30 p.m. is a great day to start a hike because everyone else who got there early is tired and leaving all the great parking spots open.

We thought the 1.3 mile trail sign meant round trip, so we just grabbed the camelbak hiking backpack and headed out. The kids took off and this was James and my view basically the entire time.

The trail was lovely and shaded, with lots of off-trail rock climbing possibilities. We finally had to tell the kids they could only climb rocks along they trail if they stayed ahead of us. Once we caught up, you had to jump off your rocks and run far ahead again. This worked well and meant James and I could walk and chat together, controlling the pace, while the kids go to run and climb to their little hearts' content.

While I know it broke a little piece of James's heart to leave the hiking backpack behind (he won't even hear of selling it, though I can't imagine what purpose it serves sitting in the garage) and I deeply miss having a happy little baby or toddler hiker to stick in it, one thing I will remember most from this trip is watching Cora grow in hiking love and confidence.

Charging ahead!

She stayed up with the big kids most of the way.

Climbing all the big rocks, and working SO HARD with her much shorter legs to keep up with their shenanigans. By the end she was dictating which rocks should be climbed on, "just watch this guys, see. did you see guys?" and James and I were cracking up behind her. She may still hate skiing, but we've at least got her hiking.

We got to Laurel Falls, which were actually 1.3 miles in one direction, and they were beautiful.

Just perfect and so fun to explore. Obviously, the kids were off trail immediately.

After a while we started the hike back, the kids keeping their pace but Cora slowly lagging. Finally, she had to call it and pulled on James's hand- "Daddy, my wegs are just too tired.". And so she came down the rest of the mountain like this.

We made it back to the car, gave everyone a granola bar, and consulted yelp on dinner. Our hotel was in Gatlinburg, but we headed to a place in Pigeon Forge that looked tasty. I'm not sure it was actually worth that drive back the other direction, but Pigeon Forge is a CRAZY touristy mecca and it was fun to exclaim over all the themed buildings and entertainment venues along the way. Our hotel turned out to probably be our least nice, but it was absolutely our biggest, with the kids in a separate double queen room with connecting doors to our single queen fireplace room. We each had our own bathrooms and this was the height of luxury. We had the kids in bed with lights out at 8:30 and just LUXURIATED in the ability to exist in a separate space from our children for the first time since Sunday morning. It felt like a honeymoon, except even more so, because on your honeymoon you generally already got to be alone before you went.

2.5 stars of private luxury

On Day 5 we woke up, partook of the hotel breakfast/tea station and headed back into Great Smoky. We'd decided the night before to let go of our dreams of Park #4 (Congaree, in South Carolina) and spend a little more time in the beautiful Smokies, which would also shorten our driving for that day by about 3 hours. It means our map will lack one extra pin, but it was the right call. We'd been doing a TON of driving and truly hadn't felt like we'd "seen" Great Smoky properly yet, so we headed out on the 25 mile journey through the crazy windy road of the park, up to the 11-mile Cade's Cove Loop.

It was beautiful. The drive was beautiful and showed us so much of the park, and Cade's Cove is a gorgeous valley filled with wildlife and historic homes, farms, and even an operating corn mill.

We found our second visitor's center and got out to explore the homes and mill. The mill operator told the kids how it worked and they got to see the corn poured into the grinder to come out corn meal.

They turned in their ranger books and got their third badge of the trip. We were very proud to have such qualified junior rangers.

It's possible I wore all of these.

We saw wild turkeys, deer, and lots of birds, but no bears as it still a little early in the season (though Cora did confidently spot MANY bears, none of these sightings were supported by peer review). We headed out, back down the long windy drive through the park to stop at several of the beautiful rock-filled river spots we exclaimed at along the way.

There's little we like more than jumping on rocks across a river.

Once again, Cora was a confident lead-hiker. "Come on guys, we just have to go this way." she'd exclaim while climbing rocks taller than her. James, of course, found an ill-advised river crossing to jump over to a Spider-man-style flat slanted rock landing. I thought it was a terrible idea that would end with him cold and wet, but he made it and will now jump something even more ridiculous later.

It was an incredibly beautiful morning and finally about 1:00 we decided we needed to stop flirting with cold water and start the drive to Atlanta. We headed out the snow-covered and gorgeous North Carolina side of the park, stopping for more than 30-minutes on a closed road to allow a helicopter to lift giant tree trunks out of the forest ahead of us. This was to be a theme of our alleged 4:30 drive to Atlanta that ended up being 6:30 due to traffic and random things like helicopter stops. We were QUITE done with the car by the time we pulled up to Peachtree City (and by "we" I mean James and I, as always the kids were fine and deeply embedded in Car Mode; though they did ask to not eat PBJ's again for a while/ever, since I fed them those again while driving down the highway), but my aunt and uncle had wine and delicious foods (and a washer and dryer!) waiting for us at the end.

travels in style, always

We'll get to our Atlanta adventures in the next post (we now have a pet whale shark and I've landed an MD-88 airplane), but I forgot to tell you a story from Mammoth Cave. On our second tour, when we were deep under the earth in large, open section of the cave, our ranger told us she had a special treat for us: we had a trio of operatic show choir singers in our group and they were going to sing for us to show off the acoustics of the cave! The ranger brought our singers to the center of the cavern, turned off all the lights, and in the absolute pitch-black darkness, they began to sing the most gorgeous rendition of the Star Spangled Banner in perfect three-part harmony. When it ended and the last notes echoed through the cave, the ranger flipped the soft running lights back on and I could see that at least half the tour group was crying. It was gorgeous and so very special.

As Landon said afterward, "Mom, we get the most special things on our trips. First we get to be the special festival family at Disney World, and now this!" I adore that he puts those two things in the same category, and recognizes how special they are. It was certainly something I'll never forget, and those are the moments you go on vacation for.

1 comment:

  1. I may be crying at your story of the Star Spangled Banner. Love your post! And Landon’s comment.