You don’t know what you don’t know until you know. We thought 8 days in the Smokies would be plenty. We thought Smoky Mountain Spring would be snow-free. We learned.
Three campgrounds are open year round – Smokemont in the southeast, Elkmont in the northmiddle and Cades Cove in the northwest. We thought we’d get both activity and the gist of these mountains from these bases and move on. Now we know, this is just not so. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a very large eco-system. You can play here for weeks or longer. The park is optimal for back-country adventuring. The camping is intentionally rustic – that is the point.
If you want to see spectacular, you have to work for it. There are 850 miles of trails in the park. The shorties are vertical and the long ones are 5 miles plus. Some are in the teens. It’s hard to knock off multiple trails in a day and still have legs left. Having a car is must unless you are coming through by boot with a pack on the Appalachian Trail.
Having electric bikes is a huge plus especially in Smoky Mountain Spring when many iconic roads are closed to cars. Making plans is worth the fuss. We tackled a few excellent hikes. Newton Bald was false advertising, but the vertical climbs were all that a fitness trainer could ask for. The Deep Creek region is waterfall paradise all within reasonable day hiking distance. The hike to Alum Cave is just about perfect as it combines moderate vertical with raging river crossings on primitive log bridges with a stunning rock formation finale overlooking the park. There is even a Jurassic-park-like waterfall spilling down the side opposite of the overlook as if scripted by Spielberg.
We wanted to whitewater raft the Ocoee Middle River, but not open til March 28. We wanted to climb Mt. Cammerer but the Greenbrier/Cosby district in the northeast part of the park but that seemed too far for a day trip. We left feeling like we coulda-woulda-shoulda seen more.
Big Rig, Not So Much
When it was time to move, the rangers at the Oconoluftee Visitor Center gave us the bad news that the Cades Cove Campground was closed for repairs and Elkmont Campground was operating on Loop A only. The 50 mile stretch on 441N, which had be closed days before for ice and snow, also includes narrow ledges, switchbackroads, 7% up and down elevation grades, and narrow tunnels. We did not see a lot of big rigs on it and now we know why. By the time we got to Sugarland Visitor Center outside Gatlinburg, we agreed to take a break from dry camping, do one night in a private park for electric and a hot shower then head to Elkmont for the last few days before Kentucky.
A quick google search for cheap but decent RV park with availability during Smoky Mountain Spring Break and near the national park put us in Pigeon Forge, TN, home to Dollywood and about 10 miles from the Elkmont campground. We were back in civilization with electric and 70 cable TV channels, nestled into a gravel driveway surrounded by 40 fort motor homes. It’s not our preferred set-up but sometimes you need to sacrifice beauty for utility, or at least have a place to hole-up while you figure out what’s next.
What’s next turned into we’re still here. It turns out Elkmont is for tenters in the Spring. The drive in is intense – tight hairpin turns with close cropped granite walls on one side and hold your breath steep drop off to the river on the other. Boss is a beast, but no way he was putting Roxie in that position. Continuing on to Cades Cove was 20 miles and an hour of snaking drop-off views. Spring Breakers were out in force, crowding stops like Laurel Falls and causing backups from slow going roads.
Bike the Motor-Trails Off-season
Clingmans Dome was our first. The Cades Cove 11 mile motor loop is a picture perfect valley surrounded by mountains. We took the Comos off the truck and kept up with the slow moving cars, which is easy to do with electric assist. Regular bikes might prefer to ride on Wednesday or Saturday mornings when they close the loop to cars.
Along the way we detoured onto the Rich Mountain Road, a 12 mile shortcut motor trail, closed Dec 1 – Mar 15 that connects Cades to Townsend in the north. It’s an off-the-beaten hardwood forest experience on steep grades perfect for mountain bikers. Now hooked on biking the motor trails, we hit the Roaring Fork 5 miler from Cherokee Orchard to Ely’s Mill, another closed-to-cars road. The stunning ride tracks the Roaring Fork river with all of its steep drops and tight turns. When it opens next month it will most likely be bumper-to-bumper autos in first gear descent. For us it was desolate perfection on a bike with turn after turn of jaw-dropping beauty.
Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are the East Coast’s version of a shore town. A main drag lined with mini golf, go karts, souvenir shops and arcades. There’s a Margaritaville resort, Pirate themed dinner theater and dozen of Old Time Photo studios. Dollywood is the main gig, along with Cal Ripken baseball experience and of course the National Park. Here you get the smaller town version of Disney and Ocean City rolled into one. Next time you east-coasters are at the shore wondering how middle America summers, know that there is no shortage of cabins and condos, mini-golf and novelty t-shirt stores perched on the park boundary of epic beauty.