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My wife and I went into this trip not knowing what to expect of the Smoky Mountains. I had never been to the Smokies, nor any other mountains east of Arkansas and Missouri. I was assuming it would be somewhat like the Ozarks and Ouachitas, only bigger. If I'm in the mountains, I want to see the mountains. In the Smokies, you get the feeling of being in the mountains due to the steep ups and downs, but you don't get the great mountain views like in the Rockies and Sierra Nevadas, which was extremely disappointing.
Compared to the trails I've done out west, the trail conditions in the Smokies was poor. I don't believe there's anything that the fine Great Smoky Mountains NP staff and volunteers could do about, it is simply the environment. Being very similar to a rainforest, everything is moss covered and slick, making it difficult to walk on. There was an over-abundance of tree roots and rocks covering the trail, which forces you to continually look down and not out at the scenery. Even when you would stop to look around, the amount of undergrowth was so thick, you couldn't see beyond 10 feet off the trail.
We had hoped to see a bear and after hearing the stories of the bear population in the Smokies, we felt our chances were pretty good. We didn't see a single bear and saw signs of only one bear after 17 miles of hiking.
I saw an article a few months back that asked "are we loving our National Parks to death?" I think the Smokies is a prime example of that. 9 million visitors a year is A LOT of people. If you want solitude, the Smokies is definitely not the place for you. My prior backcountry experiences had been in the Escalante region of Northern Arizona/Southern Utah, the Grand Tetons and the Rocky Mountains. On those trips, we could probably count on 2 hands the number of people we saw in 4 or 5 days. In the Smokies, we saw probably twice that number each day in camp. I go into the backcountry to get away and enjoy the time with the environment. Not that I dislike my fellow backpackers, but it's nice to have your own plot of land for a few days and feel like you are seeing a place that very few people will see in their lifetime.
I don't want to discourage people from visiting the Smokies, but for me, it was a big disappointment. The scenery is gorgeous, but after a few hours of hiking, I felt like it all was the same... a long walk in the woods. The Big Creek Trail was great, but beyond that, I could have dayhiked and been happy. I know it is a big park and there is more to see, but I might look at it as a good place to bring the family and enjoy the front country experience. I want to try out the Cade's Cove side of the park and see what it's like, maybe even Mt. Le Conte, but for my money, I'll spend my backcountry time out west.
Finally, I can't tell you how much fun I had backpacking with my wife. I was really glad she went and despite some of the issues we had with the experience and environment, she still came out of it saying "when we do this again" not "if we do this again...". I think we may look to do a trip to Yosemite, Sequoia/King's Canyon and / or Redwoods in California. If you've never backpacked with your spouse, I would highly recommend it. One recommendation would be to reward yourselves at the end of the trip with a stay in a nice hotel / spa.
My next posts will be about my backcountry experience in Rocky Mountain National Park with my eldest son.