Have you ever heard of a vision board?
I hadn’t really. But once a year my wife gets together with a friend and makes a big mess cutting out pictures from magazines that she has kept throughout the year to put on a poster board for her next year’s vision. I guess, things that inspire her, goals, places she wants to go, words that “speak” to her, etc. For the last couple of years, she has put a lot of National Parks and mountains on her board, this past year it was accompanied by the word, “Smoky.” So, off we went on a very long drive up through the entire state of Florida, through Georgia, parts of North Carolina and finally into Tennessee where she found her “Smoky Mountains” and national park.
Quick Facts: The Smoky Mountains National Park is the nation’s most visited national park and they are called “smoky” because of their blue haze like color in the evenings and their natural fog that appears over them frequently.
For our Spring Break 2022, we decided to take this very long road trip up into the mountains. My wife said it would “be fun.” Well, about 14 hours into the car ride we all decided that maybe a plane ride would have been more fun, but we made the best of it.
We left South Florida on Monday afternoon and drove straight on the Florida Turnpike up to Tallahassee, the state capital of Florida. Cooler packed with waters and drinks for the kids, cold cuts and cheese for quick snacks and lots of tortilla chips readily available made the ride easy to glide through. We chose a Fairfield Inn in Tallahassee, mostly because we were able to redeem Marriott Bonvoy points and it seemed easy access to the highway and some things to see in Tallahassee. We have never been there as a family and would have liked to have seen more in the area, but our schedule was tight, like most of our trips. The hotel was clean, accommodating and included free parking and breakfast, which are all great things to have for a family road trip.
We drove over to the state capital to grab some pictures and get in some history at the Museum of Florida History, right behind the state capitol building. There is easy parking for $5 but they give you a token at the gift store which makes it free, even better. Admission to the museum is also free but they do have a suggested donation box at the entrance. The museum had very few visitors early in the morning but there was a wealth of information and pretty cool, interactive exhibits of all of Florida’s history dating back from the 1500’s to nearly present day. The kids learned some new things about Florida’s History, and even the adults too. Did you know that there was an electric car back in the early 1900’s?
As I mentioned, we would have wanted to stay for a longer time and explored a few more sites, but we still had another 7 plus hour drive to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, so we had to get back on the road. There was not much to report about the drive except for seeing countless churches and gas stations. Luckily, gas prices seem to go down as we entered Georgia and North Carolina! We arrived into the Cherokee area around 7 p.m. and our adrenaline immediately kicked in. We saw a beautiful river flowing, saw mountain peeks and even some wild elk by the side of the road. We were close (so we thought!) The GPS showed about 40 minutes left of our long drive, straight into the National Park (making my wife quite happy) cue in the sign for the National Park! We had MADE IT!
Just as we were finishing taking our picture a nice couple on a motorcycle stopped to do the same and asked us if we were heading up 441, the main road into the park and to Gatlinburg. “Why yes, we are,” we gleefully stated. “Well, I had to be the bearer of bad news, but they shut down the road due to high winds. You can’t get through,” they told us. Of course, we couldn’t believe them and needed to see for ourselves. “How could it be that after a seven-hour drive, we would be turned away with just forty minutes left?” And even worse, we were now without cell phone reception and our GPS would not recalculate. Sure enough, we got to the barricade and found a little wooden sign with paper maps indicating the 1.5 -2-hour detour to get to Gatlinburg from there. Misery loves company and we did feel a tad better seeing several other cars arriving with the same look of incredulous dismay on their face. Well, we turned around and followed the map on the piece of paper, indicating to turn left at the third light, continue for about 17 more miles, then turn left again, etc. A slight desperation took over us along with some exhaustion and the fear of the unknown (driving into the mountains without cell phone reception at night!) We found a gas station and decided we better rely on humans and asked if we were going in the right direction. Thank goodness, we had followed the instructions correctly and were headed in the right direction, still a good hour plus away.
We made it to the small tourist town of Gatlinburg around 10 p.m. at night after a very long drive. We checked in at a locally owned hotel called The Greystone Lodge on the River, where my wife had made reservations several months before and secured a AAA rate, which included free parking and complimentary breakfast. Our room was cozy and had a great view of the loud river below along with a microwave and refrigerator (once again, great for those family travelers.)
A good night’s sleep was what we needed and got! Wednesday was going to be a packed day for us with visits to the Ripley Aquarium, Anakeesta and Ober Gatlinburg! The forecast was iffy with some rain in the morning but then high temperatures in the afternoon. We did not see much about the winds in the forecast, boy did they catch up with us around mid-day!
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smoky’s seemed interesting to us and it was located literally across the street from our hotel. The hotel was extremely well located. We really didn’t need a car to get around and only used it because we were so tired from all the walking we were doing, but for the first part of Wednesday, we left the car parked at the hotel and walked to the aquarium and Anakeesta. The Aquarium looked fun, especially because my daughter loves sharks and they had a whole shark tank. We got here early and a line at the entrance had already formed and by the time we were leaving it had doubled! We really enjoyed their “Gallery of the Seas” and they had a glass bottom boat tour along with other fun activities, mostly geared for younger children. Ripley’s has many more attractions in Gatlinburg, and they offer lots of add-on experiences to your general admission. If you choose to just visit the aquarium, adult admission is $39.99 and children from 6-11 is $24.99 and 2-5 years old is $9.99. This aquarium is the latest aquarium I have ever seen to be open! Their hours of operation are from Monday – Thursday 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Fridays – Sundays from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m.! I would say you can spend a few hours here, depending on how much you want to explore!
Right across the river and street you will find Anakeesta, a “theme park in the mountains.” You will be intrigued about what this place is just by the long line of people to get a ticket! For our whole stay in Gatlinburg, this place pretty much always had a line to get tickets! We got our tickets to go up their chairlift and up to their “theme park on the mountain.” This was the first of a few chair lift rides and we were able to all ride it together. We made it to the top within about ten minutes and quickly were transported to a picturesque mountain town.
We smelt BBQ and burgers immediately and little gift stores but wanted to go right away to their “Rail Runner Mountain Coaster.” They claim that this is America’s first of its kind…a rail runner for about 1,600 feet all going up to 25 miles per hour. Tickets for this experience are separate to your entrance fee, which is $32.99 for 12 and older, $19.99 for 4-11 and $25.99 for over 60. General admission gets unlimited rides up the mountain that day, access to “North America’s longest Tree Walk Sky Walk,” a Tree Venture Challenge Course, and a visit to Ana Vista Tour. Their zipline looked great but was already sold out but you can buy combo tickets for general admission and ziplining for $87.98 for adults and $70.98 for children.
As I mentioned, we decided to immediately do the Rail Runner Mountain Coaster as I had seen this before but never done it! It is an additional $12.99 per person. It was great fun and the kids repeated it. We didn’t realize that there are several places in the area that offer these Mountain Coasters when we were there, but we did enjoy this one regardless! We then walked up to see the Ana Vista, but it was closed along with the Tree Walk Sky Walk due to high winds. At this point the winds had really picked up and were a bit alarming! My wife and kids did the Challenge Course and made the best of it and we took in the beautiful mountain views. Hunger took over, thanks to the smell of burgers cooking, and we decided to take a break and sit down at their restaurant called, “Cliff House.” Burger for 4 but they did have a full menu offering. Service was quick and good! Unfortunately, on our way out we noticed that the chair lifts had been shut down to the high wind as well and we had to get in line to get down the mountain in their Mountain Cruiser Trucks, along with everyone else! The line took a good hour or so, but we didn’t have much of an option. They are open rain or shine and their hours vary but they seem to be open just like the aquarium, about 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Next stop was Ober Gatlinburg, an amusement park & ski area! We were too late in the season to enjoy downhill skiing, but we did drive up to the mountain and enjoy some snow tubing, another mountain coaster, ice bumper carts and another chair lift experience. Ober is famous for their aerial tramway that departs from downtown Gatlinburg and goes up the mountain, but we opted to drive there as we were worried that we would get stuck due to the high winds. The snow tubing was the highlight of our day! This is only available during the winter months and during the spring and summer months they open an alpine slide. They have lots of things to do atop of this mountain and we probably could have spent the whole day there! Their ski-mountain coaster was also super fun. It went up higher than the one at Anakeesta and it seemed like it went faster, but apparently most all go right about up to 25 mph. They also have a scenic chair lift that brings you to the peak of Mt Harrison, about 3455 feet above sea level. They claim it is more than 1650 feet higher than any other chairlift in Gatlinburg or the entire state of TN! On top of the mountain you will find picturesque views of the smoky mountains and apparently in the spring & summer months they have live music on top of the mountain! You can pick and choose which activities you want to pay for at this park, which is convenient for those on a budget and with time constraints! We missed out on their wildlife area as they closed earlier in the day and we wanted to keep on snow tubing (did I mention how fun that was!?)
We were exhausted by dinner time. A day full of fresh air and adrenaline wiped us out! We couldn’t really decide on what to do for dinner, so we walked around downtown Gatlinburg, just steps from our hotel and grabbed some quick Chinese food and did some tourist shopping. There are many stores to buy BBQ sauce, moon shine, Tennessee wine, leather goods and more. I got a new leather belt and the kids of course got double scoop ice cream cones! You will also find arcade games, ax throwing and other different activities to do on this main strip.
We decided to sleep in a bit on Thursday morning and skip the hotel breakfast. With the abundance of pancake restaurants around town, we figured we needed to try out some of these famous Tennessee breakfasts! Guess what, these restaurants were packed with hour long waits at 11:30 a.m. We thought that maybe by going so late there would be less of a crowd, but we were wrong. We ventured off the main road and found the Log Cabin Pancake House, without a wait! Family owned and operated since 1976, this restaurant had friendly & speedy service and delicious omelets, hash browns and of course pancakes, all homemade of course! They have free parking and service breakfast from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily, along with some lunch items too.
The Log Cabin Pancake House was also on the road towards the entrance of the National Park and the hike we had planned for the day to “Grotto Falls.” My wife had requested information from the local visitor’s bureau and they sent her a magazine of information and a few brochures with most of these places that we visited so we could plan in advance. In the magazine we received they recommended a few hikes to see different waterfalls close to Gatlinburg and Grotto Falls had a parking area and seemed to be about a 3-mile round trip hike to see the waterfalls. It seemed reasonable until we got to the peak area of the road and the passage was closed to get to this area. It would be an additional four miles round trip to walk from where we parked, and we decided to do it. Wow was it a long but pretty walk. The parking area was full, and most people were parking to hike towards “Rainbow Falls.” The two mile walk on the road was a bit much but once we got to the actual hiking trail, the fun really started. We saw many brooks, heard birds chirping away and unfortunately saw lots of the burnt, tumbled trees from the 2016 fire that burnt much of this area in Tennessee. We did arrive to our final destination, “Grotto Falls,” where we quickly walked behind the 25 foot waterfall to feel the cool water and energy from the pounding water. It was exhilarating. Rocco immediately took off his shirt and shoes and got right in. We spent a good hour or so in this area, feeling the water, taking pictures and enjoying the nature around us before we had to turn around and do the 3.5 mile walk back! “Was it worth it?” We kept on asking those who were passing us on their descent and most of the answers were, “yes,” and it was a strong “yes” for us as well.
Our late breakfast calories had all been burned off by the time we got to our car and we were ready for an early dinner of good old-fashioned BBQ! Bennett’s BBQ had some great reviews, was nearby and didn’t have a wait. Bennett’s had a large menu with the typical barbeque fair, and we dug right in with full racks of ribs, pulled pork, brisket and of course potatoes – baked & skinned! Each table has a smorgasbord of different barbeque sauces to choose from, and of course they have them for purchase as well.
The night was still young, and we had our batteries recharged for our final activity in Gatlinburg at the Gatlinburg Skylift Park. We saved this one for the night time as they market themselves as offering daytime views of the Smokies (which we saw already) and nighttime views of the city lights. The timing came perfectly for us as we were able to see the blue haze like color over the mountains upon arriving to the summit on the chair lift and then the twinkly lights from the city as dusk set upon us. It was the perfect way to close out our visit to Gatlinburg. We walked straight over onto the SkyTrail which led us to their, “Tulip Tower,” where we learned the history of this unique 70-foot steel tower.
We then continued the “path” which led us to their SkyBridge, which was lit up in green and offered a fun and exhilarating experience, although my daughter seemed to realize that maybe she is afraid of heights after walking briskly across this bridge! They have a bar and café area where we treated ourselves to some hot chocolate and more views of the mountains. It was a great day
and we slept like bears when we got back to the hotel!
Friday was our last day and we packed up our room and drove to the next town over, Pigeon Forge, where we spent the day at Dollywood Amusement Park! I must say, we were quite impressed! Upon arrival we were a bit nervous because we immediately spotted sprawling parking lots filled with cars (we were in Tennessee, so they were SUV’s, & Trucks!) We parked and walked a bit to find a tram to bring us to the main entrance, Disney style. Admission to the park is also like Orlando parks with regular adult one day admission at $84 plus tax. Dollywood offers multiple day discounts and they also have a water park (open in warmer months,) several dinners shows and even a resort!
As you walk in you are immersed into a Southern Charm Village with Banjo Music playing, cinnamon bread smells and rollercoasters on the horizon! It is a pretty large amusement park! They have seven great roller coasters, some “top ten” according to my kids. If you walk into the park and immediately go left, you will access the rollercoasters more directly. To the right you will wind through more areas and find candle making areas, wood carving, blacksmith, and even a quaint little chapel. We even took some time to go into Dolly’s Home on Wheels. Since we visited in March, just after they had reopened for the season, not all the restaurants were open, but they did have a wide selection of (surprise: BBQ,) Burgers, Pizza, and more. We grazed throughout the park trying homemade pretzels, pulled pork sandwiches and more. We didn’t eat a lot because honestly, we didn’t want to make our stomachs upset! The rollercoasters were FIRE at Dollywood, as the kids would say! Some of the best we have ever been on, and as you may know, the Etchevers family likes amusement parks and rollercoasters! Our two favorites were Wild Eagle and & Lightening Rod!
We could have spent a couple of days really exploring everything at the park, and I imagine when it is warmer months there are more water rides to explore as well! The wind was picking up and the March temps were dropping so we decided to get in the car and embark on our journey home. Yes, home, back to Pembroke Pines, Florida. Our entire trip was planned up until this point where we decided to just roll with it and see where the road took us. It was a fourteen-hour drive home and well, we decided to drive through the night. We didn’t have time to stop at any other places of interest as I needed to get back to work and all the hotels, we would have stayed at seemed quite pricey for just a place by the highway. Oh, when I say “we,” it was really ME. The kids made themselves comfortable in the back with blankets and pillows and my wife attempted to keep me company changing up the playlist and whatnot. Our tired-out family and car rolled in the driveway at 6 a.m. but it was worth it!
Isn’t it always? These family memories, even if they are stuck in a car for 14 hours, will form a part of our kid’s personalities and my wife and I will have topics of conversation to remember upon well into our old age.