Thursday, April 24, 2008

Dealing With The Crowds

The National Park Service tells us that about 10 million people visit the Smoky Mountains every year. Or is it 10 million visits, not visitors? Or is it visitor-days? I don’t know. But it probably doesn’t matter. Just go to Cades Cove on a summer evening, and it will feel like all of them are there with you. Quibbling about precise definitions loses its significance when you spend 20 minutes sitting in your car with your engine running because someone up ahead stopped to take a picture of a possum.

You visit the Smokies, thus adding to the crowds and pollution that make it less enjoyable to visit. You become part of the crowd that you wish would just go away, knowing that the crowds are there for a reason, the same reason that brought you there. It’s a feeling every fisherman has about his favorite water. Or, as Yogi Berra allegedly said about a restaurant in New York City, “Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.”

So anyone who visits the Smokies has to deal with the crowds. Indeed, every summer and fall at least nine million Smokies visitors “deal with the crowds” by diving in and becoming part of the teeming masses, creating traffic jams of Biblical proportions. Or, you can develop another way of “dealing with the crowds” – avoid them. Yes, it can be done, but it means you have to get off the main roads.

Trafficatastrophe, Pigeon Forge Style

I know what you are thinking: Aren’t all the best attractions on the main roads? First of all, let’s not call them attractions, okay? If you want attractions, go south about 600 miles. There’s a place down there… maybe you’ve heard of it… it’s called Disney World. Second, yes the most popular spots are on the main roads. But popular is not necessarily best. In fact, all “popular” really means is crowded.

Most of these crowded spots are popular not because they are more fabulous and breath-taking than the rest of the park but simply because they are so easy to get to. Let’s take Newfound Gap right in the middle of the park as an example. This is the point at which the road from Gatlinburg to Cherokee reaches the main crest. Sure it has a fine view, but it’s definitely not the best view in the Smokies. Yet it is hugely popular. Why? Because it’s the main parking lot on the main road. If the road crossed the main crest a couple of miles to the east or the west, then that spot would be the hugely popular spot. In fact, in the old pioneer days, the main route across the Smokies did cross at a different spot. But explorers found a new gap in the 1850s, and when preparations were being made to improve and pave the road in the 1920s, the surveyors re-routed the road through this “new” gap. Thus the name.

Or, the Loop – the spot on the main road where the switchbacks are so tight that at one point the road just circles around and crosses over itself. I’ve seen postcards of it, as if it were some great natural wonder. If you’ve never seen it in person, get ready for a disappointment. It’s just not that big a deal. It’s a moderately neat bit of road construction in a pretty place. But that’s all it is. It’s only slightly more dramatic than getting off the interstate and then driving back around on the overpass. I suppose a civil engineer might see some beauty in it, the way my mechanic can get misty-eyed about a well-made transmission. So, if you are an engineer, don’t miss it.

I guess what I’m saying is that the main roads through the park have plenty of nice spots on them: picnic areas, scenic views, noisy rivers, Newfound Gap, Clingmans Dome, Cades Cove, etc. But these are not, by any stretch of the imagination, the only highlights of the park. You can see a lot of great stuff without ever traveling the crowded, main roads. But it might take a little extra effort on your part.

Take Forney Creek for example… [To be continued.]

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Moonshadows in the Mountains

Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 4 am is always chilly. It is especially so during those off-season months of November through April when the crowds are gone and most of the park’s visitors are local folks like us. As my friends and I took our first few steps on the Appalachian Trail heading northeast from Newfound Gap, I paused to remember the generosity of the Rockefeller family and the people of Tennessee and North Carolina for providing us with an 800 square mile natural playground that we can visit (for free!) whenever we want. It’s good to be a “local” in East Tennessee.

In spite of the fact that the Smoky Mountains is the most heavily-visited national park in the US, we are alone on the trail. The only other car in the Newfound Gap parking lot probably belongs to a backpacker who is at this moment asleep in the Icewater Spring shelter about 3 miles ahead of us. In about 90 minutes we’ll walk silently past that sleeping backpacker and continue another mile to our destination – Charlies Bunion – a rugged, rocky crag about 5,500 feet high with a 360o view of the surrounding landscape. Once there, we’ll scamper to the top to enjoy crackers, cheese, peanut M&Ms, and the lonely drama of a mountaintop sunrise.

If you’ve done the math, you’ve figured out by now that in order to get to the Bunion at sunrise, we’ll have to hike four miles in the dark. No problem. In fact, that is an essential part of our plan. It virtually guarantees that we’ll be alone. We’ve never tried this trip during the peak, summer season, but I’d be willing to bet my kids’ inheritance that even in July this would be an uncrowded trip. Civilization has completely eradicated our nocturnal side. Folks today simply won’t wander around in the dark. So, we’ll use this to our advantage. We’ll walk alone in the dark.

Actually, that’s only partly true. We’ll be hiking at night but not in total darkness because we’ve timed our hike to coincide with a ¾ waning moon. In other words, for the last few hours before sunrise the moon will be nearly full and high overhead. As long as the clouds cooperate, we’ll be hiking in a magical mixture of spruce trees and bright moonlight. For most of the hike, we won’t even use our flashlights.

The hike is everything we had hoped it would be. The temperature is hovering just above freezing, which makes the first ten minutes cold but the other two hours invigorating. The sky is clear and the moon provides a magical, silvery glow to light our way. If you’ve ever wondered what a moonshadow is, you can find the answer on this hike. The spruce trees that line the trail give the landscape a Canadian… no, a Narnian… feel. Although I didn’t spot Aslan, I did see several fauns and a couple of hobbits lurking in the woods.

The original Charlie on the Bunion

If you are a local who claims to know and love East Tennessee, then you must do this trip. Heck, even if you aren’t the outdoor type, just driving through Pigeon Forge and Sevierville without the traffic (it will be 3 am, after all) will give you an unparalleled sense of smugness bordering on arrogance. Yes, it’s good to be a local who knows those secrets that only locals know.

I think the best time of year for this trip is November. There will still be a few, lingering fall colors, mostly the deep, burgundy oaks that just refuse to admit that winter’s time has come. November weather also means cool, crisp skies tailor-made for a night-time hike under a bright moon. On the other hand, if you love wildflowers and that ambient rattle-and-hum of nature’s annual rebirth, then April and May can’t be beat. Or, better yet, make this hike in both fall and spring.

Oh, and by the way, the sunrise from Charlies Bunion was great. The fact that we were there by ourselves made it even better. Yep, it’s good to be a local.

More details on this trip...
From the north, the most direct way to get to Newfound Gap and Charlies Bunion is Exit #407 off I-40. An alternate route from the Maryville area is Hwy 73 & US 321 through Townsend. Once in the park, you should follow the signs to the Sugarlands Visitors Center which is on the main road through the park (Newfound Gap Road; aka US 441). Maps of the park, roads, and trails are available at (Click on the Trail Map link.)

The hike to Charlies Bunion is one of the most popular hikes in the park. Maybe not as popular and crowded as Laurel Falls or the Chimney Tops but definitely popular enough that you might want to avoid it during the daytime during peak tourist season. In fact, unless you enjoy sitting in traffic, you should avoid the entire stretch of road from I-40’s Exit #407 all the way to Gatlinburg from sunrise to sunset during June, July, August, and October. Avoid this stretch on weekends from April to October.

However, if you do this sunrise hike to Charlies Bunion, you’ll be driving that main road around 3 or 4 am, so you can go any time of the year without fear of crowds. Both the road and the trail will be blissfully desolate. Of course, keep in mind that if you do this hike during the busy season, your drive out of the park after sunrise may be a bit crowded and slow.

Personally, we’d suggest that any activity in the park that requires driving on the main road – Newfound Gap Road, also known as US 441 – from Gatlinburg to Cherokee should be saved for the off-season (November to March). During the busy season, it’s best to visit the park’s less popular locations on the edges and backroads. Or, visit the busy locations very early in the morning, or at night.

To hike on the park’s trails – including the world famous Appalachian Trail – you don’t need to fill out any paperwork (unless you will spend the night). For day hikes, just park and go. This hike to Charlies Bunion starts at the Newfound Gap parking lot – at the point where US 441 (Newfound Gap Road) crosses the TN/NC state line. The Appalachian Trail follows the state line through most of the park. At this large parking lot, you’ll see the rock platform where FDR stood to dedicate the park in 1940. The AT goes into the woods just to the right of that platform. There’s a small, wooden sign there, giving you some mileages.

If you do the sunrise version of this hike, plan your trip with the phases of the moon in mind. You want the moon to be high in the sky at dawn. A full moon is fine, but it will actually be on the horizon at sunrise. A few days after a full moon is perfect. But bring a flashlight, just in case.
The hike to Charlies Bunion is moderate – that is, it has a few significant ups and downs, but nothing too difficult if you are in reasonable shape. It is four miles, so it will probably take you about two hours (one way). Charlies Bunion is one of those rare spots in the Smokies that is exposed rock, looking like it belongs in the Rocky Mountains instead of the Smokies. It was “created” by a forest fire in 1925 which removed all the vegetation, followed by a heavy rain in 1927 that washed the soil away.

The single best book describing all the hiking trails in the Smokies, including this one, is Hiking Trails of The Smokies, published by the Great Smoky Mountains Association. It’s available at any of the visitors centers in and near the park (there’s one about a mile from the I-40 #407 exit; a brick building with a Chamber of Commerce sign, on the right at you head south). Or, you can buy it at or