This is the first of two posts on our road trip to North Carolina and Tennessee in late spring 2022.
If you just want to see the pictures from this part of our trip go here.
Earlier in 2022 we had a letter from the insurance company for our villa in Florida saying that they would only renew our policy in September if we had a new roof. This was not entirely news to us as we had seen on Facebook that many home owners nearby were also getting a new roof.
Many houses in the USA like ours have synthetic tiles on their roofs. The house walls would not be strong enough to support stone tiles or slate as we have in the UK.
Our rentals have been booked solid for most of this year but there was a 4-night gap in May and a 3-night one two weeks later in June. We wanted to be there for the new roof and realised that we could take road trip during these two weeks. We’ve had our Subaru Forester in Florida since June 2005. It’s been to Alaska, Mexico, Newfoundland and California and it’s still going strong.
Our trusty Subaru – 80,000 miles since 2005
We arrived on a Thursday evening towards the end of May. Martin had arranged for representatives from two roofing companies to come the day after and we signed up one on the Saturday after choosing the colour for the roof. We made sure that they knew of our timetable and they said that they could start the work on the Monday two weeks later after the 10am checkout time for the guests.
US National Parks Service
The National Parks Service is one of the wonderful things in the USA. Do take a look at their website to see the range of places and how well they (and their visitors) are cared for and how much information they provide. We have visited many of the parks in the past. You always get a good map at the entrance showing hiking trails and things to look out for. The larger parks have a visitor center where there’s a video and a museum and where park rangers are on hand to answer more questions.
For the princely sum of $80 an America the Beautiful pass allows a carload of up to four people to visit any of the parks for 12 months – a vehicle is needed to drive round most of them. This is a real bargain as the larger sites such as the Grand Canyon charge $35 for up to seven consecutive days. If you do go to the Grand Canyon it’s worth knowing that there are several other large parks in Arizona and Utah which you can take in on a loop from Phoenix or Salt Lake City.
Congaree National Park and Columbia
With an overnight stop at the Holiday Inn Express in Orangeburg it took us 1.5 days to drive the 450 miles from our house to Congaree National Park in South Carolina. Congaree is one of the newer parks. To quote its website: “Astonishing biodiversity exists in Congaree National Park, the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States.” In simple terms it’s a huge and diverse ancient forest in swampy land. One of the trees is called a loblolly pine. The word loblolly was originally used for a kind of porridge or stew and came to mean a swamp.
Reflections in Congaree National Park
We did the entire 2.6 mile boardwalk which allows you to see the variety in the vegetation.
On the boardwalk at Congaree National Park
We just saw one small alligator on a lake in the distance.
Not long after we set off from home we realised that the only entertainment we had in the car was the radio where reception is variable and where the choice of programmes in the Deep South is not great unless you want to listen to religious programmes and music. Our American car is so old that it just has a CD player as well as the radio. A quick search on google turned up Scratch N Spin in Columbia the state capital of South Carolina. Our satnav took us to this huge store of second-hand CDs where we made some purchases. We could have been in there hours but we needed to move on.
There was just time for a quick drive round Columbia. I went there several times when I lived in the USA. I was a co-investigator on the Model Editions Project which was exploring ways of creating electronic documentary editions. The Principal Investigator was based at the University of South Carolina and hosted meetings there. Columbia has a long and varied history. The Confederate Flag was finally removed from the State House in 2015.
Blue Ridge Mountains
We stayed four nights at Silverstone Loft an airbnb studio a few miles west of Boone in North Carolina and close to Tennessee. Our room was a well-equipped large studio with attached bathroom. We had stocked up in Walmart before we got there and previous guests had left plenty of condiments etc in the kitchen.
The Loft is out in the country below the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is a 470-mile road which runs along the crest of the Appalachians from Rock Fish Virginia to Cherokee North Carolina. Parts of it are at an altitude of over 3000 ft and it connects with the 105-mile Skyline Drive in Virginia to make a superb drive (on a nice day) with stunning views. All along there are lay-bys, picnic areas and signposts for hiking trails.
Blue Ridge Parkway
We had been to much of it before but it was good to have a proper base and could choose our activities depending on the weather which, sadly, was not as kind to us as we would have liked. We drove up to the Parkway on our first morning at the Loft but it was shrouded in fog and so we retreated back to the Loft to read. The Parkway a twisty road and, by American standards, not all that wide.
It was foggy at the top again on the next day so again we retreated and this time went to Mountain City which is the first town in Tennessee. This is very typical small town America except that some of the buildings have beautifully painted murals on the outside. The detail in this one celebrating Clarence “Tom” Ashley was amazing. We were definitely at the start of country and folk music land.
Mural in Mountain City
This town has a lovely white church but it was not easy to get a good photo of it because of the overhead electric cables which blight many small and poorer towns in the USA.
I think it was on that day that we had a visit from a friend of the owner of the Loft who was away. When we said we lived in Yorkshire she immediately started talking about All Creatures Great and Small which is very popular among PBS viewers in the US. When we said we had seen it being filmed near us she rushed off to tell all her friends.
We had more luck on our third day there. Using the excellent map of the Parkway which shows all the stopping places and points of interest identified by the nearest milepost we drove some way to Linville Falls which is actually several waterfalls. There was plenty of water in the Falls.
We did the hike to the farthest one. Back at the visitor centre I felt good when an American lady whom we had briefly met on the way told me that I had inspired her to go to the end of the trail.
On the way back to the loft we stopped at Moses Cone Manor which is a privately owned house and estate on the Parkway and is open to the public. The Manor houses a craft shop with some rather expensive crafts made by local artists. There are plenty of hiking trails starting from here but it was raining again by then. The rain had stopped when we got further north. We tried another hike but the trail was overgrown, but we did manage some photos of the Blue Ridge Mountains and of Grandfather Mountain which is at almost 6000 ft.
Blue Ridge Mountains
Google identified a Greek restaurant in Boone for our last night at the Loft. We reluctantly got ready to leave there the next morning for further north where we would have hopes of better weather.
North towards Kentucky
We dipped briefly into Virginia to visit Natural Tunnel State Park. This tunnel is 850 ft long and has been carved naturally out of limestone. The main point of interest is that a railroad was built through it in the 1890s. It is still used occasionally for freight trains.
Natural Tunnel Railroad
There’s a chairlift down to the tunnel. We were almost the only people walking down on a good trail. It took less than 10 minutes and no more than 15 minutes to walk up again. You can walk around just a little at the bottom, but it’s really only an unusual photo-op.
The State Park has some pleasant areas around the top of the chairlift including a large grassy area surrounding a kind of wooden blockhouse which was closed when we were there.
Hometowns in Tennessee
Martin grew up in Bristol. On our way to the Natural Tunnel we drove through Bristol which is part in Tennessee and part in Virginia. It advertises itself as “A Good Place to Live” on a large illuminated sign which straddles the main street.
Bristol a Good Place to Live
There’s a historical sign claiming that it was settled in 1765. There are at least 25 places called Bristol in the US and three in Canada. The one in Florida is up on the panhandle west of Tallahassee. It had a population of 918 in 2020.
Not to be outdone I wanted to drive on to Harrogate, Tennessee. This town is very close to Cumberland Gap where Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky meet. According to wikipedia there are only two towns called Harrogate outside the UK: this one which had a population of 4400 in 2020 and one in South Australia not far from Adelaide – we might have gone there if there hadn’t been such a bad storm when we were in Adelaide in 2016. Harrogate Tennessee has a rather ugly post office building but the town is enhanced by the beautifully laid out campus of Lincoln Memorial University.
Cumberland River and Falls
After a brief look at Cumberland Gap we drove up the fast and empty Interstate 75 to Corbin Kentucky where we had booked a room for two nights at the Holiday Inn Express. Like many motel areas in the US this was at the edge of a town just off an interstate exit and surrounded by fast food outlets. A little walk took us to a better restaurant for dinner. Everybody else seemed to be driving the very short distance for food.
We also seemed to be the only foreigners in the hotel. As it does everywhere else the Holiday Inn Express provides breakfast in the US but at Corbin breakfast was mostly very sweet buns. Many of the other guests looked like they had eaten a lot of them. The US has the highest rate of diabetes in the developed world.
The next day was Memorial Day which is a major public holiday in the US. We chose to visit Cumberland Falls which is a big tourist attraction on the Cumberland River and of course found it very crowded. Because of all the recent rain the Falls were quite spectacular.
You can walk down to a good viewpoint and further along on to a beach which was scattered with debris.
A heron was living dangerously rather near the Falls.
Heron by Cumberland Falls
There are other trails near the Falls and Martin took the one to Eagle Falls on the other side of the river for an hour or so.
In search of some peace and quiet we drove south to Big South Fork and Bandy Creek back in Tennessee. There was a friendly visitor centre and a nice shady picnic area. By then it was a bit late to do a long hike – in any case we were in bear country – but there’s a short walk to a spectacular viewpoint over the Big South Fork Cumberland River.
Big South Fork Cumberland River
It’s areas like this which make us like the USA so much. These trees must be spectacular in autumn. We hadn’t really left enough time for this area but earmarked it as somewhere to go back to. The drive to it went through some attractive parts of rural Kentucky and Tennessee.
Google found us a better place for dinner back in Corbin which turned out to be a bigger town than we expected.
Then it was time to move to the big city in Tennessee – Going South to Florida: Cities and a Cave
Picture gallery: Going North from Florida: Trees, Mountains and Rivers
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