Recently, Hubby and I took a trip to Great Smoky Mountain national Park and explored part of the Blue Ridge Parkway on our way there and back during the peak leaf color changing season of fall. We were looking for somewhere to escape and explore, safely, amidst the Coronavirus outbreak. Vacationing is still an option; you just need to keep the CDC guidelines in mind.
The drive there/ The Blue Ridge Parkway:
We started our journey on the Blue Ridge Parkway at the West Jefferson access point and started driving south towards the park. This drive is not to be underestimated! Even on a cloudy and foggy day the views were breathtaking. The yellow, orange and red leaves during this time of year brought tourists by the car full to the scenic drive, yet it still felt secluded and the vast and frequent view points gave us room to enjoy the views at a safe distance. The best part? besides gas money and some food, we didn't spend a dime on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The drive is super accessible to all, even on the smallest budget. We saw some people with mattresses in the back of their SUV's who were making a real trip out of it... maybe next time, lol.
The scenic overlooks are conveniently placed along the drive to include waterfall hikes, overnight camping, small towns like Blowing Rock and Little Switzerland and day hikes that range in difficulty and elevation. The most unexpected spot on our drive south was Glassmine Falls Overlook. This scenic overlook is located on the spine of the mountain range that the Blue Ridge exists on. Vast views on either side of the road stretch as far as the eye can see and even on a cloudy day the falls in the distance were visible. The rolling hills, spurs and draws of the mountain were carpeted in the changing colors of the leaves. Evergreens as old as time dominated the peaks along parts of the drive and the smell of pine was incredible at certain points along the drive. If you have the time to take this historic and scenic drive do not hesitate! We got off the Parkway in the City of Asheville and got food to-go from an all vegetarian spot, The Laughing Seed Café, which had the best buffalo cauliflower tacos we have ever eaten. We continued on I-40 and made it to our Airbnb.
The Hikes: CHIMNEY TOPS is a famous hike and crazy summit characterized by chimney-like rocks that rise into the sky about 50ft and can be climbed by the adventurous (like us.. but honestly, it was so sketchy, lol.) The weather was cloudy and it had rained the day before which made the trail a bit slick, but that was the least of our worries. The 1400 ft elevation gain to the summit over the first 2 miles will challenge experienced hikers but no joke, the last mile to the summit. Is. All. Stairs. A few breaks, some deep breaths and encouraging words had us to the top in about an hour and fifteen. The summit was in the clouds when we arrived unfortunately, which blocked the whole view. Somehow I had service all the way at the top and I peaked at the weather app and it was supposed to get more clear within the hour, so we waited. We walked a few hundred feet past the summit and along a part of the trail that had been ravaged by a wildfire in years past. The treetops seemingly appeared out of the mist all around us and then we finally saw them. The chimney tops. We slowly climbed the slope which was steep and rocky but found a comfy spot to wait out the cloudy and muggy weather. This part of the trail is not for the faint hearted as there is no handrail, rope or guard to keep hikers from falling waaaaay down the mountain. As the sun got stronger and the wind started blowing, the clouds peeled away to reveal a breathtaking view of the park. After a few minutes taking in the view we made our way back down the mountain just as the fog started to roll back in. All those stairs for just a few minutes of a view... but it was worth it. At the bottom hubby somehow convinced me to dip my feet into the freeeeeezing cold water of the river to take some of the soreness away. Round trip was 5 miles.
That was just the warm-up for our hike the following day.
MT LECONTE VIA ALUM TRAIL: This trail is perfect for all levels of hikers as there are multiple points to stop at, or turn around. It gets more difficult the farther along you go. Within the first two miles there are multiple river crossings that offer a view up the river that are quite pretty. The first big and cool feature is a stairway that winds through a piece of eroded rock known as "the arch". It was a bit underwhelming, but still a cool feature to pass through. After that, there are some more river crossings and small landings that offer a view of the surrounding valley. Nothing compared to the beauty of the Chimney Tops, but a nice spot to rest before continuing to what most come for on this trail, The Alum Cave Bluffs. This 80ft cut-out offers a nice view and fun place to sit, take pictures and enjoy the cooler weather underneath the rocky shade. Water from the overhang drips down in streams of glittering crystal in front of you while you take a rest, it was pretty neat and unique to see! After we caught our breath, we continued to Mt Leconte. It was evident very quickly that we were in for a rough hike ahead. The trail rolls up and down for a few miles with rocky outcrops and wire rope to hang onto which was a nice feature considering it was a bit slippery from the rain and little streams of water coming from from the mountain tops. The number of hikers cut down a bunch and we found ourselves immersed in the quiet peace of the forest. Every time we stopped for a break, which was quite often, the squirrels, mice and chipmunks poked their little heads around trees and would even stop in the trail to say hey, but remember... cant feed the wildlife *sad face, lol. As beautiful, scenic and peaceful as it was the trail was steep and rocky. We made our way to the summit but not before stopping at the Mt Leconte Lodge at a casual 6,593 ft. The Lodge was a cluster of wooden cabins surrounding a dining hall that was closed because of COVID. Many hikers spend time enjoying the view from their cabin porch but we continued another quarter mile to the summit. After a windy, flat little trail to the top, the forest gives way to a large rocky outcrop that was spacious enough for multiple groups to view the surrounding mountains. We watched from above the clouds as they slowly rolled into the valleys below, something you can only typically see from a plane or helicopter. Don’t wander too close to the edge as there is no guard rail to stop you falling waaaaay down. Seemed to be a pattern at the summits. We sat and ate our snacks, shared an orange and let the sun warm our cold and tired muscles because damn... the soreness and achy feet was getting intense. The quiet and breezy overlook offered a great spot to silently reflect and be at peace with your surroundings. We took our shoes off, stretched and after a quick photo shoot (couldn’t pass it up, not every day you walk 12 miles round trip to a 6,600 ft summit ) we began our descent, which might have been worse than coming up, lol. The sun was casting orange and red hues all over the trail as it began to set. We stopped to watch a cloud roll into a draw right next to us obscuring the view of Mt Leconte, it was an incredible thing to watch and was so picturesque. The trek down took us about half the time as it did going up & with achy knees, ankles, feet, legs (must I go on... it was a fully body pain, lol) I was once again convinced to dip into the freezing cold water to try and alleviate some pain and soreness the next day. We got back in the car and headed home. The traffic was quite heavy as the sun set and the park was emptying for the day. We were about a mile from the entrance when... A black bear wandered out of the forest and ran across the road just a few feet from our car. With open mouths we watched him climb onto the surrounding mountain and disappear. A good ending to a great hike.
MT MITCHELL: On our way home via the Blue Ridge Parkway, We took a little detour and ventured to the top of Mt Mitchell, the tallest peak east of the Mississippi! After parking and walking up 300 yards (which was about all we could take because we were so sore) we arrived at the observation tower that offered 360-degree views of the surrounding Appalachian. It was SWAMPED with people, so we kept our distance and didn’t spend too long up there, but the views were incredible.
For breakfast every morning we ate at our Airbnb as there was coffee and light breakfast options. This not only saved us a lot of time and money.
For dinners, we ate at two places. We got take-out from a Mexican restaurant in Gatlinburg, Loco Burro, and got enough food for a small family. It was really tasty and I recommend going there. We also splurged one night and ate at The Melting Pot for a little date. You can't beat cheese and chocolate fondue.
Gatlinburg traffic is literally always a thing so plan for an extra 10-15 minutes each way in and out of the park.
We were so excited, maybe a little too excited to see a black bear. We have a small black bear that roams around our house occasionally, but the The Great Smoky Mountains are known for their black bear sightings! On our trip we saw 1 bear on the side of the road, literally just sitting down and watching the cars drive by. We saw our second bear about a mile from the entrance of the State Park crossing the road and traveling up the mountain. Black bears are very common in these areas and your best defense if you stubble upon one hiking is to loudly say "HEY BEAR" and hold your arms out wide. Do not run. They are not known to attack unlike grizzly bears.
Masks and COVID concerns:
We brought our masks with us everywhere we went. If we passed other hikers, mask on. If we picked up our take-out food, mask on. It's important, please do your part.
One major concern was the town of Gatlinburg. It was FLOODED with people all hours of the day and we were not comfortable getting out of the car to walk around, literally driving though we would roll up our windows it was so bad. Most people had no concern for social distancing and many tourists we not wearing masks.. glad we went for the State Park and not the town.
We first started by looking for an Airbnb that was highly rated for cleanliness and was in our budget (we're always looking for that deal!). We decided an Airbnb would probably check our box on cleanliness more than a hotel would and that's why we went that route. We stayed with a 'super host'. Our stay was just 15 minutes from north entrance to the park and was a nice get-away from the bustling city of Gatlinburg. We rented the queen size room (although they have different options available). Our bed was extremely comfortable and you could tell the host really put thought into the guest experience. Everything from the copper infused pillows to the hand sanitizer, and Gatlinburg magazines and coupon books. There was a lock on our door too which made us feel like leaving behind all our stuff while we went on hikes was completely safe from the other guests (even though we only say the other couple once our entire stay). We shared a large full-sized bathroom with other guests and had access to a spacious dining room, morning snacks, coffee and great conversation with our host David whose husband Mark was out of town on business. The house was spotless, not a crumb to be found in the kitchen, accessible cleaning supplies for guests and even sanitizing spray in the shower because it was a shared space. We noticed they changed the hand towels out daily too. They have two, small friendly dogs, occasionally there was barking, but Dave made sure to keep the dogs out of the guest rooms and only around if we were comfortable with them. (which, of course we were, lol), but a nice touch for folks who aren't so keen on dogs. Overall our experience was more than expected at our Airbnb. Here is the link if you wanna stay at the same place: Https://abnb.me/Dwc15BoMLab
Overall, if you like great views, hiking and maybe wanna see a black bear or two, The Great Smokey Mountain National Park is one to explore. We could have easily spent more days there, but coming back home is always nice.
Hopefully this gave you some insight on what out trip was like and gave you some tips so you can plan yours! You can find photos in one of my Highlights on Instagram titled "Parks".
Until next time,
Kirsty (and Morgan)