With unlimited sunshine predicted and peak fall colors arriving, we worked up a quick trip to Tennessee for what will probably be our last camp-out of the season. A chance to visit with my sisters and brother, an opportunity to leaf-peep in the Smoky Mountains, and an excuse to stamp some of my childhood stomping grounds -- all good reasons to head south in October.
The drive is almost exactly 450 miles (Van Wert to Elkmont Campground) and a little over 8 hours with two speedy stops. We arrived at our favorite Smoky Mountain National Park campground at 2:30. . . just enough time to set up camp, take a long hike around the campground, and head back out to Townsend for dinner with brother Richard and his friends Barb and Paula.
Monday we had another sibling social as Richard, Johanna, Beccie and Rufus all met for lunch in Maryville. After lunch we climbed the driveway to Beccie's mountain habitat to see the new puppy Barney. He was full of puppy pep and and puppy breath, and was everything a puppy should be. And I got NO PICTURES!
On the way back to Elkmont we stopped at our favorite Little River Outfitters store where Tom found new boots in the clearance room. Back in the car we drove right past Elkmont another 7 miles to my other favorite mountain supply store on the very edge of Gatlinburg where I scored a new pair of shoes. Satisfied with the day's visiting and shopping we headed back to the campground for a dinner of Cornish Hens! For the second night in a row the temperature was down in the mid 30's, and with our Pendleton wool blanket and faux down sleeping bag, we were toasty, cozy, warm . . . without electricity or the furnace!
Tuesday our ambitious plan was to drive to Fontana Dam on the North Carolina side of the park -- a place we had not visited in 30 years. And, we proposed to do so on the little-known short-cut Parson's Branch road on the back side of the Cades Cove loop road! More about that in a moment -- first we had to make it around Cades Cove loop -- in peak season -- with bears creating "jams"! The park seems to have a new strategy regarding bears -- they set up orange traffic cones and use yellow tape to mark off areas alongside the road for the bears! Mostly, these areas are under a walnut tree that offers the bears good foraging as they prepare for winter hibernation. Keeping cars moving, and preventing people from approaching the bears (duh!) are Park officials. All of this counts for a back-up of traffic that is bumper-to-bumper and moving only a couple MPH. The 4 miles to the Parson Branch cut-off took well over an hour!
The alternative route took us back out of the Cove, through Townsend, to the turnoff for the Foothills Parkway to Chilhowee Lake. We were anxious to view Chilhowee Lake (location of many of my growing-up teenage boating memories) as the lake had been drained in an attempt to fix a hole in the dam, which was built in the late 40s! The beautiful, deep, mountain lake was reduced to a shallow mud flat!
Immediately past Chilhowee Lake we jumped on State Route 129 -- the portion leading to Fontana Dam known as "The Tail of the Dragon." It didn't have that name when I was a kid -- but it did have a notorious reputation for introducing our flat-lander guests from the North to a windy, dipping, puke-producing mountain road. Now, it is one of the famous dip-and-swerve scenic roads in the USA -- 318 curves in only 11 miles. It is a favorite ride for motorcycles and little sports cars!
It is so popular that enterprising photographers set up tents on the big curves and sit all day taking pictures of every car, truck, and cycle that passes. The real problem is stopping, turning around, and getting back to the photographer to check out the picture he just took! Here is my drive-by photo of the photographer . . . taking our drive-by picture!
Most of what I remember about Fontana Village as a teen, is the little community where the teen-aged workers lived and played during their summer employment stints . . . my brother worked there several summers. I made frequent trips back and forth for the weekend foot-stomping, barn-dancing, hoe-downs. I do remember one summer when my father wondered how we managed to go through one whole set of tires on my mom's little 1969 gold, two-door Camero!
With all of those miles under our belt, we made it back to Elkmont Campground by 5:30 for a grilled steak dinner. The "other couple" in a 16' Airstream happened by and accepted an invitation for a campfire, and we spent a nice 1 1/2 hours getting to know Tom and Maryann from Michigan. Their 2015 Airstream is almost identical to ours, and they understand our preference for camping small! We gave them one of our cards, and are hoping that they will check out the blog and stay in touch with an email! Guys?
Wednesday, our last day in the park, called for egg sandwiches cooked on the Biolite/Twig stove before a trip that included the highest point in the Smoky Mountains -- and a hike! The drive to Clingman's Dome from Elkmont follows the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River, past the Chimney Tops and Newfound Gap, and then follows the North Carolina and Tennessee border up to the impressive observation tower that sits at 6,643 feet. Along the way are beautiful mountain vistas with valleys often hidden in thick fog.
During our last visit several years ago we had been so sad to see that a majority of the pine forest on the top of the mountain was suffering from some sort of blight. Also on that trip, the top of the mountain was shrouded in deep fog causing us to cancel a hike to the observation tower. This trip found the pine trees recovering and the fog deep in the valleys. The hike was on! It is by no means a long hike -- but it is relentlessly steep and requires frequent short stops for most hikers. The observation tower is massive and the views from the top are unparalleled.
Driving back down we had planned to park at Newfound Gap and eat our sandwich lunch. It was not quite noon, but traffic was lined up and ringing the parking lot in a slow circle -- waiting for a car to exit so another could enter. We passed that by and drove down to the mountain to a pull-over viewing spot for our lunch. It was only 2:00 as we passed by Elkmont campground, and we drove past and right through Gatlinburg, and into the tourist trap of Pigeon Forge. Specifically -- Margaritaville! We had visited this new shopping mecca earlier in the spring, and I was keen for another walk-thru.
At this point our drive took us out the other end of Pigeon Forge to the Wear's Valley cut-off to Townsend. Then, on a whim, in the middle of Wear's Valley we detoured off the cut-off to take another shortcut! This one went right over the Mountains and right into Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area -- saving at least 1 1/2 hours of driving in just 15 minutes! Thus we arrived back at the camper in time to enjoy an afternoon nap in the 0-gravity recliners before heading into Gatlinburg for supper.
I am sure that at some time in my visits to the Smoky Mountains I had begged to ride the Sky Lift to the Gatlinburg overlook- but, I do not remember every actually riding it! So, Tom and I took advantage of a perfect evening and bought the tickets for a pre-dinner ride! The ride up was visually uninteresting with a close-up of the mountain at a steady 25' off the ground -- but mentally motivating as we enjoyed feet-swinging and the anticipation of the view at the top.
Dinner at our favorite Bar-B-Que restaurant, and the 7-mile drive back to the Silvermine concluded the 4-night stay in the Smoky Mountains. Except for a spur-of-the-moment Christmas camp-out depending entirely on the weather, this winds up our 2015 camping season!
We don’t go camping any more . . . we go ‘streamin’ ! The “SIlvermine and His” is our 2016 23' Airstream, and ‘streamin’ is the name we use to describe our adventures. Stream along as we document everything from weekend trips to longer summer excursions and full-blown vacations. You know what they say: if you’re not in an Airstream – you’re just camping!
Tom & Ella Brown