Janet and I drove down to the Smoky Mountains in late June, which means that I’m about a month behind in posting this. We left my car at her parents’ house and departed the Chicago area on Wednesday night. She was driving and got us into Kentucky where we stopped for the night at about 2:30AM. The next morning we finished the drive to the park, getting there in the early afternoon.
We stayed in a nice little cabin off in the hills between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, somewhere around the #1 on the map below*. After finding the cabin and depositing our stuff, we went back to Pigeon forge for a few more food items, to get a bit familiar with the route and to stop by the visitor center. The cabin was about 5 miles, or 15 minutes out into the woods on some very narrow and winding roads. There were definitely hotels closer to the park on the South side of Gatlinburg, but we were aided by the fact that there is a bypass around the city (#2 on the map) that we could use to get straight into the park without getting sucked into the tourist trap that is Gatlinburg. We ended up not sure if we’d do a cabin or a hotel if we were ever to go again.
As a general note on the park, it is rather huge and the roads are all rather slow and winding as mountain roads tend to be. This means that doing something on the East end of the park and the West end of the park in the same day is nearly impossible. The guides recommended deciding on something of a theme and prioritizing that way. We chose to do mainly hikes, mostly to waterfalls, and we stayed in the roughly Northwest quadrant of the park. the Cataloochee area was supposed to be the best for wildlife viewing, but it was literally a two plus hour drive from where we were hiking most of the day, so going there for dawn or dusk was going to be difficult.
The first day in the park, we stopped by the visitor center again since we arrive just after closing the previous evening. We picked up a few maps and info packets and headed out toward the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (#3 on the map). We did two waterfall hikes off the trail. The first was to Rainbow Falls and the second to Grotto Falls. Rainbow falls was a 2.7 mile hike covering about 1500′ in elevation change. I think we got sidetracked a bit at the start and hiked along the river for a while before really heading up the trail. There is a smaller falls maybe 2/3 of the way up the trail which we stopped at for a while on the way down. From what we were hearing from other hikers, the falls was pretty low, and was only falling over the viewers’ right half of where it normally would have run. It’s possible it was not low, but just blocked by something that had move in the previous day’s rain. There were signs up at the falls not to climb on the rocks, which we obeyed, but which kept us from really getting close to the falls. I’m not sure if the signs were for purposes of preservation or liability, but they were clearly ignored by some.
Our second hike was to Grotto Falls – a 1.6 mile climb to the falls. Grotto Falls was cool because hikers such as ourselves are able walk behind and around the falls. Looking at the website for this hike after the fact (as in, just now), it also warns against climbing on the rocks, but there were no signs at the falls, so I didn’t have to feel like I was setting a bad example for the kids by scrambling down the rocks to take pictures. One family apparently decided they would hike down the river for a while – I’m not really sure where they disappeared to.
The last event of the day was a drive up to Clingmans Dome, the highest point East of the Mississippi (I think), but we were basically driving into clouds and the visibility was maybe 50 yards. On our way down we did stop to take some sunset pictures through the valley, though it was still pretty hazy there too.
* It all ended up working out quite nicely and the cabin was pretty nice, but I should include some words of warning here. I became rather paranoid about the cabin when we stopped about an hour out of town and I read some reviews of the cabins from this company that were pretty bad. The list of major concerns were things like the AC not working, the hot tub not working, the place being dirty and lack of dishes / cookware. This had the potential to become an issue because we could not see the place before renting it, at least not without a lot of hassle. Furthering the concern was the fact that the rental agreement was worded in such a way that, short of the place not existing, you would be hard pressed to cancel and get a refund even if one or more major things were wrong. Third, the company, Cabins USA, tacked on about 10% in “administrative fees” to the cost of the place, a practice which I find to be shady and discouraging even if it is legal. But, like I said, everything worked out alright for us, the cabin was clean, the AC worked, the hot tub worked, etc. The only issue would be the lack of cookware, not a big deal for two people who are OK with being a little flexible, but maybe a bigger issue for a family.