Smoky Mountain Camping Trip Done Vegan & Gluten-Free
Harpers Ferry National Park.
As we began our yearly-sister adventure, we had no idea all of the amazing opportunities and experiences in store for us.
While driving along 81, Mia mentioned, wait, is this not where the Potomac river is - I have never been! My response, lets do it!
We took a small detour and found our way to National Park #1 of our trip.
The cost was only $10.00 per car load and we ended up spending a couple of hours wandering around the natural wonders and taking the opportunity to see all three states at one moment (Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia).
It was a magical way to begin such a memorable journey.
Before heading back to the long drive ahead of us, we figured we should have a healthy and hearty lunch on the grounds of Harper's Ferry National Historic Park - what a way to feed not only our tummies, but souls as well.
Embracing the sounds of nature and submerging our feet into the grass beneath us.
P.S The Brussels Sprout Puffs from Vegan Rob's are definitely a family favorite!
Skyline Drive Shenandoah National State Park, VA.
I had seen a lot of recommendations about Skyline Drive, but I really had no idea what it was, was it worth it, how far out of our way was it, etc.
As we drove on a slight detour and pulled up to the check in kiosk, I proceeded to sound like a typical-tourist and question the park ranger on every detail possible. I asked about cost ($25.00 per carload), about time-frame, amenities, and how far out of the way this trail might be for our final Tennessee destination.
The kind and rather patient ranger, not only answered all of my questions but she added her own recommendations to our trip - P.S they were very helpful!
Without any further ado, Mia and I put the car in drive and made our way to the most peaceful and beautiful 3+ hour drive we have ever been on!
At first we stopped at pretty much every scenic overlook, but as our time-frame became extended and the daylight became weaker, we made the decision to not stop at every overlook - just the extra awesome ones!
I would certainly take this drive again and hopefully, next time, get a campsite to enjoy even more of the Skyline Drive Amenities.
We got a bit distracted on Skyline drive and found ourselves without a campsite and the sun was quickly leaving us.
So we pulled over towards the end of Skyline drive and took quick bathroom breaks, water refills, and an opportunity to grab a couple snack bars to hold us over until dinner.
Traveler tip - when camping in National Parks, please note, you can no longer schedule reservations online / app and sometimes your service isn't well enough to call and reserve via phone. AND if you have the service, you still might be told the campsites are now under a "walkup only" option. So while Mia and I tried not to plan out our trip, you might want to plan out your campsites in advance!
Sundown started at 8:45pm.
Since Mia and I had no success in finding a campsite during our Skyline Drive adventure, we decided to just keep going and a yet another gift was provided to us - the gorgeous sunset! Mother Nature is truly an artist!
When it's 10:00pm and you need dinner!
Okay - those snack bars are nice for a "SNACK" but now I need something a bit more substantial!
We whipped out a quick gluten-free and vegan almond butter and elderberry jam and of course some of Vegan Rob's awesome products!
It was a quick pull over, in a well light area, make your sandwiches and drive and while eating. Typically, I would discourage eating on the go- but sometimes, it is the safer option than hanging out a gas station past dark!
When you just can't go anymore... you find yourself caving in and opting for a hotel room - which actually worked out well for us because we got a shower - one of our few on this camping trip.
We knew our first day's adventures turned out amazing, but defiantly but us behind on getting to our final destination - so we wanted to get up, rush through showers and raid the hotel free-breakfast bar.
Everything went as planned, except for raiding the hotel breakfast bar - why? Because not only was there not one thing that was gluten-free (not even a small piece of fruit), but it was really dirty and poor food options in general - so we skipped out on the breakfast bar and opted for a quick snack in the hotel before we moved on to Tennessee.
The Nature's Bakery Gluten-Free Fig bars are not my favorite - almost like eating a mix of chalk and cardboard.
I love apples so much, I couldn't help but ask Mia if we could make another detour - but heck, that was the point of this trip - to be free and allow ourselves to do what called out to us rather than what was scheduled and fit or did not fit into the schedule.
While we did not make it to the restaurant, we did walk around the store and their prices, if we would have known how reasonable they were, we would have bought all of our gifts / souvenirs at this time - but we tried to hold off until later on during the vacation.
It was a cute little stop over and we even got to enjoy the local candy shop - which the owner provided us with the locals-scoop of the Smoky Mountains Must-Haves and we even wandered through the apple orchard.
Totally disappointed, what a tourist-trap! I was looking forward to experiencing this natural wonder swinging bridge. When we arrived I could tell it was more of a public attraction rather than a off-the beaten path landmark.
We figured, what the heck, we are already here, let us go check it out and determine the cost. Well, it is was 20.00 per person just to walk on this dumb bridge - no thank you!
But we made the most of it and enjoyed a quick walk around the property, a quick selfie moment and of course a bathroom break.
While we drove through Pigeon Forge Tennessee, Mia and I quickly removed a number of items from our potential list of things to see or do on this trip. Pigeon Forge was one of the worst tourist traps we have ever seen in our entire life! BUT, because dad loves Dolly Parton, we had to do a quick stop and take a photo for dad - that was our only stop in the area and we were okay with this - we saved our time for more off-the beaten path excursions.
Hungry!!! I mean, I am always hungry, but with the light breakfast we had and the late lunch time, we knew we couldn't make it to Cades Cove prior to starving!
We pulled over at a cute picnic table area and setup lunch!
After two days of long travel, we finally are checked in and call this location "home sweet home" for the next couple of nights.
Another moment of starvation! Okay, it wasn't that bad, but I was hungry.
Mia started our "camping oven" a.k.a the fire and I started prepping for dinner.
We used Grainful's Jambalaya mix and we added in some fresh veggies.
This was one of our favorite meals! You couldn't even tell that it was based from gluten-free oats! And the campfire's smokiness added an additional level of flavor to the already amazing dish from Grainful!
We cheated on the cooking a bit and purchased a couple tinfoil pans so we could use once of twice and then toss the container and provided ourselves with additional space for gifts to take home.
We took this time to feel more settled in and review some of the maps we picked up at the campsite check-in. A girls gotta plan some of the natural wonders around her - can't miss the best sights, right?
We spent the evening, setting up home, speaking to the park rangers for some advice and of course walking around the campground meeting our neighbors and learning from them some of the absolute must-haves for our trip.
We then called it an early evening and tucked ourselves into bed and fell asleep starring at the night sky - my definition of moments of heaven while on earth.
It was highly recommended that we wake our butts up as early as possible and take a drive through Cades Cove Loop to truly experience why they call this area the "smoky" mountains.
We rolled down the windows, opened up the skylight and just enjoyed every moment in nature!
Seriously, if you have the opportunity, stay at Cades Cover National Park Campsite and DO drive around the Cades Cove Loop.
When driving around, I remember saying to Mia, "this is not how I pictured the Smoky Mountains, why are we so sunken in?" Turns out Cades Cove is the lowest part of the Valley, which now explains a lot and answers my question!
After having spent a couple hours in the Cades Cove Loop, Mia and I worked up an appetite. We found our way back to the campsite, started a fire, and heated up some tea and oatmeal.
I'm on a mission -looking for the mama bear and baby cubs at that the Park Ranger informed me might be hanging out around the Rich Mountain Road.
While we didn't see any bears at this time - we did have fun riding around and checking out the sights midday. Helpful tip - if you want to avoid a lot of traffic, you really should wake up early and go through the loop prior to most tourists entering.
Food is always good - we rocked a nice almond butter and jam sandwich with some additional goodies.
2.5 mile moderate hike. 1,200 steps. 2 1/2 hours - SCORE!
We stopped for a quick snack after we made it down!
Just as I was about to give up for the day - Mia screams, "NICOLE" and I see a bear right in front of us on the road - just casually walking! I quickly try to grab the camera, roll down the window and open the skylight all at once, I jump up to stick my head out of the skylight and darn if you know it, the skylight was not yet opened and I knocked my head down and missed the bear completely!
We looped around a couple more times and found a group of tourists camped out near an open field, where a mama bear was taking the opportunity to enjoy some awesome berries. While she was too far away for a good photo, I was content with having seen her!
The fire was difficult to start, due to wet wood and the grill my dad packed for us, well, we should have guessed it would be missing pieces and be unusable - so we made friends with our neighbors and borrowed their grill to cook dinner and they recruited their boys to help make a good fire to keep us warm for the evening.
We used some leftover Grainful Jambalaya and added baked potatoes and K-Mama's Gluten Free Korean Hot Sauce. Mia loved that the smokiness in the sauce added a new flavor profile to our dish.
This scenic "short cut" to Townsend was about 9 miles - 2 hours of hell! The road is very narrow and full of blind-spot turns.
BUT it was recommended that we take the "shortcut" to town so we could fill up on gas, get some Wi-Fi to schedule our next campsite (since we are learning from our mistakes and we should NOT wait until last minute to find our next home) and explore the local area some more.
Elvira's Café - Prior to making our trip, I did read that Elvira's Café offered gluten-free options so we opted for this place - I mean, it wasn't like Townsend, TN had many options.
Upon arrival, I did ask the waitress her thoughts on gluten-free eating here and she was honest and said, contamination is HIGH - so she allowed for me to bring in some gluten-free oats.
Mia enjoyed some non-gluten-free vegan options for the first time this trip and I could tell she was 100% okay with this!
We picked up a ton of local pamphlets are the café and started looking at what was of interest to us.
We decided Mia's husband would enjoy some local moonshine - so we picked up some options, reserved our next campsite and hit the road on full tummies.
We blindly picked a moonshine store and found ourselves driving back through Pigeon Forge, TN and into Gatlinburg, TN - which I had read a lot of things go on in Gatlinburg and we should find our way here -
Eh, not so much. It is touristy *100 and traffic is ridiculous, but since we already became transplanted here - we would make the most of it. We found parking, and off we went to explore the shops and some moonshine options.
We found a local winery with free tastings and said, um.....yes please!
We tried some local southern strawberry, grape, and peach. This was definitely my first having a peach wine and it was essentially comparable to eating a ripe peach.
So we made it to the ever-so "popular" Gatlinburg, TN but we were rather excited to say so long and make our way back to no Wi-Fi camping life.
One of the many natural wonders.
The one big complaint that Mia and I had about the area is that NOTHING is marked and it is actually pretty difficult to find information on the area, local hikes, natural wonders, etc.
We happened to pick up a flyer that listed, I think the 10 best waterfalls in the area - they informed us on the hiking distance and ease or difficulty of the hike. Meigs Falls is a one you can enjoy from your car - which after Abraham's Falls hike, Mia was appreciative of! But pay attention, because you can quickly miss out.
After having taken in the marvelous water falls - we needed to fill our tummies before we headed back into town to fill up on gas, find some more drinking water, and even check out some more of the local wonders.
Only one person recommended this little gem to us and I was very appreciative for it. First of, I love anything that is free and second of all, my mom LOVES trains so it was a great stop to call and do some FaceTime with mom.
The museum was adorable and well kept! Also another spot for free Wi-Fe for Mia and I to try and find our last campsite.
We had to stop on our way back to the campsite - How many days into our camping adventure and we had yet to capture a photo of the Smoky Mountain Park Entrance.
There was a moment I was disappointed because I forgot the wrong time for the Campground's hayride around Cades Cove Loop - for some reason I thought it was closer to 7:00pm but it was actually 5:00pm. Oh well, Mia offered that we head back into the Loop ourselves and see what we could find. She knew my heart was set on finding a bear a bit more closely.
As we were circling around we found that we just missed a bear sitting. BOO! Okay, off we go again - then we approached another bunch of cars and we knew there had to be something. Sounded like a mama and her babies found their playtime in the trees.
We were instructed by the park rangers to park our vehicle off the road and then walk back to watch for the bears.
We found a parking spot and literally ran back for the excitement.
We waited and waited and waited and finally we saw the mama and baby bears from a distance. With no real additional movement, the park rangers moved to another bear sighting and Mia said her goodbyes.
At that exact moment, as if they knew what Mia was saying, they came running down. I won't lie, I was on the move - wait, maybe I didn't want to be this close to the bear - where is mama bear, if just babies are coming, this can't be good.
Then as the initial dust settled momma bear was the one on the move her cubs, they remainder right at her side.
I got intrigued and determined to get a good photo (never got the one I was thinking I would, but) so I kept creeping in closer and closer, until all of the sudden a Park Ranger shouts out, "get in your cars NOW! This bear is too close!!"
Off Mia and I ran back to our cars and thrilled to our bones. I couldn't believe it actually happened, I got my wish to see the bear up close and personal.
After the mama bear and cub excitement, we worked up an appetite!
Considering, Mia and I had just about enough of purchasing wet wood, we decided to cheat and heat up our dinner.
Heck yes! We cheated and we are proud of it!
Tonight's dinner was vegetable and white / jewel sweet potato packets :)
After dinner, we called it an early evening as we knew the we had an early start to the next day.
Thank you camp store microwave - once again, modern day technologies saved our butts! Also, special thanks to those that let us sneak into the camp store early so we could heat everything up and get moving early.
Funny...having lived a good portion of my life in Harrisburg, PA and both of my parents enjoying covered bridges, a quick detour stop was necessary.
Listen, Smoky Mountains, please please please can we add better directions / guides to all the amazing park attractions?!
Everyone we spoke with let us know that the drive from Cades Cove to Clingman Dome would be about 90 minutes, and the pattern was that it would take Mia and I an additional 30-60 minutes, so around 3 hours into the trip, I was questioning if we had the correct address.
Obviously, you can tell with the way I am writing this, we did not. YAY!
So we found a visitors center to help with directions, bathroom breaks, fill up on water, and grab some delicious snacks.
Another thing crossed off the bucket list - sweet! This would be both Mia's and my first Elk sighting.
This guy was so close, I could have literally pet him from the car and he didn't seem the least bit phased by our trespassing his space.
Finally, we arrived, I think 4 hours later, or 2 hours longer than we expected.
Clingman Dome is the highest elevation in the smoky mountains. We just stayed in the lowest elevation and now we found our way to the highest - pretty fancy!
I will say, this view is more what I expected from the Smoky Mountains. It was beautiful, the air was crisp and wildflowers abundant.
The hike wasn't nearly as bad as anticipated, I mean, it is straight up, but the path is paved and I find that easier than juggling boulders.
Holy crap cereal and coconut water to refresh after our hike and surrounded by the beautiful mountains.
The elk are chilling in the fields on the side of the road
Mia Mingo made it to Mingo Falls and what a beautiful sight to see!
Nightmare! 5 miles of hell and then some. 29+ blind spot turns and plenty of moments that I was a bit terrified we were on private property and would never come back out!
Quick granola, cherries and almond butter
Finally got here after the crazy roads.
One of Mia's and my favorite camp spots of the trip.
Cataloochee is the most remote part of the Smoky Mountains and known for their elk - as this is where the first reintroduced the elk into the park.
It was a beautiful fairy-tale space. But also our least night of sleep, as it turns out both Mia and I felt a bit unease traveling solo as two young females in the most remote part of the park. Not that there was a real reason to feel unease, we just became aware that we were two young females traveling solo.
Boogerman trail for a quick evening walk and then I light some homemade essential oil candles to deter the bugs - I thought we might need it this night, since our new home bordered a creek.
We made it through the night with no bug bites.
We packed up, fueled up and headed towards our final stop on our vacation, Asheville, NC.
Breakfast was granola, holy crap cereal and juice.
Mia and I finally ran into some issues with booking campsites due to the 4th of July holiday weekend - so this time, no national park for us, but KOA did in fact has space for us and we were more than welcoming shower facilities!
Mia and I discussed the game plan for the day and we decided we would make some lunch and hangout near the campground this day.
We purchase some more fire wood and once again, the fire was a pain to start due to wet wood.
We persisted and kept trying until we finally made enough fire to cook the remainder of the trips food.
We didn't have a grill so we had to get creative. I found an old oven cover at my parents and had packed it. While it wasn't large enough to cover the entire rim, I found a log nearby and a couple heavier rocks to help weigh the rack down. It seemed to work out well for us.
Kitchuri, curry, potatoes and vegan Neat Meat was all prepped and ready to eat.
Found some additional nibbles at local shops and was sure to grab more drinking water!
5 days in and only 2nd shower
Dinner was already made- just needed to reheat thanks to camp microwave. We hung out near our tent for the evening and passed out pretty early.
It rained this evening and very heavy - so our tent and sleeping bags got a tad wet.
Oh well, such is living off the land.
Just as Mia and I tucked ourselves in- the rain came down fierce
Chilling on the porch with our oatmeal and tea - thank you again campsite microwave.
One of our favorite things was chilling on the front porch rockers and enjoying the morning air and great company.
Mia and I were relaxed, more so than we had been in, well years. We discussed how sitting down and enjoying a morning cup of tea and oatmeal was a rare and beautiful thing to us.
How sad is that, our lives have become this overscheduled that we can't stop and enjoy the morning air?! Work is beyond stressful at times and then I have an Ayurvedic doctor requested routine to follow and then my own list of responsibilities (i.e. cleaning and cooking) and people want me to also have a life? It is way too much and I understand now how so many people are depressed and worn out. This is not how we are meant to live life, but instead, as the beautiful Ashley Adam Adamek once said, "Go to church they say. Pray to God they say. Do not sin or you will go to hell it goes. I dive into a wave and hear him speaking to me. I put my face towards the sun and feel his hands on my cheeks. I paddle to the line up and he is tickling my toes. I slide down a wave and we are one. Mother Earth is my god and play is my prayer."
Seeing what all it has to offer.
While the center downtown Asheville didn't do too much for Mia and I - again, trying to avoid the tourist traps and then also in search of things we can't do at home and let's be honest, if you have been to one downtown area, you have been to most.
So we did a quick morning run around downtown. We found the "Be for I die...." wall, we did not participate, but we enjoyed others sharing their dreams and the fact that the rain had paused just long enough for us to enjoy a walk around town.
Before heading out on this trip, Mia requested that I do a quick search in all of the areas to ensure that there was some place I could eat at or find food if we found ourselves in a pinch.
I had compiled a number of places from the Asheville, NC area and then upon arrival, reviewed some options with Mia. We then narrowed the list down to about 4 options and then narrowed that down to about 2 based on locations and then I chimed in and said, we not Nine Mile? It is not something we find often in our area...
We found Nine Mile is the West Asheville location and immediately felt more "at home". The West Asheville area is less touristy and a bit more hipster - it actually reminded me a great deal of West Philadelphia (ironically). You can check out my whole review of Nine Mile here: gf-flamingo.blogspot.com/NineMileAshevilleNC
Mia ordered the Nolan
Nicole ordered the Kingston 12
We had originally planned to share, but quickly decided that what we ordered was the correct choice for us.
After having walked around West Asheville and the rain was starting pour back down, we voted on a quick snack at the Hop Ice Cream.
They had both vegan and gluten free options! Sweet!
I went in and had an abundance to choose from.
I went with the kale and blueberry and chocolate and toasted quinoa.
All of their non-dairy milks are made-in-house and I have to say, it wasn't awesome - but it was enjoyable.
Dinner and king daddy's.
Checkout my full review here:
Watching Sing. It was a perfect night for a simply little outdoor movie time!
Catching all the sun!!
After having enjoyed our morning the day before so much - we both couldn't wait to get back to those rockers.
Funny - hours had passed and we looked at one another and said, wow, we have been here for hours, just sitting here in these rockers. Maybe we should do something? Sure we should, let's get dressed for the day, grab lunch and sit outside for a longer period of time.
Leftovers for the win!
After lunch and some just chill time, we headed to one of the local farmers markets and grabbed our parents some local peaches, honey, etc.
Back towards the campsite but a quick pit stop was in order - to a local pottery store directly across from our campground entrance.
Found a cute garden and plenty of suggestion in the Black Mountain, NC area. Which we had yet to explore!
It's tea from all over the world!
Mia and I entered in and found our way to the cutest table, took our shoes off and made ourselves comfortable.
I am pretty sure we spent an hour reviewing the menu book and reading out the unique tea varieties in each country.
After having decided we knew we wanted both a hot tea and cold tea, we tried to start narrowing down the list.
For some reason, I was drawn to their hot cocoa drinks.
We engaged with our waiter on suggestions and decisions had been made. We waited for our choices to arrive as we conversed with the other customers who stopped in.
Mia and I very much so enjoyed our options. My hot cocoa was soup like and actually thickened as we sat.
The rain storm found us and started to pour down, so we waited a bit longer and ordered our cold tea, Bee Knees, to-go.
We spent a good 2-3 hours here and just enjoyed chilling and conversing with others - which suggested we checkout some of the local areas - so off we were again!
Enjoying Montreat and Black Mountain NC
Dinner, downpour and camp KOA DJ.
Perfect night to have a covered event at the campground, since the rain was pouring down!
Dinner was kitchari, sweet potatoes and vegetables.
Good thing it stopped long enough for us to sleep!
Knowing this was our last night of our fabulous vacation, we organized everything so that our morning pack up would be quick and painless and then off to bed we went.
Only negative about this campsite is that around 2:00am and 6:00am each day, a very loud train passes through!
Bitter sweet as we get ready to leave.... it's been an amazing week! One of which will certainly never be forgotten. Thank you Mia for joining me and making the trip the gift that it became!
One last breakfast at the rockers before we head back to PA.
On the way home, we planned to continue our journey as we started, stopping wherever we found an interesting point. However, on the way home, Mia's Grandma in-law requested a dinner date, and of course we would rush home for Nunni - so no stops.
We planned to fill up gas, use the restrooms, make a quick lunch and keep on moving!
We made our last almond butter and jam sandwich and added some fresh cherries and snack bars.
I also found myself smiling when I ran into the restroom and found someone left a note "you are beautiful"
While our trip has come to an end, we have had our ups and our downs- got lost in the mountains for a couple hours, I got cranky, etc. we have had a blast!
I wouldn't change any of this trip- I'm truly feeling blessed to have been able to experience all the wonderful things this trip gave to Mia and I.
I am beyond proud of us that we not only survived the trip, we did so with smiles, we ate healthy, we stuck to a budget, spent time with loved ones and just treasured every moment!
Now back to reality - 5+ loads of wash, car cleaning, and a new puppy!