Sunday, October 28, 2012

Great Smoky Mountain National Park & Mammoth Cave National Park

Off on another whirlwind adventure with Nate!! (Well, a few weeks ago)

Day 1
Drive to Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Gatlinburg, TN. Set up the tent at Elkmont Campground. Very nice campground but no showers.

First Views
We had dinner at Smoky Mountain Brewery, pizza was great! We also had the homemade pretzels which were warm and yummy. Nate enjoyed the sampler of their home brews.

After, we explored part of Gatlinburg. There are many touristy shops in the area as well as moonshine tasting.

Here are some first views of TN:


This area was very interesting in that the tourist attractions and hotels are all built up along the main entrance roads to the park. Very convenient for food but its a strangely commercialized area. There are also many of the same restaurants in Gatlinburg as well as Pigeon Forge.

Day 2, Monday
Cloudy morning. Hiked Laurel Falls, one of the more well known trails. It is right near the entrance, about 2 miles or so round trip. It started to pour right after we got back to the car.

We drove the Newfound Gap and around the highways as well as a section of Blue Ridge Parkway and one of the Foothills Parkway. We also took a turn off the main road and drove around some of the bases of the mountains. Very cool and so different from the White Mountain areas. The hills/mountains are so steep and sudden, the valleys between them are just a few feet across in some areas!
Trails off Newfound Gap... Hike to Maine anyone?!

There are actually mountains and views!

For breakfast we had pancakes at the Flapjack's Pancake Cabin, which after sampling almost all the breakfast places in the area, one of the best choices. For dinner we went to the Mellow Mushroom and had pizza again. They had all sorts of specialty and fancy pizzas to pick from.

We went to some more shops around Gatlinburg after and also purchased some moonshine! Nate liked the apple pie flavored one. We did the drive around the Roaring Fork Nature Auto Trail which was scary because its a one way steep winding paved/dirt road. It was dark by the time we were done and so it was probably not one of the better ideas... however, we survived.

There are booklets available at the start of the auto roads and trails that you can purchase for a dollar or something. Some areas you can get them at the visitor center, some are honor system.

Day 3, Tuesday
There be blue sky today!! We didn't want to pay for parking so we went to Pigeon Forge for breakfast. We ate at Smoky Mountain Pancake House.

We drove Newfound Gap Road and were able to stop and see things at the scenic outlooks.

One of the main attractions here is Clingman's Dome which is the highest point in the park! Because we did this a few times, we were able to see the differences as the clouds thickened and cleared out. We also went on one of the few days that it was warmer at Clingman's Dome than it was below the clouds!
The final ascent!
To Clingman's Dome!

Now that we can see the mountains, we notice there are tons of dead trees! Not just trees who have seasonally lost their leaves. Turns out there are two infestations currently at the park. The Hemlock Woolly Adelgid and the Balsam Woolly Adelgid which is mostly under control now. These are just two examples of why you see all the signs to not move or bring firewood from other places.

We did the section of Blue Ridge Parkway because we wanted to do the one way road of Heintooga Ridge Road around Balsam Mountain. On our way to this road, we pass a few areas such as Black Camp Gap and a picnic area. We also see Elk!! Elk were reintroduced to the park in 2001 and have been thriving in the area. The NPS has more information about the Elk here.

By this point, Nate is a certified expert driver (he also drove Mt. Washington Auto Road) and we took this road in first gear. It was about 2 hours of bumping along a scenic remote dirt road. There are a lot of hikes you can do along the road as well.

We took the Newfound Gap Road back to Pigeon Forge for dinner. We had an all you can eat family style meal at Mama's Farmhouse. This reminded me of buffet/dim sum. They used carts to bring you your food and clear your dishes but it was all you can eat. Food was tasty and there was plenty!

Day 4, Wednesday
We had breakfast at the Red Rooster Pancake House which was tasty, but was a regular breakfast place.

Ready for some traffic?? The tour book highly recommends the 11 mile drive around Cades Cove Loop Road but failed to mention the huge back up of traffic. This is a short historic drive that showcases several homesteads and churches. There are lots of pull offs and small hikes you can do.

There was a horse that looked like a cow... or a cow that looked like a horse! :P

We did the Abrams Fall's hike which is one of the more popular ones. This is a nice 5 mile round trip hike with lots of great views. It was fairly steep at some points, but very do able for those at varying levels of fitness.

After we hopped back into the car and drove to Nashville! For dinner we went to Jack's BBQ. It was cafeteria style so we were a little hesitant, the place could use a face lift. But the line was out the door when we left, and the ribs came right off the bone.


Day 5, Thursday
Breakfast at Cracker Barrel, then we drove to Mammoth Cave National Park. This was a mixed bag... the area was pretty, however it didn't compare to the Smokey Mountains. There was also not many restaurants and we hadn't planned for that. There wasn't much to do other than the cave tours. If we could redo this, we would have stopped here first and only spent a few hours to do the tour and used our extra day (that we now had) at the Smokey Mountains.

However, this was a very nice area if you have small kids and/or are looking to explore the water aspect of the area, I think it would be worth it. There are several short hikes (less than a mile) that are fairly flat, the campground sites were big, clean, and easy to park at. The bathrooms were clean too. We didn't look into the water part, but I heard there were rafting and kayaking along the Green River type adventures available.

We took the Historic Tour at 3:00 on a Thursday. We had a group of about 10 adults which was great. We could go a little faster, ask questions easier, and our tour guide could tailor it. Our tour guide Rick was great, he had been doing it for about 25 years and was quite knowledgeable. We saw tour groups earlier that day with up to 75 people.

Green River
The Historic Tour was pretty cool. The cave (so far) is just under 400 miles long and all contained under the national park. The history of the park goes back hundreds of years. There were slaves who were in there to find saltpeter which is used in gun powder AND food preservation (yum!) during the War of 1812. They have been giving tours there since the 1830s. The geological stuff about the cave was interesting, but I need to learn a bit more about rocks before it makes enough sense to me!

White Nose Syndrome is a disease which is killing of thousands of bats. It is a recently discovered disease. According to Wikipedia
"The condition, named for a distinctive fungal growth around the muzzles and on the wings of hibernating bats, was first identified in a cave in Schoharie County, NY, USA, in February 2006. It has rapidly spread and as of spring 2010, the condition had been found in over 115 caves and mines ranging mostly throughout the Northeastern US and as far south as Alabama and west to Missouri and into four Canadian provinces."
We had to walk over Lysol covered mats to help kill the potential fungus on our shoes. They also wanted to talk to anyone who had been in a cave since 2005 for extra preventive measures. It is tough since they aren't sure how it spreads.

Lunch was Subway, dinner was El Mazatlan Restaurant. We didn't know what to expect here, but the food was decent. It reminded me of a Plaza Azteca. The portions were good, food was fast and hot, but it wasn't anything special, but it wasn't bad either.

Day 6, Friday
We stopped at the Jim Beam distillery for a quick look see, but they didn't have anything too different than what you can buy at other places. Then we continued on our marathon drive home.We stopped for dinner at Ed's Steakhouse. We were hungry... but it wasn't a very impressive meal. The bread was good. but the service was slow, the food was pricier, and not cooked very well. If you can wait, I would go somewhere else.

Verdict: We would have done Mammoth Caves first. We would have looked at the water adventure things available. We would have brought an extra car charger for my phone. We would have packed more snacks. Pack warmly, during the day it was around low to mid 50s and at night it... I have no idea how cold it got, but it was chilly!!

Thanks for Reading and Happy traveling!!


  1. Awesome blog, we are going there on October 28 th, 2014. All of this information is going to help us plan, thanks!!

    1. Glad to help! Have a fun trip! October is beautiful!! :)