The Great Smoky Mountains were all about lush green forests, cascading waterfalls, winding roads, mighty mountains, and low-lying clouds. Rolling greenery spread out as far as the eye can see, mystic spring flowers spread over acres, and streams incessantly flowing by the roadside. A road trip to the Great Smoky Mountains is an amusement to the senses – the colors, the views, and the landscapes are bound to leave the traveler in you swaying with joy.
It has been over a month since our last article on this blog, but it is not due to lack of travel. We have posts from other trips, but we wanted to get this one posted first because of the incredible scenery and abundant wildlife that we saw in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We highly recommend a visit, but also recommend it not be around a holiday, unless you do not mind a lot of people and cars. The best time to visit is in the spring before the large numbers of visitors begin arriving at the park. Evidently, fall season would be perfect to see the changing colors, but it may be one of the busiest times of the year.
Last weekend, Abhi and I were lucky to be there in Gatlinburg and visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We rented a hotel near the mountains, took hikes in the national park and tried new cuisines. A place of absolute wonder, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers vast 360 degree views of the misty mountains. It was paradise and the perfect little escape from Cincinnati that allowed us to recharge before gearing up for another week of work.
Because of the area’s immense beauty and easy access to outdoor adventure, it’s predictably a very popular place. In fact, the Smokies bring an estimated 10 million visitors each year and such seemingly inescapable crowds can be frustrating when trying to experience nature in its purest form. But even in the Smokies, there are ways to escape the chaos and find solitude. Prioritizing timeliness, researching alternative driving routes, and wandering the lesser-known trails, guarantees that you’ll still have an incredible time in the national park.
The Smokies got the name from the clouds that blanket the valleys and mountains. As you already know, hiking is our thing, and in the Smokies, we found heaven. We got plenty of time to soak in the scenery and take in gorgeous panoramic views from above the city, and ample relaxing hours too. Also, we found plenty of locations to find solitude and beautiful scenes to photograph, best one being the Cades Cove.
One of the most popular locations for the photographers and visitors is the Clingmans Dome. It is the tallest peak in the park, towering 6,643 feet. We went there very early in the morning, and walking through the clouds we were on the ‘hunt’ for the perfect location to capture a mountain sunrise. Unfortunately, at the Clingmans Dome, there were very limited views because of cloud cover, which of course is why the mountains are called the Smokies.
We got up at 4:15 a.m. to photograph the sunrise from the top of the dome. From where we were staying, it was about a 30 minute drive on winding mountain roads. Knowing that clouds could sweep in quickly and that the sun would be rising very soon, we quickly hiked half mile up the trail’s steady incline to the viewing platform at the top. It was windy and a cool 50 degrees, and by the time we got to the top, clouds were rapidly moving into the view of where the sun would rise. Even before the sun rose over the horizon, clouds filled up the sky. We managed to take only a couple shots before the mountain top and view was entirely engulfed in clouds.
NEWFOUND GAP ROAD
We stopped at the Newfound Gap, which is the lowest pass through the Great Smoky Mountains. The 31-mile Newfound Gap Road encompasses an array of forest ecosystems ranging from cove hardwood, pine-oak, and spruce fir. The weather usually takes a 10-degree drop as the area has an elevation of over 5000 ft. Easy to drive with fully paved road, the Newfound Gap Road provides distinct mile-markers to easily identify sites like the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Mountain Farm Museum, Smokemont Campground and Nature Trail, and Newfound Gap.
The best views were in the 6,000-acre valleys of Cade’s Cove, known for its picturesque landscapes. It features historic structures like restored churches, old mills, and pioneer log cabins. The best way to explore Cade’s Cove is to take a leisurely drive on the 11-mile paved one-way road that winds through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, offering scenic views of the mountain tops, wildflower meadows and rolling greens. With abundance of wildlife, from elks to white tail deer to black bears, there is a sure chance to spot one. The entire loop took almost an hour to drive through, with numerous opportunities to soak in the serenity.
More Creeks, More Waterfalls, and More Adventure followed.
While driving to the Dupont State Forest, we saw a sign that said ‘Welcome to the Land of Waterfalls’ and believe you me, they’re not kidding. Dupont is a gem for day hikers and mountain bikers, offering much reward for little effort. From Asheville, North Carolina, Dupont is about a 30 minutes drive. We parked at the Hooker Falls parking lot to hike of the 3 iconic waterfalls- Hooker Falls, Triple Falls, and High Falls.
We wanted to hike the Triple Falls for the interesting fact that it was a filming location for the first Hunger Games film. As the name suggests, it has three magnificent tiers and together, they drop about 120 feet. We found a smaller trail from where we headed down a ton of steps in small rock clearing between the middle and bottom waterfall. This was one of our favorite spots as there were two waterfalls above us and one below.
True to its name, the dramatic 125 ft high Rainbow Falls with an astounding rainbow was a sight to remember. Even though the overlook wasn’t very close to the falls, the mist from the falls drenched us and the viewing areas. Once we got to the lower viewing area, although the rocks were extremely slippery, we still got an admirable view of the waterfall. The hike was a moderate 3.0 mile round trip and it was one of the most beautiful waterfalls in North Carolina. The base was lined with huge rocks which allowed us to walk up to the falls. It was so impressive being able to stand by the base of such a massive and soaring waterfall. We had the entire place to ourselves and it is an experience that pictures can’t do justice for.
Sometimes the journey is as important as the destination and so we took our time to observe nature along the way. We hiked past hemlock and sycamore trees, rhododendrons, and a wide range of Appalachian plant life. Often it’s the little things, like these wildflowers, that really make the hikes interesting. Luckily for us, we saw the white and pink Laurel flowers in full bloom that added a splash of hue to the scenery. As we loomed closer to the Laurel Falls, we could hear the sound of gushing water. Soon we were in front of the sparkly whitewater of the falls. We picked our way carefully through the boulders below the falls to find a rock and sit on. The misty spray of the waterfalls felt calm and refreshing. After lingering here and resting a while, we retraced our way back to the trail-head. Before finishing the hike, we stopped near a stream crossing our path and let the cold mountain stream soak and revitalize our weary feet.
LAKE LURE FLOWERING BRIDGE
We stopped at the Lake Lure to walk the bridge, get mesmerized by the views, and breathe deeply. The Lake lure Flowering Bridge is more than just a way to go over the water below. On this bridge, a zigzag path winds through raised garden beds. Plants ascend out of these beds against the scenic beauty of the Chimney Rock backdrop. The Lake Lure Flowering Bridge, once a bustling way, is home today to a diverse variety of blooms and bushes. This is the kind of place where fairies live. The story of this spectacular bridge is that it served as a highway until 2011 when a new bridge was opened to traffic. The Historic Bridge was turned over to the Town of Lake Lure to allow for the creation of this unique community garden bridge. Rather than demolishing it, folks in Lake Lure got creative and re-purposed it as a walk-able garden.
PICNIC AREA WITH A STREAM
The most memorable hour of this trip was our lunch date with the stream flowing close by. Although there were plenty of people around, like always, we found our secluded well-shaded spot. It was Abhi’s idea and he scored a pretty sweet spot with strategically placed logs which served as table and chairs. What’s more, there was complete tranquility with mild breeze blowing and birds singing sweet songs. We simply soaked our feet in the stream, sat back, and enjoyed our cute, romantic lunch.
That’s it – an idyllic weekend trip to Tennessee and North Carolina. This road trip offered a plethora of panoramas, sights, and historical experiences – which left us rejuvenated! We loved our time in the Great Smoky Mountains and can’t wait to go back!
Photos by Abhi & Suchi