Camping Diary: Smokey Mountains

Smokey Mountains Trip – October 2016

 

It’s now been almost two months since we left on this trip.

What can I say? I’ve been meaning to procrastinate, but I haven’t got around to it yet.

Background

We had been planning to make this trip for over a year.

We had been to the Smokey Mountains once before in 1977.

That had been our first big camping vacation.

We had a 1974 International pickup truck with an in-bed camper.

We left Kansas City Labor Day weekend.

We made stops in St. Louis, Dayton, and Philadelphia.

We spent several days in both the Washington, DC area and the Smokey Mountains.

We loved the Smokey’s and had always wanted to return.

You’ll notice that the information about the campgrounds themselves is very limited.

Originally we had planned to take a full two weeks for this trip.

We also wanted to limit our travel days to no more than 300 or so miles.

That would mean we would plan three travel days in each direction, leaving 8 days for the Smokey Mountains.

When I went to make camping reservations, I found that all the KOA campgrounds in the area were booked for our timeframe. I was able to get a five-day reservation at the Pigeon Forge KOA for Sunday through Friday.

This required us to change our plans for the travel days. We left one day later than we originally planned and added an extra night in Nashville. We actually did not make any return reservations before the trip keeping our options open.

Normally I try to write a review of each campground but it seemed this trip was quite hectic due to the compressed timeframe and the tire and jack problems we encountered.

Day 1 – October 6, 2016 – Travel Day

On our first day we drove from The Colony to Little Rock where we had reservations at the North Little Rock KOA.

We had made it to Little Rock and were only a few miles from the campground when we ran into our first problem.

We had a blowout on one of our trailer tires.

Fortunately we were able to call Good Sam Roadside assistance and they were able to mount our spare for the final few miles to the campground.

Fortunately the roadside assistance people were able to give us the name of a tire company in town.

Since it was nearly dark when we arrived at the campground and we left the next morning, I really didn’t get much of an impression of the campground.

We did, however, stop at the same campground on the way back.

Day 2 – October 7, 2016 – Travel Day

Our plans for the second day were to travel from Little Rock to Nashville.

Due to our tire problems on the previous day, we had to insert a stop at Looney’s Tire Center.

The first thing I did that morning was to call Looney’s to check on the availability of the tire I needed. They had it in stock.

I also asked if I would have trouble maneuvering my travel trailer into their store / garage. Their response was, “Is it bigger than an 18 wheeler?”

We were able to get a new tire mounted and be on our way before noon.

The trip to Nashville was uneventful.

We stayed at the Nashville North KOA for two nights.

Day 3 – October 8, 2016 – Nashville

Our first non-travel day was in Nashville.

We had never been to Nashville, so we decided we would just explore.

We drove into downtown Nashville and visited the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Despite not being a country music fan, I thought it was well worth the trip.

We didn’t really see much else that seemed worth visiting in downtown Nashville.

I only took a few pictures in Nashville. They can be found at Nashville Pictures

After returning to the campground, we learned that a few days earlier there had been a shooting right outside the Hall of Fame, so I’m not sure I can recommend the safety of downtown Nashville.

Day 4 – October 9, 2016 – Travel Day

On day 4 we travelled from Nashville to Pigeon Forge where we stayed the Pigeon Forge KOA.

Normally we try to reserve a pull-through campsite but do to the heavy booking in the area our reservation was for a back-in site.

Our site was a 90-degree turn from the road and was between a tree and utility pole.

If it had not been for the escort assisting us with the back in I would not have been able to get in the site.

Even with the escort’s assistance we touched the utility pole with our awning. Fortunately there was not damage and the escort was really apologetic.

Day 5 – October 10, 2016 – Cades Cove

For our first full day in the Smokeys we wanted to visit Cades Cove.

This is a valley surrounded by mountains.

It has an 11-mile one-way loop road, which circles the cove.

We had visited it in 1977 and had seen an abundance of wildlife particularly deer.

During that visit we had camped in the cove, but with our pickup camper we had no need for electricity or a large site.

In 1977 we also went horseback riding in Cades Cove.

During this trip we only drove the 11-mile loop.

I was actually somewhat disappointed in the lack of wildlife we saw this trip.

It is recommended that you take two to four hours to drive the loop.

At peak times such as it was for our trip, it could also take one to two hours to drive from Pigeon Forge to Cades Cove.

So a trip to Cades Cove can easily “burn” most of the daylight hours depending on the time of year.

Day 6 – October 11, 2016 – Grotto Falls

 

During our 1977 trip we had hiked to Laurel Falls.

Se picked Laurel Falls because At the time I had never really seen a waterfall and Laurel falls was not only one of the taller falls (80 feet) but with a paved trail it was one of the easiest to reach.

For this trip I wanted to see another waterfall.

The Concierge at the KOA recommended Grotto Falls.

The trail is to Grotto is considered moderate in difficulty.

The roundtrip distance is 2.6 miles and the brochures say it takes about 2-3 hours for the roundtrip.

I think we made the round trip in less than 2 hours.

The view of the falls was well worth the hike.

See the links below for my pictures and videos of the falls.

Day 7 – October 12, 2016 – Cataloochee Valley

There are two areas within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that seem to be mentioned most frequently when the subject of wildlife viewing is mentioned.

They are Cades Cove and Cataloochee Valley.

In recent years Elk have been reintroduced into the Cataloochee Valley.

While Cades Cove is in the middle of the national park, Cataloochee Valley is on the eastern side of the park in North Carolina.

This means that from Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg you must drive completely through the park or around the park.

Additionally the entrance road to Cataloochee valley is a winding, gravel road that has some steep drop offs with no guardrails.

As we were driving into the valley, Mandy commented that I had probably honked the horn on my truck more that day than since I had bought the truck three years ago.

We decided to drive through the park on our way to Cataloochee.

The main road, US 441 goes through the middle of the park from Gatlinburg Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina.

There are several places to stop and enjoy the view as you transverse the park.

They include its intersection with the Appalachian Trail, Newfound Gap, and the Tennessee / North Carolina border.

Once we made it to the valley we saw wild turkeys and a few elk.

The few elk we saw were at the edge of the meadow just outside the wooded area.

We were told that more elk usually come out into the meadow around 5:00 PM.

We waited around but they “stood us up.”

Since we had quite a long drive back to the campground we only waited until about 5:30.
For our return trip we drove around the park via I-40.

My pictures for these three days in The Great Smokey Mountains National Park can be found at Smokey Mountain Pictures

They can also be found on facebook at Smokey Mountain Pictures (Facebook)

I did take a few videos while at the park they can be found at Smokey Mountain Videos

Day 8 – October 12, 2016 – Gatlinburg

After three days exploring the park, we decided to spend our last full day being “tourists” around the Pigeon Forge / Gatlinburg area.

We took the Pigeon Forge Trolley from Patriot Park (adjacent to the KOA) to the Gatlinburg Welcome Center.

From the Gatlinburg Welcome Center we took Gatlinburg Trolley to the “main drag” of Gatlinburg (Parkway.)

We spent most of they day strolling up and down Parkway.

There was a craft show at the Gatlinburg Convention Center, which we visited.

We also bought a couple of souvenir shirts.

While staying in Pigeon Forge, we decided to slightly change our return route.

Instead of stopping in Nashville, we decided to make our first stop at the Buffalo / I-40 / Exit 143 KOA in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee.

We planned to make our second stop at Little Rock North KOA.

Our plans were to only stop one night at each place.

Day 9 – October 13, 2016 – Travel Day

As I mentioned, the backing into our campsite was quite a challenge.

It looked as if getting out of the campsite would be even more difficult if that is possible.

We asked for help from the KOA staff and through some miracle we were able to finagle our travel trailer out of the spot.

While travelling from Pigeon Forge to Hurricane Mills we decided we would like to spend a day in Hurricane Mills for some site seeing.

Upon arrival we were able to extend our stay in Hurricane Mills to two days and move our reservation at Little Rock North back a day.

Day 10 – October 14, 2016 – Hurricane Mills

We spent the day visiting the nearby Mennonite community and Loretta Lynn’s Ranch and Coal Miner’s Daughter Museum.

Day 11 – October 15, 2016 – Travel Day

We spent the next day travelling from Hurricane Mills to Little Rock where we stayed at the Little Rock North KOA. (This is the same campground we stayed on our trip to the Smokey’s.)

Upon arrival at the campground we were setting up when our second major travel trailer problem occurred.

As we were leveling the fig there was a loud noise. The shaft of the right rear stabilizing jack broke.

Fortunately, the KOA gave us the name of a RV Repair person who could come to the campground to look at our jack first thing the next morning.

Since I was not sure how long it would take to repair the jack we extended our reservation in Little Rock by one day.

Day 12 – October 16, 2016 – Little Rock

The RV repair person was able to arrive first thing that morning.

He told us the jack motor would have to be replaced

He was able to cut the wires to the motor (which was hanging by those wires) and retract the jack leg so that we could travel.

We spent the rest of the day visiting the Arkansas state capitol in Little Rock.

My pictures can be found at Little Rock Pictures and on Facebook at Little Rock Pictures (Facebook)

 

Day 13 – October 17, 2016 Travel Day

As we were preparing to leave we found we had one residual problem with our stabilizing jack.

Since the right rear jack motor was not connected, the automatic leveling system would not retract the jacks.

I had to re-attach the wires so that I could retract the other three jacks.

Once this issue was resolved our trip back to The Colony was uneventful.

 

Fall Trip

We’ve finally made most of our reservations for our fall trip to the Smoky Mountains.

We will be taking three days to travel each way.

The first night we will be staying in Little Rock Arkansas at the Little Rock North / Jct. I40 KOA.

The next two nights we will be staying at the Nashville North KOA.

This will allow us one full day in Nashville to do some sight seeing.

Finally we will be staying five nights at the Pigeon Forge / Gatlinburg KOA.

Originally, we had planned on staying longer in the Smokies but when I went to make reservations all the weekends were filled.

We could have planned for only two days travelling each way, but we wanted the trip to be more relaxing.

Also, after having tire troubles on our Hot Springs trip wanted to arrive before dark even if we had some unexpected delays.

We haven’t made our return reservations yet.

We felt we could use our stops in Little Rock and Nashville on the way to scout out the areas.

If we feel we’d like to spend more time in either place we can make our reservations appropriately.

Camping Diary: Hot Springs National Park KOA – June 2016

We spent the first five night of June 2016 at the Hot Springs National Park KOA in Hot Spring Arkansas.

Our arrival on June 1st was late so our activities on that day were limited to setting up.

The weather forecast for our first three full days called for rain so we tried to schedule our activities with a possible rainout in mind.

Day 1 – June 2nd

On our first full day, we took the KOA shuttle into the Hot Springs National Park, which is in downtown Hot Springs.

We began by visiting the historic bathhouses along Central Avenue.

We had lunch at a microbrewery located in the Superior Bath House building.

The food menu was very limited. We both had sandwiches which were only so – so.

The only soft drinks on the menu were iced tea (both sweetened and unsweetened) and their home brewed root beer.

They did have several types of beer and they featured a “sampler” of several brews.

Since neither of us are beer connoisseurs we both had iced tea.

Unless you are a beer connoisseur, I would not recommend this restaurant.

That afternoon we rode the “duck” which is a World War II amphibious vehicle.

That tour took us around Hot Springs and Lake Hamilton.

We had also taken the “duck” tour in Branson.

The ducks used in Hot Springs are smaller than those used in Branson.

The tour guide told us the vehicles used in Hot Springs were the “original” ducks and the larger ducks in Branson were later models.

The ride in Hot Springs was less expensive than the ride in Branson.

In my opinion, our ride in Branson was more fun, but I think that was dependent upon the driver.

We also did some “window shopping” along Central Avenue. They had a number of specialty shops but nothing that we couldn’t live without.

Fortunately we were able to avoid most of the rain that day.

The only substantial rain came while we were riding the duck and the roof protected from most of the rain.

My pictures from this day can be found at Day 1 pictures

Day 2 – June 3rd

 

The forecast for our second full day was for rain all day.

With that in mind, we decided to visit the William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock.

The annual “Riverfest” festival had taken over the library’s parking lot, so we had to park in an empty lot and ride a shuttle to and from the library.

The library was very interesting from an historical perspective.

I found the timeline display on the second floor the most interesting. I surprised that I had forgotten about many of the events that took place during President Clinton’s two terms in office.

Since we had just recently visited the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin I was interested in comparing the two replicas of the oval office.

In the LBJ oval office there were three large (for the time) televisions that were tuned to the three major networks.

Those televisions were gone in the Clinton oval office.

We ate lunch in the restaurant in the basement of the library.

That restaurant was quite nice (cloth tablecloths and all) with a quite reasonable priced menu.

I would recommend the restaurant although if you’re a dieter you may want to avoid the dessert tray.

I don’t have any pictures from this day.

Day 3 – June 4th

On our third full day we returned downtown taking the KOA shuttle.

We explored the promenade, which is a walkway that runs behind and above all the bathhouses along Central. It was a relaxing walk with a good view.

We visited the National Park Aquarium and the Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum and Gambling Museum.

It seems that quite a few business in downtown Hot Springs have added “National Park” to their names. Both the aquarium and the duck ride (which we rode on day 1) are such businesses.

The aquarium was a small family owned operation but was very reasonably priced.

It only cost $10.59 for our two tickets. (That may have included a senior discount.)

We have previously visited the Madam Tussaud Wax Museums in both London and Las Vegas. The Josephine Tussaud museum was smaller than either of the other two museums.

The Gambling Museum was an extension of the wax museum.

While it did include some interesting historical facts, most of the museum was just trinkets from the days of illegal gambling in Hot Springs. In my opinion old dice, chips, and playing cards are just not that interesting.

We ate lunch at “Granny’s Grill.” It basically was a sit down hamburger joint.

Due to the forecast of rain, I didn’t bring my camera on day 3.

Day 4 – June 5th

We spent the morning of our fourth full day cleaning the travel trailer in preparation for our return trip the next day.

This left us only a half day during which we visited Gavan Woodland Gardens which is a botanical garden sponsored by The University of Arkansas’ Fay Jones School of Architecture + Design.

This garden has a reciprocal arrangement with the Dallas Botanical Gardens, so we were able to get in free. (Normal adult admission is $15.00.)

This is quite a large garden. Some of highlights include:

  • 4 ½ miles of shoreline on Lake Hamilton
  • Several wood and stone bridges
  • A wedding chapel
  • Several miles of trails
  • An amphitheater.

You can easily spend several hours exploring.

They have a small café, which sells food and refreshments.

We found out the hard way that the café closes at 3:00 PM. Fortunately we just wanted some soft drinks.

Besides the botanical gardens they have a nature preserve.

Since we only had a half-day, we didn’t visit the preserve.

My pictures can be found at Day 5 Pictures

Things We Would Like to do Next Time

 

The national park has 26 miles of trails. Due to the expected rain, we didn’t try exploring these trails. These are definitely on our “list” for our next visit.

 

Visit Hot Springs Mountain Tower over looking Bathhouse Row.

 

Explore Hixson Nature Preserve, which is adjacent to the Garvan Woodland Gardens.

 

 

 

 

 

Campground Review: Hot Springs National Park KOA; Hot Springs, AR

The following review was uploaded to rvparkreviews.com:

We stayed at the Hot Springs National Park KOA for five nights in June.

Note: this is the KOA in Hot Springs, Arkansas. There is another KOA named “Hot Springs KOA” which is in South Dakota.

Due to tire troubles on our way we arrived just as the office was closing at 7:00 PM.

They were just about to post our late arrival instructions as we pulled in.

Despite our late arrival they had someone sticking around to show us to our campsite.

This KOA is literally cut into the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains.

The roads are hilly but we didn’t have any trouble maneuvering with our 39 foot fifth wheel.

Some of the campsites are terraced which gives a little more privacy.

We stayed in site L2.

This was one of six sites without as many trees as some other areas. When we made our reservations the area was described as “great for satellites.”

It rained on and off on four of the six days we were there.

Fishing is allowed in their small pond. We saw several people fishing between rain showers but we didn’t try.

The pool looked nice, and several kids seem to be enjoying it between showers.

The National Park (downtown) is just a few miles away. Since we had read that parking can be a challenge we used the KOA’s shuttle on two of the days we were there. The shuttle cost $5.00 per person round trip and is available on demand.

They also have a sight seeing tour, which is free, but they require a minimum of four people.

They serve breakfast on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. They advertise a “full menu” but we didn’t try it.

They seemed to have more tent sites than other KOA’s we have visited.

The playground was situated on quite a large grassy meadow which looked perfect for active kids.

The average rate of $42.68 reflects a VKR discount.

Campground Review: Dallas/Arlington KOA

We stayed at the Dallas/Arlington KOA for four months (May – August 2016) while we were looking for a new house.

The campground is in a flood plain but despite record rainfall, the water in the nearby creek never reached the campground.

The campground overall and the restrooms and showers in particular were always clean.

The pool was very nice.

They had a nice pancake breakfast benefiting the KOA Kids charity on Sunday during the summer.

They placed the long-term campers towards the back of the campground.

All the long-term campers were very friendly and always greeted us when we drove or walked by.

The campground was very quiet; we never experienced any problem with noise.

The playground was nice but pretty basic and perhaps a little “old fashion.”

They have two dog parks, one for smaller dogs and the other for larger dogs.

While we don’t have a dog we did hear a neighbor complain that some of the campers were not cleaning up after their dogs.

This same neighbor told us that when they complained to the owner he wasn’t receptive to their concerns.

They were having trouble with the Wi-Fi while we were there.

There were several days when it wasn’t working at all.

We used it mostly for email and reading the electronic copy of the newspaper.

When it was working it wasn’t super fast.

After some frustration we began using our own wireless “Mifi” for the newspaper.

Planned Trip: First Trip of 2016

Most years we have taken one last trip around the first week of December.

After that trip we usually have the trailer winterized and leave it in storage until the end of February or first of March.

This year is not exception.

After our December trip to Eisenhower State Park, we had the unit winterized.

We now have reservations for our first trip of 2016.

We will be travelling to South Padre Island.

We will be leaving February 26th and returning March 4th.

We will be staying at the South Padre Island KOA.

According to Google Maps, the drive is nearly nine hours.

We decided to take it easy and stop in San Antonio both going and coming.

We have reservations at the San Antonio KOA for one night on the way and two nights on the way back.

That leaves us with five nights at South Padre.

We don’t have any specific plans for the trip, but we hope to do some site seeing and bird watching at South Padre.

We’re staying an extra night in San Antonio on the way back so we can spend a day site seeing.

Our Last Trip of 2015

OK, I know, I’ve been very remiss in updating this blog.

With our move, it has seemed like getting settled in the new house has been a full time job.

Since moving in we’ve only made one short three-night trip in December to Eisenhower State Park.

Due to the weather it wasn’t a very eventful trip.

The lake level was up which forced some roads and paths to be closed.

Our trip was first affected by the water levels as we approached the park.

We were approaching on FM1310 from the east.

We found that the road was closed to through traffic, which required us to turn around.

Fortunately there was a small parking lot on the south side of the road just across from a northbound road.

I was able to turn into the parking lot and then backup on the northbound road.

I had to call the park headquarters for alternate directions to the park.

They suggested State route 84 to Eisenhower Road.

That route is similar to the route preferred by my GPS. The GPS suggests Lil’ Old Road to Eisenhower Road.

I usually avoid that route due to the low hanging trees on Lil’ Old Road.

Our stay at the park was very “laid back.”

Due to recent rains it was very muddy.

We did some hiking on the first full day, but the Armadillo Hill Trail was under water around the Buttonbush Scenic Point.

It rained almost all day on the second day, so we spent most of it in the camper.

After returning home, we took the trailer in to have it winterized as well as an issue with the inverter addressed.

 

Campground Review: Goose Island State Park, Rockport, TX

We stayed here for four nights in February.

We camped in Bayfront site # 34.

We made our reservation in the Bayfront area because it has much more room for maneuvering.

(Since this was our first visit here, I talked to a ranger before making my reservation.)

The park staff were all quite friendly both before and during our visit.

Once we arrived we explored the wooded area and found there were some sites, which would accommodate a larger rig, but there were indeed some that would be challenging.

The Bayfront sites also have 50 amp hookups but in February, that was not a factor.

Neither area has sewer hookups.

The surface of the Bayfront sites is made up of a sand like material. (I’m guessing ground shells.)

Each site has a shelter with a picnic table.

While there is plenty of room to maneuver, I actually pulled our trailer in by circling around from the site two sites over. (I asked our next-door neighbor if he minded first.)

A number of people (mostly motor homes but some trailers) pulled in.

We even saw one trailer that was parked parallel to the shore behind the shelter rather than next to it.

There was quite a wind off the bay two of the nights but little or no wind the other two nights.

I can see the wind could be an issue at times.

The park has a very nice fishing pier.

While we didn’t do any fishing, we did see some dolphins from the pier.

We were told that the bird population was down considerably from other years due to the drought.

Nonetheless the park was a great place for birding.

We participated in both the songbird walk and the shorebird walk.

The birding hosts Les and Jane were both quite friendly and knowledgeable.

They also hold a “Birding 101” and “Birding 201” class, which I would have liked to attend, but our schedule didn’t allow it.

There are a couple of trails in the park but they are quite short. The longest, Turks Cap Trail, is only .66 miles long.

If you are interested in birding, besides the shore area, there is a very nice bird watching area next to the rest rooms on Warbler Way.

The birding hosts’ site also has several feeders set up and they told us we were welcome anytime.

“The Big Tree” is in a separate area of the about a mile from the main part of the park.

We definitely recommend visiting this 1,000-year-old tree.

I can only think of three negatives about this park.

The first, based on speculation, would be the potentially strong winds off the bay if you were in the Bayfront sites.

The second is the lack of maneuverability for some of the sites in the wooded area.

Finally, the biggest negative in my opinion is the lack of full hook-ups.

All state parks in Texas charge a daily entrance fee in addition to any camping fees.

If you are planning on camping in one or more of these parks, I suggest you look into purchasing an annual park pass.

The pass cost $70.00 and allows free admittance to the parks and also includes several electronic coupons for half off a night of camping.

My park pass saved my $51.00 on this visit alone. (Four days @ $5.00 x two people plus $11.00 off one night of camping.)

The average rate of $19.25 per reflects this park pass discount.

Planned Trips: Padre / Goose Island Trip Cancelled.

We were supposed to be somewhere along the Texas Gulf coast about this time, but instead I’m writing this from home.

We had two issues with the travel trailer that prevented us from leaving yesterday (12/10.)

First the tail / running lights were not working.

A blown fuse in the truck caused this.

Next the refrigerator was not running off the inverter.

A blown fuse also caused this. This fuse was in the “thingamabob” that balances current between the two batteries.

In theory we could have left today for an abbreviated trip but Mandy has been fighting a cold, so we decided to stay home.

We are currently having the rig winterized, so our next trip will probably be in February.

Stay tuned.