Our road into the Appalachian Mountains (Smokies + Shenandoah) led through Cumberland Gap, KY. This historic Gap was a very appropriate introduction to North America’s oldest mountain range. Cumberland is beautiful at this time of year, and it initiated road switchbacks and ear-pops from the changes in altitude.
We camped in the National Historic Park campground here, got the next stamp in our US Park Service travelers’ passport, and hiked around a bit at the summit where there are beautiful rock outcroppings (Rock nerd alert: I will regularly post geology pix. If you are bored by rocks, cruise on by). Saw our first back country camping group (hikers who overnight on the trail). Many, many more to come. A stuffed baby black bear at the visitor’s center gave us a look ahead at the thousands of square miles of bear country we were about to launch into. This was the only bear we were to see on this trip.
From Cumberland, we cascaded into Tennessee and arrived as quickly as possible in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which was not as speedy as we’d hoped, because the road passed through Pigeon Forge. If you are headed to the Smokies and you DON’T like Las Vegas surroundings, do try to avoid Pigeon Forge. It’s stop-and-go traffic with an eye-popping array of expensive and gaudy tourist traps for 15 miles before you get to the park. Not our cup of tea.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) is certainly a jewel in the crown of the US Park Service. Well-appointed, well-run and well-staffed, it can handle its 10 million+ visitors per year. We stayed at Smokemont Campground in the park, a great jumping off point for hikes in the central and southern park zones.
We hiked around Smokemont and into Cherokee, NC the first day, Clingman’s Dome and Andrew’s Bald the second day,
and Charlie’s Bunion (favorite of all) the third day. Charlie’s was our first genuinely strenuous mountain hike of eight miles’ length, and we were pretty tuckered at the end. It takes time for flatlanders to adjust to altitude and the 15” step-ups on rocky terrain. But getting out to the “Bunion” was so worth the exertion. Since most of the route was also Appalachian Trail, we had numerous chance encounters with through-hikers, which was also a thrill. Ate lunch in the through-hikers’ platform shelter, where they sleep communally. Saw a sweet group of elderly ladies at an overlook parking lot who were all visiting in their wheelchairs, watching autumn bloom in the Smokies.
A great, Eden-like wealth of lush rhododendron, azalea, cotoneaster, mountain laurel and mountain ash greeted us at the trail’s climax – this route has its own microclimate, for sure.
Campfires have now become a regular part of our nightly routine at the park facilities. As George (firestarter extraordinaire) notes, it’s the perfect wind-down activity to end a busy day – nothing like chatting over the fire as you stare into the roaring flames and the red embers. Way better than being crouched over a PC screen. We have the chance to review all the wonders seen during the day, and look ahead to what we might see tomorrow, in front of setting sun and glowing fire.
One side note to the GSMNP that is really central to the area’s history: the town of Cherokee is on the southern boundary of the park. It and the east-lying Cherokee Qualla reservation belong to the eastern tribe of Cherokees, those who fought to stay in their native homeland during the Trail of Tears forced evacuation. It is humbling and highly informative to visit the town and reservation, especially the Qualla Arts Center and Cherokee History Museum. That the tribe can welcome non-Indian visitors into their community with friendship and hospitality after all that was taken away from them during colonization is nothing short of amazing. Well worth the time spent.
Each evening as we returned to Smokemont camp, we’d find the main park road clogged by tourists stopped in their vehicles to observe 15 head of elk gathered in the fields and river bed. It’s elk mating season here in mid-October, the animals are in their prime, and these elk have specifically been resettled from Northern Wisconsin to repopulate the park. They are beautiful, and seemingly well acclimated to the watchful audience. Rangers and visitors are thrilled to have them back, and for the most part, the latter are willing to give them wide berth as a bull elk in rut can be a very unpredictable and aggressive creature.
Our last GSMNP event was a 2.5-hour trail ride on two beautiful horses, a paint named Shadow and a chestnut quarterhorse named Jake, with a Cherokee guide who taught us many interesting things about the area. He wants to get goats for his growing family, so naturally we recommended Oberhasli’s! We’re thinking we’d enjoy spending more time on horseback, we’ll have to look into lessons at our neighborhood horse stables when we get back! There was just not enough time to do everything the GSMNP has to offer, so we’ll be coming back.