Once upon a time, I dreamed of a place in the mountains, where I could frolic to my heart’s content…but then I did the Canyon Climbers challenge and realized that I could waste away believing these things are fairytales, or be an independent human and actually go do them! (More on that here.) Which brings us to my next adventure: Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Can you believe that I have lived in Atlanta my entire life, but I’d never been to the most visited national park in America, a short three-ish hours away?!
Now having visited, I can’t believe I had never been. I have already planned (but not quite penciled in yet) another visit, if not two more! Full of untethered nature and wonderfully close to Atlanta, I can’t wait to get back into those mountains and do more exploring!
I reached Great Smoky Mountains National Park on a Tuesday afternoon in mid-October of last year and stayed two nights, heading home on Thursday afternoon. I thought that it might be less crowded since I was going in the middle of the week, and I’m going to smash that dream right now: the park is never not crowded in October. Didja catch that double negative? It is never NOT crowded in October!
Maybe I’ll go back next week and see how the crowds stack up in the winter?
Getting a Campsite
You know how you suddenly feel like an expert after you do something successfully for the first time? That’s me when it comes to getting a campsite in the Smokies with no reservation. I plan to practice and hone this skill for as long as I’m living in the Southeast, so hopefully in the future I’ll be able to give you all kinds of tips and tricks for this. For now, though, here is the knowledge I gained that I’ll be using as the basis for future camping trips:
-Great Smoky Mountains National Park is HUGE. Plan ahead to know what section of the park you want to stay near. Some areas, like Cataloochee and Deep Creek, require you to drive out of and around the park in order to access the main road, so keep that in mind when choosing a campground.
-Give yourself plenty of time, just in case. You’ll have to visit the specific campground where you want to stay, and in the event that they have no vacancies, you’ll be driving to your next choice. As mentioned above, the park is pretty big, so you may be driving a ways between grounds.
-I entered the park on the North Carolina side and stopped first at the Smokemont Campground, only three miles past the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. I was able to score a site there with no problem, and while it wasn’t close to my morning hike, it was my best option for everything else.
Clingmans Dome Trail
After claiming my campsite and pitching my tent, I still had a few hours of daylight left for exploring. Since it was my first time ever in the park, I took my time driving down Newfound Gap Road (US 441). Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts some incredible views and the park is very drivable, so you could honestly spend an entire day literally only driving through and pulling off the road into all of the overlooks. I pulled over a few times before making sure that I knew how to find my morning trailhead, and ultimately winding my way up to Clingmans Dome.
The park recently acquired a big grant from Partners in Preservation to do some much-needed restoration to the observation tower at Clingmans Dome, so it was closed for the season last fall. Even still, it didn’t feel like my first trip to the Smokies would be complete without a visit to the tallest mountain in the Smokies. And ya know what? Every other person in the whole park had the same idea. Late in the afternoon, the parking lot for the walk up the mountain was not only packed with cars, but also swarming with pedestrians. So many people everywhere! But I was still able to find a parking spot without much trouble.
Aside from the allure of Clingmans Dome’s height, this trail is very short (a quick .5 miles to the top) and also paved. The level of development appeals to people in all walks of life, and (usually) the observation deck might motivate non-hikers to make the walk. However, be prepared to be headed uphill for the entire duration of your walk. The location of the parking lot sets you up for success by being only 300 feet below the summit of the mountain, but I want you to be aware of what you are getting yourself into, in the event that you decide to walk with a stroller, for example.
As I progressed up the trail the mountain rose up to my right side, but beautiful sweeping vistas greeted me to the left. The paved trail intersects with the Appalachian Trail, which summits it’s tallest peak at the top of Clingmans Dome. Reaching the end of the trail was somewhat anticlimactic; yellow tape surrounded the outskirts of the tower, which was an unsightly construction zone without a view of any kind. The observation tower is schedule to reopen on April 1, 2018, just in time for the throng of visitors flocking to the park in warmer weather.
The trailhead at Clingmans Dome comes fully loaded with restrooms and even a small visitor center. The trailhead to Andrews Bald, a rolling 1.8-mile hike, can also be found here.
As the sun began to set, I made my way back to my campsite to prepare for an early start the next morning.
Grotto Falls Trail
I awoke early that day and lay still for a moment, unsure whether I could just hear my neighbor snoring, or if there was a bear in the campground! After listening for another second, I decided that it was just my neighbor, but unzipped my tent with caution, just in case! All the worrying I did over the possibility of facing a bear alone in the woods on the trip was ultimately for nothing. Not only did I stay in the front country where bears are less likely to frequent, I also was rarely alone. Having visited in the peak of the fall season, the trails were pretty much guaranteed to be full due to the sheer volume of people in the park.
That morning, though, I left camp sometime around 5:30am and beat the crowds onto the trails. I would highly recommend this tactic if you’re looking for some solitude in the wilderness. You wouldn’t necessarily have to be out and about as early as I was (it was still very, very dark out when I landed at my trailhead), but even by 8:30am there was a steady trickle of hikers.
I previously mentioned that my chosen hike wasn’t near my campground, so I had to leave early in order to reach the trailhead by sunrise. And no, I wasn’t here to see a sunrise—I was here for the LLAMAS.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park does not have any lodging options within the park boundaries…except one. LeConte Lodge is situated at the top of Mount LeConte, and the only way to reach it is to walk to it. I naively looked into staying at the lodge before realizing that trying to get a room here is basically like competing in the Hunger Games.
Being inaccessible by road means getting creative with supply transport. For bigger supply drops, the lodge employs a helicopter, but for smaller, daily needs…they use a team of llamas! Three days a week, the llamas are led up the Grotto Falls trail to deliver fresh produce and clean linens to LeConte Lodge. They begin promptly at sunrise in order to safely summit and descend the mountain in one day, with time for a quick break in between. Seeing these llamas in action was my mission for the morning.
The Grotto Falls trailhead is located on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which is one of those sections of the park that doesn’t connect with the rest. Since I entered the park from the eastern side in North Carolina, I had given myself ample time to wind my way through the park, out to Gatlinburg on the western side, and then back into the wild. It turned out that I didn’t need quite as much time as I had allowed, for the roads were bare and Gatlinburg was still sleeping. I had no problem following the directions provided on the national parks website, and soon I was twisting and turning down the nature trail. Even in the dark, I knew I had arrived at my destination when I saw the horse trailer!
The sun wouldn’t rise until well after 7am, giving me time to get myself organized for my hike and hesitantly approach the trailer. Luckily, the llama handler was very welcoming! He offered to let me pet the llamas before I even asked, and seemed pleased to answer any questions I had. I felt guilty stealing some quality time with the herd while the handler swept around me, packing up the load for the morning. The animals tolerated me petting them (and taking some selfies in the dark) while they lounged on the pavement. The sky slowly began to brighten, and I eventually started toward the trail to set up camp and wait for the llamas to pass by.
The Grotto Falls Trail is a section of the longer Trillium Gap Trail, which is one of many that lead up Mount LeConte. While this is the longest route, it also has the most gradual incline, making it the perfect path for the four-legged team. Like most of the other routes, the Grotto Falls trail is also a popular day hike to a scenic spot along the way. In this case—you guessed it—that spot is Grotto Falls.
I had another hike planned for the afternoon, so I meandered up the trail with the intention to wait and see the llamas at the waterfall before turning back. Coming in at just under three miles round trip, it’s a great hike for beginners and families. The elevation gain is never too steep and remains steady for most of the trek to the falls. Grotto Falls itself is a lovely spot where the trail actually passes behind the waterfall, making it stand out among other waterfall hikes. I made a seat out of a flat rock after passing under the falls, on which I posted up and ate a quick breakfast (a Sierra Trail Mix Clif Bar, my favorite flavor)!
Getting up before dark and exiting my cozy sleeping bag in the cold was worth it, you guys. I was giddy with delight at the opportunity to interact with the llamas that morning, and then snap some photos as they passed by me on the trail! This was truly the most unique hiking experience I’ve had so far. Who knew you could go hiking with llamas in the Smoky Mountains?!
If you are inspired and also want to have this cool experience, you can read more about the llamas’ hiking schedule here. I also stopped by the Sugarlands Vistor Center the evening before to double check and make sure the llamas were hiking on their regular schedule. The park employees were wonderfully helpful, and also provided the time that the llamas would be departing for the trail that morning. Keep in mind that they begin at sunrise, which may be earlier or later depending on the season.
Returning to my car, I followed the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail loop back around to the exit, in order to get back to the main section of the park. This road is a narrow one-way drive, but passes through a heavily wooded forest with some scenic drives past a creek.
Gatlinburg was bustling with people and the streets were crowded on my drive back into the park, which almost caught me by surprise after the quiet start to my day. I had taken my time on the Grotto Falls trail and stopped a few times on the Roaring Forks trail, so it was well past 10am by the time I was back on the main road in the park.
At this point, I could have stopped at one of the many picnic spots for a more substantial breakfast, but I was too excited to get out onto my next trail.
Alum Cave Trail
I did some research for potential trails prior to my trip, and had chosen the Alum Cave Bluffs trail as a contender, among a few others. I was also strongly considering hiking Chimney Tops, but after chatting with a few other hikers and learning that the top of the Chimney Tops trail was no longer open because of forest fires, I settled on Alum Cave Bluffs for my afternoon hike. It would have made more sense logistically to stay within this central section of the park for all of my hikes (the Alum Cave Trail is relatively close to Clingmans Dome), but I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the llama herd out on the Grotto Falls trail!
Since I had already hiked about three miles that morning, the Alum Cave Trail was a good choice for the afternoon, clocking in at about 5 miles round trip. It follows a creek up a gradual slope at the beginning of the hike, and slowly begins to steepen as is continues. Parking at the trailhead is tough, since it’s a very popular day hike. I arrived around 11am and pulled off of the main road, rather than into the parking lot. From my precarious position here, I made myself a quick lunch and packed it into my backpack to eat on the trail.
The Alum Cave trail runs parallel to a calm creek at the beginning, eventually departing near Arch Rock, about 1.4 miles in. Arch Rock is a spectacular geological feature, under which the trail climbs a set of manmade stairs that I found particularly difficult to capture on camera. Little did I know, that would become a recurring theme on the Alum Cave trail.
Departing from the water, the climb ascends slowly up the side of Mount LeConte. I began to realize that not refueling my body prior to the hike may have been a mistake. I was quickly running out of energy. Still, I continued to make my way through the forest, putting one foot in front of the other. I will eat when I get there. At this portion of the trail, I began hiking near a father/son pair, and the latter was having similar ailments to myself, and making sure everybody knew about it! As I plodded past the young boy, I called out to him, “years from now, you’re going to thank your dad for this!”
0.6 miles from Arch Rock, I abruptly forgot that I was hungry when the trees cleared at Inspiration Point! The trail opens up to a seriously gorgeous view of Little Duck Hawk Ridge, and a small crowd of ascenders was gathered on the path to soak in the landscape. I, too, stopped in my tracks in order to enjoy the fruits of my labor. As much as I tried, photos just couldn’t capture the moment. After getting my fill of the aptly named spot, I continued on to my final destination.
Contrary to its name, there is no cave on the Alum Cave trail. There are, however, magnificent bluffs that tower eighty feet above the pathway, offering an unexpected change in scenery as well as a cool, shaded spot for me to finally enjoy my lunch! There are also steps leading up to the bluff, and the entire area is quite steep. I slowly consumed my sandwich and trail mix, admiring this park as a whole. I never have had much desire to visit the town of Gatlinburg, and by extension, the Smoky Mountains. But with every step I took, adoration for these rolling mountains grew. A refuge for wilderness and nature-seekers, I realized that it was no wonder that Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in America.
I once again found that there was no good angle at which to capture the beauty of the Alum Cave bluffs. After giving it a valiant effort, I began my descent back to my car. Overall, I spent 3-4 hours on the Alum Cave trail.
It was still early in the afternoon by the time I was back on the road, and I had already completed all of my planned hikes for the day. I was also pretty tired from my early morning, and wasn’t interested in finding another trail for that evening. I hadn’t seen much of the park’s famed wildlife (I had only seen a few wild turkeys while driving down Newfound Gap Road), so I thought I might drive to Cataloochee, which is known for elk spotting after stopping to take a photo with the park sign. As I came closer and closer to the exit (on the North Carolina side), traffic became more and more dense. I knew the park was busy, but why in the world is everyone crowding the Oconaluftee Visitor Center?!
Elk, people, that’s why! A whole herd of elk were minding their own business in the field to the right of the center, while park visitors were losing their minds to get a peek at them……myself included. The minute I caught a glimpse of the creatures, I pulled to the right shoulder (NOT into the median—you will be reprimanded by park rangers for this!), gathered up my camera, and ran across the road to see the beasts.
The Appalachian elk population was hunted to basically extinction in the mid-1800s, and the North American elk was on the brink of actual extinction by the 1900s. These animals were reintroduced to the park in 2001 and are heavily protected by viewing regulations.
With the elk so close to the main road on this particular day, there were multiple park rangers policing the area. The rangers made sure that the elk stayed clear of the road, the viewers stayed far from the elk, and that vehicles were parked in a safe manner to cause the least amount of congestion. Chatting with one of the rangers, she laughed when she told me that oftentimes there will be no animals in sight, but people will set up camp chairs by the road to lie in wait, and that alone can cause a traffic jam!
Indeed, there were plenty of people lining the road reclining in camp chairs with coolers out, picnicking with the elk! With nothing else on my itinerary for the day, I joined them, finding a seat on the ground.
After a long and rewarding day, I retired to my tent early that evening.
I woke up tired on my second morning in the mountains. I didn’t have a plan for the day, so I allowed myself to sleep in and spend the morning at my campsite. Taking it easy, I ate breakfast at camp before packing everything up. I had considered getting another early start out and tackling Andrew’s Bald, but after the adventure I had the previous day, I decided to skip it.
I left camp around noon and started toward home. Now that I had become acquainted with these mountains, I wasn’t going to push myself to see everything in that first trip. I recognize that I only scratched the surface of all of the beauty and adventure that Great Smoky Mountains National Park has to offer, and I know that I’ll be back soon.