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Heading South to Explore North Carolina

Visiting the (Actual) Cubs

sunny 25 °C

Sample Itinerary
- Day 1: Biltmore, sunset dinner in Asheville
- Day 2: Great Smoky Mountains hiking, dinner in Waynesville
 --> Clingmans Dome (loved these views): 1 mile starting from the parking area at the end of Clingmans Dome Road, fully paved, but extremely steep (well worth it for the views) – there are restrooms available, but no water
 --> Laurel Falls: 2.6 miles roundtrip starting between the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Elkmont Campground, very popular since you can swim at the base of the falls – no restrooms or water available aside from at the visitor center
 --> Cataract Falls: starts near the Sugarlands Visitor Center, mainly flat
- Day 3: Blue Ridge Parkway hiking, dinner in Marshall
 --> Craggy Gardens and Craggy Pinnacle (loved these views): Roughly 2 miles roundtrip and 1.4 miles roundtrip respectively, both are fairly steep, forested, and lead to beautiful views (watch out for roots, and bugs) – we parked in the picnic area and hiked up then returned to our car and drove to the Craggy Pinnacle designated parking lot. The Craggy Gardens visitor center and picnic center both have restrooms.
 --> Mt. Mitchell Summit: 1 mile roundtrip starting from the highest parking lot which takes you to the highest peak east of the Mississippi; it’s very steep but paved the whole way and there are porta potties and water fountains for public use
 --> Crabtree Falls (my favourite waterfalls): about 3 miles roundtrip; you can either go back the way you came, or take a different, slightly longer more scenic route back following the river; it starts off easy but becomes increasingly difficult with uneven paths and the need to hold on to a railing to find your footing on a crumbled staircase on the return; no facilities along the trail, but there is a campground about a mile from the parking lot, en route to the trailhead
- Day 4: Asheville (try Urban Trails self-guided tour), including the North Carolina (NC) Arboretum
Optional: Drive from Asheville to Chicago through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois

Where to Stay
- Best Western Smoky Mountain Inn, Waynesville ($100 USD)
- Marshall House Inn (B&B), Marshall ($150 USD)
- Wingate by Wyndham Fletcher at Asheville Airport ($80 USD)

Where to Eat
- Asheville: Tupelo Honey Café, The Chocolate Fetish, Well-Bred Bakery and Café
- Marshall: Zuma Coffee, Star Diner
- Waynesville: Los Amigos Mexican Restaurant, Kanini’s Restaurant, Third Bay – Filling Station
- Louisville, Kentucky: Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint

My Travel Diary
North Carolina clearly hasn’t had the same publicists as Florida or California because growing up it wasn’t really on people's radar where I lived. There was no Disneyworld or Disneyland to dream of, and I’d never heard of the Great Smoky Mountains – only Smoky the Bear! But over the last few years Asheville has increasingly been the topic of travel talk; I’ve heard a lot about it being an open-minded oasis full of delicious local fare and surrounded by incredible mountain ranges. So, when deciding where to go on a five-day July getaway, my partner and I agreed on North Carolina. Full disclosure: it helped that the plane ticket prices were about $125 USD each roundtrip.

Before traveling anywhere, I always make sure to check the forecast. Once I’ve arrived, I always remember that meteorologists are fallible human beings. We were expecting three straight days of rain, including thunderstorms, so we planned accordingly; however, we only got sporadic showers. Regardless, we planned to spend our first day at Biltmore Estate because we could have a few hours indoors exploring the largest private residence in the U.S. We approached the house from the Diana Fountain at the top of a hill, such that we saw it increasing in size in contrast to the fading mountains behind it. The home, with its French Renaissance style, covers roughly four acres with 35 bedrooms, 43 washrooms, a bowling alley, and library with its own secret passageways.

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We spent roughly an hour and a half exploring the house, feeling more and more thankful by the minute that I’d never have the means to live in such a preposterously imposing house: there was a four-storey chandelier, a 90-foot room devoted entirely to tapestries (including one from the 1500s), and a 70 000-gallon indoor pool in the basement complete with underwater lighting at a time when many homes didn’t even have electricity yet. It’s well worth a visit not only to examine the architectural features (thanks to Richard Morris Hunt) and the landscape architecture (thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted), but also to reflect on the vast wealth disparity in the U.S. On the self-guided audio tour they made sure to emphasize that the estate was opened up to the public in the 1930s to try to increase tourism in the region and boost the local economy, while also being a major source of ongoing employment for locals.

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Although you could spend multiple days exploring the grounds at Biltmore, we booked our tickets for just one day and reserved a 3pm entry to the house. We started off by walking through the outdoor Library and South Terraces, savouring the shade and soaking up the stunning views of the mountains. We also happened to overhear an engagement proposal, although we were both so groggy from our flight that it didn’t register at first. The woman kept looking down at her hand and making an astonished face, so it finally clicked and I bluntly asked: “Did you just get engaged?” She shyly said yes, huge smile creeping across her face. I gushed over her ring and wished them all the best in their life ahead and then gave them some privacy.

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We strolled through the Shrub Garden, the Walled Garden, and the Rose Garden on our way to the Conservatory. I appreciated the diversity of plant life: from a bamboo forest to azalea gardens; and was incredibly impressed with the botanical model train display, fully functioning trains composed entirely of plant matter! We kept walking behind the conservatory, continuing on to the Bass Pond and Boat House with its own hidden waterfall – another prime proposal spot.

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Completed in 1895, the property included thousands of acres so it’s no surprise that the Vanderbilt family ultimately decided to start a dairy farm, winery, and now also own multiple hotels in the Antler Hill Village area. We didn't have time to hike or bike the many acres, but we did drive by the sunflower field and take in the art displays along with the educational exhibits. There’s also the adjacent Biltmore Village, which has historic cottages full of restaurants, cafes, and event spaces. We stopped there to fuel up at the Well-Bred Bakery and Café.

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We should have been more cognizant of our potential hanger when we packed for our hiking trips in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We also hadn’t realized that it may be difficult to refuel, even with water, along the way. Driving to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I also regretted not budgeting time to explore Cherokee – a town governed by the Cherokee Nation with a nice river, cute restaurants, and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Instead, we ventured on to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to get hiking early. While there, I was able to purchase water from a vending machine and use their restroom, while also picking up two paper guides: one devoted to day hikes and a Great Smoky Mountains trail map. It was only $2 for 2 of them! I’d highly recommend coming in with paper maps and guides because the internet was unsurprisingly unreliable. From there we stopped at a few of the overlooks like Morton and Carlos Campbell before doing our first hike at the Clingman’s Dome (steep but stunning!).

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I’d recommend wearing a hat, taking sunscreen, and going at your own pace – we saw a few people overheating on the way up, so it’s always important to stop when needed. We ended up spending roughly an hour there, really taking in the sights. We also had a strange delay in that we had to step in and distract some bees that were terrorizing a young girl whose mother was clearly also afraid and keeping her distance. Once the bees had buzzed off and the family had fled, we were able to continue on our way. Our eyes loved every twist and turnoff the drive (although my motion sickness definitely didn’t) and it’s clear why they’re called the Great Smoky Mountains given the clouds so stoically seated atop the summits. Our next stop was at the Newfound Gap where we learned more about the history of the national park, the region, and got to officially stand half in Tennessee and half in North Carolina.

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We couldn’t find water anywhere and the washroom had signage indicating its water wasn’t potable, so we stopped at the Sugarlands Visitor Center where they had water fountains as well as vending machines, but no food unfortunately. So that my belly growls didn’t get confused with bear growls, we diverted into Gatlinburg and grabbed lunch from Five Guys - mainly because it was cheap and easy protein. Gatlinburg itself is a tourist trap, overpriced with far too many neon signs, and I’m glad we didn’t stay there. We quickly headed back to the hills to hike more. We rounded off our day by hiking Laurel Falls, which took us roughly 90 minutes – my partner actually climbed down into the pool at the bottom for a quick dip. We found out that we had bearly missed a cub who had been spotted on the path; probably for the best because I’m sure a mama bear wouldn’t be too welcoming to tourists like us. Before leaving the park, we decided to walk the Cataract Falls trail from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, quick and easy but really pretty. If we were to do it all again, I’m not sure that I’d hike Laurel Falls – I’d consider trying Chimney Tops Trail instead, which is also popular but likely has better vantage points.

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In contrast, I’d love to revisit everything we did in the Blue Ridge Parkway. To begin with, we had the good fortune of seeing two bear cubs cross our path within about ten minutes of each other. We were in our car both times, otherwise I would have felt more like a not-so-happy meal and less like a happy observer. Fortunately, when we arrived at the Craggy Gardens Picnic Parking Lot no one was eating – bears or humans – so it was nice and quiet. We started our hike there so that we could get the ascent out of the way and have a breezier finish. The Craggy Gardens hike wasn’t overly challenging because the path was generally clear, but because it was steep at times, I took it slow. There was enough space to step to the side at times, but unfortunately, we still encountered some rude individuals. Maybe their attitude was a result of their hanger, we’ll never know. The hike itself was mainly through the forest without vantage points, but we did enjoy the rhododendrons and rock formations along the way. Once you arrive at the visitor center, the views are spectacular. Even more incredible are the views from the Craggy Pinnacle; however, I wouldn’t recommend walking to the trailhead from the visitor center – it’s much better to drive down the road, through the tunnel, and park in the Craggy Pinnacle hike parking lot.

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The highest peak we reached was Mt. Mitchell. Although it’d be more impressive to say that we hiked the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi, the truth is that we drove as far as we could in our rental car before begrudgingly huffing and puffing our way up to the 6684 ft. summit. It was a short climb, but a very, very steep one – more so than Clingmans Dome, and that’s saying something!

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A last-minute addition to our hiking agenda was Crabtree Falls. I hadn’t read about it in my research for the trip, but because I befriended a man on a motorcycle who recommended we visit Little Switzerland (long story) we changed our route and hiking plans. It turned out to be a blessing and a curse: Crabtree Falls were the most beautiful waterfalls on our trip by far, but Little Switzerland was about as authentic as Swiss Miss.

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In booking our accommodation, I chose to stay only in small towns rather than in Asheville proper. After two nights in Waynesville, about half an hour west of Asheville, we moved half an hour north of Asheville to Marshall. Between the two, I preferred Waynesville. It helped that there were more restaurants, cafes, and impressive views of the mountains. As with most small towns, we had to work around limited hours of service, which were greatly exacerbated by a labour shortage due to Covid-19. We felt that more acutely in Marshall, which only had two restaurants open for dinner when we stayed. The views from our incredible B&B (cannot recommend it highly enough) were far more appealing to us than sitting on a busy patio so we ordered take-out. We made the right decision because another guest at the B&B performed a live concert for us while we dined at dusk on the vast veranda.

Marshall:
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Waynesville:
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Surrounded by thriving small town life, we expected Asheville to be a more booming metropolis. In fact, it was bustling with tourists but had a fairly small, very walkable downtown. If you’re not in the mood to take a formal tour, then I highly recommend Asheville Urban Trail (https://www.exploreasheville.com/urban-trail/) because it outlines options for exploring Asheville with resources like a printable map, audio guide and even a scavenger hunt. I didn’t follow my own advice (typical teacher), so we ended up haphazardly wandering the town enjoying the architecture of the St. Lawrence Basilica and the Grove Arcade, chocolates at Chocolate Fetish, books at Malaprop Bookstore, vibe of Wall St. (couldn’t be more different to New York), and finally the Center for Craft on Broadway where we learned about women’s furniture and Asian-American artists (while basking in the glory of air conditioning).

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The highlight of our time in Asheville was actually meeting some of the incredible artists in the River Arts District like Andrea Kulish who makes Ukrainian pysanky eggs and Nadine Charlsen who shares my fascination with trains. There was something inspiring about not only seeing the artists at work, but also being able to safely interact with them (and Nadine’s adorable dog) at a time when connection can be harder to come by due to the pandemic. Sadly, we weren’t able to meet some of the other incredible artists whose work spoke to me like Kris Morgan for their light-hearted faraway scenes from Paris, Portugal and many other locales; and Angela Alexander, with her colourful portraits of animal life.

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Likely the safest social activity we engaged in was the socially-distant outdoor concert at the North Carolina Arboretum featuring Laura Thurston and Steve Newbrough. There was no additional cost for the live music, beyond the $16 entry fee to the arboretum. Sadly, we arrived too late to really hike the extensive grounds. But we had plenty of room to enjoy the acoustic guitar and unique vocals, and because the sound traveled so well, we were even able to walk through multiple gardens while still enjoying the sound. The Quilt Garden was an homage to the handiwork of the people in Appalachia, incorporating designs and bold colours into a patchwork garden. Nearby, a statue of the famous Frederick Law Olmsted stands approvingly.

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By the time we left Asheville we felt like we’d packed as much as possible into a very short time; we were satiated, but also excited to return in a different season for new perspectives and to learn more about the regional cultures: Appalachian and Indigenous. It turned out that it would be harder than we thought to go home. We arrived at the airport in advance of our 7 am flight only to learn that our flight was departing from Gate A12, yet the airport only held gates 1-7. Once we solved the mystery of translating North Carolina gates into Midwestern ones, we safely boarded the flight. Soon after, there was a ruckus beside us because Allegiant had overbooked and multiple people were assigned to the exact same seat. Next step? Mechanical failure. So, as quickly as we had boarded, we were told to disembark. I was drugged by this point, partially to lessen my motion sickness and partially to help my newfound anxiety, so I barely understood what was happening. All I knew was that I had taken medication to help with movement and I was suddenly shockingly still and stranded. My partner had set off to find reliable internet and search for new flights, while I tried to decipher what the airport attendant’s announcements actually meant. She had, at first, indicated that the next flight wasn’t until Monday (this was Friday) and had then listed the nearest airports in case we could find (1) private transit there; and (2) flights from there back to the Midwest. She then changed course and clarified that there was a slight possibility that the mechanical failure could be resolved by a system reset, in which case we may be able to fly out within a few hours. Unwilling to wait, I started looking for rental cars. There were none. Given that my partner had work the next day, we didn’t have much room for failure so I proposed that we go back in person to the rental car agency we had just returned a car to and see if they’d take pity on us and let us re-rent our beloved Kia. It worked.

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And thus began our unexpected thirteen-hour drive from Asheville to Chicago. Well, to be honest, our first stop was returning to our hotel for our complimentary continental breakfast. Fueled up (on multiple counts), we then set off. The mountain drives were stunning, including the Daniel Boone Forest. My favourite stops were: Berea, Kentucky which has a booming folk art culture including a visitor center right near the highway (buy the bourbon balls!) and Martin’s Bar-B-Que in Louisville, Kentucky (highly recommend the brisket tacos!). Driving through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and then Illinois was not how we planned to end our “relaxing” getaway, but it was worthwhile. I learned about Kentucky’s art and that for just $50 you can board a five-storey replica of Noah’s Ark. Personally, I’d rather spend the money on chocolate-covered bourbon, but to each their own. While driving through the region, we also saw plenty of ads for Jesus and guns (sometimes on the same billboard), but one really stood out: “gun control: buying one when you want two”. We couldn’t very well leave the South without at least a couple of stereotypes being reinforced, could we? On that note, I’ll mention too that we passed by Colonel Sander’s original Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant in North Corbin, Kentucky. It turns out that he was a real man, not just a cartoon conspiracy!

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We traveled with ease through the region and really enjoyed the solid infrastructure, well-maintained roads, and friendly faces we encountered along the way. Even our unexpected thirteen-hour drive home ended up being a welcome opportunity to see more of the South – especially the bumpy landscape and delicious food!

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Posted by madrugada 00:26 Archived in USA Tagged mountains churches art buildings animals chocolate rain architecture cities nature hiking vacation scenery summer rural usa tennessee forest beauty bbq eating cafes gatlinburg botanical_gardens kentucky blue_ridge_parkway american_history indiana arboretum north_carolina asheville marshall safe_travel waynesville scenic_road_trip coronavirus lush_greenery social_distance great_smoky_mountains illinoiswaterfalls Comments (0)

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