We realized there’s never really going to be a convenient time to go on big adventures, so we planned a quick trip to the Smoky Mountains!
we love the national parks
Early on in our relationship, Alan and I made a goal to visit all of the National Parks together. Considering we were young, broke college kids (we kind of still are honestly), we knew we would spend our lifetime trying to accomplish this task, but wanted to get started right away. We visited our first National Park together the summer of 2014 on our drive back from Camp Eagle in Rocksprings, Texas (south-eastern Texas). We hammock-camped at Hot Springs National Park, the smallest park of them all, so honestly we could only work our way up in terms of cool national park trips.
a quick trip to the smoky mountains
We had a dry spell of National Park trips (two years too long of a dry spell) and this year really started craving another adventure. We used college, small bank accounts, and work as an excuse to postpone camping trips. But here’s the thing. There’s never really going to be a convenient time to go on big adventures. Sure, some weeks for trips will be better than others, but we realized if we waited around until a week where we didn’t have anything going on, we would probably be waiting until we were retired. So we planned a trip that overlapped with Truman’s fall break. There would be no graduate classes, I took off work, and we committed to a trip. It wasn’t too hard to pick a location because there’s only so many National Parks within driving distance from the Midwest for a 3-day trip where you can spend more than 12 hours at the Park. So we planned for Smoky Mountain National Park in October 2017.
Keep reading to find out about our trip!
On Wednesday night once I got off work, we loaded up the trunk of our car and made the trek to St. Louis, Missouri (we’re both from there so we can stay with family). Since we got in pretty late, we caught up with Alan’s family for a bit and then got to sleep since we knew we would be waking up really early.
On Thursday we woke up around 5 a.m. to leave the house by 5:30 a.m. with the hopes of getting to the National Park before nightfall. I took the first driving shift since I’m used to waking up early and will take any opportunity to watch the sunrise! It was so nice to listen to music, look at the colorful sky, and sip on a big cup of coffee.
Most of the drive was spent listening to our favorite music on Spotify. When I was DJ we listened to my jam&toast playlist and when it was Alan’s turn to DJ we listened to a lot of Folk/Rock (Jason Isbell, The Mountain Goats, etc.) We drove, drove, and drove some more.
I should note that Smoky Mountain National Park has several campgrounds within the park. Some of the campgrounds let you make reservations beforehand and some do not (like Cosby Campround, the one we had our eye on.) When Alan and I decided we wanted to take our trip, every single reservation in every possible campground was taken! It makes a lot of since because it was the last weekend several of the campgrounds would be open, and we waited until pretty last minute. That being said, we were just taking a risk hoping that one of the non-reservation campgrounds would have sites available. Since the available sites were available on a first-come, first-serve basis, we figured that by getting there on a Thursday we would be totally fine.
Alan and I were both so giddy as soon as we started driving along the 10 mph road into Cosby Campground. Just being in the National Park was amazing — a combination of the colorful tall trees, the fresh air, and the bright sunshine was the absolute perfect greeting to the park. When we finally got to the front gate of the campground, the nice lady working let us know there were still available sites, so we were rocking!
We chose a site on the top row covered by trees. Because we don’t travel with much, camp set up was pretty quick. We set up our favorite REI Co-op Half Dome 2 tent (we used gift cards from our wedding to get this over the summer!) and stuffed it with blankets and sleeping bags. Because I get super cold at night, one great thing I love about car camping is that you can bring SO MANY THINGS. So it’s totally acceptable to bring 3 blankets to use in addition to a sleeping bag because you can just throw them in the back seat of the car.
So we set up the tent, our camp chairs, and then searched for sticks and wood for a fire. I realllllly wanted to go on a short hike when we got there (which now looking back I’m glad we didn’t), but we ended up deciding to have a chill evening and night to rest up for a big day of hiking the next day.
We started a fire and started cooking dinner. For dinner we made Broccoli Lemon Pasta, a Fresh Off the Grid recipe. I’m usually not a huge pasta person, but the lemon and broccoli really won me over! Also, because I feel that it has to be said, I LOVE cooking outdoors. I love backpacking and cooking meals on little camp stoves too, but car camping really let’s you go all out due to lack of restrictions.
After dinner, we cleaned up, put on warm clothes, and sat by fire I made (yes, please note I can make a pretty good fire.) The trees in the park covered the valley we were camping in and it made it super dark. We were sitting in our chairs for almost and hour and it felt so late (probably grad school and work catching up with us) but when we looked at our watches it was only 7 p.m. So we got in our tent a 7:15 p.m., had some pillow talk (Alan will love me for saying that), and were asleep by 8 p.m.
Because we went to bed so early the night before, we set our alarms for 6 a.m. so we could get an early start to hiking. We wanted to do a big hike so we set out for the top of Mt. Cammerer. Before starting our hike, we knew very little about Mt. Camerrer except that part of the trail to get to the top went on the Appalachian trail and that it would be about 11 miles total.
So we started hiking and immediately realized it was going to be a long, hard hike. Don’t get me wrong: I love hiking and it was so beautiful being in the park, but it was a tough hike! I like to think I’m relatively in shape too (I didn’t have trouble running 12 miles two days prior) but I struggled at times. We saw a few solo hikers on the Appalachian trail, but other than that it was a pretty quiet hike.
I saw a warning sign posted about aggressive bears, but we didn’t see any (thank goodness). Alan and I talked about what would happen if we actually saw a bear and I honestly am not sure what I would do. In terms of “fight or flight,” I’m for sure not fast enough for “flight” but also don’t think my instinct is to “fight.” I think realistically it would be “pee my pants and scream.” I made a mental note to bring bear spray next time I go hiking where there are bears (I probably won’t remember and can see this exact same scenario playing out on our next trip.)
Overall, the hike to the top was so awesome. Alan and I had some really great conversations about life, our hopes and dreams, and just got to catch up. We both had a super busy semester so one reason we really wanted to make this trip happen was so we could spend some quality time together doing one of our favorite things.
When we finally got to the top of the mountain, we spent some time enjoying our panoramic view! I’m a sucker for the fall foliage so the top of the mountain was stunning. We found some good sitting rocks and ate our lunch (tuna, carrots, granola bars, and apples) before making the big descent.
The way down went so much quicker than the way up! We passed a lot of people and the sunshine really made it warm up. We made it to the bottom in the early afternoon. The first thing we did when we got back to our campsite was drink an entire nalgene of water and then change out of our nasty clothes. Since there were no showers, we didn’t get to fully clean, but we weren’t planning on doing that any way (just embracing the full camping experience).
Since we still had a lot of the day left, but surely weren’t going to do another hike (the 11 miles was enough for one day!) we made the call to go into town to work on some homework. This was a tough call for us because we really wanted to spend as much time as we could in the park, maximizing our stay since we weren’t going to be there very long, but we also are graduate students who have papers and projects. So, we spent 3 hours at Mcdonalds (hello, free Wifi!) reading and working on papers that were due the next week.
When we felt good about the amount of work we got done, we headed back to the campground to get started on dinner. Dinner was a big pot of 5 can chili, another Fresh Off the Grid recipe. Wow this dinner was so good. Sitting in the woods, eating a bowl of chili and drinking a glass of wine HITS THE SPOT. Seriously, everyone should do this.
After cleaning up dinner, we sat by the fire and Alan played all my song requests on his ukulele. We also met our super nice campsite neighbors (the guy told Alan “that’s some fine pickin’, brother” when he played his uke). Also, the nice neighbor shared some apples with us! Overall, the people we met at the campground were so friendly and trustworthy. Everyone camping at the park is pretty much there for the same reason so nobody was really worried about anything. People left all of their camp gear out when they were on hikes (us included), and then made conversation with the people camping next to them (because it just makes sense you would do that anyway.)
With stuffed tummies, tired legs, and full hearts, we went to sleep in our tent pretty early, yet again.
Because Saturday was our last day in the park, we planned for an early wake up so we could get a short hike in before leaving. We woke up a 6:30 a.m., tied our boots, and started moving.
So we planned on doing a shorter hike in the morning so we wound’t get start driving too late in the day. We saw that there was a 6 mile hike (Hen Wallow Falls) that was right off the main road of the campground that led to a waterfall (!) so we planned on just doing that. So we started walking on the road to get to the trailhead. We kept walking and walking and could NOT find the trailhead anywhere, even though we knew we passed it driving so we were looking in the right spot. After hiking for over an hour and still not even getting on the right trail head, I was pissed. Maximum frustration because I just wanted to be on a trail but we were instead walking on a road.
FIVE EXTRA MILES. We hiked 5 extra miles before we found the trailhead and did the actual hike. When we finally got it, we decided to go ahead and do the hike since we were at the park and it would be our last opportunity. Even though the elevation wasn’t exactly the same as the day before, our low morale and tired legs still made the hike pretty difficult. We hiked and hiked and eventually made it to the waterfall! (Honestly I think TLC had us in mind when “Waterfalls” was written because I felt like we were just chasing a waterfall all morning long.) But, the waterfall was awesome and we ate a snack sitting next to it.
After snack time and beginning the hike back, our spirits were high. We had a lot of fun taking it easy and taking pictures of the scenery. When we got back to our campsite, we packed up (it was sad), had another snack, and said our goodbyes to the Smokies.
the drive home
On our drive back, Alan and I realized what kind of travelers we are. We are the kind of travelers that will take our time, pull over in a small town to try a local coffee shop we will never try ever again, make rest stops, etc. Taking that into account, you won’t be surprised to know we stopped in a small town in Tennessee (I believe it was Cookeville) and ate a place called Seven Senses.
The drive back was filled with podcasts, homework, and snacks. We drove, talked, and drove some more. We finally made it back to Kirksville at 1 a.m., safe and sound to our little home.
From this trip I learned a couple of things:
1. Take trips even when it’s not convenient. Commit to traveling and make it happen, no matter how much sleep you’ll be missing or whatever excuse you’re making for yourself.
2. Go to National Parks. They are beautiful, refreshing, and good for the soul.
3. Spend time with the people you love. I love traveling with Alan because we learn more about each other, do things we both enjoy, and have a lot of fun. Whether it’s a best friend, sibling, or husband, travel with people you enjoy.