Day Trippin’ from East Tennessee

I’m supposed to be in Iceland right now.  I was supposed to be in Jamaica this past March. Covid eff’d all that up. Since I shouldn’t complain when so many are suffering, I’ve redirected my energies  towards focusing on the silver lining of where I live and all that it has to offer.

I grew up in Flat Hot Texas  and the only vacation my family ever took was a single trip to the place I now call home. My primary memories of that trip were of how beautiful the mountains were and how unbearably long the drive was.

Fast forward 10 years or so, shortly after my husband and I married, the Army sent us to Germany for what would be our one and only duty station. We took full advantage of our 6 years overseas travelling as often as we could while raising our son, going to school and working full time.  I soaked in anything and everything…things I’d only read and dreamed about as a kid……castles, cathedrals, windmills, thatched roof cottages, vineyards, famous museums, historic sites and on and on.  My passion for travel was fully ignited and my life was forever changed.

When our time with the military was complete, we faced the awesome, but daunting, decision of where to return to stateside. The Army would move us anywhere in the U.S. we wanted to go.  Dallas had grown crazier than ever and was not an appealing option. We entertained a number of places including Alaska, but ultimately settled on Oak Ridge, TN since we had some family here.

Initially, we thought we’d give East TN a year, but twenty years later we’re still here. The list of reasons we’ve stayed is long, but near the top is our proximity to a seemingly endless number of major and minor cities, beaches, mountains, historical sites and recreational activities.  And now more than ever, having drivable getaway options is more valuable than just about anything.

MAJOR CITIES

A stat I heard and often quoted when I was an I.T. recruiter was that we were within a days’ drive of 90% of the U.S. population. I don’t know if that is accurate or not, but I love having access to so many big city amenities without having to live in one .  Below is a list of the major cities I’ve driven to. Though I’ve yet to visit them, Chicago, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and  St. Louis also fall into the ranges I’ve cited below.

  • Nashville – 2 ¼ hrs
  • Cincinnati – 2 ¾ hrs
  • Atlanta – 3 hrs
  • Louisville – 3 ¾ hrs
  • Birmingham – 3 ¾ hrs
  • Charlotte – 4 hrs
  • Charleston – 6  hrs
  • Savannah – 6 ½ hrs
  • Richmond – 6 ¾ hrs
  • Washington DC – 7 ½ hrs
  • New Orleans – 8 ½ hrs
  • Orlando – 9 ¼ hrs
  • Manhattan – 11 hrs

NATURE/ADVENTURE/RECREATION

Less than 1 hour

Windrock – With 73,000 acres, Windrock claims to be the largest privately owned riding area in the country.  They’ve always been in my backyard, but only recently have I started playing there.  We enjoy taking our side by side on their trails, but they also have some hard core bike trails, campgrounds, cabins and events.

Haw Ridge – Another backyard gem, I’ve hiked many, if not most, of their 30 miles of trails.  In fact, many of us are more thankful than ever for our  Oak Ridge Greenways as they’ve provided much relief during this pandemic.

The Lost Sea Adventure in Sweetwater – Dubbed “America’s Largest Underground Lake,” this makes for a nice and simple half day outing.

Minister’s Tree House in Crossville – I just re-lived my trip by reading here only to learn that it has since burned down. Bummer!

Frozen Head – TN State Park with easy hiking options. Especially stunning in the fall!

Brushy Mountain Prison – located in Petros not far from Frozen Head, it famously housed James Earl Ray. I’ve only driven up to it, but in recent years has opened to the public with tours, a restaurant and concerts. There’s also an ultra-runner race held nearby that was inspired by Ray’s brief jail break called the Barkley Marathons.

Obed Wild and Scenic – Love, love, love this place! We’ve hiked, climbed and white water rafted here. My favorite program they have is held the first Saturday of the month at Lily Bluff called the Coffee and Climb with a Ranger. I’ve taken my kids and others frequently over the years.

1-2 hours

Townsend , TN – Tubing and visiting the Tuckaleechee Caverns both make for great, not to mention cheap, day trips.

Hartford, TN – We’ve gone here a few times for whitewater rafting  the Little Pigeon and Zip lining

Cherohala Skyway (starting in Tellico Plains, TN) – I’ve only driven half of the Skyway as North Carolina shut down its border the night before I first went. I returned with my family a month later to visit Bald River and Baby Falls. Gorgeous!

The Dragon/Deals Gap is 11 miles of crazy sharp turns. I unintentionally drove this recently. Not ideal in a minivan but the motorcyclists and slingshot folks looked to be having a blast.

Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge/Sevierville – Our local tourist trap does offer some activities for a good day trip or more depending on your preferences. Beginner ski slopes, lovely cabins, shops, an indoor chalet, Dollywood, at least three different water parks and every type of typical tourist activity you  can think of.

Chattanooga  has become a vibrant young city with a lot to offer. Their aquarium and Hunter Museum are both impressive. They have tons of tourist attractions that provide some spectacular views. I’ve enjoyed Ruby Falls, Rock City and Park Point.

Fall Creek Falls – this was one of our first and scariest adventures after moving here. All I remember is that my husband and son kept giving me mini-heart attacks every time they stepped out onto some rocks that dangerously  jutted out over the canyon. If I recall correctly, each lookout point was named after someone who’d fallen to their death there.

Cumberland Falls State Resort Park, Corbin, KY – Went here for a church retreat not so long ago. Wonderful property with pleasant hiking trails and fabulous waterfalls.

Rock Island State Park-  Again, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this place! There is a giant gorge that you can walk down into when the damn is not releasing water. There are multiple, wonderful waterfalls, some outstanding  hiking and camping options.  It is amazing to see in person how different everything looks after major rains and releases.

2- 2 ½ hours

Cumberland Caverns  – not too far down the road from Rock Island State Park. A truly cool cave experience where the main room is grand and hosts concerts and other events year round. Once we took an actual spelunking tour where I narrowly (pun intended) escaped a panic attack.

Asheville – neat hipster city with a whole lot to offer.  Biltmore never disappoints.

Nantahala Gorge  & Bryson City, NC – Bryson City provided just the right reprieve for a recent camping trip. Quaint little town with a historic, flower lined strip of restaurants and shops.  We duckied down the Nantahala through a tour I booked with the Nantahala Outdoor Center (a great outfit with a lot to offer!) It was our first time doing individual duckies and thankfully we pulled off before hitting the final class III rapid because we were pretty wiped out.

Virginia Creeper Trail – We’ve biked this trail three different times and it never gets boring. Read details and see pictures in my blogpost about our first trip here.

Blue Ridge Parkway – Spanning nearly 470 miles, I think we’ve driven less than ¼ of it. The views are breathtaking. Two of my favorite spots are Mt Mitchell and Waterrock Knob.  We came upon an unexpected snow storm when visiting Mt. Mitchell and it was a literal winter wonderland. Waterrock Knob offers a near 360 degree view that, in the fall, is beyond amazing. The trail there is steep but the views from the top are worth the effort for sure.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center – One of the coolest experiences ever. Located at the very beginning of the Blue Ridge Parkway, we’ve stopped at the center a couple of times. The center and its grounds are very nice and the rangers will tell you if the Elk are out. We managed to spot a huge herd of them once right off the road. They were a sight to behold with some locking horns and others roaming about.

2 ½ – 3 ½ hours

Cherokee, NC – An Indian Reservation with shops, a casino and village and is also home to Fire Mountain Trails for bike enthusiasts.

Shenandoah Valley is also along the Blue Ridge Parkway and provides breathtaking views

3 ½ – 4 ½ hours

4 ¼ hrs to Roanoke VA – We went here once specifically for their Anthem Go Outside Festival. It was one of the coolest fests I’ve been to and the added bonus was being able to take in more of the Blue Ridge Parkway along the way.

BEACHES

I think the first time I saw the ocean was when I was 20 years old and went to Galveston where I was woefully underwhelmed. Fortunately, a half dozen trips  to the Caribbean since have more than made up for it. Even though much of the land of turquoise waters will now let us in, flying there isn’t an option for us anytime soon.  Luckily,  the East and Gulf Coasts offer 100’s of alternative beaches and islands within a 7-10 hour drive.

Florida

Navarre/Pensacola Beach 7 ½ hrs – Part of a 100 mile stretch nicknamed “The Emerald Coast,” this area is one of my new favorites. Both have beautiful white sand beaches and host protected National Seashores that are breathtaking. Best of all, my son bought a home there.

Jacksonville/St Augustine  8 hrs – Loved Jacksonville Beach enough to return once so far. Nearby St. Augustine was a gem to stumble upon. It claims to be the oldest city with the oldest street in the country. It is home to some remarkable Spanish colonial architecture, the Castillo de San Marcos fortress, the Fountain of Youth and some super sweet art galleries. I discovered surrealist Michael Chavel and instantly fell in love.  Flagler College was an excellent tour. Originally built as the Ponce de Leon hotel, it lives up to its opulent description.

Panama City Beach – 8 hrs Rented a condo on the beach a few years ago with some friends. It was far enough removed from the concentration of tourists to be surprisingly pleasant.

Amelia Island/Fernandina Beach – 8 ¼ hrs Though we rode out a tropical storm for most of our trip there in 2012, we still enjoyed the beach, Fort Clinch State Park and a beach nearby that was made not of sand but entirely of sea shells. And finding  Villa Villa Kula was a seriously nostalgic trip given how much I loved Pippi Longstocking as a child.

St Petersburg/ Clearwater/Tampa/Treasure Island – 9 ½ hrs We’ve done this trip a few times. Great beaches, seeing old friends, retro signage/store fronts, the Dali Museum, and Clearwater Marine Aquarium (home to the Dolphin Tale’s Winter) all make this area well worth the drive.

Miami Beach/Ft Myers/Captiva & Sanibel Islands/Florida Keys  – Miami is an 11 hour+ drive that we didn’t drive to but used as a base to drive to the other locations in a 2016 trip. Too much to see and do to elaborate on here. Not sure I’d recommend driving the entire trip, but each destination has a lot to offer.

Virginia

Virginia Beach – 8 ½ hrs  In both 2017 & 2018 we went in October and the weather was perfect. They have a great boardwalk, some very nice military and police memorials and the Annual Neptune Festival and Sand Sculpture Contest are not to be missed.

North Carolina

Pleasure Island – 7 ½ hrs  I recently returned from Carolina Beach. We enjoyed their boardwalk, beach, shops, surfing and the Historic Fort Fisher. Britt’s Donuts are worth the wait in line, but only if you buy more than 2 per person. Trust me, you’ll regret it if you start with just one.

Outer Banks – 9 hrs to Kitty Hawk  We did this twice in 2013. The first time we started in Kitty Hawk and worked our way down to Ocracoke . The second trip we went north to Corolla. We missed out on the horses but did make it to the top of the light house there.  Everything about both trips lived up to the hype.

Georgia

Jekyll Island – 7 ¾ hrs  2005 & 2014  For some reason, our second trip was lackluster compared to our memories of our first trip here nine years before. It has some interesting history and Driftwood Beach did provide nice photo ops, but other than that, I’m not sure we’ll be returning.

Alabama

Gulf Shores   7 ¾ hrs  In 2008, we  were tremendously busy but squeezed in a quick 4 day get away. I recall nice white sand beaches and the kids loved the resort we stayed in. I hear that it has grown a lot since so we may eventually make a return trip.

South Carolina

Hilton Head – 6 ¾ hrs  I keep wanting to go back here. Bret and I went for a long weekend in 2009 without the kids and regretted not bringing them.

Well, there you have it.  Over 50 different drivable adventures. When I contemplate  all of the state parks in my region that I have yet to visit and add in my outstanding bucket list, that figure easily doubles.   Here are just some of the places I am eyeing for future day trips:

  • McCloud Mountain, Duff, TN
  • Lake Lure, NC
  • Looking Glass Falls, Table Rock Mountain, Turtleback Falls, Sliding Rock and Flat Rock in Pisgah National Forest
  • Big South Fork National River and Rec Area
  • Land of Oz, Beech Mountain NC
  • Mammoth Cave, KY
  • The Devil’s Bathtub in Scott County, VA
  • Tallulah Falls, GA
  • Ocoee Whitewater Rafting
  • Ijams Nature Center – another adventure awaiting right in my backyard
  • Grayson Highlands State Park

Feel free to comment with your current or future adventures that are also drivable from East Tennessee. Thanks for reading!

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