The three and a half hour drive from Fairburn, GA to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is uneventful. Grey clouds follow the whole drive but the rain holds off. By the time we reach Smokemont Campground, just north of the town of Cherokee in NC, night has long since fallen. We chose this campground simply because it was the closest driving from Atlanta.
We’ve made no reservations for the week, it’s still the off-season in the Smokies and as expected the two loops of the campground that are open this time of year are at maybe 20% capacity. It’s hard to get a feel for how good the sites are in the dark, so one in close proximity to the restrooms are chosen for the sake of expediency. I’m giddy for the adventure to come, but also tired. We sleep in the back of Julie’s car and don’t bother with the tent tonight, strong storms are still in the forecast and down in the valley where the campground is I get no phone reception (Verizon) to get weather alerts.
Naturally, because we’re prepared for bad weather it doesn’t come. Julie says she awoke once briefly in the night to a gentle rain, I didn’t hear a darn thing. By the time we awake to a grey morning the ground is already half dry. So much for the big storms, but I’m not complaining!
Smokemont Campground sits within a valley about ten or so miles within the park boundries. This time of year in the Smokies the trees in the valleys all have their leaves, but they’re not full-sized yet. Some trees have white flowers on them, the same ones I saw in Fairburn when I moved up there three weeks ago. I’ve traveled back in time to an earlier Spring again.
It’s a pretty campground, what I can see of it. Only loops A and B are open all year round, there are three others that open in the summer. The sites can fit rigs up to 35′ for towables, 40′ for motorhomes. Like many National Parks, site spacing is reasonable. Considering how hilly the terrain is around it the sites themselves are quite level. All of them have a paved parking space, and then a boxed in gravel bed for putting a tent on. From what I can see, all have a picnic table and firepit. The cost is $17 for a tent and there are no hookups, the bathrooms have running water and there is a sink specifically for washing dishes in which is handy, but there is no hot water and therefore no shower house.
There are two short hiking trails that come directly off of the campground. While still in my pajamas Julie and I walk down to the start of them, a rustic log bridge over a beautiful clear mountain stream. What a great start to a day.
Then it’s off to the Visitor’s Center, to decide how best to use our limited time. And the drive to get there, wow. Just about anywhere you drive within the park is going to have good views, luckily there are plenty of scenic overlooks to park at for pictures. Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited National Park in the country, the Grand Canyon is number two, and sees only half as many visitors in a year. I imagine the location plays a big roll, it’s pretty centrally located in the more crowded half of the US, but there’s just something about this area. The mountain range is old, a lot older than the Rockies, and it feels ageless.
We stop at the Newfound Gap pass and I almost have to wonder if we’re still in the same park with the 150 foot fir and spruce towering overhead, a product of the high elevation. Looking down into the valleys on either side an endless sea of trees cascade down the mountain from dark evergreens near the summits to the bare branches of deciduous trees just below, gradually becoming greener the lower in elevation you get. It feels like you’re looking back in time to a different age. How refreshing it is to look at row after row of blue hills, fading into the distance, and not see a single building. This might be the most visited park in the country, but it feels remote and wild, and I can’t wait to explore it more. I came here once as a teenager with my family on a road trip eons ago, we only had a couple days. Then in 2011 I came back with Julie and her sister, but again it was for a weekend only. I already know the three nights I get this time will not be nearly enough.
The wind is really whipping around up here though and it’s a good ten degrees cooler than in the valleys. The grey sky makes picture taking difficult and we do have a destination to get to. I silently vow to come back and try for pictures again when the weather is more cooperative.
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Going to have to cut this short. I should already be in bed for fest tomorrow, took me three places to find working WiFi and even then I’m having problems getting the pictures up. I’ll be adding the rest of the pictures, getting the rest of the trip writing up, responding to comments to the last post, and answering e-mails when I can – probably early next week once fest is over. There’s a lot of good things to come, until then have a good weekend all!
**EDIT 5/3** All caught up on comments, last two pictures for this post have been put up, and I’m slowly working on the e-mails. Thanks for your patience everyone!