COOPER DISCOVERER - The Kimsey Mountain Highway Birthday Trip

“What do you want to do for your Birthday?”

My wife asked me that question a few weeks ago. My top answer: Take a day off work and do a giant trail ride.

Immediately this idea was shot down. Shot down hard!

After a few days of disappointment my wife relented.

“If you keep the ride to a half-day, then we can go on a ride the day after your birthday.”

April fools or not, on April 1st, I was heading out to the vastness and beauty of the Smoky Mountains.

On my actual birthday on March 31st, as we were pulling into the restaurant parking lot, I notice my wife was acting weird. By acting weird I mean she was waving her arms around too much. Randomly. Out the back window.

After a few moments of my eyes darting around the truck, my senses and my brain sync’d, and my mind began to process what was happening.

My parents were in town. SURPRISE!

In the grand tradition of surprise parental visitations, my birthday meal was covered by them. So far the birthday was starting out well!

I also learned the only reason why I was going to be able to travel on the April 1st trail ride was because my parents had agreed to go along with us.

Have you ever driven your 70 year-old-parents in a llfted-all-terrain-mildly-built-out rig before?

Let me say, just getting them into the Land Cruiser was an adventure in and of itself. Step-stools and encouragement to “not be old” were all needed for the boarding process that morning.

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Before we ever managed to get to the hotel to pick-up the parents, my wife and I had to load the truck. Upon seeing how much gear was crammed into he back, the boy suggested he would be happier playing video-games. We caved into the simplicity of the idea and let it happen.

I know - I was a bad parent. It was MY birthday trip though - and I was allowed to be a little selfish if I wanted to. Besides, a few months before this trip, the boy did his part in making sure I didn’t fall off a snowy mountain trail. Fortunately, that is another ride, for another story, for another day.

In the back of the Land Cruiser, who we creatively named “Land Cruiser”, we filled the cargo area with a cooler full of food that weighed almost the same as a normal sized fridge. In addition we packed a paper bag overflowing with cooking gear, blankets, water, coats, hats, and an umbrella.

All of that gear was crammed in-between interior molding that had broken off the passenger door, and a rubber tub that was big enough to turn into a two-person hot-tub. This tub was filled with jumper cables, various engine components, and all the lube and oil a professional body builder could ever need. When your truck is over 21 years old and has a drinking problem, you always have to be prepared!

This is why people don’t go on adventures anymore. We were exhausted before we even left the house!

After loading up the gear, and loading up my parents, we headed out to meet our guide for our ride.

All we had to do was drive 1 hour and 55 minutes to the trail head.

If you ever have had the pleasure of driving a 1993 Land Cruiser you would know this would be one of the most wearing parts of the trip. I am pretty sure it is about 100db inside the cab. Everyone laughing and talking. Tires humming. Wind noise everywhere. 20+ years ago my truck may have been the height of travel, but in this timeline, and this very point in that timeline, the truck needs some refinement.

I won’t lie to Land Rover people - rumors about your vehicles reliability or not - I have lusted after your luxury ride more than once!

The good news is East Tennessee is amazing. Even the interstate provides vistas and views that are postcard worthy.

This was the first time my parents had visited the area so we had lots to talk about and catch-up on. They described East Tennessee as “As amazing and beautiful as New York City, but in the exact opposite way”

The trip and the conversation made short work of the trip. When we arrived we all jumped into prep mode: Use the bathrooms, put in gas, setup the dashcam, assemble the CB, and start the route tracking on my phone.

15 minutes later we were ready to join our guide: A man named Ashley.

Ashley is perhaps one of the best people to be with if you want to see the Smoky Mountains. Ashley has a lifetime of experience in regards to exploring the backroads of East Tennessee. Ashley knows where to stop for the best shots of the mountains, and he knows what roads take you to the most interesting locations.

When you ask where a road leads, and Ashley does not know off the top of his head, his response is usually “I don’t remember, give me a minute to think about it.” Contrast that response of a typical persons reply of “I don’t know, lets go find some wifi and find out!”

Our ultimate destination was the Coker Creek camping area. Our route was over the Kimsey Highway. The Kimsey highway is around 100 years old. It is just wide enough for a truck, but the highway offers its fair share of places to pull over. On our trip we ran into a flock of motorcyclists on an adventure ride, but other then that brief encounter we saw no one.

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The highway runs along the mountain ridge and has quite a few views that potentially melt your senses into a state of disbelief. The view can be so fantastic that it blurs into lies. Your mind begins to doubt what you see some of the time. Even now my memories of the road need to be reinforced with pictures. Did it really look like endless mountain peaks? Did those mountains actually look like waves of dirt and rock? Were we actually driving on a road that ran parallel to the tops of trees?

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The trees had just begun to sprout their summer leaves. We could see deep into the woods. Red and white blooms from dogwoods and redbuds dotted the landscape.

The moon-roof was open, the heater on just slightly. Or maybe it was just the catalytic converter slowly cooking us all, I can never tell the difference. The air was fresh and crisp.

There is something healing about driving in the mountains. The constant elevation changes. The turns left and right. The gravel road the dips out of sight as you crest the hill before it. The lack of guardrails. The assured destruction of our lives if we made a mistake or had a mechanical failure at the wrong time.

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For me the drive is a type of zen. At 15 or 20 mph you never stress the engine. Mechanically the Land Cruiser is operating far below its limits.

Driving turns into a pleasure. A task that requires all your concentration. Your life, and your passengers, all depend on your actions. You can’t stay in your lane, you just stay on the road. You choose the smoothest line. Everything takes patience and input. Keep your eyes moving. Keep steering on the smooth line.

They say the Kimsey Highway is the same today as it was in 1920. I believe it. For a few hours we travel the highway and its surrounding roads.

The tiredness of the long drive to the trail head was forgotten. The beauty of the forest and mountain range energized us.

Every time we stop, our guide Ashley showed us pieces of marble, fool’s gold or mica rock. A piece of copper ore was collected for the boy. Ashley pointed out mountain top names, he identified different species of trees, and enlightened us with the history of the places we stand. With our guide, we ceased to be observers and were transformed into students. We became people who not only saw, but understood the land. We became people who have ties to the land.

At the end of the trail we drove over to Coker Creek. The trail to the falls is hidden from a regular visitor to the area. Again without Ashley’s help we would have never been able to experience the location. A short drive over a paved twisting highway lead us to a driveway.

Well, apparently it was actually a road and not a driveway. We drove around the house and down a very rough steep road to the river and falls. As we pulled into the gravel parking lot we are swarmed by more then a 100 yellow butterflies. We turned off the car engines and just let them float around the vehicles until those beautiful critters flew off to find something else that interested them.


To celebrate my birthday trip, my wife Tracy designed an amazing meal. Three kinds of sliders: blue-cheese and bacon, caramelized onion, and classic cheese. Potato salad, birthday cake, iced tea, and lemonade rounded out the meal. We never even got around to eating the cake. We all had too much food and we forgot we even unpack it.

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At the end of the meal we all drank french press coffee to keep us from slipping into a food coma on our journey back home.

It’s easy to forget what makes a great event or trip. For me a great trip is about exploration, family, friends, and food. Something almost magical can happen when people spend time together. The bond of exploring together is one that many never fully realize.

For me, exploring a breathtaking new location with both family and friends makes for a birthday present I will not soon forget.
Maybe its just my young Canadian eyes but do I see some shine in the last picture?! :elkgrin:
Thanks for logging the adventure and nice photos! Im sure your parents enjoyed it as well!
Ice Tea, Lemonade, and Water. The parks do not look very kindly of any kind of drinking down there - even if it is in your campsite. Thanks!