Shaconage, or the land of the blue smoke as the Cherokee Indians called what we now call the Great Smoky Mountains. Straddling the state lines of Tennessee and North Carolina, this most-frequented National Park in these United States, is literally that. If you stand atop Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the Smokies, you can look out at miles of forests over old hills and the creeping civilization beyond. The mist rising from the valleys of the mountains has a distinctive blue tinge. The fall colors start from the top of these mountains and move to the lower heights as the season progresses like a time-lapsed Mexican wave of reds, yellows, orange, and greens. Somehow, we seem to have made a tradition of heading out to parts of the country with great fall colors every couple of years so this didn’t feel all that new. Still wonderful and glorious but not new.
We timed our long-overdue vacation for the fall season mostly for two reasons; one, obviously to take in the splendor of autumn that Texans are bereft of, and two, to avoid the madding crowds of the families with school-going children. In addition, we chose to time our visit on weekdays because with its proximity to several high-population centers, this park draws visitors in droves over the weekend even during the off-season. It turned out that was a prudent move because we learnt later that roads were packed the weekend we left. Even leaving earlier than usual in the mornings will help you escape the slightly-late risers. The car line waiting to get in at Cades Cove as we exited made us thank our stars for getting there early. We had learnt a lesson the previous day when we ran out of parking spaces near a popular hiking trail and had to park half a mile away.
The best way to take in the Smokies in a short time, is to drive through it. At a leisurely speed. You can go north-south on US-441 or otherwise called the Newfound Gap Drive or head west to Cades Cove on the Little River Road or east on a very short loop called the Roaring Fork Motor Trail. There are numerous trailheads along these roads that you can pull off and head into the forest. Either way, if you visit during autumn, the fall views are astounding wherever you look and after a while, you just have to stop trying to capture it all on your camera. The dappled light on the trails with various shades of green and red or the bright hills mottled with warm colors will not get old. To take it all in a longer time, well, you just have to stay for couple of weeks and hike a trail every day. There are trails as short as 0.5 miles and as long as 12 miles; not all are destination hikes, some are simply journeys unveiling a different version of fall and chances to come across bubbling creeks. You can sit on make-shift wooden log benches or stones cleared of moss and gape at the beauty around you or continue deeper into the forest to seek even more wonders.
Wildlife, I think, is smart to keep away from trafficked areas in the park and those that do venture, are often attracted by availability of easy food. Once a bear or an elk is spotted, hordes of people gather around with their smartphones pointed at the animal without any regard for safety. Thankfully park rangers are quick on the scene to prevent foolish people from getting too close. We encountered couple of black bears and elk but from a safe distance. The missus had been wary of running into them while on a trail but I’m sure such instances, given the crowds, are rare.
Talking about crowds, the park at this time of the year is full of retirees toting fancy camera equipment gear; patiently setting up their tripods and clicking long exposure shots of the streams. You’ll rarely encounter families with children and even if you do, most with toddlers trying to push up a stroller on a trail. We wish them luck mentally and thank our stars that our kid prefers to walk everywhere. We haven’t used a stroller in six months. By the end of the trip, according to our pedometer app, he would walk nearly 20 miles and climb an altitude of 1,500 feet over three days. Not bad for a budding hiker. As long as he doesn’t go ‘into the wild‘, it’s good practice for a lifetime of adventures across the wonderful vistas that this country affords. Back to the old folk; it’s admirable that most are well into their 70s and even 80s but are walking up and down the trails as much as we are. Some are with grandchildren but most are with people their own age, all thanks to Medicare, I guess, that allows them the luxury of spending time and money on things other than healthcare. Also, missing are people of color. We went three days without seeing a black or Hispanic family and encountered only two Asian or Indian families. National Parks unfortunately, are still domains of white folk.
Although there are only so many places you can go, every turn of the road presented a different vista and variedly so at different times of the day. It hadn’t rained a drop while we were there but the gushing streams along the Roaring Fork trail or the Lynn Camp Prong Falls road would make you think you’ve just missed a downpour. While we could easily spend more days hiking around, we had to get back to work and our lives in Austin. As we drove through the park one last time early Friday on our way toward Atlanta, we were presented with a glorious fall morning at the Newfound Gap and few minutes later at the Ocanaluftee Visitor Center on the south entrance that truly caped off a great vacation. Even a herd of elk came up to the road to bid us farewell. Or they were simply welcoming the weekend visitors.
Until next time. More photos for your perusal here.