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Smoky Mountains and WNC

Wednesday, October 17, 2012 11:30 AM

Warning: Photo-heavy post ahead.

I saw most of my relatives on my mother's side of the family at that wedding we went to in Tampa in early July. But I hadn't seen any of my father's family since our own wedding, two years ago today. So when it came time to plan our fall vacation, we decided to travel to Asheville, where my grandmother — my only remaining grandparent — lives with one of my aunts and her daughter, my 18-year-old cousin.

And as long as we were going to be in WNC, we thought we should visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park so we could cross another park off our list. It worked out nicely because we explored the park at midweek, when it was presumably less busy than on a weekend — though we still experienced some traffic jams — and spent Friday evening through Monday morning at my aunt's house in the country outside Asheville.

As we did on our first trip to the area exactly five years ago (before my relatives moved there), we rented a cabin so that we could save money by cooking our own food. Even better, the owners of the property kept a large organic garden open to guests, so our meals were made with hyperlocal eggplants, turnips, cherry tomatoes, basil and mint.

We woke up to heavy fog every morning.
Freshly picked raspberries for breakfast

We arrived in the Smokies on Tuesday afternoon and went on a couple of hikes that took us past several waterfalls.
Mingo Falls
Juney Whank Falls
Indian Creek Falls
Toms Branch Falls

We spent Wednesday driving the Cades Cove loop, stopping to check out historic homes and churches and to make the 5-mile round-trip hike to Abrams Falls.

Smoky mountains, indeed

The hike was incredibly rewarding. We got to the trailhead later than we planned because of slow traffic on the loop, and we really had to push the pace to make sure we'd have time to enjoy Abrams Falls and still get back to the car before sunset. The falls were spectacular, and we ended up having the trail almost entirely to ourselves in the prime wildlife-watching hours just before dusk.

J truly scared me by climbing on wet rocks so close to the falls!

On Thursday, we drove the Newfound Gap Road and got stuck in traffic for 40 minutes on the way up to Clingman's Dome. I can't imagine what the place must be like on a summer weekend. We'd packed a lunch to eat at Andrews Bald, a meadow with a spectacular view. J also wanted to hike to Rainbow Falls in another part of the park, but I was too worn down for two significant hikes in a day (3.6 miles for Andrews Bald, 5.6 for Rainbow Falls), and we were pressed for time. So instead we enjoyed a languorous lunch in perfect weather and then preceded up the dome to walk on a few yards on the highest stretch of the Appalachian Trail and view the whole park from the observatory tower.

I may have dozed off a little.


The foliage was a little disappointing, but these mountains were colorful.
It wasn't clear whether the state line ran parallel or perpendicular to this sign.

We took it easy on Friday, in part because we were tired and in part because we knew it would take a significant portion of the day to cross through the park from the Tennessee side and get back to Asheville. We took the short walk to Cataract Falls, then pulled over on Newfound Gap Road and climbed down to the riverbank to eat lunch next to the rushing water. That was followed by a round of one of my favorite outdoor activities: climbing on river rocks.

Finishing the Biltmore Riesling I'd opened a couple of nights earlier

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known for its biodiversity, particularly in flora — more than 1,600 species of flowering plants! — and for us one of the highlights of our visit was the wildlife. We saw plenty, including turkeys, red foxes, a herd of elk and one snake. But the only decent pictures we got were of deer, which were all over the place.

We really got lucky on our Abrams Falls hike. Like I said, we were the only ones on the trail after we'd gone about a mile, so it was quiet. At the falls, we saw a great blue heron and a trio of otters, which was incredibly exciting because J and I love otters, and he had never seen any in the wild. The bigger thrill, however, was on the way back. I heard rustling in the woods to our left, and I looked over to see a black bear staring right back at me, only 30 feet off the trail! J said there were actually two bears, but I only saw one, and they both retreated pretty quickly into the woods once we'd noticed each other.

Our time in Asheville was especially relaxing. We cooked, went to each other's religious services and played spades and Bananagrams. J and I also went to the River Arts District with my aunt on Saturday afternoon, and that night the two of us headed into downtown after dinner to sample some local beers. Asheville is a great city that reminds me of Portland in a lot of ways: young, arty and obsessed with local food and microbrews.

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