“Sometimes the snow would blow in on the bed through the cracks, but it was good for us. It kept us healthy and ready to get out and make snowmen and skate on the creek when it was frozen over with ice or track rabbits in the snow.” – Lona Mae Parton Tyson, “Reflections of the Pinnacle”
We briefly visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 2013 on our way to Asheville. Following a scenic drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, we stopped in at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, toured the Mountain Farm Museum that serves to preserve the history of the Appalachian way of life, and took a brief ride along Gap Road.
Knowing that this was just a taste of Great Smoky Mountains we returned for a longer visit two years later. Spending the night in Cherokee, North Carolina, we arrived the following morning at the same visitor center where we found a Ranger to help us plan our visit. In early March, the park was still in the grips of winter. Most of the upper trails were covered in ice, requiring crampons and other gear beyond our current preparation. The roads to Clingmans Dome and Roaring Fork were still closed for the season, but the winter wonderland that blanketed the landscape more than made up for some of the inaccessibility.
We drove to Mingus Mill that was one of the larger mills in the area in its heyday. We toured the grounds and noted how the water (some of it still currently in ice form) was diverted from the stream into a millrace. The absolute power of the water heading toward the mill is amazing and it’s easy to understand how they were able to grind the corn with ease.
We drove part of the 33-mile-long Newfound Gap Road up to Newfound Gap where a valley forms between two peaks (5046 feet) and the temperature drops between 10 and 15 degrees compared to temperatures at the visitor center. Typically Newfound Gap Road is temporarily closed 15-20 times each winter.
When we arrived it was just above freezing and visibility was less than 100 feet. Brrrr! Quickly we jumped out of the truck to snap a picture at the North Carolina/Tennessee State Line, and of the Appalachian Trail, and just as quickly we leaped back into the warmth of the vehicle!
Fortunate to find patches of clear skies here and there, we were able to glimpse the snow covered mountains if only briefly.
As we headed down to Sugarlands Visitor Center on the west side we were pleased to find the snow cover disappearing thereby increasing our hiking prospects. We enjoyed the exhibits and took in the movie before embarking on a short 2.6-mile hike to Laurel Falls. One of the most popular waterfalls in the park, water tumbles over a 70-foot ledge.
Even the geese were impressed.
We then decided to take a drive through Cades Cove along an 11-mile one-way loop road where Appalachian living once thrived. What was farmland we found empty fields. The park service has preserved and restored houses, churches and pioneer homesteads to give the visitor a taste of what was a thriving community back in the day. We spent a few hours taking it all in before heading into Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to spend the night.
On day two we hiked 5.4 miles to Rainbow Falls. The gradual uphill hike weaves back and forth by a stream and provides plenty of opportunities for pictures along the trail.
This was a good hike that had us shedding layers of clothing along the way to the 80-foot falls.
Ramsey Cascades Trail is an 8-mile strenuous hike to the tallest waterfall in the park at 100-feet.
Having to ford the river in several spots was both challenging and exciting. Parts of the trail were icy and slick and we may or may not have busted our asses on a slick rock almost losing our iPad, iPhones and us to the icy waters. Fortunately, readily available snow lessened a bruised elbow and cooled the egos. Lo and behold there is a sign at the falls warning visitors of deaths. One of the best hikes ever!
In a national park, sometimes you surprise an animal on the trail. And, sometimes an animal surprises you. This one, in diapers, left us speechless.
Visited March, 2015
Next up: Washington DC Highlights