After returning from our three days on the AT, we headed off for the final couple days of our trip in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This was actually a last-minute addition… as my uncle explained in last week’s post, our original plan was for a longer backpacking trip, but that went up in flames so we had to make some changes to our itinerary. In the end it worked out just fine, because I got to spend some time in a new national park!
But before I dive into that trip, I want to take a moment to share a few of my favorite shots from our backpacking adventures since all of last week’s photos weren’t mine.
After showering and unpacking from our backpacking excursion, we reorganized ourselves for car camping and set off towards US 441, which is the main thoroughfare into the park. But before crossing the border into Tennessee, we took a short detour to drive along the Cullasaja River Gorge. This section of US Highway 64 stretches between the towns of Franklin and Highlands, North Carolina, winding its way through the Nantahala National Forest parallel to the Cullasaja River.
We didn’t stop at all the waterfalls, but the ones we did visit were all very different from one another in shape, height, width, and volume of water. Dry River falls, especially, was completely roaring with water. Dry River and Bridal Veil Falls were my favorites, because you could walk behind them!
Continuing our drive, we crossed into the national park at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center on the southern border, stopping briefly before beginning the long, winding drive across the park to the northern edge. From the high points along the way, we caught our first glimpses into where these mountains get their name: the low-hanging “smoke” that settles in between the peaks early in the morning and after a rain storm. At about the halfway point, we crossed the border into Tennessee, marking my first time in the state (not counting airport layovers… which is always a matter of debate as to whether that actually counts).
Upon reaching the northern edge of the park, we swung by the Sugarlands Visitor Center and made our way through the town of Gatlinburg, all the way to the northeastern section of the park and our site at Cosby Campground.
The next day, we set out to accomplish as much as we could in our limited time, and squeezed in a hike to Alum Cave and a couple waterfalls whose names I can’t recall. Alum Cave is not actually a cave so much as an enormous overhung section of rock; even so, it was a really neat place and the hike was complete with lush forest, flowers, and views!
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is enormous; you could easily spend an entire summer there and not run out of trails to hike. In our two days, we obviously barely scratched the surface. But what we did see, I really enjoyed, and this is definitely a place I hope to return to someday.
The Blue Ridge Parkway also warrants a return visit. This 469 mile (755 km) road connects the Smoky Mountains with Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. We only drove about 55 miles (88 km) of the road, so obviously much remains still to explore. We caught up with the road outside of Asheville, North Carolina and followed it up to Linville Falls, stopping at various viewpoints along the way and hiking out to the falls.
Stay tuned for next week’s post, which will wrap up our trip to the Appalachians with the newest addition to my “On Top Of” series!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Great Smoky Mountains National Park extends for many miles along the Tennessee/North Carolina border; the Blue Ridge Parkway departs from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center on the southern border and heads northeast towards Virginia
- Fees and passes: both areas are free!
- Hiking: there’s a ton of hiking in this region; click here for hikes in the Great Smokies and here for Blue Ridge Parkway hiking information
- Camping: we stayed at Cosby Campground in the northeast corner of Great Smoky Mountains, but there are many other campgrounds throughout the park; there are also many camping opportunities along the length of the Blue Ridge Parkway
- Other: as the NPS website warns, GPS directions are often inaccurate in this region, so best to download a park map for navigation