The Appalachian Fall Tour is an epic 1,000-mile road trip from Syracuse, New York to Chattanooga, Tennessee. Although I chose October-November for the trip, it isn’t just about the fall foliage; it is also about apple orchards, corn mazes, scenic destinations and highways, outdoor recreation, and anything else you do in the fall. You can read my original story about my adventure here.
On this page you will find daily updates of my trip including photos, links, and little blurbs about my day. Return each day at noon to learn about my previous day’s adventure! You can also follow along on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram with #appfalltour
Day #27 – Red Clay State Historic Park | Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park | Lookout Mountain, TN
Getting near the end now. I can’t believe after 27 days of traveling I am starting to see more and more advertising for attractions in Chattanooga, my final destination.
Started off my day with a nice short drive through the country south of Cleveland, Tennessee to Red Clay State Historic Park. This was the site of the beginning of the Trails of Tears when the Cherokee Nation was rounded up by the United States government and forced to march west to Oklahoma. The state park is pretty nice with a small visitor center and a large space outside for hiking and exploring. I visited the Blue Hole, a natural source of water that is more blue than most I’ve ever seen, and took a peak at the eternal flame. I’ll have a great story to tell about all this. Later.
The state park sits on the Tennessee-Georgia state line, so today I decided to add Georgia to my road trip. I mean why not? It was right there. I headed into Georgia, took some scenic back roads through tiny towns, saw a sign for Pratt’s Mill but it was closed this time of year.
Eventually I ended up in Fort Oglethorpe, a large city outside of Chattanooga (still in Georgia). I headed over to Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park. I’ve been here once before, back in 2015 during my first trip to Chatt. I took the motor route through the park, making frequent stops to shoot photos and videos at the various monuments, statues, and vistas. I drove through twice, each time looking for a different angle with the light. But it was getting late, and I knew where I wanted to spend sunset.
I headed up Lookout Mountain, Tennessee. This interesting mountain rises over a thousand feet above Chattanooga very quickly. The road up is windy and steep, making it interesting to drive. I arrived at Point Park, part of the national military park. And then my heart sank: “Gates Closed at Sunset”. Not dusk, not after sunset, but AT sunset. I walked inside the visitor center and asked the ranger how much time I would have to get out of the gate after sunset. “Five minutes.” It was a twenty minute walk to where I wanted to shoot the sunset.
But all was not lost. The ranger gave me directions to Sunset Rock, a place I had wanted to visit the last time I was here but couldn’t find it. This time I found it, took the last parking spot, grabbed all my gear, and made the hike down to the one of the most beautiful landscape views I have ever seen. I really need to create a post about my favorite scenic overlooks in the Southeast. This would come in at least #3. Maybe better.
After capturing my sunset it was time for my nightly routine. I had wanted to go straight to checking in at The Crashpad, but my trip of living untethered and on no calendar also meant I couldn’t make reservations ahead of time. They were booked. Oops. So I’m not all tucked in at the local Walmart. I have a storage container beside me, the street light is out on the other side, and I have a row of trees behind me. It’s gonna be a dark, quiet, cozy little night.
My trip is almost complete.
Day #26 – The Lost Sea | Tsali Notch Vineyard | Etowah, TN | Nancy Ward Grave Site
Today was quite a bit of a different day, but different in a great way. The smoke from the wild fires finally moved on with winds blowing all day. It was another warm day, peaking at around 70 degrees this afternoon.
I started my day off at The Lost Sea Adventure in Sweetwater. Holy wow this place was amazing. I almost didn’t go at first because they were short staffed in the off season and couldn’t let me take any photos. I’m all for exploring places, but I need great photos to be able to pitch story ideas to newspapers and magazines. Okay maybe I don’t need the great photos, but it certainly helps. I finally decided to go and joined a small tour group at 10AM. The tour inside the caves was amazing, and ended on a glass bottom boat moving across the largest underground lake in the country! It was an amazing experience, one I won’t forget, and one I hope to write about very soon.
After this thrilling experience I headed down the road just a little bit to the Tsali Notch Vineyard. They have a nice tasting room inside an old log home structure built from timbers salvaged in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. I enjoyed sampling all the wines and then bought a bottle as a Christmas gift, though I’m not sure who gets this one just yet. Jim was incredibly helpful while I visited, answering all my questions and giving me so much info. The views were just unbelievable from the vineyard and tasting room!
It was only a 45 mile drive to Cleveland, where I’m spending the night, so I took my time heading down the road. The “main road” through here is Highway 411. It’s a four lane divided highway, so traffic flowed smoothly and quickly. Almost as soon as I left Madisonville I crossed into McMinn County and started seeing advertising signs for Ruby Falls and Rock City. It was like the county line was also the boundary line for advertising Chattanooga attractions.
Along the way I came across the town of Etowa. This small town had a nice “downtown” area right on the main highway with old buildings and small shops. It was ironic that the largest building downtown was the old train depot that now served as home to the L&N Railroad Depot and Museum and provided office space to the Overhill Tennessee Historical Association. I toured the museum, checking out photos and artifacts from the history of the railroad town. I stopped by the historical association to find out about the local area, got a few tips, and just like that I was back on the road.
This time I made my final stop of the day at the Nancy Ward Grave Site. Nancy Ward was a very important woman in the Cherokee Nation, and has a wonderful story I’ll tell someday. But, just like Oconastota the day before, Nancy Ward is one of my ancestors (although through a different side of my family tree). Once again I called the grandmother to let her know where I was, and she regaled with me stories she has learned researching our family history.
With the sun getting low and still a few miles to drive, I got back on the road for Cleveland. I rolled into my Walmart parking lot right at sunset. It was a nice sunset, the nicest I’ve seen in a few days because of all the smoke, but I didn’t have any great places to capture a photo. That’s okay. I’d rather get started on this work early anyway.
I have no idea what I am doing tomorrow, and I don’t really care! Part of the fun of this road trip was finding stuff to do along the way. I’m sure I have missed so much, but it’s already taken me 26 days to get this far. I could never do it all at once! Tomorrow morning I hope to get a hair cut (cause I need one), get the van to a car wash (cause it needs one), and visit the local Planet Fitness for a shower (cause I really need one).
Day #25 – Sequoyah Birthplace Museum | Chota Memorial | Bald River Falls | Baby Falls
Well the smoke was even worse today, so it certainly changed and altered my plans. It’s also election day, and people were ugly right from the state, so I seriously contemplated hiding in a cave for awhile. But I’m doing that tomorrow instead.
Today I headed back toward Fort Loudoun State Historic Park, but didn’t make a stop. There was no need. The smoke was even worse so I knew the photos could not be better than what I had already captured. It’s okay: I wasn’t meant to do everything on this trip anyway.
Instead I skipped it and went on to Sequoyah Birthplace Museum. As it turns out, Seqouyah is another ancestor of mine. I’m pretty much just a whole bunch of Cherokee Indian. The museum was sorta neat, but kinda old and dated. I swear they were playing VHS tapes on those TV monitors, and I’m pretty sure one of the maps was drawn by hand and filled in with colored pencils. But the information was still good, and the stories were neat.
After leaving the museum I took a little drive to the Chota Memorial. Now this was one of the highlights of my day. Chota was the last capital of the Cherokee Nation. Today a memorial stands on the site of the final meeting house on a little peninsula in the Little Tennessee River. Beside the memorial is the grave of Oconastota, a very historic Cherokee chief. And also an ancestor of mine. So it was neat being able to see the historic site and memorial for both the travel and personal aspects.
At this point the smoke was still just as thick, so I decided to give up on doing the entire Cherohala Skyway. Instead I made a quick stop at the abandoned visitor center in Tellico Plains (a little was working there, but it took nearly ten minutes to get her attention and answer a few questions), and then I drove to Bald River Falls. This was a once magnificent waterfall, one of the best I’ve seen in the country, but today it was dried up and shriveled as a result of the drought. It was still rushing, but probably only 20% of what I saw last year.
But the second highlight of my day was just around the next bend in the road. A few months ago I was talking with a gentleman about the Cherohala Skyway and Bald River Falls. He asked, “Did you also see Baby Falls?” Apparently there was another waterfall just right around the bend in the road from Bald River Falls, but I didn’t drive that far. I had missed it, and I had been wanting to fix that ever since. Today I fixed that.
After leaving Bald River Falls I drove less than two minutes around the next bend in the road to find the Baby Falls Day Use Area, and a beautiful little waterfall right beside the road. I was so happy, and even happier when I realized there was a great vantage point for a photo.
With some great photos of the day and the smoke finally starting to clear I headed back to Madisonville to spend my second night at the Walmart. This is only the second time on this trip I’ve spent two nights in Walmart parking lots in the same town. Otherwise I’ve kept moving pretty good. But I wanted to slow down a bit and see if maybe this smoke could go away. As of right now…I can still see a haze in the lights of the street lamps in the parking lot. So I don’t know about tomorrow.
Then again, tomorrow it doesn’t really matter. I’m doing something neat. Underground. Where the smoke doesn’t matter.
Day #24 – Townsend, TN | Foothills Parkway | Fort Loudoun State Historic Park
It felt good to be back on the road again, inching closer to Chattanooga and my final resting place for this epic road trip!
I spent the night in Maryville. I had hoped to find something to do here in the morning, but instead found absolutely nothing online. I did Google searches for “visit maryville” and “things to do in maryville”, but all I kept getting was the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or Townsend. In fact, the Townsend tourism page even says it covers Townsend, Maryville, and Alcoa.
So I left Maryville early and head back to Townsend. Which was fine, but it was not what I had planned. I made a quick stop at the national park visitor center, chatted with the local guides, and went back out into the small town. Townsend bills itself as the quiet side of the Smokies, and they are absolutely right. I found wide, quiet streets, a few hotels and lodges, and a few places to shop and eat. I stopped at the Apple Valley Country Store, sampled some fresh fudge, and browsed through their local arts and crafts. I drove around the Dancing Bear Lodge, a collection of about 20 cabins on a hillside. It’s a nice town, and I want to more fully explore this some day as an alternate place to stay while exploring the national park, particularly Cades Cove.
After leaving Townsend I hopped on the Foothills Parkway. Some construction crews were working on the northern portion today. Finally, after years of sitting idle, the section from Townsend to Walland is almost ready to open.
But the drive along the Parkway was lackluster today. Over 90 wildfires are currently burning around the region, shrouding the beautiful mountain landscapes with a thick haze. I couldn’t get any decent photos, and even the fall colors were muted in the drab white haze. The Parkway is only 17 miles long at this point, so I just finished it quickly and moved on.
I found myself taking some scenic side roads on my way to Fort Loudoun State Historic Site. Let me just tell you: this is the most magnificent recreation of a fort I’ve seen yet in America. And it has a wonderful story behind it, a story I will be sure to tell later, along with my personal connection to the history of this fort. I explored the small museum inside, chatted with the rangers for awhile, and then took a walk through the fort. I’ll return here tomorrow hoping for clearer air to capture better photos.
This was it for my day, mostly because of the smoke. Northeast Tennessee is under an air quality alert. I found myself choking and coughing a few times today, and my eyes burn just a little. I’m comfortably safe at the Walmart in Madisonville tonight, with a Murphy gas station just behind me so I have a closer and more private bathroom tonight! I think I might actually shave tomorrow morning. I haven’t done that in awhile, although I did take a shower at the Planet Fitness in Maryville this morning.
I’ve got a long day ahead tomorrow. I’m looking at driving about 125 miles and spending four hours on the road but, ironically, I think I’ll find myself right back here again. Man I do love this untethered Van Life.
Day #23 – Cades Cove at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Today was an amazing end to my time at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. You know, I’ve been working on something for awhile now. Months, actually. Back in May of this year I unloaded a wallop of money and bought a bunch of GoPros and Sony videos cameras, along with two of every accessory, so I could begin recording video of my adventures. But I discovered recording the video was easy; editing them into coherent 10-minute episodes to air on YouTube each Friday was something else altogether. But I’m working on it, and back in August I spent a week at this national park for my first travel episode. I am hoping to have these set to roll out after the New Year.
Last night was amazing in the campground, and I was sad to leave this morning. I had made some friends with my neighbors and exchanged contact info. The time changed, so naturally I woke up an hour before sunrise this morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. But I didn’t want to wake the tent campers with my somewhat noisy van, so I waited until just after sunrise to leave.
But after making breakfast and coffee, saying goodbye to my new friends, and making the half hour drive into Cades Cove, it was already 10AM. I only had 7 hours of sunlight remaining. It’s tough this time of year, and I absolutely hate the early sunset.
I wasn’t alone. I really wasn’t alone. It was a Sunday so I was caught in a line of a dozen cars, moving, stopping, and swerving from time to time. It took forever to get anywhere, so I made sure to stop at every spot to check to see if there was anything to shoot.
There wasn’t. The color was completely gone from the Cove. 95% of all the leaves were on the ground. And a thick smoky haze covered the mountains and drowned out any color remaining high above the valley. It was really a horrible day to try to photography anything. So instead I just focused on video and enjoying myself. It was nice to have a mostly relaxing day.
I visited the Cable Mill area, took a short hike, and learned how sorghum is made (got to watch the entire process thanks to Mark Guenther, who does this 7-8 times a year at the mill). I took several short hikes around some of the historic log homes and scenic trails, things I had not done when I spent a week in the national park this past summer.
I didn’t see much wildlife, but I saw the remnants of an encounter. Traffic backed up for miles along the one-lane road and rangers left behind to safeguard the wildlife, only to learn it had passed minutes earlier. I never saw any bear or wild turkeys, and only a handful of deer.
Still, it was peaceful, quiet, and relaxing today. I enjoyed it. With just an hour before sunset I decided to leave so I could reach my next destination before dark: Maryville, Tennessee. I’ve never been here, so I have no idea what to expect tomorrow when I leave my Walmart hotel parking lot and explore this town.
I’m getting near the end of my trip now! Chattanooga is only about 70 miles away. I could be there in an hour…if I wanted. But not just yet. I’m not done yet.
Day #22 – Gatlinburg, TN | Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
I have to admit some days just don’t work, but today was amazing! From frigid beginning to frigid ending, this was just the kind of day I was hoping for on this epic road trip across the Appalachian Mountains in the fall.
It was cold this morning. Not miserably cold, but just about. I didn’t want to come out from under the fleece blanket and heavy down comforter that had kept me warm all night. The sky was getting bright; sunset was approaching. So just like a bandaid, I ripped off the covers. And immediately threw on my jacket. Fortunately, I didn’t have to make breakfast because I had a plan. A good plan.
My initial plan was to enjoy the sunrise from the Gatlinburg Bypass high above the city. There are a couple of scenic overlooks with a great view of Gatlinburg and Mount LeConte looming behind. The lower overlook turned out to be the better view, with the Space Needle rising above. I captured a good sunset photo, there set out for the next phase of my plan.
A few days ago I got a good tip about a certain location along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail where I might be able to see some bear. I did the motor trail twice yesterday without any luck, so I thought I would give it a try again this morning. Still nothing. Just lots of wild turkeys. I mean seriously a lot of wild turkeys. If they had any idea what holiday was coming up they’d probably stay hidden in the forest.
So with only a few photos of turkeys I headed back toward Parkway in Gatlinburg and my destination for breakfast: the Pancake Pantry. This locally-owned restaurant was the first pancake house in Tennessee, and has a really wonderful story behind it. It has become such an iconic breakfast destination that the line often wraps around the building, just like it did this morning. But that was no problem! I hopped in at the back of the line, chatted with some people from Atlanta and Nashville, and had a great time waiting nearly 40 minutes to get a table. That might sound like a long time, but it’s so worth it! I finally got a table, had coffee three minutes later, and my Caribbean Pancakes just six minutes after that. Now that’s good service.
I did some shopping next door, finding some German beer for my dad and a silly t-shirt for my brother. More Christmas gifts. I explored some more shops down Parkway and came across a local winery based in Gatlinburg. Of course, it was the words “Free Tasting” that really caught my eye. I slid inside, met a really nice lady, and sampled four of their wines. Ten minutes later I walked out with a great story about the local business, and two bottles of wine.
I decided to go back to the Roaring Fork just one more time to give the bears another chance to appear before me. I wasn’t optimistic, but that was okay because I’m going to Cades Cove tomorrow. Sure enough, right where my source said I would spot some bears, I found a bear. He was clawing through the leaves right beside the road looking for acorns. I quickly parked the van, grabbed my big lens, and walked back toward the bear.
Now, I was for sure to keep a good 300′ distance between me and the bear. This is why I bought a 300mm lens with a 1.4x teleconverter (it means I can comfortably shoot good photos from a good distance). But the traffic was starting to back up on the two lane road. People were poking out the sunroof of their car or leaning out the windows. For the most part the bear ignored the people and just kept eating acorns. But at some point a park ranger in a neon vest appeared, shouting for everyone to get back in their cars and keep moving. I didn’t know people were not allowed out of their cars to view the wildlife, especially when I was certain to park clearly off the road and not block traffic. I was still 300′ away when the ranger suddenly blew a loud air horn. It startled the bear, and for one long moment he started charging directly toward me. The moment didn’t last long, however, and he quickly turned around and hugged the nearest tree, ready to climb if necessary.
I don’t know why the ranger blew that air horn. At the time he was a good 20′ from the roadway and in no danger. But when she startled the bear he panicked. Panicked wildlife is dangerous wildlife. Before I leave the national park I want to know if that is standard procedure, and if there is some rule prohibiting people from parking their cars and getting out to view the wildlife. Because if there, man do people ever break that rule. There are only a few thousand professional images online to prove that.
After the excitement of finally seeing a bear I decided to do that motor trail one last time. I skipped most of the beautiful scenery I had photographed yesterday, instead favoring the cascading water along the creek. I made a few stops at different places to capture some photos of leaf-covered river rock with water flowing around. Eventually, with the sun getting low, I headed for my campsite.
And that is where tragedy struck. I’ve had a bit of a problem with theft during this trip. I lost my GoPro in Pennsylvania, and now I lost more at the Elkmont Campground. I didn’t want to completely clear out my campsite this morning and leave people with the impression I had abandoned my stay (I had already paid for two nights in advance). So I left my firewood and a really nice folding camping chair behind. Neither were there when I got back to my campsite. Once again, I’d been struck my a smooth criminal. Although I guess they didn’t have to be so smooth since I’d been gone since 7AM, and it was now just past 6PM.
So with a $6 bundle of firewood and a $50 camping chair stolen, all I could do was get ready for my nightly routine. My fingers are starting to freeze, but I have the perfect solution to that: a campfire! I bought some more wood from a very sympathetic gentleman (who only charged me full price for the replacement bundle of wood). I’m about to close up this laptop, light my fire, make some hot apple cider, and enjoy my second night camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I betcha wish you were here.
Day #21 – Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Today was an easy, laid back day that sharply contrasted the last couple of weeks. It was a welcome break from the 100+ miles per day I had been driving since Roanoke, Virginia.
I started off the day with a great idea. I mean a really great idea. I woke up at the Walmart in Sevierville from a pretty good night. It was mostly dark and quiet all night. But I had grown a little weary of sleeping in Walmart parking lots. And I was right here at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
So my first stop of the day was the Sugarland Visitors Center near Gatlinburg. The lady inside was kind enough to call some of the campgrounds to find out about vacancies. After October 31 you are no longer allowed to make reservations for the biggest campgrounds in the park; instead it reverts to a first-come, first-served basis. It just so happened that the Elkmont Campground had several vacancies, and so I snagged one for two nights. It’s all mine. Mine, mine, mine.
After taking care of the campsite, I headed over to my favorite section of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park: the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. My goal was to capture some photos of bears from a tip I had received a few days ago. But the only wildlife I saw all day was wild turkey. And a lot of them.
I drove through the motor trail the first time focusing on fall colors. The first half of the trail is peaking right now and is absolutely gorgeous when the sunlight shines through the colorful leaves. I captured some photos at various points, moving along slowly.
After finishing the motor trail I made a quick stop at Five Guys in Gatlinburg (man those burgers are so unhealthy but so good) and got back on the motor trail again. This time I paid more attention to the cascading waters along the creek on the second half of the trail.
After capturing lots of photos along the motor trail it was time for my campground. It was getting late, and I didn’t want to cook my dinner in the dark. I arrived to find my site was safe and secure, bought some firewood, and set up my little camp. As I write this there is a crackling fire nearby keeping my hands warm, my breath is apparent in the chilly air, and I’ve got some hot apple cider ready to go beside me. It’s been a good day, and this will be a great night.
Day #20 – Blue Ridge Parkway from Sylva to Cherokee | Cherokee, NC | Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Well today my 7 day journey along the Blue Ridge Parkway came to an end. It has been absolutely amazing, I have some beautiful landscapes, hiked some great trails, and discovered so much along the way.
I started my day off by hopping on the Parkway from Sylva and heading toward Cherokee once again. I stopped here last night because I spent my sunset at Cowee Mountain Overlook, and didn’t want to finish the Parkway in the dark.
It didn’t take long to get to Waterrock Knob, one of my favorite places on the entire Parkway. Contrary to what a park ranger had told me a few days ago at Moses Cone Memorial Park, Waterrock Knob was not gated and locked off. There was no gate, so I guess visitors can enjoy the stunning views up there all year, weather permitting. Even the visitor center was still open! I hiked the short, but very steep, trail up to the scenic overlook (almost completely overgrown with hardly any view) and then returned to the van.
My goal to drive every mile of the Parkway end to end over the course of the week came to an abrupt end at Highway 19. A forest fire had broken out the day before, and the National Park Service was forced to close the last 12 miles leading into Cherokee. With sadness I got off the Parkway and headed into Cherokee, determined to return again some day and finish my goal. Maybe when the Spring flowers bloom? Or a summer road trip?
I didn’t spend much time in Cherokee, but only because the days are so short this time of year. Cherokee is host to Harrah’s Cherokee Hotel and Casino. I’ve been there a couple of times, but really I don’t find it all that impressive. I would much rather explore the town, visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and go to the national park. But today I sped on through the town to get to a waterfall.
Mingo Falls is listed as part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, although it is not inside park boundaries. Instead it is part of the Cherokee Indian Reservation. The walk getting there is kinda tough because you start with a long series of steps that are oddly spaced so each step is usually two steps with your feet. But it’s a short hike to get there, and the view is just amazing.
After this I entered the national park, and immediately found a field of wild turkeys. They were even gobbling loudly as they ate! It was so much fun listening to them. That is probably the one animal sound people make out loud that actually gets the animal right! I chased them down for awhile for some photos, looking for the elk, and then finally decided to drive on through the park.
I came to my favorite overlook in the national park right at sunset: Morton Overlook. It is an overlook on the Tennessee side of Newfound Gap, with a wide view of the valley leading into Gatlinburg. I set up my gear to capture a stunning sunset, and finally made my way into Gatlinburg.
I’m staying at a Walmart in Sevierville for the night. It’s not the best location because it is about a good 40 minutes out of my way, with traffic. But it’s the closest Walmart to the national park. Hotels are pricey this time of year, and only three campgrounds remain open. I’m considering finding a camp site in the park tomorrow night, though. Now THAT would be fun!
Day #19 – Blue Ridge Parkway from Asheville to Sylva
While yesterday was a disappointing day, today was exciting and fulfilling. From beginning to end it was an amazing day!
It started off with some socializing at the Sweet Peas Hostel before hitting the road. I made some new friends, exchanged our information so we could keep in touch, and helped Pascale craft an itinerary from Asheville to Knoxville (by taking the scenic route through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park). I just heard from Pascale a few minutes ago; she had an amazing day, loved the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, and wish she’d discovered my website before her trip.
Once I finally stopped talking and hit the road I got back on the Parkway and headed south yet again. I’m so close now to finishing the entire Parkway for the first time ever!! But I didn’t make it very far before I found my first, second, and third stops
The first stop was at The North Carolina Arboretum. I had to spend $12 to get in, and I only had an hour to spend, but it was worth it. They have a pretty nice gift shop and I bought another Christmas gift (man I hope this person is still talking to me by Christmas haha). Then I grabbed my gear and walked through some of the gardens. There were still lots of blooming flowers, butterflies, and bees everywhere. My favorite spot was the Bonzai Garden where I spent most of my time.
When I got back to the Parkway I stopped briefly at the French Broad River Overlook and walked across the long curving bridge. It was a nice view, but not photogenic today. I headed on up the Parkway just a little bit more to this area I have known about for awhile: a patch of dirt on the side of the Parkway marks a spot to park, where you can see the towering Biltmore Estate rising above the trees in the distance.
After spending almost two hours to drive five miles I decided it was time to put some serious miles on the tires. I drove on, making short stops at several overlooks, eventually arriving at the Mount Pisgah area. Of course the lodge, restrooms, and gift shop are closed by now (remember my disappointment from yesterday?). But that’s okay because I was here for the short hiking trail out to a beautiful overlook where Vanderbilt once had a hunting lodge.
I made brief photography stops at overlooks like Devil’s Courthouse and Looking Glass Rock. I thought about hiking down to some waterfalls at Graveyard Fields, but decided to keep traveling instead.
I made it as far as Richland Balsam, the highest point on the entire Parkway. About five days ago I stood at James River, the lowest point on the Parkway. But I have to admit the view from this point isn’t as good as it could be; it’s a bit overgrown, and you don’t get a good panorama view. So I drove just half mile back north to the Cowee Mountain Overlook for an unbelievable view.
I spent the rest of my evening right here watching the clouds move and the sun set behind the mountains in fiery glory. It was amazing and I had a fantastic time chatting with some other people who joined me. Have I ever mentioned the passenger seat in my van is waiting for someone to join me?
I didn’t make it all the way into Cherokee like I’d hoped. Instead I got off the Parkway onto Highway 74/23 and drove into Sylva for the night. Spending the night here, and then tomorrow morning I’ll finish the Parkway. And then…oh tomorrow is gonna be a good day!
Day #18 – Blue Ridge Parkway from Boone to Asheville
Today could not have been a more disappointing day. Seriously. I was saddened continuously throughout the day, but at least there is a bright spot at the end.
It all started with last night. Oh man. Last night. I always knew the Van Life of sleeping on an air mattress in the back of my van in a Walmart parking lot would lead to a horrible night. Last night was it.
First of all it was Halloween, and I was sleeping in a college town. I should have avoided that. A redneck convention was in full swing in the parking lot as a group of guys in camouflage jackets showed off their big trucks, revving the engines and peeling rubber until 2AM. Just as I had finally fallen asleep the street sweeper came through with flashing lights and horrible noise at 4AM. And finally someone broke into the Food Lion next door and set off the loud, shrill alarm at 5AM.
That was it. I gave up on sleep after that. Tired and frustrated, I packed everything up and pulled out of the parking lot at 6AM in search of a Parkway sunrise.
Only to find myself surrounded by the densest fog ever. I could barely see the first row of trees at a scenic overlook. Every once in awhile the sun would peak out for just a brief moment, then vanish again. After waiting an hour, I decided it was time to give up on sunset and move on.
But that is when I discovered a profound disappointment. I will most certainly write more about this later, but for now I’ll just say this: winter comes to the Blue Ridge Parkway on November 1 every year. This is the magical date written in stone when everything shuts down. The visitor centers were abandoned. Restrooms were closed. Some parking areas off limits. I couldn’t even hike to the top of the highest mountain on the East Coast for a sunset view. It’s like this time of year about 40% of nature is closed for the season.
I found the Parkway Craft Center still open. It’s located inside Moses H. Cone Memorial Park, a beautiful area with lots of hiking trails and scenic views. The craft center had some pretty amazing arts and crafts, and I will certainly write about that more later.
The section of the Parkway from Blowing Rock to Asheville is actually my favorite section. A long string of amazing attractions kept me busy for an entire week earlier this year. Julian Price Park, the Linn Cove Viaduct, Grandfather Mountain, Linville Falls, Mount Mitchell State Park, and Craggy Gardens all provide amazing views, hikes, and excitement.
But I had to skip most of it today. I skipped over Linville Falls because I seriously needed to use the restroom, and they were already closed for the season. I skipped over Mount Mitchell because everything was already closed. It was a sad day.
I did got for a hike on the Tanawha Trail underneath and above the Linn Cove Viaduct. And then I made it to Craggy Gardens just in time for sunset, and I met some new friends.
After that it was time to move on it to Asheville to one of the best American hostels I have found yet. It was a little after 8PM when I checked in to the Sweet Peas Hostel right in the middle of downtown. The hostel is in an old three-story building with a brewery in the basement and the owner living on the top floor. How cool is that? The hostel is clean, spacious, and exciting. I’ve already made some new friends here, and we’re all about to go to Bojangles for some good Southern chicken.
Asheville is an amazing town. I have wanted to spend time here for so long now, but it’s difficult to know the best time to visit. September-October are the busiest months of the year for tourism, but they have so much to offer the rest of the year as well. I have a rule about visiting a place: I have to spend at least three full days. That is just long enough to get a feeling for a place. I need to come back here.
But now, if you will excuse me, I have an actual bed awaiting me tonight. The bed is in a neat little cubby called a “pod” with a privacy curtain and power outlets. Holy wow…I finally get to charge both my iPhone and iPad fully.
Day #17 – Blue Ridge Parkway from Galax, VA to Boone, NC
This morning started out great, and early. Before sunrise even. I was up and out of the Walmart parking lot, heading down Main Street through Galax during sunrise. It was a colorful sunrise, but by the time I drove onto the Blue Ridge Parkway a bank of clouds had rolled across the sky, blocking the sun for most of the day.
I began my day’s journey by driving across the state line, which was marked across the road with a thick white line. Goodbye, Virginia. Hello, North Carolina. I made my first stop of the day a few minutes later at the Cumberland Knob Recreation Area. There was an opening in the picnic area with a nice view of the sunrise. A sign pointed the way toward a 20-minute hike to Cumberland Knob. I thought I would give it a try. But I was disappointed to see there was no view from the knob, but instead just a large shelter with a fireplace.
As I headed south along the Parkway today I was amazed at the vibrant, beautiful fall colors everywhere I looked. This area of the Parkway was still at peak, and it was glorious! I stopped at several overlooks, one after another, spending most of my day capturing photos and video beside the van. The views were unbelievable all day.
But nothing will ever compare to the view from Wildcat Rock at Doughton Park. Standing along the stone wall above a high cliff, the view along the rolling mountains and valleys never ended. It was breathtaking, and I ended up spending an incredibly amount of time right here.
When I came back down to the parking lot I met Gene and Debbie, two fellow travelers who were out for a long weekend in their Volkswagen van with a Westfalia camper conversion. We chatted for a long while about travel and overcoming struggles, and they made me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich! This was one of my highlights of the day, and they have already sent me an email so I’m certain we’ll keep in touch.
When I finally got back on the road I came across the Northwest Trading Post. This was a neat gift shop with clothing, jewelry, pottery, glassware, gifts, and so much more. I found a few more Christmas gifts and noticed on my way out that October 31 was the last day they would be open this year! So glad I came today.
I made a detour in West Jefferson along my way, but ended up wishing I hadn’t. It’s Halloween, and the town was full of hundreds of kids dressed up, moving from storefront to storefront collecting candy. It was amazing how much effort the local business owners put into this event. And it was fun seeing all the costumes the kids and parents came up with this year! But ultimately I decided to get out of the town and come back another time.
I ended my day the same as I try everyday: with a sunset photo. I found an amazingly gorgeous landscape about an hour after leaving West Jefferson. I only had a narrow strip of sloped land to set up my camera gear, with only about 10′ from the edge of the road to the barbed wire fence. It was a little frightening when cars would go zipping past doing 45 miles per hour. Feels more like 145 when you’re sitting there in a chair just a few feet away. But I got my photo and, with a big smile on my face, headed into Boone for the night.
Of course Boone is a nut house tonight. As soon as I turned onto the main drag, a four lane highway with center turn lane, I saw a group of college students walking down the middle of the turn lane shouting at the traffic. It was Halloween night in a college town. This might have been a mistake. Right now I’m parking off to the side of the Walmart, but I have noticed several college students dressed in costumes park their cars beside me and walk across the street to an apartment complex. I’m guessing these drunks students will be coming back to their cars around 2AM, so I’ll be finding a different place to sleep eventually. I just hope I wake up in the morning without any damage to the van.
Day #16 – Blue Ridge Parkway from Roanoke to Galax
I had an amazing start to my day, and it was a day that just kept giving! I woke up earlier than usual, despite being up until almost midnight working on photos, travel stories, and social media. I was up, out, and on the road by 7:30AM, just before sunrise. It was a wonderful feeling, even though I think mornings are evil creations.
I hit the Blue Ridge Parkway at Roanoke and started heading south again. A wonderful guide at the Explore Park I met yesterday gave me some great tips about what to expect along the Parkway today.
My first stop was at a parking area just minutes down the Parkway. This was a great spot for me to go through my morning ritual: coffee, food, and brush my teeth. I was relieved to know all my digital work on the computer was done for the day, so as soon as the coffee was finished I was driving again.
I came across so many amazing overlooks today, and the fall colors were just beautiful. Places like Poages Mill and Roanoke Valley Overlooks provided great views, and the Lost Mountain Overlook had a cute bridge to photograph.
I met some cool people along the Parkway today. A couple with their dog traveling from Roanoke to Boone, North Carolina. An older retired couple who live just a few minutes from the Parkway and often take Sunday drives in the afternoons. I also met an abandoned dog, fed him some cheese, and sadly had to pull him out of my van when I was ready to leave (he just hopped right in and sat in the front seat).
But not everything involved the Parkway today. I took a detour to Floyd, Virginia. This small country town is perhaps best known for the Floyd General Store. This massive store has a deli, gift shop, clothing shop, books, bluegrass music on CD, and of course the musical stage. I found a large group of people playing all manner of instruments, surrounded by a gaggle of maybe fifty onlookers, with a little girl dancing in the middle of it all. I also made a stop at Chateau Morrisette, a vineyard and restaurant. I sampled some wine, bought a few gifts, and then moved on again.
One of the biggest highlights of the day was also the most disappointing: Mabry’s Mill. I had so hoped to be able to capture stunning fall colors around the most-photographed icon on the entire Parkway, but instead all I found were stark, bare trees. It was okay, though, because I still managed to capture a different angle and enjoyed the walk around the historic buildings.
My final big stop of the day was the most exciting, but since this was such an exciting moment I am going to write more about it later. All I will say for now is that I was looking for a scenic landscape for a sunset photo after leaving Groundhog Mountain, and I found it with just ten minutes to spare. I now call this unofficial grassy field on the side of the road Brittany’s Overlook.
I’m all tucked in at my Walmart in Galax now, all my photos done and social media tended. It has been a great day, but it was also exhausting. Now time for some sleep, and tomorrow morning I finally bid farewell to Virginia as I head into North Carolina.
Day #15 – Roanoke, Virginia
Today was one of those days of Van Life that I tremendously enjoy: spontaneous. It’s just one of the reasons I am enjoying this life of untethered travel.
It started out slow and frustrating, though. I slept well enough, got up early, and hit up the local Planet Fitness for a nice long shower. I then headed up to the Mill Mountain Overlook above Roanoke for that magical early morning light. I captured a few photos, then went back to the van to continue my computer work I couldn’t finish the night before.
You see, keeping stuff charged has been a challenge for me. My phone and tablet never reach 100%. I am constantly changing out GoPro batteries. But this morning it was all about the laptop. My MacBook Pro uses 85 watts of electricity, and I bought a 400 watt inverter to charge it with using the 12-volt plug in the van. However, I discovered today that even with the van’s engine running the 12V outlet doesn’t have enough power to charge my laptop. When it hit 0% battery while plugged in I knew I had a problem.
So I left Mill Mountain in search of a McDonald’s. But after ordering breakfast and plugging my laptop in I discovered none of the outlets actually worked (great job McD’s). So I went in search of a Starbucks. Should’ve just gone there first because not only did the outlets work, but their internet is profoundly faster and better.
By the time I charged my laptop fully, finished my computer work, and spent all that time finding the right place to begin with, it was already past noon. It was at this point I decided to give up the plan of driving down the Parkway to Galax and instead spend the day in Roanoke. Living untethered in a van has left me with an incredibly amount of freedom and flexibility, two things which are extremely valuable to me.
So with my spontaneous day in Roanoke I headed over to the visitor center to find out what I should do. I ended up exploring the O. Winston Link Museum. Ohmywow. Link was a freelance photographer who spent some of his 45-year career photographing the local railroad industry. His photos were gorgeous, sharp, and captivating. I had the most fun viewing his photography and learning about his history. It was absolutely inspiring.
Link was fascinated with capturing photos of trains, so the museum had partnered with the Virginia Museum of Transportation for a combination ticket. I headed over there next and explored this large museum. They had a section devoted to trains, planes, and automobiles. But the most fascinating part was the railyard behind the museum. One massive, real-life train after another sat on tracks beneath a massive cover. You could walk around them, see inside the control rooms, and take all the pretty pictures you’d like.
I finally left the downtown area and headed back up to the Parkway. I drove back to the Explore Park where I found a wedding happening. The groom and his crew all wore flannel shirts. It was one of those kinds of weddings haha. The sun was getting low so I started making my way back up the Parkway. I took the Roanoke Mountain loop for some fantastic views, and finally set up for the final showdown.
After capturing a pretty decent sunset photo I headed back down off the Parkway to find another Walmart for my van. I’m comfortably settled at the moment while downloading all my GoPro video footage from the day. I found a nice dark corner of a side lot tonight so maybe I’ll finally get a night’s rest without a bright light in my face! Just you wait. This is the night a cop will bang on my window at 3AM.
Day #14 – Blue Ridge Parkway from Afton to Roanoke
It was a cold and windy start to my first day on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I pulled up onto the Parkway and immediately found the Afton Overlook, where I pulled over to finish my breakfast. The wind was howling pretty good, probably knocking at least ten degrees off the temperature.
People were coming and going too quickly. I get it that you might have a destination in mind; so do I. But this one couple in a large camper van pulled over at a scenic overlook, left the engine running while they hopped out just long enough to capture a selfie with their phone, then left just as quickly. Where is the enjoyment? How can you possibly connect with nature in this manner?
I stopped at the Humpback Rocks Visitor Center, the first visitor center you find coming from the north in Afton. The views were amazing, and I found myself sitting on a bench for a good half hour just enjoying the scenery. I finally made my way inside, met with a couple of rangers who gave me tips and advice for the day, and bought a few more Christmas gifts.
The drive heading down the Parkway was just beautiful today. There were periods of stark, bare trees and then periods of beautiful fall color. The temps finally rose to the mid-60’s and the wind died down. I stopped at too many scenic overlooks, but I don’t regret it.
I took a scenic detour today to Crabtree Falls. Now, there is another waterfall by the same name on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville. This one, however, is not on the Parkway. It is in a national forest area 12 miles off the Parkway on Highway 56. It was a curvy, steep road getting there that left my brakes smelling and stomach churning. Crabtree Falls is actually more of a series of falls, ranging from three to five depending on who I asked. The total roundtrip hike is 3.4 miles, so I only did the first two falls before turning back. It was a beautiful, peaceful area with quite a few visitors of all ages (I met some teenage girls skipping school to take a hike, a family with two young kids, and two pairs of grandparents on the trail).
After returning to the Parkway I stopped at James River Visitor Center, the lowest point on the entire Blue Ridge Parkway. I took a hike on the Trail of Trees before moving on. I came to Otter Lake nearby and took a hike around half the loop trail.
Finally, I pulled into the Peaks of Otter Lodge and Restaraunt…and ran out of gas. I had half a tank of gas (8 gallons) when I left Waynesboro. I passed a gas station and thought about stopping, but with my average mileage I should have been good for 160+ miles and I was only driving 96 miles today. Well, I guess this old van just doesn’t get that same gas mileage while climbing steep mountains on the Parkway. At 85 miles into the trip for the day the gas tank read E…for Empty.
I got it all sorted out about an hour later, just after capturing some fun sunset photos on a nearby lake. I mean, come on, if I’m gonna be out of gas on the Blue Ridge Parkway during the fall colors I’m still gonna take some photos.
After getting enough gas to get me to a gas station, I made it the rest of the way into a Walmart parking lot in Roanoke, Virginia. It’s quiet here tonight. They have a large section of this parking lot torn up building a Murphy gas station. I found a cozy little corner with no street lights at a dead end. I kinda feel like I have the place to myself. And no bright lights shining through the windows tonight!
Day #13 – Replacement GoPro | Skyline Drive
It was an exciting start to today: I got my replacement GoPro! Of course, this is only the camera, and not the footage I also lost when it was stolen back in Pennsylvania. Still, I’m happy to have two GoPro cameras again so I can capture some really great video footage while traveling.
After making breakfast in the van and grabbing my package, I headed up to the Northern Entrance to the Skyline Drive. It’s a pricey $20 to get in, which makes it the most expensive admission of my fall tour so far. Sure, the twenty dollar price tag includes a seven-day pass, but I’m just passing through so it’s only a single-day pass for me. That’s expensive, and it hurt my travel budget just a bit.
Still, it was a beautiful drive today. I stopped at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center where a very nice lady helped me craft a day trip out of the park. The Skyline Drive runs along the ridge through the entire Shenandoah National Park, a total of 106 miles long. That’s a long drive for a single day.
I made stops at several scenic overlooks, but Rangeview and Sawmill Ridge were my favorites. I made a short pit stop at Elkwallow where I grabbed a bag of ice and a delicious cheeseburger. I also stopped shortly at the Byrd Visitor Center at Big Meadows.
I also wanted to do some hiking, but unfortunately I was pressed for time. With a 35-mile per hour speed limit, it takes a solid three hours to drive the entire Skyline Drive. With the sun setting just after 6PM, I didn’t have much time to hike. But I have a long list of places to come back to some day. Hopefully some day soon.
The drive today was beautiful with a few fall colors still popping, but most of the leaves were on the ground. It rained most of the day, but every once in awhile the sun would poke out. It was peaceful, even with dozens of vehicles buzzing back and forth every few minutes. I had a great time here, and would love to spend more time fully exploring this park. Maybe a week? Maybe next spring?
Spending tonight in Waynesboro. Tomorrow, I hope on the Blue Ridge Parkway and begin my five day journey along the Parkway to Cherokee, North Carolina.
Day #12 – C&O Canal National Park | Great Falls Park | Smithsonian Air & Space Museum | Highway 50
Today I finally left the Washington, D.C. area and started heading south again. But before I could do that, I had a little adventure planned for myself.
I had been to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park once before, in 2015. I loved seeing the Great Falls: a series of cascading waterfalls along the Potomac River. It’s also an area rich with history dating back to the founding of our country. So I headed out there again, hiked the moderately long 15-20 minute trail out to the scenic overlook, and snapped some photos.
But then I left the Maryland side of the river, drove through Georgetown (that was the only bridge that crosses the Potomac in the region that wasn’t an interstate, and I’m not doing interstates on this trip, remember?), and headed up through rural Virginia to Great Falls Park. Also a National Park Service site, this park is bigger, offers more to do, has three scenic overlooks of the Great Falls, and each of them is a better view than the C&O. I was mesmerized by how beautiful the scene was from this side, and now I need to go back to that park some day and hike all the trails.
Since I was in the area, I just could not leave without making a stop at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport. This is my favorite museum on the planet because they have the Space Shuttle Discover on display. I was a little bummed to be told by a security guard on my way in that I was not allowed to record video with my GoPro, only to later learn from another security guard that I am allowed. All I got were a few still images for my travel episode later, but man did I ever have a good story to tell about that space shuttle.
On my way out I chatted with the security guard and told him I had planned on visiting Mananas National Battlefield. He immediately shook his head and told me if I went that direction it would be a slow moving parking lot for the next hour. So I decided to take Highway 50 through Northern Virginia for the scenic route. I’m so glad I did.
I passed through the small village of Aldie and was just blown away at the old stone homes, B&B’s, and brick crosswalks. It looked like such a cute and cozy town to spend some time. Then I passed through Middleburg, another small town with a beautiful “downtown” area on Highway 50. Shop after shop with quaint architecture and a friendly, small-town vibe. I think I could spend some serious time exploring Highway 50.
I captured a sunset photo near Paris, Virginia looking out across a farm. And mountains. I am finally back in the mountains again. After that it was just a thirty minute drive to the Walmart in Front Royal where I’ll be spending the night. I have some neighbors tonight, but they’re shy. A couple in a large Chevy cargo van with a canoe on the roof and curtains covering the windows. They stepped out once, I waved, they just stepped back inside. I guess not all travelers are social. Nobody is as social as I am, or so I have been told. And so now I’m sitting here finishing up this entry, my air mattress awaits me in the back, I just cooked my first meal in my new JetBoil Zip stove I bought while in DC.
Tomorrow…my first time on the Skyline Drive!!
Day #11 – Rock Creek Park | National Zoo
In a way today was a crazy hectic day, but also a laid back easy day. No, I was not slacking.
I started off my day with a plan: upgrade my van to Van Life 1.5. However, it failed. I started off this trip with a 1999 Chrysler Town & Country Limited. It’s a really nice minivan. After removing all the seats from the back I was left with plenty of room for all my stuff. And plenty of room to sleep.
But as the trip has progressed, so has my shopping. I have bought so many Christmas gifts, souvenirs, and knick knacks along the way. I’m running out of room. It’s becoming more difficult to sleep because I’m spending an hour every night clearing out enough room for the air mattress.
So I had an idea: visit the local Lowe’s Home Improvement, buy some plywood and 2″x4″s, build a platform across the back of the van. Put all my stuff, which I store in totes, beneath the platform. Sleep on top. However, the plan didn’t go all that well. The gentleman I met in the lumber section was curt and rude. I couldn’t find anyone to help answer some questions. And when I realized I would have to buy a lot of power tools to do the job myself, I decided this wasn’t the right time. Van Life 1.5 will have to wait until I loop back around to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and get my own power tools out of storage.
So after that failure I decided to head for Rock Creek Park. This is a beautiful park just twenty minutes from Downtown DC. I visited the nature center, took a short hike, and relaxed in the woods for awhile. It was peaceful, although I could still hear the hum of traffic nearby.
I headed over to the National Zoo next. I’ve been here before, but it was during late August and the animals just weren’t all that active. But the Fall is the best time to see wildlife in zoos, and I wasn’t disappointed today. I meandered along the main path through the zoo, taking detours to see the elephants and eventually the big cats. The lone male tiger was very active, howling loudly and pacing around. The lions were having a blast playing with a large wooden ball. I grabbed something to eat for lunch, picked up some more stuff, and headed back up the hill to leave the zoo.
I decided to skip the rest of the afternoon to come back to my friend’s place and pick up all my packages. There are many things to take for granted when living on the road, and one of those is having a permanent home address. It’s difficult to get things shipped to yourself when you don’t know where you’ll be next! But I knew I would be here a few days, so I had new business cards, a JetBoil Zip stove, and replacement gear for my stolen GoPro shipped here. I picked up all the packages and spent the next couple of hours getting everything unpacked and ready to use.
Tomorrow I leave the DC area. I have a neat little route planned for myself and some excited places to visit. It’s been great to see Barbara and her family, they have been so nice to me here, and I had fun doing different things around here. But the trip must continue!
Day #10 – Washington, DC | Chinatown | International Spy Museum | Smithsonian Museum | National Mall
I had a slow start to the day, but once I got started I did a lot! Started off slow because I had to watch the premiere of The Walking Dead. Holy wow…I did not see that coming! I called Abraham getting the club, but didn’t see (I sure hope you’ve seen the episode by now) Glenn getting it in the end. I sat with eyes glued on the TV for an hour, unable to even think of doing some work.
After watching the episode I set off for the scenic route from Rockville, Maryland to Washington, DC. It was basically just straight down Highway 355 through Rockville and Bethesda, bringing me right to Georgetown. I wanted to spend some time here, but it took nearly an hour to drive into the city so I didn’t have any time.
Instead I headed toward Union Station, where I always park my vehicle in the city. Sure, it’s $20 for anything over 3 hours, but it’s also the hub for all kinds of ways to get around DC: the Metro, buses, DC Duck Tours, and the DC Circulator. I saw signs for the DC Streetcar, but didn’t have the chance to hop on today.
I took the Metro to Chinatown, walked around the streets for awhile, grabbed some daikaya ramen which was pretty good, and captured some photos. Chinatown is interesting because typical American businesses like Walgreens and Fudruckers also spell their names in Chinese.
I walked around the corner to the International Spy Museum next. I had such a fun time there!! By the way, my name is now John Campbell and I’m a clothing specialist from Jamaica. The museum is a mixture of real-life history and pop culture, showing tools the CIA, KGB, and Mossad used while also referencing James Bond. Ah. James Bond. The entire first floor was devoted to 50 years of Bond, and I could not have been more thrilled. I spent quite a while browsing the amazing gift shop and picking up more Christmas gifts before heading on.
Next I went to the Smithsonian Museum of American History. I had been here before, years ago, with the friend I’m staying with now. But I wanted to see it again. The thing about most Smithsonian museums is that it’s just impossible to see it all in one day. I mean I guess it’s possible to read every sign and view every exhibit in a museum in one day, but man that would be exhausting. Today I browsed through their exhibit on electricity, food, water, and America on the Move. That last exhibit was nice since I’m currently on a road trip across America.
Finally I took a walk down the National Mall. It was a warm, gorgeous day to be outside. There were so many people jogging, walking, sitting on park benches, pushing babies in strollers, and laying on the grass reading books. It was getting near sunset so the light was magical. I captured a few photos, took a walk around the Washington Monument, then headed for the nearest Metro station to leave the city.
Getting out of Union Station in a car is always easier than getting in. I was on the road and heading back toward Rockville in no time at all. Big tip here: remember to pay for your parking at a kiosk before leaving. It will save you time when trying to leave. It took about an hour to get back to my friend’s place, and now I’m comfortably sprawled out across that air mattress sofa bed writing this.
Day #9 – Day Off
Today was a very much needed day off for me. Now, I will fully admit I am a workaholic. Seriously. But that has led to problems the last few years that I have had to face.
When I first started shooting travel photography I still had friends, socialized with people, spent my Friday nights out just like so many other people. But then I began to travel more often, and for longer trips. My friends would text me one night to ask if I wanted to hang out, but I would have to reply I’m 400 miles away shooting on assignment. They would text me a second night at some point, and once again I would have to explain that I’m out of town. There was no third text.
By the third year I was working professionally most of my local friends had given up trying to hang out with me. Even while I was home from an assignment I wouldn’t have anything to do. So I started working more. I started working longer. 16 hours a day, 7 days a week. Eventually that life became the norm.
But then it became too much. I realized the negative effects on my health, both mental and physical, by working so much. I’m a workaholic: my natural tendency is to work all the time, especially since it gives me an excuse not to have anything to do that isn’t work related.
I have learned over the years that I have to force myself to take a break. It’s kinda painful right now since I’m on this trip to capture photos of fall colors, and those leaves could all drop at any moment. But I have to take this day off.
So I had a lazy morning eating waffles with my friend and her family, watching her four year old son “make a mess” of my air bed, and having normal conversations with actual adults. We did a little shopping, I went to a Micro Center for the first time and almost spent a thousand dollars, then we had some pretty good Chinese food for lunch. It was a great, lazy day. The only work I did all day was to work on one photo and write this entry.
Day #8 – Historic Hershey Tour | US Army Heritage and Education Center | Gettysburg
After the tumultuous day I faced yesterday I had decided to spend the night in Hershey. Good choice.
I started my day off with a return to the Hershey Chocolate World for the Historic Trolley Tour. This was a neat 1.5-hour tour around the entire town on a comfortable trolley with large windows. The narrator was in full costume for the time period of Milton Hershey and his wife, and her excitement for the job was evident as she told the history of Hershey’s chocolate with a neverending smile.
After the tour was over I hopped on the highway for another scenic drive, heading toward Carlisle. I drove through downtown Harrisburg. It’s a big town or a small city, hard to really tell which with a drive through. Out in the country the roads were mostly straight and flat. Not a lot of big mountains out here. And the fall colors were just starting to turn.
I arrived at the US Army Heritage and Education Center. It was a pleasant day, if not for the gusting 30mph winds. Inside I found a security guard who was thrilled to tell me the history of the heritage center. The education center has one of the largest collection of army documents in the country. He told me many authors spend their time browsing the publicly-accessible archives for source material on both fiction and non-fiction novels. I toured the heritage center, taking a walk through the entire history of the United States Army.
As a way of connecting the heritage center museum with more history, I headed down to Gettysburg next. Of course I have heard of the significance of this town during the Civil War, or War Between the States, but I had never visited. I had no idea it was so huge! I called a good friend of mine who is an avid Civil War buff, and who vacations in Gettysburg once a year, to ask about what I should do with three hours. His response? “You need three days.” Well I didn’t have three days, so I hopped on the auto tour. It’s a combination of two-way and one-way streets that guides you through the enormous space of the national military park. You can see a lot from the comfort of your car, and reach almost any monument with just a few minutes’ walk.
And that is when tragedy struck again for the second time in two days. I came across the Pennsylvania State Memorial and a long row of canons beside a wide open field. I thought this was a great place for a sunset photo. So I grabbed my two camera bodies, one remaining GoPro, and set everything up. But the wind was gusting horribly at times, making it frigid and uncomfortable. I was working with one camera body when I heard a sudden crash. I looked up to see one camera body had blown over…and landed on the pavement. It broke the rubber eye piece cover on the camera body, the wireless remote receiver, and broke the handle on the tripod rendering it useless. Another $200 down the drain.
I tried my best to shake it off as I captured a photo of an approaching storm at sunset. I still had a 90-minute drive to get to my friend’s house near Washington, D.C. for the night. It was a long drive as I pondered how much I had lost in the last couple of days. But I’m here now, her sofa bed is an air mattress so that ought to be interesting, and her four year old son is a bundle of joy.
Day #7 – Yuengling Brewery Tour | Hershey’s Chocolate World
Today was amazing, but also marred by a tragedy. Keep reading, cause this one is gonna hurt to write tonight.
I started off my day in Wilkes-Barre where I experienced another aspect of van life: getting a shower. A lot of people have asked me about this, and I have one very simple solution: Planet Fitness. For $20 per month I have a Black Card membership that allows me to use any of their gyms in the country. I took some clean clothes, toiletry bag, and a towel inside with my gym back, shaved, took a nice long shower, and walked out feeling nice and refreshed.
I continued my determination to complete this trip without using the Interstate a single time. I took the scenic route through some small towns like Mountain Top, Hazleton, and Hometown on my way to Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Do you know what’s in Pottsville? Because my excitement and pain were about to clash.
I drove along narrow, one-way streets downtown to get to the D.G. Yuengling and Son Brewery for a free tour of their facility. The tour was just amazing, and my tour guide was entertaining and educating. We got to walk into a cave carved into the side of a mountain beneath the brewery where they used to store the beer decades ago! We saw every aspect of the brewing process all the way to the final canning stage before ending the tour at a tasting room. This is where I discovered Yuengling Premium, and took four cases home with me (shhhh! They’re Christmas gifts!)
But then tragedy struck. Before the tour began I got the meet the owner of Yuengling, Richard. I mean yeah it’s just a brewery, but I’ve been drinking Yuengling since [age redacted] so this was a big deal to me! He was such a down to earth, friendly guy and gave me a five minute interview. And then…someone stole my GoPro camera, along with the footage of that interview. It was absolutely crushing. I was so excited about meeting the owner, touring the brewery, and buying Christmas gifts that I set my GoPro down for a few minutes, and then it was gone. All told it was worth $900, but the footage was priceless. I’m still struggling with that loss tonight, and probably will for some time.
I was reeling from the loss when I hopped on some more scenic back roads, avoiding the Interstate (I crossed over it once). It started raining, and I called a friend to vent with for awhile (I’m still sorry I took your entire break from work). I was in a bit of a daze, and without my GoPro I couldn’t record any footage of the drive.
I pulled into Hershey’s Chocolate World about 5PM, unsure what to do. I was supposed to spend tonight in Harrisburg to be closer to the things I wanted to do tomorrow. I walked inside to speak with someone and figure out just what it was all about. Every single staff member I came across was happy, genuine, and friendly. They all ended a conversation with, “Have a sweet day!” It was amazing, and it really cheered me up. I met Casey, a nice woman who worked there, and we chatted for about half an hour as she gave me tips about the Chocolate World and town of Hershey.
I grabbed my camera gear and simple Sony Handicam, went back inside, and bought Adventure 1, which included tickets for all the attractions. I did the Make Your Own Candy Bar tour (I haven’t eaten it yet), then the Chocolate Tasting Experience. I walked around for a bit, visiting the Food Court and browsing the enormous selection chocolates, then hopped on the Hershey’s Chocolate Tour (I rode it twice). I peaked inside the 4D Chocolate Mystery for a little bit, then decided to do some shopping. I walked away with quite a few Christmas gifts (and since I hope those people read my blog, I’m not gonna say what I got) and finally left.
I ended my night at Troegs, a local craft brewery. It was a Friday night so it was hopping with business. It was a fun place to visit, I grabbed a nice meal for dinner and a few drinks, then headed out to my van hotel in the Walmart parking lot. I have decided to call this my vantel. I would recommend it, but only to the right person.
So my day started off okay, I hit a huge bump in the road about midway, but it ended wonderfully with all the nice people at the Chocolate World. It really made all the difference. Gonna sleep now so I’ll be nice and rested for long, busy day tomorrow!
Day #6 – Watkins Glen State Park | US Route 6
Today was a bit of a different day, but also the kind of day I enjoy now with my newfound love of van life. I was meant to spend last night in Ithaca, then explore the town and a nearby state park the next morning. But when I came through Watkins Glen and visited the state park late yesterday I decided I just could not leave without a return visit.
I only had two hours of sunlight yesterday when I arrived at the park, and the offices were already closed. I didn’t make it to Rainbow Falls on the Gorge Trail, and that had been on my travel bucket list for two years now. My original plan was to spend the night in Ithaca; instead I spent last night sleeping in my van at the Walmart in Watkins Glen. If I had booked a hotel reservation or had a solid plan to be in Ithaca I wouldn’t have been able to do this. But living the van life means I am free and untethered like never before. And I love it.
So this morning I went back to Watkins Glen State Park and hiked the Gorge Trail again, this time making it all the way to Rainbow Falls. It poured down all night so the stone paths and steps were slippery and wet. I brought a rain jacket for myself, but forgot the rain gear for my camera. Big mistake!
When I arrived at “the scene” where everyone gets the photo of the falls I found a couple of other photographers already on site. One of them, Jennifer Dominguez, was with her parents. While Jennifer was wearing a rain jacket and used a ziplock bag to protect her camera, her dad was kind enough to stand there holding an umbrella for her. I checked out her photography site and trust me: so should you. She has some amazing photography, and the funny part is that she’s been to a lot of the same places I have. We’re keeping in touch now, sharing travel and photo tips across the country.
After I finally managed to tear myself away from the park (I really, really did not want to leave the gorge) I hopped on Highway 14 heading south. It didn’t take long for me to say goodbye to New York, and hello to Pennsylvania. The drive was beautiful with lots of fall colors along the two lane road.
I finally hopped on US Route 6 in Troy, heading east toward Tunkhannock. This was a beautiful drive through the Endless Mountains region of Pennsylvania. I wish I’d had more time to get to the visitor center before I started this route because I’m certain I missed a lot in the area, and their “interactive map” on their website was confusing and not very helpful. Still, the drive was amazing, and after Towanda there were a couple of scenic overlooks to enjoy the view.
I finally rolled on in to Wilkes-Barre (some of the locals pronounce it like Wilkes-Borough, so I guess that’s it). Grabbed some dinner, edited some photos, wrote this post. Now I’m about to spend my second night sleeping in my van in a Walmart parking lot. It’s not too bad at all.
Day #5 – Highway 20 | Skaneateles, NY | Seneca Falls, NY | Watkins Glen State Park
Today I finally left Syracuse and started heading south. I drove about 120 miles along beautiful Highway 20 from LaFayette. I cannot stress just how beautiful this drive was all day. It took me nearly two hours to drive the first fifteen miles because I kept stopping to take photos!
I made a quick stop at O’Neill’s to buy some more Beak & Skiff apple cider, then stumbled upon the Navarino Orchard a few minutes later. Navarino had a really nice setup with lots of apples, gourds, pies, pumpkins, and interesting gifts. I bought a dutch apple pie that is still currently whole, but it won’t be for much longer.
I rolled into Skaneateles about noon and spent an hour walking the streets of this beautiful lake town. The pier was covered with hundreds of seagulls (and, well, their crap). I found lots of great gift shops, antiques, and eateries during my brief visit.
I drove through downtown Auburn, but didn’t make any stops. This town looks interesting, and the downtown area was full of shops and people. I saw a sign that said something like, “History Started Here”? I’ll have to look into that more later.
My next stop was in the small town of Seneca Falls. Holy wow did I ever fall for this town!! I went to the Visitor Center and met a lovely lady who was the curator of the Seneca Falls Museum of Waterways and Industry, also a part of the Visitor Center. I told her I only had an hour to stay in the town so she quickly suggested three museums to visit: the Waterways that I had just finished, the Women’s Rights National Historical Park a block north, and the It’s a Wonderful Life Museum a block south. Wait…what?! It’s a Wonderful Life has always been my favorite holiday movie!! She told me the story of how Frank Capra visited Seneca Falls and learned the story of a local who died while saving a drowning woman, and that story inspired his vision for the movie! This town just made my travel bucket list.
I came across Geneva next on my little journey, but the Visitor Center closes at 3PM throughout the week. Strange, but okay. So without any tips on where to visit I decided to just pass through the town. I hopped on Highway 14 and suddenly found myself in vineyard territory. One vineyard after another on both sides of the road, small and large, tasting rooms and restaurants, beautiful views of the lake and fall foliage along the road for miles. That is going to make an interesting story one day.
I rolled into Watkins Glen State Park with about two hours of sunlight left. The gorge was already in complete shadow, changing the mood of the park to somber. I met a family from Denmark who had come to New York for a two week vacation. They started with a few nights in New York City before heading west. Their ultimate goal is to reach Niagara Falls, then fly out of Buffalo a few days later. They told me about some of the best national parks to visit in Denmark and throughout Europe, leaving me with pages of notes, an email address, and a new fan on my Facebook page.
As they left, I finally turned my attention to the park. Fallen leaves surrounded the rushing creek waters and waterfalls. The park is actually inside the gorge. I hiked a couple miles of the Gorge Trail up dozens of stone steps, behind a thunderous waterfall, past one amazing scenic overlook after another. It was absolutely peaceful and beautiful here.
And now, here I am, ready for the night. But this is a different kind of a night for me. A first! I am sleeping in the back of my van in a Walmart parking lot. Now, don’t judge me. This is something I have actually thought about for a long time now. I could save thousands of dollars a year by living the van life, which would allow me to travel further than ever before. I have a nice self-inflating sleeping pad, warm comforter, and fluffy pillow already laid out in the back. I’m sitting here in the dark, putting the final touches on my daily journal, before calling it a night.
I guess we’ll see how I feel in the morning. To be honest I’m excited about this. It’s like camping. In a parking lot. Without a tent. But this will open so many doors for me if it works. Tomorrow I keep heading south, and finally reach Pennsylvania!
Day #4 – Syracuse, NY | Liverpool, NY | Green Lakes State Park
My last day in the Syracuse area was an amazing day! And I think we broke a record high temperature today. The record was 83, and I saw a bank today that read 85 at one point. Even if we didn’t break the record, I mean come on, it was 80+ degrees in mid-October!!
I started out my day in downtown Syracuse for round two. I wanted to explore Armory Square and find some places to eat, shop, and play. I found a nice parking spot, spent about fifteen minutes flipping through a brochure, and then I saw a meter maid. I hopped out to pay for the parking when I realized I had left my wallet back at my friend’s house! An hour later, I returned to the same parking space haha!
After exploring more of downtown I headed back out to Liverpool. After spending the day before in the small village and the Onondaga Lake Park, a local told me I had missed something very important: Heid’s of Liverpool. This local eatery looks like a classic diner on the outside and serves some of the best hotdogs I’ve ever eaten (but not better than Coney Island in Fort Wayne, IN).
The food was amazing and filling (no matter how hungry you are, you should only order one hot dog and a small fry at the most). I decided I needed to work it off so I went out to Green Lakes State Park in Fayetteville, New York. This was one of the most-recommended state parks in the local Syracuse region. It’s built around a glacial lake that has a deep blue color to the water, and the fall colors were just starting to peak! It was so beautiful. I hiked the Lakeview Trail around the entire lake twice.
For the perfect end to a perfect day, I delved into a delicious pulled pork sandwich at Dinosaur BBQ in downtown Syracuse. More than one person had told me this was the most iconic place to eat in the city, so I just had to give it a try at least once. And I had to buy a souvenir for a friend who is gaga over dinosaurs. Not the mama!
Day #3 – Syracuse, NY | Liverpool, NY
I got a bit of a late start this morning because I did not get my computer work done before passing out last night. But I was still out the door of my friend’s house by 10AM and headed straight for downtown Syracuse.
My first stop was the Visitor Center on West Fayette Street. I met a wonderful lady there who grabbed all the brochures, guides, and maps they had, helped me find some corn mazes to visit, and pointed out a few great local places to eat. I picked up a free walking tour guidebook and headed out across downtown for a couple of hours. Let me just tell you: Syracuse has some beautiful architecture.
After spending about two hours walking around downtown I hopped in the van and headed out to Willow Bay on the northwestern end of Onondaga Lake. This little public park has access to the lakeside trail that goes for miles all around the lake. The fall foliage was popping in the some of the trees, it was a bit of a warm day at around 70-degrees, and the sun would peak out every once in awhile. I met an older man there spending his day fishing, hiked a few miles along the flat, paved path, and then took in the view of the fog-covered lake.
My next, and final, stop of the day was in Liverpool. This is such a cute little town with some really beautiful homes. One street had a mixture of 70’s home designs, modern farmhouse, and modern minimalist all within sight of each other! I found some parking near the Salt Museum (which, sadly, is only open on the weekends) and headed out on the trails again. I found a floating pier on the lake with a bench at the end and could have almost taken a nap right there.
But even better: I found black squirrels! I had never seen a black squirrel before, but they were all over the place at the park. I spent about an hour chasing down two brothers who were zipping back and forth across a large field. Then I settled down for a gorgeous sunset that just wouldn’t stop. It had been mostly cloudy all day until just fifteen minutes before the sunset. All of a sudden the clouds started to break apart, the sun beamed through, and brilliant pinks filled the sky.
Day #2 – Pratts Falls Park | Chittenango Falls State Park
My second day in the Syracuse area got off to a very, very rough start. I woke up at about 6AM with a splitting headache. I bent over to pick up my shorts and the sudden rush of blood to my head almost made me cry. I get migraines frequently, and was afraid this was the beginning of a very bad day. I took some meds I travel with, hid underneath a dark blanket, and went back to sleep for a few hours. I woke up just before noon, headache gone, and finally started my day.
It was bad because this time of year we only get about 12 hours of sunlight. A little bit less right now. I only had six hours of light left to the day, so I quickly headed out to Pratts Falls County Park in Manlius. This small county park has a few picnic shelters and some trails, but the main attraction is the towering waterfall. There wasn’t much water spilling down the cliffs when I visited, but it was still a nice hike down to the bottom overlook.
I decided to hit the country roads next in search of anything interesting. I ended up in the small town of Cazenovia. This town sits on the edge of a lake, has a few beautiful bed & breakfasts, and looks like a really nice place to visit. I hope I can come back here before I leave the area.
At this point I drove on through the town and headed out to Chittenango Falls State Park. This park’s main attraction is also a waterfall, and man is it ever a beauty. I hiked along a flat, paved path underneath the bridge to view the cascades and captured a photo of some gorgeous fall foliage. Then I hiked down to the very bottom of the falls to a steel footbridge across the creek. It was so beautiful down there. Of course, the old saying about hiking had never been more true: what goes down, must also go up again.
Day #1 – Beak & Skiff Apple Orchard | Skaneateles, NY
(More information coming soon, sorry but I didn’t start this daily update until the third day)