This morning I awoke in the east, and now I am in the uttermost west. Well, probably not the most uttermost, but there are several 6,000-foot peaks between Asheville and my current home: The Comfort Inn & Suites at Dollywood Lane in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Let’s parse that name for a moment, because it’s perhaps the greatest place name in the history of mankind. Dollywood Lane does, in fact, refer to the theme park based around the large-bosomed country singer. Dollywood is right down the street, and while I don’t plan on going, Ms. Parton has infiltrated much of this town, for better or for worse. Her ghoulish likeness is on my room key, advertising “Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede,” which is apparently some kind of strange animatronic dinner theater production. I bet if I tried hard enough I could come away with at least a life-sized cardboard cutout of her. But wait! We haven’t even talked about the name “Pigeon Forge” yet! Picture, if you will, a pigeon forge. Is this an iron smelting forge fed by pigeons? “Quick, Larry! Throw some more pigeons on the fire before that metal hardens!” Or maybe it’s a forge that makes pigeons? Who knows.
Back in the east, I checked the Waffle House off my bucket list this morning. I’m now told I committed a major faux pas by not ordering chicken on a waffle. There wasn’t a special that involved both items, and I wasn’t about to ask the very southern waitress how to best appear to be authentically southern (By the way, I think I found the only backcountry southern establishment in all of Asheville, which is known for it’s cosmopolitan liberalism). So instead, I had a waffle and I even put syrup on it – a very unusual amendment for me. (I guess I did it right, because my blood sugar didn’t go above 80 for the next 8 hours.) Overall, I’d give the place a 3.5 out of 5. It was pretty good, and would probably be great under certain conditions. In terms of classy ambience, it carefully walked that thin line between McDonalds and most diners (the fact that the waitresses kept referring to one of the regulars there as Steve-O probably brought it down a peg too).
On to the main attraction of the day – Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Well, almost. I drove to the edge of the park before making a hard right turn and driving through the Cherokee Indian Reservation, which appeared to be largely deserted for the winter. About 10 miles down the road was a small sign for the Mingo Falls trailhead. I hiked up what must have been a few hundred stairs before walking onto a bridge over a stream and coming face to face with the falls. For an area with countless waterfalls, this one stands out. At over 180 feet high and looming right over you at the end of the trail, this thing was breathtaking.
Here came my first opportunity to try out waterfall photography in a long time. What makes them tricky is that you want a long exposure so the water looks all smooth and wispy, but you’re often taking the picture in broad daylight. So it’s very easy to overexpose them. My solution? Take about 200 pictures and hope that one or two came out ok.
Then it was really time for the main attraction of the day. Unlike Shenandoah, which kicked me out before getting to the national park-y stuff, I was able to take my more traditional route of stopping first at the visitor center and filling in the details of my day. While this is the only national park I’ve been to twice, I’m still counting it as my 16th national park, since the first time didn’t really count – just an afternoon as part of an environmental science teacher’s workshop on the very outskirts of the park – so I hadn’t seen any of the real park stuff before.
Today’s plan was pretty much to tour the Newfound Gap Road – the only road that crosses through the Smokies and over the state line. Along the way were the requisite scenic overlooks…
…culminating at Newfound Gap itself. At over 5,000 feet in elevation, the highest point on the road comes at the North Carolina / Tennessee border and held the best views of the day looking back east into NC.
Moving on into Tennessee (or as one of my camp bosses called it, “Teeeeeeennesee!”), I reached the trailhead for the most substantial hike of not only the day, but the entire trip. The Alum Cave Bluffs trail winds 2.4 miles each direction, gaining 1,300 feet in elevation along the way. It’s as strenuous, if not more so, than Delicate Arch. The trail parallels a stream, crossing over it several times.
I’m not sure what they were thinking when they designed these crossings, but this is how they thought to engineer them:
Would it have killed them to add a guardrail or something on both sides? I guess this just added to the sense of adventure, because in reality there was no possibility of me falling into that stream and getting swept into the Gulf of Mexico (Yes, I’m west of the Eastern Continental Divide again).
At the halfway point I came to a feature known as Arch Rock, probably so named because it’s a rock that looks like an arch. Big arch. Tall arch. Wide arch. Can’t go over the arch, can’t go under the arch, can’t go around the arch, so I guess we’ll go through that arch. With a series of stairs and a cable for very little extra stability.
After Arch Rock I decided I’d earned a brief rest so I took out the 50-cent trail nature guide I picked up earlier and read about what to expect from this point on. What concerned me was where it said “From this point, the trail begins to climb more quickly.” I had been under the impression that I was already climbing fairly quickly, and figured I’d already gained at least 500 feet. Apparently I was wrong. Soon I had to start the just-get-to-that-tree-and-then-you-can-stop-to-rest game. I felt like I was a hiking failure, although the fact that no one passed me on the way up probably meant that everyone else was having the same problem.
Finally, I arrived at the Alum Bluffs, which aren’t really a cave, but a massive rock overhang. I assume alum is like sulfur, because these rocks were yellow and stinky. Overall, I wasn’t all that impressed with the views, but I was very impressed with myself. This was a real test – if I could finish this schlep, the next time I’m in Yosemite I should be able to do part of the Yosemite Falls trail some pieces of the valley-to-rim trails.
Coming down was much nicer, despite being a bit of a knee-breaker. Oh you don’t know what a knee-breaker is? Maybe that’s because I made it up. It’s that thing where gravity wants you to keep going and fall over and you spend most of your energy stopping yourself, so your knees get really tired by the end. But compared to the hellish ascent, I barely broke a sweat on this half. Upon reaching the bottom, I rewarded myself with a sandwich.
My sunset plan was to find a spot called the Morton Overlook, which I had written down as “close to the NC / TN border.” But despite several trips up and down the road looking for it, it was nowhere to be found. So I headed back to Newfound Gap, which had my favorite distant-mountains views of the day. By this point, though, it was getting cold at that height (the only place on the road where I was even a little concerned about black ice – you hear that, Blue Ridge Parkway people? You can reopen yo’ damn road now!). I ended up sitting in the car and getting out to take a picture or two every time the lighting changed enough to warrant it. This approach probably saved me taking 20-30 pictures which I would have later deleted anyway, since they would have all looked the same. Here are my favorite results:
Tomorrow it’s back into the park to explore some of the other areas, see at least 3 more waterfalls, and maybe even find a medium-to-large sized animal. Then I have to make sure I get back to Pigeon Forge in time to start scouting kitschy Dolly swag – as if there’ any other kind.