• Candace Ahlfinger

Road Tripping from Charlotte, NC to Atlanta, GA



Charlotte, North Carolina


We began our road trip in Charlotte, North Carolina, a short flight from Dallas on Southwest Airlines. Charlotte is a bustling city with great restaurants and lots of things to do--from art to hiking to museums. Unfortunately, the city is suffering, as is the rest of the world, from the effects of Covid.


We arrived in Charlotte just in time for dinner and enjoyed a stroll down North College Street as we paused by several artistic fountains and squares. (There is a brochure available for a public art walking tour.) With its large selection of local beers and its juicy burgers, Carolina Ale House was a great intro to the area. (They let us substitute BBQ sauce instead of Uncle Lou’s special sauce, which is similar to Thousand Island dressing, on the Pub Burger.) The walk back to our hotel was a beautiful experience. The buildings are lit in vibrant colors with purple the most prominent. The night scene alone was enough to make us want to return when we have more time and after Covid.


The Embassy Suites Uptown was our base for our short stay in the city. Located just across the street is the NASCAR Hall of Fame with its Jumbotron that gave continual updates and teasers about the museum. Because we had only 24 hours in town, we opted to skip the Hall of Fame. Another casualty of such a short trip was the U.S. National Whitewater Center that has whitewater rafting, ziplines, trails, and much more to offer. Maybe next trip?


Instead, we decided to spend our limited time eating, walking the public art tour, and hiking at nearby Crowders Mountain State Park. We had a full day lined up beginning with breakfast at the much-acclaimed 7th Street Public Market. We were disappointed to find that this establishment had also been affected by Covid with reduced days and hours with our day not being one of the options. (Note to self: Check hours and times right before going since life is changing rapidly.)


Watching the World Go By--Crowders Mountain State Park

Instead, we walked part of the Charlotte Rail Trail on our way back to our hotel to pick up our car and head for Crowders Mountain State Park. The 3.7 mile paved trail to the top of Pinnacle Mountain was easy--until the end. The top itself is rocky and required some clambering over boulders and following non-existent trails to reach the true pinnacle. However, the view over the surrounding mountainside was fantastic. We found the perfect spot to relax and watch the hawks floating on the thermals below us as we enjoyed our picnic before heading back down.


Our final meal in Charlotte was at Soul Gastrolounge, a very unusual, but tasty, restaurant. Due to Covid, diners were limited to one hour at the table, but food came out quickly. The tapas/sushi restaurant featured some standard sushi/sashimi plates that were excellent, but their Southernized tapas were the stars of the show for us. The Dirty South Nachos, fried chicken skin with cheese and jalapeño pickled okra, and the Asian Glazed Pork Belly Tacos with pork belly and watermelon wrapped in street flour tortillas were the most outstanding menu items we tried.


And on to Asheville, North Carolina


We got on the Blue Ridge Parkway with our first stop being at the Folk Art Center (Milepost 382 on the Blue Ridge Parkway) to see the beautiful work of Appalachian artists. The museum houses both contemporary and traditional examples and gives visitors the opportunity to purchase items in the large gift store. The jewelry, quilts, and metalwork were wonderful, but one of my favorites was David Taylor whose metal work showed a tongue-in-cheek humor and would be a great addition to a rustic collection.


Our main goal for the first part of the trip was hiking, so we headed to Craggy Pinnacle and Craggy Gardens Trails (Milepost 364 for both). The helpful National Park Ranger at the Folk Art Center said there was not much elevation change at the two places—but that is compared to the Great Smoky Mountains, not Texas! We enjoyed the great views of the areas on these short, but not flat, walks. The steps were roughly hewn limbs and rocks which, with the mud in between, made the pathway very slippery and “squishy” to quote a little boy we met on the path. The rhododendrons that were readying to burst into bloom could be found next to patches of ice that made frozen waterfalls out of small rivulets of water.

Craggy Pinnacle and Craggy Gardens


The drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway is a treat even if you don’t hike but check road conditions before you go. Parts of the road may be closed due to weather. The winding roads held surprises around corners and scenic views of the distant mountains. We allowed extra time for the drive because speed limits are lower than “normal.”


We arrived at the Windsor Boutique Hotel (https://windsorasheville.com/ ) in Asheville and were even more impressed by the guesthouse than we had been online. The concierge had emailed me several weeks before our arrival to provide information about the area including restaurant listings and a discount on Biltmore tickets. The concierge kindly made our dinner reservations for us and was extremely helpful in choosing trails for hikes in the area. The hotel’s location was perfect for exploring the town on foot. We could shop, drink, and dine without driving which made the stay even more pleasant. Our suite had a well-equipped kitchen, a great living room and wonderful bedroom, and even included a washer and dryer.


We had not planned to visit the Biltmore since we had been many years before, but its pull was too strong. We were disappointed that the general tour is no longer guided, but the audio guide provided a great deal of information. The Biltmore was constructed by George and Edith Vanderbilt. The house extends over 4 acres and is still the largest house in the U.S. The house was completed in 1895, but many of the amenities are current today. The Vanderbilts used the house to help the area’s economy during the Depression by opening it to tourism. (Funds raised also helped to maintain the Biltmore Estate.) During WWII, the Vanderbilts again volunteered their home, this time as a storage place for works of art from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.


Through the years, the Vanderbilts expanded the estate to include a dairy, winery, and hotels. (My favorite part of the mansion is still the conservatory which reminds me of the Addams Family with its stunning exotic plants.) The tour takes visitors to the indoor pool, no longer filled because of a leak, the kitchens, library, dining room, and many bedrooms. I felt certain that if the mannequins, dressed in the original finery of the Vanderbilts, could talk, they would invite us to be seated at the enormous dining table or warm ourselves at the gigantic hearth.


The gardens overflowed with beautiful flowers including roses and tulip magnolias. (I would love to go back when flowers are in full bloom and also at Christmas to see the decorations.) The Antler Hill Village contains a few stores, restaurants, and the winery. (Complimentary wine tasting is included with your day’s admission but make certain you reserve a time slot as early as possible.) This trip we walked from the house to the village, a peaceful, idyllic walk along the French Broad River and its tributaries that gave us an idea of how large the estate is, 8,000 acres to be more exact.


The trip to Biltmore can easily take a full day if you take at least one of the tours, wander around the gardens, explore the village, and eat. We ate at the Stables Cafe which is a seated restaurant built in house’s original stables. (Don’t worry. All horsey remains have been removed!)


Biltmore Estate


We returned to town and were off to explore the many shops, breweries, and restaurants in Asheville within walking distance of our hotel. The first night we were there we ate at Bouchon, French comfort food, but they had country music playing in the background. We managed to split escargot, one of our favorites, a salad and still have room for entrees. The service and food were excellent. The next night we ate at Chestnut which had a time limit in place due to Covid. The Shrimp and Grits and the Fish of the Day were delicious and service were wonderful, but we would have liked to linger over coffee and have dessert.


We hated to leave the comfort of the Windsor Boutique Hotel, but the next day we headed for Gatlinburg via the Blue Ridge Parkway. We had several hikes planned, and the rain cooperated so we were able to get them in before the rain hit. (Note to self: In addition to checking which parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway are open, check to see which restrooms are open in the off-season.) We first hiked the Mount Pisgah Trail at Milepost 407, a 1.5 mile out and back trail with an elevation gain of 712 feet. Both Pisgah National Forest and Mount Pisgah are named after the Biblical mountain from which Moses saw the Promised Land. (I guess that the beautiful view of Western North Carolina from the top of the mountain made its discoverers think this was their promised land.) We took in the view from the tower while visiting with other hikers.


Mount Pisgah and Graveyard Field


Graveyard Field (Milepost 418) was our next hike for the day. Contrary to its name, we were not hiking through a graveyard. Many hundreds of years ago trees in the area were capsized by a strong wind. The same area suffered from a major fire in 1925. The remains of the trees looked like gravestones as they rose from the ground. Parts of this trail were well marked while others were not. We were thankful for the people who had made an arrow from rocks to mark a particularly confusing turn. We trudged through mud and water to reach what we thought was the end of the path and were pleased to come upon a stream with small waterfalls. We were glad, however, that we pushed further and found the true path end and its prize, a wonderful waterfall.


We were fortunate that rain held off until we got back to our car, but darkness and rain arrived before we made it to Gatlinburg. My advice? Never drive to Gatlinburg in the dark, especially when it is raining. The small, winding roads were treacherous, especially since many of them had no side markings. Names such as Raccoon Lane, as opposed to a highway number, made us realize how small the roads were. (There may be other directions that are easier, but we followed our GPS.)


Gatlinburg


We stayed at one of the Greystone Lodge on the River’s cottages which gave us the best of both worlds. The pretty house was set on the river away from the main hustle and bustle of Gatlinburg, but we could drive to the lodge, park for free, and walk the main tourist area. After checking in and a quick bite to eat, we settled in to get some rest for the next day’s adventure.


The rain had left the area making it a perfect day to explore Gatlinburg. We rode up the Gatlinburg Skylift Park, one of three sky lifts in town, to get a bird’s-eye view of the town and the surrounding area. The walk at the top across the swinging Skybridge was a nice way to see even more, including below us at the portion of the bridge that is plexiglass. Tickets are good all day, so we enjoyed going back at night to see the lights of the town. The main street in Gatlinburg may have enough pancake restaurants to feed the entire country. The street is filled with souvenir shops, cider stores, restaurants (the majority of which tout pancakes as their primary entrée), and Ripley’s attractions. Ober Gatlinburg is a popular amusement park, but not on our list for this visit. We did sample Tennessee hard ciders at one venue before checking out the offerings from the rest of the strip.


We also visited the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies which was a great experience, after we got in and past the crowds. (We purchased our tickets, which are good for one year, online. Unfortunately, entry is not timed, so the size of the line fluctuates greatly.) The aquarium has something for everyone. Our favorite part was the moving walkway that took us through an underwater tunnel. (We enjoyed it so much that we went through twice.) We walked next to and underneath sharks, barracudas, and so many other types of fish. The penguin waddle was another hit with us and the children who were visiting, especially since they could get “in” the exhibit by popping up in a plexiglass viewing area. (There is also a large playground in the middle that gives kids the opportunity to get some extra energy out.)


Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies


Friends had told us about the Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant in Sevierville so we braved the stop-and-go traffic to make it there in time for a late lunch. The few miles between Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville are deceiving; traffic, especially during spring break, grinds the roads to a halt. We did finally make it and were so well rewarded. The entrees of fried chicken and fried catfish were totally eclipsed by the melt-in-your mouth fried apple fritters. (Nothing says that you’re in the South like luscious fried food!) When our server placed the fritters on the table, she correctly stated, “And here is the best part of your meal.” The fritters were not traditional but were more like beignets except round and served with their own apple butter. They were heavenly! You can take some home with you and/or buy the mix, but I knew the temptation would be too much.


In the Applewood Farmhouse complex is a winery, cider house, candy store, Christmas store, and more. Their apple orchard provides the major ingredient for their apple products. We spent time after lunch discovering what they had before a short exploration of Pigeon Forge with its everything Dolly…Dolly Parton that is. In addition to Dollywood and a seemingly endless supply of outlet shops, there were many eye-catching buildings such as the ship-shaped Titanic museum and the upside-down WonderWorks. Everywhere we looked another unusual building caught our attention. We were actually happy for the slow traffic because it gave us more time to look around.


We drove back to Gatlinburg through the Gatlinburg Arts and Crafts Community, a group of over 100 artists and crafts people with shops along a 8-mile loop. (You can use the trolley from Gatlinburg to access the shops.) We had fun seeing the beautiful paintings, creative sculptures, colorful pottery, and more. You can find almost every type of art that your heart desires in this area. The stores do close early in the off season. Even the vendors don’t want to drive on the winding roads when it is dark.


The next day we had saved for the beautiful Great Smoky Mountain National Park. (The Smoky Mountains got their name from the fog that rises out of the mountain’s vegetation.) The scenery on every drive we took through the magnificent mountains was breathtaking, especially when the smoke gained in size as dusk approached.


Cades Cove was the first item on our to-do list. We stopped at the rest and camping area at the entrance of Cades Cove where we were able to get a copy of the self-guided driving and walking tour. Even though the loop is only 11 miles long, allow lots of time since traffic is slow and you may want to get out, visit buildings, take pictures, and go on hikes. There are some crossovers and drivers are encouraged to let faster traffic pass, but fast is still slow.


Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountain National Park


The one-way loop passes through a scenic valley with a history that dates back to Native Americans who travelled through in 8000 B.C. The buildings along the route are remnants of the first permanent settlers who arrived between 1818 and 1821. The John Oliver house, the first house on the loop, is not visible from the road and requires a short walk; however, some of the three churches, barns, and houses can be seen from the road. The Cable Mill Historic Area and Visitor Center is located about halfway through the drive. There visitors can visit a blacksmith shop, a dam, a working gristmill, and other buildings used by the settlers. (There are also restrooms available at this area.)


We had decided that approximately 5-mile hikes were what we wanted each day of this trip, so we took the Abrams Fall Trail about halfway around Cades Cove loop. Fellow hikers were all ages, even babies being carried on parents’ shoulders. At the end of the hike was a rushing waterfall, a photo op moment that everyone took advantage of. The scene was a Norman Rockwall painting: parents showing children how to skip rocks, teens jumping from rock to rock to obtain the perfect picture, while others were enjoying picnics.


Abrams Fall Trail


The next day we hiked Alum Cave Trail, a 2.3-mile hike with options to continue another 7.7 miles to Mt. Le Conte. (We were too late in the day to start such a long hike and it was double the length that we had planned.) This hike was one of my favorites on the trip. Again, hikers of every age were on the trail, but the woods and Walker Camp Prong Creek and Alum Cave Creek absorbed the voices making it seem as though we were the only ones there. The trail to Alum Cave Bluff ended with a lot of rough-hewn stairs—I lost count at 68—before we took advantage of the cave’s shade to sit, rest, and visit with other hikers as we watched the smoke rolling in.


Alum Cave Trail


"Smoke" Rolling in in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park


We had taken advantage of the kitchen in our cottage for two nights, but we went out to Chesapeake’s Seafood and Raw Bar for dinner. The food and service were excellent. In addition, the ambience was much quieter and relaxing than the typical Gatlinburg strip restaurants.


We had planned to hike the Laurel Falls Trail on our way to Atlanta, but the rain put an end to that idea; however, we did visit the Visitors Center on the way which houses a neat museum. We also left Clingmans Dome Trail for another time since the shorter trail is not open until April 1. (Again, check what is open for the dates you are visiting!) We also discovered that trail maps are difficult to find so consider purchasing a book or individual trail maps.


Helen, Cleveland, and Dahlonega, Georgia


The route we chose was not the shortest to reach Atlanta, but we wanted to stop at these three places with Helen being first. If you had never been to Helen and had been asleep in the car, you would think that you had been transported to a German Alpine village. No, the original settlers of the area were not German. In fact, the Cherokee were the earliest settlers followed by loggers and gold miners. In 1969, Helen found itself dying until local businessmen hired the artist John Kollock to come up with an idea to attract tourists to their town and so the Bavarian-like Helen as we know it was born. Through the years more businesses have come in and now multiple German restaurants give tourists the opportunity to taste authentic German food. (We ate lunch at Bodensee Restaurant and enjoyed the sausages and sauerkraut immensely.) After lunch we walked quickly from awning to awning due to the heavy rain. We took refuge in the Yonah Coffee Company for a scrumptious cup of cappuccino and then over to Fast Food, Funnel Cakes, and Fries for a delicious funnel cake. (Did I say that cold rain makes me hungry?!?!) Finally, after now being satisfyingly full, we headed to a very special hospital in Cleveland, Georgia.


Helen, Georgia


If you have never heard of Cleveland, Georgia, it may be because you were not alive or did not have children in the 1980s when the Cabbage Patch dolls were born. Yes, Cleveland is the home to Babyland General Hospital. Babies peered out from cabbage heads as we neared the door to the Antebellum mansion that houses the hospital. Nurses welcomed us as we entered the building for our self-guided tour. We, along with all the other tourists, mostly children and/or grandparents, surrounded the Magic Crystal Tree to witness the birth of the newest child. My husband and I spent an hour wandering through the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of babies, all of which can be adopted for a price. Of course, each precious face that looks up at you makes you want to take one, or two, or three, or more home with you.


Babyland General Hospital


Back in the car, miraculously sans dolls, we drove to Dahlonega. We had planned to hike at one of the many North Georgia waterfalls, but rain was still pouring down so we headed straight to the Dahlonega Square Hotel and Villas, located just off the Dahlonega square. After a brief stop at the hotel to check out the wine tasting in the lobby by Kaya Winery, we made our way to the historic square for dinner. (It is a small town so some of our choices were not open, but 19 Degrees North Seafood Grill, located in an historic house, was excellent, both food and service.)


Of course, shops closed early, but the next morning was sunny so we enjoyed our casual stroll around the square to visit the boutiques and the old General Store. The General Store was a treasure trove of memories from our childhoods, including Necco wafers and Big Hunk candies, both of which we had to buy and hungrily devour. The place of honor in the square is Price Memorial Hall which was built on the site of a former branch of the U.S. Mint. (The U.S. government placed a branch of the mint in Dahlonega because so much gold was mined here.) Now the hall houses the Dahlonega Gold Museum which was not open when we walked by so we visited the Consolidated Gold Mine to learn about the mining industry in Dahlonega.

Dahlonega, Georgia


The tour of the mine by Miner Jamie was fascinating—both educational and entertaining. Dahlonega’s gold rush began in 1828 as the first gold rush in the U.S. and produced more than $6 million in coinage and provided the gold for the dome of the Georgia State Capitol. Miner Jamie demonstrated still-working equipment that had been discovered in the mine and, of course, turned off the lights to show complete darkness. (This act must be a requirement for all cave and mine tours, but the children on the tour were suitably impressed.) One note: There are boxes labeled “Aetna” in the mine that Miner Jamie explained once held TNT. Out of the mouths of babes, or at least one of the children…”If it’s TNT, why isn’t it labeled “AT&T” instead of “Aetna?’”


Our tour ended with the opportunity to pan for gold. The U.S. Mint is definitely not going to rely on us to restock its gold supplies. While the phrase “There’s gold in them thar hills” originated in Dahlonega, not Looney Toons, the amount is now very limited.


We drove on into Atlanta, a short 1.5 hour drive, without giving into the allure of the hiking in the North Georgia waterfalls and mountains, but there is always next time.

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