The Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Asheville, North Carolina

In 1993, during my first summer at N.C. State, I went on a backpacking trip into the mountains of North Carolina. I remember it like it was yesterday. There were four of us who packed up our gear and drove from Raleigh to the Linville Gorge Wilderness on a warm and bright Friday afternoon. We hiked into the depths of the gorge and spent the weekend exploring the steep switchbacks and meandering riverside trails. The next morning we hiked to the top of nearby Table Rock Mountain and soaked in the gorgeous views of the surrounding wilderness. On our way down we somehow lost the trail and spent several hours bushwhacking downhill, following one small stream and then another, finally reaching the river. We spent that night sleeping under the stars on a large boulder in the middle of the rushing Linville River.

That wasn’t my first time in the backcountry, but I can still recall the wonder and awe I felt as a flat-land Michigan native in those gentle worn mountains and the precipitous gorge. I had been a boy scout. I had hiked and canoed in both the Adirondacks and the White Mountains. I had spent a week skiing the French Alps of Chamonix and two more weeks exploring Europe by foot and train. However, it wasn’t until that weekend in western North Carolina that I truly I fell in love with rugged mountains and wild rivers. Over the next three years, I would spend many weekends in North Carolina’s wild places and would grow fonder of them with each visit.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains are also special to Anna. As a young girl, her family spent many vacations camping in and among the Smokies and visiting local towns and tourist attractions.

Since those early days in North Carolina, Anna and I have traveled around the world. We’ve walked the city streets, the sleepy backroads, and the rugged trails of the Far East, the Middle East, and Europe. We’ve hiked in many places throughout the country, from the east coast to the west. However, western North Carolina will always hold a special place in our hearts because of its role in nurturing our love of the wild outdoors.

Of course we had to return to Western North Carolina while we were Big Big Tripping around the east coast. The Great Smoky Mountains and Asheville were always high on our list. With a few weeks to spare before our D.C. Spring Break rendezvous, we departed Nashville and headed east towards Cades Cove Campground in the Smokies.

Prior to this visit, my exploration of Great Smoky Mountain National Park was confined to the North Carolina side. Anna had visited Cades Cove as a child and I was excited to finally see the Tennessee side of the park.

We exited I-40 near Knoxville and followed the sinuous Tennessee backroads to the park entrance near Townsend, TN.   We turned southwest on the Park’s Laurel Creek Road and climbed into the Cades Cove area of the park.

big big trip airstream great smoky mountain national park

Driving across the park, from Tennessee to North Carolina [Great Smoky Mountain National Park].

As it was still March, only one of the campground’s loops was open. Even though it was a popular Spring Break weekend, we managed to find several campsites that could accommodate the 30-feet of the Big Big Trip Adventure Vessel.

Also, because it was Spring Break for many area schools, there were a number of families and lots of kids milling about the campground. Owen quickly fell in with several different pods of kids. As it had been a few weeks since he had good social time with other kids, we decided to let him play and minimize the touristing during our stay at Cades Cove. While we did venture out of the campground to the Cades Cove Visitor Center and the Cable Mill area one afternoon, and I attempted to catch some wily trout with my fly rod on another, for the most part we hung out at the campground and let Owen run amok with the other kids. He needed the playtime and we needed the down time.

big big trip great smoky mountain national park tennessee north carolina newfound gap

On top of Great Smoky Mountain National Park at Newfound Gap.

On Tuesday, we packed up and drove through the park towards the North Carolina side. We climbed over the 5,046-ft Newfound Gap, crossed the Appalachian Trail, and stopped to enjoy a cloudy but spectacular view of North Carolina to the east and Tennessee to the west. We descended from the gap and followed the Oconaluftee River to the east side of the park. We spent a few hours exploring the Mountain Farm at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and also finishing up Owen’s GSMNP Junior Ranger Badge, before continuing our journey to Asheville.

big big trip Oconaluftee Visitor Center Junior Ranger National Park

Owen taking the Junior Ranger pledge at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center [Great Smoky Mountains National Park].

We wanted to take the Blue Ridge Parkway from Oconaluftee to our next destination near Asheville, but the western terminus of the Parkway was closed for maintenance. Therefore, we ended up taking the less-scenic Highway 19 through Maggie Valley and approaching Asheville via I-40.

Asheville, North Carolina

It had been well over 20-years since the last time we were in Asheville and we had scheduled a full week to explore Asheville before driving north to D.C. I had managed to score reservations for three nights of full hook-ups at the Lake Powhatan National Forest Campground, but couldn’t reserve the additional nights because of the weekend. However, with several walk-up only dry camping sites, we assumed we would be able to snag a site for the weekend.

We pulled into the campground in mid-afternoon and made our way to our assigned spot, only to discover someone still parked in it. After some swearing head-scratching, we tracked down a scrum of campground hosts. Several phone calls and more swearing head-scratching, gained us an unoccupied Host site that would be our home for the duration of our reservation. On Friday morning we were able to move into an available walk-up site for the weekend.

big big trip Smokey the Bear Asheville

Owen give Smokey a Thumbs Up! [Lake Powhatan Campground].

While we were in Asheville, Dash (yes, we have a dog…and it’s a Schnoodle) got sick with a GI bug of some sort; no doubt a result of the “samples” he always manages to score on campground walks.   After a L-O-N-G Friday night and Saturday morning of taking him out every 45-minutes, we finally threw in the towel and took him to an emergency Vet. By 8am on Saturday, everyone was home and on the mend. By Sunday, thankfully, he was back to being himself. We were very grateful to the folks at REACH Animal Hospital in Asheville for getting him back into happy camper shape.

big big trip airstream dash the dog schnoodle asheville reach emergency vets north carolina

Here’s our recovering Schnoodle taking a snooze after his trip to the doggie ER in Asheville.

Overall, Lake Powhatan is great little campground. Located about 20-minutes from downtown Asheville, it’s convenient for exploring Asheville and the surrounding area. There is a decent mix of full hook-up and dry sites with several that are set aside for walk-up availability.

big big trip lake powhatan bridge Asheville

Anna’s Uncle Grant helped to build this Lake Powhatan bridge in the 1970s as part of the Young Adult Conservation Corps.

Bottom line: We love Asheville. We had a wonderful time and spent our week exploring the eclectic downtown area, meeting up with Anna’s relatives, a little fishing and visiting a few breweries.

Good Vibes in Asheville

Good Vibes in Asheville

 

Asheville has an awesome beer scene. During our stay we visited three different breweries (one local and two national).

Wicked Weed

One night we had dinner with Anna’s Aunt and Uncle at Wicked Weed, a great little brew pub in downtown Asheville. The food was fantastic and the beer was brilliant. They had a wonderful variety of Belgians, Sours, and a few interesting experimental beers on tap.

New Belgium

New Belgium Brewery Asheville beer

New Belgium Brewery Asheville

We visited the New Belgium brewery on a sunny Friday afternoon. Located just outside of the downtown Asheville area, New Belgium has a full production brewery (that gives tours) with a huge tasting room and a large lawn area for playing or relaxing. Although they don’t serve food, there was a food truck parked next to the patio and lawn area. We had a great time hanging out in the grass, tasting several different beers, and watching Owen play with a group of local kids. We wanted to take the tour, but they were booked solid during our visit. New Belgium Asheville definitely gets two thumbs up from us.

Sierra Nevada

sierra nevada asheville brewery beer

The Sierra Nevada Brewery in Asheville.

Our favorite brewery experience was Sierra Nevada. Located several miles outside of the downtown area, Sierra Nevada boasts beautiful grounds, great beer, and awesome food. A beer lover’s paradise, Sierra Nevada is a destination in and of itself. We enjoyed lunch and beer during an afternoon visit and then returned with Anna’s brother and sister-in-law for dinner and beers on a Saturday night. We wanted to take the guided tour, but kids weren’t allowed, so we had to settle for the self-guided walk on the Visitor Corridor above the brewery. Sierra Nevada is a must-see if you like beer and you’re in Asheville. The food is absolutely fantastic, the beer is delicious, and the atmosphere and ambiance are unparalleled. Two thumbs WAY UP.

After Asheville, we planned on taking the Blue Ridge Parkway into Virginia, before heading to D.C., but realized that many of the Parkway campgrounds were still closed for the season. So, after talking to Dave and Rosa of @thisisournext, we amended our plans and headed east towards Raleigh and another impromptu Airstream Instameet.

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