This past Friday evening, we packed into our SUV with our two younger kids, and headed up the steep and curvy Fie Top Road in Maggie Valley, NC to Cataloochee Guest Ranch. We were invited by the ranch to attend their “Way Back When Dinner”. Cataloochee Guest Ranch is located at the top of Fie Top Mountain, at 5,000 feet about sea level.
Upon arriving, we checked in at the main ranch house, and then proceeded to explore the ranch property a little while waiting on the wagon ride to take us to the “camp site” for the Way Back When Dinner. We headed down behind the main house to the frog pond, enjoying the surroundings, and cool high elevation mountain breeze. A young couple was swinging on a rope swing tied to a large Oak tree. How often do you see that these days? The Ranch property is absolutely beautiful and historic looking.
A few minutes later, we were told the wagon was ready, and we headed back up to the main ranch house where the tractor pulled wagon was waiting right out front. As we stepped up onto the wagon, we literally felt ourselves slowly returning to 1930s. As the wagon took off with a jolt, we began our trek to the camp site. The wagon followed the old dirt roads of the ranch property, and with each passing second, we felt ourselves slowly traveling back in time. The modern buildings disappeared from sight and no signs of cars – just beautiful scenery, wooden fences, and the occasional excitement and laughter as we hit a bump in the road.
After a few minutes of riding on the wagon, we rounded a curve and saw in the distance the white material of the old time tent camp up on the hill, held up with natural locust wood poles. The camp is surrounded by rolling hills and distant mountains, and you could hear old mountain music playing on a banjo as we approached.
We would find out later, from Judy Coker (Ms. Judy as everyone calls her), the Ranch’s Matriarch, that the camp and tent were reconstructed just as her mother and father had done in the 1930s, when they brought clients into what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to hike, rest, fish and eat.
The Way Back When dinner is a celebration and remembrance of the original ranch family that worked and lived among the mountains and streams of what is now a combination of ranch property, and property owned by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Cataloochee Guest Ranch celebrated it’s 80th season in 2014, and along with Ms. Judy, started the special dinner to take people back in time, and remember the old Trout camp run by her parents as they guided people into the three-forks area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
As we climbed off the wagon, we were encouraged by the ranch staff to find a seat, and grab some drinks. Tea, Lemonade, Beer and Wine was available. The tent tables were decorated as they would have been at the original camp, with tin cups for drinking, and tin trays for eating. Oil lamps were on the tables, along with red cloth napkins. Ms. Judy said that the white table clothes were her mother’s touch, an attempt to make the setting a bit more fancy, and adding her native Virginia flare.
We got our drinks, and began mingling with the other guests. The musician, Kevin Scanlon, playing banjo, guitar, harmonica and singing filled the background with wonderful old time mountain music. The staff began to fire up the old wood fired stove and started cooking the Trout.
“Here they come!!” shouts Ms. Judy, “The cows never fail to show up!” and she laughs. She explains that at every single dinner, about the time things gets started, the cattle always come wondering up to the camp site area on the other side of the fence. Fine by us, as they made the experience that much more enjoyable and real, a you can see in the photo by Scott Neilson below.
“Let me take you back to the 1930s” called Ms. Judy. We all took our seats, and Ms. Judy, daughter of the ranch founders “Mr. Tom” and “Ms Judy” Alexander, stood in front of collage of old photos.
Ms. Judy began to tell the story of her father and mother, and how they began their hospitality business by bringing in clients from Asheville, and taking them to a remote camp they had set-up, to fish, eat, and enjoy the peace and serenity of the mountains. Ms. Judy told us all about how the ranch grew from those early days of the camp, and how the ranch of today came to be. The story was incredibly interesting, and often times very funny as well. She is a great story teller and full of rich mountain history.
As her story wrapped up, we heard the cook call out that the Trout was ready! It smelled absolutely delicious, and we were starving!
We all grabbed our trays and lined up with the other attendees. Waiting for us was in the serving line was: Fresh battered and fried mountain Trout, Chicken and Dumplings, Greens, Corn Pudding, Cole Slaw, and Cornbread.
On the tables were butter and strawberry/peach preserves for the corn bread. The food was absolutely delicious! As everyone sat down, began eating, and enjoying the food, conversation sparked up all around the tables. We literally felt like we were in the remote mountains during 1930s having dinner. All the while, the talented singer and musician continued playing in the background alongside the clanking sounds of tin against tin, conversation, and laughter.
Soon after we finished eating, we heard “Would you like some dessert?” from behind us. I turned around to find a young lady holding a tray full of small custard dishes containing Pineapple Upside-down Cake. I took one, and dug in. Absolutely delicious.
As we wrapped up dinner, we heard thunder in the distance, and the staff began packing things up some just in case. We initially thought it was far off, but soon realized it seemed to be heading in our direction, as the temperatures quickly cooled, and the wind picked up. The thunder in the distance slowly became louder.
Everyone decided we should head on back to the main ranch house before it began raining. We all quickly loaded back up into the wagon, and began our return trip to the main ranch house. Just a few minutes into the ride back, the skies let go, and it began to pour. We all got drenched on the way back, but nobody was upset or angry. In fact, we were all laughing and having a wonderful time as the rain continued to pour down on us.
We unloaded at the main ranch house, and everyone quickly headed inside, where we were greeted by hot chocolate, hot coffee, and warm roaring stone fireplaces that we all bundled around.
Had the weather been more cooperative, we would have been given the option of walking back to the ranch or taking the wagon back.
We all sat around enjoying the warmth, drink, company and the absolutely beautiful great room of the Inn. We waited to see if the weather would let up in time for the treat’s of the evening, the wolves.
Each Friday night, Cataloochee Ranch invites Rob Gudjer “The Wolfman” and his friendly wolves to the ranch. Normally this event is done outside, but due to the weather, Rob’s presentation that evening was done under the covered patio of the ranch. “The Wolfman” brought one of his red timber wolves that night and gave a very interesting and informative interactive presentation.
There were lots of people in attendance, but the wolf didn’t seem to be too bothered by it at all. Rob’s presentation not only lets you get up close and personal with a real wolves, but also includes information about wolf habitats, social behaviors as well as conservation efforts to protect wild wolves. We were surprised to find them so friendly and comfortable around people.
We stayed late that evening, as we spent a great deal of time talking to Mary Coker, the President and General Manager of Cataloochee Ranch. Mary is the daughter of Ms. Judy, and granddaughter of the founders of Cataloochee Ranch. Her daughter and our daughter quickly became friends earlier in the evening, and were still busy playing there in the ranch great room while we talked late into the evening.
We finally decided to call it a night, and headed home, all the while talking about how great of an experience the whole event was.
The Way Back When Dinner was truly a magical evening, full of great food, beautiful scenery, great friends, and many laughs. We look forward to doing again sometime soon.
The Way Back When Dinner should be on everyone’s list, and makes for a unique family outing, or “date night” for a couple. The whole experience is something you won’t soon forget.
A couple of tips to make your experience more enjoyable:
The Way Back Dinner occurs every other Friday night, and begins at 5pm at the main Ranch house. Planned dates for 2016 are: July 15, July 29, August 12, August 26, September 2 and September 16. You can also check the Cataloochee Ranch Activities Calendar.
The Way Back When Dinner is by reservation only – Please call the Cataloochee Guest Ranch for the latest prices and to book your reservations: (800) 868-1401. Please mention that you found them on Blue Ridge Mountain Life.