Blue Ridge Vacation
Day One: Family Vacation Redefined
Over the past few years our family dynamic has changed for a few reasons. My father died in 2020; our girls are both young adults now, and recently our youngest daughter made some changes which included starting a new job and getting ready to move out on her own. So when planning our family vacation this year, we knew there was a chance Abby wouldn’t be able to come and she did have to stay home and work the week we were gone. When we set off for a cabin in Waynesville, North Carolina on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, we did at as a party of four – the three of us and my mom.
We left out on Tuesday, March 17th at 6:00 a.m. for a long day of driving. Well, we rode and Trever drove – his choice, he won’t let anyone else drive! We traveled straight through half of Arkansas, the length of Tennessee, crossed into North Carolina and arrived around 5 p.m. thanks to loss of an hour due to a time zone change.
After a precarious drive up Utah Mountain Road outside of Waynesville, NC, which involved blind curves, switchbacks, and steep grades, we arrived at our rental. The house where we stayed is fittingly called The Blue Ridge Chapel because it looks very much like a quant mountain top church. This particular rental, which we found through VRBO, was immaculate and wonderfully appointed. The views on the drive up the mountain were spectacular…although from the house itself, we had a view of the tress more than mountains.
I took a few pictures of the interior of the house but there was so much more I didn’t capture in photos; it was huge – the main floor had a kitchen/dining/living situation with a half bath. A sitting room led to a deck. There was a master bedroom and bath upstairs, and a basement level with another bedroom, bathroom, and recreation room with a pool table and a covered deck.
Although we had smooth and safe travels and no major mishaps, I wasn’t in the best place emotionally on day one…although I knew Abby was fine back home in Arkansas and was keeping herself busy with friends and work, it still was difficult for me to let go of control of the situation.
We didn’t come prepared with groceries and supplies so we had to make a trip down into Waynesville to buy a few things for breakfast and pick up dinner. Although less than 10 miles, the drive takes over 20 minutes so it’s best to plan your excursions ahead of time. Exhausted, we turned in relatively early on day one.
Day Two: Blueridge Parkway, Bookstores, and Small Towns
We slept later than we intended on day two, due to both sheer exhaustion and the time zone issue. We finally got rolling around 11 a.m. and headed through Maggie Valley and up the Blue Ridge Parkway, after a stop at a Free Little Library on Utah Mountain Road.
We got off the parkway at Cherokee and stopped at bookstore that Sarah wanted to visit – Talking Leaves – which featured a huge selection of Native American books, artwork, and merchandise. I bought a copy of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, which I have never read, as well as a history of the Smoky Mountain National Park titled Mountain Home.
It was lunchtime so we picked up some sandwiches at Sassy Sunflowers Cafe & Bakery which we took over to the park on the Ocononluftee River. We found a bench in the shade and watched the water and the wildlife as we ate.
Cherokee, which is a sovereign nation within the Qualla Boundary, would be a delightful destination for a full on family vacation; we could have easily spent several days there. However, time did not allow, and we moved on, driving through Bryson City and Sylva visiting a few more bookstores and grabbing some coffee and home made oatmeal cream pies. We then drove back to Waynesville to pick up a grocery order before we headed back up the mountain.
Dinner was simple – grilled burgers and chips. After a game of pool, I went upstairs and had some quiet time before going to sleep.
Day Three: Waynesville and Cataloochee
A brief thunderstorm at 5 a.m. thwarted my intentions to get up early to see the sunrise on Thursday morning. Trever and I took a short walk outside the cabin before we left for the day but I quickly decided that I was not in any shape for a long walk along that mountain road!
We did get an earlier start than the day before and drove into Waynesville where we stopped at two antique shops and a couple of bookstores. We also bought some delightful treats at Dillsboro Chocolate Factory.
After a trip back to the cabin for lunch and a bit of downtime, we headed back out for more driving to the Catalooche Valley. Home to over 1200 people at one time, the communities in the area were eventually displaced with the creation of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. However, several homes, buildings, and barns have been preserved in Cathalooche and provide a unique look into the lives of the people who lived here so many years ago.
In addition to the historic buildings and mountain views, the valley’s current residents are a draw for visitors to the area. We had quite a few close encounters with elk as we watched them emerge from the tree line and head into the fields for their nightly grazing. We stayed in the valley until nearly sunset before driving up and out of the valley and back to civilization.
By the time we made it back to town, most of the restaurants were about to close, so we drove through and picked up some Chick-Fil-A and took back to the house for a late dinner.
Day Four: Mountains, and Waterfalls, and Overlooks, Oh My!
I managed to get up bright and early Friday morning and took my coffee to the deck to catch a subtle sunrise as the light came up from behind the trees. Mary Oliver’s Mornings at Blackwater seemed very appropriate for the day.
Sarah elected not to participate in Wednesday’s activities so she stayed at the cabin and had a chill day while Trever, Mama and I set out about 9 a.m. to drive part of the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Parkway runs for 469 miles through North Carolina and Virginia and we only drove a small portion of it. There are many pullouts and scenic overlooks along the way, but vegetation and trees have obscured some of the views over time.
We made a stop at Waterrock Knob, which boasts the highest elevation on the parkway at 6,273 feet, a point that can be accessed by a mere 0.5 mile hike. Seemingly straight up a paved trail. Trever was game but Mama and I only made it a little ways before we called it quits.
Further down the parkway we stopped at The Roy Taylor Forest Overlook, which had a walkway out to a deck where we ate our sandwiches we had packed for the trip. The weather was beautiful and the wind out on the outlook was downright chilly.
A few stops later and we had had our fill of overlooks. The pictures – especially ones from my phone – do not do the mountains justice. We veered down off the parkway to the south to see Upper Whitewater Falls. At the parking lot to the falls, we were met with yet another .5 mile trek, but this was on much more level ground. The view was breathtaking but you didn’t get the full view until you took the 149 steps down to the observation deck. I know the exact number of stairs because I counted them on the way back up!
We had been driving for nearly 6 hours at this point so we decided to call it a day and head back to Waynesville, where Sarah was waiting for us to go out to dinner. We originally were headed to Low Tide Seafood, but it was really crowded so we settled on Maggie’s Galley in downtown. The food was good, if a bit pricey, and we brought a doggy bag back for Mama since she hadn’t felt like going back out once we were back at the house.
After a few games of 8-ball, we were ready to call it a night!
Day Five: Asheville
Day five was THE day – the breaking point day. The day where everyone was getting really tired, and we were trying to cram too many activities into too short of time. The plan was to go to Asheville for the day – a vibrant artistic community that is about a 45 minute drive from the Waynesville area.
Our first destination was The North Carolina Arboretum. The Arboretum is an affiliate of the University of North Carolina inspired by designs and concepts of Frederick Olmstead, considered the Father of American Landscape Architecture.
The weather was pleasant but the temperatures quickly warmed up into the eighties so we tried to stay in the shade as we explored the gardens. The bonsai garden was very educational – I had no idea that most any tree can be made into a bonsai!
Even though it was late May, many of the flowers had not bloomed so we didn’t see a lot of spectacular color. After watching the G scale train run through the elaborate train display, we decided to move on to our next destination.
We didn’t have a set agenda for exploring Asheville – which was a mistake. since we were already tired and were unsure what we wished to do next. There was one particular bookstore we made a point to go to – Malaprop’s. It is right smack dab in the heart of downtown Asheville, and parking was impossible. So Sarah and I just hopped out and went in. I purchased two books by local author Wayne Campbell, which are set in the Catalooche area we had visited.
We were all getting tired, hot, and hungry by this point. I will fast forward to the evening and past the discord and naps that ensued! Saturday also happened to be Mama’s birthday so we worked together to prepare a steak and potato dinner and bought a little birthday cake from Ingles. While discussing our dismay at leaving the next day, we decided to send a message to the owner of the VRBO to see if we could stay an extra night. When he sent us the go ahead, we relaxed and made some definitive plans for our last full day.
Day Six – Cradle of the Forest, Pancakes and Mexican Food
Sunday was a bonus day for us and we decided to do a few of the things that we had missed out on earlier in the week. We left the house at 8 and headed for Joey’s Pancakes for breakfast – excellent food and service! I would definitely recommend it to anyone traveling in the area.
We drove the Parkway again until we go to Cradle of Forestry, the site of the first school of forestry in the United States, founded by Dr. Carl Schenck, a German forester who worked for George Vanderbilt on lands owned by the Biltmore Estate. The techniques and practices he developed combined conservation and sustainability with profits. A number of buildings have been preserved and restored and were accessible on a one mile walk through the forest.
We spent the afternoon driving through Pisgah National Forest and stopped at several overlooks, including Looking Glass Falls, which is visible from the roadway. We finished our day with delicious Mexican food at Papas and Beer in Waynesville.
The rain set in as we were eating dinner and was forecast to continue throughout the night. When we returned to the house, we got most of our packing done and determined to get up early the next Monday to make it home in time to pick up my mom’s and Sarah’s cat from the vet’s office.
Day seven was the long drive back home. There is never enough time to do and see everything on a vacation, but we enjoyed our short trip to North Carolina and would enjoy going back again some time.
-Karri Temple Brackett
Links to accommodations, shops, restaurants and attractions: