My wife and I recently took a trip to Eastern Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We had considered taking a trip to Minnesota and hanging at a cabin resort that the sister of a friend of mine owns, but my wife vetoed that idea because we were going to go in September. And she wanted to go somewhere warm, remembering that it didn't get past 70 at any time during our visit to San Diego earlier this year. She'd always wanted to go to the Great Smoky Mountains and after doing some research into the trip, we decided to make the trek just after Labor Day.
My wife was especially intrigued with staying in Gatlinburg, TN - the gateway town to the Great Smoky Mountains. We sort of knew what to expect with Pigeon Forge, the nearby town that is the home to Dollywood part-owned by country music superstar Dolly Parton who grew up in nearby Sevierville. Driving through Pigeon Forge on our way to Gatlinburg, we thanked our lucky stars that we didn't book a room there. It was the epitome of a tourist trap. Little did we know that Gatlinburg was just a smaller version of Pigeon Forge.
We figured that Gatlinburg would be similar to Estes Park, CO which is the gateway to the Rocky Mountain National Park that we visited a couple years ago. (Click here to read about that trip.) We thought there would be some unique shops along the main drag (known as Parkway Road) and it would be muted compared to Pigeon Forge. After getting gigged $10 bucks for public parking off of Parkway Road in downtown Gatlinburg, we started to walk along the street. After walking about 100 feet, I turned to my wife and said, "Uh, this is not for us..."
There were shops with people standing out front huckstering to get tourists to come in. There was a cheesy shooting gallery. A Guinness World Records shop employee beckoned people to come in. We walked by a gospel magic shop where the teachings of Jesus were explained through illusions. (I'm not making this up!) Old time portrait studios where people dress up in 19th century garb and get their pictures taken in black and white were a big hit along Parkway Drive. Funnel cake places, Baskin Robbins, and fudge shops were also along Parkway. There were t-shirt shops and a museum that appeared to house replicas of famous cars from television and film. Cindy had tears in her eyes when she realized that she had made a bad decision about wanting to stay in Gatlinburg for four nights.
The only - well, I shouldn't say the only, but it's close - saving grace to us staying in Gatlinburg was our hotel, the Doubletree Park Vista. It was built on a flat top above Gatlinburg and offered tremendous views of both the Great Smoky Mountains and of the town of Gatlinburg, itself. The staff at the Park Vista was overly friendly and accommodating. Upon arrival, the desk clerk warned us that we needed to remove all food from our vehicle because the black bears in the area were in the midst of foraging for food to shore up for the upcoming winter hibernation.
(Just to show you how destructive bears can be, check out this video of a family's SUV that was trashed by a mama bear over the Labor Day holiday as they were on vacation near Gatlinburg.)
This is the panoramic view out of our 15th floor room at the Doubletree Park Vista. (As always, you can click on the picture to get a somewhat larger view.) The Park Vista was built in 1970 and became a Hilton property about five years ago. They've spent a lot of money getting the place spruced up and about the only quibble I had with the place was that the beds were too soft and somewhat lumpy. We had originally booked the room for four nights, but over dinner on our first night in Gatlinburg, we made alternate plans to get out of there sooner than later. Nothing against the Park Vista - we just didn't like Gatlinburg.
The people, however, were very friendly. And many had that delightful heavy southern dialect that would take a one syllable word and turn it into two syllables. Such as, "Be careful out THA-YER. Thays BAY-YERS in the HE-ILLS." And sometimes they'd take a two syllable word and make it one, as in, "That feller there looks like he needs some BOLD (boiled) peanuts!" It's an infectious accent and one that I found myself replying to the people in the same inflection, mainly so they could understand me as they weren't used to hearing a plain Midwestern accent.
When we were in the Rocky Mountains a couple years ago, we found a couple places in Estes Park that would make sandwiches that we could take up to the park and have while we saw the sights. The first day into the park, we stopped at a place called the Chalet Village Market on the mountainside of Gatlinburg. A very nice lady made up a couple hoagie style sandwiches for us and we had them at a picnic area in the park later on that day. Along with a couple bottles of water and a bag of chips, I think the total bill came to just under $17 bucks (which I thought was a great deal.)
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the United States - and by a long shot. In 2014, over 10 million people visited the Great Smoky Mountains. The next most visited park - the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona - had 4.7 million visitors. One of the reasons may be that there is no admission fee, but another could be that nearly 60% of the nation's population is within a 12 hour - and less - drive to the park. We knew that traffic could get sort of bad, but it was also after Labor Day so we knew it wouldn't be as bad.
We had a couple of goals for the first day in the park. One of the great things about the drive up the mountain are the number of turnouts that offered some stunning views of the mountains and valleys. This was taken from a turn out on the Newfound Gap Road about halfway up the mountain.
This is the view from the parking lot at the Newfound Gap where Tennessee and North Carolina meet. This is looking east into North Carolina. At a few yards over 5000 feet, this is the lowest drivable pass in the Great Smoky Mountains. This spot is about a 16 mile drive from Gatlinburg - or about 30 to 40 minutes with regular traffic. It was a little cool up there - in the low 60's. But it was comfortable enough where I didn't need a jacket. Cindy was a little cool, however.
Also at Newfound Gap, the Appalachian Trail crosses the parking lot. The trail begins on the southern end at Springer Mountain in northern Georgia and spans the length of the Appalachian Mountains up to the northern terminus at Mount Katahdin in Maine - 2168 miles in total. We could not be at the trail without walking on a portion of it. There were actually a number of people taking a hike on the trail at the Newfound Gap.
A few miles away from the Newfound Gap is Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is also the highest point along the Appalachian Trail that roughly follows the North Carolina/Tennessee border through the park. It's about a 15 minute drive along a mountain road to get to the parking lot for Clingmans Dome.
The views from Clingmans Dome - the third highest point east of the Mississippi River - were equally stunning. The low clouds with the sun filtering through onto the green mountain side below was a pretty impressive sight.
There's an observation tower at the top of Clingman's Dome that's up a pretty steep, yet paved, walkway. Now, I was warned about this walk up to the observation tower - about 1/2 mile total - and with the light air at over 6000 feet, the walk was - and using the local vernacular - a BEE-ITCH! Thankfully, they had benches every few yards and I had to sit a couple three times to catch my breath on the way to the top. But after I got used to the light atmosphere after a bit, I was able to make it up the final 200 yards without being winded.
At the top of the steep trail is the observation deck. It's basically a round slab on top of a pedestal and to get to it you have to traverse a long meandering walkway that takes you to the top. This is where my wife paused as she looked up at the walkway and said, "I don't know if I can do this." She's afraid of heights - walking on bridges especially freaks her out - and she wasn't too whippy about completing the final leg of the journey going up on a narrow bridge to the top. But she realized that I busted my out-of-shape ass up the long walkway to get to this point and she wasn't about to wimp out on me getting to the top.
Keeping her head down and holding on to the side, I helped her get to the top and the pay-off was worth it. You had a 360 degree view of both the Tennessee and North Carolina sides of the mountains, including a faraway view down to the north and west toward Gatlinburg and further away, Pigeon Forge. Much of Fontana Lake - a large reservoir over 17 miles long and a mile below Clingmans Dome - was easily visible from the observation tower to the southwest.
After a brief walk on the spur that leads to the Appalachian Trail, we went back down the hill. The walk on the steep path was much easier going down, but it played hell on my knees and ankles. It was good to get back to the car and, later, back to the hotel to rest up.
The next day, we decided to take the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail that started not far from our hotel. The Roaring Fork creek gets its name from the sound it makes after a good rain in the mountains. But given that they were in the midst of a drought in the area, the creek was not much more than a trickle of water with a patch of water pools here and there.
The trail is about 4 miles long if you take the loop back to the starting point, but there's a 5.5 mile one-way stretch that takes you along Roaring Fork creek and back into Gatlinburg on the northeast side of town. When we came to the start of the one-way stretch we trudged on. And we're glad we did.
As I was coming over a little rise in the road, lumbering out of the forest and across the road was a black bear. We immediately stopped the car, grabbed the camera and started to shoot pictures. The bear was wearing a tracking collar and sort of walked slowly across the road before disappearing into the brush on the side.
It turned out the bear fell off a ledge on the side of the road. Dazed a bit, it came back up to the side of the road. I had the car stopped in the middle of the road at this point and was able to squeeze off a few shots of the bear through the car window. It didn't appear to faze him in the least that there was a car with park tourists less than 10 feet away from him. We thought that if there was one bear there had to be more. And it turned out that there was another bear - or bears - on the right side of the road behind us. People in a car behind us were taking pictures of something on their right. We couldn't see anything, so we headed on down the road.
The one-way road through the Roaring Fork area took us through tunnels of trees that were growing right along the roadway. It was cloudy and sort of spitting rain that morning so it was dark and somewhat foreboding, not knowing exactly what was up around the bend. We were on the lookout for more bears, but I also had to keep an eye on the trees close to the road and the drop-offs that would come up when the creek would come back aside the roadway.
We crossed Roaring Fork creek a handful of times. Some of the falls were mere trickles and we wondered how neat this place would be with the snow run-off in early May after the road would open for the season. (The road closes on November 30 each fall.)
The 8 mile trip around the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail took a little over an hour given the slow pace and the stops that we made. We got into Gatlinburg a little after 10 a.m. and decided to go to a place that we had found the day before - Old Dad's General Store - to get a couple sandwiches to take up into the park with us. We saw a liquor store next door to Old Dad's the day before and we stopped in to see what they had for beer and wine. In Tennessee - for now - wine is only available in liquor stores while beer is only available in grocery or convenience stores. (The law was changed earlier this year and will go into effect next year to allow both liquor stores and grocery stores to sell both beer and wine.) We found that Old Dad's General Store had a grill and a deli for sandwiches to go. We grabbed a couple sandwiches and a couple bottles of water and took off back into the park for another journey.
Our next trek in the park took us on a 24 mile (one way) trip to Cades Cove, which is an 11 mile one-way loop around a valley surrounded by mountains in the Great Smokies. This area is probably the most popular spot in the park as it not only has a number of meadows, but it also is the home to a lot of wildlife including deer, turkeys and black bears.
Because of the large amounts of traffic along the one-way loop, there's a lot of stop and go driving, especially thanks to inconsiderate people who don't use the turn-outs to allow cars behind them to pass. We followed a red pick-up truck from South Carolina with two ladies in it for about two miles who stopped along the route about every 100 yards to lean out of the windows to take pictures. The final straw was when they stopped for nearly five minutes to take pictures of turkeys in the meadows. There were - at least - three dozen cars parked behind them, many at the end wondering what the hell was going on up ahead. My wife and I could only imagine how bad the Caves Cove loop would be if it were in the midst of the summer visiting season or even during the recent Labor Day weekend.
We got finally got around the truck from South Carolina (I think they got the message from the driver directly behind them and they finally pulled over to let traffic pass) and we continued on our way around the loop. Old homesteads that dated back to the 1800's that had been restored dotted the clearings in the forest around the loop.
Cindy had had enough of the stop and go driving for awhile and wanted to get out of the car to stretch her legs. We came upon a clearing in a meadow with a solitary stand of trees in the middle. It appeared there was a fence around the trees and she saw a lady standing down by the fence. She said, "Let's stop here and walk down to those trees."
As we got closer, the lady who had been standing along the fence had made her way back toward us. As she got closer she said, "Uh, I don't know if I'd go down there if I were you. There's a bear down there." She said that she was looking at the old gravestones - it turned out that it was a cemetery - and happened to look up in one of the trees to see a bear looking back at her.
The lady was telling us that she visited the cemetery many times over the years, eventually doing a genealogical study of the people who were buried in the cemetery. She said that there were 21 people buried in the plot under the trees, all from the same family. (I believe she said it was the McGuire family who lived in the area back in the 19th century.) As we were talking, we noticed some movement in the tree on the north side of the plot and suddenly a small black bear lowered itself down the trunk and sort of warily looked around.
The bear took off across the meadow toward a grove of trees that lined the meadow. We had forgot our good camera for the trip and I had just gotten a new Samsung Galaxy S6 phone that we used exclusively for the trip. The pictures of the bear was taken with the 8X zoom and they actually turned out pretty well. I turned around to see a line of cars stopped along the road with people standing outside - many with much better cameras than even the one we left at home - taking long range pictures of the young bear galloping to get to the line of trees.
We made it to the trees to see the homemade headstones sticking out of the ground. The lady accompanied us to the gravesite and continued to talk to us. She was nice, but she obviously wanted to talk to people. She lived in Florida, but coming to the Great Smoky Mountains was her passion in life. She loved to walk in the woods and she told us that she either sang or talked to herself so she wouldn't startle the bears that may be lurking in the trees. I surmised that she probably talked to herself even when she wasn't hiking in the Great Smokies.
The lady eventually wandered back toward the parking area, but not before she warned us to look out for the "rattlers" (rattlesnakes) lurking in the weeds near the mowed out walkway. When we got back to the parking area, she was engaged in conversation with another tourist who looked like he would rather be anywhere else than there at that time.
After leaving Cades Cove, we found a creekside picnic area to get our lunch. It had begun to rain a bit (it rained much harder in the mountains later in the day - a much needed good rain) and we found refuge under a shelter to finish up our lunch. The foggy mist in the mountains - the "smoke" that gave the mountains their name - was beginning to rise from the trees thanks to the dampness on the ground. It was pretty and eerie at the same time.
While we're not sure that we saw everything that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park had to offer, we're certain we saw a lot of it. There's not as many roadways in the park as you would find in Rocky Mountain National Park, but the vista turn-outs in the Great Smokies gave us some pretty sensational views of the landscape. The weather wasn't the best, but that didn't deter from our visit in one bit. If you get the chance to go to the Great Smoky Mountains, do it.