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A slight change of plans

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A slight change of plans

Post by Kristian on Sat Jun 06, 2009 3:13 pm

Here's a trip report I wrote back in '08:

For those of you who think you've seen long trip reports... Maybe set aside a day or two for it. Smile Sorry about the long winded-ness; this isn't for those who like quick, consice reports. For all others, enjoy. Photos are on their way.

Maundy Thursday

After hour upon hour of driving, we finally pulled into the overlook just inside the park on our way to Cataloochee. Even though I was already acclimated to scenic views by our trip through Ocoee and eastern North Carolina, the mountains laid out before me held me in awe. I was suddenly very glad I had chosen to spend out Easter weekend trip here. We planned on hiking the Boogerman loop and the trail up Mt. Sterling, both hikes I had wanted to try for years. On the way from Chattanooga we stopped in Dillsboro to visit the Chocolate Factory. Bob wasn’t there, but even so I’m glad we stopped. Both Dillsboro and adjacent Sylva embody small-town America with their quaint shops and eateries. The factory was filled with the warm smells of chocolate and coffee. My dad and I enjoyed espressos, but I now wish I had also gotten some fudge and truffles before continuing on.

Back at the overlook I felt the frigid wind and its sound in the bare trees. This quiet side of the Smokies was just as wonderful as the rest but lacked the sounds of motor traffic and people. Instead I heard the chirps and whistles of the birds, the cawing of some crows nearby, and… a phone ringing. My dad answered; it was my mother. My great uncle had suffered a stroke.

We went on down to the campground even though chances were we would have to turn around. It was possibly the nicest I’ve seen in the Smokies with a roaring stream bordering one side and only a single loop of lots. Since we could not get signal in the campground we decided to turn around and head for Deep Creek or Smokemont. Before leaving we drove a little ways into the valley hoping to see some elk, which we did. They were grazing on the other end of the field, truly a sight to behold.

About an hour later we pulled into a tee-pee topped tourist shop in Cherokee to see if we got a signal, which we did. My mother informed us that it probably would not do much good for us to come down and that we should stay for our camping trip. The plan was to stay in Smokemont, to keep contact, and to go on home if necessary. Happily my uncle recovered reasonably quickly and has now returned home—and we got to stay for the whole Easter weekend as intended.

I began my Deep Creek trip report talking about improvising for lost items. This time, I had to improvise the entire trip. We drove into the park and again stopped to watch some elk in the field in front of the Mountain Farm Museum. It wasn’t quite the same as seeing them in Cataloochee. Many people stood in the parking lot watching one of the males close by, quite blatantly defying the fifty yard rule, in fact breaking the fifty foot rule. Good thing elk are reasonably well-mannered…

Smokemont was not as nice as Cataloochee, nor Balsam Mountain, Cosby, or Deep Creek, but was still was not bad. The rushing Brady Fork runs through the campground; on the western side is RV camping. With the nature trail and church right at the campground, it’s a reasonably nice and convenient place to stay. After paying for our spot we pitched tent and had dinner. I was trying to figure out what we would do tomorrow that would not require much driving. As it got darker we ascended Smokemont Nature Trail, me trying to read the pamphlet in the shade of the thick rhododendrons. The trail would be awesome in late May to July; there was some mountain laurel along the lower part of the trail, too.

I beat my dad at a game of gin (he has no luck on camping trips, I guess) and we both retired for the night.

Good Friday

Today was our touron day; we camp and hike so much that I felt that a quick relapse into the tourist world might do us some good. There were several different things that I had heard and seen about around Smokemont and in the Indian Reservation, so we resolved to do a little car hopping. We began our adventures early in the morning at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, early enough in fact that there were only a few other cars in the parking lot.

After paying a reasonable $18 for the two of us, we were instructed by the professional front-deskman that we could read some of the Cherokee tales on the walls while we waited for the introduction video to begin. Here the never ending problem began: I tried to read the stories but an audio was going overhead about how whites first got to hear about the stories. It was impossible to concentrate on reading with the loud noises overhead, so I just enjoyed the audio.

Throughout the entire museum this went on; I could to two or three speakers at a time (and not quiet ones, either) and had to concentrate really hard (a couple times literally covering my ears) to be able to read the actually well written information. The speakers should have been either turned down or they should have worked on the acoustics so that the sound did not resonate so much. (At the marine highway museum in Homer, Alaska they use hemispherical speakers that direct sound only a single point; that would have worked beautifully here.) My only other complaint was that there was a little chronological confusion, making the storyline a little difficult to follow. If the speakers had not been so loud, though, that probably wouldn’t be a problem. I still give this place seven stars (out of ten), though, because of the well written info, great displays, and professional staff.

Emerging into the sunlight slightly groggy from the massive amounts of Indian-related information packed into our brains, we got back into the car and began the search for a frying pan. (Ok, so we did forget something after all.) We must have driven across the strip three or four times before I finally suggested to my dad that we pull over and ask “that dude on the side of the road dressed in semi-authentic Indian garb” where the supermarket was.

About thirty minutes later with frying pan in hand we headed for stop number two: Mingo Falls. I was exited about finally getting to see them as I munched on a peanut butter bagel while enjoying the freshly-frothed stream that just recently dropped at least ninety feet, even higher than Ramsey Cascades. After a few steps up and I was breathtakingly greeted by the most incredible falls I had yet seen in the Smokies crashing down over rocks and cascading below the bridge across the bottom of the falls. Not quite as fulfilling as the beautiful four mile hike up to Ramsey, but certainly the falls themselves were great.

Stop number three was the Mountain Farm Museum, which was not at all over-crowded. I had been before but even still getting to see all the structures in one place was pretty cool, and seeing the huge tree along the Oconaluftee River Trail is always neat. After scouring the chillin’ three dimensional map and asking the ever-friendly rangers about some prospective plans for day three, we headed to Mingus Mill. (See an “m” theme here?) Both floors were open and a mill-attendant was very helpful in explaining how the whole thing worked. Dad and I walked up the channel of water powering the mill to its source from a stream further uphill.

Before returning to the campsite we stopped the car at a church at the entrance of Smokemont, reconstructed in the 1920s. At this point I realized that there really is a lot of history to see in the Sokemont area, what with the church, Mountain Museum, and mill. There’s not much information about the community itself, though, except for in the pamphlet for the nature trail. (All the more reason to make a visit.) While my father made dinner (those packaged soups actually aren’t that bad!) I again ascended the nature trail to see how it is in daylight, and I was neither disappointed nor surprised. I sat down on the bench at the top and just took in all the happenings around me. I head the birds and insects, even some crows a few hundred feet away. This, I realized, is what is missed as travelers rush from site to site.

Of all the places I went to that day this was the least remarkable, and yet because I took the time to stop and open my senses it was the place that impacted me most deeply. While I may forget more and more about the other things I saw, that moment will stay with me for years to come.

Holy Saturday

One of the original reasons we decided not to camp in Tsali and drive all over creation to different things was because it would add even more time in the car to the hours necessary to get over the Appalachians to North Carolina. When I made my suggestion to my dad he askied if “We really have to drive all the way over to the Tennessee side? Are you kidding?” No, I was not, and at nine o’clock the next morning we were zipping along 441 past Newfound Gap down to the Chimney Tops Trailhead.

I had heard a lot about it and wanted to finally try it out. As we pulled into the parking area I was surprised about how many cars were already, and it was only going to get worse. Imagine July! The trail itself was not all that bad but still too crowded for my taste; I like general solitude on the trail apart from the occasional person to say “hi” to or remark about what a beautiful day it is. The elevation gain was hard core, but the trail is so short that is was over before I knew what happened. (I jogged the first bit, too, before it got steep, so that cut down on time, too.)

With a little scrambling I summated the first chimney, and wow! This was like Charlie’s Bunion 2.0; I’ll have to add a number six to my goList. I am a little afraid of heights but I love rock scrambling (like rock climbing except not vertical most of the time; my two other favourite places for it are inside the jetty at Ft. Lauderdale and in Little River Canyon National Preserve in Alabama) so I went on to the second chimney.

The scrambling was worth it for the views of the first chimney alone, let alone the clear skies above the valley between where I was and Mt. LeConte. The first chimney rose up out of the forest canopy (or at least would in the summer) and really did resemble its namesake (that doesn’t count so much with the view of the second chimney from the first). Finches and sparrows alighted on the shale rocks and shrubbery, and echoes from songbirds resounded from the deep valleys. A hawk seemed to glide from Mt. LeConte to my vantage point in mere seconds, gracefully soaring between the chimneys. I experienced a sudden sense of exhilaration and peace in the same moment; as my Lord lay in the earth I stood on top of it, His spirit empowering mine.

The hike (or in my case, jog) down was enjoyable as well. I loved the facial expressions in response to “You’re almost there!” and some faces’ exasperated wondering how that kid could still have the energy to jog after this climb. (Besides the fifteen year old thing, I credit the wonders of grape-cranberry juice, whose benicial effects I learned about on a decent of Cathedral Mountain in Denali National Park.) I even saw some people turn around in the face of the disgustingly steep trail.

I arrived at the trailhead about thirty minutes before my father and got to practice my skills developed on TripAdvisor in person by telling countless groups that “No, it’s actually not ‘only two miles’.” The park service needs to make some more persuasive signals that this trail is slightly strenuous, as one idea, subtitle on the sign on the road before the trailhead: “Chimney Tops: Your calves will ache for days” or some such; of all the groups that passed me (and there were a lot) probably only two or three ever made it to the top. If only they had done a little reaserch or talked to a ranger at Sugarlands they could have found a more rewarding trail for their ability level, but no. *sighs* The begging flat part is very enjoyable, though, when it is not dreadfully crowded (a la nighttime).

Needless to say dad and I were had just a little bit of hunger gnawing at our insides, fitting perfectly with my plans to drive to Chimneys. Man, that place was packed. I could not imagine choosing that place over any other picnic area, but I guess all the other convenient ones were packed to. That just demonstrates yet again the wonderfulness of Greenbrier and Cosby.

Luckily, all those folks have no interest in nature trails or old growth forest, so the Cove Hardwood Trail (our actual destination) was blessedly devoid of fellow Homo Sapiens. There were streams flowing everywhere, even over the trail in some areas, and one kind of wildflowers dotted the forest floor. The size of the trees was not breathtaking but certainly appreciate-able and was still large enough to create that characteristic of little undergrowth that points out the best old growth in the park. Again, the accompanying pamphlet was really interesting, describing both the recent growth since a farm had been there and the old growth.

After returning to Smokemont I again ascended the nature trail to write an medias in res letter to my Idahoan cousins about my awesome Smokies trip, and again enjoyed the sights and smells all around me.

Easter Sunday

Definition of the day: “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” A phrase used to describe the state of travelers who have only seen hardwood old growth in the Smokies and have not yet ventured to Joyce Kilmer. In respect to Kilmer’s trees, Smokies old growth (besides maybe that of Albright Grove) is quaint.

The figure eight trail winds through a stream and rhododendron-laden environment not at all unlike the Smokies except in one respect: every fifth tree or so is absolutely massive. I have seen big trees out west in the Grove of the Patriarchs at Mt. Rainier, and while these are not quite as big (though for some it is very close) they are certainly the largest hardwoods I have ever laid eyes on. And it is not like you are going to see a few scattered trees; they have absolutely infested this place. I attempted to take pictures, but even with me or my dad in the frame for scale you cannot fathom the size. Heck, you can barley grasp their height when you are standing right next to one. I just could not grasp how high up the canopy was; it was identical to the feeling I had at St. Peter’s in Rome.

After an uneventful but beautiful drive on the Cherohala Skyway, we were home. This trip report was going to be a monster.

Kristian

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trip report

Post by don on Sun Jun 07, 2009 3:37 pm

Sounds like a great trip. I'm heading out on Wednesday to the North Carolina side. I did not know there was a church near Smokemont.
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Re: A slight change of plans

Post by Kristian on Sun Jun 07, 2009 3:54 pm

Yup! It's called Lufty Baptist Church.

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Re: A slight change of plans

Post by bhowdy on Sun Jun 07, 2009 4:58 pm

Wonderful report Kristian. It should help many others with the east side of the park and places to see, etc.
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