The great smoky mountains
Thanksgiving! It is that time of the year in America that kicks off the holiday season, with some heading home to catch up with family and friends, and others planning trips.
Being away from your family in India, your friends in America are your true family. So my friends and I decided to plan to trip for the Thanksgiving break. Having already covered most of the major cities in the Mid-West US, we were now looking for a place that would have beautiful drives and some serene views. The Great Smoky Mountains are a mountain range that extends into the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, and is also home to the famous Great Smoky Mountains National Park. From the Mid-West this was the largest and most famous national park with over 9 million visits per year. We did not take much time to finalize that this would be our destination for Thanksgiving 2016.
The bags were ready, cars fueled up; there were ten of us and we knew we were in for a fabulous time. Our starting point was the state of Indiana and we would be driving through the state of Kentucky and arriving at Smoky Mountains in Tennessee; this would be a 6 hour drive. Fall season is one that we do not have in India, and hence it is all the more a new and fascinating experience. It is that time of the year, when the trees to decide to change from their regular shade of green to shades of yellow and red. The views are particularly serene in forest reserves where vast areas appear to be painted in yellow and red. Our entire drive encountered many such spectacles that made us stop our conversations and quietly appreciate the beauty of nature. It is said change is difficult, but who knew it was so colorful for nature. We reached our Airbnb accommodation later in the night, and after a good rest, we were ready to start the sight-seeing next morning.
The main attraction for our first day was Clingmans Dome. Located at a height of 6,643 feet, it is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our drive towards the national park made us go through the tourist towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. These small, yet full of life, towns were nothing less than full size resorts. Describing these amazing towns would require me to dedicate another blog for them, so I’ll stop myself here. After passing Gatlinburg, we entered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the much awaited destination. All the drives through the park were fascinating, with dense forests canopying the roads, and we were blessed to be accompanied by an excellent weather. Oh, by the way, did I mention that Smoky Mountains has roughly 1,500 bears in those forests; more on that later.
After the drive all the way to the top of the mountain top we reached the parking spot for Clingmans Dome. The dome was 0.5 miles away from the parking spot, but the elevation took the effort of a five mile hike. However, the dome and the spectacular 360 degree view from on top was absolutely worth it.
My words fall short to describe the magical views of the mountain ranges from such height. To the west of the dome we could see the clouds at the same height as us, and it was identical to when you are in a flight and cutting through clouds. To our east we could see the mountain ranges stretching till as far as our eyes could see. With open skies decorated with majestic clouds above you, and dense forest and colossal mountains around you, one cannot stop the feeling of being humbled at the sight of nature. After taking the customary group and solo pictures, we took a few minutes to silently gaze into the vastness and appreciate what we were seeing. We started the walk back towards our car to head towards Gatlinburg for some refreshments. On our drive back there was an unexpected traffic and we had no idea why. For almost half an hour we were almost stuck at the same place in traffic, and this was in the middle of a road in the national park. A few of us decided to step outside the car to find out what was causing the delay. We continued to walk downhill to find out that the reason for the delay was something absolutely unexpected. There was a huge crowd gathered to the left of the road and all of them were looking into the trees. Unable to understand what people were seeing, we moved closer to the edge of the road. And there, on one of the huge trees of Smoky Mountains, was a huge black bear. On a tree a just a few meters away, probably so near that it was dangerous, was this bear in the open, so close that a zoo or forest authority would never allow. And yet, in their amazement everyone was stopping their cars to catch the closest glimpse. I believe this scared the bear and it started to climb down, and that made everyone all the more excited, and for obvious reasons reminded of The Revenant.
This unexpected stop was an excellent addition to our already eventful day. We decided to spend the rest of day enjoying some coffee in Gatlinburg and scaring ourselves at a Haunted House. After having dinner we decided to head back to our accommodation, singing songs from 80’s and 90’s. Sitting by the lake at night, we had diverse conversations from life to politics, and recounting some hilarious memories from our Master’s program. We decided to play mafia for a brief while, which lasted close to two hours, and then called it a night.
Smoky Mountains is famous for its numerous trails and hikes, 82 to be precise. Every trail offers a different view of the forest and is unique in its own way. Some trails go through idyllic pastures whereas some take you to mountains tops. A quick online research showed that the Alum Cave trail was the most popular and hence we decided to do that early next morning. It was a cold morning with the temperature varying around 5 degree Celsius and we dressed up accordingly to ensure the cold does not get to us while we ascend higher on the trail.
Alum cave trail is particularly common among visitors because of the beautiful scenery along the hike, with streams giving you company as you ascend. The start of the hike was not far from where we parked and within a few minutes we were on the path of one of the most scenic hikes I have ever done. The first half of the hike was on a non-elevated ground and passed amidst dense forest. To our right we had medium sized rocks that has streams of cold fresh water running through them. I cannot count the number of times we stopped in our tracks to engulf the entire ambience or just to get a feel of the cold water. Far away from pollution and surrounded by hills and trees, the air was so fresh that every breath we took was rejuvenating. The hike also had several small bridges, wide enough to only let one person cross at a time. The first prominent landmark comes after a 1.3 mile (2.1 km) walk and is known as Arch Rock, a large slate rock that over the years has transformed to a natural arch. We climbed the stairs in the narrow passage under the arch to continue our trek.
The second half of the hike was steeper and as we climbed higher, we were at a height greater than most of the trees, providing a clearer and wider view of the Great Smoky Mountains. After close to two hours, we were at our destination. Alum cave was this massive rock that was not actually a cave, but more of a conclave shaped rock. We took a small rest, clicked some pictures, and got started with the descent.
It was later afternoon by now and all of us were quite tired. We had a nice heavy lunch and then decided to head to the town of Gatlinburg. Some of us decided to go on the aerial chair lift rides that take you to the mountain top, while others decided to try some homemade delicacies of vintage shops. We called it a day after that and the next day we started our drive back to Indiana, stopping in some towns of Kentucky.
The Smoky Mountains trip was much more than I had expected. And once you are within the national park, it is more about the journey rather than the destination. Although there were many significant landmarks scattered everywhere, but it was majorly the aura of Great Smoky Mountains that was most enriching. The tall dense trees with their multifarious colors and the vast stretching mountain ranges give you company where ever you are in the Great Smoky Mountains. The trip made my friends and I pledge that we should do one such trip at least every six months.