The Smokies and Knoxville

We crossed another National Park off the list this week with a wonderful visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMP). It’s a big place that could have kept us busy for months and months. Over 800 miles of hiking trails, including a portion of the Appalachian Trail (AT), hundreds of historic sites, and innumerable streams and rivers make this one of the most beautiful parks we’ve seen. 

They say GSMP is defined by the 3 Ws: Wildlife, Wildflowers, and Waterfalls. We would add one more letter to the description: C for crowds. Even in the off season, which is what March is considered, the crowds at the popular sites were large. We can’t even imagine what it would be like in the peak seasons of summer and fall. It’s no wonder it’s the nation’s busiest national park…1/3 of the US population lives within a days drive of its borders. 

On one day we explored Cades Cove, a verdant valley punctuated with historic homes and churches, abundant wildlife, and beautiful scenery. We drove the 11 mile loop road, stopping along the way to learn about the settlers who populated the valley in the early 1800s.

We also spent a day driving the Newfound Gap Road, which crosses the park from Tennessee to North Carolina. The mountain pass reaches an elevation of over 5,000 feet where the road crosses the famed Appalachian Trail. We enjoyed some short hikes along the drive but skipped on the AT (for now). 

We also spent one day just hanging out at our incredible RV resort, Little Arrow Camping Resort, in Townsend, TN, right outside the entrance to the national park. We had a waterfront site that allowed us to listen to the rushing water right from the rig. Each evening we participated in activities, including Bingo, Trivia, and Smores night around the fire. Bob especially enjoyed the socializing. 

From Little Arrow we were able to hop on several hiking trails. One took us to a viewpoint that overlooks the cute town of Townsend. There a local carver is installing a giant Sasquatch, and we were able to chat with him about his work and admire the grandeur of the piece. 

Just down the road from Little Arrow we did a hike in the national park which we learned is one of the best trails to see the spring wildflowers. 

After our four days at Little Arrow and GSMP we drove less than an hour north to Knoxville. Steve had been here back in 1982 for the World’s Fair, so we did some reminiscing. There are no RV parks near downtown Knoxville so we “camped” on top of the Civic Auditorium parking garage, which provided us with electricity and security!

The main reason for hitting Knoxville was to complete another marathon.

Steve braved the cold and wind to finish the marathon in less than four hours. This was his 25th state, so he’s half way to his goal of all 50 states!

From here we head west towards home and will not likely post anything more until we begin our next RV adventure in May when we head north to Alaska!  So hang on…there’s big stuff ahead!

A1a Marathon and Colorful Little Havana

This weekend we made a stop in the Fort Lauderdale/Miami area so that Steve could rack up his Florida marathon. While camping at one of the worst KOAs on earth, we did a little exploration, a little shopping, and enjoyed the nice warm weather that south Florida offers up in February.

First, the KOA. We regularly stay at KOA campgrounds when another option isn’t available. In the Miami area there are very few options for RVs, so we jumped on booking this one so that we could easily get to the race. Unfortunately the place was a dump.

What was once, a long time ago, maybe a decent place was decrepit and crowded, littered with ramshackle trailers and a dried up pond. Every time we took a walk we found more reasons why this park didn’t deserve to be under the KOA umbrella. We’ll be writing some reviews. Still, we met some nice people here, and it’s kind of par for the course when you travel via RV. Win some, lose some.

The real draw to this large metro area was the Publix A1a Marathon, which ran alongside the beach in Ft. Lauderdale.

Steve ran the 26.2 miles in just over four hours, and I completed the accompanying 6K (just under four miles) race. It was a beautiful morning punctuated by a sunrise over the Atlantic, a flat course, and relatively cool and breezy weather.

As you may recall, Steve’s goal is to complete a marathon (or more) in every state. This was state number 23 and his 33rd marathon overall. It was a great way to knock Florida off the list.

While in this area we also signed up for a tour of Little Havana, a distinct cultural neighborhood in Miami.  Since we’d been to Cuba in 2019 we have an interest in the history, culture, and political evolution of this nearby island.

Our tour guide Danny has lived in Little Havana most of his life and easily rattled off significant historical events that brought Cubans to the United States and to this region of south Florida. He told us about the political, economic, and social factors that have influenced US/Cuban relations and gave us a great history lesson on the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

In contrast to our visit to Cuba, where Fidel Castro’s picture is often displayed in restaurants and businesses, Little Havana is blatant about its hatred for the communist regime, even expressing that hatred in the name of an ice cream flavor (chocolate with cayenne pepper).

The perspective in Little Havana, established by Cuban exiles who have suffered under the Castros, is clearly on the side of freedom.  

After Danny showed us the serious part of the district, he introduced us to all that is great about Cuban food. On our walking tour we tried pressed sugar cane juice, Cuban coffee, churros, Cuban ice cream, and then enjoyed a traditional Cuban lunch. If you get to Miami and are looking for an activity where you learn while you eat, this colorful tour is for you!

Since our time in the Ft Lauderdale area was short, there’s so much more we need to see and do. At least we know that the next time we visit we won’t be bored (and we won’t stay at the KOA!)

Happy New Year from the Florida Keys

Happy New Year! We’ve been continuing to bask in the warmth of the southern Florida winter weather. Here in the Keys we’ve enjoyed temperatures in the 70s and 80s while thinking about our friends and family in the Midwest and in Prescott who are enduring typical winter weather.

We know we are so lucky to be here, especially since finding an RV site is so difficult in the Keys. We had to work to piece together our reservations this time of year. Thus, we’ve jumped around a few times over the last few weeks.

We were able to book four nights at the newest KOA around. The Sugarloaf Key/Key West KOA was severely damaged in Hurricane Irma in 2017 and has been under renovation ever since. The newly opened, completely reconstructed campground features a beautiful pool, a pub, full service marina, and all new facilities.

We kayaked right from the resort, and Steve got in some good fishing in the channel next to camp. We also took advantage of the easy-to-access Overseas Heritage Trail to get in some good runs and bike rides along the water. The dogs enjoyed the sunshine too!

New Years Eve took us to nearby Mangrove Mama’s for a drink and then back to the KOA to enjoy a local band. As usual, we didn’t make it to midnight but it was still a fun evening with lots of festivities to enjoy.

After our time at the KOA we drove about 20 minutes north along the Overseas Highway to one of Florida’s premier state parks. Getting a campsite at Bahia Honda is like winning the lottery and we scored four nights. With some of the few beaches in the Keys and breathtaking views, this is the kind of place you never want to leave. 

A highlight of the park is the broken bridge, a remnant of the park’s beginnings when Henry Flagler’s railway arrived on the key in 1908 en route to Key West. The 1935 Labor Day Hurricane swept a train off the tracks, destroyed miles of rail lines, and seriously damaged the bridge. The railroad never ran again. The bridge found new life when they laid a concrete slab on top and opened it to cars. Now it’s a picturesque viewpoint from which to watch the sunset and a silhouette that makes for great photos.

Like at the KOA, we never left Bahia Honda while we were there, except to run the trail and to kayak the bay. Steve did some good fishing under the bridge pylons. If we can get reservations here again, we’ll jump on them!

We headed back towards Key West after this incredible stay and will report on that time in the next post. Spoiler alert: it includes appearances from our friends Tom and Nancy and a few more spectacular sunsets.