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Well, my wife and I just got back from our Smoky Mountains trip. It was a great trip and we had a fantastic time. This was our first experience with the famed Smokies, and neither of us knew what to expect. We were blown away with the amount of flora in the park. Every where you looked, everything was green. How the Smokies got their name was evident on this day as the smoky haze encompassed all of the surrounding hills on our drive in from Knoxville.
Our plan was to arrive Wednesday around noon and drive to the Gatlinburg entrance. My first observation was that there was no fee to enter the park. I have been to a few other parks, including Zion and RMNP which charge a fee for driving into the park. We entered through the Gatlinburg entrance and stopped into the Sugarland's visitor center to grab a topo map and some directions and recommendations. After a brief look around the visitor center, we headed over to Newfound Gap and Clingman's Dome road to head to the summit of Clingman's Dome.
I had read about the black bear population in the park and had heard the statistics of 2 bears for every square mile, but I was skeptical that we would see a bear. However, right around the corner from the visitor center, my wife spotted a nice sized bear, probably 100 yards from the main road. We couldn't stop due to traffic behind us, so we unfortunately have no pictures of the bear. But, this is the Smokies, home of 1500 bears, surely we'll see more.
We continued the drive up to Clignman's Dome, a 7 mile drive up the windy Clingman's Dome Road to a fairly large parking lot. If you come to the Smokies, I would recommend the drive up to Clingman's Dome. It's one of the Smokies famed features and if you are a hiking / backpacking fan, you have probably dreamed of doing a section-hike or a thru-hike of the Appalachian Tral (AT) and Clingman's Dome is the highest point on the AT at 6,643 feet above sea level. From the end of the parking lot, there is a .5 mile paved trail leading up to the summit. On the way up, I had to grab a shot of me standing next to the AT trail sign.
There were spectacular views from the parking lot and as we walked up to the top. Though, once we arrived at the top, the Smokies famed smoke and clouds rolled in and we couldn't see beyond 100 feet. We climbed to the top of the observation tower hoping the skies would clear, but no such luck.
We left Clingman's Dome and headed over to the Big Creek Campground near Mt. Sterling, NC where we would camp for the first night. They don't take reservations, it is a first-come / first-served policy only, and we hoped that coming mid-week we would have no problems getting a site for 1 night. We lucked out! We grabbed the last campsite, 15 minutes prior to another couple arriving behind us. It was a great start to the trip.
Big Creek Campground is an extremely nice spot. The facilities are clean and the scenery is gorgeous. It's not much on solitude, but as we found out, solitude is hard to come by in the Smokies. Here, you are within 100 yards of Big Creek (hence the name of the Campground), so you get the peaceful, calming sound of the rolling creek 24/7. It makes for a romantic dinner and pleasant nights sleep, unless you're nervous about bears and you awake from every twig snap, frog belch and cricket chirp as I did.
Dinner for tonight was a Zatarain's Red Beans and Rice with a dash of Tabasco sauce coupled with a nice Shiraz. I also got to break in my new GSI Pinnacle Dualist cookset and my Snow Peak Giga Power stove. Both of these got two big thumbs up from my wife and I on this. The weight, size, price, usability, and performance were fantastic.
After dinner, we spent some time down by the creek and plotting our next days adventure. Here are a few pictures to give you an idea of the ideal surroundings. What a beautiful place.
If you are not ready for the backcountry experience, I would highly recommend spending a few days in Big Creek Campground. There are many day hikes that can be had from here. It also makes a great starting point for many point-to-point or loop hikes like the one we did.
My next post will cover the first day's hike, leaving Big Creek Campground and hiking 5.2 miles up to Campsite 37 - Walnut Bottoms.