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Belated trip report May 22-June 2, 2012

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Belated trip report May 22-June 2, 2012

Finally getting around to writing a trip report:-). Thank you to everyone on this forum for being so helpful. We had a great time! It was myself, my husband, and our three kids ages 9,9,8.

Day 1 (Tuesday, May 22)

The plan was to leave home (northern Iowa, almost at the Minnesota border) as soon as Dh got home from work around 3 p.m. He suprised us and pulled into the driveway at lunchtime instead; we loaded up and were on the road shortly after 1. This was a really boring driving day. We drove through south Iowa and into Illinois. It all looked exactly like it does where we live, so nothing to get excited about. We stopped for dinner at Arby's somewhere in Illinois. We drove until 7, then stopped for the night so the kids would have time to swim a bit. Spent the night in a Holiday Inn express somewhere in Illinois or Indiana--honestly, I'm not even sure which state we were in. The hotel was fine, and the kids loved the pool. We got to bed fairly early so we could get up really early the next day.

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1. Re: Belated trip report May 22-June 2, 2012

Day 2 (Wednesday, May 23)

We got up shortly after 5, and hit the hotel's free continental breakfast right when it opened at 6. It was pretty much your typical hotel breakfast fare. Good, and convenient. We ate pretty fast so we could get on the road. Dh checked out while the kids and I loaded up. Back to the interstate, more boring driving for a good chunk of the day. Again, the scenery was pretty much what we have here in Iowa. Crossing the bridge into Kentucky was neat though. We stopped for lunch at a Cracker Barrel somewhere in Kentucky. We love to stop at Cracker Barrels on vacation; for some reason there aren't any near where we live (IIRC, the nearest one is about a two hour drive away), so it's fun when we go south to eat at them:-). Shortly after lunch we crossed the state line into Tennessee; it was really pretty and starting to get hilly.

We got to Maryville, TN around 3 in the afternoon. I had made reservations at the Townsend KOA, and when I first saw Maryville was nervous that Townsend would be like that. Maryville looked like a very nice town, but it wasn't very scenic and a bit more urban than I had pictured. I wasn't sure if Townsend would be similiar. My fears were unfounded though as we left Maryville, and started driving through beautiful scenery: lots of trees, hills, very little commercialism. I was thrilled:-)! We got to Townsend, and it indeed was a very nice and pretty little town. Checked into the Townsend KOA; the lady behind the front desk was so nice and helpful. We drove down to our "camping cabin", and were really impressed. It was right on the river, with the deck almost sticking a bit over the water.

We hauled our stuff into the cabin, and then got a campfire going to make dinner. Roasted hot dogs and s'mores:-). Totally unhealthy, but I'm of the mindset you need to splurge on vacation. After dinner we explored the campground a bit: very nice pool, fun playground, even a small (rocky) beach area. We were all pretty wiped by our long driving day, so again went to bed pretty early. We kept the windows in the cabin open, and could hear the river all night long.

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2. Re: Belated trip report May 22-June 2, 2012

Day 3 (Thursday)

Again, we woke up early. Had a "picnic breakfast" at the cabin picnic table of granola bars and milk. We made sure to whisper so not to wake up the neighbors;-). Everyone else at the campground seemed to like to sleep in. We drove to Pigeon Forge via Wears Valley road. Very pretty drive, although more commercialized than what I had expected. I pictured a country road with farms, some cabins people can rent, mostly "country". There were quite a few stores and restaurants along the way.

First stop in Pigeon Forge was the Titanic museum. Since we were there so early, there was very little traffic yet in PF. I had booked Titanic tickets on-line before our trip, which turned out to be a good idea, since almost everyone else there had too. We were quite early to the museum, so had time to walk around a bit and take pictures. We were the first group in the museum. The kids absolutely loved it; and all three said it was their favorite thing of our entire trip, which surprised me. They all used their own money to buy little trinkets at the gift shop at the end.

After the museum, we drove to the Old Mill area. We ate lunch at the Old Mill restaurant, and the place was almost dead. Just us and maybe two or three other families. I'm guessing it was since we were there at an "off "time (10:50). They were still offering breakfast, but we opted to wait ten minutes and order off the lunch menu instead. Lunch was really good, and I thought it was reasonably priced. After eating, we wandered around the area just a bit looking for bathrooms:-). I am not a shopper (I hate it, in fact) , so had no interest in looking in the stores. After finding the (kind of dirty and crowded) public bathrooms by the bus stop we drove to Ripley's Aqaurium.

By now it was about 1 in the afternoon; Gatlinburg was really crowded and there was a long, long line to get into the aquarium. Including a group of high school students on a field trip that looked to be close to 150 of them. Needless to say, the aquarium was packed;-). We still enjoyed it, but not as much since it was so busy. Then my kids wanted to spend more of their spending money in the gift shop, which took forever and got me in a really bad mood (I really, really hate shopping;-). Finally finished all that, and left.

We took the Little RIver Road back to Townsend. Beautiful! We stopped at a few spots so I could get pictures, and stopped at the Sinks so we could look around. We also stopped at a pull out by the river so we could play in the water a bit. Got back to Townsend, and the kids wanted to wade in the river. so we did that until dinner. We had a picnic dinner at the campground (wraps and easy stuff), swam, did the playground, just had fun time.

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3. Re: Belated trip report May 22-June 2, 2012

Day 4 (Friday)

Today was our Cades Cove day, which I was really excited about. It did not disappoint. The plan was to wake up early enough to be at the gate by the time it opened. We overslept just a bit (that one hour time change thing was a bummer;-), but were still entering the gate around 7:15. Hardly any other cars there at all. We had just started on the loop when a huge bear wandered out in the road in front of our car. Awesome! We pulled over and got pictures and video of it. Unfortunately, somebody who had been driving behind us pulled up right next to the bear, which of course took off in the woods. We drove slowly by where it had ran in the woods, and you could see it way back in the trees yet.....with one or possibly two (we couldn't tell for sure) cubs with it!! Very exciting. It was our only bear sighting on our trip, and I was so thrilled we got to see one.

We spent the morning driving the Cades Cove loop, and stopped at all the historic houses, churches, and cemeteries. At first, the kids were really into it, but by the time we hit the visitor center area they had "maxed out" on the historic buildings. Dh ended up hanging around the visitor center with them while I walked around the mill area by the center. We debated on taking the Parsons Branch road in the hopes of seeing more wildlife, but my son is prone to carsickness (the Little RIver road the day before had nearly done him in), so we opted not to. We continued on the loop instead, and just missed another bear sighting! We stopped at more historical buildings along the way. By this point one of my twin daughters was opting to stay in the car during our historical stops. We certainly never had a hard time finding parking at the historical building stops (found this to be true at Roaring Fork as well), many people just drove by them when we were there.

After Cades Cove, we drove to the Metcalf Bottoms picnic area for a late lunch. Although it was busy, we found several unoccupied tables by the river, and snagged one. Ate lunch, hauled our stuff back to the car, and then spent some time wading in the river. After we got out and were drying off, I heard a little boy near us who was wading in the river yell out that he saw a snake in the river. Luckily, my kids didn't hear him or that would've been the end of the river wading for the trip (more about that later.....).

Next, we drove to the Little Greenbrier school house. I had first planned to hike to it by myself (dh and kids had no interest), but after walking a few yards chickened out on going by myself (bears). We decided to drive up the road instead. It was fine, although it could get tricky if you meet another vehicle (like the sign says, you may have to back down). We didn't meet another vehicle; in fact, no one else was at the school house, although there was another car parked there. We looked around for a bit; really neat.

We drove back to the campground via the Wears Valley road, and spent the rest of the afternoon at the campground. Swam/waded at the "beach" area, swam in the swimming pool. For dinner we ate at Little River BBQ, which was good. Hung out in the campground all evening, and went to bed.

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4. Re: Belated trip report May 22-June 2, 2012

Day 5 (Saturday, May 26)

This was the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, which I knew would be busy! We got up really early to try and beat the crowds. We were at the Laurel Falls trailhead shortly after 7:00. Although there were several other cars parked in the lot, there was still quite a few open spots. We parked and started the hike. I'm not in the greatest shape, and had to take my time hiking up. That's not such a bad thing though:-). The views and even the vegetation was so pretty that I stopped and took lots of pictures, and even some video. Although we met other people coming and going, it was early enough that there were times when you couidn't see or hear anyone else on the trail. That's how I like it, although I did hope I wouldn't see a bear nearby! The falls were nice; we took pictures and started back down. The lot was starting to fill up when we got back; now people were having to park in the lot across the road.

Next we stopped at Sugarlands visitor center. We watched the movie (very well done), walked through the litte museum, visited the gift shop, and I walked to Cataract Falls (dh and kids were hiked out at this point). Funny story, I almost had a hard time finding the falls: when I got to the bridge and the trail changes from pavement to dirt, I at first thought that was the end of the hike, and that I must have missed the falls somehow. I realized quickly that the trail must go under the bridge, so kept going and found the nice little falls. It was hard to get a decent picture of it though; there were lots of people climbing around it, and I wanted a picture of just the falls, not of people I don't know;-). I gave up after a few minutes and just had to snap a picture with the strangers posing alongside it. Was a bit surprised to see people hauling toddlers and in one case a baby up the steep path alongside the falls to get pictures.

After Sugarlands, we drove to Roaring Fork. Beautiful drive. I liked it just as much as Cades Cove. The big disppointment though is that it was really crowded. Traffic on the road wasn't bad, but parking for trailheads was non-existent. We had planned to do Grotto falls, but cars were parked what seemed to me to be at least a mile alongside the roadway past the trailhead. I knew my kids would balk at a hike to even get to the trailhead, so we gave it a pass. Instead pulled over on a small pull-out (plenty of parking at the non-trailhead areas), and had a picnic lunch in the car. Got out and played a bit in the nearby stream, and then continued the drive. Again, today we stopped at each historical building, and never once had a problem finding parking right there. Even the Reagan house at the end--which I really wanted to see, but had heard parking can be a problem--had a spot. Today, the kids were way more into the historical buildings, and had fun looking around. They also enjoyed watching the pretty blue butterflies that seemed to be all over the ground in spots.

After Roaring Fork, we decided to go to Dollywood. They have a deal where if you enter the park after 3:00 pm, you get in the next day for free. It was only 1, so we had some time to kill. We drove up to Seiverville to Ripley's Old MacDonald farm mini golf. Traffic was horrendous on the way there, and parking "a bear" too. We really had a hard time finding a spot, finally got one when someone pulled out. The mini golf was okay. Cute, but I thought it a bit overpriced and overhyped. We were done in about half an hour. Decided to just go ahead to Dollywood even though it wasn't even 2 yet an just wait in the entry area. I asked the ticket lady about getting in free the next day, just to be sure. She confirmed it, and then said we could actually enter at 2:35 instead of 3:00, and still get in free the next day. Something about the computer reading anytime after 2:35 as 3:00. So, we went in. We had a fun afternoon; it was crowded, but doable. The kids and dh did have to wait for over an hour to do the raft ride. We ate dinner at Granny's Buffet, which was good. Spent several hours at Dollywood, and then drove back to Townsend via Wears Valley Road. We had a lot of traffic in Pigeon Forge, took forever just to get to the turn off for wears valley. Then, the 40 minute drive back. The kids were tired by this point, and the drive back seemed really long to all of us. In retrospect, although Townsend is such a pretty town, I think maybe we should have stayed in Gatlinburg to cut back on some of the drive time.

Got to the cabin, and pretty much went right to bed. We were beat:-).

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5. Re: Belated trip report May 22-June 2, 2012

Day 6 (Sunday)

This was our full Dollywood day. We got to there shortly before it opened. It was crowded, which we had expected. As soon as it opened, we went to the new Eagle ride so dh could ride it. We tried to hit the other popular rides in the morning as well, since the lines weren't as long. We rode the water raft ride (where you shoot water at people) with no wait time; the kids loved it so we let them ride it a few more times by themselves. Later in the afternoon, we rode it again before leaving, and the wait time was about an hour. Moral of the story, get to Dollywood right at opening on busy days:-).

We ate lunch at the Chicken House buffet, which I thought was better than Granny's Buffet. Watched two shows, a country one and the bird one. Both were very good. Dh and the kids did lots of rides. I really wanted to watch some of the craftspeople work, but we just ran out of time. We rode the coal-fired train, and that was a neat experience. I don't think any of us had ever riden a coal-powered train before.

We left Dollywood in the late afternoon. To leave the park you have to walk through the big gift shop, which means, of course, if you have kids they are going to want to look around. My kids still had some of their money left, so we had to spend quite a bit of time letting them pick out what they wanted. I was going nuts, quite frankly. Luckily the store did have a really good fudge selection (way better than what they were selling at the candy store inside the park), so I picked out some fudge to buy.

We left Dollywood, again encountered insane traffic getting to the Wears Valley turn, and then had another long (to us, after a full day spent in Dollywood) 40 minute drive to the KOA. I don't even remember what we did for dinner this night:-). Something quick and easy no doubt. Dh and the kids went down to the river to play. My daughters spotted a water snake near them---that was the end of playing in the water for them, for the rest of the trip as it turned out! They liked to mess around by the side of the river, but never again did any of them want to get in after seeing that snake so close.

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6. Re: Belated trip report May 22-June 2, 2012

Day 7 (Memorial Day)

Woke up early, and packed everything up--today we were moving down to Cherokee to explore that area. It took forever to get everthing packed back in the car; we had to bring sleeping bags, pillows to stay in the camping cabin; when you have all that gear times five it gets to be a lot of stuff:-). Finally got on the road. We drove the Little RIver Road again, but this time turned onto Newfound Gap road.

This was a beautiful drive, and we had all day to do it. We stopped several times, to either play by the creek or just take pictures and walk around. We stopped at Newfound gap and were impressed with that view. I actually liked it better than the view from Clingman's Dome. We also drove up to Clingman's dome and walked to the top of the walkway. Quite a hike for me being out of shape, but very scenic. I'm glad I did it.

We stopped for a picnic lunch after doing Clingman's Dome, but I don't remember what the name of the picnic area was. Hardly anyone was there. Next stop was Mingus Mill, which we all liked. Then, onto the Ocunaluftee visitor center. We could see elk way, way off in the field, but shortly after we got to the visitor center they disappeared into the woods. The kids loved the Mountain Farm museum. Instead of empty buildings at the other historical sites, they had furniture in the house and even (fake) meat in the smokehouse. They also had (live) pigs in a pen. They kids also loved the exhibits in the visitor center here; they were very "hands on" and kid friendly. We spent quite a bit of time here.

Later afternoon, and we left to check into our next "camping cabin". We were staying at the Jellystone resort. It was about a 15-20 minute drive from the town of Cherokee to Jellystone. Again....the drive got to be a lot for the kids and dh. It was 15/20 minutes just to get to Cherokee, and then whatever other time was added on to get to where we were going (we really didn't do much in Cherokee itself). For two of the days, we had nearly two hours worth of driving one way to get to our destinations. In retrospect....I probably should've just booked a motel/hotel in Cherokee although the kids loved staying at Jellystone.

So, we get to Jellystone, and check in. I had made a big mistake when I booked and booked a cabin that was too small for us: only a queen bed and a bunk bed. Luckily, they had a bigger cabin available. This one had more room and was much nicer. Also it was located back in the trees, and very private. We loved it! We swam in the pool, and then went to the activity center, which the kids were so impressed with. All sorts of crafts for them to do (additional fee). Basketball, tetherball, playground. Yogi bear wagon ride very night. They played a family movie every night in the activity center. Just very kid friendly.

Had another "campfire dinner", and spent the evening swimming in the pool and playing outside.

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7. Re: Belated trip report May 22-June 2, 2012

Day 8 (Tuesday)

Today was a more slow -paced day. We got up, ate a quick breakfast, and drove to Mingo Falls. Beautiful--it ended up being my favorite waterfall we saw on this trip. No one else was there when we went.

Next, we drove to Bryson City to explore the Deep Creek area of the park. We hiked to Juney Whank falls--it was early enough we still had the trail to ourselves. We saw a deer very close to the trail; in fact, it wandered on the trail and started walking towards me for a bit. It was just a tad unnerving; we're used to Iowa deer who run if they see someone a mile away;-)! After Juney Whank, we hiked to Tom Branch falls. Tom Branch ended up being my second favorite waterfall. I hiked by myself to Indian Falls while dh and the kids hung out at Tom Branch. Indian Falls was pretty too.

We drove to the Deep Creek picnic area for a picnic lunch. Next we decided to drive to the Natahala gorge whitewater center. We had a heck of a time finding it. First we drove out on the road from Bryson city which turned out to lead to farmland. Turned around, then actually got on the right road--but we didn't know it! Drove a bit on the interstate, but thought it was the wrong way (didn't see any signs for the whitewater center), so then we drove back to Bryson City to ask for directions. We realized we had been on the right road, so we had to backtrack. Finally made it to the whitewater center; unfortunately the windy roads had made not just my son but my husband start to get carsick as well (he's prone to it too). We hung out at the center for a good hour or so, watched the kayakers and ducks. It was a neat stop, but I don't think we'd drive out of our way to see it again. Probably not worth getting lost and then dh and son not feeling good.

We drove back to Jellystone, and spent the rest of the day there. We ate another campfire dinner since no one was in the mood of getting in the car again to drive to Cherokee:-).

Edited: 31 July 2012, 17:02
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Mingo Falls
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8. Re: Belated trip report May 22-June 2, 2012

Day 9 (Wednesday)

Today was Biltmore estate day! I had so been looking forward to this. We got up early, once again drove (and I was hearing the complaints about driving again by this time;-) nearly 2 hours from Jellystone to Biltmore estate.

We toured the house first; got there right at opening. It was amazing!! Even my dh who does not like house tours (has actually sat out in the car rather than tour them), was impressed. I really took my time; dh was nice enough to take the kids so they got through a bit quicker than me.

After the house tour, we ate lunch in the Stable Cafe, which was very good. It had just opened for lunch but already was getting full. I was glad we got in right away. After lunch, we toured the gardens. Again, dh took charge of the kids so I could really take my time. They ended up finishing about an hour before I did, so got ice cream while they waited. I loved the gardens, especially the Italian gardens with the fountains.

Next, we stopped at Antler Village. I wasn't impressed--but, again, I hate to shop so I'm not the target audience:-). The kids really liked the farm here, and it's very hands on--they can pet goats, horses, bunnies.

We drove back to Jellystone, spent the evening hanging out at the campground.

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9. Re: Belated trip report May 22-June 2, 2012

Day 10 (Thursday)

Today was our Cataloochee Valley day! I conveniently "forgot" (wink, wink) to mention to dh (who does all the driving by the way, I'm a very nervous driver) and the kids how far it was and what the roads are like. I was afraid I'd have a small rebellion on my hands if I did;-).

Finding Cataloochee valley was actually easier than I had anticipated. By the time dh and the kids caught on to the fact it is a bit of a haul from Jellystone, we were almost there:-). The roads into the valley were better yet also worse than I had pictured. The drop offs weren't nearly as steep or scary as I thought. The roads were curvier and more narrow than I imagined though. Unfortunately, dh and son both got car sick. We had to pull over and rest for a bit. They soon felt better after a snack and some water and a bit of fresh air.

The valley was incredible. We did not see any of the elk, but did see wild turkeys. Loved the old buildings here too, especially the big house that's all painted (can't think of the name). I walked up the hill to the cemetery across the road from the church, and it was so peaceful. We had a picnic lunch in the valley--it was perfect! We spent several hours here. The drive out wasn't quite as bad since now we knew what to expect.

We drove back to Cherokee, and got KFC "to go" to eat back at the campground. Spent the rest of the evening hanging out there.

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10. Re: Belated trip report May 22-June 2, 2012

Day 11 (Friday)

After all the driving the past two days, I figured I'd better play it safe and stick closer to Cherokee. I told the kids we'd take them to Santa land today. At first they really weren't into that idea (they got over the whole Santa thing a year or so ago), but once I described the rudi coaster and the petting zoo they thought it sounded fun.

We woke up Friday morning to...rain!! The only time it rained nearly all day during our trip. It had sprinkled a few times on other days, but nothing even worth mentioning. We decided to do the Cherokee museum instead of Santa's land.

I thought the museum was great. Dh and the kids went through at their own (faster) pace, and I took my time. We were there for about two hours, I think? After that, we had lunch at Granny's Buffet. Awesome chicken, rest was just "so so".

Next we stopped at a gift store (groan) to get a present for my Mom for taking care of our cat while we were gone. Picked her up a few things and then took off for the campground. On the drive back to Jellystone, dh suggested--since it was still raining--we pack up this afternoon and start the long 16 plus hour drive back to Iowa instead of waiting until the next morning. At first I was reluctant (we had already paid for the cabin that night, and knew we wouldn't get a refund, nor would I expect one), but it did make sense. So, we loaded up, and left the campground around 1 or 2. Started the long drive home. We spent the night somewhere ?? in Kentucky I think, and got home Saturday.

Thanks for reading this long review:-)! We had a great trip!

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