Day 57 - Hiking In The Great Smoky Mountains National Park - Our Favorite Pastime!

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July 20th 2017
Published: July 21st 2017
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Our original plans had called for visiting a couple of caves in the Gatlinburg area, but we quickly realized that we were in Gatlinburg, and it would be senseless to pass up an opportunity to explore the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in order to see some more caves! When we checked with the Park Ranger last night, he suggested 3 hikes: 1.3 miles to Laurel Falls, 1.3 miles to Grotto Falls, and 0.5 miles to Clingman's Dome. He suggested we do Clingman's Dome in the afternoon so that the heat of the day would burn off the fog and make the visibility better. So after a quick breakfast at the hotel, that is what we set out to do.

The weather report called for temperatures in the upper 80's to low 90's, so we would definitely need shorts to hike. Since the first hike was only a few miles from the hotel, we decided to put shorts on right away and carry long pants in case it was colder at higher altitudes. before we got started though, we decided to take a walk down to the end of town to visit Arrowmont, a local arts and crafts school that teaches sculpture and metal working, subjects that Jody loves. We looked around and picked up a catalog, and maybe Jody can do a trip back up here next year to attend.

After checking out Arrowmont, we hopped on the bike and headed over to the parking lot at Laurel Falls. The parking lot was already full, and cars were beginning to line the sides of the roadway in both directions. We spotted a flat spot between 2 cars that was just big enough for a motorcycle and managed to squeeze in. This gave us a spot close to the start of the trail. The trail was very narrow, but it was paved, with a fairly steep slope in spots. Laurel Falls is one of the most popular spots in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, so the path was crowded, with traffic in both directions. Most of the time we were hiking in single file, to make room for other hikers who were descending. Everyone was friendly and having a good time! A lot of the path was on the side of the mountain with a very steep drop over the edge. There were signs warning parents to keep an eye on their children as falling over the edge could be deadly.

It was early in the day, around 9:30 when we started out. The crowd was a mixture of young and old. The slope wasn't too steep, but there were a few times we stopped for a little break along the way. As we approached the 1.3 mile marker, we could hear the sound of the waterfall. Once we came around the corer, it was right there and spectacular! Laurel Falls is about 80 feet tall, but it splits into an upper falls and lower falls. There is a flat spot between them which is where a bridge is built so you can walk out on the rocks and take pictures. It wasn't too crowded yet, so we were able to take a few pictures of ourselves, and someone offered to take a picture of us together, so of course we did that also.

The crowd was starting to get a little larger around the bridge, so we decided to take the path down to the lower falls. I say "path" loosely as it is more a worn section between a bunch of rocks where we could climb down. It wasn't too bad, but we were very glad we were wearing good hiking shoes. We took a few more pictures at the lower falls, and decided it was time to begin the hike back down the mountain. The climb down was much easier than the climb up, which is why when we do a hike that involves an ascent, we always like climbing up to the destination and down back to the bike. It's always easier to garner enthusiasm for the harder climb knowing the attraction is at the end. It's much tougher after and easy climb down to the attraction to get the necessary strength for a substantial climb back up to the bike.

By the time we made it back to the bike, it was getting close to 11:30, so our next stop was the Visitors Center to use the restroom and also to watch the obligatory 20 minute movie that we missed yesterday. By the time we were done with the Visitors Center, we were ready to head to our second hike: Grotto Falls. I had some trouble deciphering the map for the initial turns out of the Visitors Center and somehow we missed a turn. So we decided that since it was getting to be about noon, we should just head over to Clingman's Dome which is about 25 miles away. We can always do Grotto Falls on the way back.

The road to Clingman's Dome starts out on the main road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park which is called Newfound Gap Road and leads from Gatlinburg, TN across the North Carolina border into Cherokee, the Indian reservation we passed through yesterday. Halfway down Newfound Gap Road, there is a turnoff onto Clingman's Dome Road which is 7 miles up to the parking lot. What we didn't notice from the map, was that the claim to fame for Clingman's Dome is that it is the highest point in the Smoky Mountains, the state of Tennessee, and the Appalachian Trail at 6643 feet. Since Gatlinburg is at about 1289 ft, we would be climbing over 5000 ft! So it was a wild ride up Newfound Gap Road, they even had a corkscrew turn of over 360 degrees that wound over itself and a few more tunnels. It made for some great motorcycle riding. Needless to say, the 7 mile long Clingman's Dome road was also ascending.

By the time we reached the parking lot at Clingman's Dome, the temperature had dropped from 88 degrees to 68 degrees and the shorts were beginning to feel a bit cold. The restrooms were the outhouse style and didn't smell particularly good, but there was nowhere else to change, so we grabbed our long pants and changed. Our shorts were relegated back to the bike for the rest of the day. Now that we were dressed a little more warmly, we headed over to the small Visitors Center to get our passports stamped and headed up the trail. The Park Ranger told us that it was only a half mile long, but it was a little steep. A little steep? It was a LOT steep, probably the steepest trail we had ever climbed. But it was only a half mile and there were several benches along the way to rest. At the top of the trail was a massive concrete observation platform with a huge spiral ramp leading up to it. This gave us 360 degree visibility from the highest point in the mountains so the view was spectacular!

There were a lot of people at the observation platform, but everyone was nice, and we were able to take lots of pictures of the view and of each other. The hike back down was also much easier, but it seemed like if we ever fell, we would roll all the way to the bottom! By the time we made it back to the bike it was getting close to 2:00, and we were both hungry. None of the Visitors Centers we had visited had any kind of food concession, so we decided that since our next destination was to the end of Newfound Gap Road, we would grab some lunch in Cherokee. The rest of the Newfound Gap Road ride was almost as awesome as the first half and in no time we were in Cherokee. We found a McDonald's in Cherokee and had a quick lunch. There were lots of tourist trap stores throughout Cherokee, and we even passed the Casino, but none of it really interested us so we decided to head back the same way. We stopped at the Oconaluftee Visitors Center on the North Carolina side of the park to get our passports stamped and rode all the way back to Gatlinburg on the Newfound Gap Road.

The traffic was a little heavier on the ride back, but the views and the ride were just as spectacular all the way to Gatlinburg. By now it was getting close to 4:30, and just too late for Grotto Falls. We'll have to save it for our next trip up here! In the end we both had covered about 8 miles and almost 20,000 steps according to our Fitbit. Since we had eaten a late lunch, pizza fr dinner sounded great. TripAdvisor has Big Daddy's Pizza as the best in Gatlinburg, so we had to try. I must admit, it's one of the best pizza's I've ever had!

Tomorrow, we head out of the mountains as we head east to Charlotte, NC and a visit to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. We have a night booked in a Doubletree Hotel tomorrow, so we're both looking forward to the best beds in Hilton, and a great night's sleep.

101.5 Miles Today

8984.7 Miles Total

5.836 Gallons Today

225.230 Gallons Total

Additional photos below
Photos: 29, Displayed: 28


Tot: 0.045s; Tpl: 0.019s; cc: 10; qc: 49; dbt: 0.0121s; 1; m:saturn w:www (; sld: 1; ; mem: 1.4mb