Autumn in Rocky Top (October 15 – November 9, 2020)

On Thursday, October 15th, we left Mt. Airy, NC and drove 136 miles to Blountsville, TN, where we spent a night at Rocky Top Campground.  This small 55+ campground had a nice, level pull-through site for us, although it did require us pulling through an unused back-in site to reach our site.  Other than doing our laundry, we didn’t do anything the rest of our stay.

On Friday, we drove 100 miles to Sevierville, TN, where we spent three nights at Duvall in the Smokies campground.  We had been advised a few weeks earlier that this Saturday was the campground’s 3-year anniversary and they would be having a big celebration.  We discovered that many of our fellow campers had attended previous anniversaries and, as a result, book this weekend a year in advance.  Saturday’s celebration began at 10:15 am when we all boarded a double-decker tour bus.  The temperature was in the upper 40s when we departed, which made for a chilly experience for us on the upper level.  After driving through Sevierville and Pigeon Forge for an hour, we stopped at a local park for lunch.  After lunch, we headed down scenic Wears Valley Road toward Townsend.  The Smokies are a very popular destination in October and the traffic was bumper-to-bumper for the next couple of hours.  When it became apparent that the remaining 2.5 miles would take over 45 minutes to complete, and since there hadn’t been a restroom stop since we left the campground, it was decided that they would turn the bus around.  This was not easily done since the road was only single-lane in each direction and there were no shoulders.  The driver attempted to back the bus into a driveway by pulling into the oncoming lane.  Unfortunately, as the driver was blocking both lanes of traffic, the transmission would not catch in reverse.  When the driver was finally able get into reverse, the passengers on the upper deck could see that he was headed into a ditch.  Finally, to the relief of our passengers and the other drivers on the road, he got us turned around.  We then headed to an ice cream shop and we were all treated to anything on the menu.  By this point, it was five hours after we had left the campground and a trip to the bathroom was everyone’s highest priority.  Unfortunately, they only had single-occupant men’s and women’s bathrooms so the lines were quite long.  After ice cream, we returned to the campground and arrived around 4 pm.  That evening, we had a cookout, followed by a country band who performed for a couple of hours.  It was a very long, but enjoyable, day and was very generous of the owners.

After relaxing on Sunday, we moved again on Monday.  We drove 25 miles to Anchor Down in Dandridge, TN where we spent a week attending the fall DOG (DRV Owner’s Group) gathering.  We had attended this gathering in 2019 but had only been able to stay a few days then.  We attended a meet-and-greet dinner hosted by our dealer, RVs for Less.  Jason arrived that evening and spent six days with us, working from our living room for the rest of the workweek.  Anchor Down is a beautiful campground and our site (#132) gave us a great view of Douglas Lake from our living room.

On Tuesday, we drove to Pigeon Forge and did some shopping at the Eddie Bauer store at Tanger Outlet.  On Wednesday, we washed the rig and our cars.  On Thursday, we took the scenic backroads to Smokie Mountains National Park and drove the 6-mile Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.  The fall leaves were in full color.  We saw five black bears near the road.  Although this was fortuitous, it was also frustrating, since the cars in front of us would just sit where they spotted a bear and there was no opportunity to get around them.  Once the bears disappeared, the traffic moved along more steadily.

During our drive from Sevierville to Dandridge on Sunday, we had passed a sign for a business that sold honey.  On Friday, we returned to this business to buy some honey.  One of the owners encouraged us to walk around their entire site, which we learned included 34 storage sheds containing antiques, crafts and gifts.  It appeared that, although the owners were primarily in the business of selling storage units, they had also a sizable business selling other “stuff.”  We ended up buying some honey, jelly and a braided throw rug.

On Saturday, Jason was able to join us for some sightseeing.  We drove to Gatlinburg and, after fighting the heavy traffic, we decided to drive through McDonalds for a quick breakfast.  It didn’t quite work that way.  We got into the drive-through line at 10:30 am and crept along.  It took over 30 minutes just to reach the point where we could order and, by then, the menu board had already switched to their lunch menu.  We did manage to order three sausage biscuits but, by the time we had paid, it had taken 45 minutes.  Our next stop was at the Gatlinburg Skylift Park.  After waiting in very long lines, we boarded one of the yellow ski lift cars for a ride to the top of Crockett Mountain.  At the summit, we walked across the 680’ pedestrian suspension bridge, the longest in North America.  Midway across the bridge, we walked over glass panels 140’ above the ground. 

After the skybridge, we drove the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail again and saw another black bear.  We stopped a couple of times for photo ops, including a stop for lunch at one of the old homesteads. 

After breakfast on Sunday morning, Jason left for his drive back to Nashville.  We spent the rest of the day getting ready for moving on.  On Monday, October 26th, we drove 40 miles to Heiskell, TN where we spent the night at the Escapee’s Raccoon Valley RV Park. 

We had reserved a site at Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores, AL for the months of November and December.  However, Hurricane Sally hit Gulf Shores directly in mid-September and this resulted in the park’s closure.  In addition to severe damage to trees in the park, many of the electrical pedestals had been submerged and needed to be repaired to ensure their safety.  On October 21st, we learned that our reserved site would tentatively be open on November 1st.  However, on October 26th, we learned that, due to the contractor’s inability to obtain the parts needed to make the required repairs, we would not be able to occupy our site until November 12th

On Tuesday, we arrived at our dealer, RVs for Less, for a list of needed repairs.  Although most of the items on our list were relatively minor, there were several that really needed to be addressed right away.  The weather forecast called for two days of heavy rain, making it uncertain when the repairs could be completed.  A few issues were addressed on Tuesday but rain on Wednesday resulted in no further progress.  The weather improved somewhat on Thursday and Ken Rife, the General Manager, told us they should be able to finish the repairs that afternoon.  Since we were required to be out of our rig while work was being done, we left for a road trip.  We drove down Wears Valley Road, then took the scenic Foothills Parkway and continued on to Maryville.  Jan had found an article listing the best communities in Tennessee for retirees and Maryville was one of them.  We liked what we saw and will check it out further in the future.

Unfortunately, on Friday morning, we learned that we would need to wait for some parts that were scheduled to arrive later in the day.  We decided to take a road trip to Farragut, TN, another recommended community for retirees.  It was also very impressive, although the houses we saw with the greatest wow factor would never be affordable by us.  When we returned to the dealer, we learned that the parts had arrived but had not yet been installed.  We agreed to spend the weekend on the lot, with the expectation that the remaining work would be done on Monday morning.

On Saturday, we drove to Norris Dam State Park and hiked the 3-mile Observation Point loop trail.  The trail led to an overlook with a view of the Norris Dam and the Clinch River.  The dam’s construction in the mid-1930s was the first major project for the Tennessee Valley Authority.

On Sunday, we drove to Knoxville and hiked a 3.5-mile loop within the William Hastie Natural Area.  The loop consisted of the View Park, Yellow Jacket and Sink Hole trails.  The trails zig-zagged repeatedly and required frequent checks of the GPS to keep us on the desired route.  The three trails are popular with mountain bikers and are all rated as “very difficult.”  Although there were no viewpoints along the trails, there was a 20’-deep sink hole on the Sink Hole trail.

The final repairs were completed on Monday but, when the bill hadn’t been finalized by 3 pm, we got approval to spend another night on the lot.  We finally got back on the road on Tuesday morning and drove 125 miles to Old Mill Camp at Cummins Falls in Cookeville, TN.  Tuesday was election day and we were anxious to see the results that evening.  Since we knew the campground was heavily wooded, we were unsure whether we would be able to get a satellite signal.  After analysis of the online campground map and the Google Earth app, we reserved the site that appeared to be most open.  When we arrived, we raised the satellite dish before unhitching to make sure we could get a clear signal.  After circling around for quite a while, the dish finally locked in on the satellite and we knew we could proceed with getting set up.  We stayed up until after midnight watching election results but, when it was obvious there would be no final decision that evening, we went to sleep.

Our campground was located across the street from Cummins Falls State Park.  On Wednesday, we hiked a 2.5-mile loop from our campsite to Cummins Falls, with its 75-foot drop.  Our return took us past some dilapidated structures from the John Cummins estate.  John Cummins acquired the land in 1825 and built two water-driven mills on the property.  The land stayed in the Cummins family for more than 180 years before being acquired by the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation.

On Thursday, November 5th, we drove 94 miles to Goodlettsville, TN, where we spent four nights at Grand Ole RV Resort.  The campground had expanded since we were there in the spring.  Due to uncertainty of the length of our stay at RVs for Less, we had waited to make reservations.  This resulted in us being assigned to a pull-through site along the entrance road.  Although not an ideal location, it served the purpose and wasn’t as noisy as we feared.

Jason joined us for dinner on Friday night.  On Saturday, we drove to Camden and had a catfish lunch at Country & Western with Sheila Gaskin.  On Sunday, Jason and his housemate, Steve Lilly, joined us for dinner and the warm weather enabled us to eat outside.

Heading to Tennessee (October 8-15, 2020)

After leaving Moodus, CT on Thursday, October 8th, we drove 270 miles to Catawissa, PA where we spent three nights at J & D Campground.  Although the drive was mostly on interstates, it was slower than expected due to many work zones and one major backup.  The campground is located a short distance from Knoebels Amusement Resort, where they hold a large Covered Bridge and Arts Festival this weekend each year.  The festival was cancelled this year due to COVID but the campground was still requiring a 3-night stay.  Our site was one of only a few pull-throughs in a very large campground.  After having stayed in nearly-empty campgrounds in MA and CT, it was quite a change to be back in a full campground.

We spent Friday doing routine chores, such as laundry, grocery shopping and getting Jan’s hair cut.  We did stop to see two of the 28 covered bridges in Columbia and Montour counties.  The first was the 185-foot-long Rupert Bridge, originally built in 1847 and restored in 2000-01.  The second one was the 99-foot-long Wanich Bridge, constructed in 1884.

We spent Saturday with Ken and Cathy Bentz, two friends we met during our trip to Alaska in 2018.  We met the Bentzes in Ashland, PA and toured the Pioneer Tunnel Coal Mine.  This anthracite coal mine operated from 1911 until 1931.  When the business closed, all the equipment was stored in the cave and the entrances were blasted closed.  While they had hoped to resume mining someday, that never happened.  In 1961, Ashville officials came up with the idea of re-opening the mine for tourists.  They had a small budget so, other than re-timbering the shafts, the mine appears largely as it did in 1931.

Our tour began with a short ride on a narrow-gauge steam train.  The train was used years ago to haul coal bins but now pulls passengers alongside Mahanoy Mountain.  We got to see where coal was originally recovered using strip mining and a “wildcat mine” where out-of-work miners would illegally dig for coal during the Great Depression.  Our guide explained that the State of Pennsylvania had decided to reclaim the strip mines by filling them with trash and, then, burning the trash.  This led to a disastrous result in neighboring Centralia, PA when one of these landfill fires hit a vein of coal in 1962 and is still burning underground today.  The government was forced to buy out and relocate almost all the landowners.  Centralia’s population has dropped from 1,500 in 1962 to 6 diehards today.

The next part of the tour involved riding into the tunnel on mine cars that were rebuilt to carry passengers.  Our guide, an experienced miner, led us down gangways to see veins of coal, manways and coal chutes.  He explained the dangerous process for mining this coal, employing many children as young as 10-years-old, working 12-hour-days, six days a week.

After leaving Ashland, we drove to Pottsville, PA.  We ate lunch at Wheel, a gourmet grilled cheese restaurant.  Each diner gets to design their own grilled cheese sandwich, using over 85 ingredients.  We each selected our own bread, cheese, protein, toppings, dipping sauce and side.  They were delicious!

We then toured the Yuengling brewery.  Yuengling was established in 1829 and is America’s oldest brewery.  Our guide took us through the plant that has been operating since 1831, after the first plant was destroyed by fire.  We walked through caves that had been hand-dug into the mountain by out-of-work coal miners and were used for beer fermentation before refrigeration.  We could see remnants of the brick walls used by the government to seal off the brewery during Prohibition.  Our tour guide explained the brewing process and she led us through the brew house, racking room, packaging room and Rathskeller.  The tour ended with free tastings and, of course, the gift shop.  We ended up buying a case of one of their new products, a Hershey’s Chocolate beer.

It was a fun day and we really enjoyed seeing Ken and Cathy again.

On Sunday, we drove 240 miles to New Market, VA where we spent the night at Endless Caverns Campground.  Endless Caverns accepted Passport America so our site only cost $29 for the night.  It started raining as we entered Virginia and continued to rain for the next 24 hours.  The campground looked lovely but, due to the weather, we stayed in our rig the whole time.

On Monday, we drove 240 miles to Mount Airy, NC where we spent three nights at Mayberry Campground.  This campground also offered the half-off Passport America discount for two of the nights, so our total cost for the three-night stay was only $78.  Our pull-through site sat atop a hill so we had a great view of the campground below us, at least until an Allegro Bus pulled in behind us and cut off our view.

We spent Tuesday with Dave and Cheryl Albert, friends we met earlier this year at Tropical Trails RV Resort in Brownsville, TX.  Dave and Cheryl live nearby in NC.  They picked us up at our site and took us for a scenic drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia.  We stopped for lunch at Mabry Mill.  Despite being mid-week, this was a popular spot and we had an hour-long wait for a table.  While we waited, we explored the mill.  Mabry Mill was built in 1910 by Edwin Mabry, a jack-of-all-trades who had been a chairmaker, a miner, a coal company blacksmith, and a farmer.  He and his wife operated the mill until 1936, grinding corn and sawing lumber for their neighbors.  In 1945, the National Park Service restored and landscaped the mill.  Today, it is one of the most photographed features on the Blue Ridge Parkway. 

After a delicious lunch, we drove to Pilot Mountain State Park, 20 miles northwest of Winston-Salem, NC.  Pilot Mountain, rising to a peak 2,421’ above sea level, is one of the most distinctive natural features in NC and has served as navigational landmark for centuries.  We walked up to several overlooks where we could watch lots of raptors soaring above the peak and view the valley below us.  We later spent time in the new Visitor’s Center where we viewed exhibits about the park and the surrounding area.

On the drive back to our campsite, Dave took us through downtown Mount Airy.  This whetted our appetites for Wednesday’s further exploration of the town. After socializing awhile back at the campground, it was time to say goodbye to Dave and Cheryl.  We really enjoyed seeing our friends again and appreciated having such good guides to show us around the beautiful area.

On Wednesday, we spent the entire day in Mount Airy.  This small town, just six miles south of the VA border, was long known as a center for furniture and granite.  However, it is best known as the hometown of Andy Griffith.  Mount Airy was the inspiration for Mayberry, the fictional town in the Andy Griffith Show.  There are lots of Andy Griffith and Mayberry attractions in the town.  We visited quite a few of them but felt like we had just scratched the surface.  After having a huge lunch at Little Richard’s BBQ, we strolled down Main Street and visited many of the shops.  We stopped at replicas of the Mayberry courthouse and jail, Wally’s Service Station, Floyd’s Barber Shop and Snappy Lunch, as well as quite a few other attractions that draw on the Mayberry theme.  We walked by the Andy Griffith Museum and saw the TV Land sculpture of Andy and Opie.