Day 2 of our 2020 Great Smoky Mountains Vacation

On our first day in the Smokies we took the scenic, but very busy drive up the Newfound Gap Road. That left us a little exhausted, so we thought we’d start the next day by taking a hike around the neighborhood by our cabin. We spotted a few wild turkeys (there are lots in Tennessee!) Fortunately, we did not have a run-in with the neighborhood bear which we spotted from our car later in the day.

Wild turkeys!
Beautiful reflection
Thankfully, we were in our car when we saw this big bear!

Day 2 also included driving, this time on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It’s a lot shorter than the Newfound Gap Road, only 5.5 miles, but it does take time, as it’s one way and narrow. I have to admit I wasn’t sure what the heck a “motor nature trail” would be, but after a few minutes I really did feel like I was on a trail rather than a road. It was absolutely gorgeous!

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Two popular trailheads along this road include Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls. Rainbow Falls is 5.4 miles round trip and has about 1500 feet elevation gain. By this time it was late morning and was starting to feel warm (it did get up to 80 that day). I normally would not have any issue with that length hike but I hadn’t brought shorts on this trip and from what I read this trail is now a bit more exposed since it does go through some of the burn scar from the 2016 fire. So we opted for the much easier Grotto Falls. It’s only 3 miles roundtrip. With both of these trailheads the parking lots are quite small so roadside parking is the norm. So expect another .25 mile to half a mile walk to get back to the trailhead, especially at Grotto Falls.

The Grotto Falls trail was quite easy for us (we’ve got high elevation Colorado lungs). It was fairly busy, too. But we did find a quiet rock and ate our lunch there, before proceeding back.

Grotto Falls

Before we exited off the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, we made a quick stop at Ely’s Mill. The site of a former mill, it now has a few cabins and a wedding venue, as well as a gift shop. Since restrooms there are supposed to be for customers only, we gladly did a little shopping. Lots of cute hand-made items. We picked up a few wonderful smelling locally made soaps.

Photo credit Ely’s Mill FB Page

We spent the rest of the afternoon in Gatlinburg, primarily shopping and then enjoying a beer at Gatlinburg Brewing Company. There are no shortage of shops to pick up souvenirs, as well as places to nosh on yummy smelling food. It took a lot of will power to walk past them but my husband did succumb to some whisky sampling at Ole Smoky Whisky. His favorite was a Mint Chocolate Chip Whisky! Who knew? I enjoyed Byrd’s Cookie Company and came away with more cookies than I needed.

Gatlinburg has a ton of activities – two aerial trams, Ripley’s Museum and aquarium, arcades, mountain coaster ride, a Space Needle – the list goes on. None of these really appeal to us and in this time of COVID, we wanted to be cautious and stay away from crowds. But from what we saw, there were lots of families there, even midweek during the fall.

Despite the busyness, we did enjoy the nice warm fall weather and walking around town. For the most part, people were good about wearing masks indoors and maintaining some degree of social distancing. Now it was time to retreat back to our peaceful cabin and get ready for our final day at the park.

Our first “real” vacation of 2020 – Great Smoky Mountains

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!!)

Flying to Knoxville

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.

traveling toward the Smokies
Our cabin in the woods
Nestled in the woods. Lots of wonderful birds. And a hot tub on the deck, too!

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.

Day One:

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.

Clingmans Dome
Appalachian Trail

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.

Oconoluftee River, North Carolina

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!