Leaf Peeping in the Great Smoky Mountains 2015-the Rainy Trip

Cataloochee Valley GSMNP, NC

Yep leaf peeping it’s what us old people do. As you can see by the picture above, there’s one big problem…….the leaves have barely changed color!

This is a trip long awaited. We originally planned to go to the Smokies in 2012 but on the weekend we were to leave Momma’s father had a serious stroke and we had to detour to Ohio. We then planned to go in 2014 and stupid me had the near heart attack a week before. Finally in 2015, we made it ,then again in 2016. This is the first trip….the rainy one…ugh!

I talked momma into going to the Cataloochee Valley on our way in to see the Elk. Yes the Elk. Elk, at one time, were prevalent in the Smokies, but as with many other things they continually moved west in front of civilization. Well the National Park Service re-introduced elk into the park a few years ago and I read that the Cataloochee Valley was where to see them.

Since it was raining, the road in was slick and muddy, which momma did not appreciate.

A little side note here. The Cataloochee valley is in the far southeastern corner of the park and is not easy to get to. It involves some extreme backroad driving so much so that only cars and trucks are allowed in; no travel trailers or RVs.

Hence the muddy slick road. But the valley was beautiful and the Elk were definitely there. Cataloochee was also one of the settlements along with Cades Cove that were absorbed into the park during it’s formation in the 30’s and as with Cades Cove the residents were allowed to remain for life. So there are still assorted historical buildings although all the original residents are long gone. Shame; the valley is surrounded by 6000 foot peaks and is in some of the most rugged terrain in the east. At one time 1200 people lived here and it was the most prosperous community absorbed into the park.

Old house in the Cataloochee Valley

Nice places but we are here to see the elk. As we neared the end of the paved road several elk were grazing in the field. One even ran across the road not twenty feet in front of us and it was so sudden we didn’t get a picture.

I think this is the one who eventually crossed in front of us
female brood

The trip out was long. Momma refused to retrace our path on the slick muddy road so we took a gravel road out of the valley. Looked like a good wide road until we started up into the mountains. It became a gravel path of sorts about one and a half cars wide with steep drop-offs on the side. I thought it was beautiful but momma, being afraid of heights, was not amused. She was almost in tears when we finally hit a blacktop road near Waterville on the NC/TN border, about thirty miles later. The road is actually a county road although little more then a wide path.

. “Life is not always perfect. Like a road, it has many bends, ups, and downs, but that’s its beauty.”

Amit Ray

We had a cabin rented in the Wears Valley north of the park and arrived late afternoon.

the Wears valley runs parallel to the edge of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. It is home to around 6000 people although it is an unincorporated community. It was named for Samuel Wear a Revolutionary soldier who built a fort at Pigeon Forge.

Always, always, there is a treat for momma and for this trip it was the Paula Deen Restaurant in Pigeon Forge Tn.

Pigeon Forge has a national reputation of being the home to Dollywood, the amusement park owned by Dolly Parton. When I first came to the Smokies as a boy scout to hike in the late 60’s Pigeon Forge was a strip of about 10 souvenir shops. Today in rivals any vacation destination in it’s number of hotels and attractions.

Paula Deen Restaurant Pigeon Forge TN

The downstairs is where you spend all your money on Paula Deen paraphernalia, the upstairs is the dining room. After a short wait we were called upstairs. The food was of course delicious, served family style so whatever momma or I ordered it was easily shared. The restaurant looks out over what is known as “The Island” a veritable tourist trap along the Pigeon Forge River. It is however, a very nice place to spend your money. we did some moonshine tasting which is totally legal in Tennessee.

The Island Pigeon Forge TN

Day two it was still cloudy and drizzling so we went to Cades Cove to see what wildlife might be there. There was none but we went to the church where the ranger gave a great discussion on the life of the people in the Cove.

Cades Cove was another community absorbed into the forming park in which the residents were allowed to stay as long as they wanted. Cades Cove was home to about 630 people. The residents fought the formation of the park. Finally in 1937 the last farm finally sold. But one family through a series of 5 year leases managed to stay until the old man died in 1999!

We then went to see the old mill. John Cable built the mill in the 1870’s. It was one of seven mills operating in the valley and the only one remaining.

Sign at the Cades Cove Church
The Cades Cove Mill

Yeah, no leaf peeping is happening today.

We went into Gatlinburg for some lunch and shopping. We did some moonshine tasting, and we hit several shops.

After this we did the Roaring Fork Motor Drive. We stopped at the old Bud Ogle place one of the original in the area and took a short hike through the farm and along a nice creek.

The Ogle family was the first to settle in the Gatlinburg area. Bud Ogle’s farm was originally 400 acres but he subdivided it among his children and only maintained 150 acres at his death. Most of the farm is preserved as a national historical area.

Bud Ogle Cabin
Along the creek

We found that Bud Ogle invented a way to have running water to his wash house. Using a system of hollow split logs Bud built a pipeline to deliver water to his wash house.

Remains of Bud Ogle’s water pipeline

The next day we were headed into Gatlinburg for a pancake breakfast. Now if you’ve never been to Gatlinburg let me tell you, everyone needs to have at least one pancake breakfast. It is the biggest thing going in the food scene there. As we drove in I looked up and saw……..The Mountains! Finally a clear day. “We are eating pancakes and going to the top”, I told Momma.

Finally it’s clearing off!

After a nice pancake breakfast we headed into the park on US 441. We are going to go to Clingman’s Dome to see the views. On the way up we passed the Chimneys which were gorgeous and decked out in autumn splendor.

The Chimneys GSMNP

We arrived at Newfound Gap. I showed Momma the Appalachian Trail and we walked it about 200 yards or so. That got me hiking again, and I have been hiking since. It only took 50 years or so to wake me up to this favorite pastime from my childhood.

Newfound Gap lies at an elevation of 5048 ft. Newfound Gap was not used until the development of the Park. Before then the lowest gap through the Smokies was believed to be Indian Gap 2 miles west. The Indian Gap road, actually just a trail was used to cross the mountains although Arnold Guyot found the gap as he was measuring the mountains in 1872. Guyot stated that his “new found” gap was the lowest and best through the mountains. With the development of the park the road was built through Newfound Gap.

Newfound Gap, from this, the Rockefeller Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

We drove on to Clingman’s Dome. The Clingman’s Dome road meets US441 at Newfound Gap. It is seven miles to the parking area and another 1/2 mile hike to the top. Clingman’s Dome was named by Arnold Guyot for confederate General Thomas Lanier Clingman who explored the area extensively in the 1850’s. Guyot named the mountain for the general after he was embroiled in an argument with Elisha Mitchell as to which peak was higher Smoky Dome(original name of the mountain) or Black Dome, (original name of Mt Mitchell). Mitchell proved that Black Dome was 39 feet higher and today we have Mt Mitchell as the highest point east of the Mississippi, and Clingman’s Dome as the third highest. Mt Craig near Mt Mitchell is 4 feet higher giving it second place. But while I have become a avid hiker I have learned that it isn’t all about a mountain’s elevation… it’s prominence is what matters. The prominence is the distance it rises from the surrounding countryside and at 5000 ft Clingman’s Dome is massive.

Trail sign on Clingman’s Dome

Near the top of Clingman’s Dome

Clingmans Dome is high enough that near the top Fraser Firs grow… or used to…. before an invasion of a non native insect, the balsam woolly adelgid. It is a shame because it was so beautiful when I was here as a kid. .

The dead Fraser Firs on the shoulder of Clingman’s Dome.

The hike up Clingman’s Dome is fairly easy. The trail is wide and paved. At the top is a observation tower and it defies me as to why I don’t have a picture of the tower from this particular trip. But here are the wonderful views

Thunderhead Mountain from Clingman’s Dome The last Summit on the right is Rocky Top in case you ever wondered where Rocky Top Tennessee was.
one can easily see why they are called “the Smoky Mountains”

So ends my first trip to the Smokies in decades.

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