If it were up to me I would hike all day, every day. It would be my job, exploring the world and the many mountain ranges within our blue green globe. Every day new sights for my eyes with my family beside me, adventuring together. If it were up to me it would not have to be a getaway but rather the usual day routine: wake up, pack lunches, hike until your legs hurt, repeat. If it were up to me I would have little to no agenda, except making it from one trailhead or mile marker to the next. I love our lives and we are blessed in more ways than I can list. And yes, we adventure in our small town and neighboring areas in Arkansas, but this was the first time in quite a few years we have taken a “trip” to hike ourselves into the ground.
See for me vacation means eye feast, aka I would much rather log miles than sit on a beach. I know I am crazy, do more and see more. I guess you could say my agenda is to take in sights others may never see in their lifetime due to finances, health, and many other obstacles. I believe this drive to seek is deep rooted within me due to my childhood experiences in Colorado. Every summer after my dad had his bypass surgery, we would shove a queen size mattress into the 1986 Chevy, long wheel base with a camper shell. My parents would sleep in the back on the queen mattress and I was small enough to sleep in the front of the truck on the bench seat. The first year my parents’ comfort level was quite low due to the lack of planning, the second year my dad got smart and built a platform to fit perfectly in the back. This prevented the mattress from taking on a the lovely U-shape from the wheel wells! The memories from my childhood consisted mostly of those years spent camping and sleeping in the old blue Chevy truck. Anywhere from snot-sicles in my dad’s stache, rainbows on mountain passes, running from lightening on the trails, to capturing wildflower fields, you name it we experienced it together.
So with this being a major part of my childhood memories you can see why I tend to lean toward chasing sights on vacations.
For your entertainment I included a picture of my mom and a chunky little girl hiking on a Rocky Mountain trail.
The quality comes from the wonderful windup disposable camera which were so very popular in the ’90s.
Coming back to the present, the last vacation the Sartain man and I took was to Rocky Mountain National Park around the Estes area, and it was pre-parenthood. Pre-tired eyes, pre-super-duper responsible for keeping a tiny person alive and well. Pre-it-is-hard-to-get-away-from-home-without-feeling-like-you-left-a-piece-of-yourself days. So yes, it had been quite a while since we ditched the agendas and chased a hiker’s high. I wanted to share my experience with you and a tiny bit of personal input on a Gatlinburg Getaway.
Around August I noticed my husband had been somewhat down and out. Being the intuitive creature I am, or you know it might be the I will rip it out of you aspect; either way I picked up on the fact he needed some one-on-one time with his wifey. So we chose to do the hike trip without tiny tot. Later on, I will tell you how the momma heart faired the first time being 9+ hours away from her boy. After I booked the trip I noticed an immediate change in my honey, he was excited and ready. Our Estes trip gave him the fever and he had been wanting to return ever since, but this smaller hiker’s affair was enough to quench his thirst. Once October rolled around I could not believe how close we were to packing up and shipping out!
Finally, departure day arrived and we shipped out like a herd of turtles. First Ben to the grandparents then us down the road. Significant tears may have happened as I watched my child go down the road and us going in the opposite direction. But after quite a few deep breaths and talking down from my Mr. Calm I was able to regroup and focus on the fun. In the car is where the personality differences between Sartains began to really shine. His idea of a road trip consists of loud music blasting, not a chirp exchanged. Can you guess what my desires for the trip might have been? “Let’s share every moment and thought, and our hopes, desires, dreams, goals, and every single random detail about our lives.” Yes, I wanted to talk the whole trip, and he obliged. Good man. It was so wonderful to reconnect with the soul I get to walk through this life with, no phones, media, or distractions, just us.
Well it was all fine and dandy until construction after construction began to pop-up, ever delaying our ETA. Do you do that? Type the destination in on the GPS just so you can beat your arrival time? For me it is a race and every minute shaved is success! Aha! Five minutes earlier, good work, I will show you map app Australian man (if someone is going to boss me around they better have an accent). Well as the time began to add rather than subtract I started to think “ummmm, is this going to be worth it?” One full day driving both ways for only two days hiking….
Finally arrived at our tiny cabin. Unpacked, discussed possible options for hike trails the next morning. Crashed.
The next morning with the sunrise I decided it was totally worth every minute in the car.
The first morning we decided to tackle Mount LeConte, I had this one on my radar ever since the last trip to the Smokies. At the top there is a lodge, where they backpack in supplies every year for those who want to stay in their rustic cabins. Apparently these cabins book out quickly and are something to be pursued. Well at this lodge you can also purchase “I conquered the LeConte” shirts. Last time we made it ALL the way to the top with NO money. I searched high and low for a shirt to say anything remotely similar and much to my dismay, the only place in the world you get those darn shirts is at the lodge office on the top.
Mount LeConte is round trip ten miles and 6,594 feet elevation, the third highest peak in the park, behind Clingmans Dome and Mount Guyot. The weather was fabulous and we were bright eyed and bushy tailed. Hit the trailhead decently early, which is beneficial for parking and traffic into the park this time of year. Hint, Hint.
Y’all, it was cold. I started to wonder if I dressed appropriately and if this was going to be a replay of the Ute trail in Colorado; wind burned legs and cheeks… both sets. Most of the beginning of the trail leading up to Alum Cave, about 2.3 miles, is thick shade and runs alongside a creek.
So, the first portion of the trail consisted of power walking to warm ourselves and me constantly asking Adam if we are dressed warm enough. I am such a fun companion….
By the time we reached Alum Cave we had shed our first layer and were plenty warm.
It was a great hike and had little traffic ahead of us. You could distinguish very easily the master hiker’s who plan to continue on to the Appalachian trail from those who plan to make a day trip, to those who did not know what they were getting into once they passed the Alum Cave. The cave is a lovely destination if you are looking for a short, easier hike with great beauty. But we pressed on, for more mileage and those desired cotton threads.
After the cave the trail begins to increase in difficulty and get quite long. In fact, I wore my FitBit this time to track mileage and those tiny wooden park signs are a bunch of liars. SIX miles National Park folks, not five. We finally made it to the lodge at mile six. I will add, I was not too awful upset about the difference because once you got within the last mile you experienced a different type of terrain and beauty. The trail turns mossy and flat.
You feel as if you are in a movie scene with how unique and wonderful this aspect of the trail becomes.
Once we found the lodge, I immediately turned nerd and went for my shirt. After obtaining my coveted souvenir we had lunch on the deck and moseyed around the rustic lodges, listening to how supplies are brought to the area and other random details for those more familiar with the area.
On the way back down we took quite a bit more pictures and picked up a piddler’s pace. Many random photo opps presented themselves, including quite a few cairns.
If you have never heard of this, a cairn is man-made pile of stones, often used as a marker, a way of saying someone has been here. I think they are the neatest thing and love to take pictures of them. I included quite a few pictures of our hike down so you can see what we fed our eyeballs.
Round trip twelve miles on Mount LeConte and three other piddling miles for day one was not too shabby. According to the FitBit we also accomplished 309 flights of stairs! We felt good, but decided we would drive back to Gatlinburg for dinner on the strip.
Now Gatlinburg is the cutest town ever, nestled at the bottom of the park. There are tons of fun things to do with family including an aquarium, Ripley’s, ski lifts for scenic viewing, jeep and ATV rentals, quaint shopping, and numerous unique restaurants. But remember we were there for such a short time, we desired seclusion and beauty, so the town this time was not for us. We had dinner at Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Company, which is based on the movie Forest Gump, and daydreamed about where we would take Ben when we returned.
After dinner we escaped to our cabin to soak our legs in the hot tub and plan our next day’s adventures.
Day two consisted of lots of soreness and the piddler’s pace. We decided we would take our time going through the park and select trails we knew were moderate difficulty to reach beautiful views. Last time we were in the Smoky Mountain National Park the weather was not as cooperative, it was mid-September and rain galore. It made for a wonderful time chasing trails with waterfalls, but the sights from Clingman’s Dome and Andrew’s Bald (notorious for containing eye candy) were very poor and resembled a milk jug. So, we decided to start the day with Clingman’s Dome. Much to our dismay it was closed off for construction. I could not believe we struck out once again!
The trail is paved completely so it was added to our next time with Ben list. The paved path is half a mile with a significant incline so it was the perfect warm up for our legs. And we did get to see some beauty mid-point on the trail, so not all was lost.
Andrew’s Bald trailhead is located in the same parking lot as Clingman’s Dome, so we grabbed our packs out of the car and started down the “Trick Trail”. This trail has earned two nicknames from me, “Trick Trail” and “Bear Food”. I nicknamed it Trick Trail because you start the trail going down, and come up on the way back to your vehicle. Bear Food comes from the last experience. Our first time on this trail, no lie if you lifted your hand in front of your face you could not see it due to the immensely thick fog. Moss and mushrooms covered all areas surrounding you and NO ONE WAS ON THE TRAIL. I specifically remember not wanting to get too far behind my hubby in case one of us came across a bear! Now I know blackbears do not attack unless provoked or cubs present, but if you could see my memories you would understand the feeling of “I am in bear country and I might as well have bacon grease on my toes”.
This time it was clear skies, and full of fellow hikers. I was excited to finally see what the Bald was all about. And y’all, it was the perfect lunch spot. Beautiful and clear. Mountain views all around the field.
Hemlock trees with their sad stories surrounding us. You can identify the Hemlocks pretty easily because in Tennessee they are being attacked by an invasive insect known as the hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA).
The HWA are not native to the US so there is no natural predator and they are freely taking over the Hemlocks. It is quite sad, because you can see them all over the mountainside and trails.
On the way back both of us had a surge of energy apparently, because we practically ran the trail, it says to allot three hours, we did the whole thing, with a lunch break in less than two. Round trip with all our detours between Clingman’s Dome and Andrew’s Bald we logged six more miles.
On the way to the car a kind gentleman offered to take our picture. It is probably one of my favorites, despite our sweat, because you can see how happy we were and how good we felt.
The parking lot was overflowing and made us thankful we hit the trail and were done before these folks were even stirring in their beds. This parking lot is a fabulous spot to watch a sunrise. Our last visit we were rambunctious enough to wake up and race to the top before the sun peeped, this time not so much.
After the Bald, we decided we would take more pictures and drive slowly towards Cades Cove in search of another trail, since it was still quite early in the day. On our travels to Cades Cove area we stopped for sight-seeing and discovered our legs were toast. Something about sitting in the car directly after running a trail did not go over too well, wonder why? Ha! Rookie mistake.
I will add for those who have not yet been to the Smokies, Cades Cove is a wonderful place to visit especially those interested in settlers’ homes and stories. We chose not to go there this time because you should allot at least two hours, possibly more to DRIVE through. It took us two hours to get out after our waterfall hike last trip. If you have never been, I encourage you to add this to your agenda along with the waterfall hike, Abrams Falls. But go ahead and get there very early, along with committing half a day in this area. We just did not have enough time to do so.
Close to dinner time we made our way back toward our cabin to get ready for dinner. Once we were at our cabin we did not want to dress up and be fancy, so we decided to run to the local grocery store for dinner and ice cream. Our evening consisted of sunset watching, leg resting, and packing for our trip back home. This is where the discussion of Ben really started. We have nicknames and special voices we do for him when we are talking about what he would say or what he would do in different situations. And for some reason it really started to pick-up about this point in the trip.
It was fantastic to have a trip with my original hike partner, but wow did I miss my rascal. Day one and two I did so good. I was in the moment, not consumed with worry for the well-being of my rat, but by night three I was so ready to return home the next day. I slowly hinted around at my husband I was ready to leave first thing in the morning, before the birds even made a peep. Fortunately for me, he felt the exact same way.
We left first thing in the morning, stopped for one more picture at the park entrance sign and started our voyage back to The Natural State.
I had packed lunch and dinner in the cooler so we made a nine-hour drive with only one potty-gas break. For those of you who do not know me personally I am quite the chatty-can’t-sit-still-Cathy. By the last hour of the car ride I was begging my husband to leave me in the ditch and come back, I could not take another moment in the car. I am such a fun road trip partner…. About the time I was debating on plucking my hair out one by one, we pulled into the driveway. Finally home.
When we got home tiny Sartain was shortly behind us and I was so thankful to have my entire family under one roof once again. I slept hard with a full heart.
Next time the whole family will tackle Tennessee’s finest, if the Rockies do not come first for the Sartainville.
“The mountains are calling and I must go.”
If you have any questions about the area, or would like to plan a trip but not sure what to do, feel free to reach out!
I will do my best to give you some tips for your trip!
Your Local Dietitian