Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Fall 2013

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the first national park we have visited. This was a 3 day trip during the Labour day weekend. We rented a cabin in Gatlinburg, TN for three nights. The drive from Ann Arbor takes about 9 hours, so it is a long road trip. We left Ann Arbor on Friday, Aug 30th, and drove to Gatlinburg and got settled in our cabin and relaxed for the night.

Day-1:

Saturday morning, we packed our bags and left early to Trillium Gap trail head to hike Grotto Falls. It is an easy to moderate hike with over 500ft gain in elevation and takes a couple of hours. Along the trail, we saw some recent bear activity (that doesn't make a pretty picture!). At the end of the trail is a beautiful falls. The best part about the falls is that you can walk behind it. The water collects in a small pool at the foot of the falls and you see lots of tiny salamanders in and around the water.
At Grotto Falls
As soon as we got back to our car, we had lunch and headed straight to a place called Newfound Gap. This is at the Tennessee - North Carolina state line. From here, hiking eastbound on the Appalachian Trail leads to Charlies Bunion and westbound hike leads to Clingmans Dome. We had planned to hike Charlies Bunion. It is a 4 mile hike one way and there is about 1600 ft gain in elevation. It is a strenuous hike and the round trip takes about 6-7 hrs. So, if you are planning this, be sure to start the hike early or at most by noon. We started the hike few mins past noon. We had packed adequate water, some trail mix bars (bear proofed) and dressed light and were traveling light. We hiked at a steady pace, stopping once an hour or so to relax.
Along the Appalachian Trail - Hike to Charlies Bunion
For the most part, the hike is through the woods. You will see plenty of wild flowers, butterflies, birds, squirrels and lots of bear activity. At several points along the trail, you will see a hill on one side and valley on the other, or valleys on both sides, making for a gorgeous hike. But, this is a long hike so you have to be patient if you want to get to the end.
Along the Appalachian Trail - Hike to Charlies Bunion
At the end is a summit. Standing on the rock ledge provides excellent 360 degree vistas. Clouds all around you, some above and some below, the beauty of the scene and the exhilarating feeling cannot be described by words or pictures.
Charlies Bunion, Appalachian Trail
Charlies Bunion, Appalachian Trail - View from the summit
We spent some time sitting at the summit, soaking in the sights. It took away all the fatigue from our 4 mile hike. Unfortunately we couldn't spend all day there. We had a long, strenuous hike back and so we left. By the time we got back it was getting dark. We drove to our cabin and crashed for the night.

Day-2:

We were quite exhausted from our hike to Chalies Bunion, so we wanted to start this day off with something easy. So, we decided to go to Laurel Falls. This is one of the most popular falls in the Smokies and has an accessible trail. Perhaps that is why it was very crowded when we went there. The water was flowing gently and lot of people were playing in the water and climbing the near by rocks. The waterfall was quite serene and barring the theatrics of the people there, it made for a good experience.
At Laurel Falls
Our next destination was Cades Cove. On our way through the scenic route, there were plenty of pull over spots and we stopped at few of them to relax and play in water and also had lunch at one such spot. Few minutes later, there were heavy rains; almost to a point that traffic ground to a halt. By the time we reached Cades Cove, it was late afternoon.

As you drive through the Cades Cove, you can pull over into the numerous scenic spots and enjoy the view. Historic buildings, wildlife and breathtaking vistas made this an unforgettable experience for us.
John Oliver Place, Cades Cove (They had an amazing view from their backyard)
Wild Horses grazing by the side of the road, Cades Cove
You can spot plenty of deers but, from what I have heard, it is very rare to spot Black Bears. We were very fortunate to spot two black bears when we were in Cades Cove. They were just by the side of the road, eating berries on a tree. We spotted one of them couple of miles in and the other, a baby bear, as we were getting out.
Black Bear #1, Cades Cove
Black Bear #1, Cades Cove
Deer herd grazing in the fields, Thunderhead mountain in the back, at Cades Cove
Black bear #2, Cades Cove
Dusk at Cades Cove
Dusk at Cades Cove
The sunset ambience at Cades Cove was spectacular. The hues around the mountains, clouds and fields was breathtaking. We felt like staying there for the night. Unfortunately, this was not be. By the time we got out of the Cades Cove, the sun had already set. So we got back to Gatlinburg and went around the downtown to have dinner. Gatlinburg downtown exists in almost complete contradiction to its surroundings and it doesn't feel like you are in the Smokies. We got back and turned in for the night.

Day-3:

The last day of the long weekend was here and it was a long way back to Ann Arbor. So, we had to pick a place and that was it. We chose to go to Clingmans dome. Clingmans dome is the highest point in the Appalachian Trail and it is accessible by car. A ravine on one side and a steep hill on the other makes for a terrifying and at the same time an exhilarating drive. Fortunately for us, the weather was perfect that day. The views from the top was unbelievable. We could see mountains and clouds all around us but, we were at an elevation far above all that. We were literally on top of the clouds. This was an amazing experience.
V at Clingmans Dome
I guess Bears and Bees go together (at Clingmans Dome)
We spent close to an hour at Clingmans dome. Our trip had to come to an end. We felt that two and a half days was not nearly enough time to enjoy the Smokies. We made up our mind to definitely visit this place again and with that feeling, we drove back to Ann Arbor. Even though the time we spent was little, the experiences we had and the memories we made would be with us forever.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Holland, MI - Summer 2013

Holland, MI is about 2.5 hrs away form Ann Arbor. It is a popular tourist destination in May because of the Tulip Festival. The weather was good and we wanted to go to some beach and so, we picked Holland. We started late from Ann Arbor and reached Holland by late afternoon. Our first stop was Windmill Island.
Last working authentic Dutch windmill in the US
The windmill is over 250 years old and is the only authentic working Dutch windmill in the United States. We reached in time for a demonstration. It was interesting to learn the history and see the workings of the windmill. We were also able to see the surrounding scenery from the 4th floor and the island looked quite beautiful even in summer.
V amongst flowers in Windmill Island
Our next stop was the Dutch village. By that time unfortunately, it was closed. It closes by 5 PM on regular days. So, we went to the Holland harbor to relax on the beach. There is a beautiful lighthouse at this beach know as the Big Red. We played for a while on the beach. The water was very cold even though this was August.
The Big Red lighthouse, Holland harbor, MI
We wanted to catch the sunset. But, it got a bit cloudy and the sun rays peeking between the clouds made for some interesting photography.
Suset over Lake Michigan, Holland Harbor, MI
Suset over Lake Michigan, Holland Harbor, MI
This was a very short trip, not even a full day. We both felt that Holland is a beautiful town and that it definitely deserves a second visit. We left from the beach around sunset, determined to visit again during the Tulip Time Festival 2014.