Another breakfast of pancakes, then pack the car and head off into the Smokey Mountains. Our final destination today is Knoxville. Tennessee, but we have the whole day to get there. Like the road into Franklin, the road out (441) dips and curves, winding around mountains and sending us into valleys. We reach the tiny town of Dillsboro around 10- too early for lunch. The Great Smokey Mountain Railway stops in this town at 1pm. It’s a 4 hour ride to Bryson City (stop over to check out their museum) and back, through the Smokies. I know Logan would have loved the trip (from Bryson City they offer more excursions www.gsmr.com), as would Randal and I, but I didn’t think our overtly energetic girls would have sat still that long- esp. Sydney, and at $40 an adult ticket (I really did mull this over as Logan was determined to ride the rails, one way or another), we decided to leave the Smokey Mountain Railroad for another year.
From Dillsboro, we headed to Cherokee, in search of a waterfall that a couple at breakfast had told us about. Mingu falls. The streets were lined with the ticky tacky tourist shops- I really wanted to stop and look (okay and buy) as I know nothing about Cherokee Indians, but my husband is very practical in nature and doesn’t believe in shopping for anything other than food and basic necessities (hey are fishing poles basic necessities?). Well, we got lost, and a local turned us around and in the end we had entered the Great Smokey Mountain National Park.
We stopped by the visitor’s center to get our bearings, stretch our legs and pee at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and took a walk around the historic mountain farm museum, a group of old wood buildings- farmhouse, outhouse, barn, meat-house, etc, and growing garden- complete with chickens and pigs. It was a fantastic way to stretch weary limbs (and free!!). The kids loved it, especially when following the path past the pigs we came upon a lovely river walk.
With much begging and pleading (mainly on my part) I convinced my husband to let the kids take off their shoes and wade in the stony river bed (I did too!!!). I have always wanted to wade in a cold river with the rocks and fish (check another dream off the list, Sal!) My husband told me the kids would get wet. Heck, we had fun, and yes, Sydney managed to sit down in the water and somehow Logan got soaked. Sierra was the only dry child -good thing, as I was running short on clothes for everyone without a laundry in sight. Well, dried off, & continued our walk, then headed back to change the kids and look for Mingus Falls (which at the time, we were mistakenly told it was Mingus Mill) just a short drive down the road.
Over the bridge and up the hill to Mingus Mill we hiked at our next stop. The Mill itself was a working grist mill- milling corn into flour- my husband bought a bag for his mom and we followed the water run for a ways after touring the mill. Sydney managed to get stuck in the mud when we met another family who told us we had well passed the waterfall. My husband dipped Sydney in the water to wash her feet and we headed back- no waterfall today! He had wanted to swing into Asheville to see some friends and we searched for the Blue Ridge Parkway, but as the road climbed higher and higher, clinging to the mountainside, we realised we must have missed it.
We picnicked on the last of our luncheon meat and nachos at the top of the Great Smokey Mountains- mountain views as far as the eye could see. Our next stop was the Newfoundland Gap- the top of the mountains and also where the Appalachian Trail crossed. It was packed (public toilets & a place to let the kids scamper). The kids climbed, I took pictures and then we started up the real Appalachian Trail (I had always wanted to walk the trail- until I climbed a mountain in Santorini, Greece with my sister, Sandy, sans backpack. She had informed me that the AT was like that and I decided without a sherpa, there was no way I could climb mountains like that with a loaded backpack)
Sierra took off in a sprint up the trail. “Let’s go to the end!” She tossed over her shoulder. “Where does it end?”
“On a mountaintop in Maine,” I answered. (Katadin, I believe)
We decided we weren’t equipped enough to follow the trail THAT far, so we headed back to the truck and started our ear popping descent from the mountains, going through mountain tunnels (“I got my wish!” Logan cried, “I wanted to go through a mountain tunnel (like Thomas the Tank Engine)” past babbling brooks, one small waterfall (okay we DID see one!) and finally into Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Seeing Gatlinburg was like being on I-Drive in Orlando, except in the mountains. It was a carnival of people, ticky tacky tourist shops and attractions. I wanted to turn around and head back into the mountains. We drove through Gatlinburg to Pigeon Forge, another I-Drive disaster, except without the mountain backdrop. We still had a couple of hours to kill before heading up to Knoxville and our hotel (yes, a Hampton Inn). We stopped for an icecream and then ventured into the Nascar Speedway Experience.
The Nascar Speedway was free to persons to walk through. You had to pay for most everything else. We started on a walking tour. I think my husband wanted to drive a go-cart. I know Sierra did, but her driving ability was in question. Sydney and Logan were way too short (and young). The outside speedway tracks (various sizes & carnival rides) were too hot in the sun and 94 degree weather, so we ventured back inside the air-conditioned building. The kids played on the indoor playground (free) and Randal disappeared into the maze of games- men are always attracted to those flashing lights and loud sounds. We all ended up playing games in the end and walked away with cheap plastic prizes. We were ready for Knoxville.
It was an hours drive from Pigeon Forge, where Dollywood was (we would be coming back there tomorrow) through Siereville up to I-40 (and the mother of all Pro-Bass Shops at the exit-which I proudly say my husband managed to look away from and keep going, even though I know his truck has some homing device for those stores- so the feat was a difficult one). A short distance up I-40 was our exit, Knoxville East, and the hotel, clearly visible from the road.
We were on the outskirts of town, but it was a new hotel- indoor pool, and we were heading back into the Pigeon Forge throng anyway. Dropped our bags off and went next door to eat dinner at Outback steakhouse. Back at the hotel later, the kids had time for a swim. The water was way too cold for me (don’t they heat these pools? What happens in winter- ice skating?)
Tucked in bed, we all fall asleep with the promise of a train ride (for Logan) and some roller-coaster fun for us older kids.