The Carolinas and Tennessee

In October of 2020 we used flight credits to travel to a few states that we had never visited before. While we would only have five full days available to us, we put together a plan that would start and finish in Charlotte and travel from Charleston to the Smoky Mountains. We were looking forward to Carolina BBQ, a plethora of historic sites, and fall colors in the Appalachians.

  • Highlights
    • Kiawah/Andell Inn Hotel
    • Kiawah Island Beach
    • Magnolia Plantation
    • Fort Sumter
    • Alum Cave Bluff Trail and Roaring Fork Nature Trail in GSMNP
    • Mysterious Mansion & Greenbrier Inn, Gatlinburg, TN
    • Chimney Rock State Park, NC
    • McCoy’s Smokehouse, Charlotte, NC
  • Lowlights
    • Hyatt Place Hotel, Charlotte, NC
    • Crowds in Gatlinburg and Great Smoky Mountains
  1. Day 1: Charlotte, NC
  2. Day 2: Congaree National Park and Kiawah Island
  3. Day 2: Charleston
  4. Day 4: Great Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg, TN
  5. Day 5: Great Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg
  6. Day 5: Chimney Rock State Park and back to Charlotte, NC
  7. Final Thoughts

Day 1: Charlotte, NC

We had an afternoon flight that landed late in the evening in Charlotte, NC. Because we were unfamiliar with the city and would be arriving at 11PM we chose a hotel near the airport.

Lodging: Hyatt Place Charlotte Airport: 1 Star
We found the hotel quickly and it seemed fairly nice from the outside, but from there we began to see some issues. The elevator smelled undeniably like marijuana. Our room upon entry looked good but when we unrolled the pullout bed for our teenage son Daniel, we found dirty sheets. We looked for clean sheets in the closet, didn’t find any, and requested some from the desk. Upon pulling back the bedspreads we found the sheets there were also in a questionable state.
We were all rather thirsty after the long flight and Daniel went to buy sodas for us. where they were for sale at the front desk. When he returned without sodas he said that there were some questionable people in the lobby and he felt uncomfortable. Based on the marijuana smell in the elevator we accepted his answer and we all went to sleep.
Initially we had planned to stay in this hotel the night before our departure but canceled the reservation.

Day 2: Congaree National Park and Kiawah Island

We were eager to get moving the next morning and looked for a place to have breakfast. We found a place in the Charlotte area called Cafe South and gave it a try.

Restaurant: Cafe South, Charlotte, NC: 4 Stars
This restaurant had a line but we found that it was certainly justified. The southern breakfast items were very good. The wait staff was also very nice. The prices were also very reasonable. I would certainly go back there again.

We crossed the border into South Carolina and made our way to a planned stop on the way to Kiawah Island: Congaree National Park.

Attraction: Congaree National Park, SC: 4.5 Stars

Congaree is one of the newer and lesser known national parks, but absolutely worth visiting in South Carolina. The trees tower here like nowhere else I have been except the redwood and sequoia forests. It’s pretty awe-inspiring to walk the boardwalk and gaze up at the trees that easily surpass 200 feet in height. This is also a place of insects and arachnids. You will quickly find that the swamplands of South Carolina are home to every manner of insect and spider you could imagine.
We made the mistake of coming here without first stopping to get mosquito repellant. We were unable to deal with the mosquitoes and had to cut short our visit after little more than a half hour on the boardwalk.

Following our visit to Congaree we contnued southeast through intermittent rain on our way toward Kiawah Island near Charleston. We had to pull off the road to look at a cotton field, something we don’t see in our area of the country.

Cotton field in South Carolina

After a couple hours of driving through the scenery of southeast South Carolina we made it to the Charleston area and wound our way through the Spanish moss-laden trees to Kiawah Island.

Lodging: Charleston/Kiawah Island Andell Inn, Kiawah Island, SC: 5 Stars
We were very happy with our choice of lodging upon arrival. The hotel is situated in a calm area of Kiawah Island with some restaurants and shopping nearby. Lagoons surround the property and a bike path leads 2 miles to Kiawah Island Beach. The hotel has terrific rooms and a nice pool, as well as a nice lounge and eating area. This is definitely a place we would return to.

Evan outside the hotel

After quickly checking in we had a couple hours to use at the beach so we didn’t waste any time getting changed into our swim wear and starting off up the road to Kiawah Island Beach.

Attraction: Kiawah Island Beach, SC: 5 Stars

I can easily count this as one of my all-time favorite beaches. The surroundings are natural dunes covered in grasses, the ocean is warm and swimmable, the sand slopes away gently a considerable distance into the surf. It’s not overly crowded and it’s easy to find peace there. It rained a bit as we were leaving but even that didn’t dampen our mood.

After the beach we wanted pizza for dinner. The one problem with staying on Kiawah Island is that outside a couple restaurants across from the hotel you really have to drive a distance to find more options. We found a pizza/brewpub in the Folly Island area 20 miles away and headed there for dinner.

Driving to and from Kiawah Island through a tunnel of trees

Restaurant: Fam’s Brewing Company, Charleston, SC: 3.5 Stars
I wish I could say that the pizza was great, but it was burned. The service at the restaurant was terrific, however, and we were able to have a few beers to cap off a long day. My son had accidentally left his shoes on the beach earlier and he was in a bit of a funk, that eventually led to some of the rest of us feeling in a funk as we tried to get him out of his funk while we were eating dinner. I would try Fam’s again, though, and I bet it would be great.

When you are traveling there are bound to be a few hiccups and mishaps along the way and it’s best to just carry on rather than dwell on them. Luggage gets left behind, schedules go awry, etc. You just have to do your best to plan well and double-check things like what was in the room before you check-out. We went to Walmart afterward to get him new shoes and eventually he decided all was well enough to enjoy himself.

Day 2: Charleston

Early the next morning I got up to take pictures of the surrounding flora and fauna (I was really looking for alligators but never found one). What I did find were quite an assortment of birds such as the pictured Great Blue Heron. I also found that the mosquitoes were absolutely murderous and if you stood too long by any of the lagoons you’d quickly become their next meal.

Great Blue Heron on Kiawah Island

The breakfast in the hotel was quite good even with COVID restrictions having been put in place and it was enjoyable to look out over the surrounding marshes while we ate (safely away from the mosquitoes).
After breakfast we had a very busy day scheduled so we quickly got into our rental car and started on our way.

Our first stop was rather accidental as the drive to Magnolia Plantation passed St. John’s Parish Church on John’s Island. The church was too stately not to photograph. Although the first church was build in the 1730s I read later that the current church building was built in the 1950s. In between various church buildings had been replaced or destroyed.

St. John’s Parish Church

Continuing on (and knowing we had a relatively limited time schedule) we made our way to Magnolia Plantation.

Attraction: Magnolia Plantation, Charleston, SC: 5 Stars
Magnolia Plantation is among the oldest plantations in the area and dating to the mid-1600s. What sets the plantation apart from others in the area are the incredible gardens.

We spent an hour walking the gardens which wind all over many acres and the kids tried a scavenger hunt. Afterward, we took a tour of the house. The house was rebuilt from a previous plantation house that was burned during the Civil War (not much from the antebellum period remains). The reconstructed house is quite impressive in its own right and features a very unusual painting (you’ll have to see it yourself).

The swamp gardens was another opportunity to seek out the elusive alligators but again we found more insects, spiders, and beautiful trees and plants, but no alligators. We did see the cypress trees with knees that emerge above the waterline.

Following out relatively quick walk through the Swamp Gardens we started off for downtown Charleston and our scheduled tour of Fort Sumter.

Attraction: Fort Sumter, Charleston, SC: 5 Stars

If you are a history buff like we are (especially Civil War history) no first visit to Charleston is complete without a boat ride to Fort Sumter. The fort was heavily damaged in the fighting, but that is secondary to the fact that you are walking on a fortification that was the focal point for the first shots of the Civil War. I did feel that the Park Service’s presentation from the hilltop could have been a little more in depth about why the fort was so important to both sides.
The boat ride out the the fort also provides excellent views of Charleston’s historic skyline as well as possible dolphin sightings (we saw several bottlenose dolphins en route).

Following our return from the fort to the city of Charleston we made our way to the second-most visited historic site in the city.

Attraction: Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, Charleston, SC: 5 Stars

The Old Exchange was the center of commercial exchange in Colonial Charleston and figured prominently in the Revolution and the early years of statehood. The dungeons are very interesting and were used as a prison. The stories of the harsh lives of the confined are told on the tour.
Following the tour of the Old Exchange we took some time to walk throughout historic Charleston. It really is one of America’s most beautiful cities.
Attraction: Historic Charleston, SC: 4.5 Stars

The architecture of the city is remarkable and it’s one of the few places that you don’t even need to enter museums to appreciate. See the old churches, the gravesites, the old mansions, etc.
I wished we had had more time to explore and even done the nightly ghost tour to see and hear the stories of Charleston past, but instead we headed back to the hotel to rest up and decide upon dinner.

Restaurant: Smoky Oak Taproom, Charleston, SC: 4 Stars
I couldn’t go to South Carolina without finding good Carolina BBQ for dinner. The Smoky Oak Taproom delivered on the good BBQ and we also were able to sit outside and enjoy some beers while we rested from the long day.

After dinner we realized we had a problem. We had only one night left in Charleston and had not eaten pecan pie. So, we did what we had to and drove right back to downtown Charleston to get our dessert.

Restaurant: Kaminsky’s Dessert Cafe, Charleston, SC: 4 Stars
We bought a couple slices of the pecan pie and my sons ordered a couple other pies. The pecan pie was good but I’ll admit it didn’t quite wow us. Close but not quite spectacular. The location is great though in downtown Charleston’s historic district.

A couple things occurred to me as we made our way back to the hotel for the night. I didn’t want to leave so soon was one thing. I felt like we had only scratched the surface of everything that we could see and do in the area and that is the truth. I didn’t want to leave the hotel either. It was so relaxing and I could have spent a week there without a second thought.
The other realization was just how nice and friendly and polite everyone seemed during my short stay in South Carolina. We’ve encountered some really rude and nasty people over the years but not one that I can remember in South Carolina. The drivers were, however, speed demons at times (but not as bad as Florida).

Day 4: Great Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg, TN

We had a long drive northwest ahead of us so we ate breakfast and started off early on our way to Tennessee. We wanted to be at Clingman’s Dome before sunset with time to spare for lunch and some sightseeing.

We made decent time as we passed Columbia, Sc and decided we had time to stop at a historic site marking the location of the Battle of Musgrove Mill.

Attraction: Battle of Musgrove Mill State Historic Site, SC: 4 Stars

Muskets at Musgrove Mill

Few Americans today know much about the story of the American Revolution in the southern states, but after the British captured Charleston much of the fighting was a guerrilla war that occurred in the swamplands and hill country of the Carolinas. At Musgrove Mill 200 Patriot militiamen defeated 500 British and Loyalist troops.
At the site is a pretty good museum and the battlefield territory has been preserved with maps to show where fighting occurred.

Pressing onward we could feel the air begin to chill as we made our way into North Carolina and approached Asheville. Originally I had planned to stop for lunch in Asheville but due to the time we spent at Musgrove Mill we had elected to eat lunch fast food earlier in South Carolina.

Turning onto I-40 West, we made our way toward the Appalachians, rising in elevation through the afternoon. Passing through Cherokee, NC we started up Highway 441 that bisects Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Great Smoky Mountains receive a great deal of precipitation and are consequently one of the most biodiverse locations in the country. Clouds of mist hang in the valleys and plants drip with moisture. Every inch of space between trees is occupied by ferns or other plants and in the fall the foliage is especially colorful.

Unfortunately the Great Smoky Mountains also receive a lot of visitors particularly in the fall when autumn colors make it a prime destination for visitors from surrounding states. The park has no entrance fee and quite honestly it suffers because of it. Roads are choked with traffic that can take hours to clear. There is often nowhere to park anywhere near trailheads. And there are few places near the park to stay. We’ll get to that more later on.

In the afternoon fortunately things were not too bad and we were able to stop at pullouts for photos as we made our way toward Clingman’s Dome and the Tennessee state line.

Despite the obvious crowds, the weather was beautiful and the views were as good as I hoped. We took the turnoff and were lucky to arrive at Clingman’s Dome parking area when most other visitors were heading out of the park. That does not by any stretch mean there was a lot of parking spots available. It just means we could find a parking spot.

Attraction: Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains NP: 4.5 Stars

It’s a pretty steep but short trail up to Clingman’s Dome but since we are resident’s of Colorado it was easier for us then for most. To really see the Smokies it helps to be above the tree tops, so a strange-looking circular walkway was built that rises above the treetops. We made our way to the top for views and photos. Since we had timed our arrival well we were there as the sun began to set.
I also took the moment to walk a very small part of the Appalachian Trail. I can now say I’ve at least set foot on it (someday I’ll hike a longer portion of it).

Following our time at Clingman’s Dome I began to really wish not only the crowds were lesser, but that the people we were encountering around the trail and parking area were quieter. I never want to hear loud music while I’m in a national park. I’m there for nature, nit to hear you blare music in your car.
We started down the windy road toward our hotel for the next two nights in Gatlinburg, TN. The traffic was a little more pervasive as we made the descent, but never enough to be truly concerning. Once we left the beauty of the park’s forest and entered Gatlinburg that changed.

I have been to a lot of towns that are gateways to national parks. In Colorado we have Estes Park. In Yellowstone there is West Yellowstone and for Grand Teton there is Jackson. At Grand Canyon there is Tusayan. All of these places get busy in the tourist season but for the most part the towns all have some class and good restaurants and nice lodging spread out over a wide enough area to make it accessible.

I am not really a fan of gaudy carnival-like atmospheres. Actually I hate them. So when we arrived in Gatlinburg and were met by both a crush of tourists (truly an unbelievable number) and things like Marvel characters and Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not we all felt like turning around and fleeing. We came to enjoy a national park and enjoy nature, not immerse ourselves in Disneylandish-Vegas hell.

So yeah, Gatlinburg was a challenge from the first moment we arrived.

Our intention had been to go out to dinner at a good restaurant, but with the town as crowded as it was we were pretty much out of luck. Not only that but but we were going to have to scrap or alter plans around the incredible crush of tourists. Cades Cove was pretty much out as were a few other places I might have wanted to go.

One nice thing was that our hotel was as close to the park as possible, or at least the Roaring Fork Entrance. This would be useful for accessing at least this part of the park.

Lodging: Hampton Inn Historic Nature Trail, Gatlinburg, TN: 3.5 Stars
This hotel was fairly nice, but not quite as nice as I was hoping for. The location is its best feature being right on the edge of the park and not immersed in the crowds of Gatlinburg. There is a stream behind the hotel and when I reserved a room with a balcony I thought it would overlook the stream. Instead it overlooked the parking lot. Oh well, at least we could open the door and let fresh air in.
Otherwise the hotel was clean and comfortable but not especially exciting.

Day 5: Great Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg

In order to have any chance of parking near the trailhead to Alum Cave Bluff I knew Daniel and I had to be at the trailhead before sunrise. Because we needed some snacks and water for hiking I drove out to Pigeon Forge at 5AM and found a gas station get these things. I also realized that Pigeon Forge, despite being the home of Dollyland might well have been the better place to stay.
While still dark outside we started up the road to the Alum Cave Bluff trailhead. Clouds of mist hung everywhere and we had to slow to a crawl at times, but it was an an entertaining experience nonetheless. Once we arrived we were able to find parking just off the main parking area.

Attraction: Alum Cave Bluff Trail, Great Smoky Mountains: 5 Stars

We both really enjoyed this trail and I only wish we had had time to go farther (we did go about a mile on toward Mt. Le Conte before turning around). The scenery in the misty morning air was beautiful. The trail crosses a river, passes through caves, and follows cliffs while clouds open up to reveal beautiful views of fall color.

After finishing the hike we made our way back to the hotel to meet up with Shelley and Evan and have lunch before visiting a haunted house in Gatlinburg.

Restaurant: Alamo Steakhouse, Gatlinburg, TN: 4 Stars
We drove a ways away from the most touristy section to try to find a quieter place to have lunch and came across this restaurant on the eastern end of the town. It turned out to be quite good. I had a french dip sandwich and some beer, which after the hike hit the spot.

One of the reasons we chose to stay in Gatlinburg was there was a few kid-friendly attractions that I thought would be good for the family. One of those was a haunted house.

Attraction: Mysterious Mansion, Gatlinburg, TN: 4.5 Stars

Mysterious Mansion

This is a really well-done Haunted House that has been in Gatlinburg for many years. They do a good job gearing the experience to the groups that enter. Since we were with a 7-year-old child they helped us along rather then have us figure out all the parts to the maze that leads through the house.

I wish we had been able to relax a bit more and do a few more things in the town and eat dinner but there were always long lines, etc that were a bit taxing. After walking around a bit we made our way back to the hotel to rest.

Attraction: Roaring Fork Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains: 5 Stars

It took an hour to drive the 5 mile loop that was right outside the hotel but it was every bit worth it. I saw 2 black bears, several wild turkeys, several picturesque old homesteads and had beautiful views of the Smokies at sunset. Had I had more time I would have hiked some of the trails that lead from the roadway.

Restaurant: The Greenbrier, Gatlinburg, TN: 5 Stars
At dinnertime we were lucky to get into this place an hour before closing time and I think it is likely the best restaurant in the town. It sits up high on a hilltop and away from the main streets. The food was quite good and even though we sat in the bar area we got great service too. A bit expensive but just fine if you want a good dinner in Gatlinburg.

Day 5: Chimney Rock State Park and back to Charlotte, NC

Our last day should have been a good opportunity to enjoy North Carolina and finish out the trip on a high note. Unfortunately, there was some frustration over the activities and what we had and hadn’t done.

Shelley had wanted to stay in Pigeon Forge and to see one of the dinner shows. I assumed incorrectly that Pigeon Forge would be the very touristy place instead of Gatlinburg. We also failed to make a reservation for a dinner show and she was disappointed by that. On our way out of town we drove through PF and realized it was a calmer place than Gatlinburg and had more hotels and restaurants to choose from.

After driving a highway that led us to the northern end of the Smoky Mountains we returned to North Carolina and started off for Asheville where I hoped to find a good kid activity that would offset some of the unhappiness of the kids who felt not enough time on the trip had been spent doing kid things.

I think in other circumstances we would probably have enjoyed Asheville but we really couldn’t find anything to do. We went over to the Adventure Center which I thought surely the kids would enjoy and talk about for days but they wouldn’t be able to get us in for a couple hours. Not something we could do on our schedule.

We then proceeded onward to the Blue Ridge Parkway and what I thought would be a fun place for the family at Chimney Rock State Park.

Attraction: Chimney Rock State Park, NC: 4.5 Stars

Chimney Rock State Park features some pretty amazng views from a mountain promontory. There is a waterfall I tried to get to it quickly but ran out of time) and good hikes around for the ridge to see things like the Devil’s Head rock.

I thought the family would really enjoy Chimney Rock and I thought it was great (it is), but they were really feeling bummed about more hiking and not doing something kid-friendly (like the adventure park, or a train ride, or horseback riding, or rafting, etc). We failed to make reservations for any of those things so it just didn’t happen. Really the only kid thing we did on the entire trip was the haunted house. And that was unfortunate.

We finished out our drive back toward Charlotte and decided we needed to have one last really good BBQ dinner before departing early the next morning.

Restaurant: McCoy’s Smokehouse and Saloon, Charlotte, NC: 4.5 Stars
McCoy’s is in a somewhat industrial area of Charlotte, but don’t let that dissuade you for going for great BBQ and beers. It hit the spot after a long and somewhat frustrating day of driving. The kids were happy there too.

Finally we had a 6 AM flight so we had reservations at a different hotel than the first night. This time a Holiday Inn Express.

Lodging: Holiday Inn Express & Suites Charlotte Arpt-Belmont, Belmont, NC: 3.5 Stars
A much better experience than the Hyatt House of the first night. We got a good night sleep then were out the door early for our flight home.

Final Thoughts

There is such a thing as trying to do too much in too little time and this trip exemplified it. Every time we went anywhere we were rushing to be done as quickly as we could so as not to be late for the next thing. We never got to relax and unwind and really experience things. At times I was frustrated by having to leave places knowing we missed out on so much.

Covering as much ground as we did only exacerbated the problem. Most of 3 days were fully eaten up by driving leaving only the 2nd and 4th day exclusively for activities. There were some mistakes in the planning like staying in Gatlinburg instead of Pigeon Forge. And there was some unhappiness that we didn’t do some more kid activities or shows.

The bottom line is I think this trip was an overall success and the photos we got and the places we went were really beautiful. But this trip should have been a minimum of 7 if not 8 days. And we’ll start giving every family member of a choice of activities to ensure we all have a good time.

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