Category Archives: Road Trip

How to See Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Smoky Mountains
Great Smoky Mountains Park, Roaring Fork Drive

I wrote here about the Great Smokies, which we visited this summer on our road trip, but now I have written a more detailed guide for three ways to explore the national park. You can see it at My Itchy Travel Feet. Visit Roaring Fork, Cade’s Cove, and Clingmans Dome.

Smoky Mountain
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cade’s Cove drive-through barn
Smoky Mountains
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Clingman Dome observation tower.

Germany in Georgia

My 48th State – Georgia

Changing planes at the Atlanta Airport did not count, I decided. Nor did the half day drive between Alabama and Chattanooga Tennesee that I wrote about previously. That was a great drive, but not an overnight.  If I wanted to check off Georgia as a state I had visited, I needed to see some unique Georgia sites and spend at least one night.

No seashore, islands, plantations, or even the bustling city of Atlanta on this trip, but instead, a scenic byway through the mountains of northern Georgia and a pretend German town, Helen, Georgia. The northeast corner of Georgia in the Blue Ridge Mountains, boasts some beautiful scenery. Particularly approached as we did coming down on byways from North Carolina.

Now I’m keeping track of U.S. theme towns that think they are in some other country. I’ve visited some. I have  been to the  charming Leavenworth Washington and the delightful Fredericksburg Texas, two towns that are wannabe German. But you could also visit Hermann Missouri , Frankenmuth Michigan, or the Amana Colonies in Iowa. In my home county of Holmes in Ohio, there’s a Berlin (pronunciation BER-lin after World War I), but its theme is Amish rather than just German.

In California, we stopped off in lovely Solvang, that  pretends it is Danish. I haven’t been to the other Scandinavian town I’ve read about–New Sweden, Maine. I also have not visited Lindsborg Kansas, that calls itself Little Sweden USA.

Downtown Helen Georgia

In Helen, we stayed at one of the lodgings that had been made  to echo Bavaria. (Even the Motel 6 and the Wendy’s look Bavarian instead of mid-century American.) We opted for a corny Heidi Inn, a non-chain place where we could have taken a room in the windmill tower.

Heidi Motel, Helen Georgia

Since we didn’t have long enough hair to let down a la Rapunzel, however, we settled for a ground level room.

Heidi Hotel front, Helen Georgia

Now, I realize that these pictures make the town and the motel look rather appealing, but pictures can be deceiving. I did not link to the motel, because I cannot recommend it. Only a few places that we entered looked like they were making an effort to be spruced up and present a truly Bavarian air.  Most of the town looked shopworn and beat down by the recession.  We were disappointed by everything except the cheerful and helpful server in the restaurant where we had dinner.

Our experience no doubt was colored by a very different impression of Leavenworth Washington, where everything seems to be newly painted and spruced up.

With the exception of motels and some of the restaurants, you have to pay $5.00 flat to park anywhere in town (for two minutes or the whole day).  Even if you are just planning to pop into a souvenir shop, it will cost you $5.00. It irritated us so much that we did not spend any time shopping. Their loss.  For a tourist town, and one that was pretty empty, that seems like a pretty poor policy. There is free parking on top of a very steep hill at a city park, and the town is fairly small, so if you are staying the night and are hearty, you can leave your car at a motel and walk around.

Fortunately, our breakfast the next morning at Hofer’s Bakery -Konditorei nearly made up for the rest of our experience. (And they had ample free parking)  My breakfast of various German-style sausages and other meats took me back to our trip from Munich to Austria through the heart of Bavaria. The decor was authentic. A terrific mural shows the whole process of a loaf of bread from wheat field to bakery shelf. they even had grocery shelves devoted to German items. I just noticed that you can buy their baked goods on line, so if you’re homesick for Germany, take a look.

All in all, my advice is to enjoy the scenic northeastern corner of Georgia, drive through Helen and make a stop at Hofer’s, but do not plan on stopping long.

Clearly, my visit to my 48th state was a mixed experience and there is much more to the state than the tiny corners that we drove through. If you want to see backroads Georgia, as I mentioned in my article on Alabama, the Lookout Mountain Parkway takes you to the fantastic state park, Cloudland. I was so impressed that if I get back to Georgia, I will definitely explore more state parks.

The Great Smoky Mountains

Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Tennessee

The first time I visited The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, both of us were babies. In 1936 the park was born. In 1939 I was born. In September 1940 President Roosevelt dedicated the park.In the summer of 1941, I visited the park with my parents, grandparents and great aunt. In June 2015 I’m back.

VMB Great Smokeys Road Trip 1941
VMB Great Smokeys Road Trip 1942

This is a picture of my daddy and me on that long ago road trip, but I don’t know exactly where it was taken.(Not in the park.) Do you recognize the monument?

Paul Kaser and VMB in Great Smokeys 1941

We entered the park from Gatlinburg, and stopped at the Sugarland Welcome Center. A short nature trail there provides a good intro and you can get maps and booklets and great temptations in the gift shop. From the welcome center take the drive that goes out to Cade’s Cove. You’ll see wildlife..We just missed a family of bears …And many of the buildings of the farming community that existed here before the park displaced them.

By the way, bears are very aggressive this summer, so heed the warnings and use common sense.

Travel Photo, nature trail in Tennessee
Leaves on Sugarlands nature trail, Great Smoky Mountains Tennessee

The next day, we followed the shorter loop out of Gatlinburg called Roaring Fork, a stunningly beautiful drive through light and shade streaked trees forming cathedrals of nature with the road as the central aisle.

Then we headed up the mountains to the highest point, Clingman Dome. Along the way we had plenty of opportunity to see views like this. (I took this one a couple of years ago from a cabin.)

Smokey Mountains--View from Dollywood Vacation Cabin
Smokey Mountains–View from Dollywood Vacation Cabin, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

We climbed the 1/2 mile trail (300’gain in elevation) to the observation tower and huffed and puffed.

Smoky Mountains
Smoky Mountains National Park, Clingman Dome observation tower.

Would have felt cockier had not we met hikers pausing on their Appalachian Trail hikes. That is the real deal. (See Bill Bryson’s great book on the Appalachian Trail. A Walk in the Woods).

Smoky Mountains
Smoky Mountains Park where Appalachian Trail meets Clingman’s Dome

Although the mountains have not changed perceptively since FDR and later a baby VMB visited, there are, fortunately, more and better roads and facilities and unfortunately man-made haze sometimes obscuring the “smoke” of low hanging clouds for which the area is named.

We were at the Smokies during the high tourist season and on a weekend so cars lined up on the roads and finding a parking spot took great patience. But still, the peace of nature will soothe the soul of anyone who has had to cope with Pigeon Forge, in my opinion a town to be avoided.

Three towns line up along the highway called Parkway, north of the park itself. At the top, Sevierville, then Pigeon Forge, then Gatlinburg. Pigeon Forge is the home of Dollywood, a downright charming amusement park that outclassed the endless row of tacky entertainments in the town. In town, you can eat dinner while watching lumberjack compete. Bungee jump above the chaos of downtown. Drive on mini race ways. Eat at every fast food joint known to man or at pancake houses vying to be the hokiest.

On one section of parkway, I amused myself as we crept along in bumper to bumper traffic by jotting down the restaurants in a row…broken up only by one chain motels along the way…
Golden Corral
Long John Silver
Burger King

A veritable convention of healthy eating!

Gatlinburg, although plagued with similar crowds, has less garish entertainments. The very nice Aquarium, for instance and an impressive convention center. Gatlinburg is also known as a craft center and in general just seems more grown up than Pigeon Forge.

Pigeon Forge
Pigeon Forge Inn at the River balcony

So where did we spend two nights? Because I was being a cheapskate and didn’t like the prices of cabins, we stayed in the non chain Inn at the River in (blush) Pigeon Forge. It was, however a very nice motel with a balcony overlooking Little Pigeon Creek with big trees and little ducks and entertaining geese. You could almost forget the madness out on the street. Particularly with a new and delightful seafood restaurant, Harpoon Harry‘s next door.

Our 2nd night, we escaped Pigeon Forge and went out of town to Wear’s Valley to a great home cooking, locally sourced food place called Elvira’s. Highly recommend the 10 mile drive.

I was a bit depressed thinking about all those families dropping hundreds of dollars on amusement park stuff and probably never savoring the natural beauty of the surrounding Great Smokies. But then, if all of them descended on the National park, we would never have been able to drive or hike in peace. So keep up the good work, Pigeon Forge.

In parting, here’s one of those photos parents take solely to embarrass their children. Me, going, on my first road trip.

Great Smokeys Trip 1942 VMB
Great Smokeys Trip 1941 VMB