Vacation Time: North to the Smokies and DC

Vacation Time: North to the Smokies and DC

Scrambling to get in a vacation before the first day of Kindergarten, we escaped the summer heat and pointed our car north, spending two weeks frolicking in the cold streams of North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains and the air conditioned museums of Washington, DC. If I captured a day-by-day journal of our travels, I’m afraid this blog would turn into a book, so instead I’ll share some of the highlights and memorable adventures.

Our Cabin

Alarka Creek Cabin 2

When the listing on our Alarka Creek Cabin said Bryson City as the location, I pictured a small cabin on a creek just on the outskirts of the town’s main street. However, when the directions arrived via email, we found ourselves driving deep into the woods 15 minutes from the nearest cell phone and Internet connections. I must admit, at first it took a little adjusting. But after a day or so of being completely unplugged, we began to relish in our daily duties of exploring the creek running through our backyard, collecting fireflies in the nearby field and passing away the evening playing board games. The giant black snake eating his dinner off our back porch was an added bonus for the kids as was the family of frogs living underneath the garden water hose.

Waterfall at Deep Creek in Great Smoky Mountain NP

The Views
As we stood on the Blue Ridge Parkway gazing at the fog hovering between the blue-shaded rows of mountains before us, we remembered what draws us back year after year. Perhaps those who live in these parts are accustomed to the daily beauty of the Smoky Mountains, but to a family growing up on the Gulf Coast’s flat horizon, it’s a rare and awe-inspiring site. It’s a place that spurs the imagination, where a walk through an old homestead creates amazement at the hardiness of early settlers and quick moving fog prompts a five-year-old’s questions as to where the smoke machine is located. Throw in a few magical waterfalls at Deep Creek, hikes through Joyce Kilmer’s old growth forest and displays of mad kayaking skills at the Nantahala Outdoor Center, and you have the prime setting for a place where dreams are brought to life.

Salamanders

One of the many salamanders we found

After last year’s disappointment at not discovering a single salamander, a staffer at our favorite nature center in Highlands, NC, let us in on the secret. These shyest of creatures are found “under” the rocks, not on top. So low and behold, our five-year-old led us on daily excursions into icy cold streams to lift every accessible rock present. We were rewarded with countless salamanders, some black, some blue with spots and some so fast their color was a blur. Our best searching spots were at the end of the path leading out from Mingus Mill, in the pool at the base of Indian Creek Falls at Deep Creek, at the Highlands Botanical Garden and on the moist, loop trail behind the Peaks of Otter Visitor Center.

The City

Great Falls as seen from Maryland

We don’t often take our kids to big cities, for obvious reasons starting with their tendency to wander off on a whim. Yet, after previously living in DC, we felt comfortable shuffling them around the metro to some of our favorite haunts. To ease them into the transition from wilderness to concrete, we started off at Great Falls, where the Potomac River drops 77 feet in less than a mile. The walk along the C&O Canal reminded us of our wish to bike the entire 184.5 miles and started the wheels spinning on how old the kids would need to be before we could embark on this trip.

U.S. Capitol

Next, we were off to visit our old friend Abe, who despite recovering from a recent vandalism attempt, still sat as impressive as ever. On the opposite end, we walked the Capitol steps on our way to the Botanic Gardens, one of our all-time favorite places. Of course, there was the dinosaur exhibit at the Natural History Museum (twice!), the Carousel ride on the National Mall and a tour at my husband’s previous employment – The Phillips Collection (one of the best art museums NOT on the Mall).

Unexpected Finds
No matter how well you explore an area, there are always unexpected surprises that pop up in every trip. This time we ventured off the highway to Virginia’s Grayson Highlands State Park, where wild ponies run free and a hike through the forest leads to a rock outcrop with outstanding views of the state’s two highest mountains.  On the road there, we nearly missed the state’s Marion Fish Hatchery and made a quick u-turn to stop by. It was our lucky day, as a bear had ripped the feeder off the wall the night before, so instead of buying a handful of fish food for a quarter, we were rewarded with a whole bucket of food to feed every fish in the hatchery. The kids squealed as the fish splashed and jumped at the food, and our oldest found a new best friend in the manager who gave us a personal tour of the facility.

 

Monticello’s Gardens

Our other surprise was in Charlottesville, Va., where we stopped off for another look at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Years ago when we visited here, you could drive straight to the house, park beside the bookstore/gift shop and snap a few photos without even buying a tour ticket. Today, the UNESCO World Heritage Site greets visitors with an expansive entrance, complete with a movie, children’s Discovery Room, cafe and gift shop. The home itself is hidden from view, accessed by a shuttle ride up the hill. Despite our surprise, we paid the $24/person fee and embarked on a journey through his home and extensive gardens. If you’ve never been, it’s still well worth the visit to learn about this fascinating president.

Walled garden at the University of Virginia

Below his mountain, on the campus of the University of Virginia, we picnicked on the main lawn and then set off to investigate the walled gardens of the Academical Village. It was a private, magical place, where individual gates led from one small manicured garden to the next. Here, in the middle of campus, tiny bunnies raced across the grass to hide in thick bushes, and we found ourselves not able to stop exploring until we had found each and every garden.

A Few Parting Photos
Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee Visitor Center at Smoky Mountains NP
One of our scenic hiking trails
And one of the beautiful creeks in the Smokies
Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello
Can you spot the salamander?
A tranquil pool at Great Falls

 

Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum
Abraham Lincoln Memorial

 

Feeding ducks by the reflecting pool and Washington Monument

 

Feeding the fish at the Fish Hatchery

 

Enjoying the view at Grayson Highlands

 

Early Summer Vacation: Great Smoky Mountains

Early Summer Vacation: Great Smoky Mountains

Occasionally our wanderings across Louisiana lead beyond the state’s border, taking us farther out into the rest of the country. Last week, we rooted our jackets out of the far reaches of the closet and kicked off the arrival of summer heat with a trip to the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina.

Balsam Mountain Inn

We’d been to this area a few times before, staying in cabins or a lodge along the Blue Ridge Parkway. This time, however, we landed a Groupon deal at Balsam Mountain Inn and spent five fantastic days there. The first overnight guests to the three-story inn arrived via railroad in 1908 and carried their trunks up the steep hill to the front porch steps.

More than 100 years later, the original 100 rooms have been converted into 50 rooms, each with private bathrooms, but the rustic charm still remained. Rows of rocking chairs graced the first and second story porches, providing a relaxing spot to sip wine and gaze out at the mountains. The inn offered neither TVs nor telephones, but a cozy library and armoires overflowing with puzzles and board games provided hours of entertainment. The kids loved the claw-foot tub and window seats in our third-floor suite, and I looked forward to waking up every morning to a phenomenal breakfast served in their bright and cheery dining room.

Our days were filled with short hikes, picnics beside mountain streams and, of course, bug-filled adventures. Every afternoon coffee cup was recycled as a bug catcher, and by the end of the week, 4-year-old Charles had lined our window seats with tadpoles, snails and butterflies. The cricket had become his best friend and was allowed to sit on his shoulder–walking back and forth across his back, while the salamanders were lucky enough to slither away.

Abandoned church in Cataloochee Valley

We explored the far reaches of the national park, driving up and over the mountains to enter the secluded Cataloochee Valley. Once home to a thriving community of 1,200 people, they all left in a mass exodus when the U.S. government began buying up land to form the national park. Today, their homes, churches and schoolhouse stand as quiet reminders of earlier times. Like others before us, we walked through the empty rooms, imagining the children’s laughter that once echoed in the halls. Our hike to one abandoned home led us across small footbridges, a splash through the river bed and down a trail frequented by wild turkeys.

Waterfall along the Blue Ridge Parkway

Another day’s adventures brought us to the waterfalls of Deep Creek, where countless locals and tourists were braving the excruciatingly freezing waters to glide down the river in inner tubes. We watched in amazement, comparing our attire of long jeans and long-sleeve shirts to their bathing suits, and shaking our heads, continued on to play beside the peaceful pool at the bottom of Indian Creek Falls.

Outside Brevard, we discovered the Cradle of Forestry–the birthplace of forest conservation in America, and afterwards the kids fed the hundreds of trout growing up in the Pisgah Forest Fish Hatchery down the road. Just beyond Cherokee, a visit to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill brought a fleeting longing for simpler days, followed by a new appreciation for the conveniences we have today.

On our final evening, we stood at the highest point on the Blue Ridge Parkway and watched the setting sun cast a brilliant glow over the famously hazy mountains. It was a trip to remember and one we’ll most likely take again to break up the long, hot days of a New Orleans’ summer.

Sunset over the Smoky Mountains