Saturday, September 11, 2010

Great Smoky Mountains N.P.

Friday, July 9, 2010

It was early in the afternoon, in a light and steady drizzle when we started our tour of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We'd just crossed the Oconaluftee River bridge, and turning right onto US Highway 441 put us at the entrance to the park, and the Oconaluftee Visitors Center.

Construction crews were working, even in the light rain, remodeling and expanding the Visitors Center. We pulled into the crowded parking lot and found a space. There were tons of people there, and it was a little difficult moving about the place. We found the restrooms, then the gift shop. There was a great full relief map of the park on a large table in the middle of the main room, which was fascinating to look at. We found some very good books and pamphlets, as well as a few other nice things in the gift shop. Whenever I visit a place, somehow it's not complete unless I come away with a book about it. I found a couple of books on the Blue Ridge Parkway - "Building The Blue Ridge Parkway" by Karen J. Hall, and "Blue Ridge Parkway: The Story Behind The Scenery" by Margaret Rose Rives.

I asked the friendly, helpful Park Service employee behind the counter if it would be possible to take in Clingmans Dome and the Cades Cove area in one day. He told me that it would be ambitious of me to try it today, seeing as how late it already was. I thanked him and we headed on out to the car. I figured we'd try, at least.

There are only a very few paved roads in this whole, vast park. One of them is US 441, or Newfound Gap Road, as it's called in the park. It traverses the park, running between Cherokee, North Carolina and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. About half way along this road, as it crosses the high ridge running the length of the park, there is a spur road leading up to Clingmans Dome, the highest mountain in the park. The other main paved road in the park is Laurel Creek Rd./Little River Rd. which follows these waterways from 441 near Gatlinburg, over to the Cades Cove area. Most of the rest of the park can only be accessed via hiking trails. There is a large network of trails in and around the park, including part of the famous Appalachian Trail.

We started up Newfound Gap Road, looking for adventure. The light rain had stopped, and the sun was trying to come out. The road parallels the Oconaluftee River, which was off to our right. About a mile up the road, we came upon Mingus Mill, an old water powered corn grinding mill. We pulled in and spent about thirty minutes touring the place and getting pictures. There were lots of other people about, so it was hard to get good pictures with them in the way. We persevered, and came away with some decent photos. It's very well preserved, and very interesting. Glad we stopped.

Realizing we were pressed for time, we didn't stop much at scenic overlooks. The only one we hit was the "Cut And Run" overlook. There is some great interpretive information there, on signs, about the past logging industry in this area.

Near the top of the pass we came to the spur road up to Clingmans Dome, and turned on to it. It's about eight miles up to the parking area, along this beautiful, curvy road that gets ever higher. At the top, there is a large parking area, and lots of amenities - restrooms, lots of signage, gift shop, scenic overlook, and hiking trails. The Appalachian Trail passes by here, on it's way along the ridge tops from Georgia to Maine. From the parking area, there was a trail up to the actual mountain top. We declined to make the hike because the guy in the gift shop said it would take about an hour. That meant that I could make it in thirty minutes, and Ok Hwa could make it in two hours. Better keep moving, we had a lot of ground to cover. Still, we spent about thirty minutes here, taking pictures and enjoying the view. Due to the occasional light rain, the Smokey Mountains were living up to their name. All the moisture on the ground evaporates into light fog or low clouds, and hovers along the mountains and valleys, giving the place a magical, "smokey" appearance. On some days this effect can be heavier than on others, and it can obliterate the view.

Moving along, we went back down to Newfound Gap Road, and after a couple miles, came to the ridge top, and the actual "Newfound Gap". It's a pretty dramatic spot. There is, of course, a large scenic overlook, and a monument. There were lots of people here, and we decided not to stop. The road started descending from this spot, down towards Gatlinburg. It's a beautiful drive the whole way down, about fifteen miles, with lots of scenic pull offs and short nature trails for the adventuresome. After about six miles we came upon "The Loop". It's a spot where the valley is so narrow that even a hairpin curve in the road would not fit. The highway engineers built a spiral loop to make the tight turn. I've never seen that before. I had to turn around and drive it again, making a video.

A few miles later, just inside the park boundary there on the Tennessee side, we came upon Sugarlands Visitor Center and the park headquarters. It's a small complex of buildings with parking lots, and a few short nature trails. We did not stop here, but this is where the road to Cades Cove turns off of US 441.

Little River Road and Laurel Creek Road are really just one road, about twenty-five miles long, running between Cades Cove and the park headquarters near Gatlinburg. It's a relatively level road, following along it's two namesake streams, through a narrow valley. There are numerous scenic pull-offs, allowing access to the streams for fishing, wading, and exploring. There is one tunnel along the road. It's a beautiful, curvy drive through the forest.

Emerging into the broad, flat valley of Cades Cove is like entering paradise. Surrounded by mountains, the valley is about five miles long by about three miles wide. There is a one-way loop road running around the perimeter, which is bisected at a couple of places by cross roads, allowing you to short cut the circumference. As in Cataloochee Valley, the park service has kept and maintains many of the buildings of the former inhabitants, to serve as an example of what life was like here before the park. The valley here is larger, and the buildings much more numerous than in Cataloochee, and one could easily spend an entire day here, exploring it all. It was a couple hours before dusk when we arrived, so we would have to do the Cades Cove tour in a hurry. We had a great time exploring, though, stopping at three or four different places to get out and hike and take pictures. The John Oliver Cabin was my favorite, probably because it's the oldest building in the place, dating from the 1820s. We also thoroughly explored the Cable Mill area, with all its many buildings.

There was much more here than we could see in such a short time. One impediment to seeing more was the crowded conditions, and the slow traffic. This is a popular area, and there were many tourists there when we visited. The nature of the road was a problem, also. It is eleven miles, one lane, one way. There are many pull-offs to allow gazing and picture taking, but, I was amazed by the rudeness of the people in cars up ahead of us, who would not use the pull-offs, but would stop in the middle of the road blocking traffic for long minutes at a time, while they hung out the windows taking pictures. Then there were the people, leading a parade of impatient drivers behind them, who could not bring themselves to travel faster than three miles per hour. How rude.

It was full dark by the time we completed the circuit of Cades Cove. We were faced with traveling back along that long twenty-five miles of curvy road in the pitch darkness. We were headed back to Gatlinburg to find a hotel room for the night. We didn't know what to expect there, and wanted to get there as soon as possible to get a room before they all sold out.

The stark difference between the dark, lonely park road and Gatlinburg couldn't have been greater. Gatlinburg is a very beautiful little tourist town, crammed into a tight little valley. On the night we were there it was simply overrun by tourists. I think we got the last hotel room in town, and breathed a sigh of relief as we settled in. We left to go find dinner, and could not find a parking space anywhere. It took us ten minutes just to make a right turn to get back to the hotel. We parked back at the hotel, and walked a few blocks through the teeming crowds to a T.G.I. Fridays. Thank God, indeed. It was Friday, and we were headed for home in the morning.

Here is the link to this day's pictures, to view the slide show, or any of the individual pictures in full screen:

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Blue Ridge Parkway

Thursday and Friday, July 8 and 9, 2010

We said our good byes and left Charlotte on Thursday morning, heading west through Kings Mountain, Shelby, Forest City and on up to Hendersonville. There, we picked up US Hwy. 64 heading towards Brevard, where we got back on that beautiful US 276 again. We wanted to see that eighteen mile stretch from Brevard up to the junction with the Blue Ridge Parkway.

The road is tight switch back curves the whole way up, through dense forest, with a lot of scenic pull-offs. You can't really see any sweeping vistas from these many pull-offs, but the road parallels a swift moving mountain stream which has it's own charms. There is at least one very dramatic waterfall which can be seen from the road. It can be seen even better if you pull off and walk up to it. There were so many tourists parked there when we passed that we couldn't find a place to park. We went on up the road a ways, and found another place to park and take some pictures. Even thought we didn't get pictures of the waterfall, it was hard to take a bad picture in this place, with that beautiful light filtering down through the trees.

At the Parkway junction, where we'd turned north a few days before, we got on and headed south. I don't recall ever having been on this stretch before. It's possible that I traveled this section before with my dad, but I don't remember. Dad was a huge fan of the mountains, and many times we would take off for the weekend, and just drive up here sightseeing. He seemed to know his way around up here like he'd spent a lot of time exploring it as a young man.

We were headed to the southern Parkway terminus, at the Oconaluftee River and US Hwy. 441. It's a straight line distance of around thirty miles, but maybe fifty or sixty miles of driving due to all the twists and turns in the road. We were in no hurry, and stopped often at the many wonderful scenic overlooks to take pictures. The wildflowers were blooming in abundance this year, and we took full advantage, getting lots of great wildflower shots. Traffic was light, and the weather was just right - warm, but not hot, and a mixture of clouds and sunshine, with the occasional light shower.

Along this section of the Parkway, between US 276 and the southern terminus at US 441, there is one place to exit, about half way, at Soco Gap. This is where US 19 crosses, running between Waynesville and Cherokee. As it was getting on towards dusk by this time, we decided to get off and find a motel for the night. We would continue the trip in the morning.

We headed back towards Waynesville, passing through beautiful Maggie Valley with all it's tourist hotels. We stopped and checked out a few of them, but ended up right back where we started a few days ago, at the Super 8 in Waynesville. We knew the place and were comfortable there, so why not?

The next morning, we headed back up through Maggie Valley to Soco Gap, and got back on the Parkway for the last leg of the journey. Like the day before, everything was just right. The occasional light showers were a little more frequent this day, but not nearly enough to spoil the trip. There were more motorists on the Parkway, also, and lots of motorcyclists. I would sure love to bring my KLR 650 up here. It was made for a road like this.

We stopped in practically every other scenic overlook along this stretch, and there were many. The slightly overcast sky was providing perfect lighting for our nature photography. When we finally made it to the end of the road, the overcast had turned into a very light, but steady drizzle. It didn't stop me from taking pictures, though. I parked the Bronco just over the Oconaluftee River bridge, got my umbrella and camera, and walked back across the bridge for some pictures. There were lots of other people about, also, and some of them were down at the river, swimming, wading, and having fun. It was another great day in the Smokey Mountains, and a great way to finish up our tour of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Here's the link to the photo album above, to view the slide show or any of the individual photos in full screen:

Monday, September 6, 2010


Monday, July 5 - Thursday, July 8, 2010

We spent the next few days in Charlotte, with my Kirkpatrick cousin Angie and her lovely family, husband Pete, the boys Mason and Jared, and big sister Claire. They've put me up for the past several years on my annual trips back to NC. It's so nice of them to invite me into their home and their family life for a few days. I really treasure my time with them.

Our first day in Charlotte, though, we went by my old friend Murray's house for a visit. We picked him up and drove out to Ellerbe, NC, to the home of our old friend Greg. This was a reunion of sorts, of a group of old high school buddies. When we got out to Greg's place we found another old high school friend waiting for us there, Danny. We visited for a while, drank a few beers, and after awhile Danny brought out his Water Bottle Rocket Launch apparatus. He said he'd gotten the instructions on how to make it from YouTube. It consisted of a two liter soda bottle, some lengths and joints of PVC pipe, a couple of fittings, and a hand bicycle pump. It turned out to be much more fun than we imagined. Here's the video I made of a couple of the launches:

After the excitement of the bottle rocket launches wore off, we said our good byes and Murray, Ok Hwa, and I headed back to Charlotte. We visited with Murray for a bit back at his place, then headed over to cousin Angie's.

We had a fun filled three days with Angie's family there at their lovely home in Charlotte. I get such a kick out of the kids. They are all so intelligent and energetic, it's a refreshing change from my day to day norm. We had brought them some gifts from our trip to Korea back in April, and they seemed really pleased to have them. One of the gifts was the board game Go. We spent hours playing this game. The kids are all very competitive, and we all really got into it. Another of our favorite things to do is to shop at this one particular antique store in Matthews, Antique Alley. A great store filled with wonderful stuff at reasonable prices. We also hit another antique store in Matthews on another day.

On Tuesday Angie, the kids, and Ok Hwa and I met up with her sister, my cousin, Sonya for lunch. Claire had her friend Allie with her. Allie was staying over for a couple of days, also. Sonya had her daughter Ashlyn with her. It was great to see the both of them. Angie, Sonya, and their sister Lisa practically grew up with my sisters and me. I got these pictures of the ladies before we all scattered again.

Later that afternoon Ok Hwa and I went into downtown Charlotte for a little alone time. We spent the afternoon prowling around in my old stomping ground. I spent a lot of time in downtown Charlotte as a young man. I was living with my dad back then and we both worked at the Charlotte Observer, the morning daily paper. Their building was downtown, so we were there almost every day. A few years later, dad and I also both worked at Heritage Printers, also located downtown. So, I wanted to see how they'd upgraded the old cityscape. Even while I was living in Charlotte all those many years ago, the powers that be were into urban revitalization, and were well under way with downtown redevelopment, encouraging mixed use, and residential space. I'm happy to report that they've done a great job of it. This is a very livable, workable, walkable urban setting. We saw residential high-rises, condos, townhouses, and old residential hotels which had been remodeled. There was lots of street life, with cafes, boutiques, museums, and night clubs. I could live there... if it was in Texas! These few pictures we made in downtown that day are about the only pictures I made during our time in Charlotte this year.

On Wednesday afternoon Ok Hwa and I drove over to Monroe, NC in the neighboring county, to visit my father's grave. Dad had met a woman who lived there in the late '70s, and ended up marrying her and moving there. He lived there in Monroe for the rest of his life. He built a very successful photography business there, and remained self employed right up 'til the end. He loved photography, and the photography business. He never retired, and he never bought a digital camera. He used Rolleiflex cameras on location, and Mamiya RB67s in the studio. He was a master of light and shadow.

On Thursday Morning we said our good byes to Angie and Pete, Mason, Jared and Claire, and headed back west. We were going to spend a couple more days in the mountains before heading back to Texas.