Trip to the South: Great Smoky Mountains

Visit Dates: October 10-11, 2019

We woke up early because we had one of our longer drives – over 7 hours – to get from Savannah, Georgia to Bryson City, North Carolina with a stop in Charleston to drop Starr off at the airport for her trip home. Poor Starr, she had a long wait in Charleston before her flight took off.

Once we got off the interstate highways we entered the hilly country as we made our way up US Highway 74 to Bryson City. Once in town, our instructions to the AirBnB cabin we had booked for our stay said “don’t try to use GPS to find the place, it won’t work.” The directions looked plain enough until we realized the roads and landmarks were not as described. The directions told us to take the Veteran’s Blvd exit from the freeway and set our trip odometer to 0 so we’d know when to turn. Veteran’s Blvd was supposed to turn into Franklin Grove Church Road. Uh, oh how’d we get onto Slope Street? Now our mileage was shot as well.

We decided to head back into the downtown area to get some stuff for dinner before trying again. We figured if finding the place was this hard in the light, it would be almost impossible at night. We asked a few people in the store if they knew where the cabins were. They were mostly helpful and we figured out we had been on track.

Back in the car we looked at the landmark roads on the directions and plotted our way on our map app. It turns out we had been on the right road; what the directions didn’t tell us was that Veteran’s Blvd, turned into Slope Street, which later turned into Franklin Grove Church Road. It was frustrating, but we have roads like that where I live: Start off on Greenway, take a curve and you’re now on Brockman, cross a street and you’re on Beard; all without turning onto a new street.

We finally found our cabin and encountered a new challenge: a steep gravel road. Soon after turning on to the second Franklin Grove Road from Franklin Grove Church Road, we took a right down a gravel road. At the bottom of the hill we had to make a sharp left and go up a steep loose gravel driveway to get to the cabin. Our little rental car did not want anything to do with that. After a couple of attempts we figured out that we had to gun it a bit at the bottom of the driveway then quickly hit the brakes when we got to the flat spot. Tricky but doable.

We went inside, had some beers and dinner then bed – it had been a long travel day.

The Great Smoky Mountains get their name from the persistent fog, not from fires. It was foggy the next morning so I went down the gravel road a bit to capture a picture of our surroundings.

Great Smoky Mountains. Bryson City, North Carolina

Difficult to get to, but definitely worth the trip.

We relaxed and had a nice breakfast the next morning. Our adventure for the day was a trip on the Great Smokey Mountain Railroad up the Nantahala Gorge. It’s a very popular attraction proven by the long walk we had to make from the parking lot. We had nice indoor seats in a steam-era passenger car as the train wound its way up the Tuckasegee and Nantahala rivers. We had a grand time chatting with our fellow passengers and enjoying the view.

Nantahala Gorge, NC

The gorge was nice but much smaller than I had pictured; when I think “gorge” I think of the 90+ mile Columbia Gorge cut by the Columbia River just east of Portland. It’s averages over 3 miles in width. Just sayin.

We reached the end of the line at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. We got out and wandered around while the locomotives changed ends.

Great Smokey Mountain Railroad. Nantahala Gorge Route

When we pulled back into Bryson City and headed back to our car we crossed paths with the GSMRR steam locomotive that takes a different excursion.

Great Smokey Mountain Railroad Steam Locomotive

For many/most railfans the steam locomotives are the be all and end all. I grew up just as the diesel locomotives put the steam locomotives out of business. While I’m not a huge fan of steam, I do get chills when I hear that steam whistle blow. On the way back to the cabin we picked up some to-go food for dinner from the Bar-B-Que Wagon restaurant. I think they must have purchased a large mincing machine; the pork and cole slaw were minced into tiny pieces of the same consistency. It tasted okay, but it made us miss the barbecue we had at the Sandfly At The Streamliner in Savannah.

The following morning – Friday before Columbus Day (as its called in the South, but is now called Indigenous People’s day in the Northwest) – we piled into the car for a trip through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our first stop was the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the south end of the park. It is a nice visitor center with many old buildings from the early days of North Carolina.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center. North Carolina

I’m not sure what this is, but I liked the looks of it.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center. North Carolina

From the crowds at the center it was clear that the 3-day holiday would bring out more tourists than we had seen so far on our trip. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in the country, bringing in 11 million visitors a year. The road over the mountain and into Tennessee provided some nice views.

Looking back at the road up and over the Great Smoky Mountains.

Traffic slowed down as we approached Gatlinburg, Tennessee at the northern edge of the park. Carla found a parking spot and we headed over to Bennett’s Pit BBQ for lunch. We had some yummy brisket.

Bennett’s Pit Barbecue in Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Linda was of a mind to get some moonshine as gifts for some friends and family. I was wholly unprepared for the site as we got out on the main street. Oh, my gosh! I’ve been to tourist towns before but I have never seen anything as crowded and crazy as Gatlinburg.

Tourist Mecca. Gatlinburg, Tennessee

The sidewalks and road were both just packed.

Tourist Mecca. Gatlinburg, Tennessee

I can’t imagine what this town is like on a summer weekend. We were somewhat overwhelmed by the crowd, but most of the people were smiling and chatting away as they worked their way through the mass.

We found one spot that sells moonshine – a LOT of moonshine. As you enter, they check your ID; you can then pay a small sum to stand at a large circular table with a bartender in the middle. The bartender talks about the different types of moonshine available and passes out small shot glasses for everyone to taste. Now, I don’t think of myself as a prude, but parents with babies strapped to their chests, drinking hard liquor at one in the afternoon is, well, weird. We didn’t take part.

We spotted a liquor store about 5 blocks down the street but were not made of stern enough stuff to fight our way through the crowd, so we headed back to the car and our return trip. By afternoon, the traffic had picked up considerably. There aren’t a lot spots to stop and view the park. We waited in line in the car for almost an hour to pull into one lot. The car at the front of the line had to wait for a car to leave in order to take its place.

We did find a spot that crosses the Appalachian Trail.

Appalachian Trail. Great Smoky Mountains. Tennesee

As we walked down to the trail a couple of men were just coming out, having hiked over a hundred miles in the past few days. After taking a few steps down the trail I joked with them that on average our two groups hiked 50 miles each. They didn’t think that was so funny.

Appalachian Trail. Great Smoky Mountains. Tennesee

We enjoyed the scenery near the trail.

Butterfly on the Appalachian Trail. Great Smoky Mountains. Tennesee
Great Smoky Mountains.

I probably sound curmudgeonly but I think the high visitor rate at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a function of its nearness to population centers more than of its inherent beauty. If you want to see what a National Park can be, come out west to the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone.

We made it home and finished our minced barbecue dinner from the night before.

Originally we had planned to drive back to Washington, DC the next day in order to have another full day touring the Capital before our flight back home. But we were pretty tired and the road ahead was pretty long. Linda Called E&L – our hosts in Washington – to tell them we needed to take two days to get back. More on that in my final post of the trip.

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