Great Smoky Mountains National Park

We decided to head south and visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On the way, we stopped in Lexington, Kentucky at a few craft bourbon distilleries. We visited Louisville a few years ago and stopped at most of the major distilleries on the Bourbon Trail. The craft distilleries provide a less plush experience in general, but most of what they have for tasting and purchase isn’t widely available. We went to Hartfield & Co, Bluegrass Distillers, and Barrel House Distilling Company. We skipped the tours and did a tasting at each. Barrel House has a bar attached (Elkhorn Tavern) with tasty cocktails.

We visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park from the south side. The park straddles the boundary of Tennessee and North Carolina in the Blue Ridge Mountains. At the north side is Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and we heard that it is really crowded there. Instead we stayed in Cherokee, North Carolina. It is on land owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee. It was resettled by the Cherokee that avoided forced relocation to Oklahoma in the Trail of Tears in 1838. 

Many of the touristy shops and attractions in town are pretty over the hill and run down, (the tourism hayday was in the 1950s), but there are a couple of stores selling handmade Cherokee art and crafts, (Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual), a Cherokee History Museum, and an outdoor drama production (in the summer). It’s much quieter there than the more modern touristy Tennessee side of the park.

We stayed at River Valley Campground, and got a spot right on the Raven Fork of the Oconaluftee River. It had the nicest view of any spot we’ve stayed in at a campground!

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the perfect place for anyone that likes fall colors and waterfalls. The colors may have been past peak in some parts, but different areas and elevations change colors at different times, so plenty of the park was still really beautiful. I was continually surprised at how beautiful it was, and I think it’s due to the diversity of trees and plants in the park. There are 100 species of tree in the park, and 25% of the forest is old growth forest. So there were many different shades of color everywhere we looked.

This is the most visited National Park in the country, with over 10 million visitors annually. We were surprised to learn that park entry is free, which was a condition Tennessee imposed when turning the main road over to the Federal Government. At the time is was the only road through the mountains in the area. Now there are other roads to travel, and the lack of entry fee seems outdated. The roads in the park often follow the rivers, and passes many waterfalls and cascades. 

The first hike we did was two and a half miles on the south side of the park. The Three Waterfalls Loop goes passed Juney Whank Falls, Indian Creek Falls, and Tom Branch Falls.

The next hike we took was even prettier. On the way to the trailhead we saw a couple black bears run off. We hiked about two and a half mile on the rocky, rooty Grotto Falls Trail to the falls and back. The waterfall was especially cool because we could walk behind it. We got there pretty late so we had it to ourselves. 

Cades Cove (in the northwest region of the park) was populated by farming families from the 1820s to the 1930s. There were around 700 people at the peak in 1900. This is one of the most popular areas of the park, and I thought that was just due to the historical buildings (three churches, six cabins, a mill, and barn), but the place the farmers chose to settle is picturesque, in a pasture with mountains on all sides. 

After driving around the loop in Cades Cove we took the one-way dirt road out of the park, and the trees were so brightly colored! We saw some wild turkeys and a snake that must’ve been 5 feet long. Fortunately, I only saw the snake on our truck’s backup camera or I would’ve flipped out!

One day it rained all day, and the next day was so cold it snowed a little! We spent time in the trailer and Brian cooked a chicken and squash lasagna. The next day we tried to go into the park, but Newfound Gap Road  (the main road through the park) was closed due to ice. If Michigan closed roads due to ice, we wouldn’t leave our houses for months, but the mountain roads are windy with no guard rails. A different day (before the ice), the road was closed due to an accident and we saw two helicopters fly in. So, better safe than sorry. Since we had such a pretty campsite we didn’t mind being grounded, and had a few campfires and Brian cooked a pork loin with the sous-vide and finished it on the fire. 

Our fondness for the campground faded at the end of our visit. We knew someone would be coming into our campsite the day we were checking out, so we were careful to be out of it by check-out time. Continuing the pattern of our current indecision, we still hadn’t decided where to go next! So, we parked near about a dozen unoccupied sites (the campground was closing for the season in two days), to use the campground WiFi since we didn’t get cell service on this side of Cherokee. A little while later, the campground office employee came around in a “security” truck and asked what we were doing. We were told “if the owner sees you, you’ll have to leave”. A little while later (when I was on the phone with a campground making a reservation), she told us to leave. I understand it was past check-out time, but what were we hurting? Did she think we would use up their internet? We had just paid to stay there for 8 nights, and we couldn’t get an extra hour, out of the way? A lot of the campgrounds we’ve stayed in have seemed obsessed with their rules. Most places provide a long list, our favorite one has been “No random driving”. I’m a rules follower in general, but even I have limits! Fortunately I made the campground reservation as she was kicking us out, and we moved on.

Day 400| Mile 43,537


3 thoughts on “Great Smoky Mountains National Park

  1. These photos are fantastic! We completely missed fall this year as we’ve been heading south as it’s gotten cooler, so thank you for this fall fix. The colors are awesome, as are the waterfalls. As for the campground, yeah, what the hell? It seems like we run into one extreme or the other. Either zero enforcement of any rules, or overzealous craziness. A little balance would be nice….. Also, unrelated, please invite us over for dinner. KThanksBye!

    Liked by 1 person

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