Top 5 Trails I Loved in the Smoky Mountains

The last weekend of July, Tony and I got away for a long weekend to the Smoky Mountains. We had a lined up a hotel room, but beyond that, hadn’t planned anything special for the road trip.

In typical Alissa fashion, I pretty much hated everything about the tourist trap that was Gatlinburg. Our hotel was downtown, so we had to suffer through a dozen or more blocks of old time photography places, over-priced restaurants, candy stores, moonshine distilleries and crappy attractions just to get out of town. (To be fair, we didn’t stop at any of them – maybe they don’t all suck? I’ll leave that for someone else to explore and decide.)

But once you got out of town, you were at the foot of the Smoky Mountains National Park. And It. Was. Glorious!

Here are the five trails I loved hiking the most:

  1. Chimney Tops. This was the top trail on my “must-hike” list. Why? It’s short (less than four miles roundtrip), but very vertical (1,375-ft climb). After we settled in Thursday night, we decided we’d knock it off our list. Unfortunately, the trail stopped about a quarter-mile short of the Chimney Top formation due to the damage the trail incurred from the wildfires in 2016, so this was the best view we could get.Chimney Tops in the Smoky Mountains National Park
  2. Charlies Bunion. This was our last hike of the trip, and in holding true to the other two days of hiking, we were racing to beat the sunset to finish the eight-mile roundtrip hike. The hike itself was a lot more technical than I was expecting (poor pre-hike research on my part), so the hike in was rough. My body ached from the 23+ miles we’d hiked the day before. But the view at the end was worth it… even though it tied big knots in my stomach. (It didn’t help that Tony had to go all the way out to the farthest rock for a selfie!)
  3. A portion of the Rainbow Falls trail two years after the Chimney Tops wildfire.Rainbow Falls. This trail was a last-minute, impulse-add on Friday afternoon after we had already hiked roughly seven miles into the National Park. We weren’t entirely sure how far it was to the falls, but decided to go for it anyway. The actual waterfall was okay, but I thought the best part was the hike down/back. It was four miles (one way) of the gnarliest trail we’d traversed that weekend, and a chunk of it had been burnt in the wildfires in 2016. It was eerie to be surrounded by towering dead trees, yet the ground was covered with lush green foliage. There were very few people hiking this trail, so it really added to the post-apocalyptic feel.
  4. Alum Cave. The trip out to Alum Cave was our the first leg of our hiking adventure on Friday. It’s about two and a half miles (one way) and relatively easy to hike. (I feel safe saying that strictly because of the shear number of folks we saw on the trail in Crocs or other ridiculous foot ware.) There are parts of the hike that get a bit dicey (think running water + rocks + steep drops down one side), but all of those areas had a heavy gauged cable available to hold on to, so you felt pretty secure. The cave at the top is awesome. Much bigger than I was expecting, but not really in a cave-like way.

  5. Mount LeConte. After hitting Alum Cave, we continued hiking up to Mount LeConte (another three miles, one way). The view was awesome. And the best part, was that you could visit the Mt LeConte Lodge (where you could fill up your water bottles – score!) and spend time toodling around the area without having to tack on much additional elevation gain. We checked out Clifftop Overlook and Myrtle Point while we were up there.At the summit of Mount LeConte, the third highest point in the Smoky Mountains National Park.

It’s easy to say that our quick trip to the Smokies was one of my favorite vacations in recent history (right up there with Costa Rica!). I LOVED hiking and spending time out in the wilderness. It’s always fun to push myself and see what I’m capable of achieving. Plus, I really like spending time with Tony – he’s a great hiking partner.

In all, we logged 47 miles over our four day trip. I’m certain it would have been more if we hadn’t had to burn 24 hours in the car, plus another four hours listening to a time-share pitch.

Planning for Walt Disney World: 3 Questions

We’ve finally decided the kids are all old enough to do a family vacation to Walt Disney World early next year. It’s something Tony and I have been talking about for about 18 months… we wanted to wait until Kate would be old enough to really enjoy herself (and remember going)… yet not wait so long that Leo’s bored with all the “kid stuff.” I think I hope we’re hitting the sweet spot. Leo will be 9, Alex 5 and Kate 3.

In addition to the five of us, we’re also planning on traveling with my parents, my sister, her daughter (age 4) and Tony’s parents. It will be really nice to have all of the family there. It will give us the ability to split up in a variety of ways so each kid will get a chance to experience stuff together, but also things specifically of interest to them.

So far the biggest bulk of my planning and research has been on my own. It’s really helped us get a better idea of what we want to do while we’re there. But I still some lingering questions/decisions:

  1. Should we use a travel agent? We went to a AAA gal here in Topeka, and I didn’t find the experience to be particularly helpful. She basically covered things I had already read about in my research. I was hoping she’d help with booking Fast Passes and Character Dining opportunities, but she didn’t act like that was something her services would cover. For those of you who used a travel agent, what all did they help you with?
  2. Where should we stay? I know we want to stay on the property, but trying to decide which resort is tough. Right now we’re leaning towards the The Wilderness Cabins, mostly for the extra space. Has anyone been to those recently? Where else should we consider (we need to have enough space to accommodate 5 people in a unit, plus some type of room division to separate beds so the snorers can be in a different room than the non-snorers).
  3. I like the idea of the meal plan, but is it worth it? We will want to do Character Dining, and I can see us eating snacks at the parks but I don’t know that we’d all eat enough times to make it worth it. Plus, if we do stay at the Cabins, we’d have a full kitchen in each unit and could easily do big breakfasts and evening snacks/meals there.

We’re planning to do five days at the parks over the course of seven days. Plus we’ll be flying (the first time for our youngest kiddos). It should be a fun, although probably exhausting, trip.

My image was pulled from the Walt Disney World planning site, where I’ve spent entirely too much time reading about all the things available. 

Change’s Coming: Land for Sale

For the past few years, Tony and I have been contemplating our future living situation. We really like the house we live in – the location is great, it’s a good size for our family, we love our neighborhood, and everything about this place is perfectly fine. But it’s still never been quite right…

We need another bedroom (which we have plenty of space to add). We’d like to put a porch/deck on the front of the house (which we’ve discussed and would get around to in the next 9-12 months). We’d like to put a flat patio in the back where we could setup a basketball goal and not have to worry about it rolling down the driveway (probably not anything we’d do in the next year or two, but it was on the list). We’d love to upgrade the master bathroom and the kitchen. None of these are critical, just things you want and dream about in the house that you’re going to raise your family in and spend all your time in after you retire.

But even after all the work and projects, the fact that we live 45 minutes away from our hunting land will never change.

We’ve considered building a house on Tony’s Lebo land, but it’s just not realistic. Tony works in Topeka. I’m working in Kansas City. Both of us commuting an hour each way makes for a pretty poor quality of life.

So we’ve come to the conclusion that neither piece of property is the ultimate answer.

We are in the final steps of getting Tony’s Lebo land ready to sell, and we’re starting to look for new property. Hopefully something with a house, or maybe a space where we’ll build a house. And once we figure the house thing out, we’ll put our current house on the market.

If you know of anyone selling a decent chunk of turkey hunting land in the Osage County or Wabaunsee County area, let us know. We’re looking to buy. (Especially if it has a 4+ bedroom house on it!) Or, if you know someone that’s looking for a good piece of hunting land in Southern Osage County, let me know. We have 147 acres of prime hunting land that will go on the market in the next few weeks.

The dreaded 4-letter word M-I-L-K

I have no idea what’s happened to me. Maybe it’s part of the way a person’s body changes as they get older. Maybe it was triggered by hormones after having the kids. Maybe it’s always been there, but I wasn’t in-tune with my body enough to notice. One thing has become incredibly clear to me… my body doesn’t like milk anymore.

And when I say doesn’t like, I mean, punishes me for days.

Over the course of the last year, I’ve began to notice some tummy troubles after eating ice cream or yogurt. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve started to avoid both. But since I rarely drink milk, I hadn’t really thought too much about how it might cause issues too. After this past weekend’s bowl of granola cereal, I’m afraid my days of milk are pretty much done.

The 2018 Ski Trip

Last week we went with the entire Kansas-based Menke family to Granby Ranch in Granby, CO for our ski trip. It was great, and if you’re looking for a family-friendly place to go skiing, Granby should be on your list. The condo was awesome (we had our own hot tub – score!). Lessons were affordable. And the slopes weren’t very crowded. All in all, the makings of a solid week of family fun.

It’s always crazy an adventure to take the kids on a 10+ hour drive. Honestly though, we nearly have that down to a science thanks to Tony. He always makes sure we have plenty of drinks, snacks and movies that are easily accessible, and he’s willing to make copious bathroom stops.

The thing that really stood out about this particular ski trip, is that it was the first time we’d have the entire family up on skis at some point. Leo is an old pro, but it was the first time Alex would get to attend lessons, and Kate was finally big enough for us to get her out on the bunny hill for awhile.

We enrolled Leo in two days of intermediate ski lessons, although he skied all day, every day, regardless of whether he had lessons or not. He complained about having to go to lessons (cousin Carson didn’t have to – it’s not fair!), but after two days he had made several friends in the group, so I think it was a good investment in his time and our money. Because Leo’s quite adept at skiing and prefers to ski terrain parks and narrow trails, I didn’t get any photos of him. It’s a sad but unfortunate result of being better at skiing than his mother. Instead I’m including a photo of Kate and Alex looking over the balcony of the base lodge, trying to find Leo.

We also enrolled Alex in ski lessons. We opted for three days for him since it was his first time in lessons, but only half-days. Initially, we were a bit disappointed he’d only get half-days, but as it turns out, those ski school people know what they’re doing. Alex loved lessons until around 10:30 each day. Then he was tired. And done. So we would inevitably get a call from ski school, and either Tony or I would have to go down and cheer/console/bribe Alex in attempts to get him to finish the remaining hour-ish of time.

Kate was not old enough for lessons, so we took her out for about an hour one afternoon on the bunny hill. Alex tagged along and showed Kate how to ride the magic carpet. Initially, Kate didn’t really want to stand up on her skis, and couldn’t quite follow along with what was going on. But it was only a matter of time and that girl figured it out. Before I knew it, Tony had her skiing down the bunny hill all by herself, and Kate was giggling the whole time!

In addition to skiing, we also spent some time playing in the snow and building a snowman. As it turns out, the fresh powered didn’t pack well so we had a non-traditional triangle snowperson instead of the typical three-ball configuration.

For Tonythe skiing wasn’t particularly challenging. Granby had an entire mountainside that was exclusively blue and black runs, but they weren’t terribly long and several still weren’t open (while it snowed 6-9″ while we were there, they hadn’t had a whole lot before then). And let’s face it, Tony really likes the super steep, super fast, crazy stuff. I know he had a good time though, watching the kids and getting to spend time with his dad, sister and brother, along with various assortments of the cousins, going down the green and blue runs on the other mountainside.

Tony also invested quite a bit of time helping me try to take my skiing to the next level. After seven years (although technically I’ve only been skiing five times), I’m still trying to make the transition from relying on the wedge (pizza) to slow down and turn, to going all parallel, all the time. It isn’t a tough concept physically (although it does take some work), but mentally, you have to trust yourself and take the risk… and that’s something I struggle with. After a few rough moments (and one afternoon where I wasn’t on speaking terms with Tony), I think I finally got there. By my final couple of runs, I was pretty good at doing parallel turns. (We’ll see if it sticks for next time.)

All, in all, I really do enjoy skiing, and I especially enjoy skiing with Tony around… I don’t really like many other folks around because a crowd makes me really anxious, but I’m pretty comfortable with him there.

I’m so thankful that I married into a skiing family and that I get the opportunity to take my kids skiing. I can tell they’re all going to love it. (In fact, Leo declared the other day that he’ll probably be most likely to go to the Olympics in skiing, lol.)