The Grand Smoky Mountain Adventure, continued

Friends at the gate to the Smoky Mountains

Folks, if you need a vacation in the good ole U S of A, I recommend a journey to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  As blogged here, two buddies and I set out on an epic road trip a few weeks back, and we are just now sorting through our photos, so I thought I’d share some thoughts on traveling to this gem of the National Park system.

First, plan to spend most of your time in the PARK on a trip to this part of the country.  There’s a host of shopping and food and entertainment in the nearby towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, but most of it is so incredibly…well…touristy that we stayed away.  And why would you want to miss any time in the park?

Great Smoky Mountains

First, if you have a day, I’d recommend visiting Cades Cove.  Now, as I discussed with some fellow Yankees last night, one might expect a cove to have, well, water in it.  This cove doesn’t.  It’s a “verdant valley” according to the really excellent website for the park.  Once I got over my disgruntlement that I wasn’t going to a water location (this was harder than I thought) I could appreciate the majesty of this place.

Cades Cove

We combined visiting Cades Cove with a hike, and I might recommend splitting that up into two days, so you can do the hike early in the morning, when the trails are less crowded (though if you’re traveling in the summer, you should expect crowds).  We hiked to Abrams Falls, about 5 miles round trip.  This is a really fun hike – it’s a bunch of peaks divided up by nice flat spaces where you can enjoy the river you are following.  The trail was pretty well worn by the time we got there, so again, if you can avoid the highest traffic times, you’ll enjoy yourself more.  The falls were quite something to see, and despite all the warnings, lots of people were swimming – please, if you go, obey the rules about water safety.

Abrams Falls

Our final day of the adventure took us to Hartford, TN for a white water rafting adventure with the Outdoor Rafting Adventures, Inc. company.  There are a lot of rafting outfits in the region, and this one was highest rated on Trip Advisor, for good reason.  As we drove in, the building looked deserted and we wondered if we’d made a giant mistake and would be chased off by banjo-wielding hillbillies, but then we rounded the bend and beheld the bustling, well-organized main parking lot.  A nice man led us to a parking space, setting the tone for the morning; they took GREAT care of us.  The staff were professional, funny and enthusiastic, and we had a blast.  Hats off to Todd, our guide, who has been leading rafting trips for more than 15 years and yet still seemed to enjoy himself and our excitement.  For the record, I loved the few class 4 rapids we got to go through, though I would recommend closing your mouth, as you can see I did not do.  And my two traveling companions, both rafting virgins, did great.  If you’re going to the Smokies and want to raft, do it with this company.

Keep your mouth closed when white water rafting

Other tips for the journey:

Bring a good camera, because the place is gorgeous.

There are no fees to enter the park, so consider becoming a Friend of the Smokies; our National Parks are treasures and need to be supported.

Bring water shoes – you will want to go wading in the pretty creeks, I promise.

Plan at least 2-3 days in the park; I wished we’d been able to explore deeper in and perhaps do another hike.

Have fun!  We sure did.

Friends at the gate to the Smoky Mountains

PS: Happy Birthday to the National Park Foundation!  This organization, which supports the upkeep of our National Parks, turns 97 today, and the Travel Channel is matching all gifts up to $30,000!

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