Solo Roadtrip to the Smoky Mountains

Day One – From PA to TN: 

I packed pretty quickly at my farmhouse in Manheim, PA on Thursday night for my trip Friday morning. Although I’m a planner, for trips where I’m driving, I rarely plan much. I throw a few things on the floor in my room, put them in a bag and I’m all set. I usually then make a list of things I forgot and then throw them in another bag the next morning. (Hence me forgetting pants I left in the dryer on my trip a few weeks ago to Vermont.)

I set out around 7 AM on Friday for the 8 hour and 50 minute drive. While the GPS says I was going to get there around 4 PM, we all know that GPSs tell lies. Traffic, bathroom and food stops, and fun things to see on the way always delay your arrival time. For me, I got delayed about 5 hours or so.

I stopped for gas about two hours into the drive and after that, I saw a sign for Harpers Ferry, WV and without hesitation hopped on the exit. It was about a 30 minute detour, but I’d been to Harpers Ferry when I was younger with my mom and dad. I remembered the quaint town, the history, and the views so I had to stop.

The town sits down in a valley where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers meet and on the varying sides of the rivers are Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. Although the Appalachian Trail goes through the town, Harpers Ferry is probably best know for John Brown’s raid on the armory during the American Civil War.

When I got to town, I parked at the railroad station and didn’t pay for parking (which I’m pretty sure I was supposed to do). Whoops! I stopped in the Train Station to check out some old photos and then ventured to a few shops. I got a snack at Battle Grounds Bakery and Coffee and then ventured up to the church on top of the hill. The steps are old stones and are almost carved out into the steep hill. They are extremely uneven, but it’s a wonderful vantage point of the town and river from the hill. After taking pictures with such a bird-eye view, I walked down to the water and ventured partially across the bridge that the Appalachian trail follows before going back into town and checking out a few more shops.

Then it was back in the car and about two hours to the Natural Bridge in Virginia. You park at the top of the hill/mountain and pay inside the visitor’s center. It’s $8 to get in, and then you walk a crap ton of steps down to the little walkway they have. It’s an awesome view from the bottom and unbelievable how tall the bridge is. It was about a 30 minute detour in total but worth the time and the $8.

From there, it was straight down to Gatlinburg which was another 4.5 hours. I got to the bnb around 9 PM.  The little studio is in a complex with about 10 or so other buildings. There’s an indoor and outdoor pool and a hot tub. Every condo has a bit of a different view since they’re all set in an oval shape overlooking different sides of the mountain. I have a perfect cut out in front of the deck so I can see parts of both Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Although my first view from the top was in the evening, I could see the lights in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. I spent the evening settling in and enjoying the studio condo.

Day Two – Asheville, NC and the Biltmore: 

I had set my alarm early so I could wake up and enjoy the sunrise the next morning. Watching the sunrise over the mountains from the top of the Summit was incredible. It was relaxing and peaceful to watch out on the balcony while enjoying my coffee.

I didn’t really have any “plans” for my few days in TN. I actually didn’t have any plans aside from where I was staying. I didn’t do any research ahead of time or have a list of places to visit. I decided I would take each day as it came.

So, Friday morning came and I had to decide what to do. A few people had mentioned the Biltmore to me before, so I took a look. From online, it seemed pretty pricey ($75) and they kept mentioning that you’d want to spend the entire day (or two) there. I was thinking, seriously? Spend that much time at one house? I really don’t think that is possible.

I didn’t really have a backup plan, and it was still early in the morning so I figured, what the heck? –  to Biltmore I go. I stopped on the outskirts of Gatlinburg for some breakfast and then took Interstate 40 East toward Asheville, North Carolina which was about a two hour trip. I purchased my ticket online before I left but didn’t have a printer at the condo so went to the Ticketing building when I got to the estate. I arrived at noon but my house entry time wasn’t until 3.

They had mentioned online that you get bussed from the parking lot to the house and that certain sights were about 5 miles from each other. It’s not that I didn’t believe them, I just figured there would be an easier way to do things. Turns out, no, it really is far between these sights.

I parked and got the bus to the house. The sheer size of the Biltmore is unbelievable. It has about 50 rooms with 35 or so bedrooms, 40 bathrooms, about just as many fireplaces and three kitchens. The house also has an indoor pool, a call bell system, a bowling alley, electricity, elevators, clocks and fire alarms. Let me remind you this home took about 6 years to build and was finished in 1895. 1895! This wasn’t normal in a home build in 1895. But, the Biltmore isn’t normal. It’s a fantastic piece of history still held in the Vanderbilt name.

I got off the bus and was in awe. The bus dropped us at the front doors, and you can’t even get a picture of a quarter of the house when you’re that close because it really is that big. So I went for a walk to the hill that sits opposite the front doors called the Vista. To get up to it, you go on this zig-zag stone stairway named the Rampe Douce. This spot is where you get the best opportunity for photo of the front of the house with the entire house fitting in the shot.

I got my pictures and then took a stroll through the Italian garden and back to the South side of the house toward the Library Terrace where you can see the mountains in the backyard. In my opinion, this is the best view from the home. I had about 2 or so hours to kill before going into the house so I went to the Stable where they turned the barn into shops and a restaurant. I put my name in at the Stable Cafe at my cousin’s suggestion (thanks Haley) and shopped for the twenty minutes while I waited. I got my table for one in a feeding stall. This is a stall where horses were previously fed that was then converted into it’s own booth. It was perfect. I had the chicken thigh, smashed potatoes and zucchini and it was delicious. I walked into a few more shops and got a few gifts since Christmas is coming and then decided to check out the gardens.

They give you a little travel booklet when you get there with what to do at the Biltmore which was very handy. Their maps are great and I used them to travel down to the Bass pond. I had an hour so I figured the trek wasn’t going to be too far. I meandered through the stone garden, by the conservatory, through the rose and azalea gardens and down toward the pond. I took a few pictures by the waterfall and then ventured back toward the house. It was a pretty warm day and I was wearing a sweater, jeans, and sandals. The path I took back toward the house was more of a hike through a forest, and by the time I got back to the house I was sweating and fanning myself with the map. I was afraid I was going to be late for my time to get into the house and then I realized they don’t really care if you’re a few minutes late since they just check the ticket time and then let you right in. Oh well, at least I got a very brisk walk/hike workout in for the day.

I wouldn’t really say I’m cheap, but I won’t pay for things I don’t find to be worth the money. So I only purchased a ticket to go inside the home and not for the audio or personal tour. The audio tour was $12 or so, and I thought, “eh, probably not worth it” when getting my ticket online.

In hindsight, I suggest you get the audio tour. I think it’s supposed to take about 90 minutes to go through the home when you use that device. Since I didn’t get it, it took me about 45 minutes for the entire house.  You go through about 4 floors and countless rooms that without the audio describing each, almost blend together. I kind of walked into a room, took some pictures, and then moved to the next one. There were people just stopped in listening to the audio devices in the middle of the hallways and rooms which was slightly annoying, so PSA if you go – be courteous to the other hoards of people there and don’t stop in the middle of the flow of traffic.

If you want to see some of the rooms and how grand this estate is, check out their website. My descriptions will never do it justice. And, listen to how long they say you should be there. I could have spent an entire day there or even two days. This estate is enormous and there is really so much to see and do, even for someone who likes to get in, enjoy, and then get out.

After the Biltmore I drove into Asheville proper and drove around to get a feel for the city. It was trendy and upcoming. I was going to get food but didn’t feel like parallel parking (too much brain power required), so I went to Trader Joe’s to stock up on some groceries and then Starbucks for a caffeinated drive home.

After the two hour drive home, I had some Trader Joe’s sushi for dinner with some type of Pumpkin cookies they had that I inhaled. I relaxed and enjoyed flipping through channels on a cable TV (I don’t have cable at home) before calling it a night.

Day Three – Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge:

I slept in which is pretty rare for me and then made myself some breakfast and enjoyed reading on the balcony before coming up with an agenda for the day.

Since I was staying in Gatlinburg, and hadn’t been into town at all, I decided Saturday would be a good day for it. I took the 15 minute drive down the summit, found parking for $5, and then took myself wherever my feet were headed.

First stop ended up being Ober, Gatlinburg which wasn’t far from where I parked. It is an amusement park and ski area. The only thing I was really interested in was the Aerial Tramway which is a 120 person car that takes you up the mountain with views from every side. It sounded better in theory before I actually got in the tram with 120 people after waiting 45 minutes in line. It was only $13 round trip, so it was worth it, it is just a lot of people in a small space. Pretty much every anxious person’s dream – to be in the air in a glass container, strung between some metal poles, on a two mile ride up a mountain surrounded by 119 people.

Once we got to the top, you could ice skate, ride a mountain coaster, do the alpine slide, scenic chair lift, and a boatload of other activities. I shelled out $7 for the scenic chairlift to go up another mountain to the top of Mount Harrison at 3590 ft elevation. You can snap a few pictures from this scenic overlook and then get back in the chair and head down the mountain.

Once I got back in town after the return ride on the aerial tramway, I walked from one end of town to the other going into only a few shops. Gatlinburg is pretty commercialized. There are a lot of chains restaurants and stores, tee shirt shops, wineries, moonshine shops, and attractions. It’s not really my cup of tea but at the other end of town I found Anakeesta, which is a Cherokee Indian word that means “the place of the Balsams”. There is a Chondola (Chair / Gondola) ride from the bottom of the mountain to the top where there is a tree house village. This place is brand new and very well designed. There’s an ice cream shop, food truck, and a clothing shop. They have a tree canopy walkway that I did with 16 hanging bridges which is thrilling and scary at the same time. I enjoyed a salad with pulled pork on it from the Summit Smokehouse and enjoyed the views of Mount LeConte while I ate. I took the Chodola back down to town and on my way to the car stopped at the Donut Friar for a delicious donut.

I was planning to take the 15 minute drive straight back up the mountain to the condo for the evening but instead took a detour that lasted about two hours. I took 441 into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park toward the Sugarland’s Visitors Center and then turned onto Fighting Gap Creek Road over to Lyon Spring Road and then 321 to Pigeon Forge. The first two roads took what felt like ages since you just wind back and forth around the sides of mountains along the creek with no service and no real sense of direction. When I went into the mountains it was light, but when I came out it was after sunset. There were great views but I didn’t stop anywhere until I grabbed a bite to eat from a local grocery store on the way home in Pigeon Forge.

Sidenote about Pigeon Forge. This place was not what I expected. It reminded me of Las Vegas meeting Route 1 on the way to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. The colors and flashing lights and signs and crowds of people are Vegas-esque, and the divided highway with shopping malls and outlets and restaurants are reminders of Route 1. If you like lights, people, entertainment, and something always going on, you should visit Pigeon Forge. For me however, it was like sensory overload. I got my food and then headed back to my nice quiet condo on a mountain.

Day Four – Knoxville, TN:

Sunday was my last full day of solo traveling in the Smokies. I was looking the night before at things to do around Gatlinburg and ended up settling on Knoxville. It was only about an hour away and seemed to be a cool spot to visit so I headed out around 8:30 am ish. My plan was to go to a local coffee shop from a few options I found on Instagram and do some writing, and then stop by a few shops and grab lunch.

Since I got into town around 10 ish, I decided to drive through the campus of University of Tennessee and see what it’s like. There was a lot of construction going on for new buildings and those that were already in existence were quite large. It was an impressive city campus for a school. I saw the Sunsphere (kind of is a high tower with a ball on the top all decked out in gold) from my drive, and decided to stop at the World Fair Park to get some photos. I parked and got out at this awesome painted stairwell and crossed over the busy street toward the Sunsphere. There were a few people along the path in red shirts that were pretty friendly and greeted me with a “Hi!”.  I responded but kept on my way to take more pictures. After a few minutes I realized that they were greeting me with the same tee shirt on for a church that was nearby. I heard the contemporary Christian music and realized I almost accidentally followed that path into a church gathering that was being held in the Convention Center. Since I almost accidentally went in, I figured why not go in on purpose? So I did. I said “yes”.

I followed the red tee shirts into a small church service that was gathering in a room in the Convention Center. I filed in and sat beside unfamiliar faces in an unfamiliar room in an unfamiliar city and I did it completely on purpose. I kept thinking to myself, “Steph I can’t believe you did this. You are introverted. You don’t do well with strangers. You don’t even really like small talk. Why in the heck did you just go to church in this convention center on purpose?”.  I really did laugh to myself while considering these questions. And answered myself with “Because I felt a nudge to do it.”

So I’m a few minutes late to this service, sitting in the back, between two women about my age that I don’t know. There’s about 75 people in the room I would guess and after the worship song stops, the pastor up front explains that there’s a few people that are outside and they are going to get baptized this morning and it will be streamed live onto the screen behind him.

Now, I had passed these people outside by this thing with stairs and people but I didn’t realize at the time that that’s what they would walk into to get baptized. So about 6-10 people shared their stories and were baptized by someone they had developed a relationship with that encouraged them in their relationship with Christ.

After baptism, there was a sermon about the Genius of Jesus from the Pastor. He went through John 2:13 – 22 where Jesus clears the Temple Courts. I was intrigued by the way he spoke and even as I was writing notes and thinking about what he was saying, I was still in disbelief that I was sitting in this church, in this city, on a Sunday when I had absolutely no premeditated plans to do so. Isn’t it funny how life works sometimes? How God works sometimes? You have these plans, and he goes and makes new ones for you. And you listen, and you adjust, and you enjoy.

So about an hour or so later when the sermon finished, the woman next to me complimented my sandals. I thanked her and we started to chat. I ended up telling her about my trip, how I felt nudged to come to church that morning and that I was planning to explore Knoxville over the next few hours. She was from the city, and lived downtown so offered to show me around. I said “yes”.

We walked to the Sunsphere and through the World’s Fair Park. She gave me some history of the park and I got to know more about her and that she’d been living in Knoxville for about 9 years. We walked down Gay street toward the Tennessee River and went out on the bridge about halfway for a great view of Neyland Stadium. We walked back up Gay Street and by the government buildings and over toward Market Square. We walked down toward Old City and then back toward the parking garage. In all, it was about 2-3 hours of walking and a few miles traveled. We explored the Graffiti Alleys, the adorable shop Rala, and went into the historic bowling alley of Maple Hall because I said “yes”.

When she asked if I wanted to see her apartment and specifically the commissioned piece they had done on their living room wall by one of the Graffiti Alley artists, I said “yes” again.  I met her dog and took a look at the city from the rooftop living space. I thanked her for her willingness to show me around and for all the knowledge of the city she shared with me. And I left. I left her apartment and I left Knoxville and headed for home. I didn’t write or go to the coffee shops, or eat downtown like I’d planned. But that’s okay, because the experience I got was a whole lot better. All because I said “yes”. Again. And again. And again.

This doesn’t mean you always need to say “yes” to things. That’s not what I’m saying at all. Rather, you should say yes when you feel nudged. When it’s something outside your comfort zone. When it’s something you normally wouldn’t do. Say yes to things that when you tell your friends about, will surprise them. Say yes because you know that only by being uncomfortable in new situations will you really grow and in turn find new comfort. Say “yes” because it’s not worth saying “no”.

I said yes and on the way back to Gatlinburg in the car, I called my roommate. And told her about my day because it was literally “unbelievable”. Because if you know me, the day I had was not me. I don’t talk to strangers, attend new churches, go to someone’s apartment to look at art, or spend a few hours downtown with someone I just met. It is literally not believable. But I did it and I can say I”m extremely proud of myself for seizing the day with “yes”.

On the drive back to the condo, I thought about why I was nudged. What was the reason I said yes? What did I need to learn or experience? Even now, a few weeks later, I still ask myself the same question. I think I see a glimmer of that purpose but not the full picture. I have a feeling that months or even maybe years from now, I’ll figure out why I didn’t just keep walking on that path to the Sunsphere but rather detoured and accidentally on purpose attended church. But for now, I think the lesson is to get uncomfortable. To be okay with new plans or detours. To say yes to things that I wouldn’t normally do. And to always keep an open mind and an open heart.

When I got back to the condo, I needed some time to just be. My brain had been on overdrive for hours at this point, that I just spent time packing, reading, and enjoying Harry Potter on the tv before getting some rest before my long drive the next day.

Day Five – Back Home Again: 

I got up at 4:30 AM hoping to be on the road by 5 but the fog had other plans. I looked out the screen door and could only see a few feet in front of me. If you’ve read about my previous days on the Summit at this point, you’ll know that driving down this mountain in a thick fog is extremely dangerous so I was not about to risk my life to just get home an hour earlier. It was another hint from the day before that I have to be okay with changes in plans. It’s not always going to be up to me. So I went back to bed for an hour and around 5:30 AM the fog was much thinner and I packed up and headed out.

Looking Back:
If you’ve ever once thought about taking a trip by yourself, I encourage you to do it. This was my first “planned” solo trip. But as plans go, I ended up going on a trip by myself in September to Seattle before taking this one. They were both amazing and I learned so much about myself on those days exploring on my own.

It doesn’t have to be an extravagant trip, or even something you do overnight (although I do suggest it). Just think about what you’d love to go do, and do it. Maybe it’s going somewhere to hike by yourself. Or going overnight to a luxury hotel and spa a few hours away. Or maybe it’s to travel into a city and exploring for a few hours. Whatever it is, just go do it.

It might be scary (it certainly was for me), and you may think you will die a few times (ladies, and gents too, this is normal), but it is absolutely so worth it. Think about it. You can wake up whenever you want.  You can go to any restaurant or coffee shop you want and you don’t have to consider any one else’s opinion on sushi, Starbucks, or Chick Fil A (although I have no idea how you could not like any one of these options). You can have a bed all to yourself, food all to yourself, and space all to yourself. You get to choose what’s on TV, or what book you want to read. You can choose when you come and when you go and when you stop and explore.  You can sit in silence on your car ride or crank up your favorite Spotify playlist. The possibilities when traveling alone are literally endless.

Think about it. Find a place. Make a plan. Book a trip. And go. You won’t regret it.

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