Piney Falls State Natural Area

Upper Piney Falls

We woke up this past Saturday morning to a predicted high temperature of 86 degrees Fahrenheit.  I immediately realized we needed to spend as much time outside as possible, taking advantage of one of our last weekends before school starts, and perfect East Tennessee weather.

We’ve been lazy about hiking in East Tennessee recently.  Saturday morning commitments, master’s courses, and grocery shopping kept us from planning any hiking adventures this past school year.  Also, in an effort to avoid visiting the Great Smoky Mountains on the weekend because of traffic from Pigeon Forge and overcrowding of trails, we can be daunted by choosing a hike that offers something unique relatively close to home. Clearly, given the geography of the region, East Tennessee must have hidden trails and hiking spots nearby, but they can be difficult to locate simply using a google search, since all the trail information is not collected into one comprehensive website.

Thankfully, we recently learned of the website Roots Rated, which compiles information about top rated hikes and outdoor experiences in your area, and then recommends hikes based on difficulty, features of the trail, length, and location.  One useful component of this site is the detailed information about the trail head location of each hike.  More than once, Andrew and I have been frustrated searching for the promised parking lot that allows us access to that fantastic ridge hike we’ve been dreaming about.  Roots Rated, based in Chattanooga, keeps the frustration out of planning a day hike, and lets you spend more time hiking, and less time planning!

Saturday morning, after 30 minutes of research using Roots Rated, we decided to hike at Piney Falls State Natural Area.  An hour away from our house, Piney Falls is located near Spring City, in rural East Tennessee.  Upon arrival, we ventured to Lower Piney Falls first, and spent considerable time trying to figure out if we could hike to the bottom of the falls (you can’t).  From here you can see a few slow moving rapids leading up to the larger falls, hop across the stream on the wide, smooth rocks, and creep to the edge of a sizable waterfall.  Once we clambered back up the steep dirt hill, we turned right to walk along the ridge of a shelf rock.  Not too many folks explore up here; we kept fighting with sticky spiderwebs!

Lower Piney Falls

We trekked back to the split of the trail, and this time directed to Upper Piney Falls.  Once again, we found the top of the waterfall quickly, but were hoping to see the falls from the bottom.  We crossed the stream at the top of the falls, and followed a narrow trail along the ridge of the bowl of the waterfall.  Since the trail was not well-marked, we weren’t sure our efforts would lead anywhere.  Sure enough, we found a rope rigged up to help adventurers down the side of a steep hill to the bottom of the falls. I didn’t expect much, even after reading about the hike from Roots Rated, but the falls awaiting us plunged from way above.  The water pooled at the basin, and if we’d have been prepared, this would have been a great swimming hole for a hot day.


We walked behind Upper Piney Falls, and found a trail that makes a loop back to the Lower Piney Falls trail that you can then follow back to the parking lot.  In total we spent 2 hours hiking around at Piney Falls.  We were impressed with the beauty of the falls, and glad we weren’t pushing past other outdoorsy people like we would have been at Abrams Falls, which isn’t nearly as fun to explore or as grand.  We planned to picnic after our walk, and did, but there isn’t a picnic area here, which was one small drawback.  The only other critique I had was that the trail wasn’t well-marked, but that did lead to some extra exploration for us, which made our afternoon that much more fun!



Around the Mosel

Last Spring in Germany was quite damp and we found ourselves donning our rain gear and braving the dreariness often.  After Trier, Andrew drove our rental through downpours and thick cotton candy fog over to the quietly meandering Mosel River in Rheinland Pfalz.  A hot spot for German outdoor enthusiasts, this area bustled with signs of a busy summer to come.  Most of the Germans opted for the more scenic and heart healthy way to see the area: by pedaling along the banks of the river on their trusty bikes.  I personally think they were trying to earn their schnitzel and beer, so maybe next time we’ll grab our Fahrräder and hit the trail as well.

Our lodging was in the guest house of a local winery, which turned out to be a good choice for the area.  The hills along either side of the river’s banks are laden with rows of grape vines, ripe for picking in the fall, that are labored to make some of the world’s finest Riesling.

Burg Eltz

Burg Eltz

The first stop we made in the area should definitely be on your list, if ever you visit the Mosel.  We toured the Burg Eltz, the one of only medieval castles on the Mosel to never have been destroyed.  Interestingly enough, the same families still privately own the castle.  If you play your cards right, you could still marry the son or daughter of a German earl!

view of town and grape vines from ridge trail

trail view

the sun came out!


In between the rain showers, we hiked along the ridge of one of the hills along the banks of Mosel and checked out a few of the picturesque towns that dot the river’s banks.  We also ate delicious schnitzel and made sure to indulge in Kaffeestunde at least once or twice:  a generous slice of cake made with seasonal fruit and a steaming cup of coffee around 2 or 3 in the afternoon.

our schnitzel stop


Andrew and I are addicted. Before I tell you to what, let me tell you the how and the why.

A couple weeks ago we spent a blissfully relaxing school week chaperoning English camp for a sweet group of 12 and 13 year old students. What? Being responsible for 43 moody teenagers and having a good time aren’t mutually exclusive? It’s true. Week Camp was run completely by a third party company. The camp counselors were entirely in charge of the little terrors throughout the week and us “chaperons” were left to our own devices from Monday at noon until Friday afternoon at 4pm (or better known as arrival and departure times for the bus ride).

Yes, these pictures were taken the middle of April. Cold spell!

Besides showing up for mealtimes in the dining hall, where we indulged in some of the best Spanish cuisine has to offer (think: french fries, country ham, potato soup, lentil soup, fish soup, ham and cheese pop-tarts, essentially anything the color light brown), our time was all our own. Our main teacher activities consisted of the lifestyle I imagine a Spanish pensioner having. Between feeding times, we took long, rambling walks, drank coffee at our favorite neighborhood bar, sat around and chatted in the sun, observed the locals, read and napped. Tough life, huh?

This brings me to the discovery we made on one of our treks to the tiny village (Coladilla is the name of the pueblo, if you’re interested) that was 2km down the country road from the tiny village (Vegacervera, León) we stayed in. Another practice that Spaniards avidly partake in, and that I personally respect and admire, is making, buying and appreciating local and artisan products. In Coladilla we were told that the local quesería (cheese factory) made some darn good cheese. Andrew and I are a little skeptical when it comes to cheese we haven’t tasted before though, seeing as some folks recommend cheese that is much too strong and stinky for our delicate palates. But, we decided to take the risk and bought two entire wheels of cheese (I never thought I’d ever buy that much milk fat at one time), lugged them the two kilometers back to our lodging for the week and let them ripen and breathe on the counter.  It is important to know (and I just learned) that cheese breathes. Many times if the rind is still on the entire wheel, it is perfectly fine to leave at room temperature, just don’t leave it in plastic. Because, if it breathes, well, it also sweats. If you do decide to refrigerate it for the stench factor (it can get pretty stinky, however mild the cheese is that you buy) don’t put it in a plastic bag either. Once you’ve sliced it, wrap it in parchment paper.  This is all according to a reliable source. Oh, the things I’ve learned in Spain.

Once back to Laredo, we waited a couple of days to “cut the cheese.” Haha, I just chuckled out loud typing that sentence. But, really, our diet of light brown called for a purge of sorts once back in our own kitchen.

I guess you’ve figured out that we’re addicted to the artisan cheese made with local cow’s milk from Coladilla. It is quite scrumptious if you ask us. It isn’t too funky, not too mild and plenty creamy for our persnickety cheese tastes. It makes my cheeks pucker just a little every now and then from its sharpness. It’s good. It is part of our before-meal snacking time. A torn piece of crusty bread and a glass of red wine make it even more delicious. Eat it with a sliced apple. I’m sold.

The second wheel we gave to some friends, but now I’m wondering if that was such a smart idea (except it probably was, for my waistline).

Semana Santa: Road trip to Portugal in the Smart Car

Hi! We wanted to say have a great weekend before we take a two and a half week hiatus from blogging. We’re off to enjoy our Semana Santa exploring Portugal. Andrew will be the red head driving the black smart car and I’ll be the moral support and all time navigator. This car is actually automatic, so I might take the wheel once or twice as well! Look out! This will be my first time to visit this part of the Iberian peninsula and I’m pretty excited to eat cod, drink Port wine and check out the old world towns of Porto and Lisbon.

Also, we wanted to tell the Cockrums from Knoxville thanks so much for coming to visit us! We had a great time eating seafood and exploring the Basque Country with you guys! While they were here visiting, we got to see San Juan de Gaztelugatxe, a 10th century hermitage located on the Bizcayian coast. Really impressive.

We’ve been taking full advantage of having the car to see as much as we can. Last week we drove along the Cantabrian coast and enjoyed rocky, un-commercialized, pristine beaches. On Saturday, we took a day trip to the northern part of the province of Burgos, to a rural region called Las Merindades. We did a 10km walk around a man made lake, the water from which supplies the city of Bilbao. While not the most spectacular scenery, it was a beautiful day and a nice change of pace.

And, last, Happy (early) Easter. We’re thankful to have been given this opportunity to live and travel abroad for a year, but we know that it is a gift that has been given to us by the Lord. I pray that you have a restful weekend and can rejoice in our Saviour, Jesus Christ. He is risen indeed.

The weekend: An update

Andrew and I had a nice Spring weekend in and around Cantabria. We took another hike to the top of the Monte Buciero in Santoña. The view from the top back towards the marshlands offers a complete picture of the landscape surrounding Laredo. Besides spotting the normal livestock, we got to see lambs and calves dotting the hillsides as well. After all, it is the time of year when new life naturally begins!

On Sunday we visited Bilbao and went to the Museo Vasco, a museum that chronicles Basque history, life and geography. I would recommend it for Hispanophiles, Spanish speakers and persons interested in geography. One of the most interesting exhibits was about life in coastal fishing towns one hundred years (or more!) ago. Talk about a hard, isolated life! Also noteworthy is a model of the geography of the province of Vizcaya that is interactive.

We finished our weekend off in style with another round of chocolate con churros and the movie Martha Marcy Mae Marlene, which is disturbing and only recommended for true movie buffs since the acting is impeccable. We’re off to a good start of the week here, planning for classes and trying not to think too much about our Spring Fever! Have a great week.


Long Weekend: Picos de Europa

Since every other week our schools have arranged for us to have a four day weekend, Andrew and I took an incredible 2 night, 3 day trip to Los Picos de Europa. We rented a car on Friday morning and were on the road before 9:30 am.  Andrew adapted quickly to driving a stick shift and I served as our somewhat fearless navigator.  After a short two hours driving time (What freedom we felt with our “own” wheels! No stinky bus neighbors, no sick man behind you, no sharp curves into the mountains while riding on the back row of the bus, hooray!) we arrived in the National Park.  We still can’t believe how lucky we were:  the skies were clear for two entire days, the weather was perfect, temperatures stayed in the 60-70’s, we had our own bathroom at the hotel (!) and were served coffee and hot milk along with our buffet breakfast.

Our first order of business, once arriving to our final destination within in the park, was making PB & J sandwiches with the peanut butter Mrs. Dauna sent us in a package that arrived just in the nick of time.  With a sack lunch in tow, we ascended to the top of one of the peaks from the teleférico, cable car, that leaves from the tiny village of Fuente Dé.  We hiked down the mountain on a 14.5 km trail that wound around through a refugio, past billy goats and dairy cows, into a forest that is similar to what you’d find an East Tennessee- type landscape. That’s one of the wonders of the Picos: one second it feels like the Rockies, the next it feels like the Smokies. The hike overall deserves an A- rating, which means we thought it was a great trail.  It was difficult enough to keep us entertained, and the most frightened we felt wasn’t caused by the steepness of trail, but rather by the threatening warning of a billy goat to get out of his territory.

Our hotel, La Cabaña, was located in the touristy, but inviting, town of Potes.  We can definitely recommend this jewel as a home base for your adventures in the Picos.  It boasts scenic views of the Macizo Oriental and is located minutes from amazing hiking.  On day 2, we took another 10km hike that started in the sleepy mountain town of Espinama.  After we had finished our hike and explored the charming streets of Espinama, we treated ourselves to a menú del día of cocido lebaniego.  Since the people that live in the mountains year round are exposed to harsh conditions during the winter and early spring months, the typical food of this region of Spain is a hearty stew that is made with garbanzo beans, roasted lamb, spicy chorizo sausage and lots of pork fat.  While it was quite rich and delicious, it was also a shock to our normally vegetarian systems to digest.  That said we thoroughly enjoyed our meal and left fat and happy.  To work off our intake of extra calories, we headed up to the fourth holiest pilgrimage site in the Catholic church (according to something Andrew read):  the monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana. Supposedly the largest piece of the original cross is housed there, but we were more impressed by the views back on Potes and of the surrounding countryside.

Our last morning in Potes offered a few clouds, but we loaded up the yellow Fiat Panda and headed toward the other side of the mountain range, which is located in the Principality of Asturias.  We expected more accessible hiking and fairly easy driving, but were quickly intimidated (or at least I was) by the vastness of the cliffs before us.   Somehow we ended up driving up a steep incline to a Mirador (lookout) to check out the most iconic peak in the park, Naranjo de Bulnes.  The cloudiness impeded our view and the incline up was too much for me.  Andrew did a stellar job driving even though I wasn’t too much help in the passenger seat, sweating bullets.  We decided to skip the hike we had tentatively planned from Poncebos to Bulnes since it was starting to spit rain (not because we were a little scared off the difficulty and danger).  We continued our day in the car by heading to los Lagos de Covadonga.  After another insane drive 12km straight up the side of a mountain face, we reached the aquamarine lakes that are nestled dramatically in between mountain peaks.  We were too tired and sore to do any real hiking, but we did check out two different lagos and in the meantime were almost blown away by the fiercest wind I have ever experienced.  This is definitely a popular local tourist site, since the park here was crammed full of grandmas and parents pushing strollers.  We headed back down the windy road, ate a sandwich in front of the cathedral in Covadonga and bid farewell to my favorite part of Spain thus far.  A quick historical note: Covadonga is also quite important in Spanish history, as the Reconquista began here after the Spanish were able to stop the Moorish invaders.  You could see why it would be tough for the Moors to continue on their rampage once you saw the geography of the area.  On the trip home, we stopped in Llanes, a sweet coastal town in Asturias, and took a quick stroll along the port.

I was actually sad to see the park fade away behind us.  It is a unique place in Spain that is relatively unknown by tourists outside of Spain. I would highly recommend it to anyone who loves the outdoors and hiking and I’m crossing my fingers we’ll have a reason to go back!

18 kilometer day in Santoña

Last Saturday, with remarkably pleasant fall weather, Amanda and I embarked on another day hike, to Santoña’s Monte Buciero. The town of Santoña is about 3 miles from Laredo as the crow flies; it’s basically visible from our apartment. That being said, it normally wouldn’t require more than 10 minutes in a car to get there. However, we are still carless, and had to instead rely on local public transportation. What should have been a pleasant 10 minute drive across the wetlands separating Laredo and Santoña turned into a 45 minute crowded bus ride (I just don’t understand Europe’s obsession with collective transportation). After stopping about 10 times in route, we finally arrived in Santoña, where we could easily see across the bay to Laredo. We thought, “Wow!, we could have walked that in less time than the bus ride took. Laredo is so close!”

Once on the ground, we forgot about the inefficient and overpriced bus system and made our way to Monte Buciero to begin our hike. We opted to take a 4 hour loop around the mountain that was marked “dificultad baja” (low dificulty). At 12.5 kilometers in distance, we thought it was going to be a piece of cake.

In reality, the route was much more difficult than advertised, at least by American standards. We had expected a ring route that would be mainly flat. Instead, we were ascending and descending for nearly the entire time. The most memorable part of the hike was a lighthouse detour only accessible by 600 stone steps. If it hadn’t been for the metal chain that served as a hand rail, it would have been a very dangerous descent.

After seeing the lighthouse and making a nearly vertical ascent back to the main trail, we continued on our path back to Santoña. Once we arrived back at the base of the mountain, we realized that we had just missed the bus to Laredo. The next one would not leave for another 2 hours hours and it would take an additional 45 minutes once aboard. It would seem that we would have been stuck in Santoña, but alas, we found a faster way. There is a ferry that travels the straight between Santoña and Laredo, and for 1.70 euros, will drop you off on the other side. The ferry ride is about 2 minutes long and travels no further than 50 yards to Laredo’s western beachhead. While not a good price for such a short journey (a Spanish lady on the boast shouted, “It costs a fortune!”), the ferry saved us at least 2 hours in getting home.

Once on the Laredo side of the beach we still had about a 35 minute walk to our apartment. While not ideal, we both valued the liberty to walk at our own pace more than waiting for a bus. All in all, we rounded out the day at about 18 kilometers walking. While not the most spectacular hiking we have experienced, it was certainly good exercise and great to be outdoors.