Today a colleague told me that he wanted to live our life….a compliment by any standard but I inquired further anyway! He said that we always seemed to be going somewhere new or doing something, even in the middle of the week!
It’s true, I admit it, my family is addicted to the mini-vacation and we take them as often as possible! Last week it was an impromptu trip to Knoxville to watch our Lady Vols Basketball team play their last home game of the season on a Thursday night!I am also in the process of planning a hiking weekend over Memorial Day , a short trip to the Great Smoky Mountains and this past Sunday we actually booked our week long beach vacation in Kure Beach, North Carolina.
My family has never been one for long, drawn-out vacations (aside from our beach week) and we often do not go very far from home. Mostly because it is difficult for a family of five on a somewhat unpredictable income to save for those long journeys, so until the time comes that we can venture to more exotic places we will continue enjoying those not too far from home. We are blessed to live in the Appalachian Mountains so fortunately nature’s playground surrounds us.
Some tips for an abundance of mini-vacations:
- Be an outdoor addict: Hiking is much cheaper than touristy stuff anyway and the memories you will make connecting with nature will last a lifetime.
- Watch what you eat: Since we take several trips to familiar places we have had time to perfect our favorite places to eat affordably and where to get the best snacks. Its important to plan meals though, if not, wandering aimlessly looking for a place to eat will almost certainly guarantee that you will spend more and enjoy less because you are starving! Pack snacks – helpful to tide hungry little mouths over while hiking or waiting in a line for a roller coaster and allows you to save money for the goodies you really want later!
- Camp as often as possible: Our family has both a tent and a camper. The camper is large and bulky to pull around but if the weather is cooler it can still be cheaper to stay in a campground for $30-$50 per night as opposed to a hotel for $150. We tent camp when possible especially if we know we aren’t gonna be hanging around the camp site all day but rather getting out and doing things.
- Hold up on the souvenirs: Save your hard-earned money for a meal or adventure, no need to bring home an over-priced trinket. Take pictures instead, they will last alot longer and won’t need dusted sitting on the shelf at home.
Here are some of our favorite short getaways:
Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge/The Great Smoky Mountains
These quaint mountain communities, while somewhat touristy in places, are as beautiful as the locals are kind and genuine. Known as the Gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, there is something for everyone from handmade crafts, fantastic cuisine, a first-rate theme park and every other kind of adventure the outdoor enthusiast could ask for! We prefer camping in the warmer months off of US Highway 321. It is about 15-20 minutes outside of Gatlinburg but it is an easy drive into downtown Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge and the scenery is beautiful. Additionally, Highway 321 provides access to exceptional hiking with nearby trailheads at the Greenbrier and Cosby Campground.
When in Gatlinburg, we often opt for dinner at the Cherokee Grill. It is moderately priced and the food is delicious. If you are in the mood for pizza, we recommend Luigi’s Pizza (1017 Parkway). For treats in Gatlinburg, the caramel dipped rice krispie treats at Kilwins are mouth-watering and the ice cream isn’t too bad either! Finally, if you are ready for entertainment like no other, and enjoy the occasional shot (or 8) of moonshine, do not miss out on the distillery tastings. Our favorite is Sugarlands, the Apple Pie flavor with a caramel finish is a favorite! The distilleries are all fun to browse even if you are not partaking in the libations. Both Ole Smoky and Sugarlands provide music on weekends that seem to bring the streets to life!
If you have children, and even if you don’t, do not miss out on Dollywood theme park. My mother took my sister and I, along with countless other doting Girl Scouts to Dollywood every summer when we were children and in over 30 years of operation its standards for cleanliness, hospitality and a down home good time are unsurpassed. The park really has something for everyone. The food is wonderful (do not miss out on the cinnamon bread sold in the gristmill building ), the shows and entertainment are top notch and even the holiday festivities in the winter are a joy to embrace. Did I mention that the roller-coasters are a scream!
Daddy and Christina after riding Dollywood’s 2016 Lighting Rod
Our oldest is a roller-coaster addict and fully enjoys the attractions Dollywood has to offer from the Lighting Rod, Wild Eagle, the Tennessee Tornado (boy do I have a story about that one, or rather its predecessor), the Fire Chaser (a family coaster my 6 year old son affectionately calls the Big Bertha) to the Thunderhead, a wooden coaster that makes me laugh like a crazy person! I am biased, I know it, I love the feeling I get walking through the gates! I feel like a kid again and I want to share those memories as well as make new ones with my children. Finally, Dollywood is super affordable compared to many theme parks and for those within driving distance, offers a 6 month payment plan interest free on season passes! Season passes are super helpful when one person in your group has a gold pass, think free/reduced parking, discounts on almost everything you purchase in the park, including food and drinks.
Other helpful Dollywood tips: 1. You can take your children for measuring at guest services when you enter the park so that you don’t have to wait in line to learn that they are too short to ride; 2. Remember, water is always free so let them fill your cup as much as you like and save your cash for dipping dots or those cinnamon rolls; 3. Do not ride the train after water rides – it is a bonafide steam engine and if you are wet the soot will stick to you and your clothes, 4. The Celebrity Theater shows, while wildly entertaining to my older girls and my husband and I, always puts my son to sleep so if you need a nap time place those are always winners, especially during the Festival of Nations – those shows are spectacular 5. Be sure to catch the Harvest Festival – fall in the mountains is the best (although hotel rooms will be a bit more expensive), and finally 6. In the summer months we find is best to avoid Saturdays, lines are long and hot even though the atmosphere is still nice, we often do other things on Saturdays and go to Dollywood on Sundays, the kids are out of school, what’s a late drive home – hone in your sense of adventure!
Bryson City, North Carolina
We had our first adventure to Bryson City last Memorial Day Weekend. While still part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park this little town boasts a more laid back attitude. While I admit that we spent most of this trip camping just outside of town in Whittier, we visited the downtown area on a few occasions, lightly browsing the unique shops and checking out the railroad station. Bryson City is home to the Great Smoky Mountain scenic railroad and while we did not take a railroad excursion on our last trip is it certainly on the list! Also nearby to Bryson City is the Natahaha River, Fontana Lake and the infamous Tsali Trails (these are absolutely on my list to bike – although you need to check the schedule as certain days are designated for biking and others are not).
We had the pleasure to hike in the Deep Creek area of the GSMNP. The trails in this area are mostly moderate and well marked. We encountered horses and backpackers alike as well as day hikers like our family. The most impressive part about Deep Creek is that after a tiring day of hiking you can rent tubes (cheaply I might add – a full day of fun for about $5) and float your cares away down the mountain stream. If you are looking for a wilder ride we recommend hiking up about a mile and riding the upper section of the gorge which contains patches of whitewater (we also recommend a life jacket as it is easy to be separated from your tube in this section especially after a rainfall).
Our second day of hiking near Bryson City took us to The Road to Nowhere, a scenic mountain highway that takes you six miles into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and ends abruptly at the mouth of a tunnel. The GPS calls this road Lakeview Drive but to the locals it represents a broken promise. The history of this area is quite interesting. In the 1930s and 1940s many Swain County residents gave up private lands to the federal government for the creation of Fontana Lake and the GSMNP. The creation of the park meant that many ancestral home places were gone as well as Old Highway 288, the road to those communities. The federal government promised to replace Highway 288 with Lakeview Drive, which was to have stretched 30 miles west from Byrson City to Fontana. The real importance of this road to many residents was that it would have provided access to family cemeteries. Lakeview Drive was stopped just six miles in though due to an environmental issue and was never completed. On weekends in the summer the parks service ferries groups of Swain County residents across the lake for family reunions and to visit these cemeteries. The legal issue wasn’t resolved until 2010 when the federal government entered into a settlement to pay Swain County $52 million in lieu of building the rest of the road! Walking through the tunnel will open up a world of adventure for hikers and horseback riders alike (we will opt for a flashlight next time thought!) including a trek to beautiful Fontana Lake. Be wary though, many of these trial while otherwise moderate are somewhat steep and are shared with horses.
The Breaks Interstate Park (www.breakspark.com)
This bi-state park is located on the Virginia/Kentucky line in the Jefferson National Forest. Affectionately called the Grand Canyon of the South, this park hosts a 5 mile gorge plunging to 1,650 feet to the Russell Fork River. The Russell Fork is well known by adventuresome rafters for its Class 6 rapids and jagged rocks beneath. Water is released from the John Flannagan Dam the first 4 weekends in October each year and the rafters come from all directions to try their luck. One stretch of this river is considered the most difficult rafting in the East.
The park boasts 25 miles of some of the most beautiful trails in the area. Most are moderate to easy trails and are shaded for easy family adventures. My personal favorite is the Geological Trail, the large boulders and majestic forest floor make this short hike more than memorable. Additionally, the overlooks in the park are breathtaking, especially the Virginia/Kentucky Stateline Overlook near the Geological trailhead.
The Breaks also features a newly renovated lodge and new lake-side cabins. The park completed a waterpark on the property just a few short years ago! There is also horseback riding, fishing and plenty of geocaching opportunities!
While I have ventured to the Breaks on countless occasions I had never stayed until this past fall. My family spent the weekend in the campground in late September when in town for a family reunion. The campground did not disappoint! The bathhouse was typical for a state park but clean enough – come on people, we are camping here! We will definitely be making a return trip. The weekend in the campground and hiking in the Breaks was relaxing and peaceful!
Other places we like to visit include: Knoxville, Downtown Greensboro, Asheville and surrounding areas, and Grayson Highlands State Park….