Trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was one of our first decisions after purchasing the motorhome. Our journey took us to our first Harvest Host stay at Cedar Creek Winery. Located in Martinsville, Indiana, the winery was not far off the route. They have both wine and beer sampling rooms. Julie and Brandon were very nice and provided information about the wine/beer that we sampled. After closing time, we had the place to ourselves until we left the following morning.

We drove to our next stop at Norris Dam State Park in Lake City, Tennessee. The GPS wasn’t very helpful locating the park, nor were the signs informative. Winding along roads, which I thought were small we decided we were lost. I stopped a local to ask where the campground was. He chuckled and asked if I was following my GPS. He said that the GPS usually directed people up the road next to me that he referred to as a “hog path”. He then directed me to a campground, but not the State Park. img_0735After a few wrong turns which took us across the dam, we found the campground. Only a few campers occupied sites. The park office was closed and nobody was around to check in with. Since I already reserved the site and paid online, we drove to our site. The site was nice, had a paved pad and a slight incline. The $20 site fee included water and electric.

Before leaving on our trip, we decided to rent a car for mobility when we were in the national park. Renting from Enterprise was somewhat easy. Access to the Enterprise location was terrible. Trying to cross a busy highway and later merge onto it without any let-up in traffic was nerve-wracking. Perhaps I should have had them bring the car to me and pick it up when we left. But I didn’t. Later we realized that the car had a little over a 1/4 tank of gas. First stop was a gas station in Townsend, TN to fill up right away. Gayle called to complain but the office was already closed for the day. I called the next day and was told that we could return the car with the tank only 1/4 full.

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The next four nights, we camped in the Cades Cove campground. Like Norris Dam State Park, there were many open sites. Nobody camped behind us nor to one side. On our last night, somebody pulled into the site behind us. Not sure if this group were professional musicians or not; but who travels in a trailer with a guitar, banjo and a bass? In the evening, our new neighbors provided an impromptu bluegrass music concert which Gayle and I enjoyed in the light of a full moon. Within the campground, we did not see any wildlife other than crows. However, we were told that the bears were very active.img_0746

Hiking was number one on our agenda during this trip. Every hike we took had a waterfall destination. Our first hike was to Laurel Falls. The trail was all uphill, but not strenuous. The bonus, it was all downhill on the way back.

Cades Cove has an eleven mile loop road through the cove. When busy, expect this drive to take well over an hour or two. On Wednesday and Saturday mornings they close the road to traffic for hikers and bicycles. We thought about renting bikes and decided to drive the road first. We were glad we did as some of the hills would prove to be very tiring on a bike. We drove at dusk hoping to see the wildlife – bears, elk & deer. We saw no elk nor bears. We did see the horses, wild turkeys and four deer.

Our second hike was on the south side of the park. We travelled the 31 mile Newfound Gap Road into North Carolina and the Deep Creek campground area. The drive was pleasant with many views of the mountains. Driving 35 mph never felt as fast as it does driving through the many twists, turns and tunnels along the route. I stopped more times than Gayle preferred to take pictures of the mountains.  I kept trying to get that perfect shot of the razor-sharp mountains in the blue haze.

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Once we reached the town of Cherokee, we headed west to Bryson then back north into the park along Deep Creek.  The hike at Deep Creek took us to three small waterfalls. The hike is fairly level and a bit over 2 miles. Along the trail, benches have been placed to stop and enjoy the soothing sounds of the water from the creek and waterfalls.

Our last hike to Abrams Falls was the toughest. It is moderate to strenuous. We seldom walked on flat ground. Most of the hike was going up and down over ridges, roots and rocks. I marked the half way point as a spot at the top of a ridge with a nice cool breeze and a small amount of shade. Neither of these awaited us on our return to that spot. We made the mistake of not taking our lunch with us and had nothing but water on the hike. The sign at the start of the hike is correct. We took about 4 hours to complete the hike. Our return was in the sun and more difficult than the journey to the falls. Although this was the largest waterfall by volume of water, it was not my favorite. We encountered the most people along this hike. Water is a must, food/snacks and hiking poles recommended. Along the trail are four log bridges to cross. Some are not in the best shape. A railing is provided in case your balance while crossing falters. We did not fall in, nor drop the car keys or phone. “Whew!”

Gayle cooled her feet for a bit in the water as I scampered about taking pictures. While resting on the rocks, a huge spider came out from the rocks and advanced towards Gayle. It was missing two legs, but looked menacing. I still need to identify what kind it was.img_1074I thought it was somewhat funny as we kept running into the same couples on our hikes. I guess we all had the same hiking plans. It did make the hikes a bit more enjoyable as we discussed what we liked about each hike.

One caution for those planning to take the Abrams Falls Trail. To get to the trail, you must first drive more than half the Cades Cove Loop Road. With the slow vehicles in front of us, it delayed our start by about one hour. We should have left our campsite earlier.

There is no cell service or internet in Cades Cove. We did find that we had a few bars of service at the Sugarland Visitor Center. While at the visitor center, we took advantage of the service to find and reserve a campground for the  first night of our return trip. The drive across Tennessee was free of road construction, and only busy when we neared Nashville.

Our last stop on the trip home was at Wolf Creek State Park on Lake Shelbyville in Illinois. I selected this spot because it was along our route home and brought back childhood memories. My grandparents parked their trailer and boat all summer long, at a park along Lake Shelbyville. I have fond memories of fishing with my grandfather on the lake. I also did a bit of water skiing on that lake. As with most of our trip, the campground had few campers. It provided a peaceful final night of camping for the trip.

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On this trip I learned a few things about the motorhome. This was a first time dry camping for longer than a night. The camping in Cades Cove had not connections. Our section of the campground did allow generator usage 8 am to 8 pm. We camped 4 nights/5 days without needing to visit the dump to empty tanks. I also learned that I should have paid more attention to how the house batteries charge. I was relying on the status lights of the control panel instead of the charge control status panel. So, I was running the generator for about one hour and thinking the batteries were fully charged. But there are three stages to the charging process. We returned one night to find the CO detector beeping and the battery status showing low. Without any time to run the generator we transferred all the cold stuff to the cooler and waited until the following morning to charge the batteries completely. This experience taught me that the CO detector will go off if the battery charge is low. Just in case, we slept with all the windows open that night. And like others, I have learned to not put complete trust in my GPS. I also built my confidence of maneuvering the motorhome on tiny, slightly paved roads.

If you have the chance to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, whether camping or staying in a hotel, don’t pass it up.  We are thinking of a return visit during spring to experience a different season in the park.

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