Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park Tennessee

Eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina rise up to greet each other in a mighty panorama of rugged mountain peaks along the southern spine of the Appalachian Mountains.  Wave upon wave of mountain ridges are separated by deep valleys.  This amazing natural landscape has been preserved for all of us to enjoy.  The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park within the US, with almost ten million visitors a year.  Its two main entrances are from Cherokee, NC and from Gatlinburg, TN next door to Pigeon Forge and Sevierville where we entered it from.  Covering over 520,000 acres, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park ranges from the pastoral meadows of Cades Cove, which measures 840 feet above sea leavel at its lowest point, up to Clingmans Dome, the park's highest peak at 6,643 feet.  The Great Smoky Mountains has over 36 miles of continuous mountain ranges reaching heights above 5,000 feet, making it the largest stretch of high land in the eastern US.

The Great Smoky Mountains is one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world.  Worn down over time, its peaks are now covered with an abundant carpet of trees, pines, shrubs and plants.  Over 100 species of native trees and more than 1500 flowering plant species can be found in the Smokies.

Birthed during the Great Depression, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially established by the US Congress on June 15, 1934, and dedicated by President Franklin D Roosevelt at Newfound Gap in 1940.  This particular park was carved from the homesteads of families as well as the forced closure of logging businesses.  All the land had to be bought and paid for; school children of the time even donated their lunch pennies.  A number of historical homes and farms have been preserved to represent the hard-working early settlers.

Unlike a lot of other national parks (Yellowstone, for instance) there are not a lot of wild life roaming around for visitors to view easily.  There are estimated to be 1500 black bear, along with a small herd of about 130 elk.  After nearly vanishing from the eastern US by the mid-1960s as a result of widespread pesticide use, peregrine falcon reintroduction efforts in the Smokies have resulted in recovery of a small population in the park.  River otters were also reintroduced in the park after a 70-year absence. does have over 200 species of birds, 66 types of mammals, 50 fish species, 39 varieties of reptiles and 43 species of amphibians!  ;-)

We were just excited to see a young bear trying to cross the road in front of us!  Once he saw us, he quickly scurried away though...(but we did get to see him!)

One of the things I wanted to "see for myself" was if the mountains really did look blue "in person", like all the pictures showed!  I had seen lots of ads for the Great Smoky Mountains, and they always showed the iconic scene of the mountain range all misty in shades of blue.  I'd always wondered if that was done on a certain day early on a fall morning, when the weather was "just right", and that it wasn't something one sees very often.  So, when we arrived and got set up in our campground, I was anxious to "go to the mountains"!

Doing my research, I learned that there are several driving tours of the Smokies you can take, each one taking a full day, and each very different from the other.  So, we decided to do the Newfound Gap Road first.  This one was more "natural sights" vs "man-made" sights.  It also started at the lowest elevation and took you to the highest.  This gave us the best view of those "blue mountains"...and yes, the views are blue!  ...and beautiful, really beautiful.  It made me just want to stand there and stare at them forever...I really was in awe.  I've really never seen anything quite like it before.  It's almost mystical...

But, one must move on... after all, there were other sights to see here...

Our second trip was into Cades Cove.  This secluded, flat little valley is only 4000 acres in size and is sheltered by the mountain ridges.  It's a wonderful 11-mile, one-way loop that follows the outer edge of the cove through intermittent woods, sheltered fields and historical buildings.

By the mid 1800s there were 132 families (about 500 people) farming the precious flat land in the cove.  Today, Cades Cove is home to one of the most complete collections of historic structures in Southern Appalachia, letting visitors see firsthand how people subsistence-farmed and lived off the land.  Early churches, homes, mills, barns and even cemeteries are left just as there were.   

Carter Shields cabin (c1910)
Missionary Baptist Church (c1915)
John P Cable Grist Mill (c1870)
Each tour came with a self-guiding tour booklet that told you all about each stop, which was wonderful.  I especially enjoyed the one for Cades Cove because it shared all the personal stories about each of the houses and the people who had lived in them.  My favorite was the Walker home (1841-1921).   John and his wife had 11 children.  Six of the children were girls,five never married.  Eventually the home passed along to them and they all stayed in it together.  In the 1930s, the commission responsible for acquiring land for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the Walker sisters to sell the homestead.  To avoid negative publicity, the commission finally opted not to force the Walkers off via eminent domain.  The Walker sisters eventually sold the farm in 1941 in exchange for a lifetime lease.  Legend claims the sisters were paid a visit by President Franklin Roosevelt, who convinced them to sell the land.   (don't you just love it!)

Walker Home (c1841)

As I've said after every visit to a National Park, thank you, thank you to our fore fathers for saving these beautiful lands for us, and our children and their children to enjoy!

...kicking back in Tennessee,  Marie

 If you wish to view the rest of the photos from this trip, you can at my Flickr account at:  

Friday, June 26, 2015

The beauty of Ruby Falls!

There are caves and caverns all over the country.  Stalactites and stalagmites, and all kinds of shapes and pretty rocks all "discovered" for us tourists to oh and ah over as we climb in and around the various ones touting the "largest" cavern, or the "deepest" cave, or the "longest", etc.  24 states out of our 50, have caves open to the public to come and view.  That's half the US!  Last count in the National Cave Directory stated that there were 77 caves.  Out of all of all those, only one has an underground waterfall...and that is here in Chattanooga at Ruby Falls Cave.  All 145 feet of it.

Leo Lambert thought that he could re-open the cave he had played in as a child, as a tourist attraction and formed a company to do so. He planned to make an opening further up the mountain than the original opening and transport tourists to the cave via an elevator. For this purpose, his company purchased land on the side of Lookout Mountain above Lookout Mountain Cave and in 1928 began to drill through the limestone. In doing so, they discovered a small passageway about 18 inches high and four feet wide.

Lambert and a group of fellow explorers entered a small opening to the newly found cave in Lookout Mountain.  They spent 17 hours exploring on hands and knees before hearing the sound of rushing water.  They were awestruck by the magnificent beauty of the waterfall they discovered at the deepest point.  Leo later named the falls in honor of his wife, Ruby. 

Ruby Falls Cave features many of the more well-known types of cave formations including stalactites & stalagmites, columns, drapery, and flowstone.

The Falls are located at the end of the main passage of Ruby Falls Cave, in a large vertical shaft. The stream, 1120 feet underground, is fed both by rainwater and natural springs. It collects in a pool in the cave floor and then continues through the mountain until finally joining the Tennessee River at the base of Lookout Mountain.

We've only been through a few caves, trying to only go to the most "unusual" ones (because, lets face it, once you've seen one set of stalactites & stalagmites, you've seen them all) - but I will say, this one was a beauty! 

Having the waterfall, and it's "light show" at the end, made it all worth the trip!

...kicking back in Chattanooga, Marie

 If you wish to view the rest of the photos from this trip, you can at my Flickr account at: 

Monday, June 22, 2015

See 7 States from Rock City!

It's pretty hard to miss ads for Rock City, especially throughout the southeast.  You see, that's where a young man names Clark Byers started offering to paint people's barns if he could paint their roof tops with the ad "See 7 States from Rock City!".  From as far North as Michigan to as far West as Texas, Clark scouted out the rural back roads for barns to paint beginning back in 1932 to 1969.  Since then, of course, billboards etc, are everywhere!  But the iconic "Barn" ad remains.

Garnet & Frieda Carter set out to develop the property into one big Rock Garden on Lookout Mountain, using the existing beauty of the natural boulders & trees and then adding her own plants and flowers.  Frieda, taking string and marking a trail that wound its way around the giant rock formations, ending up at Lover's Leap.  She also planted wildflowers and other plants along her trails and imported German gnome statues and other famous fairytale characters, set up at spots throughout the trail. Garnet realized that Frieda had made an attraction that people would be willing to pay for to see and made Rock City a public attraction in 1932.

Garnet was right, the place is absolutely beautiful!  You would never know that High Falls is man made, and one can't hardly believe the amount of work that must have gone into making all the bridges, caves, pathways, and tunnels etc. let alone all the upkeep that must be involved everyday.
High Falls (140')
Stone Bridge
 Jack in Needle's Eye
Gnome Valley
What a view!
They say on the web page to allow a couple of hours, well, we were there for almost 5 hours and I don't think we saw everything either! 

When I first started seeing ads, years ago as we traveled, I thought it would be "hokey", and maybe something for kids...well, it's not "hokey", but it sure does bring the little kid out in you!  Such fun!

...kicking back in Chattanooga TN,  Marie

If you wish to view the rest of the photos from this trip, you can at my Flickr account at: 

Saturday, June 20, 2015

My, who knew there was so much to do in Chattanooga?

When Jack and I decided to come to Chattanooga TN for a week, we thought we would do a little sight-seeing, and then sitting back and just relaxing.  The campground we chose offered discount combo tickets to the three "main attractions" here:  Rock City, the Incline Railway and Ruby Falls.  I read our AAA Guide Book and that sounded like the things to see, and it also sounded like one could see them all in one or two days (if you really wanted to take your time and spread them out).  So, we purchased them, and decided to do the Incline Railway the first day.

By 10:00 a.m. the temperature had already reached the high 90's with the humidity in the same numbers.  It didn't take long before we realized that our bountiful energy that we started out the door with, was slowly being zapped by this unaccustomed heat.  It didn't stop our enjoyment, but it did slow us down a bit!

The trip is really quite exciting.  You take a trolley-style car, almost straight up the side of Lookout Mountain, a full mile!  It's the steepest passenger railway in the world, and I can tell you, you really feel it too!  We were on something like it in Pennsylvania, and it wasn't nearly as long or as steep.  Once you get to the top, they have a great observation tower that looks out over the city all the way to the Great Smoky Mountains!

Lookout Mountain Incline Railway
Passing the "other" Lookout Mountain Incline Railway
View of Chattanooga TN from on top of Lookout Mountain

I thought the other incredible thing was, they built this back in 1895!  Amazing.  They had some wonderful old photos along the walls telling the stories and showing the various cars they have used over the years.

Lookout Mountain Incline Railway, Chattanooga TN - Circa 1895
Down the street is the Point Park, where the Battle Above the Clouds was fought in 1863.  The CCC built a beautiful "Castle-like" entrance to the park, that you can then walk around and see where the various "gun positions" were set up.  Cannons have been placed around with signage sharing information as to who was there, what happened, etc.  Along with that, the National Park Service has a nice exhibit inside including videos and a huge painting of the battle itself.
Entrance to Point Park
Jack with a couple of the cannons, Point Park
The New York Peace Memorial, Point Park
Cooling off in our air conditioned car, we headed into downtown Chattanooga to check it out and have some lunch (in an air conditioned restaurant!).  Afterward we walked around the "Riverfront" a bit (not to much to see, actually) but the Aquarium looks like it might be something to look into later in the week.  Went into the famous Chattanooga Choo Choo, which is now a hotel, cafe, shops, etc.  Beautiful building.  Cute sign on top!

1909 Chattanooga Choo Choo train depot/hotel
The city has some great murals and plenty of art everywhere!  They also have a free electric trolley that runs throughout most of it (with an all day $4 parking garage close by). We made one last stop before heading home, and that was at the the National Cemetery that was established in 1863 to contain the bodies of more than 12,000 Union soldiers who died in the area.  It is huge, and emotionally powerful.  Thousands of white gravestones, rows and rows of them over rolling hills...from 1863 to now...

Very interesting mural!, downtown Chattanoog
Walnut Street Bridge (105 yr old pedestrian - over the Tennessee River)
Jack & Marie at the "Rail Wave" by Christopher Fennell
Chattanooga National Cemetery established  in 1863 (incl 12,000 Union soldiers)
So much for being able to "do it all in a day!"  We were tuckered out by 4:00 p.m. and came home to our air conditioned RV!  Funny thing was, we no sooner got in and the sky opened up and it poured!  Guess our timing was right!

All I can this town is going to take many days to see!

...kicking back in Chattanooga TN,  Marie

If you wish to view the rest of the photos from this trip, you can at my Flickr account at: 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

We're back!

Just like a home...or a car...RV's need "maintenance"...and since it is both, it needs both kinds!  So, off we go, once again, to the Tiffin Service Center in Red Bay AL to where our baby was built, to have all it's little parts fixed!

"We're back", we told Charles, our favorite cabinet guy, and we have "one more idea for you to make for me!"  He just grinned at me.  I told him I saw where, at our friend's RV, their pantry cupboard had been remodeled into a roll-out one.  I need that.  I'm short, and I it's hard for me to see and reach way back into the back and top of those high and narrow shelves.  "no problem" he said.  I just smiled back.  I knew he could do it for me.

We settled in, filled out the list of all the "problems" that needed fixing and waited for the site manager to come over and give us the news on how long it was all going to take.  Early the next morning, here came Norris, who, after chatting with us, said, "well, the slides the problem, it's going to take about two weeks to get into that bay to work on it.  The rest's pretty simple."  "OK, it is what it is.  We will just wait on it then".  So we settled ourselves in.

A few days later we met Kathy and Ron from RVillage, a fun little website for people like us who have RVs and like to chat about where they are and where they are going.  They had put on there that they were headed here and I told them to check in with us when they got here and they did, so we all hooked up and went to dinner together.  Turned out we all had a lot in common.  It's really made our stay enjoyable, having someone to chat with and share stories and even some "solutions"!

This being our third trip to the tiny town of Red Bay, we've pretty much exhausted any "sight-seeing" that there is around the area, so when the weekend was approaching, we thought, why not take advantage of it and go to one of our most favorite lodges and stay overnight?  So, off we went to Scottsboro to spend a few hours at the Unclaimed Baggage store, then onto Pisgah to the beautiful Gorham's Bluff Lodge.

You never know what you will find, if anything, at the Unclaimed Baggage store.  We really don't need anything, let's face it!  I mean, we only have so much space...but it's always fun to stop and shop!  We mainly go to check out the books and movies...maybe a blouse or a pair of shorts, but that's about it, really.  We just don't have the space for much else!  I was determined not to buy (myself) any books until I finished the stack I already have, so I only browsed the section lightly...Jack, on the other hand...well, that's another story.... But, we did good, we only came away with a half a dozen, and that's really good for us!  ;-)  The movie section this time was awful.  Like I said, sometimes you win, sometimes, not.  But I did find the "perfect" blouse!

It had been two years since our last visit to Gorham's Bluff.  In my opinion, it's one of the most beautiful places we've ever been to, or stayed at.  It looks like a Southern Plantation sitting on a hill that looks out over the Tennessee River - not to far from it, and not to close - just right.  Perfectly appointed in all the rooms.  The service is impeccable, the food is superb, the weather (we've been now in spring and summer) has been wonderful.  I wish I could afford to stay on and on (but I can't).  On our first visit we had the opportunity to get to spend time with the chef/owner and really enjoyed talking with him.  He has since moved on and I was a little disappointed to learn he wouldn't be preparing our meals.  However, the new chef, whom I didn't meet, prepared the most outstanding and interesting dinner, so there was nothing to be disappointed there!  Once again, the staff and place's truly a magical oasis, hidden in the hills of Alabama!

The front of the lodge

The view from our balcony

Enjoying the afternoon on our balcony

Each person gets their own personalized menu - they added an additional filet and a mixed berry dessert as well (with an apology that it wasn't on the menu!)

Back at the Service Center, we ended up being taken care of faster than anticipated and things went quite smoothly!  Slide repaired, we found where the water leak was coming from (the back of the refrigerator!), the roof leak fixed, a new back-up screen and the windshield wiper fixed and even the window shade isn't crooked any longer!  Yea!  Life is good.

Now that Charles has brought my new roll-out pantry back, we are ready to roll on down the road again! (isn't it a beauty?)

...on the road to Tennessee... Marie

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Toot! Toot! All aboard the Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad!

Hearing the train whistle blow, seeing the black smoke billow and the white steam hiss is a regular adrenalin rush for me!  Not unlike car, boat or horse races for others, I'm guessing.  I'm not sure why, but I have always loved trains, everything about them!  So, of course, whenever we can, we take the opportunity to travel on one.  The "older" the better!

I read about the Cumbres & Toltec Steam Train out of Chama New Mexico, several years ago, and had it on "my to do list", but it only operates from Memorial Day through October, so timing is tough.  We've just always missed their window...until now.

We came into Chama a couple of days early and stayed at the Rio Chama RV Park, which is just down the road from the station.  We were booked to take the train for the "second day" of their summer opening for the 2015 summer season.  They had all kinds of special activities planned for the first day, so we planned on being there for that.  In the mean time, we thought we would go over to the train station while no one was there to "check things out".

While we were there, we met "John", one of the "Friends of the Cumbres & Toltec Railroad" - a group of volunteers who love and work to repair and restore the deteriorated cars and buildings.  We chatted with John for awhile and learned a little, but it wasn't until the following day that we really hit the jackpot!  After watching the ceremonies for a bit, I saw John and another gentleman sitting on a platform towards the end of the station and teased them that they had the "best seats".  They invited me up to join them.  "Bob" introduced himself and we soon became great friends.  Bob shared all kinds of stories with me (and soon Jack joined us) - showing me some of the props from the movie Indiana Jones with Harrison Ford, including pointing out the Water Tank he swung from.  Showing us signatures of workers going back to 1924.  He lives 7 months in Phoenix and 5 months here working on the trains.  "You guys could travel 7-9 months and then spend the rest of the time here doing the same!"  He got us thinking...might be kind of a fun summer year!  hm mm...

 Bob, Jack & John sharing stories...
 Movie memorabilia from "Indiana Jones" with Harrison Ford - shot at this location, along with signatures from workers back to 1924 on the door
 Old double spout Water Tank, Harrison Ford used in the movie "Indiana Jones"
 #489 & 484 Engines getting steamed up, Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railway
At last the caboose leaves the station, Cumbres & Toltec Scenic Railroad

The Cumbres & Toltec is the nation's biggest, longest, highest most exciting narrow gauge railroad operating today...and so worth the wait!  It goes from Chama New Mexico to Antonito Colorado (64 miles), chugging you up a steep four percent grade, then over the 10,015 foot Cumbres Pass, the highest altitude reached by rail in the US!  Along the way you cross the line dividing New Mexico and Colorado 11 times, ride over the 137 foot high Cascade Trestle, pass through tunnels, hug rock walls and cling to a narrow rim of cliffs that drop straight down to the 800 foot Toltec Gorge.  One hairpin curve bends back so tight it reminds you of a dog that chases its tail - and darned near connects!

Depending on the season, there are all kinds of wildlife to see...we only saw deer, and one neighboring passenger saw an elk.  However, we did experience "every season"!  Sun, rain and snow!  It didn't stop me from going outside to the open gondola car to take my photos, though, it just "shortened" my visits a bit!  It could get mighty cold out there once the train got going on it's straightaways!

About half way, the train stops in Osler, which is nothing more than a "train stop" where they feed everyone a fabulous full hot turkey or meat loaf dinner (all you can eat) with all the trimmings.  Then back on the train you go!  Once you get to Antonito, you have a few minutes to stretch your legs (buy a few souvenirs) and then board a very nice bus and be driven back (only an hour back!) to Chama.  By day's end, its about 8 hours.  You sleep well that night. 

We've been on a number of train trips (and if you follow my blogs, you've read about them), but I have to say...this one was one of the very best...

Toltec Rock Tunnel elev 9,631'
Coxo Phone Booth
Mud Tunnel (342')
Cascade Trestle

...on the road in Colorado,  Marie

If you wish to view the rest of the photos from this trip, you can at my Flickr account at: