Trip to Land between the Lakes and Great Smoky Mountains

The western United States, with the Rockies, gives shelter to the great National Parks of the North American continent. However, the east has to its credit the most visited National Park in the whole country according to National Geographic. Among the mists that give the name to this Park extends the Blue Ridge, inside which is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Great Smoky Mountains is more colloquially called the Smokies. It was in my guide on the east and south coast of the USA that I bought when I was moving to New York. It is located between Tennessee and North Carolina. It has almost ten million annual visitors, double the Grand Canyon, and a multitude of mythical trails. Above all, there is a portion of the mythical Appalachian trail through former Cherokee territory.

It stretches for 3,500 kilometers to the state of Maine. The mountain range begins in Canada and crosses the United States from north to south. The greatest value of the Park, nevertheless, rests fundamentally on its flora and fauna. A single piece of information may suffice. The Great Smoky Mountains possesses more diversity of tree species than all of Europe together. The Park represents a perfect repertoire of North American biodiversity.

The bad thing is that it is nine hours by car from Ann Arbor. The good thing is that I was looking forward to getting lost in its mountains. Due to the distance of travel, I needed not only a long weekend but also people wanting to hook up and accompany me on the adventure. We take advantage of the weekend of 4 July. As you can calculate, leaving at noon meant arriving almost at dawn in the mountains.

Day 1 - Ann Arbor

We take a flight from New York to Michigan. There are two airports close to the mountains like Knoxville in Tennessee and Asheville in North Carolina but going to Ann Arbor was on my bucket list. So I did not want to miss it either. We then start our drive to Gatlinburg, at the entrance of the Smokies.

On our way, we change plans and enter Kentucky. We want to visit the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, a protected area located between two lakes and that also goes into the state of Tennessee. We access by the north entrance of visitors and we go to ask for information about the area and the possible hiking trails. The rain that has accompanied us almost the entire journey seems to be disappearing.

We headed to the Woodlands Nature Watch Area where we took a two-hour tour around a section of Lake Barkley. We enter a closed forest where we see a couple of hinds not far away. Slowly, the landscape becomes more swampy and the dirt road becomes a wooden platform that sometimes rises completely above the water.

Before our circular route turns to return us to the beginning, we appear in a wonderful lake covered with water lilies. There are so many that it looks like a meadow rather than a lake. The lotuses are in bloom, what a wonderful show! As the rain has finally ceased altogether, we take advantage to take our sandwiches out of the backpack and rest for a while.

We continue touring the area with the car. We enter an area that is bounded and listed as a kind of reserve of bison and elks. Despite two full laps with the car very slowly, we did not see anything but a few deer. As we saw many bison in freedom in Yellowstone this is not any setback to us.

Before the end of the day, we make another excursion. The park is full of hiking trails, many of them suitable for biking. There are also camping sites and picnic areas. At 7:45 pm we arrived at our hotel in Murray. It is starting to thunder and the sky has turned completely black.

Day 2 - Gatlinburg

We heard all night the rain hitting with ferocity and thunder that looked like explosions. But we could not imagine the intensity till we got up and find the floor below flooded. Luckily we were on the second floor. We always ask for the low because these roadside motels do not usually have an elevator and you have to carry your bags up the stairs.

After breakfast, we headed towards Gatlinburg, a town on the border with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On the way, we cross Pigeon Forge and we are caught in a traffic jam that makes us lose almost an hour to go 20 km. As we were hungry we ended up in a restaurant where they served Margaritas and huge plates. We ordered nachos to share and quesadillas for each one and we were not able to finish a dish.

This city of Tennessee seems made by and for holiday tourism. Large illuminated signs announce all kinds of shows. On one side and another there are hotels, restaurants and party halls with spectacular designs. There is a one that recreates the Titanic.

Arriving in Gatlinburg we find that the show is similar, although on a much smaller scale. With souvenir shops, restaurants and hotels, hundreds of people pass through its small streets. We find it a little shocking to be the point of entry to a place of peace and nature, but we began to understand why this is the most visited national park in the United States.

The first thing we did when we reached the mountains was to get lost. We had a few regular moments trying to climb the car up a dirt slope. We put the correct address on the iPhone GPS and an hour later we arrived at one of the great points of the trip. My friend had searched the internet to find a cabin in the upper part of Gatlinburg.

I have to say that the cabin cost as much as the whole trip, but I would pay for it again with my eyes closed. There are two floors of the house, each with a separate bathroom and above a nice rustic living and dining room with open kitchen and gas oven. There are two bedrooms, living room, fireplace, wi-fi, and speakers on the outside to play music.

After leaving the suitcases, we head towards our first destination, the Clingmans Dome observation tower, 37 km away. This tower is located at 2025 m at the highest point of the Smokies. From the parking lot, one has to walk 800 meters. It is quite steep but completely paved, accessible with trolleys and wheelchairs. We could not climb because of the cold.

We lost almost 15 degrees between the entrance of the park and its highest point. We were surprised by the view of the blue mountains and yes it was smoking. The first thing that is clear to us when entering the park is why it is called the great smoky mountains. The clouds emerge from the walls of the mountain as if it were the smoke of a large forest fire.

Fortunately, it is only the fog. The fog does not allow us to enjoy the wonderful views that must be from this observatory but that is a show in itself. The sensations are similar to those of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. From there we went to the opposite point of the park, the visitor center of Oconaluftee to visit its collection of historic buildings.

We got a hiking map in the visitor center and got tips for hikes and jogging. Before coming, a friend from New York described the place like this. It is exactly as its name describes it. It is steaming. To end the night, we decided to make a barbecue. We prepare some appetizers and put the chicken and the wild trout fish in the fire. At the time the barbecue lasted we had two moments to remember.

The first, we heard a noise among the trees, as if an animal were approaching. Knowing that there could be bears we were scared. We started talking loudly and use the mobile phone as a flashlight to defend and scare it. Luckily nothing finally appeared because it can see the defense. Maybe a bear with a desire for fish appeared.

The second is even better. Suddenly we hear the cry of a woman in the middle of the night. For seconds, certain horror movies come to mind in which there is always a bad guy with his face covered with different masks and at least a mechanical saw. For the second time, we look at each other. What do we do? After a few seconds, I heard another scream and then again, and another, and then a loud moan.

As you can imagine certain movies came to mind but no longer the terror. After a wonderful night with a beer in the jacuzzi, we have our own moans.

Great Smoky Mountains

Day 3 - Cades Cove

We wake up wanting to enjoy Cades Cove. It is a wide green valley surrounded by mountains that we go by one of those picturesque roads. Our first plan is to head to Roaring Fork motor nature trail and there make a walking tour to the Rainbow Waterfall. We get up early to avoid meeting a lot of people and our desire is met. On the way up we are alone.

The road to the Rainbow Falls is very steep and rugged, it is necessary to wear good shoes. It's raining, but the thicket of the forest protects us. It took approximately two hours to travel the 4.4 km that take us to the finish. During the middle of the road, we are already accompanied by the river that allows us to enjoy smaller waterfalls and whitewater.

On our way, we have met again with deer and numerous squirrels. After long and deservedly enjoying this waterfall, we undertake the return. Finally, we arrived at a visitor center. Our next destination was Mount Le Conte, a summit just over 2000 m. On the Alum Cave Trail, we walked 8 km to the high top on a picturesque path, which guaranteed us a view of the expansive smokies.

At the end of our hike, we went with the car to the Cades Cove loop. We go on an 18 km one-way road that runs between a huge meadow and a wooded area. The circuit is completely jammed so we decided to take a walk through the forest and start it later. It starts to rain and it soon gets dark. We are already coming back and I keep my usual attentive attitude.

It was very difficult but there it is, tucked into the leafy forest but not too far away. The joy lasts little. A car stops in front of us and instead of standing still admiring the encounter, a man and a woman run out with their cameras in the direction of the bear. They scare the bear, who quietly embarks on his way into the forest.

The darkness and the distance did not allow us to take a good photo but the satisfaction of having seen that beautiful animal is not taken away from us.

Day 4 - 4th of July

The day starts with a pouring rain. It is a bad forecast for our plans as we want to enjoy the typical fireworks of Independence Day. Fortunately, as the day progresses, the sky clears. After traveling 529 km, we arrived at Lake Park, a small town in Georgia where, according to my plan, there must be a party.

But where we expected to see tents with typical foods, cake contests, and country dances, there are only a couple of vans selling ice cream and fair stuff for the kids and a small stage in which a group plays rock music observed by a dozen neighbors.

What most attracts my attention during the walk are the trees with that half-sinister aspect. It is a lichen that grows on the trees but it is not a parasitic plant. Feeds on the rain and nutrients that it absorbs from the air itself. It is evident that people are going to celebrate the party by the lake watching the fireworks.

We went to the nearest supermarket, bought something to eat and drink, a cherry pie and a picnic blanket and we returned in time to enjoy the show. Fireworks last more than an hour until the darkness envelops us completely. And they look beautifully reflected in the lake. Finally, we have had a great 4th of July.

In the next post, I will talk about the days we spent in Florida.

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