Congaree, Great Smokey Mountains, Mammoth Caves and Hot Springs National Parks - our Southeastern Tour
I finally finished!
Making reservations to fly into Charleston, SC from Seattle, rent a car one way, drive 1,400 miles to visit four Parks, and fly home from Little Rock, AR was not only time consuming but expensive. With 30 Parks down and 29 to go, we are already committed so I hit “purchase”.
The Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas are new territory for us. We hear that fall is one of the best times to go, well, except for the recent massive flooding in October of 2015 from hurricane Joaquin. Regardless, we are ready for our big Southern adventure.
Day One – Congaree National Park, SC and the Biltmore House
The parking lot is empty. Luckily, the visitor center at Congaree National Park is open but none of the hiking trails are – they are all under water. Congaree, established in 1985, is the 2nd newest Park. It’s a seasonal flood plain (not a swamp) that is currently flooded! The Ranger who greets us, being a glass half full type guy, explains that it’s usually a 10-mile hike to see the Congaree River; today we will only have to walk a few hundred yards before the river is visible.
Strolling along the elevated wood walkway into the largest remaining bottomland hardwood forest in the United States, we are struck by the silence which is only interrupted with several distinctive bird calls. This unique environment makes the short visit totally worthwhile. After our abbreviated stay, we get back in the car and head toward Great Smokey Mountains National Park.
Signs to The Biltmore House and Gardens catch Tom’s eye as we pass through Asheville, NC. Not knowing exactly what it is we decide to go visit since we now have plenty of extra time. Wow, what a place! It’s the largest house in America, designed by Richard Morris Hunt and built by George Washington Vanderbilt, it was completed in 1895. The house sits proudly on 126,000 acres (5 times the size of Congaree) landscaped by Frederick Olmsted, of Central Park fame. Vanderbilt ancestors continue to manage the Estate. We are greeted as guests in their home as we begin our tour of this magnificent and well preserved mansion. Renoir and John Singer Sargent paintings are examples of the magnificence throughout the home – the US version of Downton Abbey. Such an unexpected and pleasant surprise!
Days 2, 3 and 4 – Great Smokey Mountains National Park, NC
After nearly seven hours of driving, we find ourselves winding up a steep hill through dark woods. Not sure we are in the right place, our headlights finally reveal a small Lodge at Buckberry Creek sign – we turn and check in. Our cabin like room is lovely, it’s decorated in a tasteful mountain motif.
We wake to clear skies and get our first view of the Great Smokey Mountains from the Lodge deck while savoring a wonderful breakfast outside in the warm sun. The blue haze, for which the Mountains are named, is not visible today. What immediately strikes us is the variety of color which blankets the whole range – nothing is above tree line here. There are so many different species; yellow birch, American beech, mountain maple, hobblebush, and pin cherry generating a wide range of fall color.
After breakfast we venture to the visitor center which is across the Park to the south. The drive begins at 1,200 feet amid lowland hardwood timber and ascends to high altitude spruce-fir forests at 5,048 feet. Described as the ecological equivalent of driving from Georgia to Canada, the colors are superb. After getting my 32nd stamp, we drive to Deep Creek and enjoy a short hike to three nice waterfalls among bountiful wild rhododendrons.
A fine dining experience at the Lodge, the best meal of the trip, completes our first full day in the Park.
With over 9 million visitors (3 times more than any other Park), we want to start our hike early today but not too early in the chilly fall air. We choose to hike out to Charlie’s Bunion, a portion of the Appalachian Trail! We park at Newfound Gap, 5,046 feet, and begin hiking east uphill on the ridge. Now we are up close and personal with all the fantastic trees. The climb continues and we get some great views to the south - today the fog is hovering in the valleys.
Southern manners seem to be alive and well in these parts; even the young hikers I pass on the trail answer me with a “yes Ma’am”. Finally, we get to the Bunion, a large rock outcropping with not much space for all the hikers – at least from my fear of heights perspective. At 8 miles and 1,600 feet of elevation, it was the perfect morning hike!
Dinner in and a morning walk down to Buckberry Creek complete our peaceful stay. And, boy we are glad that we stayed where we did as we drive through Gatlinburg. It’s like a big Las Vegas for kids!
Days 5 and 6 – Mammoth Cave National Park, KY
We drive up to our room at the Mammoth Cave Motel but aren’t sure that we want to get out of the car – it looks abandoned. I always love staying inside the Parks but I have now found my exception. It’s an extremely modest wing of a complex which is being re-modeled. To make matters worse our lock is broken. But, we decide to stay since we don’t really know where else to go.
We wake to sunny skies with temperatures forecasted in the low 80’s; couldn’t be better. We select a nice flat 6 mile walk. To get there we ride the Green River Ferry – three cars maximum; crossing time is about 2 minutes. It’s a nice quiet walk through the “Big Hollow”, whatever that is.
Today, our second day in the Park, is cave tour day. The tours fill up fast so we reserved when we first arrived. Bright green school buses take us to the entrance of our short tour. Everyone begins to enter the cave through a solid single door. As the Ranger asks the last person to lock the door, I just can’t enter due to my claustrophobia. Having conquered magnificent Carlsbad Caverns, I don’t feel bad about missing this one. The cave has tunnels totaling 409 miles so far and is formed by seepage from the Green River.
Back at our very dated 1960s room I see an Elton Bennett, a Washington State coastal artist, hanging on the wall somewhat out of place in Kentucky. I check to see if the piece has been altered and it hasn’t – good news. As we check out, I ask if they would like to sell the picture since I know that they will be remodeling. We agree on $50 although it’s worth a lot more – especially to me!
Happy to be hitting the road again, we head west on Interstate 40 through more magnificent, fall foliage. I found a good deal at the Heartbreak Hotel while waiting for Tom at the cave tour, so we decide to spend the night in Memphis. The Hotel itself turns out to be nothing special but sunset overlooking the Mississippi River from the top of the new Bass Pro Pyramid, a former arena, is a real treat!
Graceland is on our morning itinerary today so we take the short walk from the Hotel to the entrance. The house itself is not large by today’s standards; it’s left as it was when Elvis passed away in 1977, not a particularly good era for interior design but still fun to see. Done with that, we get on the road to our final destination, Hot Springs AR. Smoke from several brush fires fills the air along the Interstate – it’s been so dry.
We drive directly to lovely Lookout Point Inn, which is right on Lake Hamilton just outside of Hot Springs. A little sun time in the big comfy hammocks down by the Lake is a perfect way to relax prior to our seafood dinner on the water just a mile away.
Day 7 – Hot Springs National Park, AR
Today we head into Hot Springs with fairly low expectations of a National Park in the middle of a town. We drive through a modest area prior to finding “bath house row”, the National Park. Several gorgeous historic bath houses built in the late 1800’s line the street. One has become the visitor center for the National Park so we take the tour with a fantastic guide.
Originally fed by 84 hot springs, all sorts of baths and different contraptions were developed for whatever ailed a person. Prescriptions were written by a Doctor - usually for men - who visited the bath houses for a series of days in order to be healed. Visitors accessed the healing springs via railroad. And, in fact, one of the railroad tycoons who professed to have been healed, built the opulent bath house which is now the visitor center. As the story goes, once penicillin was developed, mercury went by the wayside and so did the bath house industry. Land surrounding Hot Springs is also part of the Park, originally a recreation area for the visitors (aka patients), so we take the drive up Hot Springs Mountain and enjoy in a nice view of the area.
Once back at the Inn, we launch their bright red canoe in Lake Hamilton just in time for a lovely sunset paddle – a perfect ending to our unexpectedly splendid tour of the Southeast. 34 Parks down and 25 to go, we head to bed early for the long trip tomorrow, back to the northwest.
Check out other National Park visits on our way to reach our goal (now 61) below:
We like to give back to the National Parks through the National Park Foundation.