A welcome mid-pandemic retreat in the mountains of North Carolina

Back in April, when most of the world was in shutdown mode, John and I dreamed of getting out on the road again. Realizing that COVID-19 could not possibly disappear anytime soon, we set our sights on an August retreat that would offer cooler temps and a change of scenery in a safe environment. Our goal was to find a place, easily reachable by car (no plane rides or airports for us), secluded from crowds, and with a great view. We found just the place near Bryson City, NC that checked all the boxes and also fit into our budget. Retreat in the Sky is a lovely home  just a few miles outside of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in addition to other spots of scenic and natural beauty, including the Nantahala River recreational area, Joyce Kilmer National Forest, the southern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway, and more. The stress of the COVID-19 pandemic has created anxiety among us all so I was happily surprised to find that, walking into this homey and comfortable cabin and gazing out at the beautiful view from its porch, I immediately felt calmer than I have in while.

Retreat in the Sky – our home for the month of August

Bryson City is a place I’ve visited off and on for so many years, beginning with a trip to the nearby Hemlock Inn with my grandmother and sister while in college, and, later, on rafting trips to local rivers, including the Nantahala and Ocoee. I’ve also made hiking trips to Great Smoky Mountain NP, most recently for an overnight trip to the lodge at the top of Mount LeConte on the Tennessee side. Being here for a month is a special treat which allows us time to revisit old favorites, add new hikes and experiences, and just relax and enjoy our wonderful view.

Deep Creek

Discovering Deep Creek was a wonderful surprise and, I still can’t figure out how I ever missed it, as many times as I’ve been to this area. It’s a short, ten-minute drive from us and offers three beautiful waterfalls over the course of a hike that is easy and only takes a couple of hours. In addition, Deep Creek is a popular river for tubing, and the trail alongside the river is suitable for mountain or road bikes.

On a sunny, hot Thursday afternoon, my daughter, Mary, who had come up from Atlanta, and I made the hike down the trail carrying rented tubes to enjoy the river. The chill of the water was squeal-inducing at first, but once accustomed to it, the coolness felt wonderful. The creek is full of rocks and places for a tube to get stuck, forcing us to ungracefully figure out how to get moving again. All in all, it was a great ride that I’d like to enjoy again while we’re here.

Deep Creek area as shown on a mural of the area hiking trails in the local outfitter store
Carrying tubes down the trail to put in at Deep Creek
Juney Whank Falls, a short walk from the Deep Creek trail head
Indian Creek Falls

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest

I’ve always seen references to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest but never had any idea of who Joyce Kilmer is or why a forest was named for her. A quick look at Wikipedia informed me that 1.) Joyce Kilmer is a man 2.) He wrote the poem “Trees,” which you may think you don’t know, but most of us have heard at least the first line: “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.” Kilmer composed a large body of work but is primarily remembered for Trees. Here is the entire poem:

I think that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest

Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,

And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear

A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;

Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,

But only God can make a tree.

The forest named after Mr. Kilmer is one of the few areas in the region with old-growth forest, spared for unknown reasons, while other hardwoods in the region were being systematically cut down in the early 20th century. Hence, the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest is known for having some of the largest trees in the region, which are not impressive when compared to the Western Redwoods, or even the Live Oak trees of my home state, but it’s a pretty hike and makes for a nice day.

John and me in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest
Our pal, Sharon visiting from Michigan, and her dog, Ashok on the trail

The Cherohala Skyway and Huckleberry Knob

Until we arrived at the cabin, I’d never heard of the Cherohala Skyway, which, it turns out is a beautiful roadway, winding its way across 43 miles of mountainous terrain from Robbinsville, NC to Tellico Plains, TN. It opened in 1996 after 34 years of planning and construction and the name ‘Cherohala’ is a portmanteau of the two words ‘Cherokee’ and ‘Nantahala.’ The terminus of the Cherohala on the North Carolina side is very near the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and the route includes a multitude of scenic overviews, in addition to a few trails. One of the highest rated of the trails is Huckleberry Knob, a one-hour out-and-back trail. At 5580 feet, it’s the highest point in the Unicoi Mountains, with panoramic mountain views that we were told would compel us to break out in “The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Music” a la Julie Andrews (it was pretty, but no one burst into song). We arrived at the trail head in the mid-afternoon, by which time its small parking lot was almost full.

The trail going across Huckleberry Knob, highest point in the Unicoi Mountains
Andy Sherman grave site atop Huckleberry Knob, highest point in the Unicoi Mountains

On the way up, we noticed a cross over what appeared to be a grave. It turns out that this is the gravesite of Andy Sherman, a man who died on the mountain, along with his friend, Paul O’Neil, amidst snow and fog in the winter of 1899. Their bodies were found nine months later alongside several empty whiskey jugs. It was surmised that the men got drunk and froze to death. Bad idea then and now, right?

As we hiked up the mountain, we could scarcely avoid a large group, including dogs and children, whose large amount of gear suggested that they were planning to stay for a while to enjoy themselves beyond taking in the view. As we hiked down, we saw other similar groups. It was a Saturday night, so we presumed the groups were setting up for an evening of partying. We enjoyed the view at the top of Huckleberry Knob, but were more than happy to leave before the party started.

View off our porch at Retreat in the Sky

6 thoughts on “A welcome mid-pandemic retreat in the mountains of North Carolina

  1. Sallie and John, Ty and I find your odyssey fascinating and loved every word of You and Me. We are so lucky to have you as guests at Retreat in the Sky. You have a lifestyle to be greatly envied. Stay safe and hope you come our way again. ❤️

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    1. Sandy, we are the lucky ones, getting to spend a month enjoying this beautiful part of the world in your lovely home! Honestly, our year abroad now seems like a dream. Our plan all along was to spend this year touring the U.S. and Canada and then deciding what to do next but, of course, COVID-19 had other plans.

      We would love to come back this way and I hope your place is available when that time comes!

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    1. It was a very fun run! Mary and I ran it again on Sunday before she left and, unfortunately, her tube deflated and she ended up getting a bad ear infection from the water she took on in the river.

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