Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Gatlinburg, Tennessee//October 2019
I type this post while sitting in a wooden rocking chair on the balcony of my VRBO. I watch as storm clouds roll in over the red and yellow painted mountains. The car rental agent at the airport warned me that the Smokies were addictive – once you go you will find yourself coming back again and again. After this last day and a half I can’t say he’s wrong.
I flew in to Knoxville, TN yesterday morning and rented a car to make the hour drive out to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Gatlinburg is right at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains. I had hoped with this trip and this timing (late October) to see the fall foliage, and I was not disappointed in the slightest. There was good portion of this trip spent driving, all of it up and down winding mountain roads, through tunnels of fiery autumn leaves. I went straight to the Sugarlands Visitors Center and picked up a day hikes map. I took the short hikes to Cataract Falls and along the Fighting Creek nature trail. Both of these trails are very short (1 mile or less) and are right next to the visitor’s center. Since the day was sunny, I chose to drive up to Clingman’s Dome. Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in not only the state of Tennessee, but in all of the Appalachian Trail. At 6,643 feet high, this drive and destination provides a sweeping view of the Smoky’s for as far as the blue sky haze will let you see. I took the 0.5 mile paved incline up to the lookout tower. It was a short but strenuous hike up. It takes about an hour to drive back down to Gatlinburg, so I left right before sunset. The Newfoundland Gap overlook is a beautiful place to stop and catch a glimpse of the valley.
Back in Gatlinburg, I checked into my lodging, a studio apartment off of Ski View Drive. I had the most perfect little balcony overlooking the mountains, and the place was secluded from town but still only at 15 -minute drive to the park. In terms of grocery stores, the nearest is about 20 minutes away. I stocked up for the next day, ate, and got some sleep.
I awoke on my first full day to ominous looking skies and a soft pattering of rain. Nevertheless, I had only one day here so I was going to hike. A park ranger told me the Alum Caves Bluff trail would be his favorite one in the park, so I drove out to that one. By the time I reached the trailhead, the drizzle had turned in to a pour. I layered up my raincoat, tucked everything into plastic bags inside my backpack, and headed out. The trail is fairly flat with a slight uphill for the first mile or so. It runs along side the clear, babbling river. At about 1ish miles out, the trail gets steeper and rockier. This provides greater views of the surrounding area. 2.3 miles out is the Alum Cave Bluff, and my turnaround point. After a steep uphill climb, I was met by a towering beige rock that provided temporary relief from the relentless rain. There were a surprising amount of hikers out on the trail, considering the weather conditions. Many said they had reservations at a mountain lodge that can only be hiked to.
By the time I made it back down to the parking lot, my clothes were fully drenched and I was thoroughly frozen. I drove back to the vrbo to warm up, drink some coffee, and shower before heading back out into the rain. I had planned on hiking the Grotto Falls trail, but it was closed. I did see a baby bear napping way up in a tree.
I then attempted to drive back up to Clingman’s Dome to hike Andrew’s Bald, but the weather was much worse and visibility was very low at the top. Finally, I found a good spot to hike to: Laurel Falls. The Laurel Falls hike is a gently sloping, paved 2.6 mile roundtrip hike through the beautiful forest to the multi-level Laurel Falls. The fall leaves really popped on this hike,and due to the rain it was not overly crowded.
After being soaked to the bone again, I stopped by the Sugarlands visitors center again to change into dry clothes. I spent the rest of the evening on the porch of my rental condo.