Yes, we did a number of road trips this year, but nothing on a plane. We had cancelled our trip to Spain (we were going in October) and our trip to Arizona back in March also had to be axed. However, with some United credits to burn, we decided to go to Great Smoky Mountain National Park (GSMNP) last in early October.
Our flight from Denver to Knoxville was nearly full. I think a few seats in First Class were open. We were on an Embraer 175 – a smaller jet that seats 96 people and has 2-2 seating. Instead of boarding groups, they boarded back to front and deplaned front to back. More efficient if you ask me. Masks were required, of course, but we were packed in. The return flight home was the same. I’ve been home 5 days and so far I appear to be healthy. I actually double masked – 2 surgical masks. On the way there no one talked, but on the return I was a little bit worried. I had one chatty Cathy behind me, but fortunately she quieted down after takeoff. (People, in closed spaces like this, even with a mask, keep idle conversation to a minimum!!)
After picking up our rental car we took a scenic route to get to our wonderful AirBNB cabin in the woods between Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. We were surprised how hilly it was! And green! I was in heaven. I grew up in the very green Pacific Northwest and have lived in rather treeless cities for the last 28 years. So I felt totally in my realm. The weather was also perfect. It was in the mid 70s, cool at night (mid 40s), no rain, and no bugs! Hurricane Delta did bring rain to the area after we left but fortunately did not affect us.
Know before you go . . . TRAFFIC!!
All national parks have traffic. I’ve been to pretty much all the national parks except one (Glacier) in the western US. But I would have to give the award for the worst traffic to the Smokies. It starts before you get there, in Pigeon Forge and even worse in Gatlinburg. Both these towns are tourist attractions in themselves, which only adds to the problem. In addition, GSMNP has the most tourists of any national park in the US (12.5 million in 2019). One good thing about the park is that it doesn’t have an entrance fee (thank goodness! The line to get in would horrible). But I also wonder if the Pandemic coupled with the beautiful weather we had made it even worse.
So be prepared. It took us an hour the first day just to get Subway in Gatlinburg (traffic on the main drag, finding parking, and waiting in line). So that night we stopped off at the grocery store in Pigeon Forge and stocked up on lunch stuff. There are bypasses through downtown, so utilize Google maps and it will shave off some time.
Out plan today was pretty simple: travel up US 441 (Newfound Gap Road) to Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap, and continue down into Cherokee, North Carolina so I could get a geocache in that state. The total mileage through the park is only about 35 miles, but this is a super scenic highway so take your time. There are several trailheads, but unless you get there early, expect to park alongside the road a quarter to half a mile back.
In our case, we drove through the Newfound Gap parking lot where everyone wants to get a picture by the North Carolina/Tennessee state line and found it to be packed. So we proceeded up to Clingmans Dome. The last mile traffic slowed to a crawl. We finally saw a roadside spot on the opposite side of the road and with some quick maneuvers grabbed it. It was only about half a mile up to the main parking lot and then a short hike up to the Dome. We then hopped onto the far less crowded Appalachian Trail which follows the ridgeline here, and took a leisurely quiet detour. We found a quiet spot with magnificent views and ate our lunch before making our way back to the car.
We continued on to North Carolina. Cherokee is a small town and far different from the craziness of Gatlinburg. Its biggest attraction is the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. We didn’t spend any time there as it was getting late in the day (and I heard a bottle of wine calling my name back at the cabin). When we passed the Newfound Gap on the return around 4 pm, the parking lot had tons of space and we were able to get our picture of the stateline and see the Rockefeller Memorial where President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1940.
I’ll continue my story about the rest of our stay in my next post. Stay tuned! I’ll tell you about wild turkeys and black bears!