So much more to do – Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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There was lots more to do at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – more than I could fit into a single post.  I have to say that despite going through and around the Smokies for the 10 days we were there,  we barely scratched the surface.  We were based near the town of Cherokee, about 5 miles  from  the south entrance to the park.  This turned out to be a long post, so grab your favorite beverage and take your time checking out our adventures at GSMNP.

A bit of history

A visit to the Museum of the Cherokee Indians enlightened me about the plight of the Cherokee Indians in the early 1800’s.  My take away from perusing through cultural and historical displays was that the Cherokee people who live in North Carolina today are referred to as the “Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.”  They are the direct descendants of those who avoided the Cherokee’s forced removal to Oklahoma in the 1830’s, also called the “Trail of Tears.”  The 56,000-acre Qualla Boundary in western North Carolina adjacent to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is their current home.

We did not encounter any live bears during our stay, but I was happy to see these critters around Cherokee that seemed harmless enough.

A Gourd Festival?

On the same day around the corner from the museum building, a Gourd Festival was in progress.  I was curious, since this was the first time I had heard about this kind of festival.  I saw gourds of various sizes, shapes and odd forms for sale.  Crafters and gourd enthusiasts crowded the area, displaying their works of art or attending activities like hands-on gourd crafting.  I was fascinated with the details and craftsmanship of the finished gourd art on display.

Hitting the trails

Hiking at GSMNP

OK, which trail are we taking?

Lets talk hiking.  I understand now why the GSMNP is also called, a “hiker’s park”.  As we drove through on US 441, the main north to south scenic highway, we noticed many trailhead markers along the way.  With about 150 hiking trails to choose from, we were in hiking heaven!  We’d been longing for some more challenging hikes with serious elevation changes, and we weren’t disappointed here.

The hikes we chose took us deep into the forestlands. Some included breathtaking views, several ran along rushing streams with cascading waterfalls, and most were adorned with millions of wildflowers that made me stop frequently for photos.

We categorized our hikes as either waterfall, vista or wildflower hikes.  Below are details of just a few of the ones we chose, and we went out almost every day to explore until our legs throbbed in pain!

Waterfall hikes

Waterfalls, streams and rivers abound in and around the park.  I learned that many parts of the Smokies receive over 85″ of rainfall on average each year.  All of that water trickles and then rushes down the mountainside, creating multiple waterfalls, streams and rivers.  We loved the hikes that let us enjoy the sounds of water along most of their length. It is so green and lush everywhere.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park Riverstreams

Mingo falls

Mingo Falls

Tom Branch Falls

Tom Branch Falls

Following a three-waterfall loop from Bryson City, we came upon the Juney Whank, Indian Creek and Tom Branch falls.  How often do you get to see three beautiful waterfalls on one hike?  We also saw several others along our driving route that day.

Abrams Falls

Abrams Falls

To reach Mingo Falls, we followed a 0.4 mile trail that included steep wooden stairs, and we were out of breath by the time we reached the top.  At 120′ tall, this is one of the tallest and most spectacular waterfalls in the Smoky Mountains.

The hike to Abram Falls was about five miles roundtrip.  The waterfall itself was only 20′ high, but a long and deep pool at its base creates strong currents beneath the falls. The strong undertow there was responsible for the deaths of several people.

Warning at Abrams Falls

We learned there have been more than 4 deaths here – they should make the number changeable on the sign…

Wildflower hikes

The Smokies explode with wildflowers during the springtime months.  It is commonly referred to as “The Wildflower National Park.”  But alas, we missed many of the beauties by arriving a bit late in the season.  The best time to see the hillsides carpeted with colors is April and May, but I managed to snap a few leftovers on some of the trails where the wildflowers were abundant.

Mountain Bugbane

Mountain Bugbane

wpid25799-2014-05-23-NC-1320400.jpg

To catch a few of those remaining spring wildflowers, we followed the Oconaluftee River Trail, an easy 3-mile roundtrip that began at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and ran alongside the river.  Next, we followed the 6.2-mile Smokemont Loop Trail and burned some calories on its 1,400′ ascent through creekside cove hardwood forests and drier oak- and hickory-dominated ridge tops.  I was able to see a few blooms and can identify only a few and marked some with a  (?).

The Icewater Shelter Trail (5.4 miles) was our first true taste of serious mountain hiking, since this trail ascends quite steeply at the beginning.  Parts of it are very rocky with large boulders, and other sections follow smoother ridge lines.  A few clamps of Bluets were swaying in the breeze along this trail.  It is a section of the Appalachian Trail that goes to the outcropping at Charles Bunion.

Bluets

Mountain Bluets

Vista Hikes

The vista hikes we did were real “lung busters” and calf toners, with rewards of great  panoramic mountain views.  The .5-mile ascent to Clingman’s Dome, which I mentioned on my previous post, gave us a 360-degree view of the Smokies.  Outside the park we tackled Whiteside Mountain in the Nantahala Forest.  This mountain is a distinct landmark along the eastern Continental Divide for aviators and ground-bound folks alike. The 2-mile trail is rated difficult because of its steepness and switchbacks, which include steps placed to help negotiate the rocky slope.  At the top we had a great view of South Carolina and the face of this mountain, which is prized by rock climbers.  It was closed to those folks while we were there because it was nesting season for the  Perigrine Falcons that return there every year.

Whiteside Mountain

Whiteside Mountain at Nantahala Forest

A 1.2-mile roundtrip hike to the summit at Waterrock Knob was a steep climb, gaining 412 feet in elevation.  This trail begins at Milepost 451.2 on the Blue Ridge Parkway, just 18 miles from where the parkway ends at the Great Smoky Mountains Visitors Center (Milepost 469).

Blue Ridge Parkway

Blue Ridge Parkway looking east – Blue Ridge Mountains

Blue Ridge Mountain, Waterrock Knob trail

Blue Ridge Parkway and the Smokies, looking west

After completing all of these hikes, we believe the calories we’d been carrying since leaving Florida were finally melting away, and our hiking muscles were coming back – yay!  But most of all, we felt really good and reinvigorated from being back to nature and far from the noises of civilization.

Waterrock Knob Parking lot

Maybe wearing green for pictures isn’t such a good idea out here?

Scenic Drives

Although hiking might be the best way to enjoy the park, scenic drives are also available to those who prefer to view the mountains from the comfort of their car.  In between our hiking days we took the suggested drives to Cade’s Cove Loop and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which were about 56 miles from our home base in Cherokee.  We also checked out the nearby Road to Nowhere  in Bryson City. Highway 441 GSMNP

The most popular drive, with bumper-to-bumper traffic on a one-lane 11-mile loop road, was Cade’s Cove.  A “cove” in the mountains is a flat valley between mountains or ridges. Cades Cove used to be a farming community in the early 1900’s, and today this is a showcase of natural and cultural treasures preserved for generations to come.

Cades Cove

As we drove here, we saw preserved pastureland, churches, preserved structures and some wildlife.  We never saw a bear, but this cute deer caused a traffic jam on the one-way street.

Deer

Cades Cove Loop

Sharing the narrow road

Cades Cove

Checking out Cade’s Cove

As the name suggests, the Roaring Form Motor Nature Trail is a nature trail viewable from your car.  As we drove the 6-mile-long, one-way loop road we were essentially following Roaring Fork Creek, a stream within a series of rushing cascades.  There were access points to waterfall trails, but we just drove on the road enjoying the forest.  The beautiful green scenery and sounds of rushing water was so soothing that I was afraid Steve would fall asleep while driving.

Roaring Fork Motor Trail

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Did I mention that it’s very green out here?

The Road to Nowhere

The Road to Nowhere

We learned about this drive from the packet of “Off the Beaten Path” information that our RV park hostess gave us.  The road was originally named Lakeview Drive, but since it was never completed the residents called it “The Road to Nowhere.”  In 1943 the federal government promised to build it for access to the Fontana Dam, as compensation to local residents who gave up their land for the project.  Approximated 6 miles of the road, including a bridge and 1200-foot tunnel, were completed by end of 1969, but the remaining 26 miles was never finished.  It is a nice scenic drive from Bryson City into GSMNP, where it dead-ends.

Tunner at Road to Nowhere

Walking through the dark 1,200 foot tunnel was a bit creepy.

The tunnel is closed to car traffic and can only be walked through on foot.  Midway through it, I grabbed Steve’s hand as it was a bit scary walking in the dark – even though we could see light at the distant end.

End of runnel, Road to Nowhere

Finally, a light at the end of the tunnel

While walking around Bryson City we stumbled upon a local brewery – a perfect way to end our long day of auto touring.

Back at the campground, our feathered friends provided us with entertainment as we relaxed after each long day in the mountains.

Sparrows

I want my snack..

Northern Cardinal

Ain’t I handsome?

And that wraps up our magnificent and glorious stay at the mountains.  We feel that we made the most of our time with a close-up experience of the best, nature has to offer in the Smokies.

Resources:

Park Map http://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/upload/grsmmap2-2.pdf

Trail Map http://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/upload/trail-map_JULY13-full.pdf

For more information, visit The Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s Website!



 

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

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Great Smoky Mountains National Park

With Steve’s mini-project out of the way, lets talk travel again!

I was surprised to learn before we arrived at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) that this is the most-visited National Park in the USA.  Hmm… and all along I thought that honor went to my favorite – Yosemite National Park in California – which is ranked third.  And I was pleasantly surprised when we drove right into the park without encountering a gate with someone collecting fees.  Entry to this park is FREE!

Perhaps that’s one reason it’s the most visited park, but another is its proximity to several major eastern urban centers in 2/3 of the states that surround it.  The fact that this park offers fantastic scenery, accessible wildlife, a sense of history and many outdoor activities no doubt contributes to its popularity as well.

Clingman's Dome Trail

Lots of visitors on the Clingman’s Dome trail, even before the Memorial Day weekend hit

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was first established in 1934 as a way of protecting it from logging companies which were planning to continue logging the area.  It straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, a mountain range rising along the Tennessee–North Carolina border.  That border runs northeast to southwest through the centerline of the park, and I had to pose at Newfound Gap Road on Highway 441where the two states meet:

Newfound Gap, TN and NC Border

Straddling two states, Tennessee and North Carolina

The land that became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was owned by hundreds of small farmers, plus a handful of large timber and paper companies.  They were all bought out with the support of the people of North Carolina and Tennessee, and a donation from Laura Spelman Rockefeller. When the state of Tennessee transferred the land to the federal government, it stipulated that “no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed…” to travel the road.  Hence, no entry fee – that works for us!

Great Smoky National Park

So the next obvious question is why are the mountains called Smoky Mountains or “the Smokies”?  Settlers coming to this land noticed a smoky haze that rose from the vast vegetation and decided on the perfect name: the Smoky Mountain Range.  But here is the more scientific version that I gathered from the Visitor Center; Water carried through plants is released through the leaves as a vapor.  The vapor from the conifer trees of the Smokies contains terpenes, an organic chemical.  As the vapor is released, the large amount of terpenens create the smoke-haze, or mist, that gives the mountains their name.  You can clearly see the haze below:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Yep, those are the Smokies!

We accessed the park from the town of Cherokee, which is located in North Carolina just south of the park.  Our home base for almost two weeks was the Flaming Arrow Campground, which was about five miles from the park entrance.  Steve’s review of this nice park can be viewed here.

Flaming Arrow Campground, Cherokee

During our twelve-day stay here we took several scenic drives, and hiked to our heart’s content.  The scenery was diverse – mountain views, old-growth trees, waterfalls, streams, and more shades of green than we’ve ever seen.

Newfound Gap road

No elk here, but we finally saw one elsewhere in the park

US 441, Newfound Gap Road

Great Smoky Mountain Drive

Green, green everywhere!

Our first excursion was to the very top of the Smokies.  At 6,643 feet, Clingman’s Dome is the highest mountain peak of the Smokies and one of the highest peaks in the eastern United States.  The trail to the observation tower was steep and a real lung buster, as it gets chilly up there.  It’s about a half mile ascent from the parking lot to the top, and a pretty good workout.  This is a very popular stop, and it was getting quite crowded already even in the early  morning and before the holiday weekend. This is the most visited park after all!

Clingmans dome observation tower

Clingmans Dome observation tower

The trail was so steep that this man thought it might be too much for his chubby dog to handle!

Clingmans Dome Trail

The observation tower provided us with great panoramic views of the Smokies.  Although not as spectacular as the towering mountain ranges we experienced in Alaska,  or at the Top of the World in the Canadian Yukon, the Smokies definitely had their own unique and magnificent beauty.

Great Smoky Mountains, southern view

Southern view

Great Smoky Mountains

Northern view

Western View of the Smokies

Western view

Clingmans Dome

Lunch View

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a hiker’s and mountain lover’s paradise, with something like 800 miles of hiking trails to explore.  And that’s where we’ll take you next…our hikes and the many eye-catching views along the way.

 

Next up:  Hikes, wildflowers, and waterfalls