View from Clingman’s Dome

After over a year of mostly quarantine, I was aching to travel where I safely could to make the most of my carryover vacation days that were set to expire. My first choice was actually the Grand Canyon but for some reason that I can’t exactly remember (maybe I wasn’t yet ready for flights), that didn’t come to pass (and as you may know, I was able to do that trip a year later). I ended up picking a road trip to the Great Smoky Mountains, which I very much enjoyed.


This was an 8-day solo trip and I did not want to drive there straight from Chicago for safety reasons (it’s 9+ hours of driving and the max I can drive straight, I think, is 5 hours), so I broke it down to stops in Louisville, Kentucky and Nashville, Tennessee.

Day 1 – Off to Louisville

I was supposed to start the trip mid-morning but I ended up leaving around noon. I got to Louisville around 6PM and checked-in at The Brown Hotel. There were three highlights of my stay in Louisville, and one of them was being able to stay at this charming hotel which had the feels of being brought back to “Old World elegance” once you get to see its interior. The second highlight was being able to visit Waterfront Park, which was a short (few minutes) drive from the hotel. Watching the sunset at the park and taking a walk at The Big Four Bridge was a taste of local life and also being part of their history somehow. The Big Four Bridge was constructed in 1895 as a railroad bridge but has been re-purposed as a pedestrian walkway. An interesting fact about it that I like the most is that walking the 2-mile bridge means crossing states – Kentucky and Indiana. (The third highlight, I will speak about later.)

Day 2 – Nashville

I can’t remember what time I left the hotel the following morning, but I remember starving by the time I got to Nashville. So the first order of the visit was to find a place to eat. I drove around Opry Mills for a few minutes before checking out Paula Deen’s. I wasn’t previously aware of the restaurant and did not know what to expect but I walked out of the restaurant understanding that I like Southern-style food, both the taste and the portions. Creamed corn became a fave.

With Nashville being the seat of country music, the next stop was a tour of the Grand Ole Opry. It was interesting to be at the place where top country music stars started or played, including Taylor Swift. The tour of the concert venue included a chance to see the various dressing rooms artists use when they perform and fun facts such as how an artist becomes a member. I had to ask about Tay, of course, and the tour guide understood well where I was coming from – after all, I was wearing a Fearless t-shirt. But no, Taylor is not a member of Grand Ole Opry.

I checked in at the hotel after this tour then walked around to explore landmarks. Nashville was impressive – the city’s character is distinct (owns up to its country music identity) and the music scene at night (almost – if not all – bars had live music, and they were just beside each other) was unlike anything I’ve seen before.

Nashville music scene

Day 3 – Nashville to the Smokies

I wanted to explore more of Nashville before I leave it for the Smoky Mountains, and so I spent a couple of hours in the morning at Cheekwood. Old romantic novels often have an estate as a setting and this tour was a way to experience what an estate is like, with its mansion, lovely gardens, and vast grounds.

I left Cheekwood just after noon, which was perfect timing to head to lunch at another Nashville landmark: The Loveless Cafe. I will let its website speak to its origins and fame. All I can say is it got very crowded, and because I came at peak time, there was a long wait to order and I had to eat at one of the tables outside (the tables inside the cafe were full). The food’s worth it though.

After lunch, I drove to Gatlinburg, one of the gateway towns to the Smoky Mountains. This trip was uneventful, except for feeling quite lost at some point as I was driving through the mountains, alone in narrow roads, with no phone signal. I emerged through it safe and sound, and settled at my hotel for the night.

Day 4 – The Smoky Mountains

I started the day buying a self-driving audio tour from TripAdvisor. It was just the kind of travel tool I needed. It wasn’t until the next day that I was able to complete the tour because I made ‘full stops’ along the way.

The first stop was a short, easy trail at Noah “Bud” Ogle Farm. Being my first hike since the quarantine (this was May 2021), I got a boost of confidence at how easy the 30-minute walk was. So much so that I wandered confidently on the next trail, thinking that it was not a big deal. But 5+ miles roundtrip Rainbow Falls was a big deal, given by how out-of-breath I was during the hike, and how it seemed like everyone behind me was passing me by on the way to the waterfalls. It seemed like we hiked to another mountain to finish the trail. I got so tired from this hike that I decided to call it a day, head back to the hotel, and enjoy a filling Southern-style dinner.

Day 5 – Driving Tour Continued

Another day to explore the mountains, but this was also my day for exploring Gatlinburg Skylift Park, which I loved. Getting to the park through a chairlift was a thrill in itself, but add to that the Skybridge walk and the spectacular mountain views, and it’s an experience that shouldn’t be missed when in the Smoky Mountains.

Day 6 – The Clingman’s Dome

I wanted to do some serious hiking and so I hired a guide for this day. We met at the Visitor Center’s parking lot, from where I followed her car to The Clingman’s Dome, the highest point of elevation in the smokies. It’s wonderful views along the way and even just turning into the parking lot of the dome presents you with stunning views.

The guide was a pro but I think because I told her that I was still aching all over from that Rainbow Falls hike, she picked an easy path for us. I did ask her if we could turn back shortly after we started (I just wasn’t ready for a serious hike). We chanced upon a wild deer on the way back, which was the bright side of it. We then took the walkway to the dome, which provides a 360 degree view of the smokies.

I went back to Gatlinburg for lunch, then did another hike to cap my last day in the smokies.

Day 7 – Back to Louisville

This was a long drive back to Louisville, a stopover before Chicago. Worth mentioning is lunch at the The Old Mill Restaurant at Pigeon Forge on the way to there. There was a long wait when I got there (peak lunch time) but was able to get a table to enjoy another Southern meal.

I reached Louisville early evening and stayed at The Brown Hotel again. As I mentioned on Day 1, there was a third highlight to my stay at Louisville and it’s one reason why I chose to spend the night at the same hotel: the “Hot Brown”. This dish that you can see pictures of all over the hotel is a hotel exclusive and a massive hit, enough to have been featured in publications like The New York Times. This dish for me lived up to its hype.

Day 8 – Back to Chicago

This was just a drive back to Chicago, and the following video captures some more of the fun memories from this trip:

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