Swiss Family Wright: Tree House Adventures at Historic Banning Mills

Normally, Chet and I post here about a hike we’ve taken, or a float trip, or once or twice about a zip line adventure. The subtitle of our blog is, after all, “Outdoor Adventures in the Tennessee Valley and Beyond.” Emphasis on the outdoor adventures part. Occasionally, though, the place we stay is just as much a part of the adventure as whatever it was we were doing outside. Mount LeConte Lodge, Hike Inn, Charit Creek Lodge and the yurt in Cloudland Canyon were all unique places to stay and we talked about the lodging as well as the trails in those blogs. Our stay at Historic Banning Mills is in the same category, though totally unique in its own right.

After a long afternoon of ziplining fun, it was finally time to check in to our room. They have a number of room options. There is a lodge with rooms like you’d get in a hotel, and a few cabins that I’m sure are lovely, but my wonderful, adventurous husband had booked us in to one of their Tree House Rooms. These are not the tree houses some of you lucky people may have had in your backyards – an open platform or at best a shack made of plywood. Nope, these tree houses are large sturdy rooms with all the modern comforts. They were furnished with a comfy king size bed and a table and chairs. There was electricity so we had lights, a TV, a DVR, a microwave, a mini refrigerator and a Keurig. There was plumbing so we had our own bathroom with shower and also a jetted jacuzzi tub. There was even a gas fireplace, though it was too warm for us to want to try it out. To get to the tree house, you have to walk across a swinging bridge but after all the sky bridges we’d gone across that day, that was a piece of cake. Once inside, except for occasional bit of swaying (which was worst for some reason in the bathroom) it really did sort of feel like any other nice hotel room. The house itself is basically a structure on top of what looks to be, um, more a a ‘”former tree” than an actual living leafy tree. Still, we were high off the ground, and the views off our private back deck were lovely. We looked down on the top of a blooming dogwood tree, had a view of the creek and a couple of the zip line platforms, and had a pair of acrobatic squirrels to entertain us as they scampered up the guy wires of the tree house next to us to lounge on their empty deck.

After some down time in the tree house, it was time for dinner. Banning Mills does not run a public restaurant, but they do provide free breakfast to all overnight guests. You can also make a reservation for dinner onsite, though that  is extra. We decided we wanted to try a local restaurant, though.  There are choices fairly nearby in Carrollton but Chet has a co-worker who lives in Villa Rica and recommended Gabe’s Downtown, a Cajun place with a delicious sounding menu. It’s about a 25 minute drive from Banning Mills. When we arrived we found the restaurant was packed and had a 30 minute waiting list. We put our names on the list, gave them our phone number, and then went across the street to Uncorked On Main. Chet had seen this place when he was looking around for dinner options. It sounded like a bottle shop and since we always like to pick up local beers from places we visit we decided to check it out. It turned out to be more of a bar/meeting space with a brand new restaurant attached. We saw a few bottles of wine, but no displays of beer like we are used to at our local bottle shops like Wish You Were Beer or OTBX. They did, however, have a bar and we had 30 minutes to kill so…. There were “only” 6 taps (we’re so spoiled!) but a Reformation Brewery porter called Stark sounded good so I ordered it. The very personable older gentleman behind the bar told me I had to try something not on their menu board – a mix of the Stark with a Reformation Belgian ale called Cadence. He told me it was actually a mistake that somebody made, but then discovered that it tasted really good together. He called it the R&R. He was right. It did taste really good together! We hadn’t gotten more than 2 sips into our beers, though, when Gabe’s called to tell us our seat was ready. That was a short 30 minutes! While they wouldn’t hold a table long enough for us to finish our beer without guzzling it, they did kindly agree to just moving the folks behind us on the list up one slot. Sure enough, about the time we finished our beer, Gabe’s called again to tell us the next table was ready. What service!

Beer

Gabe’s is a small restaurant in what looks to be an historic building in old downtown Villa Rica. It has exposed brick walls, old wooden floors, and the big shop windows in the front like the old businesses on the courthouse square in Huntsville have. There are 15 tables of various sizes and a bar tucked along one wall. The service was efficient, friendly, and quick and the food was delicious! We split an order of loaded fried green tomatoes and I had an order of shrimp and grits. My only complaint is that it was too much food! It was impossible to eat it all, no matter how delicious it was. I didn’t even have room for dessert. Stuffed but happy, we headed on back to Banning Mills to sleep off the food coma.

The next morning, we went down to the buffet breakfast, which offered eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy, fruit, yogurts, and scones along with coffee and a selection of juices. After breakfast, we checked out a very small history museum in the basement, and then took advantage of our access to the resort to explore some of the nature trails on the property. Historic Banning Mills is not a public park and access to the trails is limited to folks who have paid for a zip line adventure or who are staying overnight. While there is a trail map, no distances are marked on it, and trails are mostly just labeled “Hiking Trail” or “Horse and Hiking Trail.” Nevertheless we felt like we could find our way well enough from the maps and the signs and started exploring. We were most interested in checking out the mill ruins marked on the map, so we headed towards Snake Creek and followed the signs. We saw ruins of a dam, ruins of a small mill, ruins of larger paper mill, and finally, an abandoned, but still standing, red brick mill building. This mill was built in the 1830s as a textile mill and supplied Confederate uniforms during the Civil War. A couple we met on the trail told us that they’d heard General Sherman wanted to destroy it, but that it was so well hidden that he never found it and that’s why it is the only mill still standing along the creek. I haven’t been able to find any evidence that that is anything more than a tall tale though.

In any case, it was a lovely day, and we enjoyed our short walk. Early spring wildflowers were blooming along the creek, and the sky was blue overhead. The adventurers were overhead, too, as sky bridges, swinging bridges, and zip lines criss-cross the gorge. It was fun watching them zip along, especially after having done some of that ourselves the day before.

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