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!

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:

Related pages

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:


Mount Rainier National Park

Taking a one day tour to Mount Rainier National Park from Seattle.

Washington state is home to a number of National Parks and while on a 5 night city break in Seattle, we were hoping to get to see some of them. Trouble was, at this point, we had never driven in the USA and didn’t feel confident to hire a rental and take self-guided trip to these places and public transport wasn’t an option. So instead, we booked ourselves on a group tour offered by the company Tours of Seattle* to Mount Rainier National Park.

Arriving at Mount Rainier National Park

Having already taken a small group tour to Olympic National Park a few days earlier, we knew the drill as we waited outside our airport hotel for our transport for the day to arrive. Today’s minibus was more like a minicoach, much bigger than the one we had travelled to Olympic National Park on meaning a bigger tour group too but not too many with numbers hovering around the 20-25 mark. Our guide was fantastic and kept the day running smoothly while still offering the group various options on where we could go and what we could do.

No sign of the mountain peak – stopping at a viewpoint on the way up

Our first stop of the day was for 10 minutes at a supermarket for anyone that wanted to grab lunch or snacks for the day and then we were on our way to the park.

Looking for Mount Rainier

Unfortunately, this morning, the weather was not on our side and our guide explained that on cloudy or overcast days, Mount Rainier itself often became hidden from sight. But she said the weather was supposed to clear a bit later so there was a chance we would get a glimpse of the mountain then.

We entered the park at the Paradise entrance station and began to make our way up a steep, winding road through the park. Our guide pulled over on request at a couple of viewing points so we could get out, take photos and take in the scenery and talked to us about the park and its history as we continued on again.

The Henry M Jackson Memorial Visitor Center in Paradise
The closest we came to seeing the peak of Mount Rainier it peaks out behind a cloud!

Eventually, we came to the Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center where we were to have our lunch and be set free to explore for a while. We spent some time looking at the exhibits in the visitor center before setting off on a circular hike on the Skyline Trail to Myrtle Falls. While the sun had now come out, Mount Rainier was still shielded from our view behind a large low cloud gathered around it but the views across the park from the trail were still really pretty.

Narada Falls

As we drove back down, we pulled over at a few more view points then stopped to see Narada Falls. The sun was hitting the cascading water at the right angle to create a beautiful rainbow glistening above the falls!

A rainbow!
Longmire Suspension Bridge

Disappointed that the weather hadn’t clearer enough for us to see the elusive mountain yet, our guide said she had one more place she could take us from where the mountain was sometimes visible even on days when it wasn’t visible from the visitor center. We were told that stopping there would mean a bit less time at our last stop if the day but as we all wanted to maximise our chances of seeing the mountain, we agreed to give it a try.

So we were taken to Longmire Bridge, a suspension bridge over the Nisqually River. Disappointingly, Mount Rainier still wasn’t visible to us but it was a really picturesque spot to stop off at anyway!

Tall trees in the ancient forest

The last stop of the day was in the park’s lowlands at one of the ancient old growth forests where we spent some time walking through the Douglas firs, cedars and hemlocks then it was back to Seattle where we were dropped off back at our airport hotel.

A walk in the ancient old growth forest

Although we’d not been lucky enough to see Mount Rainier itself, we had had a fun day at the park and having seen the highlights, are planning on returning on a self-guided tour on our next visit to the area!

Watch my vlog of my trip to Mount Rainier National Park:

You can read about the rest of my trip to Seattle here and my day trip to another Washington state National Park from Seattle, Olympic National Park, here.

*Although we were guests of Tour of Seattle on this trip, all thoughts and opinions are my own.