The Appalachian Mountains are sometimes dismissed when compared to the newer, taller Rocky Mountains. However, the area around the Appalachian Mountains offers many diverse vistas and experiences. In addition, on this trip you will visit the expansive Mammoth Cave and historic Gettysburg battlefield.
From Washington, drive to Front Royal, VA and turn onto Skyline Dr, entering into the Shenandoah National Park. The Skyline Rd runs 105 miles with over 75 overlooks into the valley below. See the park map >> for full details. The maximum speed limit is 35mph, so take your time and look out for deer and bears in the park. There are many short hikes from along the drive.
While there is a good deal of accommodations within the park, all of it is located in the northern section, making the Day 3 drive much more difficult. Instead, we recommend staying in Waynesboro or Staunton. Though not the most luxurious accommodation, the Quality Inn Staunton >> offers reasonable lodging for a very low rate.
Day 3 is a long driving day, over 7 hours, without many stops along the way. The Blue Ridge Parkway runs parallel to I-81, but the views will be similar to those seen the day before in Shenandoah.
With the long drive, we don't recommend trying too many activities on Day 3. An excellent location in Great Smoky Mountains National Park near sunset in Cades Cove, where you will see many deer and possibly some black bear, with 1500 bears in the park. The nearby town of Gatlinburg is a nice choice for dinner.
There is no lodging within the park, we recommend the picturesque Park Vista Hotel >>. There is also ample lodging in nearby Sevierville, though that requires around an hour to get into the park. You should make two night's accommodations and reservations at any location are strongly encouraged as this is a highly popular National Park due to the proximity to major East Coast cities.
Visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park
There many great hikes in the Smoky Mountains. From Newfound Gap, we recommend either the Charlies Bunion or Clingman's Dome hikes, both following the Appalachian Trail. Based on the time of year you can also drive to the top of Clingman's Dome. For auto touring, we recommend the Balsam Mtn Rd or the Upper Tremont Rd, both of which can be found on the park map >>.
The drive from Smoky Mountains takes you up the Cumberland Plateau of east Tennessee. Along the way, you can stop by Nashville, home to the country music industry. Continue on into Kentucky. The tour of Mammoth Cave will be on Day 6, so take this day to explore some of the other attractions in the area, including Fort Knox >>, the Maker's Mark Distillery Tour >>, and Schmidt Museum of Coca-Cola Memorabilia >>.
Mammoth Cave is close to Bowling Green, KY, but accommodations in Bowling Green or Elizabethtown should provide easy access to the National Park.
Visit Mammoth Cave National Park
Mammoth Cave is the world's longest known cave system, stretching more than 390 miles. There are many tours within the cave and they offer around 3 of each tour every day. Tours are around $12/adult and $8/child, though some of the longer tours are more expensive. Many of the tours allow advance reservations, which we strongly recommend. You can find many of the tours listed on the park map >>.
Cuyahoga Valley National Park is situated near the populous Cleveland area. One of the newest National Parks, Cuyahoga offers great hikes through woods and gorges. We recommend the Buckeye Trail through O'Neill Woods, the Brandywine Gorge Trail, and the Brandywine Falls Trail. The different locations can be found on the park map >>.
The heavily populated region offers numerous options for accommodations, but we recommend seeing if there are vacancies at the Inn at Branydwine Falls >>, on the National Historic Registry.
Gettysburg was the locations of one of the turning point battles of the Civil War. Take the 16 stop tour of the battlefield as well as the interactive ranger programs. The detailed map >> shows the stops in the park.
Return to Washington D.C. and visit some of the attractions you may have missed on Day 1. Along the way, you may want to take a detour to Hershey, PA for the amusement park or Lancaster, PA to see the Amish communities there.
Return flight home.
Day 10 is the final day of the loop. Return your rental vehicle and begin the trek home. We hope you truly enjoy the loop experience and have found that you were able to see much more in this one trip than you could have imagined.