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United States

The Perfect Mountain Vacation

By Dhara Desai

Last Updated: 30 Aug 2021

Thanksgiving heralds the start of the holiday season and by default, it’s time to get out of town for a break. More so because all of 2020 was spent indoors and pretty much isolated, thanks to the pandemic. Since the situation was significantly improving, our gang (read 4 close-knit friends and their families) decided to take a trip. Still a little wary of traveling in crowds, we decided to do a road trip. So after some deliberation, we decided to drive to Smoky Mountains National Park. Me and my husband were super excited as this gave us an opportunity to visit Chattanooga, which is where our life in the United States began over a decade ago. We planned a 7-day road trip that would cover Chattanooga and Cherokee. Excited about the trip after what seemed like endless exile, we were ready to go! Ahead of us was a fourteen-and-a-half-hour drive from our home in Houston to our destination. We set out at 2 am planning to cover a good part of the journey while the kids were still asleep.

Along the way, the four families caught up with each other and then began our fun trip to the Smoky Mountains. Usually, when visitors plan a trip to the Smoky Mountains, they choose to stay at Gatlinburg. Keeping in mind the pandemic situation, we chose to stay at Cherokee, a place for outdoor enthusiasts. It is located south of the Smoky Mountains and usually remains less crowded. After a 12-hour drive, we reached Chattanooga. The drive into Chattanooga was gorgeous with the fall colors of orange, red and purple splashed all over and the city looked beautiful. We had planned to take a break and stop over here for a day before heading to the Smoky Mountains. While the rest of the group relaxed at the hotel, our family took a trip down memory lane and visited some of the places we stayed in previously. It was amazing to come back after several years, an emotional experience.

A stunning drive into the city of Chattanooga decorated with the colors of Fall

A stunning drive into the city of Chattanooga decorated with the colors of Fall

After a restful night at the hotel, the next morning we headed to Ruby Falls, a famous destination one one of the top things to do in Chattanooga. It is home to the tallest and deepest underground waterfall open to the public in the United States, a hidden beauty inside Lookout Mountain. Unfortunately, we were unable to gain entry to Ruby Falls as there were limited entries per day due to covid restrictions. Disappointed, we decided to go to Rock City Gardens, which was half a mile from Ruby Falls. It was next on our itinerary, anyway. Entry was not as restricted here so we managed to enter and what an amazing place this was! At 1,700 feet above sea level, Rock City Gardens is a perfect blend of manmade setup and natural beauty.

Waterfall at Rock City Gardens in Chattanooga

Enjoying one of the many waterfalls at Rock City Gardens with my kids

Our first stop in this 4,100-foot enchanting trail was Lover's Leap. As the name suggests there is a tragic legend associated with this place. It is believed that a Chickasaw warrior named Sautee loved Nacoochee, a Cherokee maiden. Their two tribes were at war, and the two lovers were found out. Sautee was thrown off this spot atop Lookout Mountain to his death by the Cherokee tribe and Nacoochee jumped to her death following her lover. Despite the unfortunate tale tied to this place, the view is absolutely spectacular and left us awestruck. From here you can also experience Rock City's legendary views of seven states.

Lover's Leap in Rock City Gardens in Chattanooga is the best thing to do

My beloved capturing me against the backdrop of Lover's Leap in Rock City Gardens

As we strolled through the garden, we encountered incredible rock formations, a 100-foot waterfall, magical caves, and incredible views. Every turn had something to explore and like the kids would say, it had a cool factor to it. A Swing-A-Long bridge nearly 200-feet, had adults and kids equally excited. One of the places that really made the kids' day was the Fairyland Caverns. They thoroughly enjoyed the numerous larger-than-life fairytale experiences created with neon lighting and glowing paints. We entered Rock City Gardens at 9 am and it was 3 pm when we left, completely mesmerized by its breathtaking beauty.

The Fairyland Caverns in Rock City Gardens is well lit

My little boy mesmerized by the Fairyland Caverns in Rock City Gardens

After a delightful day at Rock City Gardens, we had a quick lunch and headed to Cherokee, which was a two-hour drive from Chattanooga. The visuals along the way were so captivating that we ended up making several stops. It was the end of fall and the changing seasons was very evident as we traveled from Chattanooga to the Smoky Mountains through Cherokee forest. The landscape metamorphosed from colorful to stark and bare. One of the longer breaks was at a gas station enroute. Not for obvious reasons of refueling but to check out models of fancy big motor bikes that were exhibited there. I guess it is always difficult for men to resist the attraction to extravagant vintage bikes. The owner was running a donation drive where one could take a picture and drop a donation into the bucket.

A true-to-life model of a Harley Davidson at a gas station enroute to Cherokee

A true-to-life model of a Harley Davidson at a gas station enroute to Cherokee

We reached Cherokee after sunset, where we had booked into wooden cabins. This place also had an option to book an RV trailer. We wandered around trying to find our cabins but it was pitch dark and we could not see anything. The kids, who are always enthusiastic, ran around and found the cabins...we were standing right next to them but could not see them. When the kids entered the cabins, there were all these stuffed animals lying around and the TV had a horror movie playing, all adding to the ambience of the place. The kids were spooked out but absolutely loved it! After a fabulous day, the kids snuggled into their cute little bedrooms and drifted away into dreamland and so did the adults, in anticipation of another beautiful day.

A fantastic landscape in Cherokee

Open wide spaces at our stay in Cherokee where RV trailers are also offered besides fantastic wooden cabins

We woke up bright and early the next day and after a hearty breakfast, headed to Smoky Mountains National Park. A 20-minute drive from where we were staying brought us to the enormous park spanning 522,427 acres. The sprawling landscape boasts of lush forests sprinkled with bounteous wildflowers decorated with rivers and waterfalls and magnificent ancient mountains. It is known world over for its stunning biodiversity and epic hikes and is the most visited park in America. It takes a good two-and-a-half hour drive to go from one end of the park to the other and there is a lot to do and see on both the north and south side of the park.

The spectacular view at the Smoky Mountains

Enjoying the spectacular view at the Smoky Mountains

At the south entrance of the park was the Mingus Mill Trail that led us to the historic Mingus Mill. Built in 1886, this historic grist mill was driven by a water-powered, cast iron turbine...rather unique. It is named after John Jacob Mingus, the first Euro-American who arrived and settled in the Oconaluftee valley in the 1790s. This mill was used in the earlier days to grind corn but now is used to generate electricity. This beautiful spot immersed in history is often missed by visitors, but is definitely worth exploring. From here, we headed to the Oconaluftee Visitors Center and The Mountain Farm Museum. The Oconaluftee Visitors Center is a modern state-of-the-art center and is the main information hub for the Smoky Mountains. It is stocked with maps, merchandise and useful resources and of course helpful staff. In contrast is the Mountain Farm Museum that takes you back in time. Farm buildings dating back to the 1900s creates a rustic ambience. The sight of tons of Elks wandering around completed the experience.

The sight of innumerable Elks wandering around at Smoky Mountains

The sight of innumerable Elks wandering around against the stunning falls colors smeared on the mountains is incredible

From here, we headed to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. At a height of 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome offers spectacular 360 degree views of the mist-covered Smoky Mountains and beyond. The steep walkway up to the "flying saucer" takes about an hour and is well worth it. Coming down, we did the Kephart Prong Trail crossing the gorgeous Oconaluftee River. We saw the Historic Kephart Prong CCC Camp and the Kephart Shelter. Our next stop was Mingo Falls and this got the kids super excited. It gets its name from the Cherokee term Mingo which means Big Bear and is also called Big Bear Falls. A lovely 14 mile hike and 161 steps later, we reached this beautiful piece of heaven! Cascading down nearly 200 feet on granite boulders, this majestic waterfall is a sight to behold. While we relaxed at this serene spot, the kids splashed around in the water and of course we had a series of selfie and photo ops sessions. What a fabulous end to day one at Smokies!

The 120-feet tall Mingo Falls in Smoky Mountains

The 120-feet tall Mingo Falls, one of the tallest in Southern Appalachia

After a blissful night's rest, we were all set to venture out on day 2. We started the day with the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This 5.5-mile-long loop road offers gushing mountain streams, old-growth forests, rustic well-preserved log cabins, grist mills, and several historic buildings. This trail leads to the Trillium Gap trail which meanders through stunning forest cover with a smorgasbord of trillium, explaining the name of the trail. We absolutely enjoyed the trek and were rewarded with the glorious Grotto Falls along the way. The sights and sounds were spectacular. There is so much to explore in the Smokies...the views, the ambience and the excitement is enormous. We stopped for lunch at a rustic place along the way. Not only did we have a scrumptious meal, we also got to see some old houses built way back in the 1800s. Still standing strong, they were fascinating and intriguing, telling stories of days gone by.

An ancient abandoned house in Cherokee

An ancient abandoned house in Cherokee that dates back to 1800s

While our time at the Smokies had the kids totally captured and enthralled, we thought of doing something "kid centric" on day 3. So we headed out to Black Bear Zoo. This is a unique attraction that houses many bear species from native black bears to cinnamon bears and grizzlies. The kids spent time watching these giant creatures climb, play, and run around and also fed them, of course under the supervision of trainers. Besides these giants, the zoo is home to exotic tigers and lemurs as well. There is a petting zoo where the kids got to pet pygmy goats, which had them ecstatic.

A lovely experience at Black Bear Zoo in Cherokee

After an exciting time at the zoo, we headed back to our cabins to relax and freshen up. Our entire group was gratified with our experience at the Smoky Mountains National Park. After a harrowing year owing to the pandemic, our trip to the Smoky Mountains was exhilarating and a reassurance that life is good. Time spent with family and friends in the lap of nature is the perfect way to get life back on track with positivity.

Family picutre from atop Smoky Mountains

Picture perfect: My family

We had a 14-hour drive back to Houston ahead of us, but we were all refreshed and grateful for family and friends and all guns blazing to take life head on, once back home. A trip to the mountains gives one a larger perspective of life and the powers of nature instills an inner strength that is indescribable. Homeward bound, until the mountains call again, soon!

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Things To Consider

The summer months and the fall are the best times to visit, with July being the busiest. October is a great time for those in search of autumn foliage.
The rich and distinctively American heritage and culture of the southern Appalachian people who lived in the mountains before it became a national park is preserved beautifully at the Mountain Farm Museum.
Limited food & beverage services are available inside the national park but there are some fabulous restaurants around the park that serve delicious food. Vegetarian food is rather difficult to come by.
Smoky Mountains are a safe place to travel to. Remember you are in a forest area so beware of wildlife. Avoid hiking in the dark and stay together as much as possible. It is called the wilderness for a reason, so stay cautious.
While there are many well known trails, there are also lesser trodden paths that can be adventurous. There are also challenging hikes for seasoned hikers and adventure junkies.
A trip to the Smoky Mountains entails tons of walking so comfortable shoes and clothes is a must. Ensure you carry enough water and stay hydrated. A first-aid kit is useful in case of any injuries.

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