Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Days 29-32: The Great Smokies

Finishing the Blue Ridge Parkway
The southern part of the Blue Ridge Parkway was much better than the northern part, with better overlooks...
~270 mile marker 
A little farther south 
Grandfather Mountain 
An easy overlook to hike to 
Farther south still 
Lakes in the valleys 
Across North Carolina 
More of why they are called the Smokies
I'll come back to that last photo in a moment.

The road was only finished in 1987 with the building of a viaduct around Grandfather Mountain pictured above.
The snaking bridge
The model of the bridge being built 
Under it
We stopped for lunch next to a river which was popular with swimmers and fishermen.
A young man tries his luck
Of course there were tunnels for Karen to play in.
Chasing a biker 
Still chasing 
Quite the brightness contrast 
The longest tunnel of all
The road peaks out at just over 6,000' elevation just before making the National Park.
The marker with no tourists
Hiking the Appalachian Trail
We wanted to avoid the crowds on Memorial Day, but the weather forecast said Monday was the day to go out hiking, and so we did. It was busy; we probably ran into ~50 people on the 8 mile round trip hike we took, from day hikers to more people walking the trail from end to end.

There's bears in the Smokies. Want proof?
Bear scat, one of 3 piles we saw on the trail
I was under-impressed by the quality of the trail. Many sections were like this:
Heavily rutted
The trail was 18"-24" below grade, eroded from years of feet. The ground around the trail would have been nice to walk on, but the trail itself was exposed rock and not fun. There are shelters scattered throughout the park. They're really just giant open lean-to's, with huge bunks that sleep ~24 people, 12 above and 12 below.
KC in front of the bunks
The water source. Treat before drinking
We hiked to a rock outcrop called Charlie's Bunion.
Charlie's Bunion Rock, dead centre 
Zoomed in showing folks on it
Here's the view while sitting on the rock.
My feet 
Looking north 
Clouds building 
Look to the extreme left on the ridge edge
The mountain in the photo above is Mt. LeConte. It's visible as the centre peak in the photo above captioned "More of why they call it the Smokies".

The hike climbs 1,100', then descended another 250' to the Bunion. Then you climbed that 250' back up again to descend. But we opted to climb a bit higher to The Jump Off, which is on the extreme left ridge edge in the photo above. Right from the peak of the Bunion hike, you climb again, another 200', then descend ~100' to the cliff edge where the first two photos were taken (then climb back up). And when I say cliff, it was a 1,500' vertical drop. It was hot (26° C) and humid, and KC's energy petered out just as we were to descend to the Jump Off, so she never made it. All told, it was a 8.7 miles (14 km) round trip with a total 2,080' (630 m) height gain. Not an easy trail. The trail condition was poor, and while the views at the end were nice, it was mostly a disenchanted forest walk. Meh.

The Weather Changes
The weather Tuesday proved that our choice to hike Monday was a good one, as it socked in and rained occasionally during the day. We drove around doing short walks here and there. We went up to Clingman's Dome, the highest point on the Appalachian Trail, and second highest point in the Appalachians. And the home of a UFO landing pad.
The Observation Tower 
Sun in the distance 
Rain arrives 
Clear in North Carolina
The woods here remind me of hiking on Maui, hot (29°) and humid. But because the woods here are native, they are more full of native birds and animals.
Is a snail an animal?
Like Maui, there are waterfalls everywhere, some big, mostly small.
One of many waterfalls
We drove the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which was a painful experience. It's a single lane, 10 mph road, and the tourists like to just park in the middle of the road and block it while gawking at everything from a squirrel to a unique tree. We ran into a multiple car jam with a whole lot of folks out of their car looking for a bear (hint: if you see a bear, get IN your car, not out of it). Hated the drive. Then we came through Gatlinburg, Tennesee, a place that makes Myrtle Beach look charming.

There were no showers in the campground, so we had to drive out of the park to take a shower on both Monday and Tuesday. On Tuesday, by late afternoon, it was raining just outside the park, but not at the campsite. We got back from showering at ~6 PM and started to set up the rain shelter over the picnic ground, convinced rain was coming. We were about 20% up when the heavens opened with a thunderstorm. We finished getting it up in driving rain, and got soaked in the process (shades of Ocracoke). We were worried that the tent might leak; it wouldn't have, except I had left the door open (duh), so we had to dry that out a bit, too. It rained harder and harder as I cooked dinner crouching under the shelter, and we ate in a huge downpour with water splattering dirt up onto the picnic table and rivers flowing down the roads through the campsite. We did dishes in the rain in the wash house sink, and sat under the shelter until the rain finally let up around 10 PM. It didn't rain overnight, but it did drip from the trees relentlessly.

Moving On
So this morning, we had to pack up and head out, meaning we had to pack up the tent in a state of dampness. It will probably be moldy by the time we get home.

We headed out today, past Gatlinburg and immediately ran into Dollywood -- Dolly Parton's Theme Park.
Which is bigger, her or her coaster?
Her very own road
The journey today took us out from North Carolina, across Tennessee, through Kentucky and into southern Illinois. Four states in one day. Cool, though the drive itself was boring and lacked any interest save for a couple of cool bridges. Tomorrow we go through Missouri and into Iowa.

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