Ten days, eleven states (3): Ambling through the Appalachians

Our journey through the Appalachian Mountains (the main focus of our 2017 road trip in the USA) took almost four days traveling through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Kentucky.

The Appalachians comprise a large system of mountains and valleys, covering a vast area of the eastern USA, and extending into Canada. We explored just the southern end.

Day 4 began in Greenwood, SC where we had stopped the night after traveling north from Savannah, GA the previous day. Leaving our hotel not long after 8 am, we headed west crossing quite soon back into Georgia and working our way northwest through the Chattahoochee National Forest towards Blairsville, GA.

The winding 35 mile climb on GA60 into the Chattahoochee (map) began at Stonepile Gap. With towering trees either side of the road there were few places to stop or see out over the landscape. One of these however was Chestatee Overlook, where we had a first real view of the rolling—and heavily forested—Appalachians.

We expected to arrive in Blairsville after 5 pm, but we were there by 3:30. Rather than heading straight to our hotel, we decided to make a 50 mile circuit to the north and east of Blairsville, and quite by chance came across the entrance to Brasstown Bald, the highest mountain in Georgia, at 4784 feet.

There is a steep drive up to the car park, and a shuttle bus takes you up the final (and very steep) final mile to the observation platform. We arrived around 4:30, just in time to catch the final shuttle of the day, but allowing only about 15 minutes at the summit before the last shuttle would depart for the car park. Given the steepness of the descent (14%), and concerns that my right leg might suffer, we opted for the return shuttle. The visit was somewhat marred by several bikers (who were old enough to know better) using the climb to the car park (a couple of miles at least on a winding road) to ‘race’ their very noisy chopper motorbikes. Quite unnecessary really.

However, it was a glorious afternoon, and the 360° panorama afforded views into North Carolina and Tennessee to the north, and probably Virginia to the east. Just imagine what it must look like in September and October ablaze in all its Fall colours.

The following day, Sunday, our destination was Johnson City, TN taking in the Cherohala Skyway (map), a 50 mile scenic route stating at Tellico Plains, TN and ending at Robbinsville, NC.

The day started fine and sunny, and we weren’t disappointed in the Cherohala. Then we headed to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, crossing south to north (map) towards Gatlinburg, TN on US441. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the park (one of the busiest in the whole of the country), the weather had deteriorated and it was raining heavily. The Smoky Mountains really were smoky. On the off-chance that we would be above the clouds, we took the seven mile diversion to Clingmans Dome on the North Carolina-Tennessee border, the highest point in the Smokies, at 6643 feet.

There was not a lot to see, to say the least. But dropping down towards Gatlinburg, the clouds did lift and we saw something of the Smokies after all.

From Johnson City, we headed next day rather circuitously to Charleston, WV via the Cumberland Gap, and the Trail of the Lonesome Pine.

Not long after we headed out, we ran into one of the most intense storms I’ve ever experienced. It was raining so hard I could hardly see in front of the car. We did wonder whether our visit to Cumberland Gap would be a wash out. But the closer we got, the weather started to improve, and the sun was even shining as we arrived at the national park. From the Pinnacle Overlook it was hit and miss, now you see it, now you don’t as the clouds closed in, then cleared. But we did have some wonderful views, nevertheless.

The Cumberland Gap has been a major route through the Appalachians for Native Americans and the Europeans who settled there, and wanted to head west.

Cumberland Gap was a strategic route for both Union and Confederate armies during the American Civil War, and exchanged sides from time to time. There are still earthworks high up on the Pinnacle.

The following morning we set off early from Charleston, west into Kentucky. It was going to be a long day, and a rather complex route on minor roads through the Daniel Boone National Forest. This was gently rolling country, but nevertheless magnificent in terms of the trees lining the highways.

Towards the end of the afternoon, we hit the main highways again, heading further west to Cave City, KY for the night, and the next highlight of the trip: Mammoth Cave National Park.

Ten days, eleven states (2): Sauntering around Savannah

Savannah, Georgia. Founded in 1733, the oldest city in Georgia. It must be one of the most picturesque cities in the whole of the USA. Sitting just 20 miles or so upstream from the mouth of Savannah River on the Atlantic coast.

A city of squares and cobblestone streets, colonial houses, and Spanish moss dangling ubiquitously from trees surrounding the many colonial squares and lining broad avenues that cross the city.

Savannah. A city overflowing with Colonial, Revolutionary War, and Civil War history. A city full of historical markers, and some historical surprises. And, unfortunately, a city with one of the highest gun crime rates in the whole country.

Savannah was the first port of call on our recent road trip from Georgia to Minnesota. I’ve wanted to visit the city for a long time now. Not sure why that was the case, but it is one of those cities that you just have to visit, at least once.

We were not disappointed. And we had just an afternoon and morning to see the sights.

Having arrived to the USA on the Wednesday evening, and traveled just as far as Macon (about 80 miles southeast of Atlanta on I-75), we set off just after 09:00 on the following morning, after a reasonably comfortable night recovering from the journey over from the UK.

South of Macon, I-16 is mostly tree-lined the whole way to Savannah, and there’s little opportunity to see what the landscape is like, other than it’s rather flat. We easily found our hotel, Planters Inn on Reynolds Square, in the historic center of the city (see map), and I’d arranged for valet parking of our vehicle at a nearby multi storey car park.

Once we had settled into our room—upgraded to a larger one with a balcony—we set out to explore the River Street area just north of Reynolds Square, and find a bite to eat for lunch.

There’s so much to see. Along the Savannah River, River Street is lined by cotton warehouses now converted to commercial premises and apartments. Fortunately we were there at the beginning of the tourist season, but I can imagine that later on in the season, this area must be thronging with tourists. I was particularly taken with the wrought iron balconies that were a signature feature of many of the warehouses along River Street. It’s not hard to imagine what the cotton trade must have been like, and ignominy of slavery.

By Thursday evening we were rather tired, enjoyed dinner at the Cotton Exchange Tavern on River Street, and retired early to bed to catch up on our jet lag.

Next morning, with storms threatening by about 10 am, we decided to set out very early to explore the colonial streets of the city to the south of Reynolds Square, and heading to Forsyth Park. We had breakfast at 6:30, and were out of the hotel by 7:30. Within half an hour the first showers appeared, but lasted for just a few minutes, and it was more or less bright thereafter.

There’s one rather interesting surprise in Reynolds Square: a statue of John Wesley, one of the founders of Methodism, who spent a couple of years in Savannah from 1735.

An old cemetery is now the peaceful Colonial Park that we wandered through, the final resting place of so many of the great and good from Savannah’s past. It’s almost next door to Savannah’s Cathedral of St John the Baptist.

Colonial era houses still line Jones Street, and the history of Savannah during the Civil War of the 1860s is evident everywhere. Confederate President Jefferson Davis stayed there. Savannah was occupied by Union troops under General William Tecumseh Sherman after laying waste to Atlanta.

Forsyth Park (some 30 acres) lies at the southern end of the historic district, with an impressive monument to Confederate soldiers.

We returned to the hotel after about three hours, rather hot and sweaty, and took advantage of the hotel offer to use one of the restrooms on the first floor, to freshen up. Having cooled down, settled our bill, and called for our vehicle from the valet parking, we set off for Greenwood, just under 170 miles to the north in South Carolina, over the Talmadge Memorial Bridge around 11:30.

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Ten days, eleven states (1): Almost 2800 miles from Georgia to Minnesota

Ten days, eleven states (1): Almost 2800 miles from Georgia to Minnesota

Yes. That’s right. Eleven states in just ten days.

2764 miles to be precise. Ninety-four gallons of gasoline consumed. Almost 30 mpg at just USD209. That’s not bad considering we rented a Jeep Patriot SUV (with a Connecticut licence plate!).

I’d opted for a car rental through Rentalcars.com and chose Alamo as the best deal. Just USD357 for the actual rental, USD250 for the one way drop-off fee, and USD98 for roadside assistance cover and various taxes.

I had planned our route meticulously, taking in various sites and landscape features I thought would be interesting, and avoiding as much as possible any of the interstate highways. I bought Rand McNally road maps for all states except Virginia and Minnesota (we already had a DeLorme Atlas & Gazetteer for MN). I checked precise US and State Routes using Google maps since the scale of the Rand McNally didn’t always show the road name. I even used Google Streetview to check the various intersections, and before we traveled I already had an image in my mind of the entire route.

I prepared daily detailed route plans on cards, which Steph used to navigate us across country from Atlanta to Minnesota, with each map marked at decision points corresponding to the route card details (you can just make out a series of circles on the map below).

Fortunately, US roads are very well signposted and road signs (e.g. US61 or GA23, for example) are posted every few miles. It was hard to go wrong, but we did on three occasions; nothing major, however. My first mistake was leaving the car rental center at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. I turned on to I-85N instead of I-85S, but was able to turn around within a mile. On two other occasions we made a turn too early, but realised almost immediately. Not bad really for such a long road trip. Nor did we encounter any road works that held us up, or any road accidents. We almost never saw a police car.

These four map links show the actual route we took over the ten days:

Atlanta – Savannah, GA – Greenwood, SC – Blairsville, GA
31 May – 3 June
Blairsville, GA – Cave City, KY
4 – 6 June
Cave City – Iowa City, IA
7 – 8 June
Iowa City – St Paul, MN
9 June

We stayed in ‘chain’ hotels like Best Western, Comfort Inn, Quality Inn and the like, about USD100 or so a night. In Savannah we stayed at The Planters Inn on Reynolds Square, close to the river and other historic attractions, and this was our most expensive at around USD230 including taxes and valet parking. Breakfast (if you can call it that) was provided in each hotel. For lunch, eaten by the roadside or at a scenic viewpoint, we picked up a freshly-made sandwich and with some fruit from the hotel, we had enough to keep us going until a substantial dinner in the evening. Surprisingly, we ate Mexican on three nights and had very good meals. There was even beer! Twice we ate at the nearby Cracker Barrel Old Country Store – reasonable food but no beer. Walking into our second Cracker Barrel in Troy, IL it was déjà vu; the layout of the restaurant and the store was identical to the one we patronised in Johnson City, TN.

Anyway, here is a summary of our epic road trip.

31 May, Atlanta, GA – Macon, GA, 82 miles
Our flight (DL73) from Amsterdam landed on time just after 14:15, and despite arriving at an E pier and having to walk the considerable distance over to the new F International Terminal for immigration and customs, then taking a 15 minute shuttle to the new car rentals center beyond the airport perimeter, we were on the road not long after 16:00. We were headed to Macon on I-75, some 82 miles southeast of Atlanta towards Savannah to spend our first night, and recover—to the extent possible—from our long day of travel from Birmingham (BHX), arriving to our hotel (Best Western on Riverside Drive) just around 18:00

Just arrived at Best Western in Macon

We had the room on the right of the balcony, overlooking Reynolds Square

1 June, Macon – Savannah, GA, 167 miles
Since we had only a relatively short journey to reach Savannah, and because I wanted us to get a good rest before setting off once again, we didn’t leave Macon until after 09:00. Our hotel in Savannah (Planter’s Inn on Reynolds Square) had contacted me that morning by SMS asking what time we expected to arrive and hoping to have a room ready then. Not only was our room ready at just after 11:00, but we’d been upgraded to a balcony room. Once we had settled in, we set off on a leisurely stroll around the historic riverside where the old cotton warehouses have been converted to restaurants and other retail outlets, as well as apartments.

Savannah oozes history (and Spanish moss) – a direct line of historical events from the early 18th century, when it was founded, through Colonial times, and the turmoil of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

2 June, Savannah – Greenwood, SC, 196 miles
We spent the morning in Savannah absorbing the Colonial, Revolutionary and Civil Wars history of this beautiful city. The weather didn’t look promising, with thunderstorms forecast, so we left the hotel by 07:30 and wandered through the various squares, parks and colonial streets for three hours, with just a small shower to bother us. After freshening up at the hotel and checking out, we were on the road again by 11:30, headed for Greenwood in the northwest of South Carolina.

The US17 route out of Savannah crosses the Savannah River over the fine-looking Talmadge Memorial Bridge, completed in 1991, 185 feet above the water.

We passed through a heavy rainstorm for the first 20 miles or so, but the weather brightened, and we stopped for a bite to eat beside the road in glorious sunshine. The road north was almost completely straight passing through small towns with names like Denmark, Sweden and Norway. There wasn’t much evidence of much agriculture, just some maize on this coastal plain with rather sandy soils. Communities seemed quite impoverished (according to the 2010 census it is the 7th poorest state). Nevertheless, the Southern Baptist (and some Presbyterian) churches and chapels stood in stark contrast. I’ve never seen so many places of worship so close together. There must be a lot of wicked souls need saving in South Carolina (and surrounding states) to require so many churches, often within just a few hundred yards of each other (or closer).

We were in Greenwood by 17:00, found our hotel, the Hampton Inn, and enjoyed steak and seafood meals at the Red Lobster outlet beside the hotel.

3 June, Greenwood – Blairsville, GA, 195 miles
Distance-wise this was never going to be one of the longest days, but I had planned our route climbing into the Appalachians through the Chatterhoochee National Forest on US60, a winding road among the trees.

We departed from Greenwood around 08:00 and made our first stop at the SC-GA state line to look over the Savannah River at Calhoun Falls. We had another stop at Cleveland, GA to tour the historic courthouse museum, and arrived in Blairsville by about 15:00.

Not wanting to go straight to our hotel, the Comfort Inn, so early in the day, we opted for a 55 mile round trip taking in some of the hills and forest to the north and east of Blairsville, arriving to Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia at 4500 feet, around 16:30 just in time to take the last shuttle bus to the summit, and down again. I decided not to walk the 1 mile descent from the summit to the car park because the average gradient was more than 14%, and Steph and I were concerned that I might hurt my right leg, which is still giving me some grief 18 months after I broke it.

4 June, Blairsville – Johnson City, TN 282 miles
This was our opportunity of really traveling through the Appalachians. I’d chosen to travel east along the Cherohala Skyway in North Carolina. We had expected some poor weather this day, so set off as early as we could get away in order to enjoy the early morning brightness. The Cherohala offers some spectacular views along the way, and we were not disappointed at all.

Looking south from the Cherohala Skyway over North Carolina

But the further east we went, the more cloudy it became, and by the time we reached US441 to cross the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it was raining quite hard and we didn’t really see very much at all. We took the side route of about seven miles to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point over 6600 feet. Couldn’t see a thing! But lower down on the north side, the weather improved and we did see something of the Smoky Mountains.

We then dropped down to Gatlinburg in Tennessee. If you’ve ever harbored the desire to visit Gatlinburg – don’t. What a tourist disaster! A narrow highway through the center of the town, tackiest tourist souvenir stores lining both sides, and even though this was early in the tourist season, there were throngs of people about. I’m glad we were only passing through. Then it was on to our hotel on the outskirts of Johnson City.

5 June, Johnson City – Charleston, WV, 380 miles
The focus early in the day was the Cumberland Gap, northwest of Johnson City by about 80 miles or so. Not long after leaving Johnson City, along US11, we passed through one of the heaviest rain storms I’ve ever experienced. I could hardly see in front of the car. But by the time we reached Cumberland Gap, the clouds had lifted somewhat, and the sun appeared.

The ‘Cumberland Gap’ is familiar to me from my skiffle days, as sung by Lonnie Donegan.

We went up to the Pinnacle Overlook, hoping to see the views over Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky – even as far as North Carolina on a good day. It was only a case of ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ as the clouds came rolling in, then dispersed. As a major pass through the Appalachians, the Cumberland Gap was strategically important for both the Union and Confederacy during the Civil War of the 1860s, and changed sides every so often. There is still evidence of military occupation high on the Overlook.

Looking north into Kentucky and the town of Middlesboro. The highway has just emerged from the tunnel through the Gap.

Then later in the day, heading east towards Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, we traveled along The Trail of the Lonesome Pine in Virginia. Until I was planning this trip, I wasn’t even aware that the Trail was a real entity, not after I’d heard Laurel and Hardy singing about it.

6 June, Charleston – Cave City, KY, 371 miles
Our destination this day was Cave City in central Kentucky where we planned to visit the Mammoth Cave National Park the following day. Heading west out of Charleston on I-64, we turned south at Morehead in Kentucky (about 110 miles west) to head south through the Daniel Boone National Forest.

We traveled some 125 miles along scenic highways and byways. Then we turned west on the Cumberland Parkway west of Somerset, KY for the rest of the day’s trip to make up some time and so as not to arrive to our hotel too late. However, Kentucky is divided into two time zones, so we gained an hour (from Eastern to Central Time) about 80 miles east of Cave City.

7 June, Cave City – Troy, IL, 367 miles
The Mammoth Cave National Park opened at 08:00, and we were at the Visitor Center not long afterwards. I had booked a tour of the Frozen Niagara cave some months back, at 09:20. This was a guided tour, the first of the day, and to a cave that was easily accessible. I didn’t want to contend with scrambling over rocks with my leg. In any case we planned to stay at the Park only until late morning as we still had the whole day’s trip of over 350 miles to make.

We enjoyed the cave, along with a group of fewer than 30 others. The caves are kept closed and it’s generally not possible to visit them alone. What amazed us is that the cave system, at over 440 mapped miles is the largest system in the world. The Park gets very busy during school holidays, and we were fortunate to have visited when we did.

Our next port of call was Fort Defiance at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and the southernmost point of Illinois. Most impressive.

Then we followed the Mississippi north towards St Louis and our hotel in Troy just northeast of the city, catching a glimpse of the famous Gateway Arch as we skirted the city center on the Illinois side of the river.

8 June, Troy – Iowa City, IA, 332 miles
Our plan was to follow the Mississippi north through Missouri into Iowa. Heading west around the north of St Louis we crossed both the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers close to their confluence. Heading north on MO79, we stopped at Clarksville to stretch our legs, and look at the dam and lock, where a very large combination of barges was being ferried northwards slowly against the current.

Further north we stopped also at Louisiana, MO to view the Champ Clark Bridge that connects MO and IL, from a vantage point high above the river.

Then it was on to our next, and last, overnight stop in Iowa City.

9 June, Iowa City – St Paul, MN, 333 miles
Our last day on the road, heading north on very straight roads, before crossing into southern Minnesota and crossing the Bluff Country eastwards to reach Winona on the Mississippi.

Just south of the Iowa-Minnesota state line we passed through Cresco, IA which proudly advertises itself as the birthplace of Dr Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution in wheat and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 1973, who I had the honour of meeting when I worked at IRRI.

In Winona, we took a short diversion to a scenic overlook about 500 feet above the river valley and had a spectacular view north and south.

Then we set off with added determination to arrive to Hannah and Michael’s in the Highland Park area of St Paul by late afternoon, and the end of our enjoyable 2017 road trip adventure.

Here are the individual blog posts about the various places we visited: