Any time we mentioned our road trip to anyone living on the East Coast, they all said the same thing: "You have to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway!"
Given that nobody agrees about anything these days, any kind of consensus seemed like a good sign, so we heeded all the advice, and headed for the Blue Ridge Mountains!
The 469 mile long parkway starts at the southern border of Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and ends in North Carolina, near Smoky Mountain National Park. In between, the beautiful scenery passes by the window as you drive through the southern and central Appalachian Mountains.
Starting the Parkway
About 2.5 hours out of Washington DC, we hit the start of the Blue RIdge Parkway. The change in scenery from our freeway drive to get there was marked - gone were the multiple lanes and huge trucks, the billboards and the gas stations. Instead, it was green (and indeed blue!) as far as the eye could see.
Within the first few minutes, we'd pulled off at a lookout to admire the magnificent views. Although we were still at low elevation, the view was incredible. The mountains in the distance certainly lived up to their colourful name, and the forest and pasture in between was a lush green. Apparently, the colours make fall the best time to drive in the area, but if this is what summer looks like, you can't really go wrong!
The first section of the Parkway is called the Ridge Region, and runs from mile 0 to mile 106. Most of our driving on day one took us through George Washington and Jefferson National Forests. After spending the better part of three weeks in cities, it was really nice to be back in nature, even if it was in a car on a road! At one point, we even saw some kind of marmot/groundhog type thing on the side of the road that was SUPER CUTE.
Otter Creek Campground
After about an hour and a half of driving, we made it to our stop for the night, Otter Creek Campground. We checked in with a wonderful, friendly ranger who let us go for a drive to pick our campsite, and started setting up. This was our first time using all of the gear that we'd got from Walmart, so we just had to cross our fingers that all the parts were there!
We needn't have worried - within 15 minutes, our tent was set up, our bed was blown up, the sheets, pillows and quilts were on, and the cooking equipment was out. Another friendly camper came over to offer us firewood so that we could have a proper North American camping experience (in New Zealand, you're very rarely allowed to have open fires while camping, as it requires a permit in most places), but it was late, and we were hungry, so we settled for using the gas burner to expedite the eating!
A short while later, we were tucking into our dinner of hot dogs and corn chips, marvelling at the delight of camping when you don't have to carry all your gear on your back and walk for 7 hours to get there. Not that that isn't fun! But this was also very nice.
With the dishes done and the food all packed back into the car (we were warned by the ranger that all food, and anything that smells like food, such as chewing gum and toothpaste) need to be stored in the car to avoid, *gulp*.... BEARS! We're not in New Zealand any more, that's for sure! As night rolled in, we played a new board game that we got in New York (a small one for two players called Seven Wonders Duel). As we were playing, I was delighted by another phenomena that's missing in New Zealand - lightning bugs! As we played, flashes twinkled all around us like fairy lights as their little butts lit up - they're so cool!!
That night, we slept with the fly off, which was really cool. We don't often get that opportunity in New Zealand, partly because you never know when it's going to rain, and partly because the chillier temperatures at night often lead to condensation in your tent - either way, you're likely to wake up a little damp... So it was really neat to wake up during the night and open your eyes to look straight up at the trees and stars overhead!
To Crabtree Falls Campground
For the first time in my life, I slept in while camping. I couldn't believe it when I looked at my watch when I woke up and it was 9.30am! Zev was still sleeping too. Clearly the Walmart camping gear was getting a big comfort tick!
After a quick breakfast of cereal and bacon, we tidied up and packed the car. Before leaving, we popped down to the river to look for otters. Sadly, no luck...
And with that, we were back on the road again. Not far from the campsite, we saw a young deer playing on the side of the road. It took off into the woods (thank goodness it didn't run out in front of the car), its little white tail bobbing into the distance.
We stopped at the nearby Peaks of Otter Visitor Centre. From there, we headed into the woods to do a short 1.3km loop track. We had the trail to ourselves, except for a disinterested deer, and a curious chipmunk. It was a little like being in a Disney movie!
From there, we aimed to put as many miles as we could under us, as we knew we had to get to Atlanta the following day. We were pretty bummed to be rushing through this glorious area, but this trip is a bit of a whirlwind, so sadly, we didn't have time to linger. It's definitely whetted our appetites though, and we'll be back!
After a roadside stop for lunch, we hit a couple of incredibly weird rainstorms. From bright blue skies with birds singing, we suddenly found ourselves being pelted with raindrops the size of golf balls! It became impossible to see the road, so we slowed to a crawl, but there was nowhere to pull over. Within a couple of minutes, we'd drive back out of it, and into blue skies!
One such storm decided to hit right where we were planning to camp for the night, so rather than set up the tent in the rain and hope that it passed, we decided to carry on to the next campsite.
Soon enough, we pulled up, found a site, paid in the honesty envelopes at the entrance, and set up camp. Again, it took no time at all, and although we arrived later than the night before, we were eating pulled pork tacos in no time.
Given our the rainstorms we'd driven through, we opted to sleep with the fly on that night!
Heading to Atlanta
Luckily, we stayed dry overnight, and made sure we got up bright and early to make the long drive to Atlanta.
By 8.30am, we were on the road. The last park of the Parkway was by far the most spectacular. By now, we were high in the hills, and we felt like we could see forever.
We waved goodbye to the parkway and made our way back onto the freeway, with the rush of cars and views of concrete.
By mid-afternoon, we were ready for lunch, so we pulled off into a rest stop to heat up some leftovers for lunch.
America knows how to do rest stops right! The huge complex had a visitors centre, clean public toilets, and mountains of shady picnic tables. As we made our lunch, lots of friendly 'locals' gave us lots of advice for what to see in the area, which we thanked them for, all the while knowing that we wouldn't have time to explore much of Atlanta.
A couple of hours later, we made it to our motel, checked in, and dropped our gear, before heading out to explore downtown Atlanta. We checked out the aquarium, which was absolutely fantastic (although left me with some questions about whether it's really necessary to have beluga whales, whale sharks and dolphins in an aquarium...), before wandering through Centennial Olympic Park on the way to dinner.
After a long day of driving, we grabbed an early night, in anticipation of another long day the following day.
We were up early again the next day, and drove drove drove drove... A GPS error accidentally took us too far when we got to Orlando - we ended up in a multistorey carpark in downtown Orlando before realising that this probably wasn't where Zev's cousin lived...
After a little trouble shooting, we finally got to the right place. We got out of the car at Eloise and Alan's and met Ruddy, their beautiful dog, before being fed an incredible dinner and spending lots of time catching up. But most importantly, we got the rundown on the original reason for our visit: the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios!
Lots of love,
S & Z