Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park

A road trip through North Carolina and Virginia states

After a busy few days in Tennessee visiting the always fun city of Nashville followed by the Great Smoky Mountains, we were driving – in a bit of a hurry – to the next state to tick off on our road trip, North Carolina. Our rush, was due to a bear causing a delay on the one-way Cades Cove loop road in Great Smoky Mountains National Park meaning we’d made it out of the park slightly later than planned and now needed to reach Hartford, just before the North Caroline border, in time for a white water rafting session along the Pigeon River.

Having already missed a dolphin-watching excursion in Savannah earlier along our road trip, we had no desire to repeat our disappointment – or lose more money – by missing out on this! Luckily, we had a traffic and road-works free run and made it with time to spare.

We had both white water rafted before – on the Snake River in Wyoming on our Trek America tour through the Northern states of the USA and then in Oklahoma at a man-made facility in Oklahoma City during another of our self-planned road trips. Both times, and when I’d rafted in Australia, it had been great fun and we were looking forward to doing it again.

With their being just 2 of us, we knew we’d have to team up with other people to make up the numbers in our raft. What we didn’t bank on was there being a huge group of summer camp teenagers booked in for this afternoon’s slot. Climbing onto an old yellow school bus full of raucous excited teenagers was not our idea of fun and we were more than a little relieved when the bus pulled up at the launch point alongside the Pigeon River. Things got better once we were allocated our rafting guide and split up into groups to board our 6-berth rafts – now we only had 4 excited teenagers to contend with!!

The actual rafting trip was, once again, great fun as we tackled a range of fast flowing water rapids dotted along the river and after our initial reservations having seen the rest of the group, we were glad we had booked it.

Dripping wet (the queue for the changing rooms was way too long!) and exhausted from a busy day, we found plastic bags to sit on in the car and started our short drive across the border into North Carolina and our roadside motel for the evening on the outskirts of Asheville.

The next morning, after a hearty breakfast at the IHOP, we drove to the Blue Ridge Parkway Visitor Centre, towards the south end of the famous road, near Asheville. Here, we looked around some of the centre’s exhibits, shopped for souvenirs and picked up junior ranger booklets to fill in along the way and hopefully ear ourselves another Junior Ranger badge!

Then we began our drive along the park way, initially stopping every mile or so to jump out and take photos of yet another beautiful view! Soon realising that our photos were al starting to look similar and that of we carried on like this we’d take forever to reach today’s overnight destination of Wytheville, Virginia, we started to be a bit more choosy about our stops, pulling over at the craggy Gardens Visitor Centre then veering off the parkway slightly into the town of Little Switzerland for lunch. This cute town had buildings in the style of Swiss chalets and the Switzerland Cafe offered tasty home-cooked food and delicious hot chocolate!

After lunch, it was back onto the Blue Ridge Parkway to continue our scenic drive until our next stop at Linville Falls Visitor Centre. From here, we took the short walk to see the upper and lower falls before continuing on to our last stop of the day, at Linn Cove Viaduct Visitor Centre where we exchanged our now filled in Junior Ranger booklets for Junior Ranger badges!

Leaving the Blue Ridge Parkway, we still had a bit of a drive ahead of us into the state of Virginia where we’d be staying at a motel in Wytheville for the night. After a long day of driving, we were exhausted by the time we got there so we had dinner at one of the nearby restaurants before a well-deserved early night.

The next day, after a Walmart stop for lunch and snack supplies, we drove towards the southern entrance to Shenandoah National Park.

The park is really a continuation of the Blue Ridge Parkway, with just one road, the Skyline Drive, running through the park. We soon found that the drive, and the views along the way, were very similar to what we’d experienced the previous day.

After a few stops at view points, we nervously ate lunch in a picnic area, slightly worried from reading the abundance of signs in the area that a bear might appear at any moment! Although we didn’t spot any bears after our lunch, we spotted one soon after on the roadside, climbing it’s way into the overgrowth.

We made a few more stops along the Skyline Drive including one in a pretty flower-filled meadow where we watched brightly coloured butterflies dance from flower to flower and then parked up at the Harry F Byrd Snr Visitor Centre.

Here, we picked up a Junior Ranger booklet then explored the exhibits filling in some of the booklet’s pages.

From the centre, we followed the short circular Story of the Forest trail through a pretty wooded area and out onto the meadows across from the Visitor Centre before returning with our completed booklets to receive our Junior Ranger badges.

From here, we continued along the Skyline Drive to the Thornton Gap Entrance station, spotting another bear on the roadside right before we exited the park!

It had been a long couple of days driving and by the end of it, the views of the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains were all starting to blend into one! If I was going to plan it again, I’d definitely plan to spend more than one day in Shenandoah National Park and would look more into where to stop along the Skyline Drive to get out and hike in the park rather than just driving and pulling over at viewpoints as I’m sure the park has a lot more to offer than we saw.

For now, it was time for a drive east across Virginia to our next stop, America’s capital city, Washington DC!

Gatlinburg, Dollywood and Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Continuing my road trip through Tennessee

It had been less than a year since I had visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the first time as part of a Trek America group tour of the Deep South. Then, it was mid-Autumn and we’d arrived as the the first snow of the season had fallen, the park a sea of browns, oranges and red as the trees got ready to shed their leaves. This time, it was the height of summer so I expected a rather different experience. I’d planned to spend a bit more time in the park for this visit having only got to spend one morning hiking to Abrams Falls last time so was excited to return and get the chance to see more of this huge National Park.

Meeting Ellie,the Pink Elephant, in Cookeville, TN

We were visiting the park as part of an extensive road trip mainly taking in the east coast states of the US. Having begun out trip in Florida visiting Miami and Walt Disney World, Orlando, we had since spent time in Savannah, Georgia and driving through South Carolina state before briefly heading inland to visit Atlanta, Georgia and Nashville, Tennessee. We were now driving back east towards ours next state of North Carolina, giving us the perfect opportunity to make a stop at the Smokies.

Once again, I’d be using the nearby town of Gatlinburg as a base having enjoyed its ‘Swiss mountain village’ theming on my last visit. Leaving Nashville after a fun couple of days, we made our first stop of the day literally on the roadside in Cookeville to see Ellie the Pink Elephant. This roadside attraction is known for being dressed in various props and costumes throughout the year and when we stopped, was wearing a huge pair of sunglasses!

It was then on towards Gatlinburg.

Arriving late morning, we drove straight into Great Smoky Mountains National Park taking the obligatory photos with the National Park sign at the park’s border. After a quick stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Centre to pick up park maps and buy a Junior Rangers activity booklet to fill in, we began our drive further into the park towards Clingmans Dome viewpoint. Along the way, we stopped at a picnic site alongside the Little Pigeon River, taking a short hike along a self-guided trail up into the woods nearby before returning to eat lunch by the river.

Enjoying the view on the way to Clingman’s Dome Observation Tower

Continuing our drive along the gradually ascending road, we pulled over at a few viewpoints along the way and were very excited when we spotted a family of black bears on the roadside in the distance.

Pulling over at a safe distance, we watched as they crossed the road in front of us before disappearing into the trees.

After that bit of excitement, we continued our drive, stopping at a few more view points before arriving at the start of the trail for Clingman’s Dome Observation Tower.

Above, another pretty view as we climbed the road towards Clingman’s Dome, and below, at the Observation Tower enjoying the views

We then followed the trail from the car park towards the large concrete structure. The observation tower lies just across the North Carolina border and on a clear day you can see 7 states from it.

Even on this slightly cloudy day, the views were pretty spectacular although we found the observation tower itself to be a bit of an eyesore!

Having spent some time enjoying the views, we returned to our car and drove back down through the park and into Gatlinburg to check into our motel, an Econo Lodge just off the main strip. That evening, we took a stroll along the strip before a pizza dinner at the Smoky Mountain Brewery.

The next day, instead of returning to the National Park, we visited Dollywood, Dolly Parton’s iconic theme park!

Above, the Dollywood Express running through the park, and below, a fun day at Dollywood

Parking in nearby Pigeon Ford, we used the park’s park and ride service to get to the gates. Once inside, we spent the day riding the park’s various coasters and amusement rides and watching some of the shows.

Dolly Parton’s tour bus

Highlights included taking multiple rides on the huge Wild Eagle coaster, getting soaked on the Smoky Mountain River Rampage rapids, visiting the on site Dolly Museum, full of Dolly Parton costumes and memorabilia and getting to steps inside Dolly Parton’s tour bus!

After a fun but tiring day at the park, we caught the park bus back to the Pigeon Forge car park and drove back to our Gatlinburg accommodation taking another stroll into town that evening to have dinner at the Texas Roadhouse.

We were saying goodbye to Gatlinburg – and Tennessee – the next day to continue on our road trip but first, we were heading back into Great Smoky Mountains National Park to spend most of the day exploring further. After parking at the Sugarlands Visitor Centre, we followed the nearby trail through the woods and out to Cataract Falls.

John Ownby Cabin

Then, we returned towards the Visitor Centre and picked up the Fighting Creek Nature Trail, a short looped trail out past the historic John Ownby Cabin.

Returning to the Visitor Centre, we handed in our now completed Junior Ranger booklets and took our pledge to received our Great Smoky Mountains National Park Junior Ranger badges!

With plenty of the park still to see, we then began our drive out to the Cades Cove loop road, an 11-mile one way road past some of the park’s highlights. Allowing ourselves what we thought was ample time to make regular stops along the road and get out and hike, we soon found ourselves hitting slow moving traffic and began to panic that we wouldn’t make it around the loop road and out of the park in time to make our pre-booked early evening white water rafting trip en route to Asheville in North Carolina!

Pulling over along the Cades Cove loop road

Seeing crowds of people gathered around a tree in the distance and realising that whatever they were looking was the reason for the hold up as cars either slowed to see or backed in and out of whatever parking spaces they could find nearby, we joked that maybe there was a bear up the tree only to discover that there actually was! Managing to find somewhere to park, we pulled over to have a look for ourselves and there, sat up high in a tree eating berries was a huge black bear!

Spotting a bear up a tree!

It was amazing to see the bear sat up there, casually eating his lunch, seemingly oblivious to the fuss he was causing around him!

Back in the car, we continued around the trail, unfortunately with no time left to pull over, stop and explore anywhere. It had taken us twice as long as we expected to get around but we made it out of the park with just enough time to get to our next destination on time.

It had been lovely to return to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, see a bit more and experience it in different season and we felt lucky to have had a couple of encounters with black bears along the way but there is still plenty of the park let to see and I hope to have the chance to go back some time in the future.

A South Carolina Road Trip

Visiting Charleston, its surrounds and Congaree National Park

We’d been in the USA just over a week so far, already having visited Miami and spent a few days in Walt Disney World and now, after 2 nights in the beautiful city of Savannah, we were back on the road to drive further north to the historic city of Charleston in the state of South Carolina.

Posing with a giant peanut

With it being just a short (for us!) 2-hour drive between the 2 cities, we had, as always, planned a few stops along the way at some fun road side attractions!

Our first stop wasn’t far across the state line in the town of Bluffton, home of the World’s Largest Boiled Peanut! The peanut sculpture, built for a boiled peanut festival was outside a market store in the middle of nowhere and we almost drove past it and missed out on getting photos with it!

Above, and below, touring the Kazoo factory and museum

We were even more excited for our next stop – The Kazoobie Kazoo Factory and Museum in Beaufort, SC! Here, after watching a film on the history of Kazoos, we toured the factory to see them being made before getting to build our own kazoo to keep as a souvenir! The tour ended with a chance to tour the small museum containing all sorts of kazoo products and memorabilia. It was a really fun stop.

Despite our busy morning, we were in the city of Charleston just after lunch so, after checking into our hotel, made the most of our afternoon exploring.

Above, down by the waterfront in Charleston, and below, Rainbow Row

After visiting the Charleston City Market and browsing the many stalls, we took a stroll down to the Waterfront Park with its Pineapple Fountain and pretty views. Walking back through the city, we passed Rainbow Row – a row of brightly painted houses – and some of Charleston’s many churches before walking along King Street in the historic district with its high end boutique stores.

Shoppng along historic King Street

We returned to our hotel in time for it’s late afternoon complimentary cheese and wine happy hour. This gave us a chance to mix with some of the other residents and swap itinerary ideas.

That evening ,we went for some South Carolina BBQ for dinner before joining a Ghost Walk of the city. This was a really fun way to see the city and hear some stories from its past.

Above, and below, touring the McLeod Plantation

We only had one night in the city itself but planned to spend most of the next day in the area so the next morning, we were up early to check out of our hotel and drive to McLeod Plantation. There are a variety of plantations to tour around Charleston and we were unsure which one to choose but McLeod Planation was recommended to us by our tour guide at Owen House in Savannah a few days earlier.

Arriving early, we bought tickets and had just a short wait until our tour was called. A guide took us around the grounds explaining the property’s chequered past and we were then left to continue exploring the house and grounds ourselves. It was a really interesting morning and definitely worth a visit.

Seeing as we’d made such an early start to the day, we still had plenty of time to spare so decided to take a ride out to the coast,and more specifically, Folly Beach. As we neared the beach town though, we hit traffic jams and warnings that the cars parks were all already full. Having not researched alternative places to park or if there were any park and ride schemes, and not planning on spending a huge amount of time there anyway, we decided it wasn’t worth the wait or the cost of parking and turned around deciding to make alternative plans.

The huge Angel Oak

While talking to other residents at our hotel the previous afternoon, some of them had mentioned visiting a huge and very old Oak Tree, the Angel Oak. We had looked up the tree and where to find it in case we had time to see it and as the sat nav was telling us it wasn’t too far away, we decided to make a lunch stop there. Said to be the largest Oak Tree east of the Mississippi, the tree, estimated to be over 300 years old, was definitely an impressive site.

Arriving at Congaree National Park

Running out of things to do around Charleston, we decided to hit the road and try to make it to Congaree National Park today instead of visiting the next day like we’d originally planned. We estimated we could be there between 2pm and 3pm giving us a couple of hours to explore before driving to our nearby roadside motel for the night.

Sure enough, we made it to the park in just a couple of hours. Once there, we stopped at the Harry Hampton Visitor Centre, picking up Junior Ranger booklets to fill in before taking a circular walk through the park along the board walks leading from the centre.

Above, and below, walking through the park

The park had a weirdly tropical rainforest feel to it made more intense by the extreme humidity that afternoon and the increasingly loud rumbles of thunder echoing in the distance. We made it back to the visitor centre just as the first few large drops of rain began dripping through the canopy of trees above us and onto the boardwalk.

After completing our Junior Ranger booklets back in the shelter of the visitor centre and earning our Junior Ranger badges, we hit the road again just as the storm began to pass over.

From the park, it was just a 30-minute drive to our roadside motel in Orangeburg, close to which we found our first Cracker Barrel of the trip to visit for dinner that evening.

Fitting in Congaree National Park that day meant we could now wave South Carolina state goodbye and make an early start towards Atlanta, Georgia the following day. It had been a brief first visit to the state of Carolina and we knew that the state had a lot more to offer but we’d fit plenty in and had really enjoyed our time there.

A US Road Trip: Ohio

Arriving in Ohio

Following on from an epic 3-week road trip travelling through America’s Midwest states, we were now on the second part of our trip, a week travelling from Chicago to Philadelphia via stops in Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, Delaware and Pennsylvania. After spending the day travelling West to East across the state of Michigan, it was early evening as we crossed into Ohio.

We had both briefly visited the state before on our coast to coast Trek America tour of the northern states of the USA a few years before but we wanted to revisit parts of it and spend a bit more time exploring the state.

Dessert!

Our first stop, just across the Michigan-Ohio border in the city of Toledo, was at a restaurant we had spotted on a roadside America website, Tony Packo’s. The Hungarian-American restaurant specialises in hot dogs and is a local institution having been in the area since the 1930s and while the food was fine (we especially enjoyed our cookies and ice cream dessert!), we were stopping by because it also doubles as a museum of signed hot dog buns!

All the walls were plastered with autographed hot dog rolls from celebrities who had stopped by over the years and it was fun trying to spot the stars we recognised!

Views across Lake Erie and Cedar Point Park from atop one of the rides, and below, a fun day at Cedar Point

Staying overnight in a Toledo motel, we were up early the next morning to drive to the familiar surrounds of Sandusky, home of the best amusement park we had ever been to, Cedar Point. We had spent the afternoon at the park on our Trek America tour a few years earlier and it just wasn’t long enough so today we were heading back to make a day of it!

Unfortunately, our visit coincided with a corporate day out meaning the park was a lot busier than it would have otherwise been but we still had a fantastic day riding the many World-beating roller coasters.

In Cleveland, OH, and below, Lake Erie and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

Leaving the park late evening, we drove the short distance to the outskirts of Cleveland where we were staying the night in a Travelodge on the edge of Lake Erie.

A drum kit belonging to the Beatles and, below, other displays at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

The next morning, we drove into Cleveland itself to visit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, a museum we had passed on our last visit to Ohio but not stopped at. The museum, sat on the bank of Lake Erie, had lots of music-related artefacts including costumes and instruments belonging to many popular rock and pop artists from over the ages.

Despite it being a ‘rock’ museum, the displays covered a diverse array of artists including Elvis, the Beatles and Roy Orbison, Aerosmith and Michael Jackson all the way up to modern day popstars including Lady Gaga, BeyoncĂ©, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and it was fun to explore.

Arriving at Cuyahoga Valley National Park

After our Cleveland visit, we drove south to spend the afternoon in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, one of the lesser known National Parks of America.

Knowing little about the park, we made the visitor centre our first port of call, talking to a park ranger to help us decide on an itinerary for the afternoon.

At Beaver Marsh in Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and below, exploring the park

Having entered the park at it’s north entrance, it made most sense to head south and exit at the other end so we drove along the main park road stopping along the way at some of the short trails to see waterfalls, rivers, woodland, marshlands and a covered bridge!

From Cuyahoga Valley National Park, we continued to drive through Ohio towards the state of Pennsylvania where we would be spending the remaining couple of nights of our trip. It had been fun revisiting Ohio and I’m sure we will return again one day!

A US Road Trip: Journey to Michigan

Back in Chicago, having breakfast by the silver bean

We were back in Chicago after a 3-week road trip through the Midwest states and after saying goodbye to one of our tripmates, two of us were continuing the adventure for one more week to tick off a few more states as we travelled to our final destination of Philadelphia.

After grabbing breakfast to eat in Millennium Park (because we couldn’t possibly spend a few hours in the Windy City and not visit the Cloudgate sculpture), we retrieved our rental vehicle from the hotel car park and hit the road again, driving north towards the state of Michigan.

At Indiana Dunes

Today’s destination would be the lakeside town of South Haven. From Chicago, we’d be following the east shore of Lake Michigan up through Indiana and into Michigan State.

Dunes backing the lakeshore, and below, walking along Lake Michigan lakeshore

Our first stop of the day was at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore (now Indiana Dunes National Park). After calling into the Visitor Centre, we drove down to shore to have a picnic on the beach and walk along the lakeshore gazing up at the huge dunes backing the beach.

First visit to the state of Michigan

Back on the road, we continued towards Michigan and our South Haven motel. After checking in and grabbing some food from the Arby’s next door, we drove further north along the lakeshore to the town of Saugatuck where we had booked a dune buggy ride.

Above, and below, views across the dunes

Sat in the back of a trailer, we were taken out on an off-road trail through the dunes. Racing up and over the dunes was great fun and half way through our tour, we stopped at a view point on top of the dunes and were given some time to take photos before we were on our way again.

In South Haven, MI, and below, a sunset cruise on Lake Michigan

After our dune buggy ride, we returned to the pretty lakeshore town of South Haven. We had booked a sunset lake cruise and luckily it was the perfect weather for it. We spent the next hour or so relaxing as we watched the sun go down on the horizon.

Passing through the Gates of Hell

The next day, we drove east across the state towards Detroit. Today, we had a roadside stop scheduled that we were especially looking forward to – a trip to Hell!

The town of Hell did not disappoint. Playing on the town’s name, we were greeted with ‘Welcome to Hell’ as we entered Screams store and got to walk through the Gates of Hell to enter the grounds of the Hell Chapel of Love, a popular wedding venue!

The Hell Chapel of Love

While grabbing lunch from the Hell Hole Bar, we wrote the Hell postcards we had bought from Screams then visited the post office to send them. Before dropping them in the postbox, the cashier stamped them with ‘Been Thru Hell’ and singed them so they looked like they’d been through the fires of Hell!

A really fun roadside stop!

Our final stop in the state of Michigan was just outside the city of Detroit at the Henry Ford Museum.

The Kennedy Car at the Henry Ford Museum near Detroit, MI, and below, exploring the museum

We had read that this was a great museum to visit, on par with the Smithsonian Museums in Washington but it was even better than expected. As well as popular culture exhibits, the museum had a huge collection of historical artefacts including George Washington’s camp bed, the Ford Theatre chair President Lincoln was sat in when he was shot, the Rosa Parks bus and the car which President Kennedy was assassinated in.

It was a fascinating museum to visit.

After leaving the museum it was also time to leave the state of Michigan as we continued towards Ohio where we were staying that evening but we’d really enjoyed our first visit to the state.

A Midwest Road Trip: Kentucky

Briefly passing through the state of Illinois

After more than 2 weeks on the road, we were on the home stretch and close to completing our 3-week tour through America’s Midwest. Looping anti-clockwise from Chicago, we had so far spent time in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri and now, we had just 2 states left before we returned to the Windy City. Starting with Kentucky.

Arriving in Kentucky

After a couple of nights in the city, we left our St Louis hotel for Louisville, Kentucky with, what we thought was, plenty of time to spare. We had an unusual activity booked their for that afternoon – ziplining underground in some caves – so needed to make sure we arrived in plenty of time to check in.

Unfortunately, we had completely forgot, or just hadn’t realised at all, that we’d be crossing a time zone and because we were travelling East, we would be losing an hour!

Approaching Louisville

It wasn’t until we checked on the traffic as we left St Louis and saw that our arrival time was out that we suddenly realised. Luckily, we were still able to make it on time, it just meant we had to do the drive in one go without any of our planned stops including the stop at a KFC just because we were in Kentucky and at the Louisville Visitor Centre to take photos with a Colonel Sanders wax statue.

Our Tepee accommodation

Arriving in Louisville and finding the Mega Cavern complex relatively easily, we checked in for our Mega Zips tour and got decked out in our safety equipment. Our guides and ziplining experts took us into the caverns where we manoeuvred around via 6 ziplines and 2 rather precarious rope bridges, often with just the torch on our helmet for light! It was an amazing experience leaping into darkness, often not being able to even see the other end of the zipline as we left the platform, although for the most part, the caverns were well-lit as we zoomed over the cavern below us.

After our zipline adventure, we drove to Cave City where we checked in at accommodation for the next 2 nights at the Wigwam Village! Here, our motel room was an en suite concrete tepee. It was a fun alternative to the standard motel rooms we had become used to and there was a lot more room inside than it looked like there would be from the outside!

Above, and below, at Dinosaur World

The next morning, we drove into Cave City and after breakfast at the Cracker Barrel, visited its Dinosaur World attraction. The park had a collection of life-size dinosaur replicas. It was definitely somewhere aimed at kids and wouldn’t have been my choice of how to spend a couple of hours but one of my travel buddies was a big dinosaur fan and seemed to enjoy it!

After Dinosaur World, we returned to Cave City to look around its few stores and grab some snacks before driving up to the nearby Mammoth Cave National Park. The park is nestled above Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system in the World. We had booked a Cave Tour and after picking up junior ranger booklets to fill in from the visitor centre, checked into head underground.

Above, and below, on our cave tour

There were a variety of tours to choose from, all differing length and group sizes, but we chose the Historic Tour as it fitted best with our plans for the day. The tour was really fascinating, taking us through the cave to see all the highlights and following in the footsteps of explorers from as far back as the 1800s. We heard the stories of these explorers and saw graffiti etched into the cave walls from long ago.

Once back in the daylight, we used what we had learnt to complete our Junior Ranger booklets and earn another ranger badge!

That evening, after dinner at a nearby Pizza Hut, we visited Ralphie’s Fun Centre for a change from our usual night in and a game of bowling!

Our journey from Kentucky to Indiana the next day meant retracing our inbound route slightly. This gave us the opportunity to call into one of the stops we didn’t have time for before, Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park. The site housed a memorial to President Lincoln inside of which was a replica of the Kentucky cabin he was born in.

Then it was time to say goodbye Kentucky as we continued on our road trip, Indiana-bound!

A Midwest Road Trip: Arkansas

Entering Arkansas

We were now about half-way through our self-planned US road trip. After a few days in Chicago, we had since ticked off Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma and so far, everything was going pretty much according to plan except for the realisation that we were consistently adding approximately 3 hours onto our expected drive time each day!

Taking that into account, we had left our Oklahoma City accommodation pretty early, on what we had down as a 6-hour drive day in our itinerary and after a scheduled stop along Route 66 at the Blue Whale of Catoosa, we were now on track for an afternoon arrival in the state of Arkansas.

Soon after crossing the border, we felt in need of a break to stretch our legs and after spotting some signposts for Fort Smith National Historic Site, we made a spur of the moment decision to stop and have a look around.

Meeting Mr Peanut

We had a look around the visitor centre and museum, set in a building built as barracks in 1851 before being converted into a courthouse and jail in 1872, as well as taking a quick walk around the grounds before continuing on our journey to the next roadside attraction on our list.

With one of my travel companions having a severe peanut allergy, she thought it would be hilarious to stop at (a safe distance from) Planters Company Peanut Factory, where we had seen on a Roadside America website that there was a bronze sculpture of Mr Peanut outside which you could take a picture with.

Driving through Arkansas state

With most of the cars parked on the lot belonging to the factory’s workers, we weren’t sure if we should even be on the grounds so we made the stop pretty quick, jumping out to take photos before hopping back into the car to continue on our way!

The rest of the day was spent following an extremely long, winding road past a National Forest all the way to the town of Hot Springs, Arkansas, our only other stop being a late lunch at McDonalds.

We arrived in Hot Springs early evening, checking into a lovely motel run by a British couple. They were so excited to have fellow Brits staying that they graciously offered us their residents passes to one of the town’s spas to use during our stay!

A DUCK vehicle in Hot Springs Village

After settling in at our motel, we took stroll into town hoping to find somewhere to have dinner. Pretty hungry at this point, we eventually decided on Deluca’s Pizzeria. Unfortunately, there turned out to be a large party in who had given their orders in right before us meaning a huge delay in our orders arriving. After waiting over an hour for our food, we did at least get an apology and discount.

We were so hungry by the time it arrived that the pie we had ordered between us wasn’t enough to satisfy our hunger and once back at our motel, we were dipping into the breakfast bars left in our room for the morning!

The next morning we wandered back into the town. Hot Springs, a spa town, is actually part of a US National Park, the smallest National Park in the US National Park System. As we walked down the main street past the old bathhouses, we decided to book ourselves onto a National Park Duck Tour.

On Lake Hamilton

Two of us had taken a Duck Tour the previous year in Seattle and it had been great fun and we hoped to learn a bit about the history of Hot Springs National Park and see a bit more of it than we would have otherwise by taking a tour.

There was availability on the next tour so we were handed quackers to use on board and climbed straight onto our DUCK.

Above, and below, exploring and learning about Hot Springs, AR

The tour took us through downtown Hot Springs and out onto Lake Hamilton. Unfortunately there wasn’t a huge amount to see and a lot of our guide’s humour fell flat but we did learn some interesting facts – finding out that the town holds the USA’s shortest St Patrick’s Day Parade on a tiny back street each year and that President Clinton had actually grown up in the town and attended Hot Springs High School – and it was at least fun sounding our quackers, trying to hold conversations with the ducks we passed out on the lake.

Above, and below, exploring Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs National Park

After our tour, we took now-traditional National Park sign photos then went straight to the park’s Visitor Centre set in one of the grand bathhouses, Fordyce Bathhouse, to pick up a Junior Ranger booklet. Although technically aimed at kids, having completed some for these booklets on our Alaska tour before, we had found it a good way to learn about the National Parks.

The Park Rangers tended to allow anyone that asked to take part in the programs and it’s a fun way to explore a National Park as well as the badges awarded at the end making great souvenirs!

Junior Ranger booklets in hand, we set about exploring the town, concentrating on the Bathhouse Row area where most of the historic bathhouse buildings were situated but also fitting in a bit of shopping and a break to sample some delicious cupcakes!

Once we’d filled in most of our booklet, we returned to the Visitor Centre to get them checked by a Park Ranger and take our ranger pledge to earn our badges and certificates!

While Bathhouse Row is the main part of Hot Springs National Park, there is also a section of the park away from the town which, set in the mountains, is a bit more like the National Parks we were used to visiting.

Driving up to Hot Springs Mountain

We left the town behind to drive up the steep mountain hills to the Hot Springs Mountain Tower, a lookout tower perched on Hot Springs Mountain.

Hot Springs Mountain Tower, and below, views from the top

We paid the small fee to go up to the observation deck to enjoy sweeping views over the surrounding parkland and down to Hot Springs Village before following the road through the park to West Mountain Summit for more pretty views.

Above, and below, heading to West Mountain Summit, stopping at viewpoints along the way

It was now late afternoon and we’d already packed a lot into our day at Hot Springs National Park so we decided to take advantage of the passes the motel owners had provided us with and spend a relaxing hour or so actually experiencing the hot springs we’d heard and read so much about over the course of the day by visiting Quapaw Baths & Spa.

The spa’s thermal pools are filled with Hot Springs water and it was a really relaxing way to spend the end of our busy day.

The next morning we were leaving Arkansas for a few days in the state of Missouri.

At Buffalo National River, a National Park Service site

We had had a few possible stops down on our itinerary near the city of Little Rock but after talking to the Hot Springs Park Ranger yesterday, had decided to change our plans after he pointed out that the Buffalo National River park would likely lie along our route. We had looked into it and found that we’d not have to alter our route much to be able to stop there so decided to skip our other stops and head straight for that!

It was a really pretty drive through Arkansas to Buffalo River and once there, we spent a bit of time at the Visitor Centre before wandering down the the river enjoying the pretty scenery.

We’d had a fun time in Arkansas visiting one of the most unusual but interesting National Parks we had ever been to and could see from driving through the state that it was one of the prettiest states to visit and one we’d like to someday explore further.

Touring the Deep South USA: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Entering the state of Georgia en route to Tennessee

Day 2 of our 8-day tour across the Deep South USA with Trek America and a pre-tour stay in New Orleans and an interesting start to the trip in Alabama, we were now driving through a corner of the state of Georgia and into Tennessee – the state where we’d actually be spending 5 of the 7 nights of our trip.

A game of Cards Against Humanity on the van

Keeping ourselves occupied on the van with a group game of Card Against Humanity and making a few stops along the way to stretch our legs (including one at a gas station in Georgia so we could all officially say we’d set foot in that state!), the time passed quickly and we were soon arriving in our first Tennessee destination of Gatlinburg.

Setting foot in Georgia state

Having not left Birmingham, Alabama until mid-afternoon, it was already dark as we pulled up to our hotel on the main Gatlinburg strip. We were given an hour to settle in before meeting in the lobby to head to dinner together.

Arriving at Great Smoky Mountains National Park and below, a dusting of snow on the trees

We followed our tour guide to the Smoky Mountain Brewery for dinner where I had one of the nicest pizzas I’ve ever eaten! Some of the group sampled some of the the beers on offer and stayed on at the bar after but as we had an early start the next day, most of us headed back to the motel.

The following day would mainly be spent exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As a huge fan of the American National Parks, this was the day of the trip I was most looking forward to. After a pit stop at a local supermarket to grab sandwiches for lunch and snacks and drinks for hiking, we drove the short distance from Gatlinburg to the entrance of the park, jumping out the van for the traditional photo with the park sign.

First stop, the Visitor Centre!

The area had experienced its first snow of the season, just a light dusting over night but enough to linger on the trees this morning. As we drove further into the park we were all agape at just how beautiful it looked – the autumn colours of the trees mixed with the glistening snow. Our guide pulled over a few times so we could take pictures but they failed to capture the beauty before us in full.

Views changing as we drive through the park

Our first main stop in the park was at Sugarlands Visitor Centre to use the facilities and pick up any maps, leaflets and souvenirs we wanted. After meeting back up at the van, our guide told us that the weather meant the road leading to the area she was planning to take us hiking in was closed so we’d have to make alternative plans.

Beginning our Abrams Falls Trail hike

Instead, we spent well over an hour in the van driving through the park to go hiking in a different area.

The journey didn’t feel anywhere near as long as it was as we passed more stunning scenery – streams and waterfalls glistening through the trees alongside the road, endless woods showing their autumn colours and then wide open stretches of meadowland.

Not a bad spot to sit and have some lunch!

Once we reached our destination near the Cades Cove area of the park, we found the Abrams Falls Trailhead and followed the moderately easy, 5-mile roundtrip hiking trail alongside a river, through woods and rocky areas opening out to Abrams Falls itself – a pretty waterfall and lake.

Here, we sat for lunch, enjoying the view, scrambling over rocks in the lake and climbing up behind the waterfall before hiking back the way we came.

Beautiful autumn colours looking out from the closer to the waterfall

Being tired, what had seemed an easyish hike out, felt longer and more a chore heading back and most of the group slept on the van back to Gatlinburg afterwards!

Downtown Gatlinburg

We were back in Gatlinburg mid-afternoon and had the time to spend as we liked. Making arrangements to meet up with the rest of the group for dinner in the evening, my sister-in-law and I decided to go and explore the small mountain resort town.

Autumn displays decorating the main Strip

As we had driven in the night before, my first impression had been that it was in a similar vein to the holiday towns of Wisconsin Dells and Branson, Missouri – a tourist trap full of souvenir shops and expensive attractions – but as we wondered down the main strip, downtown Gatlinburg endeared itself to me a lot more and seemed to have a lot more charm about it with its surrounding mountains, European mountain resort themed ‘Village Shoppes’ area and its breweries and distilleries dotted around.

Arriving at Ole Smokey Distillery

Later, we met up with the rest of the group deciding on the Texas Roadhouse for dinner – my first visit to an American chain that is now one of my firm favourites! – before visiting the Ole Smoky Moonshine distillery.

Here, we took part in a Moonshine tasting session where for $5, we were provided with shots of Moonshine – various flavours and a range of strengths – to sample along with a hilarious commentary from our fast-talking host.

A band plays outside the distillery

Many of the group bought bottles of Moonshine to take along for the rest of our tour after while the rest of us sat out in the courtyard rocking chairs enjoying a live band playing country music while we waited for them to make their purchases.

Belting out the cheesy pop tunes at karaoke night!

Not wanting the night to end just yet, we found ourselves in a small karaoke bar just off the strip and seemingly full of locals. I’m not sure what they made of us demonstrating our singing talents to a range of cheesy British pop hits by the likes of 5ive and Westlife. Hopefully they appreciated some of the groups’ attempts at some Dolly Parton country classics a bit more!!

Exploring Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains had been a really fun part of our trip and I was already making plans in my head to return to the area on a roadtrip I was mentally planning for the near future as there was so much more of the National Park to see. But for now, it was time for our Deep South adventure to continue and tomorrow morning we’d be leaving for Music City itself, Nashville!

Watch my vlog of my visit to the Great Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg here:

Denver, Colorado and Rocky Mountain National Park

A trip to the Mile High City

The D&F Building on 16th Street

It had been a busy few weeks. The start of our trip in Vancouver seemed like a lifetime away; Seattle and Portland nothing but a distant memory; 10-days in Alaska had passed in a blink of an eye and now we were onto the final leg of our adventure, a 2 night stopover in Denver, Colorado on the way back to the UK.

Swinging chair fun along 16th Street Mall

Arriving in Denver early morning after an overnight flight from Anchorage, Alaska wasn’t ideal, especially as there were no rooms available for an early check in at our hotel. But we fought through the tiredness, grabbing some lunch to give us some energy, and caught the train into the city centre from the suburb we were staying in.

Colorado State Capitol
The Mile High club

From Union Station, we found our way to 16th Street Mall and started walking towards the state capitol building at the far end. We passed the D & F Tower, stopped to play on some of the twirling chairs laid out in the middle of the street and popped into a few stores along the way but still, the tiredness along with the affects of the high altitude of the ‘Mile High City’, made our walk take a bit longer than it should have!

Finally reaching the state capitol building, we posed for photos on the steps marked ‘one mile high’ then wandered around the park across the street before exhaustedly beginning our walk back.

As we returned, we detoured past the city’s Convention Centre to see the huge blue bear sculpture that appears to be peering into the building!

After a while, we decided to hop onto the free tram that runs up and down the main street to take us back to Union Station.

Posing with some Denver art

We decided to stay on a few extra stops and took a quick walk across to the river before catching the train back to our hotel where it was finally time to check in!

After dinner, our evening was spent catching up on lost sleep.

The next morning we were up early to catch the train back into the city. After grabbing breakfast at a train station cafe, we waited outside to be picked up for our day trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. Being short on time, we had opted to take a small group one day highlights tour to the park which lies less than 2 hours’ drive from Denver.

A quick rest stop

We were picked up on time by our bubbly tour guide/minibus driver and began to make our way out of the city towards the mountains looming in the distance. We made a stop in a small town just outside of the park to pick up our included lunch orders then continued to the Estes Park entrance of the park.

At Sheep Lakes Overlook

Our first stop inside the park was at Sheep Lakes Overlook, a meadow area, to see if we could spot any wildlife but there wasn’t anything about.

We continued along the road through the park stopping at viewpoints along the way as we gradually climbed to a higher altitude.

View from Falls River

We stopped for lunch at the Falls River Visitor Center Area just as it began to rain, the cloud slightly obscuring the view.

Looking out from the Falls River area
Following the Alpine Ridge Trail

After lunch, we began a rather precarious uphill drive in a thick fog that had descended up to the highest visitor centre in the park, Alpine Visitor Center.

We were given free time here to walk up the Alpine Ridge Trail which ended at a view point over 12000 feet above sea level.

Despite it being a relatively short hike, the high altitude made it physically exhausting and our lungs were burning by the time we reached the peak! Unfortunately, with the cloud, there wasn’t much of a view at the top but we were at least pleased to say we had made it up there.

Spotting a marmot
Beautiful mountain view

After looking around the visitor center, it was back on the bus to begin our descent through the park. We stopped at a boardwalk area to take another short hike to a viewpoint and spotted a marmot sat out on the rocks!

We pulled over a few more times on the road out of the park to enjoy the views now that the cloud was beginning to clear then it was time to leave the park.

We made one last stop on the way back in the town of Estes Park where we bought ice cream and wandered around some of the souvenir stores before heading back to Denver.

Down by the river

Millennium Bridge

I had one more morning in Denver before flying back to the UK.

The sky was blue and the sun was shining so I caught the train back into the city and took a walk along the river.

Spotting a trolley bus traveling along the riverside, I decided to get a ticket and take a ride. The trolley bus took us along the Platte River and back with the driver telling us some of the history of the area.

Back by the Colorado State Capitol

After my stroll along the river, I walked back towards 16th Street Mall. A free tram runs back and forth along the street so I hopped on and took a ride back to the capitol building then walked back towards the station again. Everything looked so much better now the sun was shining!

!6th Street Mall

I detoured off 16th Street to walk to the pretty Larimer Square area, the oldest block in the city and now home to a variety of bars, restaurants, cafes and small independent stores.

After a look around and a bite to eat, it was time to wave the city, and the USA, goodbye after another incredible adventure!

Watch my vlog of my trip to Denver here:

Watch my vlog of my visit to Rocky Mountain National Park here:

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Alaska: Denali National Park

In Denali Village

As we left our overnight stop at Maclaren River, there was one topic of conversation on the bus – would we join the “30 per cent club” and get to see Mount Denali? We’d been told that the Alaskan Range is so often covered by cloud that few visitors to the park actually see Mount Denali itself but we were all hopeful that over the next 2 days, the weather would clear enough for us to get at least a glimpse!

Arriving in time for lunch, we went straight to Denali Village rather than stopping to check in at our cabin accommodation and had some time to grab a sandwich and look around the local stores before heading into the park itself.

Watching the sled dogs demonstration

Our first stop in the park was at one of the park’s visitor centres to look around and grab any information we wanted for the next few days. The park runs a series of shuttles to take visitors around the park and after a while, we met at the bus stop outside the centre to catch a shuttle to the Denali Kennels for a dog sled demonstration.

Before the demonstration begins, visitors are able to wander through the kennel area to meet the park’s sled dogs which, being a total dog person, I absolutely loved being able to do! Then we found spaces in the viewing area as the park rangers led the demonstration with a little help from their 4-legged friends.

Glimpsing Mount Denali

Some of us had taken up the optional extra of a scenic flight over the Alaskan Range that evening with a glacial landing so after our visit to the kennel, we were dropped at the airfield where we were kitted out in some special boots to stop us slipping on the ice before boarding the third small aircraft of our trip so far.

On board our small plane

Like our previous two scenic flights in Anchorage and Wrangell-St Elias National Park, this was not a cheap excursion but we knew we’d not get the chance to visit this part of the World again for a long time, if ever, so we saved hard in order to make the most of these experiences.

Mount Denali
Glacial landing

The saving paid off as this was without a doubt the absolute highlight of our entire trip to Alaska. The views as we flew over the mountains were absolutely beautiful and to top it all off, from above the clouds, we joined that 30% club and caught a glimpse of Mount Denali. It was strangely quite an emotional experience!

Snowball fight!

Landing on the glacier at the end of our flight was also an amazing experience. The air was so crisp and clear and we had a fun time letting our inner child out and playing in the icy snow in between taking photos and standing gaping in awe at the surrounding scenery.

Pizza!

After flying back, a shuttle bus took us to our accommodation of cabins just outside of the park and we met with the rest of the group at the Pizza Pub across the road to share our stories.

Hiking in the National Park

We began the next morning back in Denali Village to grab some breakfast then a quick stop at the park entrance to take pictures with the sign.

It was a miserable, wet day meaning there was little chance of catching another glimpse of the elusive mountain.

Evidence of beavers!

Today, we had tickets to ride the Denali shuttle. This 8-hour round trip was one of the included experiences in our Alaskan Highlights Tour. We had a bit of time to spare before the shuttle left so we spent some time hiking in the rain on the short trail out to Horseshoe Lake, keeping an eye out for beavers along the way.

Spotting a moose from the shuttle bus

Then we boarded the shuttle bus to see more of the park. We saw plenty of wildlife in the park from the very first few minutes of the trip but it was mainly caribou and moose.

Teklanika River

The bus made a few stops on the way around giving us the chance to stretch our legs, take bathroom breaks or take a short hike.

We stopped at a viewpoint for the Teklanika River and then at Polychrome Pass where we walked to a Mount Denali viewpoint but the rain and low cloud meant all we could really see was the river below us.

At the information area at Toklat River

The other main stop of the day was at the Toklat River Rest Area where there was an information area along with a gift shop then it was back on the bus to our final stop, Eielson Visitor Centre.

Here we took a short hike out to another viewpoint. Still no sign of Mount Denali but we did see a really cute arctic ground squirrel!!!

Bears in the distance!

From Eielson, we boarded the bus again to return to where we started. The return trip was mainly uneventful except for when we finally spotted bears! It took us until our penultimate day in Alaska and they were pretty far in the distance but we were excited that we had at least ticked that off our Alaska bucketlist!

Back at the Toklat River rest stop in Denali National Park

Once back at our cabin ground, it was time to get ready for our last group meal of the trip as tomorrow we’d be heading back to Anchorage. We went out to a local restaurant where we had an excellent 3 course meal and reminisced about our amazing trip.

Our final day on the Alaskan trip was quite low key. We stopped for lunch in the town of Talkeetna, famous for its mayor once being a cat called Stubbs! Then continued to former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin’s home town of Wasilla looking to see if we could see Russia from there (we couldn’t!).

Spotting caribou from the Denali shuttle bus

Then, with one last blast of our ‘morning song’, Joe Croce’s I Got a Name (despite it now being the afternoon, it had become out tour anthem!), we were back to where we started 10 days before. Some of the group were heading straight off that afternoon and, having already spent time exploring Anchorage before our tour started, we were off to the airport to fly out of Alaska that night but there was time for one last meal with some of the group so we walked downtown and went for a meal together at the Hard Rock Cafe.

It had been an amazing trip with so many highlights. Looking for bears at Lake Clark, wildlife spotting while cruising through Kenai Fjords National Park in Seward, kayaking out to see magnificent icebergs in Valdez, taking a scenic flight and hiking across a glacier at Wrangell-St Elias National Park, canoeing down the Maclaren River and joining the 33% club by actually laying eyes on Mount Denali! But now, it was time to say our final goodbyes to the group and it was back to Anchorage airport to wave goodbye to this beautiful State!

Watch my Denali National Park vlogs here: