Rocky Top: Our Trip to the Great Smoky Mountains

After our excursion to Cook’s Mountain a few weeks ago, we were ready to spend some time in the actual mountains. Luckily, we already had a long weekend planned in the Smokies.

It was a pretty big adventure since we’d never even taken our camper on the interstate yet, let alone into the mountains. We had been pretty nervous about towing up (and down) Saluda Mountain and Green River Gorge, but the ‘ole family truckster did amazing. In fact, we were really surprised at just how well the 4runner pulled in the mountains.

It took us about six hours to get to Gatlinburg from Lexington, S.C., including bathroom breaks, baby feeding breaks, and a lunch stop. We’d been warned to avoid the Foothills Parkway on our way into Gatlinburg, so we stayed on 321 through Cosby and didn’t encounter any treacherous roads.

We stayed at Greenbrier Campground about five miles east of Gatlinburg, and right across from the Greenbrier entrance to Smoky Mountains National Park. Our site was in the newly developed section of the campground. The site itself was amazing. It backed right up to the Little Pigeon River and was perfectly level. The sites were fairly close to the road, but we didn’t have any issues with road noise. The older part of the grounds was being renovated and featured a nice, modern bathhouse and a well maintained playground.

Our only complaint was the lack of the advertised amenities in the new section. We were excited there would be a playground right across our site to entertain our toddler, but when we arrived we discovered an empty field where the online map had shown the playground. The bath house in the new section also was still under construction. When we mentioned our disappointment about the playground to the front office, they brushed it off and said a lot of people had been disappointed. If that was the case, then it seems like they would put a disclaimer on their website about construction being behind. Thankfully, the beauty of site itself made up for the elusive playground.

We spent our first evening relaxing at the campground. Steven found a nice grocery store about 3 miles from the campground and grabbed some items to make a great dinner. He did mention prices did seem to include a bit of a tourist tax, so keep that in mind when planning.

Day 2: Great Smoky Mountain National Park (Greenbrier and Roaring Forks)

The next day we set out to explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Well, at least some of it, since it covers 522,419 acres or 816.28 square miles. We drove the trials through the Greenbrier section of the park first. And holy butterflies! As we drove 1,000s of brightly colored butterflies fluttered over and around the truck. After following the river deep into the park and enjoying the pristine scenery, we made our way back toward the entrance. We decided to pull off at a parking area right before the entrance to do some exploration on foot. The boys (and mom) quickly stripped off our shoes to dip our toes in the cool water, which was particularly nice since the mercury was starting to rise.

Next, after a lunch break, we drove through downtown Gatlinburg to enter the park further west and do the Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail, a one-way, 6-mile, scenic loop. Roaring Forks was a fun drive filled with lots of twists and turns. There were several trailheads tucked into the trail, some roaring (thus the name of the area) rapids, small waterfalls, and a couple of scenic overlooks. The end of the trail put us back out on the eastern side of Gatlinburg near our camp, so we went back to the campground to enjoy dinner and a campfire.

Day 3: Sky Bridge and Clingman’s Dome

In the weeks leading up to our trip we’d seen several stories about the new Gatlinburg SkyBridge. The attraction, which just officially opened on May 17th, is the longest suspension bridge in North America at 680 ft. across. Excited by the opportunity to be among the first to cross the bridge, we decided to give it a try on Sunday.

After finding a parking spot ($10), we stood in line for the chair lift up to the bridge. Tickets for the experience are $19.95 for adults (12-64) with discounts for kids age 4-11 and seniors 65+. Children 3 and under are free. The line moved quickly and we were soon being shepherded onto the SkyLife (aka chair lift). The view from the SkyLift was beautiful, but there are no seatbelts, so be prepared to hold on tight to any small children.

Just before we boarded the SkyLift we heard an announcement that they were going to pause ticket sales because of high winds on the SkyDeck. We didn’t give much thought to the announcement other than to be thankful we got our tickets when we did. However, once we got to the top, we realized the high winds meant the SkyBridge also was temporarily, but indefinitely closed. Employees suggested we get back in line to head back down the mountain because there was a chance the SkyLift could also be closed. We decided to take a closer look at the SkyBridge and SkyDeck while the line died down. What a view!

After milling around for a few more minutes, we accepted defeat, and made our way back to the SkyLift. But wait! Seconds before climbing onto the lift, I turned around and saw people pouring onto the SkyBridge. It was open! We made a beeline back to the entrance of the bridge, not wanting to miss our opportunity to cross before more wind rolled in. We stepped out onto the wooden planks and slowly began to cross. The bridge had a bit of the bounce and sway you’d expect from a suspension bridge, but overall felt very sturdy. The middle of the bridge features three glass panels that allow you to look down on the 100 feet tall trees below: a truly special experience!

After conquering the bridge (with two kids in tow), we made our way back down to street level. We ate an early lunch and did some window shopping at that Nantahala Outdoor Center. Then we headed to Clingman’s Dome. The highest point in Tennessee at 6,600+ feet. From Gatlinburg it’s a 20-mile drive to the top of the mountain, but it takes about 45 minutes to drive, luckily it’s a beautiful drive. Once you reach the end of the road, there’s a trail that takes you the last half mile to the highest elevation.

We were exploring with my Dad and his girlfriend, who were in town from Indiana for the week, and they assured us it wasn’t a bad climb; however, we were still nervous about hiking with a toddler and infant. So, when both kids fell asleep on the ride up the mountain, we decided to take turns trekking up to the observation deck. I headed up first. Everyone who had told me it was an easy climb, clearly didn’t take my life at sea level or lack of regular cardio into consideration. After more than a couple stops at benches the park had thankfully provided, I made it to the top.

When I was able to breathe again, we started back down the trail. I told my Dad I was glad we decided not to try bringing the kids up, since we’d surely have ended up having to carry the toddler. At about that time, I saw a crazy man trudging up the mountain with a baby strapped to his chest and a toddler riding on his shoulders. Then I realized that crazy man was my husband and those were my kids! Apparently, the kids had woken up and wanted Mommy, so he loaded them up and started up the trail. The toddler made it through the parking lot to the trailhead before he said his feet hurt and requested to be carried. I offered to lighten Steven’s load and took the baby back down the mountain, while he and Everett went up to the observation deck.

Finally, everyone (except the baby) having summited Clingman’s Dome, we loaded up to head back to camp. We had another relaxing (other than the occasional tired toddler meltdown) evening listening to the rapids and enjoying the campfire.

Day 4: Santa Claus-et and Home

Since checkout was at 11 a.m., most of day four was packing up camp and getting ready to head home. But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention our quick trip to Santa Claus-et since it was our son’s favorite activity of the weekend!

We had planned to visit the Christmas-themed store on our way back to camp after Clingman’s Dome, but, unfortunately, it was already closed for the day and wouldn’t reopen until 9:30 a.m. So, after breakfast we made a quick stop. I’m a sucker for a year-round Christmas store because they just make you immediately feel the cheer of the holidays. I also like them because we collect Christmas ornaments on our travels. Our toddler also LOVES Christmas. He also LOVED that Santa Claus-et had a toy room. When I picked him up from daycare on Tuesday and asked him if he told his friends about our trip, he said “yes, I told them I went to the Ho Ho store.” So, it clearly left an impression.

Even if you don’t have kids or a particular affinity for Christmas décor, Santa Claus-et also had their own line of butters and jams, a whole wall of camper flags, and a lot of other fun items.

We left Santa Claus-et with our pockets a little lighter and went back to the campground to finish packing up. It sure was tough to hook-up the camper and say goodbye to Gatlinburg. There was so much more to do! We can’t wait to go back. In fact, I have a feeling this trip was just the beginning of an annual trip to the Great Smoky Mountains!

Mountain in the Midlands

There’s a mountain… in the Midlands!

Last fall we started a quest to visit all of the state parks in South Carolina. So, on days we don’t have a particular destination in mind we let the toddler pick a dot on the map of the parks and point the 4Runner that direction.

This past Sunday morning we woke up itching to spend some time in the great outdoors. Unfortunately, it looked like forecasted storms might thwart our adventures. So, we decided to head out early and stay relatively close to home. The destination selected by our young Navigation Specialist (with a little guidance from Mom) was Poinsett State Park in Pinewood, S.C.

We loaded up with drinks and snacks (though clearly not enough as we would learn later) and headed east. Along the way, we noticed a sign for the Wateree River Heritage Preserve. Having never heard of the preserve we decided to consult Google for more information. We learned the more than 3,600 acre preserve was created in 2015 as part of a mitigation agreement with a mining company. The description said the preserve offered hiking and equestrian trails, hunting, a fishing pond and a mountain! The concept of a mountain in the Sandhills of South Carolina piqued our interest, so we made a mental note to explore the preserve on our way back from our state park visit.

After driving a bit further and detouring down a newly wet and spongy dirt road, we made our way into the park. The forested park was quiet and peaceful, with a slight sense that it could be the setting for a horror movie – I think it was the darkness combined with the trees draped in heavy moss.

We made our way up to the Overlook Shelter first. The small, historic shelter was in a clearing with a nice view of the valley below. Next we drove through the campground. At first I had assumed the area designated by the wooden sign must be the tent camping area since it was off some pretty rough and steep roads, but upon turning the corner, we saw some pretty large travel trailers and motor homes (those are some braves folks!).

In addition to the challenging roads, there didn’t seem to be much to do within walking distance of the campground, other than hiking, of course. However, there was a large fishing pond and a nice office and camp store further into the park. They also had some cabins down another side road.

Still trying to beat the storms we set back out. The park is actually set into the Manchester State Forest, so we drove a few side roads through the forest. Around this time we were getting hungry, but discovered we should have packed lunch since the nearest restaurants were a ways off. Following our stomachs, we started back toward Columbia, but not before we went looking for the mountain supposedly hidden in the Midlands.

We were shocked by what we found upon entering the Wateree River Heritage Preserve! After driving through an ornate iron gate we found immaculate gravel roads and large modern street signs. As instructed by signs, we stopped at a check point soon after entering the preserve and filled out a day use pass. Then we set out to find the mountain.

Despite the street signs, the preserve wasn’t particularly easy to navigate for first-timers. The map at the check point clearly indicated the roads, but didn’t mark any points of interest. So we drove. Eventually we saw a small white sign. It had an arrow pointing left to the fishing pond and right to Cook’s Mountain. We turned right. We expected to make the turn and find the “mountain” was just a small mound in a clearing, but instead the road began to weave upward. Our excitement began to grow as we continued up the hill. Could there really be a secret mountain in the Midlands?

Then we came to the end of the road. The top of Cook’s Mountain.

And it was beautiful!

Maybe not a mountain in the typical sense, the land mass only rises to 372 feet above sea-level, but the scenic overlook provides a breath-taking view of the Wateree River below. Pictures really don’t do it justice.

In fact, I’m a little hesitant to even tell anyone about this hidden gem because I want to keep it to ourselves, but what fun would that be? So, if you find yourself near Columbia, S.C., make the 17 mile drive to Eastover, S.C. and drive up Cook’s Mountain. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. We weren’t! My only word of caution is to bring your chosen bug repellent. The mosquitos seem to be fond of the view, as well.

After our mountain voyage, we made the short drive home, promising to be back for further exploration. It’s amazing the things you find in your own backyard just taking a lazy, Sunday afternoon drive!

The Accidental Overlanders

TripSavvy describes overlanding as a style of travel that involves “covering long distances in a motorized – usually off-road – vehicle, with the emphasis placed less on the destination and more on the journey.”

Dunes on Corolla Beach in the North Carolina Outer Banks.

About a year ago, we found ourselves driving from the Outer Banks of North Carolina in our 2009 Dodge Ram 2500. This trip was like many we’d taken before, except for one important difference: we didn’t have any power steering.

Wrestling that massive hunk of metal more than 400 miles home to the midlands of South Carolina was the beginning of our overland journey, though we didn’t know it at the time.

After several fruitless attempts at resuscitating the old goat, we realized we had some important decisions to make. Ultimately, we decided it was time to cut our losses, give her an honorable retirement, and begin the hunt for a new vehicle.

We looked at every 4WD truck for sale in South Carolina (ok, that might be a very slight exaggeration), but we couldn’t seem to find the right fit for our growing family. We started asking ourselves, do we really need a truck?

At first the thought of driving something without a tailgate was too much for Steven. As a former bull rider and ranch hand, driving a truck was part of his identity. However, having hung up his spurs and begrudgingly moved to the suburbs, even he knew times had changed.

Slowly, the idea of driving an SUV became palatable, but his search became comical as one vehicle he went to test drive got stolen from the lot while he was on his way to the dealership and another got hit on the lot and heavily damaged.

Then the power steering on the Dodge went out. Again.

At this point we were ready for this particular saga to end. The dealership who couldn’t seem to fix our truck offered to give us a good trade-in offer and a good price on a car on their lot. I was more than a little skeptical. A point I (and my pregnancy hormones) made clear to the salesman. But Steven, not wanting to sink more funds into the truck, agreed to hear them out.

We met on the lot, and discovered the 4WD options in our price range were limited. The one vehicle that seemed to tick off all of our boxes was a 2016 Toyota 4Runner. After giving her a quick test run, I left the decision up to Steven.

Later that evening, to my surprise, he returned home with his first non-truck.

We began watching vlogs featuring 4Runners and became more and more excited about the capabilities of our new ride. We started hitting local dirt roads and trails (did I mention I was four months pregnant?!). Before long we were loading up our toddler and taking mini-adventures every weekend. 

We became passionate about making the most of our time together. Hitting the road gave us an escape from the daily grind we hadn’t even known we’d been seeking. Now, as a family of four, we’re continuing our quest to unplug, explore, and make memories.

So, I guess you can say, we didn’t find overlanding. It found us, and we’re so grateful it did. 

We can’t wait to see where the road takes us next! See you down the road (or maybe off the road)!