The Antique Gnomes of Rock City – Chattanooga, Tennessee

On a recent drive from Illinois to Georgia, I made a pit stop in Chattanooga, Tennessee and decided to check out the famous attraction advertised on all the highway billboards: Rock City. Much to my delight, the nature paths and caves here are filled with gnomes!

I knew I was in for something special when the road leading up to Rock City was called “Ochs Highway.” No joke. Clearly, this place was meant for me.

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History of the Rock City Gnomes

In the late 1920s, Garnet and Frieda Carter began developing a walkable garden on their private estate to share their love for the region’s rock formations and native plants with the public.

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The husband-wife team opened Rock City Gardens during the Great Depression and had over 800 barns painted to advertise and attract tourists to Chattanooga. They gave the attraction its name because the rocks on top of Lookout Mountain looked like city buildings and the natural pathways like streets.

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Frieda Carter loved European folklore and fairytales, and she was an avid gnome collector. So naturally, many of her gnomes made it into the local attraction.

Gnomes Along the Enchanted Trail

Your gnome journey begins at the new Gnome Valley installation, which is a growing collection of whimsical space at the beginning of the Enchanted Trail.

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As you walk along the beautiful and easily accessible trail, you’ll notice even more gnomes peeking behind rocks to greet you.

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Keep an eye out for little red hats as you navigate the trail to Lover’s Leap, the 180-foot suspension bridge, Mother Goose Village, and the summit where you can see seven states on a clear day.

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Another awesome part about Rock City is that the whole place is dog friendly!

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The Gnomes of Fairyland Caverns

But by far, the best place to see gnomes is inside Fairyland Caverns, as this is home to Frieda’s collection of antique, imported German gnomes.

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Inside this cave, gnomes are situated into scenes that are illuminated by black lights.

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You instantly feel a sense of magic as you pass by the Castle of the Gnomes, Carnival of the Gnomes, the Moonshine-Brewing Gnomes, and many other displays.

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Admittedly, some of the scenes were a bit on the creepy side. But isn’t that what fairy tales are really all about anyway?

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Antique Gnome Restoration

Since the Rock City gnomes date back to the 1920s and 1930s, many of them were in desperate need of repair. Rock City’s resident art specialist, Matt Dutton, created a “Gnome Infirmary” to restore the residents to their original splendor.

Matt consults old photos to keep the gnomes’ coloring consistent, painting and repairing them as needed. He uses urethane resin and a hardener to fills his handmade molds to restore each little one’s unique personality.

The Gnome Mascot & Gift Shops

A red-hatted, white-bearded gnome named Rocky is the mascot for Rock City, and you might meet him walking around in costume! Yet no roadside attraction would be complete without a gift shop, and the one at Rock City is stocked with lots of gnomes you can take home as souvenirs.

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My souvenir of choice? A purple t-shirt that reads, “I’m a rock climbing, trail trekkin’, gnome lovin’ nature kinda girl.” I couldn’t have come up with a more perfect motto for myself!

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*A version of this story is scheduled to be published in the next issue of the International Gnome Club newsletter! 

A Solo Smokies Hike Along Grotto Falls Trail

Travel companions are nice and all, but if you’re anything like me, you secretly crave alone time just as much when you’re on the road.

There’s something to be said for finding solitude in nature, to control your own route, and push your limits without someone else’s influence. During my recent trip to the Smoky Mountains, I decided to look into the trees instead of at the footsteps ahead of me. I set my own pace, stopped to take photos when I wanted to, and focused on listening to my jumbled thoughts.

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My solo route of choice was the Grotto Falls trail, and I drove from Pigeon Forge through Gatlinburg, and along windy, narrow uphill roads to reach it. I passed by the Rainbow Falls Trailhead, which was disgustingly crowded, and came to an abrupt halt at a road closure blocking my way.

The road to the Grotto Falls trail had been barricaded off, most likely because the National Park Service hadn’t yet opened all of the trails for spring. But since it was the middle of March, I was surprised to be greeted by orange cones and metal gates instead of an idyllic path.

It was time to improvise.Grotto 2

I parked my Jeep along the side of the road and made my way back towards the crowded trailhead I passed a bit earlier. After a half mile of roadside walking, I reached a different trailhead with a sign: “Grotto Falls 3.5 miles.”

Now I’m no sissy to a seven-mile round trip hike, but in the spirit of solo safety, I’d left word back at the RV that I’d be back (from a significantly shorter hike) within an hour or two. The mountains aren’t exactly known for their stellar cellphone reception, but I managed to squeeze a text through the void and provide a tip off that I’d be a little later than expected.

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And what an excellent decision that was!

Some sections of the trail were easy and flat, while others were coated in a fresh layer of mud from the previous evening’s snowfall. The light dusting of snow on the tree branches provided the perfect backdrop for a stereotypically introspective afternoon.
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Since there were really no steep cliffs along this route, my hike was more about endurance and less nerve-racking than I expected. There were a few fallen trees along the trail and a few streams blocking the path, but nothing that I couldn’t hop over with an ounce of grace.

I visually compartmentalized each category of thoughts into “folders,” filing one away when I’d sifted through it just enough to move on to the next one. While mental flickerings of my work stress, my relationship, and my enduring restlessness came and went, one thought persisted:

Wow, it’s taking me a lot longer to hike this than I ever expected!

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Keep trudging along…just 1.2 miles to go. Oh, and then the whole return trip.

As a kid, I remember watching stupid cartoons where a character was stranded in the desert and began to hallucinate, envisioning a mirage of water in the far distance. Well on this hike, a mirage of my own emerged…the elusive sounds of a waterfall.

I knew that my journey would be half done when I reached Grotto Falls, and I could have sworn to hear the falls miles in advance of their actual location. As I turned a corner with a glimmer of hope in my eye, I would come to find that the sound of rushing water could only be attributed to a tiny stream not even worth mention on a map.

Then the temperature began to drop. Noticeably drop.

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“That’s it? That’s what I hiked four miles for?!”

But as I continued on, the small waterfall led to a much larger waterfall, and my bitching promptly subsided.

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Although the rocks leading up to the falls were frozen and slippery, the falls flowed fast. There are quite a few waterfall hikes in the Smokies, but very few that you can actually walk behind. This is one of them. The rocks were glistening with ice crystals and the mist would have only been refreshing if it was 40-degrees warmer outside.

Since this is an out-and-back hike, rather than a loop, you have two options to get back to your car. You can either backtrack exactly what you just did, or you can walk along the road about two miles to the barricaded gate. Since I knew there’d be no traffic along the road, I chose that route for a change in scenery.

grotto returnSome might call this downhill route “cheating,” but it did offer some amazing mountain views. And I’m okay with that. After 7+ miles and 3+ hours, I made it back to my Jeep with a heightened sense of confidence and way better attitude about the rest of this Tennessee road trip.

Solo Hiking Tips from a Pseudo-Expert

  • Decide on a specific trail and let someone know what it is
  • Read some online trail journals to learn about what previous hikers encountered on your route
  • Take a GPS or two-way radio because cellphones are worthless on hikes
  • Keep a record of how many miles you’ve hiked in the past (and on what type of terrain) and be realistic about how hardcore you are
  • Memorize some maps to get an overview of the area in case you make a wrong turn
  • Don’t underestimate your need for basic stuff like granola bars, water, a first-aid kit, and extra layers
  • Pay attention to what time of day it is and plan to be back before sunset
  • Take a million pictures because you’re the only one seeing thisGrotto 8

A Gnome Pub at the Edge of the Smoky Mountains

On a recent road trip from Chicago to the Smoky Mountains I was delighted to discover that one particular pub would be a convenient pit stop along the way. The Roaming Gnome Pub & Eatery is located in Sevierville, Tennessee, just north of the tourism madness of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.

Walking into wonderland

But you see, I didn’t stumble upon this wonderland on accident. As an avid writer of all things gnome, I’m familiar with pretty every gnome establishment out there and even receive daily gnome Google alerts to keep up with it all.

Not only was I ecstatic to finally visit this gnome pub, but even more excited to pull into the gnome pub’s parking lot towing a popup camper. Just a couple hours earlier, I had picked up a popup rental near the Indiana/Kentucky border to tow behind my Jeep and spend some time in the Smokys.

Pulling camper

The Roaming Gnome used to have three locations: Sevierville, Knoxville, and Maryville. But sadly, only the Sevierville one is still in business today. Three gnome pubs in one regional area would have been too much for me to wrap my head around anyway, I suppose.

Gnome pubs are few and far between, but I am willing to go well out of my way to reach them. But surprisingly, they often let me down. Take for example Dirty Bill’s, a sorta kinda gnome-themed bar in Austin. Although the display of gnome photographs at Dirty Bill’s was nothing short of amazing, the place was clearly trying to phase gnomes out of their decor and become just another generic dive bar off of 6th Street.

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The Roaming Gnome, however, is keeping the gnome enthusiast spirit alive and well. The exterior of the building has nothing going for it, as it’s wedged into a strip mall across from a Wal-Mart. But as you approach the door, you’re greeted by a clever gnome window display and large gnome rug.

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Some of the high top tables inside have huge gnome faces on them and there are gnome statutes scattered inconspicuously throughout the bar. Miraculously, there are even gnomes plastered upside down on the ceiling.

On the ceiling

The pub has a traditional Irish pub feel, with about 75 beers on tap, a no-nonsense food menu, flat screen TVs playing sports, and pool tables in the back. Add some gnomes to that mix and you’ll have a hard time dragging me out.

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For dinner, my boyfriend and I settled on a few starters to share: the calamari, the Reuben eggrolls, and the mega nachos. I can safely say that each of them exceeded my pub cuisine expectations. I’m no food critic, but I am a gnome critic. So moving on…

But first – it was Sunday, and I have a really difficult time passing up Sunday Bloody Mary specials. So I gave in and ordered one. No harm done.

Hanging with my gnomies

It was a bit chilly that evening, so the back patio wasn’t open. However, chalk-drawn gnomes teased and tempted me into the “someday” possibility of eating outdoors after a seemingly endless winter.

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The Roaming Gnome has been in Sevierville since 2007 and prides itself on being a local hangout among the tourist chaos. And it seems to be exactly that. A group of local 20-something guys popped in at 9:00 on the dot to take advantage of Pour Hour, a window of time where well drinks and domestic drafts can be chugged for just a buck each.

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There’s a drink special every night, just in case the gnomes don’t draw you in on a daily basis like they would for me if I lived nearby. For example, very Wednesday night (9pm to midnight) is Pint Night with normal people pints for $2 and hard core high gravity pints for $4.There’s also a decently sized stage in the front corner of the pub (in front of the gnome window display!), where local bands take the stage Friday and Saturday nights.

The Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area is just as touristy as you remember from when your parents dragged you there as an awkward pre-teen. Of course, I fell in love with The Roaming Gnome because well, there are gnomes everywhere. The bartender even let me pose with a huge gnome in a Guinness Hat who normally lives behind the bar!

New Guinness friend

But honestly, I would have dug this place even if there was no gnome in sight. The pub is spacious, which is a nice change from the obnoxious crowds everywhere else. The menu makes a lot of sense, the prices are spot on, and the vibe is laid back – without being so laid back that you’re twiddling your thumbs waiting for a pint.

Bought the t-shirt

So if you find yourself in the middle of Tennessee for whatever reason, make a point to stop in and say hello to my newest gnome friends. I came, I drank, I bought the t-shirt…literally!

Hiking the Chimney Tops Trail: #1 of 3 Smoky Mountain Adventures

There are at least a hundred hiking trails in the Smoky Mountains, so how’s a girl supposed to settle on just one for an introductory hike?

Eeny meeny miny moe, randomly point on a map, and hit the road!

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The Chimney Tops Trail climbs 1,400 feet in two miles, making it a relatively steep trail in anyone’s book. The round-trip trail length is four miles, making it perfect for a moderate morning hike. You’ll find the trail-head for the trip almost seven miles south of the Sugarlands Visitor Center on the Newfound Gap Road (latitude 35.63538, longitude -83.46979). There’s a “parking lot” alongside the road that you could easily mistake for a vista point pullout. This is less than a 30 minute drive if you’re camping in Pigeon Forge, like I did.

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Chimney Tops is a mountain in the central Smokys with an elevation of 4,724 feet. It’s one of the rare occurrences of a bare rock summit in the mountain range.

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Another reason to hit this trail early in the morning is that it is incredibly popular and gets disgustingly crowded…even during the off-season. The first 0.9 miles of the trail is super easy, so you can get a good pace going.

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During this stretch, you’ll hike along Road Prong Creek and across several picturesque bridges and up some conveniently placed steps. Expect to step in a good bit of mud, even if you can’t recall the last time it rained.

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You’ll know you’re halfway to the summit when you reach Beech Flats, and everything gets a little more challenging from here. Stay on the trail that veers right to reach the summit, which is a bouldering problem if I ever saw one.

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To get the absolute best view, you’ll need to scramble to the top without the help of a cable to hold on to or any technical gear. Hikers get injured here all the time, so if you’ll feeling shaky, stay off the pinnacles and enjoy the comparably awesome view of the Sugarland Mountain in the west and Sugarlands Valley in the north.

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I, for one, had yet to develop my mountain legs and told myself I was satisfied with the view after climbing up about one-third of the pinnacle structure. It is nerve-racking up there, but if you gaze straight forward to either side, the characteristically hazy views should restore some inner balance.

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From start to finish, Chimney Tops is an incredibly well-marked trail that provides an impressive introduction to the Smoky Mountains. The better-than-average signage also ensures that directionally challenged hikers, like me, won’t get lost and take a wrong turn.

I hiked this trail in about two hours in early March, starting at about 8:00 am. On the return hike back to the car, I began passing by lots of other hikers. By 10:00 am, there wasn’t a single parking spot available in the area.

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Chimney Tops was my first Smoky Mountain hike during my most recent trip to the national park. As I later noticed, every Smoky hike is surprisingly unique and has its own particular set of challenges. Coming up next, I tackle the Grotto Falls Trail and the Rainbow Falls Trail, which both had something entirely different in store for me and my trusty hiking boots.

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The Tent to RV Transition: A Camper’s Journey of Compromise

Despite the pesky inconveniences and irritating discomforts that go along with camping, I’d trade my bed for a tent almost any day. While waking in up a bed feels automated, waking up in a tent feels like an adventure. While cooking in my apartment’s kitchen feels like a hassle, making dinner over a campfire feels like a relaxing activity. While I repeatedly hit the snooze button at home, the sound of birds chirping and the first rays of sunlight motivate me for the day ahead.

And that crick in my neck from sleeping on the ground? It’s much more likely to go away after a long morning hike than after staring at a screen and pushing letter buttons below it for eight hours.

One of my favorite campsites: Padre Island National Seashore

One of my favorite campsites: Padre Island National Seashore

For Valentine’s Day this year, my boyfriend escorted me to an RV show. Romantic, right?

I had hoped that the 46th Annual Chicago RV & Camping Show would have some cool tents and outdoor accessories, but it was almost exclusively RV-focused. Since we had already bought tickets, we spent some time looking at RVs. I instantly fell in love with the smallest pop-up camper at the show, which had a price tag of just under $6K. It seemed to be the perfect compromise between the tent camping I love and the RV lifestyle that sounded mighty appealing after a few miserable nights in the freezing cold and pouring rain.

Sadly, I was not surprised with the gift of an RV this Valentine’s Day. But I didn’t forget about that little pop-up back at the convention. A severe case of restlessness set in a couple weeks later and we started tossing out ideas for our next adventure. We didn’t feel prepared to make a major RV purchase just yet , but what if we could rent one…for just a little while?

A lesson in camper setup

A lesson in camper setup

A quick phone call to Greenwood RV Rentals settled the matter. We booked a pop-up camper, similar to the one at the convention, and drive down to the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee for a couple weeks. Although this rental shop’s two locations are in the Indianapolis area, Dave agreed to meet us with a rental closer to the Kentucky border, just north of Louisville. This way we didn’t have to battle Chicago traffic with it or run up the gas mileage as badly.

Surprisingly NOT a gas guzzler

Surprisingly NOT a gas guzzler!

Dave patiently waited in a storage facility parking lot as we rolled in with the Jeep nearly an hour late. The pop-up had two full-sized beds, a dinette table with bench seats, a two-burner propane stove, an ice box, furnace, and air conditioner. As long as it’s not a holiday or a local festival weekend, the standard pop-up rates are $73 per night, with a three night/four day minimum. It also had a 30 amp electrical adapter, cold running water from the kitchen sink, and with a 1,600 pound tow weight, my Jeep Wrangler was easily up for the challenge. Thankfully, Dave spent a considerable amount of time giving us a thorough rundown of how to tow, expand, and collapse the camper.

Campsite at River's Edge RV Resort in Pigeon Forge

Campsite at River’s Edge RV Resort in Pigeon Forge

I have previously made a reservation at River’s Edge RV Resort in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. After emailing several RV campgrounds, I chose this one because of its Wi-Fi/Mi-Fi Internet coverage, proximity to the national park, price, and responsiveness of the staff. Since our reservation dates were still considered “off season,” the rate was just $33 per night. That jumps jump to $45 per night between April and the first of January.

I learned a lot during the two weeks that I spent in my very first pop-up camper, and I loved calling it “home” for awhile. Some parts I expected to be frustrating and they weren’t, while other challenges were a total surprise.

1. Pop-up campers have crappy insulation. In most parts of the country, pop-ups are best suited for late spring to early fall weather. The windows are made of plastic and the walls of canvas. There is a small furnace, but it’s no match for 30-degree temperatures. Bring an electric space heater!

Pop-up working/sleeping situation

Pop-up working/sleeping situation

2. Backing up a pop-up camper is really hard. It really is, and I have no idea how anyone does it.

3. Pop-up campers are more spacious than you’d expect. I expected to feel at least somewhat cramped while working, cooking, playing games, and sleeping in the pop-up. It looks tiny pulled behind a hitch, but don’t be fooled! There’s actually a ton of space in there. Use the extra bed for luggage and make use of all of the interior cupboards.

4. It’s easy to cook, do dishes, and store a couple weeks’ worth of groceries in a pop-up camper. When we tent camp, we cook most of our meals with a Jet Boil canister. This translates to lots of ramen noodles, beans, and oatmeal. Although I’m far from a culinary chef at home, I loved buying and cooking fresh vegetables in the pop-up. The faucet only puts out cold water, so if your dishes are gross, you’ll have to head to the campground bathroom and hope no one catches you in the act.

The pop-up kitchen setup

The pop-up kitchen setup

5. Try attaching the stove to the outside of the camper. Why cook inside when you can cook outside?

6. Choose a pop-up with a fridge (not an icebox) if possible. An icebox is exactly what it sounds like, and it only keeps perishables cool for a little while. Ask your RV rental company if a mini fridge is available for rent if you plan on grilling out meat.

7. The beds are surprisingly comfortable. Don’t be fooled by the flimsy mattresses. Unlike the cold, hard ground, you can actually get a decent night’s rest on a pop-up bed. Granted, our pop-up was brand new when we rented it, so the mattress hadn’t yet been weighted down by a Fatty McGoo.

Cranking out some work on the laptop in the pop-up

Cranking out some work on the laptop in the pop-up

8. A small propane tank only lasts four or five days if you’re running the heat. Ask your rental company if they have a propane gauge so you don’t unknowingly run out of heat in the middle of the night. A propane fill costs about $20-25 and you’ll most likely have to do a fill or exchange if you’re renting longer than three days. A small space heater can pick up the slack it unexpectedly runs out.

9. Things I wish I’d brought for my pop-up rental: broom, dust pan, candles, small space heater, floor mat for dirty shoes, bucket for gray water.

Although I’m not planning to run out an buy an camper right away, my first experience made me a believer in the RV lifestyle. Just because I sleep inside doesn’t mean I can’t spend time outside. And “roughing” it doesn’t always have to mean being cold, wet, and miserable. Maybe I’m getting older, or maybe just a little wiser.

As a minimalist, I don’t need the enormous RV with the flat screen TV and a fireplace. Instead, I’m excited to discover a “compromise camper” that equally suits my spirit of adventure AND the whiny little voice inside my head.