Great Smoky Mountains National Park To Charge Fees For Camping

Great Smoky Mountains will charge new camping fee in FebruaryEarlier this week the National Park Service announced that it would begin implementing a reservation system and charging fees for the use of backcountry camping sites inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The move was announced last March, but it has taken until now for the system to be put into place. The NPS says the new fees will be used to improve customer service in trip planning, reservations and permits.

Starting February 13, the Park Service will begin charging $4/person for anyone looking to camp inside the park. On that same day, a new online reservation system will go into operation, allowing visitors to book a campsite up to 30 days in advance. Permits will also be available within the park itself at the Backcountry Office inside the Sugerlands Vistor Center. The NPS hopes these options will allow campers plenty of flexibility in their plans even if they are attempting to make a last minute booking.

Visitors to the park should see a direct impact from the fees that are collected as they’ll help fund additional staff in the Backcountry Office and put more rangers into the field. Those rangers will help ensure a safer and cleaner environment for hikers and backpackers, while enforcing regulations designed to make the park safer.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the entire U.S. system. On an annual basis it sees more than 9 million visitors pass through its gates. With over 522,000 acres of wilderness, it is also one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States, which only adds to its popularity as a great travel destination.

[Photo Credit: National Park Service]

National Parks Are Fee-Free November 10-12

National Parks Are Fee-Free Next Weekend!America’s national parks will be fee-free once again next weekend as the nation celebrates Veteran’s Day. Beginning Saturday, November 10 and running through Monday, November 12, all parks in the U.S. system will waive any entrance fees for visitors, making this a great opportunity to enjoy the fall weather in some of the most scenic and historic locations in all of North America.

While many of the parks are now past their peak period for enjoying the autumn colors, not all of the leaves are down just yet. Next weekend would make a great time to take a hike in the Great Smokey Mountains or Yosemite for instance, where the seasonal change is still in progress. For those of us who live in the south, the weather has finally cooled off, allowing us to head outside after another long summer. That makes locations such as Big Bend, the Everglades or even the Grand Canyon much more appealing. Even the famous Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park still has 29 miles open for visitors who want to experience that pristine environment ahead of the arrival of winter.

Over the past few years, the fee-free days in the national parks have become incredibly popular with visitors and 2012 has been no exception. The Park Service hasn’t announced their fee-free dates for 2013 just yet, and next weekend is the final opportunity to take advantage of this option for this year. It seems like it’ll be the perfect time to load up the car with friends and family and visit your favorite park or explore a new one.

For a complete list of parks, sorted by state, that will be participating in the fee-free weekend, click here.

[Photo Credit: National Park Service]

Exploring Downtown Asheville, North Carolina

asheville north carolina

Asheville, North Carolina, is a town of many titles. Self Magazine considers it the Happiest City for Women, while to Rolling Stone, it’s America’s New Freak Capitol. Outside Magazine calls it one of America’s Best Outside Towns, while AmericanStyle names it among the country’s Top Arts Destinations.

Indeed, Asheville offers a little something for everyone. Many visitors are drawn by the city’s proximity to the historic Biltmore Estate, scenic Blue Ridge Parkway and famed Great Smoky Mountains. But Asheville’s charming downtown district is a treasure all of its own, with its array of Art Deco buildings, art galleries, socially conscious boutiques and gourmet restaurants. The “Buy Local” movement is strong in Asheville, with many store windows sporting signs that read “Love Asheville, Choose Independent” and “Local Is The New Black.” You won’t find any McDonald’s or fast fashion chain stores, but you will find an eclectic mix of places to eat, shop and see. Here are some highlights from a recent trip.

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Asheville’s array of artisan and ethnic food shops make it a perfect town for sampling. Start at the Laughing Seed Café, where you’ll find fresh, organic, farm-to-table vegetarian food. If the famed house veggie burger leaves you hungry, try a kathi roll at Chai Pani, a funky Indian street food joint. Then, unwind with a cup of Hotcha green tea and a book on Eastern philosophy in the pillowed recesses of Dobra Tea; their smoothies are also incredible. Cap off your eating adventure with sweet tea truffles at The Chocolate Fetish.

If you decide to go beyond downtown Asheville, don’t miss the inventive Mexican fare at White Duck Taco Shop, like the Banh Mi Tofu taco or the delectable Chips and Queso. Down at the Biltmore Village, you’ll find the Corner Kitchen, which offers gourmet but unpretentious cuisine that is sourced from area farmers and producers. The Obamas are said to be fans.

Shop

If you’re in the market for handblown glass terrariums, hemp tunics and natural oatmeal soaps, you’ve come to the right place. The historic Grove Arcade and Woolworth Walk are Asheville’s shopping epicenters, playing host to a variety of local artists, crafters and small business owners. The Mountain Made gallery at Grove Arcade is a highlight, with artisan products from across western North Carolina. Book lovers will get lost at the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar, a cozy spot that combines two of life’s greatest pleasures: books and bubbly.

For clothes shopping, head to Spiritex, an eco-fashion boutique that sells organic cotton clothing produced within a 120-mile radius. Both Frock and Minx offer expertly curated selections of women’s apparel, much of which is also made in America.

See

At the turn of the century, Asheville was a popular mountain resort for luminaries like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Today, the city is home to an impressive array of Art Deco architecture, second only to Miami in the Southeast. The most famous example is George W. Vanderbilt’s famed Biltmore Estate, located just out of town. But downtown Asheville has a fair share of highlights too. The best way to tour the city’s architectural wonders is the free self-guided Urban Trail Walking Tour, which consists of 30 educational stops around the city. After winding up the two-hour tour, it will be clear why Asheville is regularly named one of the Most Beautiful Places in America.

[Photo Credit: Jessica Marati]

10 Tips For A Southern Road Trip

On my trip through the new industrial South, I drove more than 4,000 miles, visiting 10 cities and nine factories in 10 days. The scenery ranged from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Gulf Coast, from live oaks to pines. Along the way, I sampled gourmet cuisine and boiled peanuts, gas station cuisine and outstanding fast food. Here are my top 10 tips for planning your Southern road trip.

1) Be ready for weather extremes. Southern heat is muggy and it continues into the fall. The cool air that marks a summer or fall morning in many parts of the country just isn’t there. It starts hot and gets hotter and danker until, crash! there’s an afternoon thunderstorm – or worse. My trip took place just two weeks before Hurricane Isaac, and as the storm hit, I checked the map to see how my towns made out. None of the factories were damaged, but there has been flooding, power outages, and plenty of downed trees. Isaac aside, you might want to front load your driving so you’re off the road by about 4 p.m., just so you won’t have to pull off and wait it out, the way I had to more than a few times. And keep an eye on radar: I was driving between Memphis and Tupelo in May when a thunderstorm rolled in out of nowhere (my flight from Detroit to Memphis had been smooth as silk).

2) Think about staying in a central spot. Since I was visiting the new industrial South, it made sense to use Birmingham, AL, as my home base for several nights during the trip. I took road trips of an hour, two hours, up to four hours from there, but it was nice to unpack once and sleep in the same place a few nights in a row. You might pick Atlanta or Mobile or Nashville, and go off on short trips from either place. Believe me, there’s plenty to see, and it’s nice to have a hotel staff welcome you back at the end of the day.3) Make a list of what you want to eat. The South isn’t just southern food these days – I found a fantastic penne bolognese in Birmingham, and exquisite sushi in Lexington, Kentucky. There is tons of Mexican food all over the south, including The Taco Truck in downtown Birmingham. But for the most part, you’re here and you’re going to want to eat southern food. So make yourself a list: barbecue, fried chicken, shrimp, grits, crab, gumbo, peach cobbler, whatever your heart fancies. Then, find it. And if you discover a restaurant you like, don’t hesitate to go back again. I did that with Hot and Hot Fish Club in Birmingham and the Market By The Bay in Fairhope, Alabama, because I liked both menus so well. Likewise, you might find a fast food chain that appeals to you such as Zaxby’s, Backyard Burger or Krystal. Go ahead and indulge!

4) What do you want to do? Some people visit car plants, the way I did. Others want to see minor league baseball parks. Some folks like the beach, others want to play golf, still more like to shop. The variety is endless. You can plot a route around all those things, just do your research ahead of time. Southern states’ tourism websites are an amazing source of tips and routes. I particularly like 100 Dishes To Eat In Alabama.

5) Prepare for some challenging driving. Along with weather extremes, the South is much more hilly and even mountainous than people expect. Cities like Birmingham and Chattanooga are full of hills. Greenville sits not far from the mountains. Atlanta’s traffic is legendary. This isn’t like driving through the west, where you can put on cruise control and let your mind wander. You’ll have to pay attention.

6) Watch out for daredevil drivers. When I left Greenville for Atlanta, I noticed highway signs imploring motorists to allow more space when passing trucks. They might as well have said, “please don’t cut people off.” It’s startling to have a car pass you and wind up inches from your front bumper. It’s also a little disconcerting when you’re already going the speed limit and someone roars up and tailgates you. In New York City, they honk; in the South, they move.

7) Take time to go off the beaten path. Southern states do an admirable job of pointing out historic attractions; just look for the brown signs along the highways. And keep your eyes open for in-town signs, too. I found the delightful Ty Cobb Museum in Georgia that way, I discovered Hank Williams Sr.’s birthplace, and I discovered the sign for the F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald’s Montgomery, Alabama, home while I was looking for something else. Likewise, you can do a driving tour of sites from The Help near Greenwood, Missouri, and visit the state’s outstanding Blues Trail (there’s even an app). These places exemplify the richness of the Southern road.

8) Go ahead and be a tourist. I’ve been to Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, the Stax Museum of American Soul in Memphis, the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, and the beaches near Mobile. There is a reason why people visit these places: they’re part of American history and culture. Don’t turn up your nose because there are school buses parked outside. You might learn something you forgot from school.

10) You don’t have to give up Starbucks. In fact, I think there may be more Starbuck’s per highway exit across the South than in any other part of the country. There’s a branch of the Christmas Tree Shops in Birmingham, for homesick New Englanders, and college football loyalty is every bit as deep in Tuscaloosa and Auburn as in South Bend and Columbus. (When I showed up in navy, orange and white for a meeting, someone remarked, “You’re wearing your Clemson colors today.” That was news to me.) The South is more like America than the north, Midwest or West suspects – in fact, it is America, writ colorfully and large.

Nature Valley Trail View is ‘street view’ for national parks

Yellowstone National ParkEarlier this week, Nature Valley launched a fun new website that delivers a Google Street View-like experience for hiking trails in some of America’s most popular and iconic national parks. Dubbed Nature Valley Trail View, the new site allows hikers to explore over 300 miles of trail directly from their browser.

Much like its counter-part from Google, Trail View actually puts us on the ground and gives us a 360-degree view of the surroundings as we take a virtual hike through the wilderness. It also offers information about the trail that is currently being displayed, including: its length, level of difficulty and important points of interest along the way. This makes it a great tool for scouting potential hikes in the national parks before we go while also providing insights into what to expect when we’re actually out on the hike.

At the moment, Trail View features three of the more popular and famous national parks – Grand Canyon, Great Smokey Mountains, and Yellowstone. The video below gives us a glimpse at the technology that has gone into creating the new website, which is just the latest initiative from Nature Valley, a company that has a long history of supporting the national parks in a variety of important ways.

Enjoy the video then go take a virtual hike.