Sunday, June 28, 2015

Three days in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Twenty years ago I went on a cross-country road trip with a friend. Our first stop was Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It had been a long drive from DC and we naively thought we would get a camping spot late at night... on a Saturday... in the most visited national park in the US.

Riiiiiight. My friend and I ended up finding a cheap motel several towns away and heading straight to Nashville the next day.

Several weeks ago Patrick and I planned a little better - we were able to spend four nights and many daylight hours exploring the natural beauty and cultural artifacts that the Smoky Mountains have to offer. Here's a recap of our trip...

"smoke": part natural, part smog-induced

The hikes. There are 150 trails, including the famous Appalachian Trail, spanning 800 miles of Great Smoky Mountains NP. You can go high onto ridges and deep into valleys - we did both.

Day One: we got settled into camp just a few hours before dark, so after dinner (and a quick storm) we wandered up Smokemont campground's pleasantly short nature trail.

our intro to GSMNP bridges

Day Two: we headed up to Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Smokies. (This "highest point" thing would be a running theme throughout our national parks trip.) The short, steep trail ends at a strange concrete structure offering panoramic views of the surrounding area.

on-ramp to nowhere

6643 feet above sea level

From there we walked 3.8 miles down into the forest and out to Andrews Bald.

Andrews Bald

note to selves...

... buy wildflower book

The walk was pretty but the flies at the bald were pretty obnoxious (warning: foreshadowing) so we didn't stay long.

After lunch we made a quick stop at Newfound Gap, the dividing line between North Carolina and Tennessee. Nice views and the chance to straddle two states and reminisce about that time one of us stood in Spain and the other, Portugal.

no trendy clothes at this gap

"you got your NC in my TN!"
" got your TN in my NC!"

Our last stop that day was Chimney Tops. The sign at the beginning of the trail warns that you have to scale a giant rock to see the summit views. "Pshah," we thought, "we did The Crack and Cradle Mountain and Mt Amos and Old Rag, we can do this one."

um... we did NOT do this one

Yep, after a grueling mile of uphill trail to the rock base, we opted to skip this adrenaline rush and enjoy the views from a sane vantage point instead. One woman, on her way up a particularly tricky part, exclaimed, "I have NEVER done anything like this before!" Good for you, lady. We did The Crack and Cradle Mountain and Mt Amos and Old Rag, we didn't need to do this one.

the views were good from here too

Day Three: because we weren't tired enough from the previous day's adventures, we decided to try a ~12 mile return hike to Rocky Top. The first two legs of the trail were uphill but creekside, where the forest and wildflowers were lovely and the air was cool and calm.

Anthony Creek

Once we hit the AT for the last leg, though, the flies came out en masse (swarming around our heads) and it got HOT. We looked up at the peak, realized the next two hours were not going to be pretty, sighed, and turned around. Good ole Rocky Top, maybe we'll try you some other trip.

any specks you see are flies

GSM does a great job with trail signage though

Day Four: we decided to take a Sunday drive around the 11-mile historic Cades Cove loop. Lots of old churches and cemeteries along the beautiful valley drive...

primitive Baptist church

primitive Methodist church

not-so-primitive Baptist church

... and so on. Halfway through the drive we stopped for the 5 mile return hike to Abrams Falls. It was perfect - a little uphill, a little downhill to the falls, and back up and down again.

it's no Multnomah,
but it'll do

the wildflowers were stunning here too

From the trailhead it was just half a mile to the home of Elijah Oliver, son of the first white settler in the area. We'd seen John Oliver's home at the start of the Cades Cove loop so we had to see what his offspring came up with...

like father...

... like son

The loop tour ends at a small historic community featuring still-intact buildings and one of the original grist mills.

good barn design

still grinding corn and wheat today

Day Five: we got up early and enjoyed our coffee along the Cades Cove campground nature trail. This one had signs explaining the tree varieties and how the American Indians used the forest in everyday life back in the day. (Why must we always pick these informative trails at the end of our stay?)

it had to be done

Almost 27 miles hiked in five days... Not bad.

The campsites. Our plan was to stay at Big Creek the first night; we arrived too late and the campground was full. Instead, we spent two nights at Smokemont and two nights at Cade's Cove.
  • Smokemont (we chose site B-17)
    • Pros: gravel tent pads (awesome on rainy days); great nature trail; open year-round; right next to lovely babbling brook
    • Cons: no showers; no soap in camp bathrooms; campsites were pretty close to each other; have to drive to all other trails
nowhere to hang a tarp, either

  • Cade's Cove (we chose site C-10, right next to the dump station but we hardly ever saw RVers using it)
    • Pros: great nature trail; walking access to nearby hikes, Cade's Cove loop and camp store; roomier campsites than Smokemont; trees for the hammock
    • Cons: sand tent pads (gross on rainy days); no showers; no soap in camp bathrooms; lots of traffic from curious or lost drivers on Cades Cove loop
we probably still have some of this sand in the car

We are sure both sites probably get pretty lively in the high season. And really, GSMNP - NO showers, even coin-op showers? We managed alright but we did pity the poor summer AT thru-hikers who have to trek to Gatlinburg just to get clean...

The food.  Oatmeal breakfasts, cheese sandwich lunches (this would also be a running theme during our road trip).  It rained a lot during our stay so we kept dinners easy.

salad in the car, part one

salad in the car, part two
(looks suspiciously like part one)

rice noodles and grilled veggies

couscous and grilled veggies

Lots more photos here...

The summary. We had fun hiking around the park but even early in the season, it was quite busy. The campsites are a little small and the lack of facilities requires a little more planning than usual - no big deal, just good to know. The mosquitos and humidity are probably unbearable (for us) in true high season but early spring or late fall would probably be amazing.

We were also hoping to check out Asheville while we were in town but the park was farther west than we realized. No matter - the final running theme for our road trip is that it's always good to save some things for next time! (Still talking to you, good ol' Rocky Top.)

Next up: Kentucky and Mammoth Cave National Park...


  1. I've recently developed a great love for long walks and I love being surrounded by nature. I think with 150 trails I'd definitely have plenty of choices :)

    1. Yep, Franca, there are trails for everyone at GSM. I'd recommend going in spring or fall though - I bet the fall colors on a long walk would be amazing!