A Weekend in the Smokies
On the way to Smokies
Seeing the Great Smoky Mountains was my old dream. I often browsed online resources, looking at images of the place and jotting itineraries of my visit. And then, I found an opportunity to bring these plans to life.
My schedule for the coming weekend was open. Not enough for any thorough exploration, but still enough for an exciting tour of the most famous places.
I left home on a Friday afternoon, and by late evening covered most of the distance. Exhausted, I stopped at a roadside motel for the night. In the morning, I was on the road again, approaching my first destination - the Cataloochee Valley.
The gravel road to this remote area is narrow, with some steep drop-offs and no guardrails. Fortunately, I came across just a few oncoming cars and enjoyed the ride all the way.
Road to Cataloochee
The name Cataloochee, derived from a Cherokee phrase meaning “wave upon wave of mountains”. Views from the valley overlook indeed make this impression.
As soon as I drove into the valley, I came across a minor traffic jam. The cause turned out to be a black bear picking berries from roadside bushes.
Black Bear, the First Encounter
I had my lunch by the Rough Creek, not far away from the Caldwell House.
A couple of hours later, I was driving through Gatlinburg toward the most popular areas of the Great Smoky Mountains. This place, packed with tourists and various attractions, was a surprising contrast to the peaceful Cataloochee.
After a brief stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, I turned to the Fighting Creek Gap Road toward the Cades Cove.
The road here is paved, with many pullouts and parking lots, giving opportunities to stretch legs and enjoy the peaceful scenery.
By the late afternoon, I arrived at the Cades Cove. It is a popular destination with historic structures, a visitor center, and walking trails.
Views here are great, but the traffic made my experience less enjoyable. The one-way, single-lane road through the valley was a subject of frequent traffic jams due to tourists stopping in the middle of the lane to take a better look at the wildlife. Forced to wait for other people to resume their tour, I was trying to capture the cause of the delay from my driver's seat.
Wildlife of the Valley
By the time I've got to the Cades Cove Visitor Center, a new plan was ready. To escape the traffic, my way out from the valley would be via a narrow and minimally maintained gravel road. But before getting on that trail, I made one more stop to stretch my legs and see some historic structures.
Henry Whitehead House
Parsons Branch Road turned out to be not only an exciting adventure but an opportunity to see another black bear that was leisurely walking in the same direction as me. Unaware of a human presence or not being disturbed by a car behind, the animal remained on the road. A couple of minutes later, the bear disappeared behind the corner, and by the time I've got there, the trail was empty.
Black Bear walking the Parsons Branch Road
I slowed down more, looking around and into the forest in an attempt to spot the bear. Suddenly I noticed a movement in the shadow of trees, stopped, and recognized my acquaintance.
Lurking in the Forest Shadow
The rest of the way was an uneventful but enjoyable experience. I made a couple of stops to listen to the forest and take a closer look at the Parsons Branch - a mountain stream flowing alongside the road.
Down the Parsons Branch Road
Not long before the sunset, I emerged from the forest and stopped by Cheoah Lake to enjoy a thick blanket of fog above the water. I'm not sure why it is called a lake. It looked like a river to me.
By dusk, I arrived at the Fontana Dam. I stopped at the picnic area, had my evening meal, and departed toward the Cherokee for the night.
The Smoky Mountains are called so for a reason. Nobody described it better than Horace Kephart: "The dreamy blue haze that ever hovers over the mountains softens all outlines, lends a mirage-like effect of the great distance to objects that are but a few miles off, while those farther removed grow more and more intangible until finally the skyline blends with the sky itself."
These are Smokies!
Big parking lot, magnificent views, and North Carolina - Tennessee State line make the Newfound Gap Parking Area a popular stop for many people. And this crosswalk - it is the Appalachian Trail!
North Carolina - Tennessee State Line
An elevated overlook nearby provides excellent views of the mountains to the North.
US 441 - Newfound Gap Road
The light was spectacular in the morning, and I'm sure it is no less magnificent in the evening.
View from Newfound Gap Road Parking Area to the North
My next stop was at Clingmans Dome. I arrived there soon after the sunrise, escaped crowds, and had the observation tower all to myself. Clouds covered mountains to the horizon, with only a few peaks visible here and there.
At the Clingmans Dome
Upon coming back from the highest point in the park back to the car, I realized that my adventure was almost over. The rest of the day would be spent on the road, back to my home. I left the park in Tennessee, drove through Gatlinburg, and found myself in another tourist hotspot: Pigeon Forge.
Driving through Pigeon Forge
A few miles down the road, the entertainment establishments became less frequent, billboards and advertisements more scarce, and with that, my weekend-long adventure ended.
The Journey Comes to the End