Day Four of our vacation was packed with science (U.S. Space and Rocket Center), heavy traffic (Chattanooga) and incredible natural beauty.
Day Five was a taste of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
1) I was not expecting such a gorgeous drive! Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina are spectacular. We even stopped serendipitously at the site of the 1996 Olympic kayaking river as well as several TVA spots;
2) The traffic in Chattanooga was 6 lanes of bumper-to-bumper, stop-and-go on the Interstate. It took us a long time to get through. I didn’t know if this heavy traffic was normal or not. I still don’t know. From Chattanooga to our hotel in North Carolina, we went from six lanes of traffic to four, to two, to a shared one lane for about a mile along a river which had claimed half the road earlier in the season. That evening, at our hotel in NC, we learned of the horrid killings at the Chattanooga military recruitment centers, just 3 hours before we passed through. Perhaps there was that unusual reason for crowded roads that afternoon.
The Blue Ridge Parkway!
I rode on a stretch of this highway once before when our family drove back from Florida. What I remember of it as a seven-year-old was my father cursing the entire time that there were so many curves and hills that he couldn’t go faster than 45 mph. He got off it at the first possible opportunity. Me? It is one of the most beautiful roads I’ve ever been on. Besides the spectacular mountain views, there were tunnels and a mile-high marker through the Indian reservation and history! We stopped at several of the overlooks where we both clicked away madly on our iPhones. At one stop, Jeff finally commented, “Oh, look. More shots of hazy mountains and lots of trees.” Yeah, but gorgeous hazy mountains and lots of trees!
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park!
There is only one paved road through Smoky Mountains National Park. If you come at it from the west in Tennessee, like we were, then when you land at the eastern entrance (North Carolina), you must either do a U-turn or go around the outside of the park by secondary roads to head back north. However, with our southern side trip from Nashville to Huntsville (U.S. Space and Rocket Center), there are roads you can wiggle along to get to the eastern entrance. Gorgeous roads.
We spent the night in Sylva, NC, surrounded by hazy blue-green mountains. I had planned for one day to see the Smoky Mountains. I know. Right? Impossible. But knowing how long to drive down there from our home, and how many other things we wanted to see during this trip as well, one day was all I could reasonable schedule for a taste of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We were at the park at the height of tourist season. Hiking on one of the Quiet Walkways was not in the least quiet. Even though the trail moved perpendicular to the road, ho-boy: the traffic noise! It was also hot and humid, and loaded with mosquitoes. Only one day in mid- July was a good enough taste for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I’ll return someday where there are less people and less mosquitoes…oh, and less heat.
Pigeon Forge, TN
To end our day, we drove through the western entrance and through the town of Pigeon Forge. Now, if you knew anything about this place, you’d know to either avoid it or stay for a few days. We knew nothing. It took us longer to get through that town than it did Chattanooga. There must be 10,000 dinner theatres along that strip. And to think (oh, horror), I almost got us a hotel in that town. So if you’re looking for a place with cars for kids to drive, water parks, or 10,000 different themed dinner parks to choose from, Pigeon Forge is your destination spot. If you just want to get through the town — find a way around it!