Laura has a birthday coming up, but finding a time to celebrate has been problematic. We had decided to go a getaway the weekend before her birthday, but nature dealt us a blow. Our original plans were to head to Charleston and visit the ACE Basin, then head up to Beidler Forest. Obviously, with all of the flooding in the lower part of the state, that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, we decided to head north. I got us tickets for the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad. Turned out to be a peak fall color weekend, and a great getaway, even though it wasn’t Charleston.
Saturday brought even more rain, and we were worried about our plans. We attended a VERY wet birthday party for our niece, but managed to stay dry otherwise. Sunday morning brought cloudy skies, but no rain, so we headed out.
Great Smoky Mountains Railroad
Our train was scheduled for a 2:00 pm departure. It took us a couple of hours to drive up through Asheville then over to Bryson City. We got there a bit before noon, so we decide to grab a snack, even though lunch was supposed to be provided on the train.
We made it to the ticket station and got checked in. From all reports, this was going to be a LONG train with lots of people, and from the number of folks gathering, it certainly looked like that would be the case. It also looked like we were going to be right at the front of the train.
We had ridden the railroad before, back in 2011. At that time we rode in one of the open air cars, and I had noticed that there was a much nicer open air car available. That’s the one we booked. However, we were late getting tickets. There was only one pair of seats together available. These were on the right side of the car, which doesn’t have as good views.
Even so it was a nice ride and even though the leaves were still not at peak, this area, there was quite a bit of scenery.
Our experience on the train was very similar to the 2011 trip. The only problem was that with the assigned seats we couldn’t move from side to side to get the nice views. At least the seats were more comfortable.
We passed by Lake Fontana and headed on up into the Nantahala Gorge. I had the usually longings to be out on the river with a kayak. At the end to the run the train paused. Last time there was an elaborate engine-switching process as the engine was moved from the front of the train to the back for the return trip. That didn’t happen this time. The train was too long for the siding, so they had two engines at either end. It was just a matter of powering down the front engines and putting them in neutral, then getting the rear engine started. The process took much less time, and we were soon on our way back.
Lunch was BBQ sandwiches – OK, but not up to the level of Henry’s Smokehouse. We ate as we traveled back through the gorge. A banjo player entertained us for a bit.
We stopped at the Nantahala Outdoor Center for a 1 hour+ layover. This was supposed to give those without lunch tickets a chance to get food, etc. Laura and I both thought the layover was a bit long. I stepped out to stretch my legs, get a couple of shots of Wesser Falls, and to watch some kayakers running the slalom course.
Soon it was time to load back up. As we were seated our steward brought out dessert – pumpkin spice cake. It was pretty good.
As we headed back, our steward, John, informed us that this was his last ride. He was leaving to spend three years with the Peace Corps in Zambia.
I managed to get up and move around a bit on the way back. This gave me a few more opportunities for photos of something other than kudzu.
Soon enough we were back at the station. We got checked into our motel, then grabbed a light meal, even though it seemed that we had been eating all day. A spectacular sunset capped the day.
Blue Ridge Parkway
Monday morning we got a leisurely start to the day and headed out. Laura had the day off because of Fall Break at Furman, and I kept thinking it was Sunday all day. We drive back toward Asheville, but when we got to the Blue Ridge Parkway we took it. We had the top back on the Mini, and I had mounted the GoPro above the windshield so that I could catch the fall colors.
It was cool, but as we climbed higher the colors got more intense.
It was interesting observing the microclimes at various altitudes. As we got close to the highest point of the parkway the colors diminished. Hardwoods were replaced with balsam and other evergreens. On the other side of the ridge, a low cloud bank made the scene even more interesting.
With all of the recent rains the road cuts and rock faces were dripping like crazy. Some of these even qualified as actual waterfalls, the flow was so strong.
We made it up to Black Balsam and decided to take the side road that leads up to that trail head. As the road climbs it provides spectacular views out across Graveyard Fields below. However, we had reached another area where the colors were a bit past prime.
All of the parking areas were crowded. We were at peak tourism time. Back down at Graveyard Fields a parking place could not be had. Also, down at that level and just beyond the fall colors were at peak.
Here are three videos shot from the GoPro to give you a sense of what we were seeing.
We crossed Highway 276 and continued on toward Mount Pisgah, then comes the descent through multiple tunnels down to the French Broad River. I could post more photos, but I’ll just link to my photoset on Flickr so you can see the rest of them at your leisure.
When we reached the French Broad River we took Highway 191 rather than the Interstate down to Hendersonville. There we had a nice lunch on Main Street.
We even made it back in plenty of time for me to make it to Chorale rehearsal. It had been a great weekend away.