Hey, it’s hiking week here at Boxy Colonial! (Next week really should be bathroom week. We’re working hard to make it so).
(So I know there have been a lot of travel posts lately. I don’t really see an end in sight for this, as we have a lot of trips planned for the next….umm, the rest of our lives? At least the next couple of years. I don’t know how people feel about this. I actually toyed around with the idea of starting a second blog for travel stuff, but then I ran the idea past a few blogging friends, and they were all, “what? are you insane? don’t start another blog, dummy. That’s too many blogs.” They didn’t say it quite like that. But, yeah. I can just barely keep up with one blog.
At the same time, I’m pretty devoted to continuing to blog about travel. I like it. Would people rather I keep the posts to a certain day of the week? Travel Tuesday? Wednesday Wanderings? Just a random day unconnected to any alliteration? Or does no one really care but me?)
Last year we went on a quick trip to Athens for Ari’s birthday, and this year we offered to do another trip for his 14th birthday, and he agreed. We settled on a three night trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We’d actually never been there before, despite living only four hours away and despite having taken two trips to Dollywood, in nearby Pigeon Forge, in the past few years. This makes me feel sort of silly, so I’m glad we’ve remedied that situation now.
We decided to bring the dogs with us, since we’re already imposing on all our regular dog sitters quite a bit over the next year or so. I spent a long time looking at pet friendly cabin and cottage rentals in both Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, but ultimately ended up at this cottage in Pigeon Forge; it was lovely and very clean, and it worked out really well.
When I was trying to decide where to stay, my main focus was on choosing between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Now that I’m a super seasoned National Park visitor, I’ll say that, if I had it to do over again, I’d choose a quieter town. I overestimated how much the kitschy tourist stuff in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg would excite the kids, and I also maybe overestimated how many of the kitschy things we’d be willing to spend money on when there was a giant, beautiful National Park to explore for free right next door. I will say that Dollywood is a lovely park and we’ve had a great time there on past trips; so we might do Pigeon Forge again when Abe is older so we can split time between Dollywood and the NP.
We left as early as we could manage on Tuesday morning, with a minivan packed very full with six people and three dogs, and big plans to stop for lunch at a dog-friendly nature center in Knoxville that I’d found online. But then we hit some traffic and it was slower going than expected, and everyone was getting pretty hungry, so we decided on the spot to stop for lunch at Harrison Bay State Park just past Chattanooga. Aside from the fact that we had to be on alert in case of a nuclear disaster:
….everything seemed to be going well. We had a nice little picnic and then went on a nature walk by the lake:
We got back in the car and congratulated ourselves on being so fun and spontaneous. Normally I’m, uhh….kind of a planner.
Then we started to find the ticks. No big deal at first….dogs are bound to pick up a tick or two after a walk in the woods, right?
But then we KEPT ON finding ticks. So many ticks. Not a single person or dog escaped. A bit of googling revealed that what we were dealing with was lone star ticks, a sort of tick I’ve never encountered at home. Lone star ticks are NASTY, MEAN little suckers (pun very much intended). They hunt you down and then latch on super fast. We found adults and tiny little nymphs, which were virtually impossible to find in the dogs’ fur. More google research revealed that they can transmit a Lyme-like illness (Milo and Gus both got Lyme Disease on Cape Cod a few years ago and we have a friend whose son had a really bad case of it, so we’re on the paranoid side when it comes to tick diseases) and…..red meat allergies. I’m sorry, but a red meat allergy just really won’t work for me. So I hope I didn’t get one. So far, so good. Knock on wood.
So we spent much of our first day of vacation pulling ticks off of each other and the dogs, which was not a whole lot of fun. At one point our tick paranoia reached such a high level that we briefly attempted to pull Rory’s nipple off with a pair of tweezers. Sorry, Rory! Who knew the spots on his skin were exactly the same color as lone star ticks?!
I think the lesson here is clear: NEVER BE SPONTANEOUS.
It can only lead to terrible parasites, disease, and crippling allergies.
But eventually we made it to Pigeon Forge! We actually got to our rental house at 4:00 on the dot, which was the check-in time, so it worked out pretty well. We unpacked the car and then headed out to dinner….just in time to get caught in a hailstorm. More good luck! But dinner was good (we ate at JT Hannah’s, based on the list of recommended restaurants on a sheet in our rental), and by the time we finished, the sky was blue:
We’d originally planned to do our one big Pigeon Forge thing, the Titanic Museum, that first night, but we were all too tired after an afternoon of dealing with ticks. So we went back to the house and went to bed instead.
Our plan for the next day was to spend the morning getting acquainted with the national park and, of course, picking up Junior Ranger books.
Great Smoky Mountains NP is, I’m told, the most visited national park in the country. And it’s huge, with a Tennessee side and a North Carolina side. There was no way we were going to see all of it on a three day trip. But we did do a good job of hitting the highlights in the area close to Gatlinburg I think.
Our rental house was maybe 15 minutes away from the park entrance, and a really lovely drive. We went to the Sugarlands Visitor Center first to kind of get an idea of where to go next and to get Junior Ranger books for Milo and Gus. Junior Ranger books are nearly always free, but here you have to buy them in the gift shop for $2.50 each. On the other hand, national parks this big and popular nearly always charge an entrance fee, and the Smokies doesn’t, so we really came out ahead.
At the visitor center, we also watched a movie about the park and explored the small museum.
I’m happy to report that this Junior Ranger experience was totally positive. I read on one site that the NPS is gradually redoing all the Junior Ranger books to be make them less…convoluted, so perhaps our not so great Chickamauga experience will soon be a thing of the past. Gus is only nine, but he insisted on getting the book for 11 and 12 year olds that Milo was doing. But it worked out just fine. It would have been challenging to finish the whole book in a one day visit, but they had no trouble getting it done in three. And I think it really helped them get more excited about the experience and learn a lot. They had to collect a bag of trash and turn it in, do a nature scavenger hunt, draw or write about something they saw, and hunt for assorted kind of leaves, among other things:
They were also supposed to attend a ranger program. And, of course, I’m always up for a ranger program. Unfortunately, we were told that all the ranger programs were canceled while we were there because the rangers were all working nights for the synchronous fireflies. The synchronous fireflies sound amazing, but we didn’t find out about them until right before our trip, too late to get tickets. So that was kind of a bummer. But they had an alternate activity for kids who were there when there were no ranger programs; they could either do a scavenger hunt in the museum or answer a sheet of questions about the movie. We’d just watched the movie, so we opted for that one.
Next up (after stopping for a picnic lunch at a little park by the river in Gatlinburg) we drove on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This is a 5 1/2 mile one way drive that winds through the mountains and along streams. It’s a very pretty drive, and there are lots of places to pull over and go for a hike or look at scenic/historic stuff. Like there’s this:
My fear of heights was nicely in check for this whole trip, incidentally. Trees help a lot. Gus started out a little panicky (at first he didn’t want to get out of the car here, for example), but he got better as the trip went on.
We stopped to look at a couple of the approximately 80 gazillion old cabins in the park:
A guy who was leaving as we got there told us there was a rattlesnake in that cabin in front. Dave and the kids set off to investigate:
There WAS a snake. But not a rattlesnake. Just a regular old more scared of you than you are of it kind of snake.
I became obsessed with taking pictures of kids peeking out of old cabins:
Everywhere you go in the Smokies, there are ridiculously picturesque mountain streams:
That one’s actually a barn. And a rock wall. I’m glad I didn’t have to build that rock wall.
We kind of treated this trip like all the guidebooks say you should do Disney World trips: we got out early and did stuff, came back to the house for an afternoon break, then went back out for evening fun. One of the days, Abe actually took a nap when we did this! It was this first full day, in fact.
After Abe’s nap and a walk for the dogs (and more rain. But no hail this time), we drove into Pigeon Forge and parked in an area near the Old Mill. For the most part, Pigeon Forge is pretty sprawly and not at all walkable. But this little area had a lot close together, and we had a nice time walking around and looking at stuff before dinner. Abe got this stuffed bear at the Sugarlands gift shop. His name is Fred:
We watched some blacksmithing:
We did some shopping:
And we ate here:
This restaurant was good, but fairly unremarkable….except for the fact that they make all their own dishes and sell them at the pottery shop next door.
….and I’m going to cut this off and now and save my recap of our trip to the Titanic museum for another post. You see why I thought about a separate blog? This is 2000 words long with like 400 pictures, and I’m not even to the TITANIC yet!