My recent trip to Tennessee was a packed trip to Nashille, Knoxville, and the Smoky Mountains!
Trip to Tennessee
Last October, Alan and I took a camping trip to the Smokies and it was INCREDIBLE. We spent a couple of days camping in Smoky Mountain National Park, and ever since we drove out of the park I was looking forward to going back.
I thought it would be years until I had the opportunity to head back, but it was just a couple of months! Why? Long story short, I love traveling and adventuring with my gals and will rarely turn down the opportunity to do so. (Note: I did have to carefully consider this particular trip because it was the week before finals week and I would be rolling into Kirksville HOT the night before an early final) However, after considering my values and priorities, I followed my heart to Tennessee.
My travel/adventure ladies are Leah, Joslyn, and Natalie. Somehow we always end up committing to make long drives across the country together, and I love it. For example, after we all graduated from college, the four of us took a trip to Colorado. We spent the week mostly hiking around and eating. It was amazing. On that trip to Colorado we said that we would all save up our money and in two years we would travel to Europe….(well, two years is now, and that trip isn’t slated on our calendars)….. So instead of Europe (but maybe in 2 more years, am I right ladies?) we switched up the Rocky Mountains for the Smoky Mountains. It felt like the closing of a circle or something along those lines.
the game plan
So, here was the game plan. On Thursday morning, Leah, Joslyn, and I would all meet in St. Louis, MO. (Currently, Leah lives in Kansas City, MO; Joslyn lives in Iowa City, IA; and I live in Kirksville, MO). Then, the three of us would drive to Nashville and spend the night there. We would wake up on Friday, spend a little time in Nashville before heading to the Smokies and then to Knoxville, TN (Natalie lives in Knoxville!). Friday night and all of Saturday would be spent with Nat in Knoxville/The Smokies. Then we would wake up really early on Sunday morning and all drive back to our respective homes.
Sounds like a lot driving, right? You’re right. A lot of driving, but also a lot of heart-bursting, soul-filling goodness. Keep on scrolling to see some amazing Smoky Mountain pictures (photo credit goes to the one and only, Nat Keller) and to read about what we did (hiking and exploring) and what we ate (donuts, tacos, and hot chicken).
Thursday: Kirksville -> St. Louis -> Nashville
Thursday was basically travel day. I knew I was going to be sitting in the car the majority of the day, so I woke up early to get a quick run in before getting on the road (I almost always do this on travel days). I packed up my duffel bag, backpack, snacks (of course), and coffee (my wing man) and hit the road by 6:30 a.m. The drive from Kirksville to St. Louis is about 3.5 hours, but it was actually really beautiful in the morning! I spent the drive watching the sunrise, sipping on my coffee, talking on the phone (yes, I have friends that will talk with me that early in the morning), and listening to podcasts.
Once in St. Louis, I made a pit stop at Maryville University to see my sister, Lindsay. Though I only saw her for approximately 13 minutes, it was worth the stop.
Moving along, Joslyn, Leah, and I met up and accomplished a few things in St. Louis before heading on to Nashville. We went to TRX Tattoos and Leah got her first tattoo! It looks AWESOME. I actually have had two of my tattoos done there and since they have free touch-ups for life, I decided to get one of mine touched up (the touch-up was for a really small tattoo on my ankle so it only took like 2 minutes to do). After getting tattoos, we pushed on!
With the exception of one stop, we basically drove the five hours straight to Music City. For dinner, it was decided we were going to Hattie B’s Hot Chicken. A couple of years ago Leah stopped in Nashville and ate some hot chicken at Hattie B’s and had been having dreams about it since. (I get that because I totally have had dreams about food I’ve eaten and want to have again).
Anyway, Hattie B’s Hot Chicken is a restaurant that sells chicken with different levels of heat: Southern (no heat), Mild (touch of heat), Medium (warming up), Hot! (feel the heat), Damn Hot!! (fire starter), and Shut the Cluck Up!!! (burn notice). I ordered grilled chicken at medium heat thinking it would be hot and was super disappointed in my decision as my mouth was not warming up like I thought it would. I also ordered collared greens because I’ve never had them and I wasn’t a big fan of those either. Don’t get me wrong, I’d go back to Hattie B’s, but I just didn’t order correctly this time that I had the best experience. However, one thing that was great was getting to eat on the patio!
After dinner, we headed to our Airbnb, which was a private room in an apartment somewhere in Nashville (I couldn’t tell you the specific area). Leah and Joslyn went to see the The National in concert at an outdoor venue in downtown Nashville. They reported that the concert was amazing. While they were at the concert I attempted to study at our Airbnb (remember that final I had on Monday morning?) Of course I would have rather gone to the concert, but I knew I needed some focused study time. At this season in my life, it’s all about balance — I can spend the weekend traveling with my friends and having fun, and also still be a grad student and study when I need to. This travel/study situation worked for me, but you just have to find what works for you!
I’ll be honest though, I was really tired and didn’t study for too long. I went to bed pretty early because I knew I would want a lot of energy for the next day of fun!
Friday: Nashville -> Smokies -> Knoxville
One of my favorite things to do when I’m visiting a new place is run. I absolutely love getting to explore by running on the streets and looking at scenery, especially in the morning with the sunrise. My body woke me up bright and early (it’s on the work schedule) so I got to go on a quick run before we left the city. The run was short because it was SO HILLY where we were staying, but it was good to get my mind and body moving.
We left our Airbnb around 7:30 a.m. with the intention of driving straight to the Smoky Mountains. However, we made a couple of pit stops… What started as “grabbing coffee really quick at this cute place” turned into grabbing coffee, getting donuts, buying plants, and taking pictures in front of a mural. If you know our little group at all, it shouldn’t be surprising that this happened.
We parked our car about a block from the coffee shop and immediately got distracted by the plants across the street. In our defense, the outdoor plant shop was so cute! We each bought a plant as a souvenir to take back home with us and remember the trip. (Update: my spider plant is alive and well on my dining room table!)
Once we had our plants (again, great purchase), we headed to the Frothy Monkey. Walking up to the front door, we were impressed with how cute the place looked. The shop was just as cute on the inside. If we would have had more time, we probably would have eaten there as well, but it’s slated on my list of “If I ever go back to Nashville I need to go to this place.” Since we were on the mission for morning drinks, Leah ordered the “garden party latte” (steamed milk, espresso, house-made earl grey syrup, and house-made caramel), Joslyn got some shots of tea, and I ordered an americano with vanilla.
We carried our coffees about two blocks so we could pick up some donuts at Five Daughters Bakery, because what goes better with coffee than donuts!? I would absolutely recommend this bakery to anyone who visits Nashville! The indoor AND outdoor aesthetics of the shop are adorable. More importantly, the donuts tasted incredible. Leah ordered a Maple Glaze donut, Joslyn ordered a Lemon Blueberry donut, and I ordered a paleo chocolate chip donut. I’ve never seen a paleo donut at any donut shop I’ve been to (probably because I live in rural Missouri) so I wanted to take advantage! We all liked the Lemon Blueberry best. After a quick photo op at the bakery, we were ready to actually hit the road!
Just kidding, we had one more stop. Joslyn wanted to see a mural by the artist Kelsey Montague, so we stopped by to take a few pictures. We actually just put the hazard lights on, jumped out of the car, and got someone to take our picture. The whole thing lasted about 3 minutes.
Okay, THEN we were on our way to the Smokies! We weren’t planning on meeting Natalie until she got off work later in the day so we planned to spend the day taking some short hikes in Smoky Mountain National Park. We soaked up the amazing weather (high 60’s!) by hiking the Grotto Falls trail. This hike was short, easy, and filled with so much green! There was a waterfall at the end of the hike (you might have caught that from the name) so Joslyn and Leah decided to take a dip. I was perfectly satisfied skipping around, standing on rocks, and appreciating all of the views.
After hiking the afternoon away, it was finally time to go see Natalie! We showed up at her apartment, which was where we would be staying the next two nights (thank you Nat and Maddy for being great hosts!) It was past dinner time when we arrived so we headed to Knoxville Market Square to eat.
Knoxville Market Square was the small-town hub of downtown Knoxville. The square is filled with restaurants, boutiques, and entertainment. We were there with the purpose of eating dinner, which unfortunately was most other humans at the Square, so we put our names at the end of an hour-long waitlist to sit on the patio at one of the restaurants.
While we were killing time before our table was ready, we explored the square. We went into some of the shops, watched one of the concerts/contests that was happening, and people-watched. The vibes and atmosphere of the square were really great, and I’m sure I would have appreciated it even more if I wasn’t hangry.
An hour and a half later, we finally got to eat on the patio of Not Watson’s Kitchen + Bar. I ordered a “Burger Salad” (turkey burger with pepper jack cheese, and avocado on top of a salad with mixed greens, tomatoes, red onion, cucumbers, shredded carrots, and some dressing on the side). Leah ordered “Not Yo’ Mama’s Chicken and Waffles” (southern fried chicken, served with chilled spiced watermelon, a cheddar-cheese waffle and bourbon maple syrup), Natalie had a burger, and Joslyn had one of their vegetarian options. The meal was great!
It seemed like because we were in Tennessee, we had to take advantage of the Tennessee Whiskey. Leah ordered us a round of shots, which was the perfect mid-dinner treat.
After dinner, there was one very obvious thing we needed to do, and that was get ice cream. We needed the perfect night cap, and Nat knew the place! We got done with dinner at 9:30 and the ice cream place Nat wanted to show us was 20 minutes away and closed at 10, so we had to book it. We fast-walked to the car and made our way to Cruze Farm.
Y’ALL. The farm was lit. Cruze Farm is a family dairy farm that milks and bottles their own whole pasteurized Jersey milk and real churned buttermilk, light milk and chocolate milk. Basically, they use buttermilk in their ice cream which adds the best flavor. I ordered a swirl of the flavor of the week, which was salter caramel and cookie ‘n creme. I am seriously drooling right now as I think about. Similar to how Leah had dreams about the hot chicken, I will have dreams about this ice cream.
Other than the delicious ice cream the farm provided (you don’t need much more than that!) it also had a huge patio with big, comfy chairs. The four of us sat around the table for so long — we absolutely overstayed are welcome. Sitting on that patio with those ladies was one of those moments you look back on and it makes your heart feel good. I honestly don’t remember what we even talked about, but I do know our tummies were hurting from laughing so hard (and maybe a little from all the food) and our hearts were so full.
Even if we had to turn back around and drive to St. Louis the next morning the trip would have been worth it at that point. The quality time with even higher quality people was the best. BUT THE BEST PART WAS WE STILL HAD ANOTHER FULL DAY PLANNED IN THE SMOKY MOUNTAINS. So as we went to bed having our big sleepover, I knew it was still going to get better!
We set our alarms early for Saturday morning because we needed to wake up and make a decision. We went to sleep on Friday and the forecast on Saturday was thunderstorms all day in the Smokies. Of course we didn’t want to hike all day in the rain, but we decided that we would wake up, check the forecast, and then decide our plans for the day. By morning, the forecast changed (doesn’t it always?) so that thunderstorms didn’t start until early afternoon, meaning we could drive the hour commute to Smoky Mountain National Park and get a hike in. Obviously, our hearts were called by the mountains in Smoky Mountain National Park because we decided to risk to beat the storms!
We decided to hike to Jump-Off, which is a beautiful 6.5 mile hike to a panoramic view. The route consisted of hiking along the Appalachian Trail, which was absolutely stunning. The beginning of the hike was very rewarding and was filled with so many trees and several wildflowers. We stopped for several photo ops along the way.
As we kept hiking, the scenery continued to change which made it feel like we went on 4 mini-hikes. The elevation continued to rise and we kept getting glimpses of amazing views on either side of the trail. As the website described this trail, “you’ll feel like you’re walking on the spine of the Appalachian Mountains.”
I believe mountains are the most beautiful and amazing. I love hiking up them, looking at them, thinking about them, you name it. Nat captured a few pictures that show just a few of my reactions to being in the mountains.
Anyway, as we got to the top, the actual “Jump Off” was a vantage point where we could see Charlies Bunion, Mount Guyot, and the Appalachian Trail ridge towards the east. Because of the overcast and chance of rain, we were the only ones at the top of the mountain, so there was so much solitude. We had the opportunity to take in the gorgeous view, sit and look, and obviously take some pictures. It was perfect.
On the hike down the mountain, which we were trying to beat the rain, I decided this was one of my favorite hikes of all time. I loved it for the landscape changes and all the different kinds of nature we hiked through. I loved the weather because the overcast called for leggings and a t-shirt which is my favorite clothes to hike in (and it didn’t rain!) I loved it for the good conversation it provided as I hiked with my pals. I loved it for the opportunities it allowed for thinking and solitude. I also loved it for the new memories in my mind and pictures I get to look at. I loved, loved, loved it.
After the hike, we went on a quick scenic drive through the rest of Smoky Mountain National Park. We basically sat in silence making googley eyes out the windows at the views. Then our stomachs started rumbling so we searched for lunch.
We decided for a late lunch at SoKno Taco Cantina. It was Cinco de Mayo so obviously we had to find somewhere where we could enjoy good margs! I got the lunch special which was a fish taco, carnitas tacos, and chips with salsa and queso. Of course I ordered a frozen lime margarita, so it was kind of weird to me that it was yellow and not green. However, let me tell you that the alcohol tax in Tennessee is STEEP so this was a pricey margarita. Also, this place didn’t have unlimited chips and salsa soooo that was kind of a bummer. Overall, great food but pricey.
After lunch we were feeling GOOD. We hung out and talked for awhile before hitting the road. We spent the rest of the day hanging out at Natalie’s apartment. We chilled, talked, laughed some more, and then had a super later dinner before bed.
On Sunday morning we woke up at 5:30 so we could get on the road since we all had really long drives back to our respective homes. We hugged Nat goodbye (very sad) and we were on our way. Driving into the sunrise made the first stretch of the drive pretty but it was also hard leaving, as it usually is after really solid weekend adventures.
12 hours later and I was making the final stretch of the drive down highway 63 into Kirksville, MO. As I drove through rural Missouri I had a couple of weekend thoughts to wrap up my trip.
- It is always worth it for these kinds of trips. I’ve said it in my posts before and I’ll say it again, it’s rarely going to be convenient or easy to travel, but you should do it anyway. Take the trip, sleep less, and go to the places to experience the adventures. DO IT.
- Traveling doesn’t always have to be expensive. I ball on a budget 97% of the time. Pack meals and snacks, stay with a friend (thanks Nat), drive a car with good gas mileage and split the cost of gas (looking at you, Leah and Jos), and save up your vacation days at work.
- Visit your friends that don’t live close. Don’t forget about the people who don’t live in the same city as you. If you ever want people to visit you, you also have to go visit them. Be a host, but also let people host you.
- Go to the places that are good for your soul. For me, it’s always the mountains. If for you it’s the ocean or the city, go there. Go to those places.
- Spend long weekends with people you love. I love my friends and getting to spend time traveling with them is ALWAYS a good time. It’s a special treat when I get to do it so I make a point to spend time with them.
- Be intentional with your time. You don’t know how many opportunities you’ll have come around a second time so you might want to really think about your answer the first time the opportunity arises.
I’m amazed if you read this whole thing, as I’m sure reading about my trip wasn’t nearly as fun for you as it was for me to write about. Here’s what I want to know: have you traveled with your friends and if so, where did you go? Do you have something planned, and if not, do you want to plan something?