The Great Smoky Mountains

Ever since I was big enough to remember, I have always loved the mountains. Every summer my daddy would choose a day, wake us up before dawn, load us up in the car, and surprise us with a trip to the mountains. We always went to the same place … Helen, GA. We would explore the town a bit, have lunch, and then drive around. Usually, we would end up at Brasstown Bald and stroll up to the peak. Every trip, he would tell us how you could see seven states from there on a clear day. It was always special, and I grew to love those Smoky mountains. To this day, the very sight of those peaks coming in to view fills me with joy.

Well, last week my son and I got to explore a bit in the smokies. We had some timeshare points left to use, and my son had not been able to take a trip without his sister this year, so we headed up to the condo in Gatlinburg .

The best thing about taking a trip to Gatlinburg is that we get to drive along the pass through the Great Smoky Mountain National Park between Cherokee, NC and Gatlinburg, TN. This pass is beautiful no matter what time of the year you travel it, and this time we were able to travel through it in the winter and experience the pass adorned with ice and snow. But, I get ahead of myself…

As soon as we entered the pass, we saw signs for a historic grist mill. It seemed like a good place to stop, and Jonathan needed to stretch his legs, so stop we did.  It was quite cold up in the mountains…considerably colder than back home. I donned my jacket, grabbed my camera and headed for the trail. It was just a short walk to the grist mill, and I got several good photos.

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Of course, at some point I made a comment that the aqueduct (I assume that is the correct term) was made out of real life Lincoln Logs. My son responded that he was pretty sure that was the building style Lincoln Logs were created after. Why does that boy have to be so smart and ruin all my fun? Anyway, after our photo adventure, we headed back to the truck and hit the road.

We stopped in several places. I loved how the green lichen on the trees stood out against the stark bareness of the leafless landscape.

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As we reached the higher elevations, we began to see ice and snow.

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The landscape at the top of the ridge was absolutely beautiful.

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Eventually, we made it to the end of the pass and found our way to the grocery store and then Mountain Loft Resorts. The room was lovely and had a great view, and we settled in for the evening to watch television and eat popcorn. I got several photos from the balcony of the room at different times of the day.

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Dusk

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Dawn

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Nighttime

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Snowtime

The next day we dilly-dallied around until around noon when we headed out to see what we could see. We decided to drive the Motor Nature Trail through part of Gatlinburg. As we drove around this, we stumbled upon an old farm that I didn’t remember from my last trip. It looked like a good place to take some pictures, so we stopped.

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The rest of the day we spent in town shopping and eating. We took Peppermint the Sock Monkey with us. (You can check out his adventures on the facebook page Sock Monkey Road Trips or the Google+ Community Sock Monkey Madness!). I tried some moonshine while we were there. It is not my favorite drink. My son does not have a good winter coat, so as the temperature began to drop and the wind began to pick up, we headed back to our condo to watch How to Train Your Dragon 2 (very good movie, by the way).

The next day, it began to snow as we headed out. Jonathan got some experience driving in the snow…and the mountains. He did rather well and didn’t scare me too much. I got a couple of shots out of the window as we went, but he decided it was best to concentrate on getting through the snow rather than stop for pictures. I must admit, I agreed with him 100%.

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We had a great trip. If you get a chance to visit the Smokies in the not so dangerous snow, do so. It is beautiful.

Cruisin’ the Southeast: A Fall Break Adventure

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From home, to mountains, to coast, to home…that’s how our Fall Break goes. One of the great things about living in a coastal state in the southeast is that you are within driving distance of the beach and the mountains. And on a really ambitious adventure, you can do them both in the same trip. That’s what my daughter and I did this Fall Break.

We started our journey by heading up to Mount Airy, North Carolina for a wedding photo shoot. Now for those of you who don’t know (as I didn’t before this trip), Mount Airy was the birthplace of the beloved tv personality, Andy Griffith, and the basis for Mayberry, the town in that wonderful classic, The Andy Griffith Show. So, now my daughter and I can say that we spent a couple of nights in Mayberry. We didn’t get any pictures in the town itself or get a chance to really explore, so we have plans to return there one day. However, it was a very cute and quiet little town nestled in the mountains.

The purpose of our visit, however, was a wedding photo shoot. That took us out to the beautiful Rosa Lee Manor near Pilot Mountain. Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains, it is a perfect place for a fall wedding. The property was beautiful, almost as beautiful as the couple getting married that day.

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We were doing the photo shoot for a friend of mine. Her daughter was “getting married” that day. I use quotes because they actually got married a year ago, but the big ceremony took place on this particular weekend a year later to celebrate their union with family and friends. The ceremony was lovely, and the family and all the beautiful young people were ready for a day filled with love and fun.

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The ceremony took place out at the gazebo with a beautiful view of the mountains behind. Complete with the yellowing leaves of fall, it was a scene that couldn’t be matched…quite the fairy tale wedding.

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And after the ceremony, the fun and festivities lasted well into the night. Feasting, dancing, and beautiful speeches by all filled the evening air.

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It was certainly a day to be remembered by all. I know that my daughter and I came away with beautiful memories…and a few great photos too (at least I hope the family thinks so).

But this was not the end for the mother/daughter team this Fall Break week. After the mountain wedding adventure, we took off for the beautiful coastal city of Charleston, South Carolina.

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Ahhh….Charleston. I must say, that of all the places in the southeast I have seen, this is by far one of my favorites. The culture is rich, the stories are hauntingly beautiful, and the city is magnificent. Just driving into the city makes me anxious to get my car parked away out of site and hit the streets walking and taking in the sights and sounds of this great city.

Getting the car parked, however, proved to be a challenge. The drop off at our condo was quite busy that Sunday afternoon. After circling the block about three times, we finally found a somewhat open spot to put the car for a moment to check in and get the keys to the valet. The last vestiges of this stressful experience soon melted away, however, as we carted our luggage through the courtyard to our beautiful unit.

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The fountain in the courtyard wasn’t operating on this particular week in October, but the lack of functionality allowed me to get a shot that I otherwise would not have gotten of the colors in the the center of the fountain bowl.

The courtyard scene that greeted us on arrival was one of iron tables, lounging guests sipping wine and laughing, and bicycles ready to be ridden down the streets of the city. After settling in to our unit, we freshened up and started walking in search of dinner. Of course debate soon ensued about the dining affair of the evening as I was not in the mood to have pizza for every meal, so I navigated us to the nearest Irish Pub and won the dinner debate…that time anyways. Tommy Condon’s was our dinner and entertainment provider that evening. We had a lovely meal and listened to a wonderful lady sing her Celtic tunes.

After dinner, we found some fudge to munch on and settled in for the evening to rest up for the next day’s adventure. I’m not sure when we headed out the next day, for sleeping in was the ultimate plan of the morning, but when we did, we hit the market first. The market was a wonderful place full of vendors of all sorts of things from mass market items to handmade crafts. The place was bustling and full of visitors. If ever you make it there, be sure to head by the wonderful smelling booth of The Old Whaling Company. I found some lavender and magnolia scrubs that smell divine and make my skin soft and fragrant. My daughter, of course, wanted just about everything she saw at the market.

After perusing the market, we headed to lunch…pizza of course (I didn’t win this time). The New York pizza place was just across the street from our condo, and the food was delicious. As we sat at the outside tables and waited on our lunch, we took a few photos along the street.

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After lunch, we wandered the streets and looked at the architecture and explored a graveyard or two.

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This graveyard was quite interesting. It was on a very small plot of ground, and all of the graves were very close together. (On the ghost tour that night, my daughter and I learned the difference between a graveyard and a cemetery, by the way. Little tidbit, a graveyard is a plot for graves attached to a church. A cemetery is usually larger and is not attached to a church.)

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One thing I found fascinating about this graveyard was that there were headstones everywhere. They were used as tiling in the walkways, and there were many attached to the base of the church. Several were attached to the wall surrounding the churchyard as well. I began to wonder if each marked an actual grave where a body was buried or if they were merely memorials of the long-ago deceased.

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There were some rather interesting scenes that I captured as well. This one interested me because of the three headstones framed by a low hanging tree branch.

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Later in the evening, we headed out for some night photography to fill our time before our scheduled ghost tour.

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We ended our evening with a ghost tour. The lovely husband-wife team, Maggy and Steve, at The Ghost Shop filled our evening full of haunting tales and unique history. We explored parks and alleys and discovered many more places to visit…on the next trip.

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Fort Mountain State Park

Fort Mountain State Park…my latest hiking adventure. My trusty hiking companion, Dixie, and I set out for another grand adventure last Saturday. Two and half hours and one nervous Aussie Mix later, we left the comforts of civilization (meaning all cell phone signal was lost) and entered the mountain wilderness.

Atop the mountain are several trails that link and criss-cross and such. Now, the map shows that these trails should equal a little less than a mile; however, that only includes two of the five trails up there and certainly does not include walking them more than once. So, I managed to turn that less than a mile into somewhere between three and five. I’m not really sure how far I traveled as I was conserving phone battery and not using my handy-dandy endomondo tracker app. I managed a good many steps on my fitbit pedometer though.

Well, the first place Dixie and I checked out was the Stone Tower at the mountaintop. There was quite a bit of caution tape about the place. I’m not quite sure what they were working on up there, or even what was supposed to be roped off, but we explored a bit. I went to the right of the tower, and there was a window on the lower level. If you looked through the window, you could see straight through the window to the back of the tower and out into the woods beyond. I thought it made for a good photo opportunity, so I snapped a few shots. I tried one of the shots out in a chroma key software demo, and it makes quite a nice backdrop for a photo shoot. In fact, after trying out the software, I may see about doing some chroma key work for photo shoots. Rabbit trails…ok, back to the topic.

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After, exploring and photographing the stone tower, Dixie and I decided to head down another trail to the back and right of the tower. The path led around and, I assumed at the time and correctly by the way, back across our original trail. We heard something crashing around in the trees out to our left. I saw the limbs crashing around, but I never saw what was causing the commotion. A little further down the path, we came across a family. As I was about to turn to the right down the Stone Wall Trail, the guy in the front calls out, “There’s a bear down that way! I saw it, and we headed in the other direction.” Of course, I was like, “Cool, I think I’ll go get a picture.” I headed, well, in the direction of the bear. (As a side note here, animals scare me way less than people do.) I had traveled about a hundred feet or so, when the family we met started in our direction. Now, whether that was to keep an eye on the crazy woman with the camera who wanted to photograph a bear to make sure she didn’t get eaten, or whether to get a closer look at the bear I didn’t seem afraid of, I’m not sure. But they followed behind, and sadly to say, we didn’t see that bear. I did, however, see a Great Spangled Fritillary and got several pictures of his pretty self. After all, who can resist a big beautiful orange and black butterfly.

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We explored the trail and the Stone Wall a bit, all the while keeping an eye out for bears. I say we, but I think Dixie was just interested in anything that moved really. We crossed over the Stone Tower Trail, and we headed on out the Stone Wall Trail. A little way down the trail, Dixie got a scent and kept trying to run after something. I’m not quite sure what she was after, but I heard a lovely little twitter in the trees in the direction she was heading, so away we went. I spotted a lovely little yellow bird flitting about and twittering, so we sat down on a rock outcropping and watched and photographed. It took me three days to identify this little guy from the photographs I took, but I think I finally identified him. I believe he is a Pine Warbler. He was quite lovely and had a captivating little tune to sing.

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From there we headed out to the overlook. The view was breathtaking. The blue-gray of the mountains in the distance, the sun rays streaming through the clouds to bathe the mountains in light, and the hawk flying about looking for a meal. The sun was bright, and it was a bit warm out, but we lingered about for a spell to take a few photographs.

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After leaving our lofty perch, we headed back up to the Stone Tower, then circled back down to the bottom where we were parked, and then we followed another trail that led us right back to the overlook. I took a few more photographs, playing with the exposure settings and such. Then we took one more trip around the Stone Wall Trail and headed back to the car.

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At the car, we looked at the map (which, by the way, I didn’t bother taking with me on the trails). The Lake Loop Trail and the Big Rock Trail were both near the picnic shelters and cabins, so we headed in that direction. The first trail we came up on was the Big Rock Trail. It was listed as a very long trail, only about three quarters of a mile, so I figured it shouldn’t take too long. We walked the trail for a little ways, and I was  beginning to get the feeling that the name might be misleading. I hadn’t seen any sign of a big rock, at least not one any bigger than the others I had seen. But then we found it. It wasn’t really a big rock, per se, but more of a stream along some smoothed rock that cascaded down the side of the mountain. Pools formed in the rock in places where the stream flowed, and someone had stacked some stones in the stream. (I’ve seen these little stacked stone towers in many places now, and I’m still not sure what they mean or why people do it.) It was so peaceful here, and I stood out on the rocks and got several pictures up and down stream. Dixie and I stayed here for quite some time before moving on.

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After leaving the stream, we followed the trail on out to the roadway. There was a bench facing an open area near the storm drain outlet. I assumed, and rightly so after reading, that the bench was there to sit and watch for birds and deer (and squirrels). As we walked up the hill, I spotted a butterfly. It was a Spicebush Swallowtail. I got several pictures of this little guy before heading on. I have quite a habit of chasing butterflies.

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As we reached the top of the hill, I realized that we could cross the street and get to the Lake Loop Trail. It was late in the evening by now, and I decided that it would be a nice way to end the day. So, around the lake we went. It was a peaceful walk until we neared the beach. Being hot that day, many people apparently decided that going for a swim was a good idea. You could hear laughter and splashing all the way across the lake. There were several people enjoying the evening in kayaks, canoes, and on paddleboards. I don’t think anyone had the paddleboats out though. I took quite a few nice photographs around the lake.

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By the time I got to the side of the lake where all of the people were, the sun was shining through the trees creating an ethereal glow. It was almost as if you could gaze through a veil into another world. It made for some lovely photographs, along with a canoe sitting just off of the beach awaiting its rider’s return.

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All in all, it was not a bad day. In fact, it was quite a beautiful day. I can’t wait to go back and try out the Gahutti Trail (8 miles of wilderness beauty).

Cloudland Canyon

Two weeks ago, Dixie and I headed for the mountains to hike some trails. We started out early and packed all of the essentials…water, protein bars, a collapsible dog bowl, the camera, and a walking stick. Then we headed off to Cloudland Canyon State Park, just a girl and her dog hitting the rugged trails.

There is nothing I like better than exploring, especially exploring the wilderness. And there is no better place to live than Georgia for a girl who likes to explore. I know I’m a little biased having been a Georgia girl my entire life, but I must say we have some of the best state parks in the country. Well, I haven’t really been everywhere, but they’re the best I’ve seen yet. All the trails I have hiked so far have been clear cut, well marked, and have extraordinary views, and the parks are clean and the DNR rangers and staff are helpful and nice. Of course, I could go on and on singing the praises of our parks, but I’ll save that for other blogs of my amazing hiking adventures. For now, I’ll just sing the praises of Cloudland Canyon.

Dixie and I arrived at around 11 that beautiful Sunday of July 6, and we were greeted with an amazing view.

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Our first hiking venture took us to some lovely waterfalls down in the canyon. Dixie was not a fan of the grated steps leading down into the canyon as they felt a little weird on her feet; however, she was a great fan of all the people we met along the way who gave her lots of attention.

The trail down into the canyon had some of the most amazing rock formations. I couldn’t help but think that, if my daughter had been there, she would have insisted that they were minecraft rocks. There were many that had such perfectly rectangular edges. They looked as if they were carved or as if someone had made a massive stone wall, stone by stone.

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And in other places the stone was smooth and round, like this massive boulder we passed under…

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We could hear water dripping or rushing all around us for the entirety of our walk along the waterfall trails.

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And it was a bit wet, slippery, and muddy in a few places, so my hiking boots were a great footwear choice.

Thankfully, we managed, by a random decision to take the righthand path first, to descend the harder trail to the Hemlock Waterfall. It was well worth the trip as we came upon a breathtaking view of a small waterfall descending straight down into a rocky pool with a large boulder.

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I managed to capture a lovely photo of the bottom of the fall after securing Dixie’s leash to one of the railings (she wiggles a bit much when I’m trying to get photos).

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The pirate in me managed to find the “x marks the spot”. I wonder if there was any buried treasure in that stream…

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After exploring a bit more, consuming water and protein bars, and taking a few more photos, Dixie and I trudged back up out of the canyon. Then we took the lefthand path to the Cherokee waterfall. It was a much easier trail, but the waterfall was just as beautiful. This one cascaded down into a green pool surrounded by the canyon walls. I would have loved to have a house right next to it. It was so secluded and beautiful. The temperature down near the falls was much cooler as well. It was perfect for a hot summer day.

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We stayed here and enjoyed the view for quite some time (along with many other people who were camped out on blankets or hammocks or just lounging on the rocks). Then we headed up and back to the car for a quick break and to restock our backpack before attempting the West Rim Loop trail.

Well, the West Rim Loop is a four mile trail around the rim of the canyon, and I must say, four miles on mountain trails is nothing like four miles in my neighborhood.  Thankfully, I thought to take my hiking stick with me. It proved useful for most of the trip for balance on the steep parts. My knees thank me, I’m sure.

It wasn’t too far into the hike before we reached an outcrop with a beautiful view.

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The rocks up here were very interesting. One in particular reminded me of one of those cartoon eagles blasting off into the sky.

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Or maybe I just have a good imagination.

We walked around on top of the rocks, and there were cracks between them with long drops to the ground below. Yet, even in this rocky terrain, little trees and bushes still manage to take root.

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After stopping here for quite some time, we took off to finish the rest of the trail. I took a few more photos, but eventually the light began to grow dim in the more dense parts of the wilderness. The trail began to seem as if it would never end, and I couldn’t hear the water anymore. I began to get a little nervous, as it was getting late. The trail was quite long, and I hadn’t seen anyone in a little while. In time, however, I reached the bridge where I started the loop and was back to familiar territory. Dixie and I were both getting quite tired by that point, and I was beginning to stumble over roots.

Speaking of roots, I took a photo of these snaky roots before I began getting tired and clumsy…

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Oh, and a cloud, and some vegetation, and the canyon wall across from where I was…

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And in the end, Dixie and I made it out of the wilderness tired but happy. All in all, we hiked over 7 1/2 miles of trails. It made for a full, well-spent day. And we can’t wait till our next adventure.