This is the follow-up article to the long weekend near Asheville, in North Carolina, last Summer for the 4th of July. I can’t say if this vacation was motivated first to see Asheville or to spend time in a national park, but the result is the same: we spend a few days in the South-East of the US, to discover a city (Asheville) and a national park (the Great Smoky Mountains) we’ve never been before. This park is supposed to be the most visited park in the US, before the Grand Canyon, according to National Geographic, 11 millions of visitors in 2016. This is the kind of numbers that makes me want to run, but I’m also intrigued: what is there to see? It’s written on the title of this post: the answer is GREEN. It’s a green world made out of woods and hills, rivers and valleys.
There is no spectacular view in this park, the rich ecosystem is the main natural attraction and it is kind of a miracle – I mean, it’s science and can be explained, but still, it’s incredible. I’ve heard the following information in the short movie at the visitor center – there’s a movie like this in all the parks we visited, a sort of promo video of what you can find in the park in the best scenario possible. In 20 minutes you encounter all the animals there’s on the park during the 4 seasons. It’s always glorious. So, what did I learn? The Smoky Mountains are great because of the climate there, both temperate and humid. During the last glacial era, all the stuff that was brought by the glaciers were captured here, and when the glaciers melted, everything stayed. Another lucky strike for the Smoky Mountains is that the land has been protected from commercial use since 1926: it’s the only primitive forrest on the East Coast. If you’ve been to New England, the Smoky Mountains reminded me of the White Mountains, but they are so much wilder. It’s so wild that it’s one of the few places on Earth with that much diversity, in terms of plants, birds and mammals.
But what about the name of the park? The Cherokees have nicknamed these Mountains the blue mountains, blue like the smoke. Sometimes around a switchback, you can see mountains up to the horizon, covered in trees, and there’s a haze, a blue haze, which shape them in shades of blue. Clouds get stuck in the middle.
Friday night: first night in the park
We arrived near 5pm, after driving from Asheville where we stopped for lunch to eat BBQ. The Oconaluftee visitor center was still opened, which was a good surprise: we were able to ask many questions to a ranger, we explained that we wanted to walk, he recommended a few hikes, some scenic drives, and told us it would be raining all weekend. That’s why the day before leaving, when we were still in Boston, we decided not to camp and to book a few hotels around the park: it’s too bad not to camp and not to be in nature, but we thought it would be easier to manage.
South Entrance of the Park
After the visitor center, we climbed up to one of the highest point in the park: Clingmans Dome, but the view was obstructed by clouds. We tried again twice during the weekend, and it was always the same deal: clouds, clouds, clouds. We drove to our hotel located in Gatlinburg, a small town right on the edge of the park. I didn’t enjoy this town which look like a rustic and small Las Vegas: tons of light and noise near nature, that’s not what I expected, but we didn’t have much choice. We packed our car with some food, at the supermarket, the cashier asked us what we plan to do for the weekend “Nobody does that here ! No one hikes”
Family pictures in our hotel
Gatlinburg Main street
Saturday, first hike
We woke up early to see the Laurel Falls, 24 m high, after a nice and gentle 2 km hike.
Wait! it’s slippery
At the visitor center: 14 bears in a day! (we saw 0)
First scenic road: Cades Cove
It’s the biggest attraction of the park: the scenic drive of Cades Cove. On that day, it was closed for bikes until 10am, that must be awesome for bikers to have this road just for themselves! We started driving right after 10am, and it was packed: it was an uninterrupted line of cars, driving extra slowly to try to see some animals and to enjoy the scenery: forests, valleys and hills. It’s pretty, a little bit monotonous. The country is gorgeous anyway!
Contemplation for the driver
Kids sitting a the back of a pick-up truck
In the hearth of the valley, there’s an old historical village. Cherokees used to hunt in the valley, and the first Europeans built a few houses, a mill, bridges… It was a holiday weekend so they were a few reenactments: the mill guy (I don’t know how to say that!) preparing the flour, an iron man (is it the right word too?). Anyway, it was fun to visit the village like it could have been in the past, instead of just like a ghost village in the middle of the park.
Cataloochee, on the South East part of the park
Our second hotel was on the South East part of the park, and we spent the whole Saturday afternoon road tripping up to the opposite part of Cades Cove. Manu loved this drive, probably because it was raining a lot, the roads were narrow, it was foggy sometimes, the atmosphere was a little bit gloomy… or romantic, depending on the POV.
Sunday, a scenic view!
Here they are: the Smoky Moutains!
Appalachan Trail: the section up to Charlie’s Bunion
Sunday afternoon: back to the road
Monday, the view, finally? Nope.
There’s still nothing to see on top of Clingmans Dome
Back to Asheville through the Blue Ridge Road
- Hotels: for the first night, we stayed at the Gatlinburg Inn*; the 2 other nights we stayed at the Best Western Smoky Mountains.
- In 2017, the park was free!
- Hikes: Laurel Falls ; Charlies Bunion
- Chimney Tops was close because of a fire in 2016. Check out the updates on the park
- The best season to go isn’t summertime, like we did. Fall is way better! Less rain, more views!
- Read also: 2 days 1/2 in Asheville