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  • Writer's pictureJessica Stough

Remembering Previous Trips - Tennessee, Kentucky, & North Carolina Road Trip

I was really hoping to wait until the weekend and somehow have something ridiculously exciting to share. Things have seemed hectic lately, so I imagined something would land on our plates to write about. It seems as though that almost happened. Zac mentioned that he had thoughts about a surprise weekend trip for me, but that it had fallen through. Fingers crossed that it will work out later this season!

With that being said, I’m going to continue the Remembering Previous Trips series and share our first road trip to Tennessee and Kentucky to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, along with some exploration of North Carolina - as I’m sure the title of this blog post suggested.


I know I’ve shared bits and pieces of the trip, but will share the majority of the trip’s highlights in one itinerary-type post. As another plug for the vacation books I used to make before getting too busy to complete them, they have been so helpful in remembering older trips that I no longer have the pictures readily available for.

For our 2014 trip, I had just recently turned 21. With that, we felt that - now that we could - exploring wineries in different states would be something fun to do on our road trips. We started our trip out with a wine tasting at Buck Creek Winery. It was a simple winery with delicious semi-sweet wines in Indianapolis, and also a great place to stretch our legs.

Our next major stop wasn’t until we had reached Kentucky, the Lost River Cave. I remember this part of the trip well because it was so different than anything else we have ever done. The Lost River Cave is just that - a river inside a cave. We were able to get a boat tour through the cave and hear stories about the location.

The cave has such an incredibly interesting history. Dating back to the Paleo-Indians and other Native Americans, it is said that they used the cave as a shelter. Then, it became an operating mill in the 1700’s. The cave was used in many other times and for other things, but the most interesting to me is that it is said that Jesse James used the cave as a hideout after his famous bank robbery in 1868. Find more about the cave’s history here.

After the cave tour, we headed on to Chattanooga. We were excited to see the museums and tourist attractions in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, so we wanted to do something different in Chattanooga. We decided to see the city with the help of some city bikes, and road around to explore the area.

Next, we had a full day with adventures at Rock City Gardens, Ruby Falls, and the Incline Railway. These were all so much fun. Rock City Gardens had black-light setups inside with displays of fairies, magical lands, and other mythical sets. Outside, there were short hiking trails to beautiful views. Ruby Falls was absolutely unique, one of the only places I’ve ever known to see an underground giant waterfall. I would definitely visit both places - and the railway up to Ruby Falls - again any day.

Next up, we were headed to the Hollywood Wax Museum in Pigeon Forge. We had too much fun there. I remember inserting myself into Twilight, Star Trek, Forrest Gump, and other movie scenes. I also had an opportunity to lay down on Hugh Hefner’s bed.

After that, we were on to additional museums and fun - starting with Ripley’s Aquarium, and Ripley’s Museum. I used to be obsessed with their show and books, and we even named our pug after Ripley’s - believe it or not. After the museums, while walking main street, we decided to stop at Davy Crockett Distillery between our visits to all of the different shops and museums.

After Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, our vacation shifted to more of the outdoorsy stuff that we usually lean toward. The first thing on our list was something that Zac found, Catawba Falls. We have always been fans of waterfalls, so I was all for the plan to hike this. Along the route to the falls, I remember seeing old, dilapidated buildings that kept the trail interesting.

After hiking for a while, we came to some very steep areas that required ropes to continue. Zac immediately hiked himself up with the ropes, but I was a bit more leery. He finally helped talk me into it, and I slowly worked my way up the rope to another safe area of the trail. Eventually, we got to the falls.

Looking back, I’m so pleased we didn’t turn around at the ropes - the falls were gorgeous. However, I will say that after we completed the entire hike, Zac read the entirety of the website where he had found the trail. What he had conveniently skimmed over the first time was a portion that said something very similar to what Alison Capra stated in her 2016 article:

[B]efore leveling out, the way is extremely steep and dangerous, and it's right next to the lower falls. It's almost to the point of being technical rock climbing, and sketchy ropes have been tied to trees to help people haul themselves up. It's not easy but it's worth it! Be CAREFUL it's very slippery!

After the dangers of Catawba Falls, I was excited for a well-planned route to Rainbow Falls in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Later, I found out that this was intended to be where our proposal happened, but I apparently had other plans. For this trip, I was not very camping- or hiking-savvy. I purchased brand new tennis shoes for the trip, and didn’t even think to try them out before hiking miles and miles in them (don’t even get me started on the fact that I bought tennis shoes instead of hiking shoes).

A while into the trail, my feet started hurting. I tried to keep quiet about it, but it was terrible. When I finally mentioned it to Zac, that was when he found a genius shortcut on the trail that avoided some of the switchbacks. We went that way, and kept going that way, and finally realized we had lost the trail. When he pulled up his Maps on his phone, we realized we had gone in a completely different direction and were nowhere near the trail. Thus, we had to hike all the way back to the trail.

On the way back on this “shortcut,” I slipped, fell, and got dirt and mud all over my backside. Needless to say, my feet were still killing me too. We finally got back to the trail, got to the waterfall - which was great, by the way - and then made the long trek back.

When we finally got back to the car, I took off my shoes to find a pool of blood in each of my heels. I was in pain because I was actually bleeding through my socks into my shoes - which was actually a bit of a relief to know that I wasn’t just being dramatic.

After getting back to our campsite - and a change of shoes - Zac was able to talk me into a short hike to Blue Hole Falls. Because Rainbow Falls turned out to be such a disaster, he had to act quickly on his feet. This hike was less than a quarter mile either way, so it was easy even for someone like me who had bloody feet.

He decided - since Rainbow Falls did not create the proper mood - that Blue Hole Falls was a good place for his marriage proposal. It worked out perfectly because no one else was there. We got to the edge of the water, with the waterfall cascading down into the bright blue water, and he put his arms around me. He started to tell me how much he loved me, which made me suspicious.

I thought he had plans to throw me into the water. Instead, his plans were to propose. I tried to push him away so he couldn’t throw me in, and nearly knocked the engagement ring right out of his hand. When I finally realized what he was holding (and what I had nearly done), all I could say was, “Are you kidding me?”

Spoiler alert: I said yes. To commemorate the occasion, we both jumped into the water. It was October, though, so once we jumped in, we immediately got back out and warmed ourselves up.

Now, seven years after the proposal, he probably wishes that he had been kidding at the time (hah - I joke, my friends, I joke!). The fact of the matter is, though, that he somehow pulled off the entire surprise without me having any idea at all. From the trip he took to dad’s house to ask for his blessing to the fact that he stored the ring in the glovebox in front of me for the entire road trip, I was absolutely clueless.

After the highlight of the trip, we made our way toward North Carolina with the intent of visiting a few abandoned locations we found on RoadTrippers. The first on our agenda was the abandoned Oz Theme Park. It was located in Beech Mountain, and I remember the drive there had about as many switchbacks as a fourteener hike.

The history of the theme park was pretty cool. Learn more about the theme park here and here, and even read about a writer’s experience staying there when it was partially reopened as lodging in the 1990’s here. Essentially, we didn’t realize at the time that not everything on RoadTrippers was accessible to the public, and drove out there for nothing. The park was open to the public, but only at certain times and/or for certain events, so we were not able to see anything but the outside.

Next up on our list was another abandoned area, the Lake Shawnee Amusement Park. Again, we were seriously disappointed upon arrival. The park was privately owned. When we reached our destination, there was a man walking around inside the grounds. I hollered at him, asking as politely as I could if we could get inside to look around since we had driven all that way (I believe it was an hour and a half or more out of our way).

He not-as-politely declined my wishes and asked for us to leave. I don’t know if he was the owner of the property or a groundskeeper or what. No matter the case, as we drove away, I immediately decided that I didn’t very much care for him.

After two disappointments in a row, we made our way to a new destination that we knew would be open - Banner Elk Winery. The wine was very dry, which was not our taste at the time, but the location was absolutely gorgeous. While we were there, they were setting things up for an outdoor wedding. I will just say that would have been the most beautiful wedding. Everything there was incredible, from the vineyard to the tasting room.

As we slowly started heading back toward the direction we had come, we made a stop at another waterfall - Brush Creek Falls. Since we were so close, we couldn’t continue driving without a stop at the famous Buffalo Trace Distillery. I am not a huge hard liquor fan, but Buffalo Trace offered a free tour and tasting.

At the time, I didn’t realize how cool of a tour we would get for free. The minute we pulled up, though, it was apparent that it was going to be a great time. They had a video about the history of the distillery, talked to us about aging liquors in barrels, and even talked through some of the experiments they had been doing.

At the end, we even got to taste a few of their products. I will never forget how much of a kick Zac got out of how red my face turned when I tried White Dog, an undistilled whiskey. In fact, even a few others in the tour verbalized how red my face was.

We decided to have one last adventure as we made our way back toward Iowa. Since we had tried and failed twice to explore anything abandoned, we were excited when we stumbled across the opportunity to explore the Peoria Asylum (State Hospital) and cemetery. It was close to Halloween at the time, so the owners of the property were allowing nighttime flashlight group tours of the Asylum.

We headed in, got our flashlights, and heard some of the history of the location. The group guides led us around, telling us stories about the past as we walked through the asylum. They shared with us stories of previous patients and staff, and even talked through times in the building’s history when children roamed the halls with their troubled parents.

I don’t know that we saw, heard, or felt any ghosts that night - but the guides sure claimed to! We did definitely get some creepy vibes as we walked through the old boiler rooms in the basement and saw old lodging rooms though.

We also heard stories about the cemetery on the property, but were told that we couldn’t visit there unless it was daylight. Of course, we used that as an opportunity to come back the next morning to visit.

We spotted the grave site for Old Book, a groundskeeper that supposedly haunted a tree on the grounds. Past that, all of the other headstones were just numbers - each unfortunate soul to walk into the asylum but not walk out.


After the eerie visit to the asylum and cemetery, we made the final trek back home. I quickly made our vacation book to capture the memories. It wasn’t long after that that I began planning for our wedding. Now, though, a bit of Sunday evening rest and relaxation is calling my name.

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