In an effort to recall what my first vision of an active retirement was, it was probably the dream of having to decide whether to park my oversized yacht off of the coast of St. Barth’s or St. Martin in order to snorkel the clear, blue water. That dream is still out there, but I have yet to get the call that my yacht is ready for delivery. Meanwhile, I’m ecstatic with a retirement that’s active, but still has room for spontaneity.
A few weeks ago we told Easin’ Along readers about a trip we made to an area around TVA’s Norris Dam to follow the wildflower walk along the Clinch River. That was an awesome experience and one that we wanted to repeat, but wildflower season near our home was waning quickly. If we wanted to see more wildflowers we would have to go to a higher elevation.
On Friday of last week we were catching up on the events of the day and looking ahead to the weekend when Helen (adorable wife) said that the children would be the featured choir at Sunday’s church service and she felt like they could get along fine without her as the preeminent alto in the adult choir. To that I replied “Let’s go to Bryson City”. Admittedly we’re active people, but not so busy that we can’t be spontaneous…I love that. I immediately got on the phone and secured reservations for two nights and the next morning we packed Freddie (car) and hit the road.
Bryson City, NC is about a two hour drive for us. It is in Western North Carolina and borders the southern side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The elevation for the town is a little over 1700 feet; about 800 feet higher than Knoxville, but the roads and trails in the National Park can take us much higher. We were sure we would see wildflowers and, in fact, Wildflower Week in the National Park would begin on Monday. This was going to be good.
There are several options for driving and we chose to follow Highway 441 which twists and winds its way from the Park entrance at Gatlinburg through Newfound Gap, a 5000 feet opening in the mountains and down to the Oconaluftee River Valley on the other side of the National Park. From there it is a short distance to Bryson City. As we climbed the mountain we could see wildflowers everywhere including White trillium, Phlox, and blankets of Spring Beauty making their way up the mountainside. We stopped at Webb Overlook to take in the view and while the leaves were not yet on most of the trees, there was just a hint of spring green in front of us.
We arrived in Bryson City and checked in to Gracey Manor, our favorite home away from home. We discovered Gracey Manor on our first trip here about two years ago when we came to float the nearby Nantahala River. The motel is owned by David and Peggy Gracey who operate the motel from April until the end of October, then return to their home in Texas for the winter. Gracey Manor is a classic 1950’s era motel and with no exaggeration whatsoever, is the cleanest place we have ever stayed. The rooms open to a front porch with a view to the mountains and an invitation to relax. David and Peggy are the friendliest people on the planet and go out of their way to make us feel welcome.
That evening we did a little walking around this small but vibrant town. There are a lot of shops and eateries and much to enjoy, and Bryson City is known for its world class outdoor activities, laid back vibe, and diversity of activities in its walkable downtown. It is an ideal getaway.
On Sunday morning I got up early and drove a few blocks away to pick up two large cups of coffee and take some pictures of the early morning sun on the mountains at the edge of town. The fresh air was stimulating, but I still needed coffee. I have posted a picture of the morning here.
After breakfast we put on our hiking gear and drove about ten minutes into the National Park at Deep Creek campground to begin our search for wildflowers. We didn’t have to walk far. Starting on the Deep Creek/Indian Creek Loop and heading toward Tom Branch Falls, we were about 200 feet into the hike when we came upon a bed of bright blue Wild Iris – my favorite wildflower. Here’s a picture.
I continued along the trail and paused in front of Tom Branch Falls, a beautiful cascading waterfall above Deep Creek when I heard Helen yelling behind me. “Come Heeerrre!” “NOW!” She was standing on the side of the trail at the base of a steep hillside staring intently at something and that something turned out to be a light pink Showy Orchid. Of course, I didn’t know what it was but Helen did and she says that they are rare. On this hike we were fortunate to come upon several beds containing large numbers of the flower. It was a treat.
We followed the Deep Creek/Indian Falls Loop for about 4.5 miles which included a fairly steep climb of a mile or more to the top of a ridge above Indian Creek then back down. We took our time and I was grateful for the time I spent at the YMCA (see post) over the past few months for giving me the needed energy to make the hike. In addition to the Iris and Orchids, we saw Wild Phlox, Phacelia, Trillium, Foamflower, Spring Beauty, and many others which will have to go unnamed for the moment. I was truly impressed by both the numbers of different species and by the sheer beauty they gave to us.
We were also treated to some spectacular waterfalls – Toms Branch and Indian Creek falls among them.
While walking, we met many very nice and friendly hikers out to enjoy the Park. We lost count of the number of states represented by fellow travelers, but remember meeting folks from Connecticut, Oregon, Florida, and Alabama among them. One hiker we met was on his way to do some fly fishing for trout in one of the creeks along the trail, and he was most helpful in sharing some of the highlights of the area. His name is Dr. Spencer Muse, a professor of statistics at North Carolina State University. Dr. Muse is from the Bryson City area and comes back often to fish. We enjoyed our time with him on the trail, and he agreed to let me take his picture.
We met one other “stranger” on our hike when I was near the bottom of the ridge and looked straight into the face of a young deer about six feet away from me. This fella was accompanied by two other deer that seemed not the least bit disturbed by our presence and continued eating while we took their pictures. This was a bonus. Apparently we missed a bear that was spotted by some others on the trail when he poked his head out of a cave above the road. I’m glad we avoided that opportunity, but he created quite a stir on the trail.
We are genuinely blessed to have the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in our backyard and it is easy to see why it is the most visited and most popular National Park in the country. Having been to many of our Parks, I agree that they are the greatest gifts we Americans have given to ourselves. This year we celebrate the 100th anniversary of this awesome gift.
That night we decided we still had enough energy to drive the short distance to Cherokee, NC and try our luck at the Casino. We’re not big gamblers, but we always hope big and walk through the doors very optimistically about having a big night. On this night I did well, but it wasn’t as good for Helen. Nevertheless we evened each other out and walked away having a lot of fun for the two hours we spent there.
Up early again the next morning and walked about three blocks along Everett Street to our favorite breakfast spot, the Everett Street Diner. On our first trip to Bryson City we noted that a lot of local policemen and firefighters filled this restaurant for breakfast and decided it must be good. We have never been disappointed. This is a true diner with tablecloths, heavy china plates and cups, and lots and lots of the things I get real excited about…like biscuits and gravy. It didn’t take us long to study the menu. Helen had the breakfast special and I went all in for the Biscuit and Gravy Combo. It arrived quickly and good and hot. We feasted.
Soon it was time to check out so we said our goodbyes to David and Peggy and took a picture to remember them by and hit the road.
We decided to go home by the same route along US 441 in order for a few more glimpses of the wildflowers in the Park and were again rewarded when we passed a large bed of Phlox and rare pink Trillium as well as white Trillium. A Pink one is pictured here and I think readers would have to agree it is stunning.
We stopped to take in the view from Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the National Park. There were a number of visitors there and, judging from the license plates, they came from far and wide. The hike up the somewhat steep path from the parking lot to the tower takes about 10 minutes, but the view from the path is spectacular and we joined many visitors taking pictures. The tower offers a panoramic view of the horizon and it is breathtaking. I would encourage all to visit…but wear comfortable shoes.
We arrived back home in about three hours exhausted and exhilarated, thrilled by what we had seen and proud of ourselves for making the effort. Spontaneity can definitely produce a big reward.
Until next time, we’ll be Easin’ Along.