We live about 12 hours from the nation’s most visited national park, which is Great Smoky Mountains. More than 11 million people visit it every year. We finally made time to go down there this year in early August for a long weekend and a very special occasion.
We were a bit concerned as we were planning the trip because the weather forecast said there was going to be two straight weeks of scattered thunderstorms. However, this seems to be pretty normal for the summer there and we were optimistic that we would have a great trip that wasn’t disturbed by the weather too much. We were used to pretty frequent afternoon thunderstorms that would move through the region quickly when we were at both the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone. As it turned out, there was a torrential rain that moved through the area for the two days (and which we had to drive through some of to get there) but it was done by midday Friday and set up a beautiful weekend of great weather and wonderful waterfalls.
We started the drive down after work on Thursday night. Our initial plan was to stop somewhere around Front Royal at the Gateway to Shenandoah National Park. We made it a few hours south of there though before we turned in for the night at a hotel. It was a short five hour or so drive on Friday morning before we got off the highway to make the trip past Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg to the entrance to GSMNP.
We were fascinated by the many tourist attractions along the road and took pictures of a handful of them on the way down. But we were eager to get into the park and the only place that we stopped was Cabelas to pick up a fishing license. We did spend more time than we intended there, though. Somehow, I always do.
We took the bypass around Gatlinburg and stopped at an overlook to enjoy a fantastic view of the Great Smoky Mountains as well as the city. The rivers flowing along the roads were going fast and furious downhill from the rain over the past forty eight hours.
Our first stop was at the Visitor Center to pick up some brochures and other reading material about the park. It was a little busy but we found parking, got our National Park booklet stamp and picked up enough reading material to occupy us for the entire weekend.
We thought about going to check in at the campground, but decided to head south to Clingmans Dome and check out the view instead. After all, the weather seemed good and we weren’t sure how many beautiful days we were going to get over the weekend. It was only a few minutes from the visitor center when we saw our first bear on the right side of the road. This one seemed so small compared to the ones that we had seen before in Yellowstone and Shenandoah. We thought it must be a baby or one-year old, although we learned later that female black bears in the park usually average around 100 pounds.
We continued south after the brief bear jam to Newfound Gap. Newfound Gap is the lowest drivable pass in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is located at the Tennessee and North Carolina border. It is a historic spot and a popular place for photos. President Franklin Roosevelt formally dedicated the park in 1940 at the Rockefeller Memorial there in 1940.
From Newfound Gap, we headed up the road to Clingman’s Dome and started to see some of the area’s rain at elevation. Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the national park and the highest point in Tennessee as well. As we got to the parking lot, we decided that we would head up the half mile trail to the observation tower despite the modest mist in the hope that some portion of the view from the top would be clear. We had to rest multiple times on the way up despite the cool temperatures as there was very little reprieve during the climb up the trail. When we got to the top, there were a few moments where a small portion of the view was available. Otherwise, it was all clouds during our quick photo taking session from the top. We laughed about how the view wasn’t worth the effort of the climb, and headed our way back down eager to check in at our campsite and unpack.
We had a reservation for the weekend at a campsite in Elkmont Campground. It took us a while to get down the mountain and over to Elkmont. We made it with about half an hour left before the rangers left, but they had closed for the day an hour early (half an hour before we got there) so we bought some wood and went to our campsite and set up our tent.
Since it was our first night in the Smoky Mountains, we decided to check out Gatlinburg and find dinner there. This was perhaps a little optimistic on a Friday night in August in a tourist town with a lot of pedestrians, but we plunged enthusiastically right into the traffic. We quickly ascertained that parking might be a challenge too, so we found a lot on the south end of town. We ended up putting in our name at Calhoun’s and grabbing a drink at the Smoky Mountain Brewery. The BBQ at Calhoun’s was worth it and we decided to use the last few hours of daylight to check out the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
There are a few trails off the driving tour but we didn’t have time to do them on Friday. Instead, we explored a few of the buildings along the way and enjoyed the views before it got dark. We did manage to see another small black bear along the side of the road along the trail before we headed back to Elkmont Campground and turned in for the night.
We weren’t sure whether we were going to get up to see the sunrise when we went to bed, but we did set an early alarm. We rolled out of bed shortly after it went off and headed out for the sunrise, but we only made it a few miles down the road before the sun was coming up. We did manage to enjoy it from a scenic turnoff between Elkmont and the Sugarlands Visitor Center. We mulled our plan for the day over while grabbing a coffee in Gatlinburg (which was pretty dead on Saturday morning compared to the busy Friday night we had just experienced).
We decided to head east and see if we could find the elk herd at Cataloochee. We had heard that it was once of the best places in the park to try and see them. We definitely took the scenic road and got off the beaten path to get there.
Cataloochee is a valley in North Carolina between the mountains which was once home to an Appalachian community. It is pretty far off the beaten path and took a while to get there, but we had a lot of fun touring some of the old buildings there and seeing the slower life of early American history.
We didn’t find any elk in Cataloochee Valley, so we decided to head west through Maggie Valley and get on the Blue Ridge Parkway to return to the park through one of the southern entrances. We knew that the Parkway is considered one of the most beautiful drives in the country, but we were still stopping at nearly every one of the scenic overlooks.
Before we reentered the park, we backtracked for a bit to get to Mingo Falls. Mingo Falls drops nearly 200 feet down granite boulders and is one of the tallest in the Southern Appalachians. With only a short .4 mile hike to reach it from the parking areas, it was well worth stopping.
After our detour to Mingo Falls, we reentered the park and found the Elk herd in the valley by the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. There was quite a crowd taking photos, so we stopped for a few minutes before continuing on our way. We used the restrooms at the visitor center and continued north to take in more of the scenic views of the Great Smoky Mountains.
We hadn’t yet been on a hike through the Smokies, so we decided to return to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail to do the hike to Grotto Falls. Grotto Falls is a 2.6 mile roundtrip hike to a 25 foot waterfall that is the only in the park that you can walk behind. If you continue on the trail, you can reach either Brushy Mountain or Mt. LeConte. We decided to turn around at Grotto Falls, after I got down on one knee and asked Jayne to marry me. She said yes!
We were exhausted from the day, so after we finished calling our parents to give them the news, we headed back to the campsite to cook up some dinner and turn in for the evening.
We knew we had a long drive ahead of us on Sunday, so we slept in a bit and cooked a massive breakfast to enjoy. After packing up the campground and saying goodbye to our home for the weekend, we did a little fishing in a scenic spot of the Little River. We didn’t catch anything, but we got some wonderful memories.
We headed west from the Campground to Cades Cove to finish off our tour of the park. We only had a few hours before we needed to get on the road, but we didn’t want to leave this area unexplored. Cades Cove contains a popular ten mile driving tour with scenic views, historic buildings and wildlife viewing. We stopped at a few of the historic buildings to explore before we encountered our first black bear in a tree. We ended up seeing more than a half dozen black bears on the loop, which caused some severe bear jams. But we eventually made it around to the Cable Mill Visitors Center where we enjoyed the historic buildings, used the restrooms and prepared our lunch.
It was past noon and we had a 12 hour drive ahead of us, so we finished the loop tour as fast as possible, made our way back past the campground and headed northwest towards Townsend and Pigeon Forge.
We spent most of the drive home (when we had cell service) calling our family and friends to tell them the good news. It was an action packed trip that left us with some great memories of America’s most visited national park.