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Trip 3, Days 4-5: Great Smoky Mountains

Updated: Oct 23, 2021

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the country's most visited national park with over 12 million visits per year and, unfortunately, it feels like it. While the scenery was at times spectacular, the extremely crowded roads and parking areas somewhat overshadowed an otherwise enjoyable visit. Because the most popular hiking trails were packed, we sought out trails that were less well-known and barely mentioned in the guide books. This gave us several beautiful, peaceful and memorable hikes.

For our first day in the Smoky Mountains, we headed first to Clingman's Dome, the highest peak in the national park. Unfortunately, that morning was foggy, rainy, and very windy, but we decided to make the hike to the viewing platform nonetheless. The half-mile path to the observation tower was very steep, but well worthwhile, even though we did not have any view of the mountains because of the fog. This was also where it paid to be prepared with layered clothing and rain gear! It was still one of our must-do activities! We also had fog at Newfound Gap, another must-do stop in the Smokies, so we again did not have any sweeping views of the mountains. On the way to Newfound Gap from Clingman's Dome, we stopped for a fun, short hike on the Spruce-Fir Nature Trail. While the ground was muddy, the trail had boards laid throughout, which made for easier passage. After seeing the Rockefeller Memorial at Newfound Gap, we stopped at the Chimney Tops picnic area and hiked the Cove Hardwoods Nature Trail, an easy loop trail almost a mile long. This was a lovely hike, as the forest was very lush, even through areas that had been burned in the 2016 fire in the Smokies. As we continued driving toward Gatlinburg, we also hiked the Sugarlands Valley Nature Trail, a quick half-mile loop trail through an area where remnants of chimneys show where homesteads formerly stood.

After making our way through stand-still traffic in Gatlinburg, we drove the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a one-way 5 1/2 mile road through the forest. This is also where trailheads are for several popular hikes (Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls), but parking areas (including along the road) were jam-packed and the trails appeared very crowded with hikers, so we bypassed those trails. We managed to find a parking space at one of the observation overlooks and took a short hike on a trail through an area that was in the early stages of recovery from the devastating 2016 fire, with new growth and young pine trees. There were nice views of the surrounding mountains from the top of the hill. We also stopped briefly at the Place of a Thousand Drips, a beautiful lacework of small waterfalls that you can see from the road. Driving on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail was very slow, especially as other cars would stop unexpectedly in the middle of the road to take pictures.

Given the traffic in Gatlinburg, once we completed the road tour, we made our way to our hotel and parked, opting to walk the rest of the day. The Gatlinburg Brewing Company had good beers, tasty pizzas, and great service; we tried the delicious Bear-ista Coffee Porter and Trishnicious IPA. We also took the Ober Gatlinburg gondola to the top of the mountain overlooking the was a great way to see the mountains.

On the second day of our stay in the Great Smoky Mountains, we woke early to drive to Cades Cove, an 11-mile one way loop in another area of the park. (We had hoped to avoid the traffic we had experienced with the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.) Cades Cove is a broad, verdant valley surrounded by mountains and is one of the most popular attractions in the park. Unfortunately, in the early morning, we experienced heavy fog, which obstructed distant views of the valley and of the surrounding mountains. We did see some bucks up close and some other deer in the distance, but not much else in terms of wildlife. Despite our early arrival, the going was still slow around the loop, as cars would stop often in the middle of the road to take photos or would just drive very, very slowly. Patience is definitely required in the park. Heading back to Gatlinburg from Cades Cove, we had hoped to hike Laurel Falls, but once again, there was no parking to be had in the area, so we went to a less traveled area near the Great Smoky Mountain Institute at Tremont. At the end of the gravel road, we hiked the Middle Prong Trail, which follows an old logging road along the Little River. We were rewarded with an uncrowded trail andbeautiful scenery, with waterfalls all along the Little River. This is a hike we would highly recommend!

After lunch at the Smoky Mountain Brewery (pizza with IPA for Mike and a refreshing peach cream ale for me), we hiked the Gatlinburg Trail to the Sugarlands Visitor Center and back. This trail is easily accessible from town (and is therefore fairly heavily trafficked) and provides a very scenic hike along the Little Pigeon River. Well worth the time and a great way to escape the crowds in Gatlinburg!

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