Dates: July 17-25, 2022
People: Mark, Sarah, Luke, Jonah, Seth, Anya, Ben, Dad & Mom Witte, David's 6
7-17 (Travel Day)
7-18 (Travel Day / Initial Day)
7-19 (Great Smoky Mountains NP)
7-20 (Mount LeConte)
7-22 (Dollywood Splash Adventure)
7-23 (Horseback Riding / Alpine Coaster)
7-24 (Cades Cove / Clingmans Dome)
7-25 (Travel Day)
SUNDAY JULY 17
This was a special trip for our family. The primary purpose being to celebrate Mom and Dad's 50th Anniversary. We had originally given plans to do this in Hawaii, possibly with a cruise, but lingering COVID travel restrictions and uncertainty of regulations, especially for the young ones, caused us to play it safe and go this route to Pigeon Forge / Gatlinburg.
Early on we setup a house rental just outside Pigeon Forge starting Monday July 18 through Monday July 25. As the date drew near it appeared the days before and after our rental were open and so the owners asked if we wanted to start early or go late for a 25% discount. We offered to pay roughly a 50% rate to start a night early and they took our offer so we made plans to head down there today.
Luke had to work today and Jonah had some plans with Westland friends so we decided some would stay back. Mark would travel with Mom and Dad from Michigan with Seth, Anya, and Ben while Sarah would bring the other two boys on Monday as originally planned.
Another twist to our plans came with a couple of COVID positive tests in our family. Sarah had had symptoms for many days and even went to urgent care where they were sure it wasn't COVID and didn't even test her. However when others in our travel group to Houston for NYG a week ago tested positive we did some at home tests which came positive. With symptoms mild we disclosed all of this to Mom/Dad as well as David. At the same time David said he had just gotten over some kind of sickness, implying it may also have been COVID. On our end with tacit support from Mom/Dad we decided it was still worth going.
Today's Sunday travel group left Michigan at 1:15pm with Mark driving and worked our way through Ohio. Plenty of traffic including an accident to slow things down. Also drove through some heavy storms for much of the drive. The accident slow down caused us to detour on some Ohio county roads where we encountered flooding in the road in several spots from the recent rain.
At 4:20p we hit a rest area in Piqua, OH for bathrooms and then Dad took over the driving. At 6:05p we stopped in Walton, KY for supper at an Arbys and had a nice break, also filling up for gas while we were there. It was about an hour stop. From there we didn't have to stop again and Dad did all the driving. When we got in the greater Knoxville area we must have missed a turn where Google Maps was going to route us through town and instead headed east on I40. This worked out for us as night driving on the other route would have been tough. This routed us through Kodak and all the way through Sevierville and Pigeon Forge.
It was 11:05p when we hit the rental house and we spent some time exploring all the rooms and getting settled into it. The rental house had a main floor with two big bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room. The upper floor had four bedrooms, each with a bath, with two of the bedrooms having bunk bed setups. The "basement" had a swimming pool room, an arcade room, and a theater room which was basically another living room. Each floor had a nice deck on the backside of the house. The lower level deck had the hot tub.
MONDAY JULY 18
With a light schedule today, I slept in til 8am when Ben was finally getting me up. I had put him in a pack-n-play in the room near the bed last night but it was probably by 4am that I just put him in bed with me.
Early in the morning we got word from David and Megan that they couldn't leave yet as the power was out at their place and they wanted it to be back on before leaving. At first they were getting a report it could be as late as 10pm this day. As the morning progressed the report moved it up to 5pm. We then heard around noon that they planned to leave home around 1pm central with some friends who would check the house if the power hadn't restored.
Meanwhile Sarah, Luke, and Jonah were also making plans to still come today. There was some talk of waiting an extra day or two if Jonah was still under the weather but he was feeling good and we decided it best they come today. So they also made plans to be on the road by 1pm eastern.
Our group had a casual morning in the rental house just relaxing and getting situated. At lunch time we hit the Subway on the way into Pigeon Forge and then made a massive grocery run at Kroger utilizing four carts, one for the littles. I recall the bill was north of $600.
We kept the rest of the afternoon casual and had nice meatloaf and potatoes for supper. We spent the evening watching the MLB Home Run Derby until the vehicles with all the rest of the family arrived in the 10pm hour.
TUESDAY JULY 19
We were in no hurry this morning just letting everyone get settled into the rental house. Around 10am we started to make plans to picnic lunch and then head over to the National Park and Gatinburg. Everyone made up sandwiches and we also brought the boys baseball gloves and gear and we headed into town. We stopped at the Wear Farm City Park just west of the main parkway for lunch. They had a nice pavilion and an open grass field as well as a playground and it worked perfectly. The little girls hit the playground while the boys all threw the baseball around. We had lunch in the pavilion and got the day started nicely.
From there we drove over to the Sugarlands Visitor Center for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We hit inside for a few minutes to scope things out and talked to a ranger about hike ideas. He gave us a few suggestions including Cataract Falls and Laurel Falls. He also mentioned the Cherokee Orchard driving loop and the trails for Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls. We settled on the short and easy Cataract Falls hike from the visitor center.
After the hike we were looking for another idea for the afternoon and decided on the driving loop. We had to head back into Gatlinburg and battle some major traffic through downtown. It was a very heavy tourist time of year and there we tons of people. The driving loop leaves town on "Historic Nature Trail" which is also Cherokee Orchard Road. This is a billed as an automotive trail and the upper part of it when it went one lane and somewhat narrow had that feel. I believe some maps might call it the Roaring Fork Motor Trail. After passing the Noah "Bud" Ogle Cabin the road went single lane one-way and you were at the mercy of the car ahead of you the rest of the way. With the afternoon drawing later we decided against any of the hikes. We did stop for views at the overlook Google Maps calls "Roaring Fork Interpretive Marker 1 Overlook". Some of the group followed a makeshift trail north into the woods heading north-northwest. It looked like if we kept following it we would join up with the Baskins Creek Trail. This area appeared to have been part of the big 2015 burn as we could still see trees with burn marks. Back in the car we drove the rest of the way out following a long line of slower cars coming back north on the downward side of the driving loop.
Back in town we headed for the rental house with our car stopping at Kroger for a few more reinforcements. This would practically become a daily routine of stopping in for a few more items. We let the kids spend the evening swimming and trying out the hot tub. We also watched the MLB All-star game. Megan made a salmon dish with salad, quinoa, rice, and corn for supper.
WEDNESDAY JULY 20
Early rise morning for the hiking group hoping to head up to Mt. LeConte. Not wanting to get into parking issues, and also wanting to save some afternoon for family time, we made for an early start. I was up at 6am and grabbed a quick breakfast. We were out the door of the rental house at 6:25am to make the 50 minute drive. We hit the trailhead around 7:15am to get things going. We had hopes of being home by 1 or 2pm.
Mount LeConte via Alum Cave Trail
It was almost 3pm when we got back to the house. We spent the afternoon relaxing and recovering. There was a lot of time in the pool and hot tub drinking some good beer to go with it. For supper my mother made pork roast while Sarah made some awesome potatoes to go with.
We took a nice family walk after supper exploring the neighborhood around us in Bear Mountain Resort. It was still quite warm out but at least the sun was down far enough we had some shade to keep things reasonable.
THURSDAY JULY 21
We made plans for Dollywood today. Last night we were able to reserve tickets. David was able to get military discount. We even prepaid for parking to make entrance easy. The park opens at 10a and we rolled up to parking and were through by about 945a. They were fairly streamlined with the parking and then the shuttle tram from parking to the entrance.
Upon park entrance we headed to the Lightning Rod coaster. The app said no wait yet and it even appeared to have a fairly short line. Big mistake. The line grew dramatically as we got there and after. It is after all close to the entrance and fairly popular. As we waited the app showed the wait time rise to almost an hour. We ended up waiting around 50 minutes as the line moved very slowly. It was a wooden coaster and went up to 70mph with numerous ups and downs and claimed cumulative 20 seconds of weightless time. It was a rough ride. We did get Seth to ride but not sure he would do that one again.
From there we walked north in the park searching for our next ride while the waits were low. We found the Smoky Mountain River Rampage which is the traditional white-water rapids six-seat raft water ride you see at most parks. We had fun with it and there was no wait. But it was a big mistake doing a water ride so early. Socks remained wet most of the day and blistered some feet in our group. A couple of us also had chafing in the groin area from wetness and sweatiness through the day.
We hit the Wild Eagle next which was my favorite coaster. Wait was only 5 mins our first time through. It was a floorless winged coaster and had a nice course to it. After ride 1 we saw the line was still short so we did it again.
It was almost noon already so the group headed for the kid-friendly Wildwood Grove area on the west side of the park. Most of the group hopped in the food line at Till and Harvest Food Hall. I was lagging behind with Anya and we hit a few kids rides like the Treetop Tower while we waited.
I had the chicken tender and fries for lunch. Anya had a PBJ uncrustables with applesauce and animal cookies. After lunch we did a number of kid rides back in that area repeating some of them 4-5 times. Anya even rode her first rollercoaster. The ride Dragonflier had a min height of 39in. so we thought it would work for the the girls. Waiting in line we saw it go and it did look fairly faster and had some nice twists and turns. No big hill or big loops though. She rode it by me. It was a floorless coaster. It was fast and I could hear her kinda wimpering with fear through the speed. She didn't break down crying though. I held on to her hand and arm pretty tight. She made it through the ride a bit scared but did great.
We left the kid area and some of the group did Lumberjack Loft's and then some more did the Whistle Punk Chaser kiddie coaster which was a bit slower and smoother than the Dragonflier. Some of our older ones did the Thunderhead wooden coaster and it was a pretty traditional wooden one. Luke and Jonah were able to do it twice.
We did the Tennessee Tornado which was a fairly nice steel coaster with a few nice loops and twists. It was a short track. More in the group did the Daredevil Falls log ride. The group then hopped the 7pm train ride but most of my family missed it, except Anya.
We did supper in the Village area trying out the flatbread pizza place. We spent the rest of the evening in the Village area which was full of kids rides. Several were such that Anya could even ride them herself. They had bumper cars back in here which was a hit for the group. We stayed til close to 9pm when we were all finally done. We had briefly toyed with staying for the fireworks show at 945p but just couldn't make it.
As a whole we liked Dollywood for what it was. It didn't have all the theming of parks like Disney or Universal but the rides were good rides and the park had a good professional feel to it. They were pricey but didn't nickel and dime you for the little things. Water fill-ups were easy to find and they would even give little glasses of ice water at all concessions which was great.
FRIDAY JULY 22
Today was going to be the hottest day of our week in Pigeon Forge with temps hitting the mid 90s and so we decided it was a good day for a water park. Of course everyone else felt the same and so it made for a very crowded water park. We were a little slower getting going today and weren't out of the house til 930am. Our entry went the same as it was with Dollywood only a right turn after parking entry sent us over to Splash Country. Shorter walk in the parking got us in the entrance. Much to our delight David's group had entered first and was already able to score us a place of shade to set up our base for the day. It was in a small area of green turf under trees just to the east of the Little Creek Falls kids splash area, to the west of a set of bathrooms and to the north of the Campsite Grill concession. It was perfect for the day. We were in solid shade til late afternoon but it was a wonderful base and a resting place to keep Ben and all the group's stuff.
Being a smaller park we split up much more today. It was difficult to keep track of all the different slides and things we did during the day but here is a basic look at the slides I was able to try:
I first tried the Mountain Scream, a set of three slides. An orange which went straight down with several humps along the way. It was an open slide. Also there were two green enclosed slides which twisted alongside the orange one. I did one of the green ones and it was fast and smooth but also not very big. I took several splash of water to the face getting in my nose and adding to the difficulty, it was pitch black most of the way down. A near panic-inducing experience but it turned fun.
As a group we did the Wild River Falls. It was quite fun. We carried inner tubes to the top and rode them down large enclosed slides.
One of the big highlights was a number of us doing the Fire Tower Falls slide which was easily the tallest in the park. It had like a 75 degree drop which gradually panned out to a run-out. The view at this from the bottom was quite intimidating and the view from the top not any easier. It was quite fun though.
With Anya and Etta we spend a good amount of time back in the Cascades which was a kid-friendly leisure pool area. We also tried her in the Bear Mount Fire Tower area which was basically a playground with water shooting out everywhere. She wasn't as into this yet.
We got Ben in the water at the Mountain Waves pool. When the waves weren't hitting it was nice for him to be able to sit and splash and he enjoyed it a bit.
Several enjoyed some laps around the "Downbound Float Trip" which is the classic lazy river type attraction.
We closed out the day with a solid hour hitting Mountain Twist and Slick Rock Racer slides a couple of times. We then closed on Raging River Rapids which was a big slide with a four person raft. We stayed til park close at 7pm.
At lunch time we hit the Campsite Grill for some large shareable 16" pizzas, and a few people tried burgers. We had to wait in line for quite some time as everyone else in the park was also eating. In the afternoon we did share some dippin dots which really hit the spot.
As a whole we had a great day despite the crowds and seemed to manage getting slide time for the older kids and adults while also watching Ben and keeping the younger girls entertained.
Upon leaving the park we briefly entertained talk of hitting something like Chick-fil-A but that was quickly morphed into grabbing chicken to take home. Our vehicle hit Kroger but found out their hot food area was long closed. Dad's car was finally able to get fried chicken from another grocery and we all met up at the house for chicken and other leftovers.
SATURDAY JULY 23
I was up at 6:40am today to go for my first solo trail adventure of the trip. With being a little sick early on in the trip and then some busy full days like LeConte and two days of Dollywood Parks, the opportunity never came til today. The Little Greenbriar TH was about a 12 minute drive from the rental house and so made for a perfect option for an early morning run:
I was back to the house by 8:30am. I was able to eat breakfast and be ready to join the others for a morning adventure. We finally settled on giving horseback riding a try at the Sugarlands Riding Stables near the main Visitor Center. All of David's family would go as well as Papa and I got Luke to join me from our family. We left the house at 9:45am to head over. The Stables wouldn't take advance reservations, you had to show up and sign waivers in person to reserve a time. We got over there about 10:15am and were signed up for a 12 noon ride. This left us with a bunch of free time and so we drove over to the Visitor Center and took a brief walk along the creek.
We were back to the Stables by 11:20 and ready to go. About 10 til noon they took a group photo and then began to explain how this would work. They also started selecting the horses that would support our group. It appeared they had in mind certain horses depending on whether they were carrying a child or an adult. My horse was named Bale, which is what I thought they said, thought it is a slight possible with some accent they meant "Belle".
We had a single guide on horse leading our group and we set out for an hour ride. They did a brief tutorial on the basic commands to guide the horse. We could pull on the reign left or right or straight back to stop. They showed us some basic tricks to encourage the horse to "go". They also told us not to let our horses stop and eat grasses or weeds on trail as many are poisonous to the horses.
My horse apparently was known for stopping to drink at all the streams and did. I had to coax him onward at several crossings. He was also prone to stop and try to munch trailside so I had to encourage him there too. For the most part our group did well and didn't have any problems. We made it over 2 miles and I enjoyed tracking our way on my Fenix watch. We gave our guide a nice tip upon return to the stables. We took a look at their big picture package of all the shots they took but opted not to buy.
We were back to the house by 2pm. We relaxed for a bit considering any other options for the rest of the day. We had contemplated doing our big Clingsmans event today but it was now running too late for that. We finally decided to give one of the alpine coasters a go. We drove to the Goats on the Roof Coaster. They were advertising $12 rides and then gave David a $9 military discount. They load you on carts at the bottom and then you get towed like a chair lift to the top. The ride down was similar to the alpine slide in Breckenridge only instead of a slide you're on a coaster track the whole way. But similar to the two, you control your speed with brake handles. I rode with Anya and we had a fairly controlled speed and she loved it. At the bottom everyone enjoyed it so much we gave it a second try. This time Anya said we could go faster. I also got her to go "Whee" and hoop and holler all the day down, it was a blast.
At the bottom they actually did have goats on the roof and also had an impressive knick knack shop we spent some time inside (it was also nice A/C as it was in the 90s outside). Anya picked out a beautiful unicorn necklace. They didn't have one with her name on it so she picked out an "A".
We spent the rest of the afternoon in the pool and got a nice basketball game going. We did chicken tacos for supper. After my bear sighting on my trail run in the morning we were blessed with two more bear sightings off the back deck of the cabin. A mother bear was down in the weeds and grasses exploring and we saw her near both before and after supper.
SUNDAY JULY 24
Today started at 7am with plans to leave at 8am for Cades Cove. Plans quickly got delayed when we spotted a mother black bear and several cubs out behind the house. The cubs were all up in a tree munching on leaves while the mother was scouting around on ground level. The tree must have been 30 feet high at least. At one point the mother was scouting around the back corner of the house next to us when she must have found a raccoon den. The mother raccoon must have had some kits and she started leading the bear off. It was great entertainment for us and the neighbors.
Our departure for Cades Cove didn't happen til 830am. We had our nice shirts on today hoping for family pics at the Cove. As we neared the Cove we lost all cell signal and this would be the case the whole time we were there. We had to resort to old fashioned communication, which is to say, pull over your car to talk to your friends. We wished we had brought 2-way radios but it all worked out. We stopped at the orientation shelter to grab one of the maps and ask the lady about good photo spots. She suggested one on the south side just past where Hyatt Lane hits.
We stopped at the John Oliver place first and walked the quarter mile up the paved trail to see the old log cabin. It was still in fairly nice condition. From there we took the drive nice and slow taking in the sights. We stopped at what Google Maps calls the "Native Plant Demonstration Plot parking". Here we took the first of our family photos with a nice background. We drove on to the Cades Cove Visitor Center parking. Here we got out for probably an hour. Walked around the grounds seeing a blacksmith demonstration and an old barn by a creek. We took another family photo by the barn. We checked out the Becky Cable house and the Historical Grist mill.
We drove on looking for the place the guide had suggested. She said couples like to do wedding photos there. I think we found it when we came to Valley View stop. It was a gentle slope of mowed with a mowed grass walkway down to a mowed oval on a hilltop. We took our third family photo out there.
By now the time was getting past 11:30a and so we hopped back on the road and made plans to head out of Cades Cove. The traffic had thickened and we were in a slow conga line of cars making our way out. We drove back through Wear Valley. Seeing the later lunch time and thinking of our afternoon plans to hit Clingmans Dome we opted for a quicker lunch option instead of heading into Pigeon Forge to hit Alamo Steakhouse. That potential fast food option turned into doing leftovers and sandwiches at the house. Mom & Dad's car stopped to pick up bread and some more basics and we headed to the house.
We all did a quick lunch and then made sure the hiking group was ready to head back out. We had plans for the 8 hikers to leave a car at Newfound Gap with the others to give them a 4 hour head start before all trying to meet up at Clingmans Dome. With the hiking group leaving the house shortly after 1:30p we figured the latter group could leave roughly 5:30p and it could all work.
Clingmans Dome from Newfound Gap Hike
The non-hiker group made Newfound gap around 6:15p and spent some time there before driving up the Clingmans Road. Sarah says they made it up to the Clingmans Parking around 6:50p. Everyone but Sarah and Ben headed up the paved trail to the summit.
The hiking group made the summit tower at 7:11pm and were actually on top first. They were soon joined by Megan's trio. Clouds were rolling up the north and west sides of the summit area as we were up there. The cloud wall was practically vertical as it rose. We took photos and spent time up top and then decided to head down. We were only 5 minutes off the summit when we hit Mom and Anya coming up the paved trail. David, Etta and myself took them up to the top so they could see it. Then the five of us headed down the trail to join the others at the parking.
We ended up getting one more family photo on the rocks by the parking area and then headed to our cars. Sarah made the suggestion of a beer and pizza place for supper in lieu of the steakhouse idea. She had found "Country Roads Axe Co featured West By God CoalFire Pizza". We headed down from Clingmans to get there.
We made it there about 850pm. It was very uninteresting on the outside and located in a little strip small, but very interesting inside. They had 2 dozen booths for axe throwing as well as several tables for sitting, eating, drinking. The highlight here was a row of beer pours that was all automated to allow for self-pouring and trying of over a dozen different craft beers. The way it worked was when you ordered you would give them your drivers license and then get setup with a wristband. You would use the band to go up to one of the beer pours, holding it up close, the particular pour would turn green and then you would put your cup under the tap and pour what you want. It would track the ounces you poured and you'd pay by the ounce with the wristband tracking it all. I ended up trying 5 or 6 different beers through the night and we were all impressed with this fun system. We also had good pizza as well as some awesome onion rings and chicken wings with a tasty hot honey buffalo sauce.
After a fantastic supper with good drinks we headed back to the house to call it a night.
MONDAY JULY 25
Up early for our last day at 7am. I got one more run in doing 3 laps down and up the hill in the resort here. I wanted to finish early enough to say good bye to everyone and help pack.
I finished up before 8am and then had some of the sausage and eggs for breakfast. David's group got all packed up the night before and they were quick to be ready today. So quick that I went to change Ben's diaper in our bedroom and when I came back out they had already left without saying goodbye to anyone but Mom and Dad. It was 8:25am. I was surprised. Even Seth came downstairs a few minutes later wondering where they were and why the cousins didn't get to say good bye.
Our group spent the next hour and a half finishing cleaning up the house, taking care of trash, and double and triple checking we had everything in order and nothing left behind. Our check-out time was 10am and it was probably 10 after when we finally got out the door and closed up. We hit the road 1015am.
I drove first and we made great time getting out of town and out of Tennessee. We had packed sandwich lunches with the leftovers from the frig at the rental house and so made our way through the lunch hour. We didn't have to stop until 2:20p at the Marathon station in Walton, KY for gas and bathroom. Ironically this was the same town we stopped at on our initial southbound trip. I had Sarah drive from here so I could do some work on the computer.
We made one more brief bathroom stop for Anya just north of Findlay, OH and then next thing I knew we were rolling into Michigan. Sarah made us great time through Ohio and I was engulfed in the computer getting caught up on e-mails and other business. We made it home 6:28pm and grabbed some takeout for supper. A fantastic trip and quality time well spent with the whole family together enjoying plenty of good outdoor time in Tennessee.