St. Augustine, Florida: not just a beach vacation

We did a quick getaway to St. Augustine, Florida back in January of this year (seems a lifetime ago already!) We had hoped we would get some decent weather, but as it turned out it was pretty cold. Fortunately, this is a great town to do sightseeing.

Despite the gloomy weather, we’d start our day with a beach walk. We were staying in the Vilano Beach area and unfortunately its beach is not as nice as St. Augustine Beach due to beach erosion due to a hurricane and the current restoration project. But we still got to get walk it the first two mornings. On the third morning we drove over to Anatasia Island State Park and hiked the beach on Bird Island, just north of St. Augustine Beach. Wow! Great beach. If you like long flat beach walks (or runs) it’s definitely better over on this side. Plus we finally had sunny weather.

So after our beach walks we’d head into town and do a little exploring and sight-seeing. On the first day we checked on the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park. This is a privately run park and charges a $18 entrance fee. Typically, I stay away from places like this, but you can blame it on the peacocks roaming the grounds freely. This were definitely worth the entrance fee and the rest of the park wasn’t bad either. I did learn about the early colonial history of St. Augustine, first explored by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513 and settled by Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565, even before the Pilgrims came to North America. The walk around the grounds is beautiful and you can see various exhibits such as the canon firing and Timucuan Village, a replica of the village of the native people that lived here when the Spaniards first arrived. And of course, I drank from the fountain of youth.

We next headed Castillo de San Marcos, which is the oldest masonry fort in the US, constructed by the Spanish, with considerable help from local natives, in 1672. It’s been occupied twice by the Spanish, twice by the British, had two periods of US occupation, and also briefly occupied by Confederate troops during the Civil War. It was finally taken over by the US Park Service in 1933, having been using for nearly 250 years. Unfortunately, we could not go inside because of Covid 19 (only open on Wednesdays currently) but having seen a similar fort in Puerto Rico, we weren’t overly disappointed. We enjoyed walking the grounds and checking out the unique stone used to build the fort. It’s called stone called coquina (Spanish for “small shells”), which consists of ancient shells that have bonded together to form a rock similar to limestone.

The next afternoon was dedicated to exploring the historical district of Saint Augustine. It’s truly a beautiful town and while there is a hop-on trolley, it’s easily done on foot. Our first stop was historic Flagler College. While the college is only 53 years old, the main structure is over a 100 years old, constructed in 1888 as the Ponce de Leon Hotel for industrialist Henry Flagler.

Right down the street from Flagler College we saw another Flagler-commissioned building. Also built in 1888, this building was originally the the Alcazar Hotel. It closed during the depression and was purchased by Otto Lightner, a Chicago publisher, who then turned it into a museum that housed his extensive collection of decorative and fine arts. It also serves as a city administrative office building. We didn’t have time to tour the museum (my husband spends way too much time when he goes in one) but we did enjoy its beautiful courtyard. Finally, we closed out the afternoon by walking up past Plaza de la Consitucion, Cathedral Basilica, and doing a little shopping on the touristy St. George Street. After all that, we needed a little refreshment, so we drove to the nearby St. Augustine Distillery!

We wrapped up our visit of St. Augustine on our final day by visiting the lighthouse on Anatasia Island. This 165-foot lighthouse with 219 steps was constructed between 1871 and 1874. However, a watchtower was originally built here in 1589 and went through several renditions before funding for the present lighthouse was approved by Congress during the Florida Reconstruction period. It’s actually the first lighthouse I’ve climbed up and it wasn’t difficult for me, but it could be some as it is a tight space. Fortunately, it was a cool Florida winter day so it was quite pleasant and there weren’t many people due to Covid.

In closing here are pics of the wonderful Christmas lights in St. Augustine that were still up in January as a part of their Night of Lights display.

Please check out my other blog posts on St. Augustine here and here.

Second Pandemic Refresh/Remodeling Project almost done!

If there’s one good thing about the Pandemic, it’s that it’s forced us to focus on some home projects. We plan to sell our house in a few years and it’s essential that we update it. Last year we did our master bath and we were so pleased with the results that we used most of the same tile choices, with the exception of the floor, in the refresh of our powder/guest room on our main floor.

This bathroom technically is not a powder room as it has a bath/shower, but it’s hard to call it a guest bath either as the room next door could not be classified as a bedroom as it doesn’t have a closet. However, it functions well enough as a guest room as we have a bed and a dresser. Good enough!

Anyhow, the builders of this house put wood floors in this bath. How dumb is that? Once the toilet did flood and we were in a panic. I guess it’s just as dumb as the carpet they put in the master bath. In the master bath we ripped out the carpet and put in gray plank tile. It is stunning! However, since I didn’t think it would make sense to have the plank tile intersect with the wood floor, we went with a matte porcelain tile that looks like marble. I’m really pleased with the end result. I was worried about ripping out the wood floor, but thankfully my contractor did a good job.

Plank tile in Master Bath

In the shower we used the same white wave tile and accent tile that we used in the master.

We are not quite done. We kept the same vanity and we’re having that painted. I’ll post pictures of the completed project in about another 2 weeks, along with the name of the tile we used as reference for those who are interested. In the meantime, enjoy a sneak peak with my cat.

My husband dodged a COVID bullet

My husband plays volleyball with a group of adults here locally in Colorado. Their volleyball facility closed down for a while But in the summertime they still got together and played at outdoor sand courts. They returned to playing at the club in the fall. It was operating at reduced capacity and requiring masks while they played.

My husband hasn’t gone in a few weeks. He did consider going this week but because we have contracters in our house, he thought it would safer not to go. Talk about a smart choice! He got a text from one of the team members this past Friday notifying people she had tested positive for COVID. Then another team member who had opted out this week said she was quarantining due to possible exposure.

I’m hoping my husband stays home all month now. We’re going to Arizona the first week of March and don’t want anything throwing a wrench into our plans. It seems like it’s getting harder and harder to avoid it as more people are letting their guard down.

One thing people must remember is that even if you have had the vaccine, you can still pass it on to others. The vaccine activates your body’s immune response but does not prevent you from being an asymptomatic carrier. Please please please continue to wear your mask and socially distance. I’m not crazy about my husband’s volleyball team. They’re Trump supporters and really don’t think COVID is a big deal. However, this might be a wake-up call for some. One was bemoaning the fact that he was going to miss a pickle ball match and a birthday party. The woman who caught it at first wasn’t going to notify the facility but reluctantly she agreed.

Stay safe! We still have a long ways to go!

A wonderful Florida beach vacation that’s a bit different than the others: St. Augustine

Ever since we moved out to Colorado from California 14 years ago, we’ve been trying to make it to Florida every 2-3 years. Although some of those vacations included time in Miami and Orlando, our favorite spots were beach destinations including Marco Island, Key Largo, St. Pete Beach, and Boynton Beach. But I have to say our favorite so far has been the St. Augustine area. It’s not just your typical sun and sand destination (and I have to say we didn’t get much of the sun when we were there). Rather, it’s more of a historical destination, billing itself as the oldest city in the United States, with a vibe somewhat along the lines of Key Largo. But don’t worry, it’s got great beaches, too!

Accomodations

St. Augustine is located at the junction of the Matanzas and Tolomato Rivers, just west of the Saint Augustine inlet, so it is not directly facing the Atlantic Ocean. However, there are a lot of nice hotels in its downtown area, with lots of dining options which makes it a great spot for those who are just there for shopping and sightseeing of the historical sights.

However, if you want a beachfront property, you can check out either St. Augustine Beach to the south, or Vilano Beach to the north. Both are just minutes away on barrier islands, but have different pros and cons. Vilano Beach has more houses and less of the typical Florida condos. It’s also very accessible in that it does not have a drawbridge like the Bridge of Lions which you have to cross to get to St. Augustine Beach. If you’ve spent much time in Florida, you know those drawbridges out to the barrier islands can drive you nuts as they get really backed up at times. That said, St. Augustine Beach is much nicer. Vilano Beach was destroyed by Hurricane Matthew back in 2016. Yes, there is beach there, but it’s not as flat and walkable. They are currently in the middle of a restoration project which is pumping in sand through a large pipe which is submerged in some areas and exposed in other areas.

Fortunately, we did not see the pipe from the condo we chose to stay at. I was very pleased with our choice as it was quiet, with a beautiful view, and very close to Publix grocery store. As we were there in January 2021 during the Pandemic, we wanted to stay in a place with few people and this fit the bill. The owner had remodeled it within the last year, so it had a fresh, new feeling.

There are several restaurants in downtown Vilano Beach. The first night we ate at the Beaches at Vilano Restaurant. They had patio dining, which we did every time we ate out while we there. We usually tried to eat lunch out and cook breakfast and dinner at the condo, as it was pretty chilly (60 and below) by the time sun set.

In my next post I’ll talk more about what to see in St. Augustine. But in the meantime, enjoy these beautiful views!

Sunrise from Seawatch Condos
Some mornings it was cloudy but who cares?
Relaxation at Vilano Beach
Condos from the beach
Sunset out our front door, looking toward Francis and Mary Usina Bridge
The Vilano Beach Pier at night
yummy key lime pie at the Beaches at Vilano Restaurant

Traveling in Florida during the Pandemic

My husband and I often do a January getaway to celebrate his birthday. Several months ago we decided to go to St. Augustine. While we knew it probably would be chilly as it is further north (it was!), we felt it was a bit safer than some other spots in Florida.

The plan was to fly directly to Jacksonville, the closest major city to St. Augustine, but sadly Southwest canceled our direct flight and put us on a route that went through Atlanta. Changing planes and being exposed to more people didn’t seem like a good plan. So we decided to fly to Orlando and do a 2-hour drive up to St. Augustine.

Thankfully, our flight to Orlando was not full, so we did have some spacing between us. However, the return was packed. It looked like a lot of people were returning home from Disneyworld. But people were all masked up and I’m keeping my fingers crossed. We flew in October on another packed flight to Tennessee and did fine. However, Florida is more of a hot spot now than Tennessee was then. Nonetheless, I am lying low since my return (which is pretty much all I do now anyhow) and limiting contact.

My first observation when I got to Florida is that people in the airport were generally good about mask wearing and social distancing. However, once outside, that seemed to change. As a resident of Colorado (more specifically, the very left-leaning county of Boulder) I am used to seeing people wearing masks pretty much everywhere. Even outdoors, many people wear them or will pull them up if they see people coming toward them on the walking paths or sidewalk.

But that was not the case in Florida. We stayed in a condo that we rented out through AirBNB. I was surprised that our property owner actually did an in-person check-in. Nowadays that’s pretty rare here in the US it seems. (AirBNB encourages property owners to allow self check-ins, although it’s not required.) The issue I had was that he did not wear a mask when he met us at the condo. Wow! That was very strange.

When we were out sightseeing it seems that people did comply with mask-wearing rules at attractions with paid entry. However, it was hit or miss at stores. Signs were posted that mask wearing was mandatory, but I saw people in stores without them. In grocery stores all the clerks wore them, but some customers did not. Back in Colorado they would be asked to leave or put one on. On St. George Street in St. Augustine (a popular tourist area) only about 50% of the people wore masks. What I found most astounding was that some shopkeepers had signs up about wearing masks, yet they did not wear one themselves. Okaaay! I also had clerks standing outside with samples approach me, sans mask. Talk about unacceptable! No wonder Florida is having problems. It’s like they are living in an alternate universe.

As for restaurants, all the servers I saw wore them. Like in Colorado you are asked to wear masks at your table until you order (although compliance there is not always observed) and if you get up to go to bathroom. We ate out only once per day at lunch since we wanted to do patio dining and it was a bit chilly, even with heat lamps. It seems like that was a popular choice with most people, although I did observe a large group of senior citizens (at least 30) eating inside at one restaurant. They were all seated closely and at the time had no masks on and no food in front of them (I don’t know if they had finished or had just ordered, but I would have thrown a mask on in that situation). I did observe at one coffee shop in St. Augustine, City Perks, that the baristas did not have on masks. That would be a big no-no in Colorado.

For the record there are roughly 4.5 million seniors in Florida. From what I saw in St. Augustine they were some of the worst offenders. Most of the younger tourists wore masks. I also was very impressed one day when I walking on the beach where they were doing some beach restoration work when the young construction worker pulled up his mask to talk to me to tell I couldn’t pass at that time. Good for him. I wish all of the residents in Florida would adopt this attitude. I love this state and I have traveled here many times, but some folks still seem to be in denial.

Day 3 in Iceland – our adventure on Heimaey

Our plan for Day 3 in Iceland in the fall of 2017 was simple enough: leave Hella and proceed east on Ring Road to Kirkjubæjarklaustur, exploring several waterfalls along the way. Well, it started out very nicely. Our first planned stop was the majestic Seljalandsfoss (Golden Falls). It’s just off the Ring Road and an easy 90-minute drive from Reykjavik if you’re just doing day trip exploring the South Coast.

(Read about our first two days here.)

As we drove there from Hella we noticed the landscape was more green and lush than it had been on Reykjanes Peninsula. A herd of sheep seemed amused by our presence as we stopped by the roadside to take their picture. Unlike their counterparts in England, they were a tad less skittish.

Peek a boo!

We arrived to the parking area for Seljalandsfoss mid morning and already found it to be quite busy. It was a bit windy and we felt a bit of spray blowing off the 200-foot waterfalls, even though we were parked maybe a quarter mile away. We noticed people putting on rain jackets and the like, so we did the same. Many carried their iPhones in waterproof cases.

The popularity of this waterfall is in large part due to the fact that you can walk behind it. Let me be clear – you WILL get wet. So be prepared. My travel pants dry quickly, but if your preference is toward jeans, consider getting a large plastic poncho that will cover most of you. We even saw a Chinese woman in her red wedding dress getting photographed by a professional photographer behind the falls. She looked positively freezing. I hope she wasn’t planning on wearing the dress again.

Seljalandsfoss from the road
behind Seljalandsfoss

After our stop at Seljalandsfoss, I had assumed we’d continue on the Ring Road east toward our final destination for the day, stopping at several waterfalls en route. However, my husband had other plans. He wanted to see if there were any ferries running to the Island of Heimaey, which is the main island of the volcanic island chain, Vestmannaeyjar, just off the southern coast and not too far from Seljalandsfoss. I was skeptical that a ferry would be running, as it was late September and the seas were already rough. While this is a popular summer attraction for visitors who want to see puffins, the ferry route typically stops running for tourists in September as the puffins are gone and there really is not too much to do other than hike. But hike is what my husband wanted to do. Luckily for him, the ferry was running. But the 35-minute ride was rough. I never get seasick, but I almost felt the sandwich I ate on board come back up.

Vestmannaeyjahöfn Harbor, Heimaey. photo credit Icelandmag.IS

The story behind Heimaey is actually quite interesting. It has a pair of twin volcanoes, Eldfell and Helgafell. The younger of the two, Eldfell, errupted in 1973. With a little luck and ingenuity, locals managed to save the town from being totally destroyed by it. Check out this short video for more details.

The twin volcanoes of Eldfell and Helgafell, Photo Credit: wildernesscoffee-naturalhigh.com

With a limited amount of time, as our return ferry was scheduled to leave at 4 pm, we decided to hike Eldfell. There is a well-marked trail and easy to get to from town. However, it was windy and unpleasant, with the volcanic sand blowing off the slopes. My husband proceeded to the top, but I turned back and did a little shopping. Most tourist shops were already closed for the season, but I did find one near the harbor. Around 3:30 I headed toward the ferry terminal where I met up with my husband. Others were starting to gather there as well. At around 4 we received bad news. The ferry would not be leaving as scheduled due to rough seas. They would re-evaluate conditions in an hour, but nothing changed.

In the meantime one of the employees at the terminal told a young couple she had contacted a local pilot about the situation. They, in turn, passed the info along to us and after talking with others and weighing our options, we decided to go to the airport on the other side of town where he would meet us. At this point we had no idea how large his plane was or how many trips he would make back and forth. We all began scrambling to figure out how to get to the airport as it was a good ten-minute drive or at least a half hour walk. My husband had been talking with a couple from Singapore and they had managed to contact a tour bus operator with a van that was able to carry eleven of us over to the airport.

Lucky for us, we were the first group there. The young couple who had actually told us about the pilot were the last to arrive as they decided to walk. I felt awful for them as they were the last ones in the line that was at least 40 people long.

When the pilot arrived, we all were in for a little shock. The plane was small. He could only take five of us at a time. (I think we paid about $50 a person. We did eventually get a refund from the ferry operator.) They needed one more person for the first flight, so my husband and I split up. For two reasons: in case the plane went down, one of us would still be living! And the second reason, to get the car, which was parked about two miles away from the airstrip. The whole round trip was fairly short – about 15 minutes. But it seemed an eternity.

After the second trip, the pilot announced that the third trip would be his last. You could feel the tension of the people waiting. Fortunately, I made it on the plane along with a young German man and his grandparents, as well a local that the pilot was taking back. But people started to get rude while we were getting ready to exit, saying that they deserved to leave earlier than me because they had a flight back the next day. In particular, a Boston family group of five with a young girl started to get nasty to me. I just turned my head and practiced my rusty German with the German grandparents. It was honestly a very tense situation and I felt sorry for people, but there was nothing I could do.

Elliðaey from the air. There’s actually a hunting lodge on this island

I could see why our flight was the last one once I got on the tarmac. The wind was gusty and our little plane seemed like it might blow off the runway. I was glad to be up and off that island. The flight over was short, fortunately. Seeing the rough seas below gave me the chills. I’ve never felt so happy to land.

After saying our good-byes to our fellow flight buddies and dropping the German family off at the car park, we proceeded east to our hotel in Kirkjubæjarklaustur. It was nearly a 2-hour drive on a dark drizzly night. We managed to find a place to eat before checking in and crashing for the night. What a day!!

Footnote: we don’t know when the others made it back to the mainland. The ferry terminal employees were uncertain if the ferries would run the next day and I know in the morning the conditions did not look good. There were some small hotels on Heimaey, but I did see a tourist group on the ferry who looked like they planned to stay overnight, so I’m not sure how much availability there was. To some degree, I think the ferry operators were irresponsible in not warning tourists that a return trip this time of year was not a guarantee.

Lessons learned from this experience:

When traveling by ferry to an off-shore island, always take a small bag with essentials: toiletries, medications, rechargers for your phones, and maybe some extra clothing. Check to see if they have lockers at terminal so you don’t have to carry it with you.

2016 PTSD – Election Night Eve

I just got back from a lovely walk with my pug Spanky. It’s hard to believe that a week ago we had snow and tonight it’s in the mid 50s (although it will get colder). Today it got up to 70.

Anyhow, late last week I was watching Stephen Colbert as I usually do before bed, and he referred to the anxiety so many are feeling here in the US as 2016 PTSD. So true! Everyone in my family has voted and we’re trying to be positive, but I remember four years ago feeling positive that we’d have our first woman president. Well, we all know what happened. In previous elections when the candidates I voted for didn’t win I never felt so down. But 2016 was different.

It’s been a long hard road to this election. The Covid-19 Pandemic has only made it worse. I hope people recognize Trump’s total mismanagement of it here in the US and vote him out. I know my 90-year-old aunt, a life long Republican, has voted for Biden. And the Lincoln Project gives me hope that other Republicans will vote for Biden. However, in the end, all we can do is wait and see because I don’t think anyone trusts pollsters anymore. Word is there might be a lot of “shy Trump supporters.” But as Colbert said, Trump supporters are anything but shy.

In the meantime, I’ve got a small bottle of bubbly chilling and on standby. It might be a few days, it might be a few weeks, or it might not happen at all. But at this point all we can do is pray.

One thing not to do in the Smokies: Cades Cove

Cades Cove appears on most lists of top places to visit in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. So we decided to visit it on our last full day there on our trip in early October. The weather was good and we were certainly up for another scenic drive, as we were fully in love with the scenic beauty of the Park. However, it didn’t meet up to our expectations (except for the lovely drive there) and wouldn’t recommend it to anyone planning a visit there, unless you’re a cyclist. (The loop is closed to cars on Wednesday during the summer.)

First of all, a little background on Cades Cove. It’s about 34 miles southwest of Gatlinburg. The road from Gatlinburg, Hwy. 441, is not one way, but once you get to the loop, it does turn into a one-way road. The 11-mile loop around Cades Cove goes around the perimeter of the valley floor, which was first settled by European settlers between 1818 and 1821. Several of the restored original structures still stand, including three churches, a working grist mill, and cabins. The cove has a campground and a visitor’s center. Along the loop there are pull-outs and places to park (more on this later!)

Cades Cove

According to the National Park Service website, “It offers some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing in the park. Large numbers of white-tailed deer are frequently seen, and sightings of black bear, coyote, ground hog, turkey, raccoon, skunk, and other animals are also possible.” Quite honestly, after seeing turkeys and a bear elsewhere in the park (like near our cabin) I was okay if I didn’t see anything. I see coyotes and racoons all the time at home, so perhaps we should have thought twice about going here. I know the mention of wildlife tends to draw crowds. Lesson learned!

We knew we wanted to do some hiking first. We decided to do a short, easy hike to Laurel Falls, right off 441. It’s only about 1.5 miles to the falls and the trail is paved the entire way. We got there plenty early, so the foot traffic wasn’t bad and we didn’t have to park far away (by now we were used to the crazy roadside parking situation). The fall colors were very just starting, but still it was a very beautiful hike with great views of the Park, as well.

The beginning of fall colors
Interesting fungi
Majestic views of the Smokies
Laurel Falls
Laurel Falls

After we finished up our hike and continued on our way. I sure loved all the green. Having lived outside my beloved Oregon for nearly 30 years, I forgot how much I crave the forest. But we don’t have cool vines like this in Oregon!

I could never be a monkey!

We had lunch at a nice picnic area at Metcalf Bottoms and then onto to the Sinks, a powerful roadside waterfall before continuing onto to Cades Coves

The Sinks – don’t go rafting or swimming here!
The windy but beautiful road to Cades Cove

We finally made it to Cades Cove, only to be warned by a temporary sign that said due to slow traffic it could take upwards of 4 hours to complete the loop! WHAT!!!! I was ready to turn around but my husband disregarded it and proceeded. As we drove at a snail’s pace around the park with the hundreds of other cars, we saw several of the old structures and places you could pull off. But even the pull offs were packed and seeing old cabins didn’t seem too exciting (we have plenty of those in Colorado.) We did finally find a nice pull off where we took pictures, but we had yet to see any of the elusive wildlife. So we continued on our way with the plan to stop at the visitor’s center at the end. But then traffic literally came to a halt. Seriously. We moved maybe .1 mile in half an hour. So I decided to get out and walk to the visitor’s center. I needed the lady’s room and it was about 1.5 miles away. I had gone about a tenth of a mile when another person came back and told me that traffic stopped because someone had seen a bear. SERIOUSLY? My burst bladder for a bear?

Honestly, I was quite surprised that park personnel allow this to happen. I’ve been to Yellowstone when buffalo are on the roads at times and rangers try to police the traffic as much as possible. In fact, I hardly saw any park rangers here during my entire trip in the Smokies.

While I highly recommend the scenic drive up to Cades Cove, I say skip the loop if it’s busy (pay attention to those signs!). You can exit out toward Townsend before you get to Cades Coves and circle back toward Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg.

Colorado fires continue!

It’s been a bad fire season for Colorado. 2020 did not see much summer rain (typically monsoonal thunderstorms.) In the last few years we’ve come to dread them because they have brought some damaging hail. But this year there was barely any rain, let alone hail.

As a result, it was tinder dry here in Colorado. Our forests are heavily pine, which tend to be dryer than forests with fir trees (less dense, less shade, dry brush underneath). Making matters worse in some areas are the dead trees known as Beetle kill (bark beetle infections.)

There were several large fires in August on the Western Slope that caused poor air quality here in the Denver area. In addition, a fire up north called the Cameron Peak Fire pumped in smoke as well. It started August 13 and was about 50% contained earlier this past week. But then the winds hit us and the fire flared up. It is now the largest fire Colorado every has had (over a quarter million acres.) The smoke blew down toward us and once again our clear skies were smoky and gray. And then another fire erupted on October 14 called the East Troublesome Fire (who names these fires?) The skies turned an eerie orange-gray yesterday afternoon.

Smoke from the East Troublesome Fire

But wait . . . it’s not over. This afternoon I went out to get the mail around 3 pm and saw another huge plume. This one looked to be close to Boulder, just northwest of me. Sure enough, I found out a fire was burning near Jamestown in the Boulder foothills. Jamestown has been evacuated. This fire is called the Cal-Wood Fire. Immediately a wave of sadness fell over me. Cal-Wood is the facility where my youngest son went to science camp in 5th grade. Most kids from around here have gone to science camp their if they attended BVSD schools. I haven’t heard yet about the fate of the camp, but it can’t be good if the fire was named after it. Here are some pictures from today’s smoke plume from the Cal-Wood fire. You can see air tankers in a couple of the pictures. We don’t live far from the airport they refuel/refill at. They’ve been working nonstop it seems for the last two months.

My first glimpse of the smoke from the Cal-Wood Fire
Looking NW from Superior toward Boulder
tanker plane flying back to Rocky Mountain Regional Airport after a drop
McCaslin interchange
Another tanker heading back to the airport

Day 2 of our 2020 Great Smoky Mountains Vacation

On our first day in the Smokies we took the scenic, but very busy drive up the Newfound Gap Road. That left us a little exhausted, so we thought we’d start the next day by taking a hike around the neighborhood by our cabin. We spotted a few wild turkeys (there are lots in Tennessee!) Fortunately, we did not have a run-in with the neighborhood bear which we spotted from our car later in the day.

Wild turkeys!
Beautiful reflection
Thankfully, we were in our car when we saw this big bear!

Day 2 also included driving, this time on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It’s a lot shorter than the Newfound Gap Road, only 5.5 miles, but it does take time, as it’s one way and narrow. I have to admit I wasn’t sure what the heck a “motor nature trail” would be, but after a few minutes I really did feel like I was on a trail rather than a road. It was absolutely gorgeous!

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Two popular trailheads along this road include Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls. Rainbow Falls is 5.4 miles round trip and has about 1500 feet elevation gain. By this time it was late morning and was starting to feel warm (it did get up to 80 that day). I normally would not have any issue with that length hike but I hadn’t brought shorts on this trip and from what I read this trail is now a bit more exposed since it does go through some of the burn scar from the 2016 fire. So we opted for the much easier Grotto Falls. It’s only 3 miles roundtrip. With both of these trailheads the parking lots are quite small so roadside parking is the norm. So expect another .25 mile to half a mile walk to get back to the trailhead, especially at Grotto Falls.

The Grotto Falls trail was quite easy for us (we’ve got high elevation Colorado lungs). It was fairly busy, too. But we did find a quiet rock and ate our lunch there, before proceeding back.

Grotto Falls

Before we exited off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, we made a quick stop at Ely’s Mill. The site of a former mill, it now has a few cabins and a wedding venue, as well as a gift shop. Since restrooms there are supposed to be for customers only, we gladly did a little shopping. Lots of cute hand-made items. We picked up a few wonderful smelling locally made soaps.

Photo credit Ely’s Mill FB Page

We spent the rest of the afternoon in Gatlinburg, primarily shopping and then enjoying a beer at Gatlinburg Brewing Company. There are no shortage of shops to pick up souvenirs, as well as places to nosh on yummy smelling food. It took a lot of will power to walk past them but my husband did succumb to some whisky sampling at Ole Smoky Whisky. His favorite was a Mint Chocolate Chip Whisky! Who knew? I enjoyed Byrd’s Cookie Company and came away with more cookies than I needed.

Gatlinburg has a ton of activities – two aerial trams, Ripley’s Museum and aquarium, arcades, mountain coaster ride, a Space Needle – the list goes on. None of these really appeal to us and in this time of COVID, we wanted to be cautious and stay away from crowds. But from what we saw, there were lots of families there, even midweek during the fall.

Despite the busyness, we did enjoy the nice warm fall weather and walking around town. For the most part, people were good about wearing masks indoors and maintaining some degree of social distancing. Now it was time to retreat back to our peaceful cabin and get ready for our final day at the park.