Article and Photos by Kristi Parsons

“My husband just retired from the military, and after being stationed in Southern California for 20 years, we made a crazy decision to move across the country, buy a farm, and build a nature-based glamping retreat.” That was my introduction to Jessica Merritt, founder of Nurture + Nature Retreat in Franklin, NC. The Merritt family also began Special Liberty Project, a non-profit that works to connect Gold Star Kids and Families, Wounded Warriors, and Veteran Suicide Spouses to the healing benefits of nature.

Jessica mentioned in her first message to me that she had been following along with my travels and wanted to know if I would be interested in visiting Nurture + Nature Retreat and possibly consider helping to share my experience. Two of the things I’m most passionate about are folks that chase their dreams and giving back to our communities, so less than a week later, I was making my way to Franklin, NC, for the first time.

I began my journey to Franklin with a sunrise at the top of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, explored the Kephart Prong Trail when I reached Oconaluftee, had breakfast in Cherokee, and then rolled into Dillsboro, NC. It was there that I finally met the beauty of the Tuckasegee River and wondered to myself why I had not taken time to visit the area in the past. I slipped into Sylva, NC, where I found delicious grub at Lucy in the Rye, a never-ending selection of vintage books at Harry Alter Books, a chill vibe at Innovation Brewery, the location of the Jackson Arts Market, and many other spots that I did return to months later after my quick stop during my search for Franklin.

After falling in love with Sylva, I knew once I reached Franklin that I would have to check out the downtown area, and I wanted to pick up a gift for the Merritt family. And, just as I suspected, Franklin was another mountain town filled with charm, hospitality, history, and an ambiance that would make anyone feel welcome. A large mural of signatures from Appalachian Trail thru-hikers that had passed by on their way to Maine and Springer caught my attention, as did the mention of gems that seemed to be around every corner. Lazy Hiker Brewing, Scottish Tartans Museum, Ruby City Gems & Minerals, and Brooklyn Bagels stood out. I found the perfect gift at Blackberry Market Boutique and Gifts, then headed out for a 15 minute drive to the Merritt’s Nurture Nature Retreat.

Going to the Mountains is Going Home

As I drove down the gravel road in the Nantahala National Forest to Nurture + Nature Retreat, I felt as if I was going home. My mind became clearer, joy flooded my heart at the sight of wildflowers along the way, and my spirit was overcome with peacefulness. When Jessica and her friend greeted me, it seemed as if we were old friends seeing each other for the first time in years. As I approached the glamping tents, campfire area, barn, farm animals, and my home for the night, I knew that I had discovered a place that would stay with me for many years to come.

Buddy the mini-donkey made me laugh, the Nantahala National Forest that borders the property called me to explore, the Merritt family inspired me, and the glamping tents were far more beautiful than my pop-up Kelty tent that I often use when camping. I toured the property and heard countless stories of the incredible work that Nurture + Nature Retreat and Special Liberty Project does in the lives of those that truly need a connection with a community and nature. A delightful dinner was served around a cracking fire, we made dream catchers out of grape vines, and as the sun sank into the horizon, I found myself in a new favorite place. A place of beauty, nature, healing, and, most of all, hope.

The primary reason for Nurture + Nature Retreat being created was to provide a safe haven in nature to welcome Gold Star Families through the Merritt’s non-profit, Special Liberty Project. However, this little piece of heaven in Southern Appalachia is also available as an AirBnB. You can also sign up for one of the themed all-inclusive nature retreats that Jessica hosts throughout the year. In late May, I co-hosted a Wildflowers & Honey retreat, with all funds going towards sponsoring retreats for Gold Star Widows. On June 8th – 10th, The Art Studios of the Smokies from Sevier County will be joining Jessica for a Nature & Art Retreat. Yoga, autumn, and equine are a few other focus points that guests have been immersed in while visiting Nurture + Nature Retreat.

Are you interested in an AirBnB Stay, an all-inclusive retreat, or learning more about the Special Liberty Project? Visit to connect with the Merritt family.

Kristi Parsons is a local photographer and writer with a love for the mountains, art, music, travel, and all things local. @Kristi_Parsons