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Thursday, November 19, 2020

10 Must Visit Places in Great Smoky Mountains

Explorer Lens


I have always wondered why “Great Smoky Mountains National Park” is the most popular national park of USA. In 2019 it had the highest number of visitors – 12.5 million.

Yosemite is known for its gigantic granite rocks and beautiful waterfalls, Yellowstone is known for its hot springs, gushing geysers and majestic wildlife, Death Valley for its dramatic terrain and Acadia for its scenic coastal areas. So, I was quite excited to see what magic lied in Smoky Mountains, and oh man I was on cloud 9.

One great advantage that I had, I was visiting during the Fall season which is considered as the best time to visit Smoky Mountains. Also, after visiting the national park I understood why the name has Smoky in it. There can be smoke of fog or clouds at any point of the day and it is so mystical and magical.

Visiting Smoky Mountains doesn’t just include visiting the National Park, but also includes a trip to the nearby towns which are quite happening and full of activities for all age groups.
So let’s move forward to the 10 must do things on your trip to “Great Smoky Mountains National Park”.

1. Cades Cove Drive
The top thing to do in Smoky Mountain is the Cades Cove Drive. This 11 miles one-way drive is known for its picturesque mountain views, historic cabins dating back to 1800 and wildlife watching. It is one of the best places in the park to view animals like black bears, deer and wild turkeys. Hiking is also popular here, especially the trails leading to Abrams Falls. Cades Cove can be best explored by a car or bike, but keep in mind that loop road is closed to motor traffic on Saturday and Wednesday mornings until 10 a.m. from early May to late September, and only cyclists are allowed during those times.

Make sure to go early around 9:00 a.m., otherwise you will be stuck in big queues as the cars move quite slowly and traffic increase as the day progresses. Also we saw 2 black bears here, so always keep on looking into the woods.

Cades cove drive can take anywhere from 4-6 hours, so be prepared.

2. Newfound Gap Drive
If you want to enjoy the breathtaking views of the mountains, specially during the fall season, then Newfound Gap Drive is a must. This is 31 miles drives which run from Sugarland Visitor Center and goes still Cherokee, North Carolina. There are numerous overlook points here which provides jaw-dropping views of the mountains and the valley. The whole drive is quite scenic during the fall time when the leaves are painted in colors of yellow, orange and red.

Also, the trailheads of the most popular hikes of Smoky Mountains are located on this drive.
Newfound Gap drive can take anywhere from 2-3 hours.


3. Clingmans Dome Observation Tower
At 6643 feet, Clingmans Dome is considered as the highest point in Smoky Mountains.
The observation tower situated on the summit of Clingmans Dove offers striking 360-degree views of the Smoky Mountains. On a clear day, one can see views expanding till 100 miles.

The hike from parking to the top of the observation tower is half mile one way and is very steep. Also, the temperatures here are cooler than the lowlands and hence it is advised to always carry a jacket, even in summers. You can also do stargazing here.

Spare 1.5-2 hours for the hike and sightseeing here.


4. Hikes
There are lot of amazing hikes here in Smoky Mountains, one of which is also part of the Appalachian trail, but I will list only the top 3-day hikes as per what I have read and known.

- Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte
It is considered to be the most popular hike of Smoky Mountains and we understood that when we saw the parking for the trailhead. It is a 11 miles roundtrip and is rated as difficult. As we were short on time, so we decided to skip this and do the Charlies Bunion via Appalachian Trail.

- Chimney Tops Trail
It is one of the shorter hikes of Smoky Mountains with spectacular views.
Rated as strenuous and steep, the hike is of total 4 miles roundtrip.
In spring and summer, you can also see beautiful wildflowers here.
As we had time to do only one hike in our trip, we preferred Charlies Bunion over this.

- Charlies Bunion via Appalachian Trail
Charlies Bunion is a stone outcrop which provides killer views of Mt. LeConte and Mt. Chapman. It is rated as one of the top hikes of Smoky Mountains. The hike is not well marked; hence you need to follow the signs for Appalachian Trail. It is around 8.5 miles round trip and is rated as difficult.

Make sure to carry some protein bars and stuff for energy and also good amount of water.
When you reach Charlies Bunion, there is also a way to get to a higher point which is right above it and the views from there are even more breathtaking.


5. Waterfalls
Some of the popular Waterfalls in the park are :

- Grotto Falls
You can actually walk behind this waterfall, which is an experience in itself. It can be accessible through a 2.6 mile roundtrip hike located in Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

- Rainbow Falls
As the name suggests, this fall produces rainbow mist during sunny afternoons. It is a 5.4 mile roundtrip hike located in Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

- Abrams Falls
Though its just a 20-foot fall, but it boasts a large volume of water into a deep pool lying at the bottom of the fall, which makes it quite picturesque. It is a 5-mile roundtrip hike located in Cades Cove Loop Road.

As we were short of time for a long hike to a waterfall, we choose to see another stunning waterfall which lies at the edge of the park – Mingo Falls. It is just a 0.3-mile hike to the bottom of the waterfall. We need to climb a staircase and then get to a bridge to witness this spectacular 120 feet fall. It looks absolutely stunning during the fall season.



6. Gatlinburg
Located in the valley of Smoky Mountains, this beautiful town has something for each age group. It feels like Gatlinburg is the starting point of Smoky Mountains.
There are variety of attractions and activities on offer for each age group.

https://www.mysmokymountainpark.com/

Some of the popular activities include :
-  Ober Gatlinburg (Enjoy Mountain Coaster & aerial tramway in summers and snow activities in winter)
-  Gatlinburg Space Needle (Observation Deck at 400 feet gives stunning views of the town and Smoky Mountains)
-  Anakeesta (This theme park is a favorite for both kids and adults and has tons of activities)
-  Helicopter Ride
-  Ziplining
-  Horseback Riding
-  Skylift Park (It is home to one of the longest pedestrian suspension bridges in North America and while walking the bridge you can soak in stunning views of Smoky Mountains).

7. Pigeon Forge
This town is love at first sight, as it is home to some incredible attractions.
It is full of amusement parks, to shows and other attractions.
Some of the popular activities include :
- The Island (Ride the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel and watch the Island Show fountain)
- Dollywood (It is counted among the top 10 amusement parks in USA and has world class activities)
- Titanic Museum (Feels like you are boarding the real ship)
-  Nascar Speed Park (If you want to feel the adrenaline rush)
-  Hollywood Wax Museum
-  Wonderworks




8. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Another one-way scenic loop drive in the park is Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It offers stunning views of the forest, rushing streams and historic cabins. During fall season it turns into a magical route which looks absolutely stunning.

There are also few scenic overlooks and popular waterfall (Rainbow and Grotto) trailheads along the course. It is total 5.5 miles and can take anywhere around 2-3 hours to cover it.



9. Wildlife watching
One of the best things to do in Smoky Mountains is to watch wildlife in their natural habitat.
There are around 65 different species of mammals, over 200 varieties of birds and over 80 types of reptiles and amphibians.

The popular wildlife which can be frequently seen in the park are -
Black Bears (densest population in whole USA), Deer, Elks, Salamanders and Coyotes.
Bears can be seen along the Cades Cove and Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Elks are located in the Cataloochee area of the park.


10. Stay in Cabins
Why not wake up to an unobstructed beautiful view of the misty mountains or sipping up a warm cup of coffee while watching the sunrise over the mountains?

https://www.cabinsforyou.com/


Staying in cabins is once in a lifetime experience and should definitely be considered while visiting Smoky Mountains. It is also affordable and feels home like.
Do read the Covid safety measures and instructions before booking a Cabin.

So I hope, I was able to help you plan your trip to Smoky Mountains. All the best for an adventurous and amazing vacation. Have fun and stay safe !!

Monday, November 9, 2020

Hampton Inn by Hilton - Hotel Review and Experience

Explorer Lens

 


Year 2020 hasn’t been really a happening year in terms of travelling, especially long distance where you need to take a flight or cruise. We had planned two big trips this year, one to Yellowstone National Park and another one to Bahamas, but had to postpone both of them because of the current Covid situation, which is still quite widespread and constantly growing.

It was my wife’s birthday and as our cruise trip to Bahamas on our anniversary was cancelled, we thought to go for a trip, probably the last one for this year (Maine was our first).

 We stay in New Jersey and had covered almost all the drivable places from here, so it was a tough task to decide on the destination. The beautiful fall time was here and there was one place on our bucket list which we probably wanted to go with friends during this time – “The Great Smoky Mountains National Park”. But, as there were issues of work leaves, stay and 700 miles one-way drive, none of our friends showed interest in accompanying us for this adventurous trip to Smoky, it was us who has to make the decision.

Considering the huge 700 miles drive and concerns over staying in hotel during this time, we decided to drop the plan. Suddenly just one week before the birthday, somehow, we both got this intuition that we have to do this trip and hence the trip was on.
Now, the most important question was where to stay?

When it comes to Smoky, Cabins are the top most priority because of the feel, vibes, experience of stay and the scenic views. But, as we were not getting budget cabins during the last hour, we thought of going for hotels. Hilton has always been one of our favorite vacation hotels and we decided to go for Hampton Inn by Hilton, Oak Ridge, Tenesse.

Booking Process :
We booked the hotel over call and it was a smooth experience. The associate was quite humble and she reserved the room type and dates for us. We requested for microwave in the room, as it was not available in the room type we selected, and the associate happily did that for us.

Checkin Process:
We were really happy to know that they have contactless checkin and it was just a matter of downloading their App – Hilton Honors. The navigation on the App is quite simple and you can choose the rooms from different floors which match your already chosen room type.
Our room type was No smoking King size room and there were 4 rooms available during our stay of visit.
We picked one of them and the room was booked in our name.

Now here comes the most interesting part – Digital Key. When we reached the hotel, we directly went to our room which was sealed. We took off the seal and unlocked the room using the Digital key on our App. Once you turn on Bluetooth and are in vicinity to your room, the key will automatically detect that you have arrived and will show option to “Unlock”. Once you touch that, the door will automatically open.

Please enjoy the video displaying the entire process :


Room :
The room was clean and arranged systematically. It was spacious and had all the amenities that were described on the website. To my surprise, they also had a QR code which we can scan and see the video of how the room was cleaned. The housekeeping was on a request basis which is another good move by the Hotel. The bed was quite comfy, AC worked smoothly and the toiletries were by Neutrogena which is one of my wife’s favorite brand😊

Breakfast :
The best part of our stay was super yummy breakfast that was available from morning 7:00 – 10 am.
There were lot of options to choose from - muffins, Danish, bagels, mini cakes, protein bars, Oat meals, Cereals, Fruits and juices.
If you don’t want to have the breakfast from the spread, they even had go to breakfast packets, which had a water bottle, one snack bar, one fruit and a tissue.



Staff :
The staff was quite amiable, helping and humble.
As it was my wife’s birthday and we were still stuck in Smoky, I requested the receptionist if she could arrange a cake for her. To my surprise, she really managed to arrange a big Red Velvet cake which is my wife’s favorite flavor. My wife was so happy when she saw the cake. It was a great surprise for her which couldn’t have been possible without the help and efforts from the Hotel Stuff.
Love you guys for that <3

Other Amenities
They have fitness center and Indoor Swimming Pool open, but as we were short of time and also not comfortable using them, we didn’t experience these amenities.

Accessibility :
The hotel is situated right on the spot where the Google Maps indicate and is easily accessible.
As it is not located in the interiors and right on the main road, you can easily locate it.

Location :
It is situated in the Oak Ridge Business District and has lot of other hotels/food joints in its vicinity.
There is also a gas station nearby. So, as per me the location is quite good.

Parking :
They have their own parking which is a bit less as compared to other hotels, but manageable.
We always found a spot to park during our 3 days stay.

Checkout Process:
The checkout process is also contactless. You just have to checkout using the App and you are done.
These are some really great safety measures during this pandemic time.

Verdict
We really loved and enjoyed our stay in Hampton Inn by Hilton, Oak Ridge.
I would give it a 5/5 rating.

Monday, October 12, 2020

10 Must Visit Places in Acadia National Park

Explorer Lens



USA is known for its dramatic and varied terrain. With Pacific in the west and Atlantic in the east, world’s biggest tress and rock formation, USA has some of most amazing natural wonders in the world, which are on the bucket list of every traveler.

It is also lauded for its world-famous National Parks, which are dream destinations for many people in the world.
One of such national parks which top the list on East Coast, USA is Acadia National Park. Situated in the state of Maine, it covers the coastal part of the Maine which meets the wild Atlantic Ocean. In USA, most of the National Parks are known for their gigantic mountains and mesmerizing waterfalls, but Acadia is known for its coastal beauty.

We recently visited this amazing place and here are the 10 must visit places in this National Park :

1. Cadillac Mountain
Start your day with the drive to the summit of Cadillac Mountain, one of the first place in USA to watch the sunrise from October to March. It is the largest and tallest mountain in Acadia National Park and the views from the top are just breathtaking. When we visited the mountain, fog was just lifting and watching it roll of the water and into the valley was just majestic.

Once the sun is up, you can see the panoramic views of the islands in the Frenchman Bay. It is really a stunning start to the morning. The summit road which takes you up and down the Cadillac mountain, also has several pulloffs which provide stunning views of the ocean.

2. Jordan Pond


After you are done soaking in the beauty of Cadillac Mountain, the next spot to explore is Jordan Pond.
Though it is called a pond, it is nothing less than a lake. It is situated in a pine forest and surrounded by small mountains. The water is incredibly clear and pristine. Once you walk from the parking area towards the pond, the view is absolutely stunning. 

There is also a path that takes full loop around the pond and is easy and doable for all age groups. Also, there is a Pond house which serves delicious snacks and bakery items.  

3. North and South Bubble Mountains
You can combine the trip to North and South Bubble Mountains with the Jordan Pond trail, or if you are short of time you can do them separately. The parking for the north/south bubble is quite limited, so make sure to come early in the morning or during late noon to get a spot.

The South Bubble Mountain is famous for the Bubble Rock, which is a large boulder that was carried by glacier and precariously balanced on the edge of the cliff. It is fun to see how such a big rock is balanced on its own at the edge.



The North Bubble Mountain is famous for the “out of the world” views of Jordan Pond from the top.



The to and fro hike to the summit of both the mountains from the parking lot is around 1.5 miles each and if you combine the hikes of both the bubbles, it is roughly 2.5 miles from the parking lot.

The hike is easy to moderate level and can be done by people of all ages.

4. Sand Beach
After the bubble mountain hike, if you need to sit and relax for sometime while taking in the view, Sandy beach is the perfect spot for that. It is a clean beach surrounded by cliffs and the view of the ocean is just stunning. All facilities are available here like changing booths, restrooms, and lifeguards. It is also the start of Ocean Trail. A walk on the beach is a good way to prepare for the next hikes.

5. Beehive Trail
After a good stroll at the beach, it is time to take your hiking experience to the next level.
If you are an experienced hiker, I would recommend Precipice Trail for an adventure of lifetime, but if that is not the case, it is always recommended to go for less dangerous and Strenuous hike – Beehive Trail.

From the parking lot of Sand Beach, you can hike the Bowl trail to the Beehive trail, and from the summit you can walk down the same path.

The difficulty level is strenuous and there are times when you have to walk through narrow cliffs and climb up metal rungs. So, if you fear of height, it is advisable to skip this trail.

6. Park Loop Road
One of the best ways to explore Acadia National Parks is to drive the 27-mile scenic Park Loop Road.
It offers absolutely stunning views of the ocean and might remind you of the Pacific Coast Highway drive in California.

You have lot of pullovers on the right-hand side of the road to take photos and admire the view.

Few things to take care while planning the drive:
- Try to do in the morning hours when there is less traffic and wildlife is active.
- Keep in mind that is a one-way drive.

7. Thunder Hole
One of the most dramatic spot in Acadia National Parks is Thunder Hole. It is a small rock formation like a cave, where the water splashes out of the inlet when there are high tides. The splash causes a thundering boom.

We were not lucky enough to catch the splash, but it is said that when the surf is high, the water can shoot up as high as 40 feet in the air. It is recommended to check the tide condition and when it is ideal time to watch this wonderful natural phenomenon.

8. Nature Cruise
Trip of Acadia National Park is incomplete without a nature cruise.
Most of these cruises start from Bar Harbor, and depending upon the time of the year you can choose from various options like - Whale Watching, Sunset Nature Cruise, Lighthouses tour and general nature cruise.

If it is the time of the year when whales are spotted, go for Whale Watching cruise, otherwise you can take the sunset nature cruise.
We took one by Acadian Nature Cruises and it was absolutely amazing. The guide was quite informative and he told us about the history of the park and various landmarks that arrived during the course of the cruise. We also spotted several seals on the rocks of Egg Rock Lighthouse. 

The sunset views were outstandingly beautiful.


The cruise took all the necessary precautions during the Covid time, specially the 6 feet distancing. Masks were compulsory. It costed us $33 per person for 2 hours tour.

9. Schoodic Peninsula
If you want a more secluded place to enjoy the coastal views of the islands, cliffs and ocean, get to this part of Acadia National Park which is known as Schoodic Peninsula.
It gets less crowd as compared to the Mount Desert Island and hence is a great place to enjoy the views with your special one or family.

There are few hiking trails here, but the views are no match to what we get on the summits of Mount Desert Island.
Though we didn’t get much time to explore this area, it is suggested to visit two points :
- Schoodic Point to watch the massive rock formations by ancient volcanic activity and the splash of water when large waves of Atlantic Ocean kiss them.
- Raven's Nest is a photographer paradise where tallest cliffs of the area surround several isolated coves. It’s not only a picturesque spot but also a hidden gem of Maine.

It is also a great place for stargazing.


10. Lobster Restaurants
Finally, Maine is a seafood lover heaven and one thing that you will get in abundant here is Lobster.
There are number of restaurants serving variety of Lobster dishes especially Lobster rolls and cakes.
So if you love seafood, especially Lobsters, you should definitely give your taste buds a treat.

So that's all about Acadia National Park.
Hope you have a great time and fun when you visit it :)


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