Over to Gatlinburg

Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Cherokee, NC

Hearing so many different reviews of Newfound Gap Road, the road through the middle of Great Smokey Mountains National Park, over the top of the Appalachian Mountains, and down into the Gatlinburg area, we decided to explore it for ourselves and determine if we feel comfortable taking it with the bus-house on Friday. We'll also have better opportunities to stop at pull-offs and overlooks along the way without having to deal with a 60 foot long bus-house + toad combination.

This string of great sunny days... it's been like this since Monday... has made the vistas of the park simply incredible. And the views from Newfound Gap Road are among the best. We left Smokemont about 10am, took a right turn, and started toward the top. At lower elevations the road is engulfed in trees, a canopy of foliage that kept the GPS from receiving a good signal much of the time. The summit is on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, is at an elevation of 5,048 feet, and is a cross-roads of sort with the popular Appalachian Trail hiking trail. Although only about 10 miles from Smokemont (at 2,200 feet elevation) we ascend almost 3,000 feet in that stretch. The little Chevy Blazer toad's tired V-6 motor struggled but didn't miss a beat.

There are a bunch of places to pull off and soak in the views. I think we stopped at most of them and took so many photos that Dar will be busy for days working on them. The problem is that you see a great view... you take a picture of it... probably two or three... then a bit later you see what might be a better view... so you take more pictures... over and over again. It was like that through the whole drive, up and down, the entire 25 miles to Gatlinburg. But I did find myself becoming less interested in picture-taking and preferred to just stand there, looking, and soaking it all in. It'd be easy to look at those views for hours and not grow tired.

From Great Smokey Mts

At the summit, the top, there's a big parking lot which was nearly full... busy, I thought, for a weekday. Great Smokey Mountain National Park is among the most visited parks in the National Park System and most of those visitors show up between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Colleges are on break, most public schools around here are done for the year, and people are starting to take vacations. This weekend is the first big weekend of the summer... and we're happy to leave and give them all more room.

At the top we stood on the monument where FDR dedicated Great Smokey Mountain National Park in 1940. We hiked a little on the Appalachian Trail... just to be able to say we did it. And we took more pictures.

From Great Smokey Mts

The drive down the western side toward Gatlinburg is more twisting and challenging than the eastern side. There are a few tunnels, a 360 degree spiraling curve, and a lot more pull-offs where one can rest and take in the view or walk down to a rushing creek along side the road for something different. Before long we found ourselves in Gatlinburg... for the first, and last time.

Gatlinburg is to the Great Smokey Mountains what the Wisconsin Dells is to the Wisconsin River. The main road through the center of town is filled with every imaginable tourist trap, chain restaurant, and amusement thing designed to separate tourists and their money. It went on for more than a mile, all of them gearing up for a big weekend ushering in a big summer. It's a stark contrast with the quiet natural peace of the Park. Gatlinburg makes Cherokee, on the other side, look like a quaint little town. We didn't stop and kept driving until we found ourselves at the doorstep of Pigeon Forge, home of Dolly Parton and the Dollywood Amusement Park.

I found the perfect one-stop place for a break where we could get a tank of gas, lunch, and free wi-fi internet access. After a quick lunch, a tank of gas, and an updated website we turned around and headed back to Smokemont. On the way back we found what I now consider the best thing about Gatlinburg -- a bypass road around it -- which is what we took back into the Park. An hour or so later, and after a few more stops along Newfound Gap Road, we were back to our camp where we enjoyed the rest of the afternoon.



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