We're so close. We couldn't give this a miss. The Great Smoky National Park in Tennessee is only 3 hours drive from South Fork River National Recreation Area. That's all. What we weren't prepared for was the astonishing corridor of theme parks, restaurants, attractions, showtime, theatres, thrills and spills just before the parks entrance.
This "playground" is Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg - or Dollytown/Dollywood. This is where Dolly Parton hails from and you can pose for a photo next to a very young and very flat chested bronze statue of her in Sevierville! We didn't!
We stop at Smoky Mountain NP information center at Sugarlands, the main center as you enter the park from the north, near Gatlinburg...it is very busy, but we are pleased to be given the all clear for camping at Elkmont Campground and the information we get from this excellent visitors center gets us very excited about this special place and what it has to offer us....in particular the hiking opportunities.
We're into Elkmont campground by 3pm and out on a nice lengthy hike by 3.30pm. Following a very pretty little creek on the Cucumber Gap Trail we pass numerous cascades flickering with sunlight in the late afternoon.
This forest is old growth forest. Extensive logging of the area is what led it to become a National Park. A local man was disgusted at the devastation of the forests and lobbied hard raising money to buy the lands and stop logging. Other people lobbied to turn the area into National Forest in which case logging could still take place. Thankfully it became a park for everyone to enjoy. The return leg along Jakes Creek has us climbing more than we really wanted at this time of day and we're wet with sweat. It drops down into an area full of abandoned houses and now the forest is reclaiming its rightful position.
You never know what you might find lurking...in an old growth forest!
These were holiday homes and summer lodges for the rich and wealthy from Knoxville and when the land was being acquired for the park their leases were not renewed when they expired. The last one expired in 2001. It is a real hotch potch of building design. Some were traditional log cabin design with stone chimney stacks going up the outside. Some had more lavish porches and they all shared the Clubhouse with huge shady verandah, some still with rocking chairs. It's undecided what to do with these crumbling houses. The National Park wants to remove them but a local preservation society would like to do something else. I guess when and if funds are raised the solution will be found.
One of the locals still resident amongst the abandoned buildings.
The walk had taken us 3 hours and by the time we had celebrated with a G&T we didn't feel much like dinner. So fish and Branston sandwich did us! So much for a fridge full of lovely fresh green veggies! Tomorrow we'll head for the next campground in the park. Cades Cove.
We arrive at this lovely campground at Cades Cove with huge shady trees by 10am. We are raring to go and we choose a hike more for its distance than perhaps it's difficulty. By that I mean the 11 mile round trip seems to be what we wanted. The continuous climb however was not!
The Blonde - Anthonys Creek Trail to Rocky Top started off with a pretty section alongside Anthony Creek passing the picnic area and through a horse camp. The incline was gentle to start with and there were three tree log bridges and a couple of plank bridges across the stream. There was plenty of evidence of black bears. Broken branches and fresh leaves littered the path along with quite treacherous sections of tree roots where you had to be very careful with yout foot placement...the trail then went....up and up and up.
"If you go down to the woods today....."
It is 1.6 miles to an intersection with Russell Field Trail, then a further 1.9 miles to the Bote Mountain trail...up, up and up. It was 1.45pm and we decided to sit and eat our sandwiches even though we were not yet at the top...and knowing there could be a bear nearby! We'd seen fresh scat that smelled that unusual musky, sour milk smell. But we were ravenous and still had 1.7 miles to go to the top. The path seemed even steeper after lunch and narrower, and with lots of blind corners and Mountain Laurel growing either side of the trail. I kept up my "hey bear" calls for some time! Finally we got to speak to a couple on their way down. They told us not to miss turning left onto the Appalachian Trail at the top of the ridge and then going for 2/10ths mile where we would walk out into an opening with great views.
The EarthRoamers back on the Appalachian Trail and the "knee killing" Anthony's Creek Trail, a mere 3,665ft climb!
We followed their advice and then met another man. This seasoned walker turned out to be a local from Townsend who had a lot to say. Interesting stuff. We could have chatted longer but time was pressing. Anyway, he told us that Bote Mountain got its name from the Cherokee Indians who helped the Park Rangers build the hiking trails. When they arrived at Bote Mountain the Ranger was unsure which way to make the trail. So he said, shall we take a vote. Apparently Indians have no V in their language and so vote became Bote! He also told us why the backcountry campsites had been closed. When the 'thru-hikers' came along in April (Appalachian end to enders) the hut at Spence Field they are supposed to stay in was full. In a case like that hikers can camp in a tent just outside the shelter. But this one poor fellow was pulled by his foot out of his tent by a bear (maybe smelling food inside??). The bear got a taste for blood and was hunted. A bear was shot but it's believed it was the wrong bear (familiar story? Sharks shot after surfer attacks?). And so the rogue bear is still at large and the campsites have been closed. Later today we were to see more bear interference.
Great views across the park from Rocky Top.
Anyway, we find the recommended little cleared patch and we're surprised not just with a superb views over the mountains (which did look very smoky) and on to Fontana Dam, but also the patch of yellow goldenrod and Mountain Ash tree's full of clusters of bright red berries. Some of the stunted trees (we're at 5,000’ elevation now) are tinged with fall colours. It is a stunning little oasis to arrive at after 4 hours hiking in the forest. We eat apples, David hits the painkillers and anti-inflammatories, take our photos and set off back down the track aiming to be back in camp by 6.30pm. We make really good time going back down. David takes both poles and does so well. This has been a punishing hike for him. I am so pleased he did it. But it will take its toll and his knees will be sore. The shadows are longer as we descend but as the sun has moved round we see the forest differently. Back at the camp David iummediately wanted to check out the track information again...in fact it was a 13.9 mile hike not 11, but the important data that had been missed was....an elevation gain of 3,665ft!!!!! WHAT!!!!
There's a little drama going on at the campground this evening. A bear has been darted and the Rangers are loading him into a crate to be taken away. I'm too late to take photos but I see other people's and hear their stories. The bear wears a transmitter collar. He was an orphan but has learned bad ways and has been caught and relocated 5 times now. This time he had been chasing horses. The photo showed him wearing a blindfold with a National Park arrowhead badge. He looked huge.
Some campers go to a lot of trouble to decorate their patch and especially now in the fall. How gorgeous is this in front of a huge RV
Our section of the campground is generator free so it was really peaceful after dark. Tomorrow the Cades Cove Loop Road is closed to "vehicular traffic" and cyclists, hikers and runners get it traffic free until 10am. I'm definitely going and I'm very excited about it but David will have to see how his knee feels in the morning.
Cades Cove Loop bike ride on a cool, misty morning, I'm up by 6.30am but it's a dark as midnight! David is stirring and takes a while to say yes, he's coming. Yay!!!! We get on our bikes at 7.10am and are surprised by the number of cars already in the parking areas and the numbers of people setting off. I had imagined that we might be alone!!!!But this is the last morning of the season that the road will be closed for cyclists and perhaps that message has gone around. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the busiest National Park in the US. In spring and fall some 60,000 people visit PER DAY!!! We were astonished yesterday just how much traffic was on the park roads and slightly put off until we got into the big but well spaced campgrounds and no one on the trails.
Anyway, the morning is just perfect. The mist is hanging low in the paddocks, there are misty silhouettes of deer and horses and distant tree covered hills. It is just so beautiful. We cycle a few yards and stop, a few more yards, then stop again! Other cyclists emerge through the mist and the colours of the sky slowly warm. We have to keep looking behind us so we don't miss the morning slowly waking up.
The Blonde Biker...catching the morning slowly waking up.
The loop is 11 miles long and we seem to be cruising most of the first 5 miles! But that means one thing! Uphill on the way back! But right now we're not worried. It's too beautiful to worry about! We stop and watch a stag deer courting some females. They tease him, lure him and them run away! Huh! Women!!! David chats and joshes with some of the volunteers on the loop and I think it takes his mind of his knee.
Soon it's 8.50am and we've hardly noticed the time go by. How fortunate were we to arrive here the day before the last closed road day. And what a fabulous chance to bike on a wide paved road through such stunning scenery. So, so, much better than driving by car and worrying that you may be holding other drivers up. The speed limit is only 10mph but I noted in the Lonely Planet Guide how they describe the drivers as "Sunday Drivers" and how the pace is maddeningly slow at times.
Elijah's Cabin on the Wet Bottom Trail....plus the Blonde Biker.
Once the sun is up and the mist is rapidly disappearing we nip into see one of the many restored buildings along this route. Elijah Oliver's cabin on Wet Bottom Trail. I'm still giggling at the name of the trail!! The cabin had some restoration work going on so we as to duck around the red tape and bollards and scaffolding. Back on the Loop on the south side it goes through more trees and has those hills which had to come. They're short hills but make your lungs burn for a few minutes especially before breakfast!
This was a very special start to the day. Absolutely loved it. Being able to cycle willy nilly, stop where we wanted, enjoy the beautiful, early morning, achieve a good workout and be back for a full breakfast by 10am!! Perfect!
We haven't moved much since then!!! It's now 6pm, the sun is going down. We didn't manage the hike to the Falls this afternoon but postponed it until tomorrow. We have lovely neighbors from Alabama and we have enjoyed just pootling in the shady camp, reading and writing and chatting. By dinnertime the batteries won’t power the cooktop so we set off for a little run. Thinking we’ll just go to the picnic site carpark and idle we make a bad choice to run round the Cades Cove circuit instead. I mean it can’t be that busy at 7pm? Can it? OMGosh it was tortuous. Slow moving cars seeing nothing but the tail lights of the car in front. We take the short cut but even that takes us an hour……………….eugh!
Nose to tail.....
The following morning we are back on the Cades Cove Loop. The mist this morning isn’t nearly as beautiful as yesteday - we were so lucky yesterday. And with a line of cars already on the loop it is impossible to stop and take photos. Despite the early start the line of cars had already built up. Really, no-one gets to see anything trailing along the road like this bumper to bumper. No animal is going to show its face and drivers need to be watching those brake lights ahead. Thankfully most cars were driving the loop first thing and only half a dozen cars had pulled into the trailhead for Abram’s Falls. So we had a lovely two hour long hike in to the falls chatting to a lovely couple from South Dakota. They seemed inspired by our journey and chatted behind us all the way about how they could do the same thing! More converts!
The Blonde in full pose at the bridge at the start of the Abrams Falls Trail...and the trailhead.
Two photographers were just coming out of the falls and said, “You’re just in time. The sun is coming over the top”. No pressure then! We played for half an hour. It was a lovely place to contemplate for a while...David put in his headphones found a comfy rock and went into full chillout, as only he can. The hike wasn’t difficult - especially in comparison to Tuesday's hike to Bote Mountain and Rocky Top, but once again we were surprised at people coming in with thongs, no water (4 hour hike no water?!!), no hiking poles. It was still hot and humid and there were plenty of tree roots and stones and rocks to stumble on. Ho hum!
Definitely worth the hike in the heat....great spot to chill out, take photos and listen to music.
From Abrams Falls we move on a couple of miles and pull into the Cades Cove Visitors Center located roughly halfway around the loop. It is coming up to lunchtime now and very, very busy. We saunter down to look at the grist mill, but it is quite difficult to get photos with so many people around. So we decide to go back to our beautiful camp spot and enjoy a late lunch and a relaxing afternoon....bliss!
The fully renovated grist mill at Cades Cove Visitors Center.
We’ve moved to a new site for tonight. Our lovely neighbours from Alabama have friends over this afternoon so we will sit quietly and play by ourselves! Then eventually we are invited around for drinks....it is great to hear so many stories about their experiences travelling in and around this wonderful area...we note down plenty more opportunities to explore different areas as a result...this is how we have found so many great places, through the generosity of local people sharing.