Great Smoky Mountains National Park – Sevierville, Tennessee

I normally wouldn’t log this trip as an expedition, but with a 19 month with us, it sure felt that way. My friend was getting married in Nasheville and he suggested that I head out a week early to explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well as the surrounding Gaitlinburg area before the wedding. Gaitlinburg is listed at 6 hours and 41 minutes from Richmond, and I have always been looking for an excuse to go to the smokies. We felt like the distance might have been quite a stretch for our 19 month old son, but he has always been quite a good lil traveler so we decided to brave the roads instead of the airplane. He had never travelled such a distance by car before and I had no idea how he would tolerate it. So we ended up allotting a 12 hour travel window for us with scheduled 2 hour breaks in between so he could run and stretch his legs.

Roanoake River

Departure: 6:30am. The first leg of the trip went very well. We were able to get in 2.5 hours before our first stop in the town of Roanoake, Virginia. We stopped at Greenhill Park, and it was the absolute perfect pit stop. For a toddler, this park was like an oasis. It had it all, a playground, picnic tables, shaded areas, and even the roanoake river coursed through the park for fishing and cooling off. The bend of river that traveled through the park was very clear and shallow. It was perfect to wade and search for fish and crayfish. Our son loved this spot a little too much and as expected, it was a battle to get him back into the car…fortunately, the weather was merciful on us and by mid-day it was still comfortable.

cabin views

Soon enough we were on 81 south again, as the interstate rolled gently through the hills towards Tennessee. We covered a couple of hours before we stopped again in Bristol, VA/Tennesee for lunch. We finally finished the leg to our cabin at about 4:30pm (a total travel time of 10 hours) 2 hours ahead of schedule! We actually stayed just outside Gaitlinburg in a town called Sevierville, Tennessee (population 16,716). We were all excited to stretch our legs, jump on the bed a few times, and get outside and take in some of the beautiful views. It did not take us long to get settled into our new home for the next 5 days and 4 nights. Our son instantly fell in love with the place and of course the air hockey table. We all rested easily that night, in a cabin up in the clouds after a long day of travel – we were pretty worn out.

The next morning, we woke up early to head into the national park. The drive was a short and easy 20 minutes into the park. Out of all 60 national parks in the United States, the Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited park with more than 11.6 million visitors in 2016. This is likely due to the fact that it is one of the few parks on the east coast and it is also free admission. I was surprised to see the level of commercialization of the surrounding area. The town of Gaitlinburg is basically one big tourist trap, with everything from “Ripley’s Believe it or not” to go carting. I personally found this to be off-putting but many people seemed to love it. In my mind, the parks were created to bring us closer to the outdoors and let future generations learn about the environment and the importance of different ecosystems. Instead, in Gaitlinburg, there are endless shops and stores that just sell pointless tshirts and junk. All of these things will likely end up in a landfill within a couple of months. While it can be certainly entertaining for kids, it comes off as very tacky.

The ascent up to Laurel Falls.

The park itself is very nice and actually very similar to Shenandoah National Park. We chose our hikes carefully…..something feasible with a 27lb 19 month old on your back. We arrived early in the park and were fortunate enough to get a parking spot at Laurel Falls. It was an easy one with only 314ft elevation gain over 2.4 miles. Our son particularly liked the Sugarlands visitor center where he finally got to meet a black bear (the goal of his trip). He even posed next to it for some pictures. He always seems to enjoy visitor centers at parks, whether they be state or national. They offer a quick run through of the key faun and flora in the park. We later head into Gaitlinburg to tour the town and find some dinner.

Now that we knew what we were up against, we wanted to rise early and get to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park and in Tennessee. It is located in the heart of the park at an altitude of 6643 ft. Fortunately with a child, the parking lot brings you within one mile of the observation deck, where you make a steep ascent to be amongst the clouds. The temperature at this altitude was 52 degrees farenheit, a stark contrast from the 82 degree weather back at our cabin! Visibility fluctuates rapidly at this altitude as well, and we hunkered down in our CRV until the sun started to show. Interestingly, at this altitude, there was an information cabin and gift shop. We bought a sweater and a stuffed bear and hung around the parking lot until the sun came out. We caught our break when we caught a glimpse of Fontana Lake on the North Carolina side over a mile away. The climb up is steep with numerous benches along the way for visitors to take breaks. The landscape is pretty amazing with the distinct douglas fir trees that painted the horizon. The clouds moved fluidly over the mountains and created an ocean of moving shadows over the mountain range.

Up in the clouds

We would spend the next few days at the cabin, relaxing and taking in the surrounding views and listening to the sounds of the mountain range. We did occasional trips back out to Sevierville for supplies and food, but the pickings were slim. Of course, a trip to Tennessee would be incomplete without a visit to a local distillery for some bourbon. We picked up a couple of bottles from the King’s Family distillery as gifts for friends and family back home. All in all, our lil toddler loved the trip. The Great Smokies itself is a beautiful park. Perhaps one day, we might return to take on the most popular and strenuous hikes like Mt Leconte or Andrews bald, but I seriously doubt that we would be back in this area with so many more National Parks left to visit. I was surprised at how well he did in the car, and this gives me hope for future trips.

Humpback Rocks – Blue Ridge Parkway, Milepost 5.8

The Blue Ridge Parkway spans a total of 469 miles, weaving though the scenic mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. Millions of visitors flock to the parkway, especially in the fall time, to experience the rich geology, wildlife, history and tradition of this special parkway. Spanning over two states, the blue ridge parkway is divided into four sections: Ridge, Plateau, Highlands, and Pisgah. The Ridge Region (northernmost region) is the region I’ve naturally explored the most by proximity.

A short 1.5 hour drive from Richmond, VA, Humpback Rocks is an easy day trip.

 

It begins in Afton, Virginia at the southern end of Skyline Drive where Shenandoah National Park ends. It runs through the beautiful George Washington and Jefferson National forests and is known for its beautiful rolling pastures and waterways. At milepost 5.8, is Humpback Rock, one of the most popular hikes in the ridge region. It is probably the best bang for your buck hike in the region, a short (but very steep 1.0 mile hike) will take you to the top of the rock formations for a breath taking view of the blue ridge. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) has been focusing of late on physician wellness and health” during residency. As a way to combat, burnout and fatigue, they are encouraging residency programs across the country to embark on retreats to discuss difficult topics and to better connect with one another. April 27, 2019 – A short 1.5 hour drive and we were away from the hospital and into the mountains. It was a chilly spring day and the skies were clear. It still amazes me, how nature has the ability to recharge and kickstart that internal engine…..further emphasizing the importance of keeping these special areas preserved for future generations to enjoy.

Before the hike
The crew on top of a mountain

Spring on the Chesapeake Bay

April is one of the best times of the year to get out on the water in Virginia. The weather is cool, the bugs are not out yet, and it doesn’t feel like a tropical rainforest. We used this opportunity to head east to where the mouth of the piankatank river opens to the mighty Chesapeake Bay. We brought out the ol prospector to hit the salty waters. This was our son’s first time at the beach also sitting in a canoe. He’s still a little too young to get out on the water but he was certainly excited to to get inside the canoe. The blue crabs don’t seem to be out and about yet, but we are getting the pots ready for May. It may also be possible to raise some oysters in these waters as well.This particularly area looks promising for all sorts of fishing. We spent the day, helping my father in law extend his deck, fishing and paddling. Although we didn’t catch anything, it was great to be outdoors, feel the breeze, warm in the sun and hunch over a small fire on the beach.

Chesapeake Bay

I was able to finally take my drone out for its first flight. My in-laws got me a Parrot Anafi drone for christmas, and 4 months later I was able to take it out of the box and take it for a test flight. I don’t know much about drones, but this thing is awesome. It shoots in 4k and would help take movie making to a whole new level. Hopefully I’ll be able to take it some canoe trips in the near future up north. I’m planning to take 2.5 months off at the end of my residency to spend more time with the family and go on some trips. With only 2 more months of training left to go, I find it hard to focus because of the prospect of finally finishing.

The trouble now is deciding where to go with an 18 month old. He’s too young for a backcountry canoe trip although I’ve heard of people tripping with toddlers. One potential is trekking out to Utah to visit the major 5 national parks. Another option is somewhere in western canada for a couple of weeks. Whatever we come up with, I’ll be excited to be away from the hospital. Let the countdown begin….

His first beach fire with his uncle.

New beginnings on the Chesapeake Bay

We explored the lands of my father’s cottage at the opening of the Chesapeake Bay. It has always been his dream to build a cottage and a retreat for all of his kids and grandkids to enjoy. Our quick survey of the land was promising; the area was teeming with wildlife. From herons, egrets and hawks to oysters and of course the Chesapeake blue crab. Back in the 1600s, the blue crab was a crucial source of food for Native Americans and European settlers in the Chesapeake Bay area. Today, this crustacean is an icon of the Chesapeake Bay region and their success in these waters have allowed numerous restaurants and businesses to thrive in the Virginia and Maryland. I don’t know much about trapping crabs, but it’s time to get out there and learn. Maybe even learn to raise some oysters along the way….

An early snow

December 9, 2018 – We were hit with an early and unexpected snowstorm, accumulating over 13 inches in Richmond, Virginia. This is certainly an early start to the snow season for us and much heavier than in the past. After a review of the Richmond weather records dating back to 1897, the heaviest snow that occurred earlier than Dec 10 was 7.3 inches on Nov 6-7, 1953. The record for December snowstorm for Richmond was 17.2 inches on Dec 22-23, 1908. Stay safe out there.

Patagonian horses

I’ve always liked this photo for some reason. Even though the framing of the shot is not perfect, I still like the landscape painted by the different colors of horses. I took this photo back in 2016 in Patagonia (Chilean side). I noticed that the horse manes are cut to different lengths. I speculate that this has to do with the level to which the horses are tamed? Not sure…

The summer of rain (2018)

I’ve lived in Richmond for 16 years now, and this past summer has certainly been the wettest one to date. The month of June saw a total of 13.32 inches of rain (normally an average of 3.94 inches). It seemed to have rained pretty all summer. We were lucky in Virginia to have avoided the heart of hurricane Florence that wrecked havoc in the carolinas. The hurricane did spawn several tornados that made their way through Richmond, causing significant damage and killing one person. There is no denying, that our climate is in flux. Each year, the temperatures are hotter, the storms stronger and the atmosphere more volatile. While mulling about climate change in the rainforest that is our backyard,  I stumbled across a surprise from last year’s planting. Fresh raspberries that somehow found enough sunlight to bloom…..

Here’s to a better autumn!