Fall is here, hallelujah! And even though I was born in spring, fall is my absolute favorite time of the year. When we planned our 2015 coast to coast USA honeymoon road trip (yep, that’s right) it was a no brainer that we would start on the East Coast to finally experience fall like it’s supposed to be: during Indian Summer.
We started our trip in the concrete jungle of New York City (read more here) and after a few days we picked up our Escape Campervan and hit the road. The first stretch of our trip all the way West to California was a real treat for the eyes thanks to peak foliage season, aka Indian Summer. We were lucky enough to experience this fifty shades of fall fest all the way down from NYC to Gettysburg, the Shenandoah valley, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains. Pictures definitely won’t do justice to the gorgeous bright colors of the many trees along the way, but I’m going to spam you with them anyway. #sorrynotsorry. And I’m pretty confident that they will convince you to go see the real deal next fall. Trust me.
“The mountains are calling and I must go” – John Muir
First stop was Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, home of the famous Battle of Gettysburg (1863) during the American civil War, and the following Gettysburg Address. The Gettysburg battlefield is part of the National Park Services (NPS). What the NPS does very well in all national parks is providing maps and all sorts of info at the parks’ visitor centers. And they also have awesome park stores (ranger hat anyone?!). So make sure you pick up a map and information brochure at the Visitor Center before you start the loop road across the battlefield. This way you actually know what you’re looking at.
Definitely climb to the top of the look out tower and make a stop at Little Round Top to get a sense of how big the area actually is. Gettysburg itself is a lovely little town with quirky shops and a nice historic vibe. We camped at Owen’s Creek Campground at Catoctin Mountain Park, 25 miles south of Gettysburg. A lovely campground in the woods that is also operated by the NPS.
Next stop was Shenandoah National Park, in Virginia (yay, new state!). We had the BEST breakfast at the Bonnie Blue Bakery in Winchester, VA. It was the perfect welcome to the hearty cuisine of the Southern states. Biscuits ‘n gravy anyone? Massive and fluffy pancakes? Baked apple on the side? Yes please!
Pro tip (or actually a common sense tip): buy the America The Beautiful Annual Pass for $80. This pass, that you can buy at any national park entrance, will give you access to all of America’s national parks for 12 months. So if you plan on visiting more than three parks it will make total sense to buy this card.
Shenandoah, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is a very popular park since it’s only 75 miles from Washington DC. It’s also perfect for nature-loving but car-loving Americans because of the famous Skyline Drive – a scenic road built during the Great Depression. So you can enjoy the beauty of the park while driving the scenic Skyline Drive and never get off your ass. Okay, that’s not entirely fair because the park is also very popular because it’s supposedly the most beautiful stretch of the Appalachian Trail (the longest footpath in the world), so most people come here especially for the hiking.
We did a pretty cool but fairly easy hike on the Stony Man and Little Stony Man Trail, which gave us a very beautiful overlook over the Shenandoah valley. We camped at Big Meadows campground and since it was f-ing cold when we woke up, we got back on the Skyline Drive before 7am. Which was not only very admirable, but also very awesome because we made friends with a black bear! Yes, that’s right. I was driving my first 30 feet or so in the van and a ranger pulled over right in front of me. So I immediately thought that we did something wrong. But then he pointed to the left, somewhere in the trees on the side of the road, and there he was: Mr Bear. He played a little hide and seek with us and then disappeared in the woods. So cool! We were so excited that we didn’t even got to make a decent picture. But if you look closely on this crappy iPhone picture, you can spot him standing next to a tree. Check.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The scenic Blue Ridge Parkway meanders for 469 miles over the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia and North Carolina. Roughly from Shenandoah NP all the way down to the Great Smoky Mountains on the border with Tennessee. Construction of the parkway started in 1936 as part of a job creation project by president Roosevelt and some of the construction work has been carried out under the New Deal. The scenery along the way is simply stunning. The gorgeous fall colors of the many trees on the mountaintops and in the valleys are so crazy beautiful during peak foliage.
Again, pick up a map and brochure at one of the visitor centers so you can locate all the highlights along the way. Definitely stop at the old watermill near milepost 176.2, Mabry Mill. To stretch your legs and take lovely pictures. We met the most wonderful golden oldies that were celebrating their 60th (!) wedding anniversary and of course they were very excited to meet a couple of young newlyweds from Amsterdam. Maybe their excitement had a lot to do with the fact that they just came from a wine tasting a bit further down the parkway. Maybe… :)
I can highly recommend grabbing some apples and homemade apple pie at the Poor Farmer’s Market near milepost 177 on the intersection of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Interstate 58. It’s an amazing country store and it is everything you want in a small town store in ‘Merica.
Great Smoky Mountains NP
It was pretty late (read: pitch dark) when we arrived in Gatlinburg, Tennessee (yay, new state!) – gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains NP. Just to be clear: Gatlinburg is horrible. So, so horrible. I just can’t understand why so many Americans, who supposedly come to the outdoors for their love of nature, want to stay at tacky theme park villages, where they can eat all those same-shit-different-location fast food crap and watch their favorite TV show at night. I just can’t. It’s like that all over the country. We have stayed in the most beautiful lodges smack in the middle of nature, with an amazing view and a fireplace in the center of the room, and people complained on Tripadvisor how they missed their TV. For real. The world has gone mad. Anyway, stay in Gatlinburg for a proper bed and to stock up on food and gas. Then get the hell out and enter the gorgeous Smoky Mountains. But truth be told, waking up to this ain’t half bad. Yes. I’m in my PJ’s.
This park had been on the top of my must-see-national-parks-list for a few years and I was very excited to finally see the Smokies in real life. During peak foliage no less! In case you hadn’t picked up on it, the Smoky Mountains get their name from the pretty much always present fog that hovers above the mountains like smoke. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t that great and it rained cats and dogs the entire day but it kind of attributed to the misty fairy-tale vibe so we didn’t mind. It was just so dreamy to experience the Smoky Mountains with the combo of those bright fall colors and that soft layer of fog.
The park also houses the highest point on the entire 2100 mile Appalachian Trail and obviously we had to check that off our list. The climb up to Clingmans Dome is only a short walk from the parking lot, but do not be fooled: it is pretty damn steep. And also: that freaking gushing wind and rain smacking us in the face didn’t really help to make this a pleasant experience. And when we finally got to the platform at 6643 feet we were supposed to be greeted with a magnificent view over the Great Smoky Mountains… Yup. You guessed correctly. Nothing to see. NOTHING. We could barely see the trees that were only a few feet away from us. I still recommend coming up here, whether it’s for the view on a clear day or for the bad ass vibe on a stormy day.
We’re so happy that we were lucky enough to get to see the changing of the leaves and this fifty shades of fall fest in peak foliage season. The bright and vibrant colors that Mother Nature can produce are sometimes so unreal. It’s pretty special – especially in those beautiful national parks along the Appalachian Mountain range. For the next leg of our honeymoon road trip adventure we swapped the wonderful woods for some honky tonk country and soulful blues tunes in Nashville and Memphis. So stay tuned for the next update!