UpGrading In Smoky Mountains National Park

Smoky MountainsHello fellow UpGraders.  Your UpGrading Senior-in-Chief just returned from a 3-day RV visit to beautiful downtown Townsend, Tennessee.

In case you don’t know, Townsend is a small town just on the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  (The photo above is from one of my previous trips to the Smokies circa 2008.)

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

If you’ve never been to the Smokies, stop what you’re doing and get over there right away.  They don’t call them “Great” without reason.

I won’t even attempt to tell you all about this magnificent national park.  You can find all the information you need elsewhere on the web, or on the national park’s home page.

Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park, servicing over 9 million visitors annually.  This is about twice the number of visitors of the next most popular national park, the Grand Canyon.

Here’s just a quick and interesting factoid about the park.  It is one of the few, or maybe the only, national park that doesn’t charge an entry fee.  This is because of the arrangement made between the State of Tennessee and the federal government when Newfound Gap Road was transferred to the feds.  More details here.

A Seasoned Veteran

I have been going to the Smokies once or twice a year for 8-10 years and haven’t begun to cover all the hikes and other outdoor adventures that are available.

Big MeadowThis trip, I took my RV and stayed at Big Meadow RV Park (recommended) in Townsend.  I spent two and a half days hiking, mountain biking and kayaking in the area.

The 5-mile round trip hike to Abrams Falls was the flagship event.  I’ve done this hike a number of times, but it doesn’t get old.  It’s a comfortable distance and I always enjoy waterfalls.

Abrams Falls Trail

Abrams Falls Trailhead

The trailhead for Abrams Falls is at the back of the Cades Cove loop, which is a one-way narrow road that circles Cades Cove.  If you plan to do this hike, be aware that there is usually considerable traffic on the loop, and it moves slowly at times.

You’re Trying My Patience – Om!

In fact, I received a vivid reminder of this fact this time out. I was unlucky enough to be stuck behind a guy in a Jeep that seemed to think 5 miles per hour was an appropriate speed to circumnavigate the Cades Cove loop.  It’s an 11 mile, one-way, loop with no passing.  11 miles – 5 mph.  You do the math.

Fortunately, I only had to follow this moron for a few miles before I turned off to go to the trailhead, and the hike made it all worthwhile.  I pity the other 100 souls backed up behind him like jets on the tarmac at Atlanta International waiting for clearance to take off.  I assume they were forced to follow this guy for the entire loop, and they were progressing at a speed only slightly slower than the traffic at a McDonald’s drive-up window.

Abrams Falls

Abrams Falls

Before I get called out for exhibiting “Type A” behavior, I want to point out that I did not express my displeasure at all – not a single honk or hand signal.  I am all for slowing down and enjoying nature.  That is, after all, the main point of a visit to the Smokies.

Slowing down can, however, be taken to the point of the absurd and it shouldn’t be done, as was the case here, at the expense of hundreds of other visitors to the park, especially when there are numerous pull-offs where this person could have courteously pulled to the side to allow his large and growing entourage to pass.

OK, I’m through venting.  Just store that information in your trip planner.  The 11 mile drive around Cades Cove may take you considerably longer than you anticipate based upon the mileage and posted speed limit, if you’re unlucky enough to meet your own version of Mr. Jeep.  On the positive side, I’ve made many successful trips around Cades Cove without significant delays inflicted by self-absorbed humans.

Working Out Without Working Out

Do you sometimes dread your workouts?  Do you occasionally (or more than occasionally) have to force yourself to get some exercise?  Do you think of your workouts more as work than play?  I am certainly guilty of all of the foregoing.

Here’s something to think about. While in the Smokies I was physically active for two and a half days – almost all day each day, and yet it never once occurred to me that I was “working out.”  I was, in fact, playing.

Smoky MountainsUnlike dragging myself to the health club for a workout, this “workout” wasn’t something I had to force myself to do.  I was exercising for hours at a time, and enjoying every minute of it.  And, these were strenuous workouts at times.  Mountain trails can be steep and long.

Hmmm.  We may be on to something here.  How does an UpGrading Senior work out without working out?  Folks, I believe we have our very own Zen koan.

Smoky Mountain Travel Tips

In case some of you decide to follow my lead and check out the Smokies, I’ll close this post by leaving you with a few tips based on my years of travel to the park:

  1. Consider staying in Townsend, Tennessee rather than Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg. If you are “crowd averse” like me and you are truly going to see the park and not the tourist traps, Townsend is the place to be.  They bill Townsend as the “peaceful side of the Smokies,” and that is accurate.  Townsend is a very small community with only a few restaurants, a few motels, and a few other assorted businesses, but it is situated right on the park boundary and is only about 9 miles from the aforementioned Cades Cove, one of the more popular areas in the park.  And, when you’re ready for the bumper to bumper tourist life of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, you’re only about 20 miles away.  It’s easy to drive over for dinner in the evenings, if you wish.
  2. Disregarding this next tip puts you in peril of ruining your whole trip.  If you plan to make Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg integral parts of your trip (most people do because of the restaurants, shopping and recreational activities for children – including Dollywood), check the calendar and do NOT plan to go when one of the major hot rod or antique car shows is underway.  You’ll spend most of your time sitting in traffic that only moves occasionally!  I speak from experience.
  3. Hiking in the Smoky Mountains is truly a religious experience.  Be prepared for awesome.  That being said, a word to the wise.  Don’t bite off more than you can chew.  When deciding which hike you want to take, keep in mind that these are mountain hikes.  Most trails involve major elevation changes and areas with rocky footing.  For planning purposes, assume that you will take at least twice as long to cover a mile than you do walking around your neighborhood or on your treadmill.  I suggest that you try out one or two of the short hikes (1 – 3 miles) before undertaking anything longer.
  4. There are black bears in this park.  You’ll probably never see one in the wild, except possibly around the Cades Cove area.  In all the years I’ve hiked in the Smokies, I’ve only encountered a bear on a trail once.  I gave her plenty of right-of-way and there was no problem.  If you plan to hike in the bears’ habitat, educate yourself about these animals and understand that they are not the farm animals or domesticated pets you may be used to.  They are bigger, stronger and faster than you. They are not naturally aggressive, but they can be dangerous if provoked.  Make it a point to learn how not to provoke them.

That’s about it for this post, UpGraders.  Keep UpGrading.


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