4-State Road Trip Recap - Day 2
We woke up on Tuesday ready to head toward the next destination. Originally, we had been thinking that we would go from Helen to Chattanooga, Tennessee... but there's something about the Smoky Mountains.
We used to live in East Tennessee - Sevierville, to be specific. This is the town clustered alongside Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, closer to I-40 than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We were there for quite some time, and if you ask our kids where they consider "home", it's Tennessee. Due to family circumstances at the time, moving back to Florida seemed the thing to do, but we never really wanted to leave. So of course, when we were THIS close, how could we not go back - for the first time in TEN years?
Just before entering the National Park from the North Carolina side, you travel through Cherokee, a town on the reservation home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, in the western portion of the state. As a Cherokee myself, I have always felt a very special connection with this beautiful little town, but I also have many memories of visiting to find it a little odd or inaccessible. It only makes sense that COVID measures thwarted our plans to stay here for the night. Every hotel or motel we found seemed to be shut down, as was most of the town overall. I definitely look forward to returning when things have reopened, and strongly encourage anyone with Native American ties or curiosities to visit when possible.
DAY 2 - Cherokee, North Carolina ---> Gatlinburg, Tennessee
As you make your way out of Cherokee, you'll cross into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Immediately on your right, you'll find Oconaluftee Visitor Center. If your timing is just right, you may be greeted by a herd of majestic elk in the field out front!
The Oconaluftee Visitor Center is fantabulously maintained! One of the things I love the most when it comes to my time in the Smoky Mountains is discovering old settler homes and reconnecting with the past as I explore the land. There's something so remarkable about seeing what went into the development and settlement of this area so long ago, and the structures at this location are impeccable. We spent a ridiculous amount of time here, wandering by the stream and checking out everything from homes to hog pens, corn cribs, and a blacksmith shop. There were even fresh apple trees still on site. You could almost imagine settling in yourself - and you surely have to admire the family's view!
As we continued our path around... and around, and around the mountains, I remembered how, at one time, ! was so familiar with this that I had found a level of comfort while trekking through the mountain roads. Now, as a totally out-of-practice passenger, I was ready to jump out of my skin. By the time we reached the nearly midway point and almost-peak spot at Newfound Gap, I had begun to settle into being comfortable again, but we still had to pull off just to stop and take a peek. Although today was anything but clear, it was a beautiful sight. Newfound Gap is one of the most popular stops in the National Park - AND an Appalachian Trail connection point!
After coming back down the other side of the mountain, we emerged from the National Park at Gatlinburg!
After all that driving from Helen, we needed a little break and a fill-up, human-style. We made a beeline for an old favorite - No Way Jose's in Pigeon Forge! When we lived here, this was our favorite Mexican joint, and I'm happy say that is hasn't changed. The margaritas are still tasty and the food is still ample. There is another location in Gatlinburg, but we always found the Pigeon Forge location to be a little less busy and easier to get to. Either way, the prices are right and it's by far the best Mexican food you'll find in the area. If you miss Taco Bell's double decker taco (recently removed from the menu), No Way Jose's has a similar item on the menu, with a bit more authenticity, of course!
During our time in Gatlinburg, we opted for a stay at The Fabulous Chalet Inn - and it really was just that! This 35-room motor lodge-esque motel has been around since the 50's and you can tell that it used to be THE place to be. It is located directly behind the Ober Gatlinburg base, making it ideal for use as a ski lodge. It recently went through some upgrades and renovations, and it was an exceptional value for the cost. Being entirely transparent, the inn was very clean, spacious, and comfy, and the views couldn't be beat. It had everything we needed, and we loved it - but just a little bit of effort and a thoughtful eye could take this place from nice to wow with ease.
Easily the best aspect of the Chalet Inn was the location, and I mean this in multiple ways. It was located on a hill just above downtown Gatlinburg. A very short walk took us right into the thick of the tourist action without having to worry about paying to park... BIG bonus in Gatlinburg! And - while it was right there in the middle of everything, it was also bordered by a wilderness/forested area that served as a home to lots of wildlife. I spent a ridiculous amount of time here just hanging out on our balcony watching all the different birds and the family of otters that visited every day. Google reviews claim that bears are common as well, but I didn't happen to catch any... well, not here anyway!
After a little drive around to re-acclimate to the area and find our old house, we returned to the hotel before walking into town and visiting Ole Smoky Moonshine Distillery, where we learned a bit about the moonshine making process before taking part in a tasting - which included their new(ish) Moonshine Pickles. Wait... WHAT? Yes - moonshine pickles! Of course, we had to grab a jar of these, along with a few other items. For our purchase, we also received a free insulated cooler and a jar of hand sanitizer that the distillery had been producing during the peak of the COVID crisis. In the courtyard outside of the distillery, you can also catch free live music on select nights.
After our visit to the distillery, we gathered up our goodies and journeyed back across the water, up the hill, and to our room for an early start the next day. We had already been planning our breakfast for a few years!
For a more visual recap of our 4-state road trip, check out our two-part video: