Charlie's Bunion - nothing to do with feet. Well, perhaps that's not true. It was a hike so it would have something to do with feet. A 10 mile round trip to Charlie's Bunion which is a rocky outcrop way up on the Appalachian Trail from Newfound Gap overlook.
We'd left Cades Cove campground early. Jeannie and Pat our new friends from Alabama had long gone, heading for Mt LeConte and the resort they worked at last year. It's a 'hike-in' cabin resort. No electricity or showers but a basic dinner and an American breakfast of eggs, grits, Canadian bacon, pancakes, slice of watermelon, biscuits and gravy and a glass of Tang. I had to ask grits? Gravy & biscuits? These are two things that I've often seen on menus but what are they?
Grits - "Grits are made from corn that is ground into a coarse meal and then boiled. Grits are usually served with other flavorings as a breakfast dish, usually savory. Grits were traditionally popular in the Southern United States but now are available nationwide. Grits should not be confused with boiled ground corn maize which makes "hasty pudding" or "mush" or when using coarse ground corn, which may be made into polenta, or the "mush" made from more finely ground corn meal." OK...so here is a very traditional"down south" breakfast serve....
Biscuits & Gravy - the biscuits are not biscuits as we understand them in the UK or Australia.....it is a popular breakfast dish in the United States, especially in the South.They consist of soft dough ( similar to a plain scone) covered in either "sawmill" or sausage gravy, made from the drippings of cooked pork sausage, white flour, milk, and often (but not always) bits of sausage, bacon, ground beef, or other meat. The gravy is often flavored with black pepper. David did not go for the gravy....only because this day I don't think it was on the menu.....
Anyway, back to our hike...Charlie's Bunion Lookout. This is a really popular 3 to 4 hour there and back hike with the reward being great views from the lookout and we were timing this so we could have a picnic lunch (as recommended by our Alabama neighbours) when we got there. Leaving the big and VERY busy Newfound Gap Overlook with its great views the trail climbs up and up for over an hour to a CCC built stone shelter for Appalachian Trail campers. We are walking the "AT" The Appalachian Trail - (I feel entitled to use the lingo now that we’ve already been on parts of it before!).
The Blonde at the start of our hike up to Charlie's Bunion Lookout.
There’s a couple of glimpses through the forest of the Smokies which look, well,.... smoky. We keep smelling a vomity sort of smell but can’t locate its source. Maybe a fungus??? It could be Skunk Goldenrod or Galax, a small round/heartshaped leaf that smells like rotting carrion. I’ve googled for ages and I’m still not convinced. Maybe we have to hike the trail again and have a proper look! The hike is pretty for its shadows but there are plenty of boulders to clamber and knotty tree roots to wriggle boots over.
We think we’ve reached as high as we’re going when we get to the shelter but nooooooo, we start going downhill. And then uphill again. My Fitbit is telling me we should be almost there. I’m trying to reassure David that Charlie’s Bunion is just around the corner as he says ‘s**t’ one more time.... and then another downhill to another up and another down and another stumble. The last few days have been really tough hikes for him....and his knees are shouting at him.
Finally we get there to a wonderful outcrop of rock with a view just over the crest but "Mrs Motormouth" who has plagued us all the way with her incessant, banal chatter at quite some volume, rounds the corner seconds after us and she and her companion scramble up the bluff and take the space and the view. AND SHE DOESN’T STOP TALKING. We eat our picnic.
On top of Charlie's Bunion, looking north across the park.
Another group arrives and also set up camp and eat theirs.... and we’re all rolling our eyes at this woman who just doesn’t stop talking. In the end I’m buzzed by wasps while I try to eat my apple so we pack up and leave. Pity because when we checked into Smokemont Campground later there was a fabulous photo of Charlie’s Bunion. If only!!!! I enjoyed the hike but it was a tough one on David’s knees. He needs a day of rest.
The Bear at the State Line at Newfound Gap...ready to hike.
The Bear - Today coming from Cades Cove to Newfound Gap was quite exhausting for Big Henry as well as me. And then he suffered yet another indignity from a "Bogan" onslaught of personal questions about him once we parked up....no matter how I tried I could not get away....in fact they were at one time queueing up to take photos and ask questions. That wouldn't have been so bad but as The Blonde was still in the back preparing our picnic I really had nowhere to hide!
View from the ridge down on to the Newfound Gap road, which winds and climbs through the Smokies.
We haven’t seen any of the 1600 Black Bears yet in the park but we’ve seen and smelt their trace. Surprisingly, apart from the wild turkeys and Juncos we haven’t seen a lot of birdlife either....maybe the wrong time of year? We’ve heard owls during the night and seen white-tailed deer and to The Blondes dismay a beautiful Copperhead snake as we came back from Jake’s Creek on Monday afternoon. AND, The Blonde for once didn’t freak! She did yell out, mainly as she thought I had not seen it. It made me jump though which was very funny for The Blonde...it had crept up on my blind side...sneaky snake.
We had come down from Newfound Gap further south now. We needed to do some domestics but the main point was to sample a small section of the Blue Ridge Parkway. This is an "All American Road" and was built to connect Shenandoah National Park to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This All-American Road noted for its scenic beauty is America's longest linear parkway running for 469 miles (755 km) through 29 Virginia and North Carolina counties with 26 tunnels, 168 bridges and 6 viaducts along the way. Built as two different projects and managed by two different National Park Service units the two roads join together end-to-end mostly along the Blue Ridge mountain chain which is part of the Appalachian Mountains. Its southern terminus is on the boundary between Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina, from which it travels north to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and the Skyline Drive, which we had previously driven.
Big Henry at the Big Witch
We were at mile 458 in North Carolina for sunrise. The road climbs up steeply and passes through several tunnels. The park Ranger had recommended to the Blonde we go to "Big Witch Lookout" for sunrise but when we eventually got there she felt it wasn’t good enough and as the road continued to climb....well it must be for a better view. Finding just the right spot in the dark is tough....I have to admit I kind of lost my cool, driving Big Henry on these switchbacks in the dark was not so much fun. The NP Scenic Tours book said the highest point on the road was over 6000’ but we started to descend steeply and as dawn was just starting to break we turned back to an unofficial pull off and started taking photos there. It actually turned out to be a good spot.
We could see the rippling of the Smokies in front of us and then the sun breaking the horizon. It was beautiful. A couple of young lad, locals, stopped and joined us...they pretty much looked like they were wearing what they had slept in and one of them wasn't quite awake yet it seemed. But they too were mesmerised by the view.
Another beautiful Smoky Mountains sunrise.
We were now in Smokemont Campground in the southern section of the park and were anticipating a gentle 6.1 mile hike this morning along the pretty river, under the shady trees, with some peace and quiet as the weekend was now over and the locals had all pulled out. Nah...not to be! Well, the Smokemont Loop Trail WAS like that for the first 30 minutes. Then the trail crossed the river and took off up the hill....and it didn't stop going UPHILL....in fact it was relentless as we climbed over 2000 feet onto the ridge.
Negotiating the stream crossing was no problemo...then we went UPHILL!
At least there were no boulders and tree roots to clamber over but it was quite a slog in the hot day. This is late September and we still have temperatures up in the 80’s. We’re both wet through. At the top, the trail immediately starts descending down, and down, and down. Who would design a trail like this? No view, no lookout. Just a slog to the top and back down again! Three and a half hours! I was, to say the least, a little miffed after the previous exertions and my knees were even less happy. But then all was redeemed......we saw a bear! A very big black bear. He was above us on a steep slope maybe only 50 feet away, which was just a touch uncomfortable as he could be down on us in a jiffy. We watched him for a while and marvelled and then let him know we were not his lunch and off he went. Our first Smokies Bear! The Blonde was quite disappointed because she had not brought her Big Girl's camera with her and we didn't get any worthwhile shots...but it was nice to observe. On the way back into camp we encountered loads of butterflies on the riverside flowers and did stop to get a few decent shots of them. But it was a very tired couple of hikers, hot, sweaty and very thirsty who stumbled back to Big Henry.
Our plans was to go to Clingman’s Dome for sunset and then back across the park to Elkmont for our camp. The afternoon brought rain which was great because we got to rest inside for a few hours and a lot of other tourists gave up and went home. So by the time we’d driven back through the park to the highest point the carpark was only half full. Excellent. We grabbed our tripods and cameras and made the steep climb up the paved pathway to the 45 feet tower which gives 360’ views of the rippling mountains. There were several Indian families (Asian) arriving as we started to climb up. Then more and more. All with young children and all making an enormous effort get to the top for sunset. The rain returned. We were getting wet and once we got to the top of the tower there were way too many of us to shelter under the little roof. And the Indian families just kept coming. It was like being back in Mauritius. Indian language being spoken interspersed with heavily accented English words. It was all so familiar and really quite funny!
Big Henry taking a breather after the long climb up to Clingman's Dome - highest point in the park.
A beautiful rainbow emerged - a complete arc. And then a second one. It was spectacular.
The Blonde Photographer - setting up for that special sunset shot.
We struggled to get photos, partly because there were now so many people trying to huddle up under the roof and partly because it was raining quite hard and we did not really want to get our cameras wet. Then all of a sudden the rain stopped just before sunset. Now we could move out of the shelter and away from the crying children, singing adults and shouting, yelling, laughing Indian friends and families!
By the time we had walked down the steep paved path back to the parking it was dark. The drive back northwards to Elkmont campground through the park in the dark took almost an hour and a half and was quite a challenging drive with 180’ switchbacks, loop-de-loops and oncoming traffic. Plus we had wildlife to consider in particular the deer. We finally pulled into our reserved campsite, jumped in the back, into the shower, scoffed a plate of cheese and biscuits and fell absolutely into bed. Big day!
Sun down at Clingman's Dome
Time to leave the Smokies. They have been really amazing, we are so glad we made the effort. We have both been yet again overwhelmed by the quality of the offer from the National Park Service at each of the three campgrounds we’ve been on. They have all been strategically well positioned close to rivers running alongside, with tall trees providing lots of shade. The campgrounds are without showers or power in the main, but are spacious, clean and there are big no generator sites...EXCELLENT...we have never got to grips with people who make the effort to travel to see such amazing countryside and then sit in their campers or trailers with a noisy generator.
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park offers a multitude of scenic roads to explore - nearly 384 miles worth, to be exact! Motorists had in fact played the biggest role in the push for a national park here. The newly formed auto clubs, mostly branches of the AAA, were interested in good roads through beautiful scenery on which they could drive their shiny new cars and today most visitors drive through the park in a day and never venture any further than a few hundred yards to the nearest lookout points. But....to really get a full appreciation of what this beautiful area has to offer you need to really get out of the car and get those boots on...we are so glad we did. The views of the smoky blue, rippling mountains on the drives throughout have been incredible. The elevation change and the ups and downs have been challenging on the hikes and indeed on some of the drives. We have just loved our time here...and would go back again in a heartbeat.
Go to the National Park Services website for great information on all this park has to offer: https://www.nps.gov/grsm/index.htm