One of the great things about living in the Birmingham area is the fact that so many beautiful settings are within such easy driving distance.
Colleen and I just recently returned from time away in the mountains of east Tennessee.
If you’ve never visited the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, you’ve missed a treat.
Fall colors typically peak at the mid and lower levels during the latter half of October and first part of November.
This is the park’s busiest time to visit, so be ready for lots of traffic and long waits at restaurants. But the payoff is seeing an assortment of red, orange, yellow and even purple colors that is a once per year event at most.
While we did not find this year’s colors to be especially vivid, the scenery and beautiful sunsets were still well worth the trip.
Popular places like Cades Cove offer spectacular views, but at this time of year, be ready to spend even more time there than you may be expecting.
A sign on the road leading to Cades Cove during our stay warned visitors that—once on the Cove’s 11 mile one way loop road—they were in for no less than about 3 hours before getting out.
But even during this busy time of year, there are still lots of places to explore—after all, the park encompasses over 800 square miles along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina.
Besides trails that lead to beautiful water falls and mountain views, among our favorite places are the so-called ‘Quiet Walkways.’ They generally do not involve strenuous climbing, and offer a quick, easy escape to settings where you can enjoy total peace and quiet among nature’s handiwork.
As you explore the park, you’ll definitely be taking a trip through history. The mountains are believed to be between 200 million and 300 million years old, making them the oldest mountains in the world. Not bad for less than a six hour drive, or exactly 300 miles from our front door to the cabin.
The park is full of places to relax, camp (primitive or RV), hike, stream fish and have picnics. Horseback and bicycle riding are other popular activities.
With over 800 miles of trails and unpaved roads and elevations reaching to more than 6,500 feet, you are guaranteed not to get bored. Little wonder that this is America’s most visited national park by far.
So far as I can tell, there is only one problem with spending time in places like this: The clock moves unbelievably fast. You can spend a full week and feel as if you got gypped on time.
I consider the Smokies one of the greatest photographer’s paradises the eastern U.S. has to offer. In this day and age of digital technology, you don’t have to be an expert photographer to capture some scenes you’ll likely treasure having for years to come. Press the shutter button enough times, and you’re sure to come away with a great shot.
The cabin we chose in Townsend (just outside the park) is one we’ve used many times over the years. It’s built on the side of a mountain, so from each of three levels, you have a great view looking to the west several miles, and it’s loaded with amenities: Everything from a hot tub and pool table to satellite TV, hammock and wireless high speed Internet. It’s rough, I tell ya, rough!
Another amenity getaways to the Smokies offers is one four letter word that’s very popular with lots of folks: Food.
You’ll find plenty of spots offering delicious steaks, barbecue and seafood, including Smoky Mountain rainbow trout (grilled, fried or blackened). And then there are almost unlimited varieties of freshly made fudge. When dining in the Smokies, it’s hard to walk away hungry.
Visiting the Smokies offers clear cut choices in how you spend your time. We are not fans of crawl-speed traffic, large crowds or long waits. Places that seem overly commercial in nature are not big draws for us. Translated: You are not likely to see me waiting in line to go inside the wax museum!
You can find your share of painted T-shirt shops and thrill rides in places like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg (which are full of family friendly activities), or you can opt to spend your time amid much more tranquil and secluded surroundings, as we do, that are only a few miles away.
Colleen and I have visited the Smokies at different times of the year. Our previous visits have been during off season. While there’s no fall color to enjoy, the scenery is still every bit as impressive. More important—to us, anyway—is that going during off season means having most places almost entirely to yourself.
Off season visits mean far less traffic and hardly ever dealing with crowds anywhere you go. It may be only one or two visitors you encounter on the entire length of a trail. Some businesses close during off season, but not all. Instead of a two hour or more wait at most restaurants, you’re far more likely to walk in and be seated. The atmosphere overall is much more relaxed.
Bottom line: For us, off season visits are the way to go.
If you are really serious about wanting to get away from it all, this is where you do it.
Regardless of when you choose to visit the Smokies, you’re still likely to come away refreshed, and carrying a renewed appreciation of what Nature has to offer.
So, one word of advice: Go!