Big Creek

Road Trip through North Carolina

My friend, Anissa and I were talking about her recent road trip in North Carolina and I thought it would be fun to have her share her story with us. I briefly visited North Carolina as a child, but haven’t been back since, so it’s fun to revisit the area through Anissa’s adventures!

Hi Wander the Map followers! This is Anissa, Jenna’s soulmate from French class oh-so-many years ago, doing a guest blog! Today I’m writing about the first leg of my trip to North Carolina that I took with my partner in crime, CM.

I’m a graduate student, low on funds and time, so this summer I did the logical thing and organized my vacation around a conference I was headed to in Charlotte. I’ve heard a lot of great things about NC, and it was hard to decide what sites to see. I wanted to see it all—the oceans and the mountain, as well as stop and see a friend midway in Durham. I’m currently living in St. Louis and I decided to road trip it so I could make all the stops I wanted. Our trip itinerary (roughly) was St. Louis, Kentucky, Smoky Mountains, Asheville, Outerbanks, Durham, Charlotte, then back to St. Louis, and then driving back to MN to visit family. In case you haven’t looked up our route on google maps, that’s over 43 hours of driving, not including “scenic routes” (the routes were scenic, but that’s code for getting lost*). But that’s ok, we had two weeks and were loaded up on audiobooks and podcasts.

Road Trip Map

Driving through North Carolina

Driving through North Carolina

Our first day we made it to Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. Mammoth Cave is one of the largest caves in the world and offers a variety of tours, including ones that teach about spelunking.


Tent in North Carolina

After setting up our tent at nearby Nolin Lake State Park, we headed off for the nighttime gas lantern tour. As we walked down to the cave entrance, we could feel the temperature dropping. The air coming out of the cave felt like an air conditioner—a relief from the day’s muggy air. Though it wasn’t dark enough outside to need the lanterns yet, the cave was pitch black, and the lanterns created a nice glow, casting long shadows on the walls.

The first area we entered was HUGE. It didn’t even feel like we were in a cave, more like an underground warehouse. Though most of the areas after this were smaller, it never really lost it’s vast quality. This would be an excellent tour for people who are slightly claustrophobic but fir some reason want to go in caves anyway. I think I missed that sort of enclosed, winding quality, but overall I thought this was a great stop and loved walking the cave with lanterns.

The next morning we headed out bright and early (I hate early, but it does give me an excuse to nap later…) to make it to our next camping stop: Big Creek Campgrounds. I really can’t imagine a nicer place to camp. There are about 11 sites for tents (no RVs!), a few of which about the eponymous and accurately named Big Creek.

Big Creek

Big Creek

We were not so early as to get one of those coveted spots, but it didn’t matter. Our little tent was nestled in the Smoky Mountains, surrounded by trees so tall I could only see patches of sky, and in the background was the constant sound of cold, swirling water. We were steps away from the creek and a short walk away from some really nice hiking trails. The next few days were spent kayaking, hiking, and driving through the Smoky Mountains.

Tree in North Carolina

Smoky Mountains

The kayak place was on the other side of the Smoky Mountains, and also offered white water rafting and zip lining expeditions. We were lucky and only had one other person in our group; it was practically a private lesson! The kayaking was my first time doing white water rapids. The rapids were only 1s and 2s, but I was still really nervous about tipping my kayak and having to do a wet exit. They had us practice wet exits in a lake beforehand, but they were definitely unpleasant and on my list of things to avoid. Unfortunately the lessons came in handy as CM did manage to tip his kayak. I’m more of an after-dinner, placid lake kind of kayaker, but this was a lot of fun, even in the rapids. I would suggest learning how to do a wet exit no matter what kind of kayaking you’re doing, since kayaks are extremely easy to tip and you never know when it’ll come in handy.

While taking the scenic route** back to the campsite, we wandered out of the mountains and happened upon some sort of weird disneylandesque tourist area. It seemed so strange and out of place in the middle of the quiet mountains, and it was a bit jarring to all of a sudden be stalled in traffic with people mobbing souvenir shops and TGIFriday-type. If you have the opportunity to visit Gatlinburg I would definitely avoid it, though to be fair we didn’t stop at all, but made our way out of town as quickly as crossing pedestrians would allow. We did stumble across this gem, and I’m sure the trip wouldn’t have been the same without it.

Museum of Salt & Pepper Shakers

It would have been minus one picture, for starters.

The next part or our trip was much more suited to our introverted dispositions. We packed up from Big Creek, sad to leave our campsite, but excited to shower, sleep in a real bed, and eat a hot meal. We took the day to drive Blue Ridge parkway, a 469 mile road that winds through the mountains and offers really spectacular views.

Blue Ridge Peak

Blue Ridge, North Carolina

Blue Ridge, North Carolina


At the peak of Blue Ridge Parkway was Pisgah Inn, home of hot, running water and indoor toilets. There are other nice things about it, too. Clean towels, for example. The two double beds were almost a blessing, considering we had been cramped together in a tent for so many nights.


They also offered some very nice views of the mountains, and private balconies with rocking chairs to enjoy the panoramic views. Had we been there longer, I’m sure we would have taken advantage of the nearby hiking paths. As it happened, we concluded the first leg of our journey out on the balcony, looking at the stars and drinking wine, which was probably the perfect way to end it.

Smoky Mountains Sunset

This post ended up being longer than I thought it would, so I’ll stop here. Though we made this part of our journey in about 4 days, this really could have been the whole vacation. I could have easily spent another day or two exploring each location we went to!

*I would suggest having a few real maps on hand. Locations don’t always have a GPS friendly address, nor do GPS’ always work
**We saw signs for boiled peanuts everywhere. If someone can explain to me the appeal of a boiled peanut, please do.


About the Guest Author:

Anissa is currently a graduate student studying personality psychology. Raised in Minnesota, and currently living in Missouri, Anissa studied abroad in England and taught English in South Korea. She has traveled to France, the Philippines, and around the U.S., and hopes to go many more places in the future! Her current top travel destinations include the Grand Canyon, Scotland, and New Zealand.