So, we’ve been back in Boston for over a week now. I debated not even chronicling the final leg of the trip, but leaving it in Memphis felt like an unfinished job, so here we go: the final 13 days of the Great American Road Trip, coming at ya.
After a fun night on the town in Memphis, we headed north into yet another new state: Kentucky. The destination was Mammoth Cave National Park, the longest cave system in the world (367 miles). Finding a campsite was no problem as it was the end of the season, and after settling in and enjoying a late picnic lunch we headed over to the visitor center just in time to make a mad dash for the afternoon Domes and Dripstones tour, departing at 3:15pm. The two-hour tour started with a bus ride to the new entrance to the cave, followed by a trek down into the depths of the cave system. Our guide was very informative and the tour was enjoyable. In comparing it to Wind Caves, our other cave experience, I’d say this one comes out on top. Pretty cool system! There are some crazy bugs down there, though. The guide claimed they were crickets, but they looked more like mutant spiders to me. Their position on the ceiling made me worried that I left with one or two of them in my hair. Thankfully, I seem to have escaped with no stowaways.
Camping at Mammoth Cave was a pleasant experience. The campground had a few other inhabitants, but it was nowhere near full, and we were nicely situated in among the trees and brush. The following day we continued our drive east to our final national park stop: Great Smoky Mountains. Apparently the Smokys are America’s most visited park, receiving more than nine million visitors each year! Both my husband and I were a bit mystified by this. The Smokys are nice to be sure – certainly a pretty place to spend a day or two. But again, they simply can’t hold a candle to the Glaciers, Yosemites and Yellowstones of the world. Yes, I’m a National Park snob. Guilty as charged. I imagine their popularity is due to the park’s proximity to numerous large population centers. For easterners, it is certainly easier to get to than many of the western parks. There also seemed to be a big RV culture there. A number of our campsite neighbors were set up like they were moving in. I’m talking lawn ornaments, potted plants and American flags stuck in the dirt. They were not messing around!
The Smokys were nice, and we had a good night camping there at Cades Cove. If you’re interested in camping in the park, book well in advance. The campground fills quickly. After a pleasant night my husband and I started the day with a bike ride around The Cades Cove Loop Road. The Cades Cove region is the most visited section of the park, so it gets crowded. I’d suggest getting an early start. You can rent bikes at the campground, and the 11-mile loop took us approximately an hour and a half. We took our time of course, stopping to take in some nice vistas in the morning light. It was only mildly embarrassing when a group of runners left us in the dust on the bikes. Oh well, they were pretty intense, so I don’t feel too bad. Unfortunately, we failed to see bears on the route, despite being promised a sighting by several people back at the camp. Regardless, it was a very pleasant way to start the day and certainly much more enjoyable than driving the loop, which we had done the day before.
Later in the day we took a nice little walk up to Clingman’s Dome for a view of the surrounding hills. Note: although this trail is short and paved, it’s deceptively hard.
There’s a significant incline the entire way, and many a walker could be heard bellyaching about how strenuous it was. My recommendation is to just keep your head down and power though – it’s easier that way. We also checked out the Andrews Bald trail, a 3.5-mile trek accessible from the same trailhead. It’s a nice walk through the woods that affords some lovely views.
The Smokys, as it turns out, are huge. It took over an hour to drive from our campsite to Clingman’s Dome, and we still had a ways to go before exiting the park. You could easily spend much more time there; there’s plenty we didn’t get to. I was excited about our next stop, however: Asheville, North Carolina.
I can’t quite remember why I was so enthusiastic about visiting Asheville. It caught my attention a number of years ago and has been on my US travel list ever since. I think I was drawn to the idea of visiting an artsy, foodie, liberal mountain town, which is pretty much what I got. Like many stops on our trip, I wish we had more time in Asheville, but I definitely liked what I saw. The lively downtown is full of independent shops and has a vibrant food scene. We ate dinner at Mayfel’s (get the fried green tomatoes appetizer) and breakfast the next day at Early Girl Eatery. Early Girl seems to be a local favorite – we arrived before opening to find a long line of eager patrons. Luckily the place was big enough to fit us in the first wave of eaters. Can’t have any hanger on this trip.
After enjoying breakfast, we headed off to the Biltmore Estate. Built by George Vanderbilt in the late 1800s, the Biltmore is a sprawling property featuring a massive estate (more than 200 rooms!) with sweeping views of the Smoky Mountains. The grounds were designed by Frederick Law Olmstead of Central Park fame and the walls of the overly opulent estate were graced with works by the likes of Singer Sargent and Renoir. The big drawback to the Biltmore is the price: each adult ticket is $65, which blew my mind. My husband and I grappled with whether or not we actually wanted to pay that much. It wasn’t even for a charitable cause; the Vanderbilts still own the place! But, in the end, we went for it. You could really spend an entire day at the Biltmore if you wanted. We enjoyed strolling the beautifully manicured gardens, and I ponied up for the $12 audio tour of the house (yes, the audio is EXTRA!). Despite my bellyaching, I did really enjoy my time there. It was interesting to get a glimpse into how the other half lived in the Gilded Age. Such wealth!
From there, we found our way to the Blue Ridge Parkway and into Virginia. I enjoyed our stop in Historic Williamsburg. Although we skipped the colonial reenactments, the town has an inviting main drag with lots of little shops and eateries. Perhaps it’s a place we’ll revisit and explore in more depth with the kids some day. Our next stop was Ocean City, MD, a spot my husband had frequented as a kid and wanted to revisit with me. The weather was not on our side, unfortunately, but we walked the boardwalk in the drizzle, munching on taffy and chatting about his experiences there as a child.
After that, the trip mostly turned into family time. We airbnb’d a condo in DC that we shared with my in-laws and niece, attended a family wedding in Annapolis and spent a couple of nights with my family in New York before driving the final stretch back to Boston on October 4, one day after our one year anniversary.
And that’s all she wrote! The Great American Road Trip comes to a close. But what an experience. It was a great two months, and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity. We have quite a country! Get out there and explore it.