Sunday, October 29, 2017

Two-Day Smoky Mountains Itinerary

Smokey Mountains National Park

Although the Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers just under 300 sq. mi. and spans across two states, if you map out your must sees, it's possible to hit your highlights in two days. There are so many things to experience, and I wish I was able to cover more ground, but I am really happy with the two days I spent in the Smokies and Gatlinburg. If I had more time, I would have ventured into North Carolina, but otherwise, our trip was perfect!

We had a bit less time because we flew in and out of Nashville, then made the 3.5-hour drive to and from the National Park. Coming from Los Angeles, we were looking for the best flight options and that ended up being Nashville. If it works for you, Knoxville is the closest airport. Despite the long drive, it wasn't bad because we had lots of pretty fall leaves to look at along the way.

Here is how we mapped out our trip:


Cades Cove
This is a MUST when visiting the Great Smoky Mountains! Motorists hop on a one-way, 11-mile paved loop that wanders through the wilderness. We visited on a Tuesday and the drive took three plus hours, so expect heavy traffic. Throughout the drive there are areas to stop and see homesteads dating back to the 1800s as well as spot wildlife. We saw a bear and her cub, wild turkey, and a deer! We were worried we'd encounter windy, unpaved roads with high drops off but Cades Cove is a very mellow drive.

Cades Cove in the Smokey Mountains
Cades Cove bears
The Great Smokey Mountains

Old Creek Lodge
From Cades Cove we drove 27 miles to Gatlinburg and checked into Old Creek Lodge for two nights. We stayed in a comfy Two Queen Stream Room with a cozy fireplace that we used constantly. The hotel is located in the perfect location right across the street from Ober and close to restaurants and shops, but far enough away from the touristy center of town. The rustic theme and smaller size of the hotel added to the charm, and the running stream that provided a soothing sound each night elevated the ambiance. Friendly staff, free breakfast, convenient parking - I could go on and on. From outside appearances alone it is among the nicest hotels in Gatlinburg and if I return, I will definitely stay here again.

Old Creek Lodge
Old Creek Lodge rooms with fireplaces
Cozy Old Creek Lodge rooms
Cozy Old Creek Lodge stream view rooms

Ghost and Haunt Tours of Gatlinburg
None of my vacations are complete without a ghost tour! After doing some research I came across Ghost and Haunt Tours of Gatlinburg and knew this would be the perfect addition to our trip. I have a full recap coming up, but I'll give a teaser: we used a spirit box and it seemed to be talking to me!

 Ghost and Haunt Tours of Gatlinburg


Ober Gatlinburg
The main attraction in Gatlinburg is Ober, boasting an areal tram that travels 2.1 miles providing sweeping Smoky views. After our ride up the mountain, we visited the wildlife encounter where several rescued animals are housed. I'm not a fan of animals in captivity and wish they had a bit more room but they were saved from really bad situations. We talked to a man who cares for the animals and it's evident he really loves his job so that made me feel better. Next, we took a fifteen-minute chair lift even higher up the mountain. I'm severely afraid of heights so it was a disaster! I literally cried and had a tiny panic attack. At the overlook, the views are beautiful and every hour a band comprised of cute old men plays so if you're not afraid of heights it's a great experience. I, however, needed a beer after my breakdown so we checked out the seasonal OktOBERfest where traditional Bavarian food and beers are served while a band performs. It was a cool experience and perfect way to end the visit.

Ober Gatlinburg
Ober Gatlinburg Wildlife Encounter
Ober Gatlinburg Wildlife Encounter
Ober Gatlinburg live entertainment
Ober Gatlinburg areal tram

Ole Smoky Distillery
From Ober we walked about five minutes to Ole Smoky Distillery where we met with a company representative who gave us a behind-the-scenes tour, told us the history of their federally licensed moonshine - first in East Tennessee, and graciously let us sample 13 of their moonshine varieties. I'll have a dedicated post coming soon.

Ole Smokey Distillery in Gatlinburg


Roaring Fork Nature Motor Trail
Before heading back to Nashville, we drove through Roaring Fork early in the morning. Another one-way paved loop through the Great Smoky Mountains, this 5.5-mile drive is right outside of Gatlinburg and less crowded than Cades Cove. It is much windier and feels higher in elevation though, but still not too steep. The big difference between this trail and Cades Cove is this trail doesn't have open spaces and is densely populated with trees. The leisurely drive took about an hour and gave us one last chance to enjoy the breathtaking national park.

Roaring Fork in the Smokey Mountains
Roaring Fork Nature Motor Trail

The Great Smoky Mountains are so incredibly beautiful! I knew I was in for pretty landscapes, but the trees and changing colors were stunning. I had hoped we'd see wild animals, and when we did it was that much more magical. Such a memorable trip.

In 2016, 11.3 million people visited the Smokies making it the most popular National Park in the United States. Are you among the tens of millions who have visited?

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Traveling Trail Ridge Road Through Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park

No trip to Denver is complete without venturing a few hours into the mountains. I highly suggest renting a car for your trip and visiting Rocky Mountain National Park. The drive up is gorgeous and the views are breathtaking - literally. It was so cold I could not breathe. But it was also awe inspiring.

Upon entering RMNP you stop at a ranger's booth and pay $20 for park access. Once you enter you can stay on the Trail Ridge Road the entire time, the main road throughout the park, or venture off onto little trails that fork off. Since there was a lot of snow, we opted to stay on the main road. The trip from one end to the other was about three hours with a few stops for photos.

Rocky Mountain National Park snow-capped trees
Rocky Mountain National Park in fall

Fun facts about Trail Ridge Road:
-Highest continuously paved road in the continental US
-Crosses the Continental Divide
-Altitude reaches just under 13K feet

Not so fun facts about Trail Ridge Road:
-It's really, really high
-The road does not have a guardrail
-It may cause sweaty hands and panic attacks

Rocky Mountain National Park Alpine Visitors Center
Trail Ridge Road

I don't want to scare anyone off this amazing journey, so let me clarify. I had altitude sickness during my trip to Colorado. I was out of breath and light headed as soon as I started walking around in Denver. That combo with my fear of heights was a disaster. Going up the road wasn't bad at all, until we got to Alpine Visitors Center. It's a huge overlook point where you can get out, walk around, and realize just how high you are. Throw in the wind and cold temps (it was 30 degrees and covered with snow when we were there the first weekend of October) and it's a bit rough just getting out of the car to take pictures. Once we saw how far we'd journeyed up the mountains, getting back on the road was tough. The rest of the ascent was on the cliff side of the mountain. Remember the no rails part? Pictured above is the drop off. It's not straight down, and doesn't even look bad in the picture, but in person it is scary.

There are two ways to enter RMNP, Grand Lake and Estes Park. We opted for the Grand Lake entrance because we wanted to spend time at The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. Driving this direction meant being closest to the edge of the mountain. So keep that in mind if you are not a fan of driving on cliffs. But, the scary part of the drive isn't for all that long. The benefit of selecting the direction that we did was that we avoided a lot of traffic. As we made our way back down the mountain we saw a lot of cars headed up.

Estes Park was more of a tourist trap than I'd imagined. We only stopped for food and it wasn't great, but it was the only place we could find parking. That was quickly forgotten as soon as we saw an elk and deer! My favorite moment of the trip. They were just chillin' at a city park. I don't see them in Los Angeles so I was super excited.

Elk rut season in Estes Park
Elk in Estes Park, CO
Elk rut season in Estes Park, CO

A must when visiting RMNP or Estes Park is The Stanley Hotel. This grand mansion served as the inspiration for Stephen King's "The Shining". Being a big horror fan, we stopped for a drink at the Whiskey Bar, also featured heavily in the story. I got a very cliche REDRUM beer and was perfectly content as we listed to a few ghost stories provided by the bartender.

The Stanley Hotel
The Stanley Hotel Whiskey Bar
The Stanley Hotel REDRUM beer

Despite the terror on some parts of the Trail Ridge Road, this was my favorite part of the trip. The amazing views, wild animals, and spooky hotel were the perfect representation of Colorado. If you visit the Denver area, you have to take this day trip!

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Banjo Billy's Denver Ghost Tour

Banjo Billy's Bus Tours

I love a ghost tour! Every new city I visit, I try to take one. It's a great way to learn local history and have fun at the same time. A few of the many tours I've been on include New Orleans, Seattle, Atlanta, and Melbourne, Australia. When researching them in Denver I came across Banjo Billy's Bus Tours and knew it was going to be a must during my visit to the Mile-High City.

Banjo Billy's Denver Ghost Tour
Banjo Billy's Denver

As opposed to walking through various parts of town, which can sometimes be sketchy at night, Banjo Billy's boasts a tricked out school bus that resembles a hillbilly shack on wheels - in the best way possible! Upon boarding, we were greeted with a mishmash of seating from comfy recliners to  arm chairs, a disco ball, and colorful lighting strung throughout. We instantly knew we were in for a good time!

Over the course of the next two hours our tour guide, Scott, did a fantastic job entertaining us. He is a lively storyteller, and great at keeping the guests involved. There were literal moans, groans, and "No!" screams from the riders for the entirety of the tour! As he took us to various locations throughout the city, he shared several tales at each stop. Even my friend, who doesn't believe in ghost stories, commented on how much she enjoyed the history we were presented with and the theatrics in which they were presented.

Because our Banjo Billy's ghost tour was at night, we went back to some of the stops to get good pictures of a few spooky locations in better light including the Croke-Patterson Mansion which may be the most haunted home in Denver. Don't let these gorgeous facades fool you, something sinister lurks inside of each!

Croke-Patterson Mansion
Capital Hill Denver Haunted Homes

I HIGHLY recommend Banjo Billy's Denver ghost tours. The ghost tours are only offered in October though, so be sure to book in advance to secure a spot. Other Banjo Billy's tours include a Boulder ghost tour (also seasonal), brewery and history tours in Denver and Boulder, and even private bookings.

Book directly with Banjo Billy's Bus Tours online or call (720) 938-8885.