Road Trip Part Four: Great Smoky Mountains, Hiking, and Bears

I’m drinking coffee, and I’m just gonna finish blogging about my trip so that we are all happy. Let’s do this!

We left Chattanooga after lunch and headed to the Great Smoky Mountains. We had made a reservation at the Cades Cove Campground for two nights. I was pretty nervous about camping—I hadn’t been since I was a kid. As a kid, I had camped a LOT. We camped on beach trips, weekend mountain trips, randomly, and most interestingly, for two multi-week road trips from South Carolina to the National Parks of the West. One trip went basically from South Carolina to LA, another went more northwest all the way to Banff, Canada.

I saw lots of National Parks–Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Carlsbad Caverns, Petrified Forest, Sequoia, and more.

Standing on the four corners. Louie, you’ll notice my inappropriate footwear. I will always wear sandals in the summer unless it is absolutely imperative that I don’t.

Leslie and I at the Badlands. Did I ever mention I had a perm and perhaps even a slightly awkward phase in middle school?

Jesse (my brother) and I in Sequoia National Park. Fashion was my strong suit.

But anyway. Enough old pictures, right? Sometimes I’m amazed at what my parents accomplished with three kids, honestly. We must have been really annoying to travel that far with.

Louie is really into camping and I promised him I’d give it a shot. One difference between my childhood camping and today is that I had a pad to put under my sleeping bag, so that seemed promising already. I remember many nights sleeping on the ground of the tent and having a small rock or tree root exactly where I wanted to be sleeping and having to avoid it.

We had packed some camping supplies—all the requisite sleeping equipment, a camping stove and cooler, camping pots and pans. We hadn’t packed some other things like plates or bowls, and of course a trip to the grocery store was in order before we got the campground. Now that I’ve been I know what we forgot and what will make our lives better if we camp again (though Louie mentioned backpacking and I started to get nervous again…). The campground would have running water and toilets, but no HOT water or showers…

We made it to the National Park before 6 pm, with the thought of maybe doing something active, but we decided to just set up the tent, forage for firewood and make a fire. It ended up being a really nice relaxing evening. We talked to a ranger and got an idea of the hike we wanted to do the next day, and we were ready to go!

I should go into more detail of our talk with the ranger. We asked, what would you do if you were just here for one day? Well, she freaked out that we weren’t spending enough time in the park, and then recommended a hike that would have been a 2 hour drive away (each way!). We finally got her to give us an idea closer to the campground (that we could walk to) and didn’t really think about the fact that a “13 mile hike” is indeed a fairly big deal. My thought process when she mentioned the distance was that 1) Louie didn’t seem concerned and 2) I run half marathons! That’s not far! Also the ranger told us that we would see a bear up there. The park has a problem with bears—you can’t leave ANY food out and you have to put your trash in special trash bins.

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(We started at the horse, went up the Anthony Creek Trail to the Bote Mountain Trail to the green line which is the Appalachian Trail. Then off to the right for a bit, back across Spence Field, down the Russell Field Trail back to the Anthony Creek Trail.)

Note to readers: it is far. Especially when you add on another 1 mile spur to try to see something the ranger mentioned that you couldn’t exactly recall what it is or how far she said. And another 1 mile or so finding the trailhead. In a nutshell, I’m pretty sure we hiked around 15 miles, which I’m pretty sure is the longest I have ever traveled on foot in a day. And that was up and down mountains, which is even harder than running in downtown St Louis. If I had known how hard it would be I probably wouldn’t have done it, which is just as well then.

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The views up the Anthony Creek Trail were really nice!

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Lots of bridges across the creek like this one.

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There’s something about trail signs that I really love.

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This was the top. Basically. We were on the Appalachian Trail, and it was honestly, really beautiful. We got caught in some rain on the way up the mountain (thank goodness I had thrown in some emergency ponchos) and everything at the top of the mountain was foggy and green. We couldn’t see much of anything, which was pretty cool in itself because we felt like we were alone in the world. Except for the other hikers we saw and a family of turkey vultures or wild turkeys.

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On the way down (when we were exhausted, dirty, sore, and pretty sure) we ran into another couple we had seen many hours earlier (this hike took us from 10:30 am to about 6:30 pm and we walked the whole time, worried about getting home before dark). We chatted with them briefly, they then went ahead of us and then we heard them crying out in excitement.

It turns out a black bear had gone right across the trail in front of them, crossed the creek and was in a tree on the other side. It didn’t see us, but we could see it. The others wanted to see it more up close, but the other woman kept saying “it moved so fast!” and I thought, well, it could be RIGHT BACK HERE any minute now. I was pretty terrified, especially because people always joke, you don’t have to outrun the bear, you just have to outrun the other people, and I didn’t think I could. On the other hand, they say there’s safety in numbers and that as a group you have a better chance of scaring the bear away (making loud noises, throwing rocks) than on your own. Nonetheless, I was eager to get away from there and managed to pull Louie away—he was trying to get a picture.

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(didn’t know this at the time, but awesome, right? This is backwards from what we did, for the record.)

We made it back to the campsite. Worst part: no showers. I had fallen down once, nothing major, but my legs were covered in mud. I managed to clean off a bit and then we enjoyed hot dogs and wine by the fire. I can’t believe we managed to hike that far—it was seriously amazing and difficult, and probably a little stupid, but I was so happy about it. Oh, and I didn’t know this but do now: black bears climb trees.  Of course they do.

The next day we needed to go home but we decided to drive around Cades Cove Loop first. The Smoky Mountains Park is different than many other parks in that people did live in the area before it was a National Park, and Cades Cove is one of those areas. People were bought out and forced to move. Some of them were allowed to stay for the rest of their lives but their children could not. The history was fascinating. We saw a bunch of old houses and churches, and in fact, some churches that were built AFTER the house that I live in now (1906) which I found very interesting, because my house had electricity and plumbing from the beginning and these did not. Being in a city was so very different from being in the mountains!

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The Cades Cove Loop is a one way road, and it was really nice to drive around and SEE the mountains. The day before we’d be in the mountains and hadn’t really seen them, and now we were down looking up. I actually prefer that view—once you are on the mountain it is harder to see them!

We left the first cabin and then the traffic was totally backed up. I was annoyed at first, and then we realized that it was because everybody was looking at a black bear in tree a little ways off the road! We pulled over and Louie got out to try to get some pictures. I think he did, but he hasn’t uploaded any shots yet. I stayed in the car because I felt I’d seen it enough from the road and thought it would be safer this way.

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For our last park adventure, we decided to drive (well, not me, but Louie was driving) out of the park on Rich Mountain Road, a one way gravel road that was closed in the winter. The ranger we spoke with assured us that while it wasn’t a shortcut, it would be passable in a car and was a nice drive. I don’t think we realized QUITE how slow going it would be (probably about 10 to 15 mph) but it was an amazing winding road up the mountain and then back down again on the other side.

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All in all, we had a most wonderful week of vacation, and I wish it could have been longer. We made it home safely and not terribly late, and I look forward to our next adventure!

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