Monday, October 24, 2016

A night in Cataloochee Valley

Cataloochee Valley from the overlook

There are two ways into Cataloochee Valley. The first and most direct route involves about 11 miles of winding mountain roads, 3 of which are gravel. A second, more scenic route is to take highway Route 32 (the Old Cataloochee Turnpike) from Cosby, TN, a good 14 miles of gravel road. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is about 520,000 acres, but the mileage to reach this eastern vestige of the Park that is daunting: 65 miles from Gatlinburg and 39 from Cherokee. However, I had booked the last available campsite at the primitive campground for that evening, and so it was all in as we turned off Interstate 40 near the TN/NC border and headed into the mountains.

We opened the sunroof to let the filtered autumn light in, rolled the windows down to breathe in the cool mountain air, and crossed our fingers that the noise coming from the rear driver’s side wouldn’t get any worse. The ‘turnpike’ is a marvel in road-building, what was originally a livestock trade route was completed in 1860 just in time for the Union Army to move into North Carolina from Tennessee during the Civil War. The road immediately turned into gravel, and as we wound our way up into the mountains from Jonathon Valley we passed a few homes and driveways. Later, nothing but endless forest - other than the two (probably) locals in their pickups who barreled down that one-lane road without guardrails with only a curious glance at the out of state sedan just moseying on along. Then down we went, twisting and turning on our descent into the valley, finally coming to a large bridge over Cataloochee Creek and the hydrologic bench-mark streamflow station operated by the US Geological Survey. Boards rattling as we pulled across, we were in the home stretch; a few more miles and we crossed back over the creek to enter the meadows.

Cataloochee Valley is nestled among 6000-foot peaks, an isolated area that used to have one of the largest and most prosperous settlements in what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Cherokee hunted and fished in the valley, naming the area “Gadalutsi” (meaning standing up in a row), but white settlers pushed into the valley in the early 1800s. In 1910 there were 1,200 residents, and although they were amazed when rumors surfaced that the government would buy the land to form the Park, by 1938 all but a few families had moved on. The history of these former residents of the Valley can be explored in the preserved school, churches, barn, and several homes in the valley.

Viewing wildlife in the Smokies can be challenging because of the dense forest cover, which is why areas like Cades Cove attract so many visitors; the open meadows provide some of the best opportunities to see deer, elk, bear and turkey. As many animals are most active at night, often it is during the early morning and late evening when they can be seen – and we weren’t disappointed as we made our entrance in the waning light.

In the spring of 2001 the National Park Service released 25 elk in the Park. Originally roaming over much of the eastern United States, elk were eliminated from the region by over-hunting and loss of habitat. Another two dozen elk were released in 2002, and today an estimated 150 to 200 animals residing in GSMNP. The majority live in Cataloochee Valley, although in recent years a satellite herd has appeared on Balsam Mountain and a group of about 20 elk have taken up residence near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.

By camping in the Valley we were able to enjoy prime wildlife-viewing time without having to drive the narrow mountain roads at dark or attempt to make the trip in the early morning hours. The campground was ideal for car camping, with 27 sites open mid-March through October for tents or RVs up to 31 feet (group camping is also available by advance reservation). We set up our tents, cooked up some chili for dinner, and topped it off with hot chocolate and s’mores before crawling into our sleeping bags and settling in for the night.

The next morning we proceeded down the Cataloochee Entrance Rd to the main meadows. White-tailed deer and wild turkey were grazing in the distance, and while we were speaking to a pair of volunteers (that had a portable wildlife lab in their vehicle!), an elk bugled off in the distance.

The morning was spent exploring the historical structures and enjoying the colorful show of foliage. Five historic buildings are located along the road in the valley, and other buildings can be reached from the 6-mile Little Cataloochee Trail. Make sure to pick up the Self-guiding Auto Tour booklet at one of the visitors centers; it provides brief histories of each structure as well as a map and interesting background information on the area.

It wasn’t long until the valley started filling up with visitors who had made the trip that morning from Maggie Valley or Cherokee. We decided to let them have a turn, and packed up for our trip out of the valley… this time a mere 10 miles on the ‘short’ route to the interstate!

One final stop; the overlook near the intersection with Big Creek Rd. is worth the stop (the first picture in this post is taken from the lookout). A little path leads to a higher point that allows for an unimpeded view of the valley and mountain peaks surrounding it, and if you’ve lucked out to be there on a beautiful fall day – well, it’s enough to make you wish you had a week’s reservation at the campground instead of a day!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Mingo Falls and Cherokee, NC

To the south of Great Smoky Mountains National Park are the town of Cherokee and the Cherokee Indian Reservation (Qualla Boundary). The home of the eastern band of the Cherokee Indians*, the sovereign nation is also the southern gateway to the Smokies, which is how we came to be in Cherokee; we had taken Newfound Gap Rd. from Cherokee up to Clingmans Dome, north to Sevierville & the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, around to Cataloochee Valley and then back to Cherokee to close the loop, with a day on the Blue Ridge Parkway still planned on our trip.

In addition to the natural beauty of the Smokies all around, Cherokee is also known as a casino town with its Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort. However, there’s so much more to this seemingly kitschy mountain town… If you would like to learn about the history and culture of the Cherokee people you have a multitude of options. Visitors can explore the Oconaluftee Indian Village, a recreated village from 1760, visit the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual to see authentic Cherokee arts and crafts as they’re created (bead working, pottery, stone carving, wood carving, basketry, finger weaving and more), or check out the Museum of the Cherokee Indian to learn about the fascinating heritage, history and culture of the Cherokees. Some of the most popular things to do in Cherokee include attending the Mountainside Theatre production “Unto These Hills” telling the story of the Cherokees, fish the Oconaluftee River, or revel in the scenic beauty of the region.

We chose to hike in to see one of the tallest and most spectacular waterfalls in the southern Appalachians, Mingo Falls. The hike to the falls is short, but steep; the ¼ mile trail is mostly stairs up to the base of the falls. Despite the easy access and beauty of the falls, there was less traffic headed to this waterfall on a busy autumn weekend than at the other Smokies waterfalls we had visited, including Grotto Falls.

The small parking lot had speedy turnover, and soon enough we were climbing up the stairs along Mingo Creek. Mingo Falls is called Big Bear Falls in the Cherokee language, and it cascades 200 feet nearly down granite boulders on its descent to Raven Fork and the Oconaluftee River. At the top of the stairway a short path leads to a viewing bridge at the very base of the falls.

Even with very dry weather in the past months, the falls were still a sight to behold. As the boys splashed in the creek, we took a moment to just enjoy: the sounds of all that water rushing by, the colorful foliage reflected in the pools below, the smell of autumn with a hint of wood smoke in the air.

If you’re staying on the Cherokee end of GSMNP you should definitely find time to visit Mingo Falls. Our next stop was the Oconaluftee Visitor Center only 5 miles away, but the beautiful waterfall remained with us on the remainder of our journey.

*The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has over 14,500 tribal members who have lived in this region for generations. The Cherokee people continue their traditional lifestyle of fishing, hunting and gathering wild foods from the mountains as well as enjoying modern careers. The tribe operates the Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority, tribal services for visitors & residents, and Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel. For more information, please visit

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Behind Grotto Falls

After the mountain vistas and high peaks of the previous day, I wanted to show the boys a different side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park; one of moist hardwood coves, abundant animal life, towering trees and fragrant forests that in my mind embody this National Park. The timing of our visit coincided with prime leaf-peeping in the region, and despite the draw of the unique historical and biological value of nearby Cades Cove, I knew that it would be bumper-to-bumper traffic, overflowing pull-offs and very little, if any wildlife sightings – which is why I turned my attention to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

Similar to Cades Cove only in that it’s a loop, the one-way Roaring Fork passes through rhododendron thickets and dense hardwood forests as it follows the old roadbed of the Roaring Fork community. To reach it, visitors must drive through Gatlinburg and then a short distance on Cherokee Orchard Rd, through what once was an 800-acre commercial orchard in the early 1900s. It was here that we saw our first bear; traffic had slowed to near stop despite the ranger waving everyone on. Not long after we spotted a wild turkey, of which we would see a lot of on this trip! After 3.6 miles we made the right turn onto Roaring Fork, where a tour booklet can be purchased from the kiosk for a small fee.

Built by hand, the road is narrow and serpentine, winding through the forest connecting the homesteads of about 25 families that lived in the area. Many had running water thanks to a series of troughs which can still be seen today, such as at the Alfred Regan Cabin. Proximity to the river and various tributaries also means fantastic natural geographic features; there are three major waterfalls within easy hiking distance of the Motor Trail. Rainbow Falls is a strenuous 5.4 miles to an 80-foot waterfall that is very popular due to the heavy mist that surrounds it, the Baskins Falls trail (3.2 miles) leads to a 30-foot waterfall, and a 2.6 mile hike will bring you to Grotto Falls.

We chose Grotto Falls as our destination, partly for the shorter distance, and partly due to it being rated moderate (it has an elevation gain of 585ft as opposed to 1,700ft on Rainbow Falls and 950ft for Baskins). Then there's the trees; although the old-growth hemlock forest is suffering the effects of the balsam woody adelgid, there are still enormous hemlocks to be seen. However the clincher was the grotto; the trail actually passes behind the 25ft waterfall!

The trail is packed hard with years of use, not only by people headed to the waterfall, Brushy Mountain and LeConte Lodge, but also by llamas! As the resupply route for the lodge, it is the trail that the llama train uses to carry supplies up the mountain. The llamas leave very early in the morning, and so our chances of catching them on the way up were slim to none. But in order to get a parking spot we headed out sooner than later, and so they hadn’t started their return trip yet (it’s my understanding that they usually return sometime in the afternoon). We had to settle for llama poop and checking out the llama trailer…

This is far from a secret hike, and is actually one of the most popular hikes on this side of the park; therefore it was not surprising that we arrived to a crowd at the waterfall. As the kids were still fresh we decided to keep climbing, hoping to reach the intersection of Trillium Gap and Brushy Mountain trail (3+ miles from the trailhead), where I’ve heard the views are pretty fantastic. However after about another mile we got our fill of views and elevation gain, and instead headed back down to linger at the falls.

Although there was still a crowd, it wasn’t quite as obnoxious as when we were on our way up. We let the boys play in Roaring Fork, and were rewarded with several salamander sightings including what might have been a hellbender judging by its size. 

A salamander (but not the hellbender), a millipede and a brown squirrel

Not only a haven for amphibians, the perpetual mist makes it ideal habitat for wildflowers such as white and yellow trillium in the spring, hence the name Trillium Gap.

source: here

Know before you go: The roundtrip distance to the waterfall is 2.6 miles and the hike is generally considered moderate in difficulty. It takes about 2-3 hours to hike to the waterfall and back so carry drinking water with you. Pets and bicycles are prohibited on the trail, and black bears are regularly seen in the area. Do not climb on rocks around the waterfall; people have fallen to their deaths and suffered serious injuries! Not only are you risking life & limb and causing erosion of sensitive habitat on your way to the top, but you are ruining other people’s photos for that selfie – and there’s nothing to be seen at the top! Finally, make sure to stop at the roadside Thousand Drips Falls near the exit of the Motor Trail; after a rain it’s a great cascade plummeting down the mountain, but even in drier weather it is still a sight to behold.

Once back at the car we continued on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and found a quieter spot to enjoy a picnic lunch. The boys spent an hour splashing in the cool mountain water before we packed up the car and headed east into the mountains, where more adventures awaited.

A boy finds his first salamander

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Autumn on Newfound Gap Road

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is bisected by Newfound Gap Road, a 33-mile drive that extends from Cherokee, NC to Gatlinburg, TN. Driving this stretch of US 441 is a fantastic way to see the highlights of this 520,000 acre National Park: awe-inspiring views from Clingmans Dome (the highest point in the state of TN), tranquil cove hardwood forests, remnants of pioneer settlements, tucked away campgrounds and trails, and seasonal shows of wildflowers and fall foliage.

Our recent trip to GSMNP included a drive on Newfound Gap Road, unforgettable vistas awaiting us around every turn during what is peak fall-foliage season in the Smoky Mountains. We started our journey at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, where visitors can pick up a basic map to the park as well as purchase additional resources to tailor the trip to their interests. The fields adjacent to the Visitor Center also provided our first sighting of elk, the wapiti having been reintroduced to the Park in 2001.

The road is named as such because in the 1850s it was discovered that it's not Indian Gap that is the lowest point through the mountains, but the "Newfound" gap. For the NC portion of the trip the highway runs parallel to the Oconaluftee River, which flows into Tuckasegee River near Bryson City and eventually the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. Not far from the Visitor Center we passed the Smokemont Campground where Bradley Fork joins the Oconaluftee. Once a lumber company town with a school, church, store and boarding houses, it now consists of 142 campsites. As we continued our climb alongside the river, we came to Deep Creek Valley Overlook, with a long view of the mountains rolling away as far as the eye can see.

View from the Clingmans Dome parking area

Halfway to Gatlinburg is the Oconaluftee River Valley Overlook, another spectacular view of the Smokies that highlights the cut the river makes on its journey down from the mountains. Soon after we took the 7-mile spur road to Clingmans Dome for an invigorating hike up to the highest point in the Park that features some of the grandest 360˚ views in the Park. For more on that please see my previous post, On the summit of Clingmans Dome. From the intersection of this spur road it’s just a little further to Newfound Gap, the highest elevation on Newfound Gap Road at 5,048 feet.

The overlook is dominated by the Rockefeller Memorial, a stone terrace that commemorates the efforts of those whose vision and resources helped establish the Park. The memorial is named for Laura Spelman Rockefeller, the mother of John D. Rockefeller Jr., who donated $5 million of the $12 million needed to purchase most of the Park’s acreage. President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated Great Smoky Mountains National Park on September 2, 1940 from the terrace, which had been completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) the previous September. The memorial also features a newer plaque acknowledging the designation of GSMNP as a World Heritage Site (1983).

Newfound Gap is also the only place within GSMNP that the Appalachian Trail crosses a paved road in the approximately 70 miles that it traverses the Park. The AT mostly follows the State Line Ridge through the Park, which serves as the boundary between the states of Tennessee and North Carolina. Those driving the Gap Road can get a taste of the trail without the elevation gain of the Clingmans Dome Trail hike by taking a short walk from the Gap, an especially enticing option this time of year when sun is shining through a kaleidoscope of colors as the hardwoods turn. From the trailhead it is 7.5 miles to Clingmans Dome, 15.6 miles to Mount LeConte (via the Boulevard Trail) and 1,972 miles to the terminus of the AT in Katahdin, Maine.

Once back on the road, there are a multitude of opportunities to park for scenic views and hikes. As you start descending in elevation you are now following the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. Ultimately the Little Pigeon River also finds its way to the Tennessee River and into the Gulf of Mexico, but it is named for the passenger pigeons that once filled the skies right here over the Smoky Mountains. Well into your descent to Gatlinburg, the river runs through the Chimney Tops picnic area which is home to one of the few remaining stands of mature cove hardwoods in the US. This is remarkable if you consider that this area (along with many of the higher regions of the Smoky Mountains) was once owned by paper and lumber companies.  Stop for a picnic, or for the trailhead to the Chimney Tops; the strenuous 4 mile hike leads to an outstanding view from the twin knobs that rise from a ridge like chimneys. On this stretch of Gap Road you’ll also pass through two tunnels built by the CCC in the 1930s, one of which curves around and back over itself.

The Campbell Overlook offers a wonderful view of Mt. LeConte (6,593 feet), the third highest peak in the Smokies. I found it astonishing that within the Park, where elevations range from 875 feet at the mouth of Abrams Creek to 6,643 feet at Clingmans Dome, sixteen mountain peaks exceed 6,000 feet in elevation! Mt. LeConte is the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi in that it rises more than a mile from the foot of the mountain to the summit. Once you’ve soaked up the views it’s only 3 more miles on your descent down to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. In the Sugarlands Valley there are a multitude of walkways for optimal leaf-peeping, the sugar maples from which the valley takes its name an explosion of reds, oranges and yellows.

The Sugarlands Visitor Center is the most visited due to its proximity to Gatlinburg. Featuring the usual Visitor Center maps, exhibits and gift shop, there are also rangers on hand to answer any questions, and the 3.8 mile Gatlinburg Trail which allows pets and bicycles – a rarity in the park. The Park boundary includes the stretch of Trail, River and the Road all the way until Pigeon Forge, but the proximity to Gatlinburg and civilization signaled the end of our excursion on the Newfound Gap Road. We headed to Sevierville for a good night’s rest to prepare for our adventures the next day…

Friday, October 14, 2016

On the summit of Clingmans Dome

It’s the highest peak in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) at 6,643 feet. It’s also the highest point in the state of Tennessee. OK, it’s only the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi, but to make up for this shortcoming, it is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail. And it was the first stop on our recent trip to GSMNP.

Great Smoky Mountains is America’s most visited National Park; the park receives over 9 million visits per year! Much of this traffic is situated along the northern edge of the park near Gatlinburg TN, and along the Newfound Gap Rd. (US- 441) that bisects the park from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, including the 7-mile spur road that follows the TN/NC border to Clingmans Dome.

The high point is named for Thomas Lanier Clingman, one of several explorers who studied and measured North Carolina’s peaks. Known as the “Prince of Politicians,” Clingman represented North Carolina in the United States House of Representatives (1843-1845 and 1847-1858) and the U.S. Senate (1858-1861). During the Civil War he refused to resign his Senate seat and was one of ten senators expelled from the Senate in absentia, after which he served as a general in the Confederate States Army. After the Civil War, Clingman explored and measured mountains in western North Carolina and Tennessee, and as half of the mountain is in the state of NC, the dome was named in his honor.

From the parking area it’s a short, steep, ½ mile hike to the summit observation tower, but the 360˚ view is worth the effort; we lucked out with a clear day and could see as far as Mount Mitchell outside of Asheville, NC, some 73 miles away.

Just before reaching the summit the paved Clingmans Dome Trail intersects with the Appalachian Trail, which follows it for a few hundred feet before veering off again to continue on to Newfound Gap, 7.5 miles east. The section that heads west to Cades Cove is a 24.4-mile rollercoaster over 7 gaps, 4 knobs and 3 mountains. Part of this stretch of the AT coincides with the Mountains-To-Sea Trail, which stretches 1,000 miles all the way to Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks.

At the summit, a concrete tower winds its way up above the treeline to offer outstanding views of the surrounding mountains. The structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and replaced a wooden tower that visitors had to climb to be able enjoy the view before the present concrete tower was erected (1960). Visibility from the summit and tower can be severely impacted by the haze; records show that during the last half of the 20th century the average distance it is possible to see decreased by about 40% in the winter and 80% in the summer.

It isn’t only the air quality that has suffered in the past 50 years. The Southern Appalachian spruce-fir forest that covers Clingmans Dome only occurs at the highest elevations in the southeastern US. It is more similar to forests at northern latitudes than to the forests in the adjacent valleys, and has been especially hard hit in recent decades by a small wingless insect native to Europe.  In the pictures you can easily see thousands of white skeletons in the forest; these are the victims of the balsam woolly adelgid, the culprit in the large die-off of Fraser fir. Balsam woolly adelgids have destroyed about 95% of the Fraser firs in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We enjoyed the views and took dozens of photos before heading back down. Vilis wasn’t too impressed with it all, he fell asleep and missed the entire ride back to the visitor center (which is located just next to the parking area). Lauris and Mikus accompanied me in to stamp our National Parks passports, and we picked up a couple of Jr. Ranger booklets for them to work on over the coming days before heading back to the car.

I had hoped to arrive at Clingmans a little earlier in the day as this would have given us the opportunity to hike to Adams Bald, the highest grassy bald in GSMNP; the 3.5-mile trail departs from the Clingmans Dome parking area and would have given us the opportunity to get off the paved roads. However, a chill was settling in and we would have been cutting it close with daylight, and so Adams Bald was left for another day. As we wound our way back out on Clingmans Dome Rd. the boys quickly grew absorbed in their books as we descended in elevation, leaving Clingmans Dome with another state highest point checked off of our list…

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