Smoky Mountains

Old Jun 13th, 2021, 02:19 PM
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Smoky Mountains

This was a short trip (emphasis on nature & history) but lots of fun.We left from Atlanta Sunday morning and drove up I-75, then federal highway 411 through pretty low north GA mountains and into Maryville, TN, just south of Knoxville. Stopped once on Highway 411 near Benton, TN for a brief walk up to the hilltop grave site of Nancy Ward, Beloved Woman of the OverHill Cherokee, and her son, FiveKiller. There was good signage at the little park & it was a nice break, with nice views. There were a couple of picnic tables at the adjacent river access; would have been a good stop for a picnic.

After Maryville, we turned east towards Townsend, which bills itself as the “quiet side of the Smokies”, headed for the Dancing Bear Lodge. We stayed in a cabin (named “Gregory Bald”) which was a good fit; cabin was designed for 4 people, had small kitchen and living room, big back porch, a bedroom & bath on main floor and a bedroom & bath up in the loft.

Cabin was last one on the road, right next to one of the Lodge’s trailheads so I could either walk on a trail or walk in the complex for my early morning or late evening walks. In spite of the Lodge's name, the only wildlife I saw were rabbits and lots of birds.

It was only 3:00 so we first checked out the Visitor Center (crowded and busy); and the old cemetery next to it. Townsend is in Tuckaleechee Cove, which was settled a decade or so before Cades Cove, our destination for the next day. Only had the chance to speak to the "information volunteer" for a few minutes but grateful for her advice and grateful that I purchased the Cades Cove Tour booklet there. I had downloaded the Cades Cove app but it was not useful.

We spent about a half hour in Townsend's free railroad and local history museum; again, volunteer at the museum was very helpful in giving us background about Cades Cove. The museum concentrated on the logging history of the area & had big outdoor train engines. We walked down to a swinging bridge over the Little River & watched kids and families tubing down the calm section of the river in town. Then walked the section of the town's Riverwalk that is maintained as an arboretum by Blount County master gardeners; they've done a great job of marking the common trees that one is most likely to see during time in the Smokies. Well worth the 45 minutes or so that it took for the trail.

Next day was for Cades Cove, said to be the most popular destination in the most popular national park. The Visitor Center volunteer told us to get there early and expect to wait in lines of traffic but it was never terribly crowded. Maybe because it was a cloudy Monday, with a 70% chance of rain. .

Although we stayed in the nearest small town, it still took about 30 minutes to get to the entrance of Cades Cove. But even the scenery there was beautiful . . . a small rushing river along the road with big stones making tiny waterfalls and shoals.

Cades Cove itself is flat, with beautiful, fertile meadows (once fields), surrounded by mountains. The first settlers, the Olivers, came in 1819 and it was their log cabin, along side a stream that we visited first. Even at 9:00, the closest parking area was full so we walked through the meadow, with all its wildflowers, to reach the cabin. All the cabins in the park are open so you can go through them although only a couple gave you access to the lofts (and I did heave myself up to get to those.) We visited every cabin, every church, and maybe even every barn in Cades Cove.

The park service tore down all the frame homes in Cades Cove when they took it over in the late 1930s; also most of the farm buildings that were built after the 1880s. So what is left is a view of Cades Cove as it was in its early times.

The weather was mostly cloudy the entire day with occasional sprinkles and one long heavy rain so we could often see the mist and clouds that indeed took color from all the blue greens of the trees on mountain tops . . . they truly looked smoky.

There were three churches in Cades Cove & we stopped at all of them . . . the Primitive Baptist Church first. Unpainted walls, wooden floor, wooden benches, no musical instruments, no electricity, a plain altar and nothing on the walls. We wandered the cemetery & saw the grave of Russell Gregory, first settler on Gregory Bald (our Dancing Bear Lodge cabin’s namesake). He died in 1864 and his tombstone says “murdered by North Carolina rebels”.

I'm glad that I had researched some about Cades Cove before the trip; there are no interpretative signs and certainly no rangers around to give background for what one is seeing. The area was at least half Unionist; the members of the Primitive Baptist Church entirely Unionist and they were unable to hold services from 1862-1865 since it was dangerous for them to gather.

We went on the Missionary Baptist Church (whitewashed walls and ceilings, piano) and the Methodist Church (painted walls and ceiling, piano). None of the churches had crosses; all had bells though.

Very interesting to wander all three cemeteries; so many graves of young children and babies really brings home how hard this life was.

There is a real lack of bathrooms at Cades Cove. They exist only at the entrance and at the gift shop/visitor center about 2/3rds of the way through the drive. On one of our walks to an off-road cabin, I had to head down a side trail for about 5 minutes.

Visitor Center not what we expected when we arrived at almost 1:00 – large parking lot, no picnic area, no picnic tables at all. Didn’t matter as it turned out since it started raining then. Luckily we had pre-made our sandwiches back at the cabin and we just ate in the vehicle, watching other folks dashing around to the bathroom. The rain was so heavy at times that the parking lot was covered in water. When rain stopped, we toured the area . . . a nice frame house & store, a grist mill, a mill flume, a cantilever barn, cane mill & sorghum furnace, etc. Visitor Center itself is a small gift shop, nothing more.

We had seen turkey as we were driving the loop road but it was while we were in this most crowded area that we saw our first deer, in one of the meadows.

Beautiful views everywhere of the mountains surrounding the cove; meadows with beautiful grasses and wildflowers, streams everywhere and always trees, of course! It was when we were close to the end that we had our best wildlife sightings – we stopped with a little of crowd of others to watch a small bear in a meadow and then there were several deer by the road. We stopped right next to them to let them cross the road in front of us and could see their velvety antlers starting to come in. From what I had read about Cades Cove, I expected to see lots of bears but that didn't happened.

We returned to Townsend by retracing a couple of miles of the loop drive, then turning off to go over Rich Mountain (most of this road was one lane out of the park); got great views down into Cades Cove and of the surrounding soft mountains.
We had arrived at Cades Cove around 9:00 & left it about 4:00. While we did make all the stops and walk to the ones off the road, we didn't go on any trails. The Abrams Fall Trail was closed.

Got takeout from the Appalachian Café & had supper back at the cabin; then researched for the next day’s trip. There was good wifi at the cabin; thankfully. To be continued . . .
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Old Jun 14th, 2021, 07:53 AM
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Lucky you for getting a reservation at Dancing Bear Lodge. We've made reservations three times, only to have each cancelled because the lodge was subsequently booked for weddings! 🤣

Our first tour of the Cades Cove Loop was early May 2020, and the odds of having spotted NINE bears was ever in our favor. The park had just recently reopened from the pandemic shut down, so the wildlife had been free to wander about without humans for a couple of months; and we arrived just before the road opened on our visit, so it was not yet crowded. We have returned four times over the last year and have not seen so much as a turkey.
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Old Jun 14th, 2021, 04:04 PM
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We were there Sunday-Tuesday nights so perhaps that explains our good luck.

I had been under the impression from looking at Facebook groups about Cades Cove and the Smokies that bear sightings must be common. Not so! I kept thinking how gorgeous the whole area must be in the fall and then I also thought of how clogged the roads must be then, too.

I am reading a book now, Cades Cove: The Life and Death of A Southern Appalachian Community. by Durwood Dunn, a descendant of the first settlers, that is giving me a better understanding of the area.
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Old Jun 15th, 2021, 05:09 AM
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Originally Posted by CLBtravel

I had been under the impression from looking at Facebook groups about Cades Cove and the Smokies that bear sightings must be common. Not so! I kept thinking how gorgeous the whole area must be in the fall and then I also thought of how clogged the roads must be then, too.
They are plentiful. Seeing them is another thing!

I grew up visiting the park and many years ago the bears were "encouraged" to hang out in the campsites. Bear management has changed but it's still common to see them. I often see them in late afternoons as I drive through the park.

Really enjoying your trip report! Great details!
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Old Jun 15th, 2021, 02:25 PM
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Thank you! Many years ago I was a tent camper & it was much easier to see wildlife when you could be inside the parks early in the morning and late in the evening. Maybe, if I visit again, I can be out on the Cades Cove road late in the day.
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Old Jun 15th, 2021, 02:27 PM
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Continuation of trip report . . . We decided to walk the Middle Prong trail the next morning (not far from Townsend, near Tremont). It’s an 8 mile loop but we did about 2 ½ hours total; out & back. It was a “gravel road” trail, closed to all traffic, so easy walking, although uphill. So many waterfalls along the Little River! Mountain laurel blooms were past their prime but still pretty along the river. The parking lot had been half full when we got there at 9:30 but starting to overflow when we returned.

We drove on to the marked picnic area, Metcalf Bottoms, on the map, pleasantly surprised that we were able to get a table by the river; it was a huge picnic area/recreation area in a flat, calm area of the river, with lots of bathrooms and big bear-proof trash cans. Lots of families here with children splashing in water or inter-tubing around, older folks sitting in lawn chairs with their feet in the river.

Then we drove a few more miles to Little Greenbrier School -- how those children could see in such a dark building or sit still on such cramped hard benches is hard to imagine.

We then headed out for the “easy walk” to the Walker Sisters’ cabin. Beautiful walk but a little over half way there we heard thunder. We decided to go on but soon became obvious that it was going to rain although there had only been a few puffy white clouds when we set out less than 30 minutes earlier.

Just as we got in sight of the cabin, we saw 2 families with small children and a baby heading out . . . we were lucky to get to the cabin porch just as the first drops starting falling, they must have been totally drenched by the time they reached the parking lot. The cabin had a deep porch & we could also go inside. We had the place to ourselves so we imagined ourselves one of the 5 Walker sisters who refused to leave their homes after the park service had bought the rest of the community out & stayed until their deaths from old age, into the 1960s. Again, daughter had downloaded information that told us that they made or grew almost everything (wool & flax for clothes, etc.) and the few things they couldn’t make, they ordered from Sears Roebuck. There’s no interpretative information at these cabins; buy the park books or download & research ahead of time!

Drove on then to Elkmont, formerly a timber town and an early 1920s “resort” where wealthy Knoxville folks owned small cabins along Little River. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take the side road to Jakes Creek Trail that we had planned to hike because, at 4:00, it was being closed in preparation for their last night of “firefly watching”. Seems that early June is the best time and this was the best area to see the synchronous fireflies; there’s even a lottery to get a spot for it.

Maybe just as well; we returned to Townsend, stopped at the IGA for fried chicken from their deli and did some Internet planning for the next day. There are plenty of restaurants in Townsend but at the moment, they all seem to have “Help Wanted” signs up & I still have some covid concerns.

Next day didn’t go quite as planned but still good. We stopped again at Elkmont on our way to Highway 441 (which cuts south across the mountains and the park); this time we got to the Jakes Creek Trailhead and set out on what the trail website said was an easy hike to Avent Cabin, it said the only tricky part was to find the unmarked side trail. (That should have been a clue). We persevered, all uphill and finally found the side trail. We headed downhill, to the river, and crossed the river on a very narrow foot bridge, then clambered up through a muddy section to the cabin itself, which was used as late as the 1960s by a well known artist.

Then . . . on to Highway 441, very congested traffic around Sugarlands Visitor Center (we had planned to check it out but changed our mind); stopped for lunch at another large picnic area and then, soon after we started crossing the mountains, we ran into construction. We were stopped for an hour and then had stop and go construction traffic for another hour. It sapped our energy and our time; we got our views from the car, we didn’t even stop at the overlooks. Finally, traffic better and we were quickly down at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, south entrance, near Cherokee. And here, by the side of the road, we had another good wildlife sighting – either very large deer or possibly elk.

We drove on through Cherokee without stopping, too, although I was tempted by their large Museum of the Cherokee People. Maybe another time.

Highly recommend Dancing Bear; quiet location, charming cabin, bed very comfortable, wifi fast, and they provided a “hiker’s breakfast” for each morning (granola, yogurt, fruit, juice, coffee/tea). Wonder how bad the traffic is around the area in October? Scenery must be glorious when the leaves change color.

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