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:

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