Comments 14 Aside

We’re currently on the Atlantic coast of north Florida; the events covered in this post (Nov 16-22) occurred before the recent snow storms hit the Carolinas.

We left Gaffney, South Carolina soaking wet, but happy that Betsy had come out of the Freightliner shop in good shape.  We camped at Carowinds Campground, just south of Charlotte, NC as our home base during our long-awaited visit with dear friends Joe and Judy. Continue reading

Tackling “The Big Nipple” – Pinnacle, NC

Comments 13 Standard
Big Pinnacle, Pilot Mountain

With Betsy’s annual check-up completed and her new “shoes” installed, we were excited to end our “parking lot camping” and get back on the road.  Our destination this time was Pilot Mountain, near Mount Airy, North Carolina.

Pilot Mountain

Pilot Mountain viewed from Highway 52

Pilot Mountain is capped by a prominent pinnacle called the Big Nipple, or Big Pinnacle. That’s the knob of rock on the left in the image above.  The curved depression between the ridge sloping to Little Pinnacle to the right gives the entire mountain a distinctive shape from a distance, especially from highway 52.

Big Pinnacle, Pilot Mountain

The Big Pinnacle of Pilot Mountain

The close-up shot above of Big Pinnacle shows that it has walls of bare rock and a rounded top covered by trees.  Those walls rise 200 feet, and below is a shot I took of them on the day we hiked up there.

Big Pinnacle, Pilot Mountain

Looking up at the amazing rock formations from the base of Big Pinnacle

Naturally, we were inspired to hike up to the base of the Big Pinnacle.  That’s as high as we could go, since the sheer rock walls of the pinnacle are impassable.  As usual, we stopped by the Pilot Mountain State Park office to learn how this mountain got its name.

We learned that the mountain was known as Jomeokee, the “Great Guide” or “Pilot.”  It guided both Native Americans and early European hunters along a north-south path through the area.  Rising to an elevation of 2421 feet, this solitary quartzite mountain, part of the ancient Sauratown Mountain range, has been dedicated as a National Natural Landmark and was now our beacon to hike and explore.

Base of Big Pinnacle

Big Pinnacle, Pilot Mountain

How the heck can trees survive on those rocks?

There’s an easy way to get to the top, and that is to drive all the way up and park your car, then take a short walk to enjoy the vistas from Little Pinnacle Overlook.  From there, another short walk will get you to the base of the Big Pinnacle.  But you don’t think we did it the easy way, do you?  Of course not!

Pilot Mountain

View of the town of Pilot Mountain

Big Pinnacle, Pilot Mountain

Layered stone is what we saw around the base of Big Pinnacle

Little Pinnacle Overlook

View from Little Pinnacle Overlook

Instead, we combined three of the park’s trails on our first hike.  We started on the Grindstone Trail, which we followed for three miles from the entrance parking lot to the top of Little Pinnacle.  Then we picked up the Jameokee Trail, a .8 mile loop around the shoulder of Big Pinnacle.   Finally, on our way back down we followed the Ledge Spring Trail, a long, steep rocky descent.

We stopped at a cliff along the trail to enjoy the views of the surrounding countryside, as we searched for Betsy from Big Pinnacle.  The other rig you see below wasn’t there when we left home, and it was gone when we got back from our 7-mile hike.  Strange…

Big Pinnacle, Pilot Mountain

Betsy at the far left – she looked so lonesome down there

Big Pinnacle, Pilot Mountain

Our only wildlife sighting, a scared deer along Ledge Spring Trail

On another day we tackled the southern leg of the mountain, this time combining the Grindstone Trail, Mountain Trail and Grassy Ridge Trail, for a total of 8 miles.  Although the Mountain Trail is rated strenuous, it was really a piece of cake after our previous hike, as there was very little elevation change and we were basically just walking around the mountain.  There were no boulders or rocks to scramble over, which is what we usually consider strenuous.

Mountain Trail

Strenuous?  Not!

Mountain Trail

American Turtle

Our only wildlife on the second hike, a tortoise who didn’t look too happy to see me

Admission to this state park was free, and we hiked all of its trails during our stay.  Now that’s what we call a good stop!

Next, we decided to head up to Mount Airy, NC to look around, since it was less than 20 miles away.  Some of you may know that Mount Airy is also known as Mayberry, RFD, since Andy Griffith was born and raised there.  Although there is no real place called Mayberry, Mount Airy has definitely capitalized on the TV show’s popularity, turning the town into quite the tourist area for Andy Griffith fans.  Besides the Andy Griffith Museum, there are several businesses named after locations on the show – like Floyd’s Barber Shop.  Everything here is Mayberry this and Mayberry that.

Our lunch at Snappy Lunch was a pleasant surprise – look at those prices!  I had the Famous Pork Chop Sandwich and Steve had the BLT.  Both were good and well worth the money.

Snappy Lunch

Steve has always been interested in planes, trains and automobiles, and if you’ve been following us you know we try to hit those kinds of museums whenever we get a chance.  So when Steve heard about the NC Transportation Museum we decided to drive down to Spencer and check it out.

NC transportation Museum

The NC Transportation Museum is located on the site of what was once Southern Railway Company’s largest steam locomotive servicing facility, Spencer Shops.  The site was chosen in 1896 because of its midpoint location between the railroad’s major terminal points in Washington, DC and Atlanta, GA.  During its heyday, Spencer Shops employed 3,000 people, providing most of the jobs for the town of Spencer and its neighboring communities.

NC Transportation Museum

The brick Back Shop – once the largest industrial building in NC

The museum is largely devoted to the state’s railroad history; however, its collection also includes exhibits of automobiles and aircraft.  It is the largest repository of rail relics in North and South Carolina.

NC Transportation Museum

Relics of the past

The highlights of our visit here were the Back Shop and the Roundhouse.  The Back Shop is a massive building that served as the major overhaul facility for steam locomotives.  When we stepped inside we were blown away by the size of the huge structure.  Back in the day, two to three locomotives were repaired here each week.  It was literally too big to capture in a single photo!

A roundhouse serves as a garage where locomotives receive regular maintenance.  This 37-stall roundhouse is one of the few survivors of a distinctive type of locomotive repair facility that was once common in North America.

Bob Julian Roundhouse

Panoramic shot of the Bob Julian Roundhouse

The radial track and turntable arrangement was based on the operational and maintenance needs of steam locomotives.  This particular roundhouse is considered among the best preserved examples of a large modern roundhouse that continues to function as a railroad repair facility today.

Bob Julian Roundhouse

The radial track and turntable bringing a locomotive out for repair

NC Transportation Museum

The turntable

Back at our campground, there weren’t many birds around to entertain us.  Instead, the afternoon thunderstorms never failed to create excitement, pounding us with rain/wind/lightning, and more than a little apprehension.  Steve and I would sit by the windows, watching as it raged for a few minutes, then we could relax again when it was over.  The good news is they usually passed quickly and brought the stifling temperature down a bit.  Whew!  Ever since our scary experience at Gulf Shores, AL we still get a bit nervous when thunderstorms approach our site.  We definitely won’t miss this weather when we get back to the western states!

Pilot Mountain

Thunderstorm building right in front of us – you don’t want to be on that mountain in the afternoon!

But the best part was that our home base for the week was at Greystone RV Park, where all 10 sites face Pilot Mountain.  We had the whole park to ourselves for several days and loved it!

Greystone RV Park, Pinnacle, NC

Waking up each morning with a view of the Big Nipple…I mean Big Pinnacle

As the afternoon skies began to clear, I would grab my camera and take solitary walks around the park.  It was relaxing as I strolled along with the birds as my singing companions, discovering many new wildflowers.  Unwinding each afternoon like this after a long hike or sightseeing journey was the best nourishment for my body and soul.

Greystone RV Park, NC

Although the RV sites had no trees, the rest of the property was quite beautiful

Finally, have you ever tasted spring green onions?  There was a farmer’s market near our campground, and we decided to give these sweet onions a try.  They were great chopped up and mixed into our salads, and also excellent when we grilled them whole on the BBQ. Yum!

Spring green onion

Yummy spring green onions!

And that wraps up our week at Pilot Mountain, and our month-plus in North Carolina.  West Virginia, here we come!

Pilot Mountain, NC

Betsy leaving North Carolina for the last time


Next up:  Wild and Wonderful West Virginia!







Final hikes at the Blue Ridge Mountains – NC

Comments 27 Standard
Mount Pisgah
WNC Farmers Market

WNC Farmer’s Market

We did so much hiking while at the Blue Ridge Mountains that I couldn’t fit them all in one post!  Maybe not surprising, when you consider the Blue Ridge Parkway is 469 miles long with limitless hiking opportunities.  However, during our 10-day stay we drove and hiked on only about 69 miles of its southern end.  We’ll just have to come back to see more!

On the way to our hike at Chimney Rock, we swung by the area’s very popular Western North Carolina farmer’s market. This place is huge!  It even has its own exit off of I-40.  We stopped by there just to grab a few items and were amazed by its size.  This is not your ordinary small-town farmer’s market, for it sits on a 36-acre site with a beautiful panoramic view of the mountains.  We soon decided to stop back by again on our way home, knowing that it’s open every day until 5pm.

Our destination for the day was Chimney Rock State Park, where an ancient 535 million-year-old geological monolith was the main feature.  Before the state of North Carolina bought the park for $24M in 2007, it was privately owned and operated by the Morse brothers for over 100 years.  Their legacy began in 1902 when they envisioned preserving the rugged beauty and towering Chimney Rock, and at the same time sharing the magnificent views at the top with the world.  The eventual sale to the state accomplished that, and we were some of the lucky folks who got to enjoy it on this beautiful day.

Chimney Rock State Park

That’s where we’re headed!

The rock is a huge 315′ tall pillar of granite which stands apart from the side of the mountain.

Chimney Rock

315′ tall Chimney Rock at an elevation of 2,280 feet

We were warned that this state park is always crowded.  In planning our hiking strategy we decided to park our car at the top parking lot and begin our exploration from there.   With Chimney Rock itself being the most popular attraction, we would see it first thing in the morning before the crowds hit.  An elevator built through solid rock in 1949 takes visitors up 26 stories to the flat top, or folks can opt for the considerable task of climbing hundreds of stairs.  I know what you’re thinking – the man-made contraption could kill the natural way of accessing the rock – but the Morse brothers were really thinking of those who just couldn’t make it up there any other way.  We had planned to take the stairs anyway, but as luck would have it the elevator was broken and we think a lot of people probably didn’t even try that climb.

Stairs at Chimney Rock

491 steps to the top – the legs and lungs were burning!


Chimney Rock Flat top

We made it!
















The stairs and walkways took us up through a huge jumble of rock outcroppings and boulders near the base of the Chimney.  At the top, the view was quite extraordinary.  We enjoyed some time alone there until the quiet was shattered by screaming teenagers on their way up.  Oh my, school must be out and summer vacations are underway!

Lake Lure

Remember Dirty Dancing ? That’s Lake Lure where it was filmed.

Chimney Rock

At the flat top near the memorial for the three Morse brothers

Anyhow, we moved on after enjoying the beautiful vista and ascended another 200′ up to Exclamation Point.  On the way up we were presented with some named outcroppings:

Devil's Rock

Devils Head – can you make it out?

Exclamation Point is a rocky outcrop on the edge of the gorge, and the highest point within the Park at 2,480′.  To get there we went up yet more stairs and around some switchbacks on the cliff’s edge.

Exclamation Point- Skyline Trail

More stairs to Exclamation Point – viewed from Chimney Rock

Tall thimbleweed

Tall thimble weed were abundant on cliff ledges

From the the overlook we could see the Gorge and valley floor more than 1,300′ below. This place is about the views!

Chimney Rock Village

Looking down at Chimney Rock Village

Chimney Rock

Looking back down at Chimney Rock from Exclamation Point and Lake Lure in the background

With the main attraction out of the way, we went back down all those stairs to another popular spot in the park, Hickory Nut Falls.  To get there we followed a moderate 1.5 mile round-trip trail.  We learned that the 404′ waterfall was featured in the movie The Last of the Mohicans, which I have yet to see.

Hickory Nut Waterfalls

Hickory Nut Waterfall

Hickory Nut Falls

My experimental shot using shutter mode at 1/15 sec at f/22

Next we combined the Hickory Nut Falls Trail with the Four Seasons Trail to give us a longer hike down the mountain.  We went down 70 stairs to the downhill path which wound out through a meadow area and into hardwood trees with a rock formation under one giant overhang.

White Wildflower at Chimney rock

Carolina Horse Nettle seen on the trail

It was  a strenuous hike with a 400′ gain in elevation, making it really invigorating and quieter than other areas of the park.  We spent about 4 hours hiking all of the park’s trails, making the most of our $12 per-person admission fees.  For the past 100 years and long before the park was purchased by the State, an entry fee has been charged here.  I’m pretty sure it will continue forever.

On our way home after 7 miles of tough hiking, Mount Pisgah beckoned us.  See that mountain with the tower on top?  That was to be our next challenge!

Mount Pisgah

Mount Pisgah as seen from highway 151

Located at the Blue Ridge Parkway’s mile marker 408, Mount Pisgah was only 6 miles from our campground and we saved it for last.  The mountain is visible from Asheville and is one of the most-recognized peaks in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Mount Pisgah’s 5721′ summit supports the transmission tower for an area TV station.

Mount Pisgah SignThe  trail began at the back of the parking lot, behind a large sign board.  At that point we were just shy of 5000′ in elevation, and in the midst of a high-elevation northern hardwood forest.  This trail is rated moderate, an out and back trek with a total length of 3 miles.

The entire hike was very rocky, and there were  some rooty and wet sections as well.  We gained about 200′ in elevation during the first half of the hike, then another 550′ in the second half, making for a “huffing and puffing” arrival at the top.



Arriving at the summit, we were at the base of the transmission tower for WLOS-TV channel 13, and an observation deck.  Although the tower sort of ruined the feeling of being in the wilderness,  the views were spectacular. 

Mount Pisgah Summit

Frying Pan Tower

That other tower is the Frying Pan tower that we climbed a few days ago

Since this is our last hike at the Blue Ridge Mountains and we were the only ones here this morning, we had the views all to ourselves this time.

Mount Pisgah

Each day, after our long hikes or outings, we would sit by the creek relaxing.  Our favorite entertainment during this happy hour was watching the American Finches feeding at our neighbor’s bird feeder, while totally ignoring my fully-stocked feeder.  But this industrious American Robin put a smile on our faces, as we watched it working hard for its meal.

Well, that about wraps up our ten days of hanging out at the Blue Ridge Mountains.  This was a great stop for killing some time and getting hiking muscles back before moving on to Gaffney, South Carolina for Betsy’s annual check up.


Next up:  Betsy robs our bank account!



Want to really see the Blue Ridge Mountains?

Comments 32 Standard
Flame Azalea

Hike them!

After being tourists in Asheville for a couple of days, we were back to what delights us the most – submerging ourselves into nature through our hiking – this time in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  We were thrilled when we learned that our home base in Candler, Western NC was only 4.5 miles from the access road to the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The RV park was really quaint, with only six sites and the added bonus of a creek running right through it!  We will miss the sounds of that water running by the back of the rig as we enjoyed our fires and at bedtime.  Steve’s review of Stony Fork Creek RV Park is here.

Stony Fork Creek RV Park, Candler, NC

Stony Fork Creek behind our site

On the image below, numbers 1 and 2 (clicking on the numbers takes you to the related post) mark the sections of the Blue Ridge Parkway we explored last year.  This time we explored the southern end of the parkway, marked number 3 below.  The Blue Ridge Parkway begins at Mile 0 in Shenandoah National Park, VA and goes all the way down to Mile 469 at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina.

Blue Ridge Parkway

Blue Ridge Parkway

Driving out of our campsite toward our first trailhead, Steve noted an opportunity when we climbed the very curvy and steep grade up Highway 151 towards the Blue Ridge Parkway access.  He blurted out that it would really be fun to coast down this curvy road on his bike. Of course, I tried to shut down his excitement by telling him it’s too dangerous and that he’s getting too old for that kind of crap.  That didn’t go over very well, so I patiently reminded him that our medical coverage isn’t quite as “comprehensive” as it used to be.  He admitted that was a good point.

So, bright and early the next morning he had his bike on the car, and back up the hill we went anyway.  I dropped him off at the top and he waited while I located a nice sharp turn halfway down from which to witness the carnage.  Since I’m no action photographer,  the shot below is the best I could get as he whizzed by with a huge smile on his face.  In 10 minutes he had coasted down the 4.5 miles back to our campground, and I couldn’t even catch him in the car after snapping the picture!

Lowes RV Adventures

There’s the crazy biker…

With that bit of insanity out of the way, we headed back for our real workout, climbing mountains.  Beware, lots of mountain photos ahead.

Overlook signs and some plaques are placed along the Blue Ridge Parkway that point out and explain the interesting cultural history of that area, and ID the captivating mountain scenery.  Trailheads can also be seen alongside several of the overlooks, and that’s where we began each of our hikes.  During this stop, our hikes were all completed between Milepost 407 to 431 on the parkway.

Milepost 431 – Richland Balsam Hike

This is  a 1.5-mile loop hike that rises about 400 feet to the summit of Richard Mountain at 6,410 feet.  It is the highest peak on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  At the beginning of the trail was a box that should have contained laminated self-guided tour maps to tell us what the markers along the trail were describing.  But as usual it was empty, so we stopped at each marker and tried to guess what it represented.  Don’t you hate it when that happens?

Milepost 431 Blue Ridge Parkway

Richard Balsam mountain

Richard Balsam summit in the background

This was a pretty trail, and not overly strenuous.  It passed through a spruce-fir forest and over the summit of the 10th highest peak in the eastern United States.  The term “balsam” is commonly applied to Fraser Fir and Red Spruce trees, whose scents permeate the fresh air on the trail.  This was a refreshing hike, as there was little sunlight and the forest floor was cool and moist at the high elevation.

Richard Balsam Summit

No mountain view at the summit, but still a nice hike

We encountered just one cute little rabbit, who posed quite nicely for me.

Rabbit at Richard Balsam Mountain

The cutest rabbit I have ever seen with really bright clear eyes!  Steve said he was getting a hankerin’ for some stew…

After the hike, we drove north to the next overlook and found a young lady reading while enjoying this captivating vista of the Cowee mountains.  The sun was not blazing that day, nor were there any crowds.  So she had those mountains all to herself (well, until we showed up).

Cowee Mountains Overlook

Cowee Mountains Overlook

Milepost 422 – Devil’s Courthouse Hike

This hike was short, but a strenuous half-mile to the top with rewarding panoramic mountain views.  The trail started from the overlook parking area beside the mountain, and was mostly paved until we approached the peak which resides at 5,720 feet.  The bare-rock profile was so named because of its sinister appearance and legend, according to the sign at the overlook.

Devil's Courthouse

Devil’s Courthouse

There were a few Catawba Rhododendron blooming along the trail, and the bees were just all-a-buzz about it!

catawba rhododendron

Catawba Rhododendron buds

There was a nice overlook at the top, and supposedly from here we could see North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.  I don’t know about that, but we saw a lot!

Devils Courthouse Peak

A compass points out everything we could see from here

Devils Courthouse

Steve pointing to our car at the overlook parking

Devils Courthouse Peak

Somewhere behind us is South Carolina 🙂

The Devil’s Courthouse’s “devilish” look has apparently contributed to some superstitious folk tales, which is probably why someone left two plates of fresh fruits and a drink at the peak.

Devil's Courthouse

I had to stop Steve from eating the grapes on the offerings

Milepost 420 – Black Balsam Hike

This is a very popular trail and we learned why.  The Black Balsam area includes some of the most spectacular “mountain balds” in the Southern Appalachians.  A mountain bald is part of a mountain range rising along the border between Tennessee and North Carolina.  This one includes Black Balsam Knob, a knob being a projecting part of a mountain, usually round in shape – like a doorknob.  To reach the summit of Black Balsam Knob, we hiked about 1/2 mile through the forest to reach the open, grassy and rocky mountain meadows, then we took a section of the 30-mile Art Loeb Trail.  This memorial to Art Loeb, an activist from the Carolina Mountain Club, is a trail with a plaque that reads “he deeply loved these mountains.”

Black Balsam Trail

Steve hiking toward a grassy knob on the Art Loeb trail

From our vantage point at Balsam Mountain, it was obvious that the Blue Ridge Parkway lives up to its name.  The photo below shows a section that crests the  Blue Ridge Mountains.

Blue Ridge Parkway

Can you see the Blue Ridge Parkway?

This trail was almost entirely devoid of trees, and we were exposed to the UV rays for several hours.  The 6,214 foot Black Balsam Knob is the 23rd highest of the 40 mountains in North Carolina.  It is lush and green around its top, and I could just imagine how these mountains would look in fall foliage.  Hmm, it might not be a bad idea to swing back through here in October!

Art Loeb Trail

Art Loeb Memorial


Black Balsam Mountain

Going down the twisted metamorphic rocks

I can’t believe we did all of those hikes in one day – we were exhausted!

Milepost 408- Frying Pan Tower

On another day we wanted to hike to the Frying Pan Overlook Tower.  Instead of taking the easy way and walking up the 3/4-mile gravel road from the Frying Pan overlook, we began this hike from Mount Pisgah so we could have a longer trek of about six miles.  I’m glad we took the longer hike, for we passed many undisturbed blooming wildflowers.  We could tell this trail was less-traveled, seeing nobody else as we walked through plenty of spider webs, and noticing the overgrown vegetation had not been trampled for a while.  Perfect!

Frying Pan Tower Trail

Pam, I remembered your “tick alert” as we walked through here.

False Solomon

Clusters of False Solomon were blooming

Lowes RV Adventures

Even Steve was attracted to the bright orange Flame Azalea

Flame Azalea

Steve’s photo of a Flame Azalea – not bad for a rookie!

And just a few more pretty flowers we saw on the trail.  I can’t identify the one on the left – maybe one of you can help me?

Our destination for the Frying Pan Tower hike was the 70-foot tall tower built in 1941, which I learned later is on the National Register of Historic Places.  The steel tower atop the 5,340-foot Frying Pan Mountain was designed to provide extensive views to watch for fires until the early 1990s.  However, hikers like us are the only ones experiencing the beauty today, not to mention the howling winds at the top.

Frying Pan Tower

Chatting with fellow hikers and RV’ers near the tower

Although the tower platform was locked, we climbed five flights of stairs to just underneath it.  And wow, the view was just fantastic!

Looking Glass Mountain

Looking south toward Looking Glass Mountain

Blue Ridge Parkway

Looking northeast, Blue Ridge Parkway in the center

Frying Pan Tower

Looking west toward Cold Mountain, the wind blew my hat off!

I’m exhausted just re-living these hikes, and I didn’t want it to be such a long blog.  But I’m afraid there are more hikes with more beautiful scenery ahead!


Next up:  Our final hikes in the Blue Ridge Mountains


The Biltmore – America’s largest private house

Comments 26 Standard

Biltmore HouseWhile in North Carolina last year we had two opportunities to visit Asheville and the Biltmore Estate, which several friends advised us to do.  But we never made it, due to the distances involved and other things we had planned.  Well, this year we were back in the area waiting to take care of Betsy’s scheduled annual maintenance, and we made sure to stay near Asheville. With the Biltmore Estate only 17 miles away we had no excuse to miss it this time!

Like many of you, we have visited several famous homes and gardens in the good old USA; presidential homes, plantation homes, historical homes and even a castle. So I wondered what could make the Biltmore so different? Size matters!

Biltmore Estates

The back yard of the Biltmore House – the Blue Ridge Mountains

Originally encompassing 125,000 acres, including a large chunk of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the estate owns “only” 40,000 acres today.  George Washington Vanderbilt was one of those very wealthy people (his money came through inheritance) who visited Asheville and never left.  Instead, he made a name for himself and left us all a legacy to marvel and gawk at.  The estate remains privately owned by his descendants, and with the home’s living space of 135,000 sq. ft. I’d hate to have to pay the power bill.  It is considered the largest privately owned home in America.

Loggia, Biltmore House

Taking a break on the loggia, as Steve listened to the audio narration

My outside photos could not capture the grandeur, luxury and charm of the estate’s centerpiece home, but the architectural details are very pronounced.

Biltmore House

Biltmore Estates

Check out these stats – the four-story French Renaissance manor’s interior covers 4 acres, and has a total of 250 rooms – 43 bathrooms (at a time when bathrooms were practically unheard of),  65 fireplaces, 3 kitchens, 34 bedrooms, a grand banquet hall and a library containing 10,000 volumes.  It took six years to build and it was completed in 1895.  Oh, I almost forgot about the indoor swimming pool with changing rooms, 2-lane bowling alley and the gym!  Some sections of the house were closed off, so we didn’t get to see all 250 rooms.  But we did notice that the inside is tastefully decorated – elegant but not really ostentatious.  We were definitely wowed!

Biltmore House

Biltmore EstatesEven if you’re not really into touring museums or massive homes of rich people, this is definitely a worthwhile stop if you’re in the Asheville, NC area.  For one thing, you can get some pretty good exercise by just walking around the estate.  After touring “the big house,” we walked around the main gardens, to the many specialty garden areas, to the pond and waterfalls, and back to the house again.  I wish we had taken our walking GPS to measure how many miles we covered that day!

Everything we experienced was included in one price – the house, gardens, trails and Antler Village – even the tastings of their many good wines.

Walled Garden, Biltmore House

Walled Garden, Biltmore House

I must say I was a little disappointed, because in terms of blooming flowers our timing was not perfect, as usual.  I missed the Tulips!  And we were a bit late for the explosion of spring colors.  Instead, the caretakers were just starting to plant summer blooms. Nevertheless, strolling around the acres of formal and informal gardens and lush landscape should not be missed, as it’s breathtaking on any nice day like the one we had.

Biltmore Gardens

Biltmore Gardens

Getting from the house to the Village Winery area was another story – it was definitely a drive and allowed us to get a feel for how truly massive this estate is.  How someone can own so much land, build and run such a huge home in the late 1890’s and manage the workers and infrastructure to keep it all running is beyond us.  But, we really did enjoy our day – thanks in equal parts to the beautiful weather and the fact that we were there during off-season and on a weekday.  This place can get very crowded, and we were seeing that by the time we left.

Biltmore Estates Forest

Miles of hiking trails in the forested areas

Antler Village, Biltmore

Antler Village

Although we may be considered by some as California wine snobs, we weren’t disappointed in the wines that we tasted at their large tasting bar.  We bought several bottles, but we must say we were surprised when the bartender told us that many of them were produced completely in California and are Biltmore wines in name only.  But of course the estate has a vineyard as well which produces mostly white wines.

I learned that George Washington Vanderbilt created the estate name by combining two words, “Bildt,” for the region in Holland where the Vanderbilt family originated, and “more,” an old English word meaning upland rolling hills.

Biltmore Estates

Upland rolling hills, and lots of them!

After our visit, Steve and I could not help comparing the Biltmore with the Hearst Castle in California.  Both are located in such beautiful settings, I guess those rich guys just have to decide if they want part of a mountain range or a section of a coastline.  Tough decisions! In terms of living space ranking, Hearst Castle ranks number 13 while the Biltmore House is number 1, hence the title, America’s largest private house.

While the Biltmore Estate is privately owned, the Hearst Castle is now managed by the California Department of Parks.  We found the Hearst Castle to be a bit over the top in its decor when we were there.  Coincidentally, Rommel of The Sophomore Slump recently visited the Enchanted Hill of Hearst Castle, and his narrative and photos about the castle convey its grandiosity very well.


Next Up:  Back to climbing mountains – the Blue Ridge Mountains!


Asheville, NC – Nature’s Health Spa

Comments 23 Standard
Parks Fountain, Asheville

Parks Fountain, Asheville

Yep, that’s how Asheville was promoted in the late 1800’s, as a place of relief for tuberculosis patients.  It’s one of the things we learned about the city during our two-hour narrated trolley tour.

Asheville was a destination for health seekers, and it rose in prominence as a curative place for tuberculosis.  The city’s location – nestled in between the scenic Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains in Western North Carolina – has clean, pristine mountain air.  That fresh mountain air was considered optimal and a good place for those patients to recuperate.  Asheville’s population exploded as it became the place for boarding houses, luxury inns and resorts, and, well, sanitariums.  By 1930 there were no fewer than 25 sanitariums in the city with a total of 900 beds.  I guess even crazy people enjoyed the mountain air!

While tuberculosis has been brought under control, Asheville remains a health care center for people who require specialized medical care, and for others who just want to enjoy the fresh air.  We were not concerned in the least about contracting TB as we wandered around the downtown area.  We also learned that most of the sanitariums have been converted into apartment and condominium complexes.

Pack Square, Asheville

Park Square – Asheville’s prime gathering spot – and not a single TB patient in sight!

Among the many notable people who came to seek cures here were the ailing mother of George W. Vanderbilt, and Edwin Wiley Grove was also a patient.  These folks fell in love with Asheville, so much so that G.W. Vanderbilt had the Biltmore Estate constructed here (more on that fascinating place later), and E.W. Grove built the Grove Park Inn and the Grove Arcade.  Their influence can still be seen in the buildings today, restored and preserved as major tourist attractions.

Grove Arcade, Asheville

The Grove Arcade building was started as a 5-story building with a 14-story tower, but Mr. Grove died during construction and this is as far as it got.  It’s still a large structure covering an entire block.

Inside Grove Arcade, Asheville

Inside the Grove Arcade – very quiet on this weekend morning

One of the landmarks of Asheville is the 100-year-old historic Grove Park Inn.  Built using thousands of local stones reinforced with concrete and capped with a burnt-orange tiled roof, it was constructed in less than one year in 1913.  Since then and until today the inn has welcomed countless famous folks.

Grove Park Inn

Doesn’t it look like a big gingerbread house?

After the tour, we continued on our own and followed the Urban Trail.  This 1.7-mile-trail in the downtown area consists of thirty stations with bronze plaques and several sculptures. Each station illuminates a part of the very interesting history of the city’s development, and the various notable people who once lived here.

Strolling along the streets, we noticed the many styles of interesting architecture throughout the city, it’s incredible! In this walkable city we noted  remarkable collections of beautifully preserved buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s and below are just a few fine samples.

As we rounded one corner, we were struck by the beauty of the Basilica of St. Lawrence Catholic Church.  It was designed and built by architects Raphael Guastavino and Richard Sharp Smith, who also worked on the Biltmore Estate project.

Basilica of St Lawrence, Asheville

Basilica of St. Lawrence

Basilica St Lawrence, NC

Decorative frieze of St. Lawrence

I had a hard time  praying here as the inside is so architecturally beautiful that I ended just sitting and looking around. This Spanish Renaissance-style church supports the largest freestanding elliptical dome in North America, with a clear span of 58 by 82 feet.

Basilica St Lawrence, Asheville

Center dome of the Basilica of St. Lawrence

Asheville is also a destination for art lovers.  Art galleries and studios abound, with artists, musicians and writers all inspired by the colorful downtown environment and the nearby mountains.

Biltmore Ave, Asheville, NC

Curtain Call, Asheville

Mellow Mushroom

We had a yummy pizza for lunch here

Ashville’s additional bragging rights now include being named Beer City, USA.  If we had arrived a day earlier we could have sampled the latest handcrafted brews from 16 craft breweries during the Beer City Festival.  After being in the sun for several hours we needed to cool off, so we stopped at one of the popular local breweries.  It wasn’t exactly a tough decision, as we had noted several during our tour.  We ended up tasting at the Wicked Weed one day, and then at the Lexington Avenue Brewery the next time we were in town.

At the end of the day, the proof of Asheville being nature’s health spa is the fact that many people continue to be drawn to the magic of these mountains and the surrounding natural beauty.  For us, our Asheville stop showed us once again that each city we visit has its own unique charm and interesting people.


Next up:  The fascinating Biltmore Estate


So much more to do – Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Comments 36 Standard

There was lots more to do at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – more than I could fit into a single post.  I have to say that despite going through and around the Smokies for the 10 days we were there,  we barely scratched the surface.  We were based near the town of Cherokee, about 5 miles  from  the south entrance to the park.  This turned out to be a long post, so grab your favorite beverage and take your time checking out our adventures at GSMNP.

A bit of history

A visit to the Museum of the Cherokee Indians enlightened me about the plight of the Cherokee Indians in the early 1800’s.  My take away from perusing through cultural and historical displays was that the Cherokee people who live in North Carolina today are referred to as the “Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.”  They are the direct descendants of those who avoided the Cherokee’s forced removal to Oklahoma in the 1830’s, also called the “Trail of Tears.”  The 56,000-acre Qualla Boundary in western North Carolina adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is their current home.

We did not encounter any live bears during our stay, but I was happy to see these critters around Cherokee that seemed harmless enough.

A Gourd Festival?

On the same day around the corner from the museum building, a Gourd Festival was in progress.  I was curious, since this was the first time I had heard about this kind of festival.  I saw gourds of various sizes, shapes and odd forms for sale.  Crafters and gourd enthusiasts crowded the area, displaying their works of art or attending activities like hands-on gourd crafting.  I was fascinated with the details and craftsmanship of the finished gourd art on display.

Hitting the trails

Hiking at GSMNP

OK, which trail are we taking?

Lets talk hiking.  I understand now why the GSMNP is also called, a “hiker’s park”.  As we drove through on US 441, the main north to south scenic highway, we noticed many trailhead markers along the way.  With about 150 hiking trails to choose from, we were in hiking heaven!  We’d been longing for some more challenging hikes with serious elevation changes, and we weren’t disappointed here.

The hikes we chose took us deep into the forestlands. Some included breathtaking views, several ran along rushing streams with cascading waterfalls, and most were adorned with millions of wildflowers that made me stop frequently for photos.

We categorized our hikes as either waterfall, vista or wildflower hikes.  Below are details of just a few of the ones we chose, and we went out almost every day to explore until our legs throbbed in pain!

Waterfall hikes

Waterfalls, streams and rivers abound in and around the park.  I learned that many parts of the Smokies receive over 85″ of rainfall on average each year.  All of that water trickles and then rushes down the mountainside, creating multiple waterfalls, streams and rivers.  We loved the hikes that let us enjoy the sounds of water along most of their length. It is so green and lush everywhere.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Riverstreams

Mingo falls

Mingo Falls

Tom Branch Falls

Tom Branch Falls

Following a three-waterfall loop from Bryson City, we came upon the Juney Whank, Indian Creek and Tom Branch falls.  How often do you get to see three beautiful waterfalls on one hike?  We also saw several others along our driving route that day.

Abrams Falls

Abrams Falls

To reach Mingo Falls, we followed a 0.4 mile trail that included steep wooden stairs, and we were out of breath by the time we reached the top.  At 120′ tall, this is one of the tallest and most spectacular waterfalls in the Smoky Mountains.

The hike to Abram Falls was about five miles roundtrip.  The waterfall itself was only 20′ high, but a long and deep pool at its base creates strong currents beneath the falls. The strong undertow there was responsible for the deaths of several people.

Warning at Abrams Falls

We learned there have been more than 4 deaths here – they should make the number changeable on the sign…

Wildflower hikes

The Smokies explode with wildflowers during the springtime months.  It is commonly referred to as “The Wildflower National Park.”  But alas, we missed many of the beauties by arriving a bit late in the season.  The best time to see the hillsides carpeted with colors is April and May, but I managed to snap a few leftovers on some of the trails where the wildflowers were abundant.

Mountain Bugbane

Mountain Bugbane


To catch a few of those remaining spring wildflowers, we followed the Oconaluftee River Trail, an easy 3-mile roundtrip that began at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and ran alongside the river.  Next, we followed the 6.2-mile Smokemont Loop Trail and burned some calories on its 1,400′ ascent through creekside cove hardwood forests and drier oak- and hickory-dominated ridge tops.  I was able to see a few blooms and can identify only a few and marked some with a  (?).

The Icewater Shelter Trail (5.4 miles) was our first true taste of serious mountain hiking, since this trail ascends quite steeply at the beginning.  Parts of it are very rocky with large boulders, and other sections follow smoother ridge lines.  A few clamps of Bluets were swaying in the breeze along this trail.  It is a section of the Appalachian Trail that goes to the outcropping at Charles Bunion.


Mountain Bluets

Vista Hikes

The vista hikes we did were real “lung busters” and calf toners, with rewards of great  panoramic mountain views.  The .5-mile ascent to Clingman’s Dome, which I mentioned on my previous post, gave us a 360-degree view of the Smokies.  Outside the park we tackled Whiteside Mountain in the Nantahala Forest.  This mountain is a distinct landmark along the eastern Continental Divide for aviators and ground-bound folks alike. The 2-mile trail is rated difficult because of its steepness and switchbacks, which include steps placed to help negotiate the rocky slope.  At the top we had a great view of South Carolina and the face of this mountain, which is prized by rock climbers.  It was closed to those folks while we were there because it was nesting season for the  Perigrine Falcons that return there every year.

Whiteside Mountain

Whiteside Mountain at Nantahala Forest

A 1.2-mile roundtrip hike to the summit at Waterrock Knob was a steep climb, gaining 412 feet in elevation.  This trail begins at Milepost 451.2 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, just 18 miles from where the parkway ends at the Great Smoky Mountains Visitors Center (Milepost 469).

Blue Ridge Parkway

Blue Ridge Parkway looking east – Blue Ridge Mountains

Blue Ridge Mountain, Waterrock Knob trail

Blue Ridge Parkway and the Smokies, looking west

After completing all of these hikes, we believe the calories we’d been carrying since leaving Florida were finally melting away, and our hiking muscles were coming back – yay!  But most of all, we felt really good and reinvigorated from being back to nature and far from the noises of civilization.

Waterrock Knob Parking lot

Maybe wearing green for pictures isn’t such a good idea out here?

Scenic Drives

Although hiking might be the best way to enjoy the park, scenic drives are also available to those who prefer to view the mountains from the comfort of their car.  In between our hiking days we took the suggested drives to Cade’s Cove Loop and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which were about 56 miles from our home base in Cherokee.  We also checked out the nearby Road to Nowhere  in Bryson City. Highway 441 GSMNP

The most popular drive, with bumper-to-bumper traffic on a one-lane 11-mile loop road, was Cade’s Cove.  A “cove” in the mountains is a flat valley between mountains or ridges. Cades Cove used to be a farming community in the early 1900’s, and today this is a showcase of natural and cultural treasures preserved for generations to come.

Cades Cove

As we drove here, we saw preserved pastureland, churches, preserved structures and some wildlife.  We never saw a bear, but this cute deer caused a traffic jam on the one-way street.


Cades Cove Loop

Sharing the narrow road

Cades Cove

Checking out Cade’s Cove

As the name suggests, the Roaring Form Motor Nature Trail is a nature trail viewable from your car.  As we drove the 6-mile-long, one-way loop road we were essentially following Roaring Fork Creek, a stream within a series of rushing cascades.  There were access points to waterfall trails, but we just drove on the road enjoying the forest.  The beautiful green scenery and sounds of rushing water was so soothing that I was afraid Steve would fall asleep while driving.

Roaring Fork Motor Trail

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Did I mention that it’s very green out here?

The Road to Nowhere

The Road to Nowhere

We learned about this drive from the packet of “Off the Beaten Path” information that our RV park hostess gave us.  The road was originally named Lakeview Drive, but since it was never completed the residents called it “The Road to Nowhere.”  In 1943 the federal government promised to build it for access to the Fontana Dam, as compensation to local residents who gave up their land for the project.  Approximated 6 miles of the road, including a bridge and 1200-foot tunnel, were completed by end of 1969, but the remaining 26 miles was never finished.  It is a nice scenic drive from Bryson City into GSMNP, where it dead-ends.

Tunner at Road to Nowhere

Walking through the dark 1,200 foot tunnel was a bit creepy.

The tunnel is closed to car traffic and can only be walked through on foot.  Midway through it, I grabbed Steve’s hand as it was a bit scary walking in the dark – even though we could see light at the distant end.

End of runnel, Road to Nowhere

Finally, a light at the end of the tunnel

While walking around Bryson City we stumbled upon a local brewery – a perfect way to end our long day of auto touring.

Back at the campground, our feathered friends provided us with entertainment as we relaxed after each long day in the mountains.


I want my snack..

Northern Cardinal

Ain’t I handsome?

And that wraps up our magnificent and glorious stay at the mountains.  We feel that we made the most of our time with a close-up experience of the best, nature has to offer in the Smokies.


Park Map

Trail Map

For more information, visit The Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s Website!


The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Comments 37 Standard
Great Smoky Mountains National Park

With Steve’s mini-project out of the way, lets talk travel again!

I was surprised to learn before we arrived at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) that this is the most-visited National Park in the USA.  Hmm… and all along I thought that honor went to my favorite – Yosemite National Park in California – which is ranked third.  And I was pleasantly surprised when we drove right into the park without encountering a gate with someone collecting fees.  Entry to this park is FREE!

Perhaps that’s one reason it’s the most visited park, but another is its proximity to several major eastern urban centers in 2/3 of the states that surround it.  The fact that this park offers fantastic scenery, accessible wildlife, a sense of history and many outdoor activities no doubt contributes to its popularity as well.

Clingman's Dome Trail

Lots of visitors on the Clingman’s Dome trail, even before the Memorial Day weekend hit

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was first established in 1934 as a way of protecting it from logging companies which were planning to continue logging the area.  It straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, a mountain range rising along the Tennessee–North Carolina border.  That border runs northeast to southwest through the centerline of the park, and I had to pose at Newfound Gap Road on Highway 441where the two states meet:

Newfound Gap, TN and NC Border

Straddling two states, Tennessee and North Carolina

The land that became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was owned by hundreds of small farmers, plus a handful of large timber and paper companies.  They were all bought out with the support of the people of North Carolina and Tennessee, and a donation from Laura Spelman Rockefeller. When the state of Tennessee transferred the land to the federal government, it stipulated that “no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed…” to travel the road.  Hence, no entry fee – that works for us!

Great Smoky National Park

So the next obvious question is why are the mountains called Smoky Mountains or “the Smokies”?  Settlers coming to this land noticed a smoky haze that rose from the vast vegetation and decided on the perfect name: the Smoky Mountain Range.  But here is the more scientific version that I gathered from the Visitor Center; Water carried through plants is released through the leaves as a vapor.  The vapor from the conifer trees of the Smokies contains terpenes, an organic chemical.  As the vapor is released, the large amount of terpenens create the smoke-haze, or mist, that gives the mountains their name.  You can clearly see the haze below:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Yep, those are the Smokies!

We accessed the park from the town of Cherokee, which is located in North Carolina just south of the park.  Our home base for almost two weeks was the Flaming Arrow Campground, which was about five miles from the park entrance.  Steve’s review of this nice park can be viewed here.

Flaming Arrow Campground, Cherokee

During our twelve-day stay here we took several scenic drives, and hiked to our heart’s content.  The scenery was diverse – mountain views, old-growth trees, waterfalls, streams, and more shades of green than we’ve ever seen.

Newfound Gap road

No elk here, but we finally saw one elsewhere in the park

US 441, Newfound Gap Road

Great Smoky Mountain Drive

Green, green everywhere!

Our first excursion was to the very top of the Smokies.  At 6,643 feet, Clingman’s Dome is the highest mountain peak of the Smokies and one of the highest peaks in the eastern United States.  The trail to the observation tower was steep and a real lung buster, as it gets chilly up there.  It’s about a half mile ascent from the parking lot to the top, and a pretty good workout.  This is a very popular stop, and it was getting quite crowded already even in the early  morning and before the holiday weekend. This is the most visited park after all!

Clingmans dome observation tower

Clingmans Dome observation tower

The trail was so steep that this man thought it might be too much for his chubby dog to handle!

Clingmans Dome Trail

The observation tower provided us with great panoramic views of the Smokies.  Although not as spectacular as the towering mountain ranges we experienced in Alaska,  or at the Top of the World in the Canadian Yukon, the Smokies definitely had their own unique and magnificent beauty.

Great Smoky Mountains, southern view

Southern view

Great Smoky Mountains

Northern view

Western View of the Smokies

Western view

Clingmans Dome

Lunch View

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a hiker’s and mountain lover’s paradise, with something like 800 miles of hiking trails to explore.  And that’s where we’ll take you next…our hikes and the many eye-catching views along the way.


Next up:  Hikes, wildflowers, and waterfalls