Over the Smokies
Nov 8, 2008
|Braving wind and cold for a glorious view - Saturday, November 8
We woke to find the campground had completely filled during the night. We are not driving far today so we took our time breaking camp, and included a one mile nature walk before leaving. The hike took us across a river on two log bridges and then up a steep trail to a good overlook of the river valley. The rhododendrons we encountered here are gigantic, with some leaves nearly a foot long.
We pulled out of the campground by 11:00 and headed up the road that winds through the park and over the mountains. The North Carolina/Tennessee state line runs right along the summit of the mountain range. There is a Visitor Center on each side of the mountains, and the trip over the mountains and across the park is a drive of less than forty miles.
For flatlanders not used to mountain driving it may be challenging, but as mountain crossings go it is really a pretty easy one. The summit at Newfound Gap is at 5,046 feet, but you are at an elevation of over 2,000 feet before you even start up the mountain. Being used to the Sierras where you start out at 800 feet we found ourselves nearing the summit before we knew it.
Driving from east to west, just before reaching the summit you come to the turn off to Clingmans Dome. At 6,643 feet Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains, and the third highest point east of the Mississippi. It stands about seven miles southwest of Newfound Gap, and we wanted a closer look at it so we turned off and took the drive up to the parking lot near the summit. When I say ‘near the summit’ I mean it is relatively near the summit. You still have a half mile hike up another 330 feet of elevation to reach the observation tower at the top.
We bundled up, grabbed our hiking sticks and headed for the tower. It is a good paved trail, and while it is steep in places there are benches where you can rest if it gets to be too much for you. We made it just fine, and we enjoyed the grand 360 degree view from the observation tower which is above the trees and is open to the very cold wind. From the top you can look down on Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, and quite a ways out onto the Tennessee plain. You can look north and see Mt. Mitchell (the highest point east of the Mississippi) and you have a great view of the Blue Ridge range and much of the surrounding Appalachian chain.
The Appalachian Trail passes very near the tower, so we took a short trail down to it and followed it for a tenth of a mile or so, just to see what it is like. It is well marked and easy to follow, but rough and rocky, and a sign warned that the next shelter north was closed due to ‘aggressive bear activity’ in the area. It takes a hardy soul to tackle the Appalachian Trail as a ‘through hiker’. You have to start as early as you can in the Spring, and hope you can finish before the snow falls in either Maine or Georgia, depending on which way you are going. Maybe in the next life - but I think it’s too late to try it in this lifetime.
Needless to say the hike down was a lot easier, and we were back down to Newfound Gap twenty minutes later. The parking lot at the summit is crowded but they have three spaces reserved for busses and RVs, and since we were the only vehicle to fit that description we found a nice parking space and proceeded to have lunch while enjoying the grand view from our windows. You gotta love some of these perks of RVing.
The drive down the west side of the mountains was easy too, as long as you keep it in second or third gear, and soon we were at the Sugarland Visitor Center on the Gatlinburg side in Tennessee. We stopped and watched a good movie on the Smokies, and visited their excellent museum, then we pulled out and plunged into the now heavy traffic into town. We are camping in Pigeon Forge, not far from Dollywood.
The town is touristy and crowded with people this holiday weekend (Veteran’s Day), but we found the KOA and got out of the mad rush. Tomorrow we will brave it again, but probably by shuttle and leave our baby safely in the campground. Dollywood beckons (sort of) and it kind of reminds us of last year when we were also in Tennessee enjoying the holiday decorations and shows at Opryland in Nashville.