As the weather warms up and I’m starting to sweat on my daily walks, I keep thinking back to a month ago when Rob and I headed to the Smokies again for some more winter hiking. Hiking in the winter has some serious advantages. There are less people, the views are unobscured by leaves on the trees, it’s a less sweaty endeavor, and there is a greater sense of peace because it feels like nature is truly asleep. Due to bad weather in the forecast, we weren’t sure how much we’d actually be able to get into the woods, so the first day there was a mix of sun and clouds with a high of 61 degrees and we headed straight for Chimney Tops.
We brought a pair of trekking poles and some yaktrax for our shoes because I knew there could be ice on the trails at this time of year. Sure enough, we weren’t halfway up that trail before we were encountering a snow covered, slippery mess. We watched one man walk up 6 steps and slide right back down again.
Chimney Tops isn’t rated as a difficult trail due to it’s short length of 3.8 miles RT, but the last mile gains over 900 feet in elevation, so between struggling up icy steps and sloshing through pudding-like mud, we felt like we were going to die by the time we reached the rocks at the top. One guy we met said he’d made fun of people with “hiking sticks” on the way up, but that we could probably set up a lemonade stand by the side of the trail and sell them at a premium. Once again, trekking poles saved the day. The wind was blowing hard, but Rob decided to climb to the summit.
This was the view looking back down from where we climbed up (it’s a lot farther than it looks). At one point, I asked Rob to take a picture of me climbing up these rocks because who doesn’t want to post some picture of themselves climbing up a mountain like a freaking superhero? This was maybe the worst thing I’ve ever asked him to do. It looked like nothing more than a giant ass climbing clumsily up a pile of rocks. So much for trying to look adventurous!
If the wind hadn’t been blowing so strongly, I would have attempted the rest of the climb, but instead I sat there peacefully, holding on to everything in my possession with a death grip so it wouldn’t blow away, while feeling like I’d just landed on top of the world. I can never, ever get enough of this.
The next day held the almost certain threat of rain, so after an early breakfast we packed up, put on our rain shells, and headed up to the Alum Cave trail to see how far we could get. We walked beside a river through a rhododendron covered forest before coming to Arch Rock. We crossed the stream and headed up the steps which curved around the inside of the rock to the trail on the opposite side. The walls of the rock were covered in ice and the water from the river sounded like thunder.
As we climbed in elevation on the trail it became apparent that we were hiking up into a cloud, a literal fluffy cloud, like you see from a plane window and always wonder if it could actually be possible to pull a Mary Poppins and just hang out there for a while. I’ve never been in this kind of fog in the woods. It felt like the trees were holding secrets as we noisily tromped through.
Every time we came to some sort of overlook, we simply had to imagine the view. Everything was obscured by clouds and mist, a true Smoky Mountain experience.
When we got to the cave, we climbed up the sand and stood under the dry overhang, looking out at the trees. Everything was enchanted by fog. Some would say the trip wasn’t worth it, but one thing that always amazes me about that woods is that they change as much as the ocean. Every day there is something new to see and experience, whether it be wildlife, views, waterfalls, mist, rain, or brilliant sunshine. I wouldn’t have traded this day for anything.
We headed back down the trail, making serious use of our trekking poles. Mine kept me from falling several times and I’m pretty sure we both would have been in bad shape without them. We made it back to the car with a good amount of time left in the day, so we took Newfound Gap Road straight across the park to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center which also houses a pioneer museum replete with old buildings, gardens, and an orchard, plus Mingus Mill just down the road. I’m always blown away by the life the early settlers carved out for themselves in the rugged landscape within these mountains.
Every once in a while, a volunteer at a visitor center will give a bit of hiking advice that’s worth taking, so when we were told that the 7 mile round trip hike to Grotto Falls was a sure bet, we decided to head there the next morning. The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is closed in the winter, but the Rainbow Falls trailhead is still accessible, so we started there and took the Trillium Gap trail all the way to Grotto Falls. This was really the perfect time of year to do this particular hike because the wooded trail goes right along the motor trail and I don’t think the experience would have been as enjoyable with bumper to bumper cars meandering past the entire time. We didn’t pass a soul on the first 3.5 miles to the falls and we had one of the most popular waterfalls in the entire park to ourselves as rain started to come down.
Grotto Falls is the only waterfall in the park that you can walk behind. In fact, the trail actually goes behind the falls, so if you are getting to Mount LeConte this way, you’ll have to duck beneath Grotto Falls.
As we made our way back to the trailhead it started to rain on us and we hiked through a steady downpour, eventually ending up totally soaked in spite of rain shells and water repellent pants. Thankfully the day was warm and the heat from our exertion kept us from getting cold. As soon as we got back to our room, we changed into warm, dry things and headed right back out to drive through Cades Cove and see it in the mist.
Cades Cove is an 11 mile loop that goes through a preserved pioneer community in the mountains. It’s one of the most popular places in the park to see Black Bears (or so the NPS website says), so every time we’ve gone it’s been a bumper to bumper, ire-inducing affair where you want to kill every gas guzzling SUV driver who goes 5 mph (LITERALLY) through the woods, stopping to view every moving blade of grass and every falling leaf. The area is beautiful, but my blood pressure and stress level cause obscene amounts of swearing and hatred toward my fellow man. This time, however, was a different affair entirely. The optimum time to experience Cades Cove is on a rainy Sunday afternoon in winter. We were able to maintain a steady speed throughout the drive and it was enjoyable and peaceful in every way. We saw lots of turkeys and deer, reveling in the peace of the park at this time of year.
Even though the weather was miserable at points, it didn’t diminish the beauty of the mountains or the fun we had in seeing things in a different light. Gatlinburg was as disgusting as it always is. A grossly high percentage of stores in this little hell hole on the edge of paradise display confederate flag products in their windows: t-shirts, underwear, bikinis, beach towels, purses, you name it, it comes in some form of racist merchandise. In fact, if you like your racism with a pat of butter and a dollop of cream on top, you can even shop at the Paula Deen store in town. If you wonder where all the people voting for Trump go to vacation and play, it’s in Gatlinburg. I have a love/hate relationship with this town. I love the NOC outfitter store and I am really coming to adore Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Gatlinburg is the gateway to that incredible place, so the people who started this town most likely never envisioned it becoming the tourist trap that it is today. Unless we want to stay more than 30 minutes away in a more secluded spot, Gatlinburg is our easy access point to the trails we want to hike. I’m going back at least two more times this year and I absolutely can’t wait to see rhododendrons blooming and try some new hikes.
Until next time when the leaves are on the trees…