Even though there is quite a lot to cover between days 6 and 7 of our USA road trip, they share a theme which I wanted to include in a single entry… That theme – the beauty of Americas national parks!
Day 6 – Skyline Drive
We entered the Skyline Drive at Front Royal and traveled along its full 109 miles through to Rockfish Gap and it was worth the drive all the way, even though the speed limit is only 35 mph. This speed limit seems like a pain at first (especially when we are used to driving 60 in rural areas in the UK), however it is a very curvy road where the speed limit makes sense, and to really enjoy it the speed is actually a good thing! I’m generally speaking not a huge fan of driving, but this road is an absolute delight to drive along.
You can get a map when you go in to the park or click here to download a pdf map from the official national parks service website. These maps are super easy to follow because on the west side of the road (which is the right side if you travel the same direction as us) there is a marker every mile with the mile number on – these numbers correspond to the maps.
This is a national park and as such there is a fee for entering. When we went it was $20 for cars, $15 for motorbikes or $10 per person when on a bicycle or in a taxi. Full and up-to-date prices can be found here.
This has a number of lookout areas at the side of the road as well as visitor centers and a couple of shops (there is even a petrol station about half way along), which means there are a lot of places to stop and get out of the car – my advice is that you get out as often as you can. Even just the views across the mountains are absolutely stunning, but take your time and you will even see some amazing wildlife. This national park is home to a huge number of species including the Shenandoah Salamander, which you will have seen in the previous post is kept at the Smithsonian National Zoo (although you are unlikely to see a wild one).
One of the main species which people come here for are the black bears. We went along almost the entire road and never saw a single one… That is until we got to just a few miles from the end and I saw a flash of black through the window of the car and got my wife to pull off the road. I was so excited and I think my wife didn’t believe that I had actually seen a bear, so we did one thing which you shouldn’t really do… We got out of the car! When it comes to wildlife I have a real penchant for getting up close, and it takes a fair bit for an animal to scare me (which is not a good thing). We quietly snuck back up the road, and sure enough about 30 meters or so in to the woods there was a young black bear! My camera equipment at this point wasn’t great so I didn’t get a very good shot (but I wanted to include it anyway because; a – it gives you hope that you can see a bear from the road here; and b – its my first and so far only wild bear), and just after he looked up and noticed us (I stood on a stick), a lorry came barreling past us and scared the bejesus out of the bear.
Other animals we saw were mainly just deer and a couple of bird species… It is a pretty busy road so I am not surprised that there aren’t that many animals along the road side, but there are also lots of trails to walk along where you may see more. We actually circled round about a mile and walked for some time along a trail which went back towards where we saw the bear in the hopes of seeing it again, but had no such luck!
That was the end of the day for us and we were eager to get to our hotel for the night to get something to eat – we took our own lunch which we had purchased the day before as we weren’t sure how much food is available along this drive – if this is a concern, don’t worry there are a good 3 or 4 places to eat or buy snacks if I remember rightly.
Sadly we then checked in to the Rivers Edge Conference Center Ramada hotel in Roanoke… What an absolute dive! The good thing about this place is that it has parking and is quite easy to find, the bad things however are:
- The lift seems to double as a public toilet
- The rooms are disgustingly dirty
- It is next to a busy road
- The door locks don’t work very well
- The staff are terribly rude – when I was waiting to check in (here wasn’t a queue) the woman at the front desk asked me to wait while she was talking to her friend who was taking her cigarette order, and in the morning when asked if we had a nice stay I replied with no… and was answered with “OK have a nice day”!
We almost didn’t stay here it was that bad, but were very tired, but certainly didn’t hang around for breakfast the next day – dinner by the way was eaten at the strip mall up the road at McAllisters Deli, which was really tasty American food and their sweetened ice tea is one of the best I have ad anywhere!
Day 7 – Great Smoky Mountains
Day 7 of our USA road trip got off to a very early start with both of us being in a bad mood thanks to the wonderful staff at Ramada in Roanoke, however we lifted our spirits by stopping at a Waffle House for breakfast… If you’re on a USA road trip you will pass loads of these – do yourself a favor and stop at least once to have breakfast!
I have stated in the subheading of this day as being the smoky mountains because this was one of the most memorable things of the day and this along with our first town we visited were actually detours on a day which ended and should have included time in Cherokee. Let me start this section by saying that Cherokee invoked some great images in my mind due to the cultural heritage of the people in this area, but to be honest the town has nothing overly special to offer and it feels like this heritage has been turned in to a tourist trap so we didn’t stay very long to soak it in even though we spent the night here (although the best thing was seeing my first ever wild beaver whilst looking for our hotel, which was the pretty nice Great Smokies Inn).
However due to our terrible night in Ronaoke we had a long day ahead of us and when we stopped at a service station for a toilet stop we checked out the leaflet stand and found that there was a Ripley’s Believe it or Not with just a small detour on the way to Cherokee, so we changed our plans and headed for Gatlinburg, which was one of the best decisions of the whole holiday… Thank god for my obsession with Ripley’s!
We drove through Pigeon Forge which is basically a fun fair town which has sprung up from the fact that Dolly Parton was born there… It’s like a mini Las Vegas in the middle of nowhere with traffic than can only be described as absolutely mad! But we eventually, and slowly managed to get in to Gatlinburg which is one of the best places we went to in the USA and I can’t wait to go back one day… I image this to be a great place to take kids – I’d rather take kids here than Orlando!
There is so much to see and do here, but first things first we were hungry so we stopped in at the Pancake Pantry for a really nice sandwich, which came with the worlds most delicious pickle!
The Ripley’s here has I believe burnt down twice in the past but it is in a really nice old building and has one of the best Ripley’s collections I have seen (although maybe not the biggest)… All of your favourites are here, from shrunken heads to carved skulls and from two headed calves to the Fiji mermaid! There is even a signed prison shirt from Charles Manson!
I don’t want to go on for too long about all of the amazing places to see here, that will be for another time, as there is so much to cover – but trust me, a trip to Gatlinburg could keep you busy for days!
Our previous days drive was amazing along the Skyline Drive, but if you want a USA road trip – this is the place to drive… the smoky mountain national park! I wish we’d had time to spend some time hiking here because the short drive between Gatlinburg and Cherokee was easily one of my favourite roads… it winds all over the place, and he views from the look out areas and eons beyond what you can expect from the Skyline Drive. Especially when you get to the tops of the ridges and find out why they are called the Smoky Mountains!