When the urge to get away won't go away, and your wallet makes it impossible to very far, there's a good alternative - Grandfather Mountain, N.C.
At 5,946 feet, it's not the tallest peak around, but it offers breathtaking views and, of course, the famous Mile High Swinging Bridge.
I recently dovetailed a trip to Grandfather Mountain with a weekend stay in nearby Banner Elk. However, the attraction makes for a nice day trip, as it's only an hour and 30 minutes from the Tri-Cities. We saw a lot of motorcyclists enjoying the winding curves leading up to the entrance, probably because it's only a few miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Admission is $20 per adult and $9 for children ages 4 to 12. Children under 4 get in free. Proceeds from ticket and souvenir sales go to the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation, a not-for-profit that operates the park and works to protect its beauty.
Entry into the attraction gets you a really nice compact disc that narrates the two-and-a-half-mile drive to the "Top Shelf" of Grandfather Mountain. For me, this made the seemingly steep admission price worth it. I didn't have to read a pamphlet to figure out where we were headed, and the narrator told me everything I needed to know while some beautifully arranged acoustic folk music played in the background.
The audio tour sets the tone for a great experience and I won't give away how Grandfather Mountain got its name. It's on track 15.
Be sure to bring a picnic along as there are many great places to stop and take in the view. Cliffside was my favorite and offers a glimpse of Mount Mitchell. But, if bringing food from home sounds too much like work, "Mildred's Grill" will pack you a picnic to go. There's a homemade fudge shop, too. I didn't have either, but saw a lot of folks flocking to the doors.
One of the first stops along the route is MacRae Meadows, the site of the upcoming Highland Games. The parking area at Sphinx and Split Rocks is a good place to stop, admire the scenery and meander over to the animal habitats where there are otter, cougar, deer, bald eagle and black bear exhibits. Enrichments, or educational programming, are held almost every 30 minutes throughout the exhibit areas.
From there, it's only a few hairpin curves to the "Top Shop" where the Mile High Swinging Bridge slightly sways between two cliffs. Walking across feels similar to a floating boat dock, except that the bridge is one mile above sea level and 80 feet above the canyon.
Overall, Grandfather Mountain is family-friendly, but you'll want to keep a tight grip on children, as there are uneven ledges surrounding the swinging bridge. Basically, there are no fences, no nets, just nature. As I handed a camera to a stranger and posed for a photo not too close to the ledge, my husband and I heard people laughing as he told us to "step back" for a better picture. Luckily, we were smart enough not to fall for that.
An added bonus to being near the top of Grandfather Mountain is the weather. The climate is like that of Newfoundland, Canada. It was about 69 degrees and breezy during my visit.
I suggest taking the interactive climate quiz in the Nature Museum. And while you're there, be sure to read about the first botanists who took an interest in Grandfather Mountain and check out the mineral and Native American exhibits.
Grandfather Mountain has 11 hiking trails, and many of them are for the well-experienced hiker. However, the Bridge Trail is family-friendly, at only four-tenths of a mile, and passes under the famous swinging bridge.
Grandfather Mountain is located at 2050 Blowing Rock Highway Linville, N.C. For more information, including park hours, visit www.grandfather.com or call 1-800-468-7325.