Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

The narrow, winding, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail invites you to slow down and enjoy the forest and historic buildings of the area

Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in the ancient Southern Appalachians, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is almost as renowned for its well-preserved pioneer settlements as for its natural beauty. More than 90 historic structures—homes, barns, churches, and gristmills—have been preserved here, including the largest collection of log structures in the eastern United States.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses over 800 square miles and is one of the most pristine areas in the East. An auto tour of the park offers a variety of experiences including panoramic views, tumbling mountain streams, weathered historic buildings, and mature hardwood forests stretching up mountains to the horizon.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No place this size in a temperate climate can match the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s variety of plant and animal species. Here are more tree species than in Northern Europe, 1,500 flowering plants, over 200 species of birds, and 60 of mammals.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are over 270 miles of road to choose from in the Smokies. Most are paved and even the gravel roads are maintained in suitable condition for standard passenger cars.

During our recent visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park we drove the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It offers mountain streams, old-growth forest, and a number of well-preserved log cabins, grist mills, and other historic buildings.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From River Plantation, our RV park nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in Sevierville, we drove through not one, not two, but three tourist traps (and shopping destinations) with heavy stop-and-go traffic—Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg—in order to reach Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We turned off the main parkway in Gatlinburg (at traffic light #8) and followed Historic Nature Trail to the Cherokee Orchard Road and entered the national park.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Passing the Noah “Bud” Ogle and Rainbow Falls trailheads, we began the one-way Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This narrow, but paved, road twists and turns for 6 miles beside forests, waterfalls, and mountain streams.

Roaring Fork is the name of the stream which the road roughly parallel. It is one of the larger and faster flowing streams in the park. Drive this road after a heavy rain and the name will be apparent.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We passed several historic structures including the old Jim Bales place and the small two-room cabin where Ephraim and Minerva Bales raised nine children. But their situation was not at all unusual, and individual privacy was something these people knew little about. Life for the Bales family was as sparse and hard as the ground around them.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Eph” and “Nervie” owned 70 acres of rocks and cultivated 30 of them. The rest remained in timber for cooking, heating, and construction use. The house was never larger than it is now, except for a missing back porch.

The large cabin was the living room; the smaller one, the kitchen. Building required trees and hard work, so no one built anything larger than necessary.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The corn crib stands beside the house. Small, almost fragile, it is typical of many outbuildings on Roaring Forks. Its size tells us something about life here. Why build a large crib when a large crib was practically impossible. Rocky fields lay all around the house and up the hillside across the creek leaving little land for corn to grow.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The road passes by the fence in front of the house, splitting the farm in two. One quickly feels the harshness of travel here. Rocks, rocks, nothing but rocks. Whether clearing fields, trying to farm, or making fence, moving rocks was a way of life.

Life was a difficult struggle for these mountain people.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A popular scenic drive with continuing traffic with most trailheads at capacity leaving few parking options! It’s an enjoyable scenic area but not the place to find solitude. But, where to go to beat the crowds?

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings.

Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.

The winds will flow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.

—John Muir

5 Things I Learned While RVing The American South

Y’all come back now, ya hear?

The American South has a mixed reputation in U.S. popular culture: it’s home to sweet tea, gravy and biscuits, country music and the blues, barbecue and soul food, friendly and helpful people, and beautiful and diverse landscapes.

Historic Savannah Carriage Tour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first time we visited the South was in 1986 on a working road trip across the U.S. We found an incredible region of helpful people, a countryside dotted with rolling hills, farms, and forests, and hearty food rich in flavor. From Charleston to New Orleans and Nashville to Mobile and everything in between, the South was extraordinary.

Historic Charleston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the past 18 years we have further explored the region. There is prodigious variety here, a region of many impressions.

The food will make you happy

Cajun hot sauce © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Food plays a central role in Southern life and is rich in both flavor and diversity. Each region has its own specialties—barbecue in Memphis and North Carolina, Creole and Cajun food in Louisiana, seafood along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, soul food in the Low Country, and fried chicken and gravy most anywhere in the region. And there’s pralines and pecan pie, both Southern traditions.

Savannah’s Candy Kitchen © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many picture Southern food as greasy, fried, and heavy fare. While much of it is hearty, the richness in flavor and variety is outstanding. There is something for everyone, and if you go hungry while visiting, it is your own fault.

Crawfish pie © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I could spend a lifetime eating my way through the South. (Mental note to future self: Do that.)

Music makes the region go ’round

Music of the region © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Music is a way of life here. The sound of live music fills the air everywhere. Nashville, Memphis, and New Orleans are famous music haunts, but even the tiniest towns throughout the South have robust live music scenes. From jazz to country to blues to bluegrass, there’s a music soul to this region. One can dance, jam, and sing the night away.

The people really are friendly 

Louisiana Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a common belief that the South is home to the friendliest people in the country. And along with Texans and small-town America they probably are. They are cheerful, talkative, and incredibly helpful. Strangers wave hello, inquire about your day, and generally go the extra mile to make visitors feel welcome. The folks here have hospitality down to an art.

Bye, Ya’ll come back now! Ya hear?

The landscape is stunning

Edisto Island, South Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Southern landscape is beautiful and diverse. The Smoky Mountains are a vast, dense forest filled with inviting rivers, lakes, and trails. The Louisiana bayou is haunting with moss-covered trees and eerie calm. The hills of Appalachia stretch for wooded miles and the Mississippi Delta, with its swamps and marshes is gorgeous. And the beaches of the Florida Panhandle the Alabama Gulf Coast are so white they sparkle.

To understand The South, you have to understand its past

Magnolia Plantation near Charleston © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As a student of history, I was excited to explore the area’s colonial cities and Civil War sites. Cities like New Orleans, Vicksburg, Savannah, Memphis, Pensacola, St. Augustine, Mobile, and Charleston helped shape the country—and their history and influence are important to the story of America.

Jekyll Island Club, the Golden Isles, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It was in these cities that many American cultural and political leaders were born, the Civil War began, battles were won and lost, and the rise and fall of slavery was sown. Voodoo, alligators, wild horses, African culture, and the wealthiest families in the United States are all part of the history of the Golden Isles of Georgia. These cities and their history help explain a lot about Southern pride and culture.

Mississippi Welcome Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I love the area more with each visit. It’s one of the most culturally rich areas in the country. There’s a reason why its cities are booming.

Football is a way of life © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go visit the region, get out of the cities, travel through the mountains, and find your way into the small towns. You’ll discover friendly people, heavenly food, amazing music, and an appreciation for a slow pace of life.

Worth Pondering…

Y’all Come Back Saloon 
She played tambourine with a silver jingle
And she must have known the words to at least a million tunes
But the one most requested by the man she knew as cowboy
Was the late night benediction at the y’all come back saloon

—written by Sharon Vaughn and recorded by The Oak Ridge Boys

Cades Cove: A Pioneer Paradise

Spending the day at Cades Cove is a must for every visitor to the Smoky Mountains

Straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in the ancient Southern Appalachians, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is almost as renowned for its well-preserved pioneer settlements as for its natural beauty. More than 90 historic structures—homes, barns, churches, and gristmills—have been preserved here, including the largest collection of log structures in the eastern United States.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove, on the beautiful Tennessee side of the park, offers the widest variety of historic buildings of any area in the national park. Cades Cove is a broad, verdant valley surrounded by mountains and is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The valley has a rich history. For hundreds of years Cherokee Indians hunted in Cades Cove but archeologists have found no evidence of major settlements.

Cades Cove, John Oliver’s Place © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Settlers came to this area in 1819, migrating here from Virginia. Later they came from North Carolina, enriching their culture from the old world with knowledge gained from the Indians. They cleared the land for farming and set about building log houses, barns, smokehouses, and corncribs. By 1830, the population had already grown to 271 and by the 1850s the population of Cades Cove peaked at 685, occupying 137 households.

Cades Cove, Methodist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With this population growth the soil quality deteriorated. The opening states of the West brought the opportunity of more fertile frontiers and by 1860 only 269 people remained.

Cades Cove, Missionary Baptist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Largely isolated by the mountains that surrounded them, the residents of Cades Cove were by necessity a close-knit, hardworking, and self-sufficient group. Plentiful game, such as deer and bear, provided meat to accompany garden vegetables. Over the years mills, churches, and schools were built to support the growing community.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In 1927, the state governments of North Carolina and Tennessee began buying up land for a national park. Many of the Cove’s families willingly sold their properties, but others initially fought the effort. Members of several families signed life leases that allowed them to remain on the land during their lifetime.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Gregg-Cable House © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today the National Park Service maintains the location as it looked in the 1800s. An 11-mile Loop Road circles the Cove, with stopping-off areas at several homesteads, three churches, a working gristmill, and a number of trails and overlooks.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Millrace and Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Halfway through the Loop, make a point to stop at the Visitors Center in the Cable Mill Area. Photo opportunities are ample and restrooms available. Wandering the Cable Mill Historic Area, we explored the Visitor Center, Blacksmith Shop, LeQuire Cantilever Barn, Millrace and Dam, Cable Mill, Smokehouse, Gregg-Cable House, Corn Crib, Barn, and Sorghum Mill.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Drive-through barn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Built in 1972,the Visitor Center is a place for visitors to obtain information and buy books, post cards, maps, guides, batteries, and other items.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, LaQuire Cantilever barn and millrace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Large barns were common in the Cove where farmers needed shelter in the cold months for livestock. The overhang in cantilever barns such as the one here provided shelter for animals as well as storage space for farm equipment.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A second barn in the Mill Area with a drive-through in the center and stalls on either side, was more typical in East Tennessee than the cantilever barn. Two men with pitchforks, one on a wagon of hay in the drive-through and the other in the loft, could transfer the hay to the loft in a short time. The drive-through sometimes served as a storage place for farm animals.

Cades Cove, Primitive Baptist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We had visited twice previously; over 30 years ago and about 12 years ago when we gave up due to gridlock on the loop road. On that day, the traffic was heavy, bumper to bumper to times. On this visit, we purposely avoided the weekend.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Millrace and Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We’ve been to many frontier museums and exhibits, but Cades Cove is unique in that an entire valley has been preserved, allowing a rare opportunity to see what the pioneers saw generations ago.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From our home base at River Plantation RV Park in Sevierville, we traveled south on US-441 to Pigeon Forge; at Traffic Light #3 we turned southwest on US-321 to Townsend; turned south (left) on SR-73; west on Laurel Creek Road to Cades Cove Loop Road. We returned home via Townsend and Marysville on US-441 to Sevierville.

Worth Pondering…

I think, being from east Tennessee, you’re kinda born with a little lonesome in your soul, in your blood. You know you’ve got that Appalachian soul.

—Ashley Monroe

Marietta: Ohio’s First City & Historic River Town

The historic riverboat town of Marietta, Ohio is known as the first permanent settlement of the Northwest Territory—and it’s unbelievably charming

Ever since the 1882 arrival of Marquis de Lafayette, widely considered to be Marietta, Ohio’s first tourist, this charming river town has been rolling out the welcome mat for visitors. With its outstanding museums, river cruises, and historic attractions, it’s easy to understand why it is such a popular destination for travelers.

Marietta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located at the confluence of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers, it’s not surprising that Marietta has a strong river heritage. It also has a prominent place in Ohio history as both the state’s and the Northwest Territory’s first organized permanent settlement, founded in 1788. It was once considered the “Gateway to the West” for travelers from the East seeking land and new opportunities.

Marietta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Glance at what this lovely river town offers with a narrated 90-minute trolley tour, which meanders past numerous landmarks and heritage sites. Tours depart from the Levee House Cafe on the corner of Ohio and Second streets from July through October. While a great place for lunch or dinner, the structure also has historical significance. Built in 1826 for a dry goods merchant, it later became a hotel, then a tavern, and today is the town’s only remaining riverfront building.

Take a stroll across the Harmar Pedestrian, an old B&O Railroad bridge over the Muskingum River that links the downtown shopping area with Historic Harmar Village. This where Fort Harmar was established in 1785 as a garrison for US soldiers. Today it’s a neighborhood of brick streets (seven miles of original brick street—more than any other Ohio town) and quaint buildings housing crafts and antique shops, and several museums.

Marietta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stop by the memory-laden Marietta Soda Museum and view a fun collection of vintage soda-related items including soda machines, coolers, and advertising signs and gimmicks. Sit at a 1950s soda fountain and order a hot dog, a malt, or chocolate-cherry Coke.

Marietta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Complete your trip down nostalgia lane with a browse through the Children’s Toy and Doll Museum a few steps away. Located in a restored 1889 Queen Anne style home, the museum hosts an impressive collection of antique dolls and vintage toys from around the world. Highlights include a reproduction carousel horse and Circus Room featuring dioramas and circus-related miniatures including animals, tents, and circus trains.

Marietta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Head back across the river and stroll Front Street. Boutique-style shops are filled with artisan jewelry, collectibles, antiques, quilts and fabrics, confections, furnishings, gifts, fine clothing, and craft brews.

Marietta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The aroma of craftsmanship permeates a leather goods store that has been in operation since 1867. Yes, you can still haggle over a harness for your buckboard. Schafer Leather Store has progressed from the local harness shop to a unique, diversified store offering a variety of quality merchandise including, jewelry, handbags, wallets, belts, men’s and ladies’ clothing, hats, buckles, bolo ties, and over 3,000 pairs of men’s, ladies’, and children’s boots. 

Marietta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The fascinating story of the birth and growth of Marietta, Ohio’s first city, is told in two outstanding museums, Campus Martius and the Ohio River Museum. Both will immerse you in the days when America’s rivers were her highways.

Marietta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Campus Martius Museum preserves the history of America’s migration west, its earliest native inhabitants, and Marietta’s pioneers. The museum named for the fort was built on the site in 1788 by the Ohio Company of Associates was erected over the Rufus Putnam House. The Ohio Company Land Office, the oldest known building in Ohio, was also moved to the museum site.

Marietta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Ohio River Museum consists of three exhibit buildings, the first chronicling the origins and the rich lore of the area’s waterways. The history of the steamboat on the Ohio River system is featured in the second building, along with a video presentation on river steamboats. The last building features displays about boat building and tool and equipment from the steamboat era. Take an escorted tour of the W. P. Snyder Jr., a 1918 steam-powered “pool-type” stern-wheeled towboat.

Marietta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After your museum visit, enjoy a 90-minute scenic cruise on the Ohio River aboard the Valley Gem, a working sternwheeler docked next door to the Ohio River Museum. What better way to fully appreciate a true river town than to see it from the river?

Marietta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

I like this place and could willingly waste my time in it.

—William Shakespeare

4 Historic Sites to Visit This Summer

Planning a road trip this summer?

From sea to shining sea, the U.S. has preserved sites and other areas of national historic significance.

Appomattox Court House National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A National Historic Site (e.g., Hopewell Furnace, Pennsylvania) is a protected area of national historic significance and usually contains a single historical feature directly associated with its subject. A related but separate designation, the National Historical Park (e.g., Appomattox Court House, Virginia), is an area that generally extends beyond single properties or buildings, and its resources include a mix of historic and sometimes significant natural features.

San Xavier del Bac Mission © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

All historic areas, including National Historic Sites and Parks, in the National Park Service are automatically listed on the National Register of Historic Places. There are about 80,000 sites, the vast majority of which are neither owned nor managed by the National Park Service. Of these, about 2,500 have been designated at the highest status as National Historic Landmark sites (e.g., San Xavier del Bac Mission, Arizona).

Learn something new on your summer road trip by visiting these four iconic historic sites.

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Sinagua built the five-story, 20-room structure about 1150 but abandoned it in the early 1400s. Montezuma Castle is built into a deep alcove with masonry rooms added in phases. A thick, substantial roof of sycamore beams, reeds, grasses, and clay often served as the floor of the next room built on top.

Montezuma Castle National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This exceptionally well-preserved site gives us a glimpse into the rich history of the North American continent before the arrival of Europeans. There are plenty of places to park your RV near the site, so give yourself a few days to fully explore its many wonders.

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park, Texas

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park tells the story of America’s 36th President beginning with his ancestors until his final resting place on his beloved LBJ Ranch. This entire “circle of life” gives the visitor a unique perspective into one of America’s most noteworthy citizens by providing the most complete picture of any American president.

Lyndon B. Johnson National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The LBJ Ranch is in the heart of the Hill Country on the banks of the Pedernales River. As part of the self-guided Ranch Tour, you may stop at the Texas White House for a ranger-guided tour.

Saratoga National Historical Park, New York

Saratoga National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Site of the first significant American military victory during the Revolution, the Battles of Saratoga (September 19 and October 7, 1777) rank among the fifteen most decisive battles in world history. Here, American forces met, defeated, and forced a major British army to surrender.

Saratoga National Historic Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This crucial American victory in the Battle of Saratoga renewed patriots’ hopes for independence, secured essential foreign recognition and support, and forever changed the face of the world.

Fort Frederica National Monument, Georgia

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Located on the interior coast of Georgia’s St. Simons Island, Fort Frederica National Monument preserves the remains of a military outpost consisting of a fort and town that for a time was one of the most important settlements in the American Colonies. By the 1740s Frederica was a thriving village of about 500 citizens.

Fort Frederica National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Invading Spanish forces were defeated by English forces at the Battle of Bloody Marsh during the summer of 1742. The Spanish soon gave up their campaign and returned to Florida. This British victory not only confirmed that Georgia was British territory, but also signaled the beginning of the end for Frederica.

Worth Pondering…

Traveling is almost like talking with men of other centuries.

—René Descartes