Down East Road Trip – Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Finding Quiet in the Smoky Mountains on a Very Busy 4th of July Weekend

Great Smoky Mountain National Park - Sunset on Clingmans Dome

So… When we were planning our trip early this year, we knew many of the parks we visited can be busy during the summer, and while we planned around much of the busyness by visiting the most popular parks during mid-week, we weren’t so lucky with the Smoky Mountains. While our first park of the trip, Mammoth Caves, was relatively quiet, The Smokey Mountains were quite the opposite. Yet even so, the park is big by eastern standards and we were able to find spots of quiet respite along the way.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park - Fog on Clingmans Dome
Great Smoky Mountain National Park - Light Trails at Dusk

Our visit to the Smoky Mountains began nicely enough, with a scenic drive winding along the western edge of the park, thanks to a route suggestion by our GPS – helping us avoid a 10-mile block of solid red between Pigeon Forge and the main west entrance of the national park. However, about 2 miles from the visitor center, we rounded the corner and found ourselves in a traffic jam of our own, as folks were leaving the park for the evening. About an hour later, we arrived at our destination, picked up the junior ranger programs for the girls, and braved the insane traffic of Gatlinburg to grab some food before we zipped up to Clingmans Dome to catch the sunset.

Thankfully, we didn’t miss the sunset – mainly because there wasn’t a sunset to be had – as the mountain was socked-in with dense clouds. Even still, we set out on the steep half-mile hike to the summit, only to be turned around a few minutes into the climb with the sound of thunder signaling the approach of an evening storm. But the night wasn’t a total wash, as we stopped along an overlook spanning the border between Tennessee and North Carolina to capture some light trails as the snaking line of cars headed east to Cherokee (above).

Great Smoky Mountain National Park - Cades Cove Mill
Great Smoky Mountain National Park - Cades Cove Farmstead
Great Smoky Mountain National Park - Cades Cove Unique Barn

For our first morning in the Smoky Mountains (Saturday of the holiday weekend) we decided to get up early and beat the rush to Cades Cove – a bucolic valley dotted with historic farms, churches and a mill dating back to the 19th century. As we were heading out from the Gatlinburg entrance, we noticed a sign that indicated the Cades Cove loop road was closed to motor vehicles until 10AM. As it turns out, they open the 11-mile road exclusively to bicyclists and pedestrians on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. So, we explored the camp grounds and worked on the junior ranger packets as we waited at the entrance to the loop road. When the road opened, we were among the first to begin the drive.

Now, we’re all for taking your time and enjoying the drive, but two cars ahead of us, a white pickup took the slow drive to whole new level – meandering down the road at 5-10mph and completely ignoring the hundred-car line he had amassed behind him, not to mention the signs that tell slow drivers to pull over at any one of the many pull-offs lining the loop. We think he may have been looking for bear – a common sight in Cades Cove – and didn’t want anyone ahead of him to ruin his view. But, alas, a few miles and thirty minutes later, he pulled off and we soon arrived at our destination, the Cable Mill farmstead, where we enjoyed a quiet and relaxing stroll among the historic buildings.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park - Mountain Showers
Great Smoky Mountain National Park - Mingus Mill
Great Smoky Mountain National Park - Clingmans Dome Observation Tower

Our last afternoon in the Smoky Mountains was spent exploring the eastern side of the park, including the turbine-driven Mingus Mill. Our evening was occupied with a second attempt to see the sunset from atop Clingmans Dome. Thankfully, the afternoon storms stayed clear, and after hiking the rather strenuous half mile paved walk to the summit, we looped around the observation tower and were treated to a gorgeous sunset. But be warned, if you’re not of particularly hardy New England stock, you may want to pack a sweatshirt or more, even in the summer. The sharp wind and temperatures in the 60s made for a cool evening atop the observation deck as the sun began to slip below the horizon.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park

On our last morning in the park, we once again crossed the ridge from Tennessee to North Carolina en-route to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Stay tuned for our next installment featuring our two and a half day drive up this epic byway soon! In the meantime, please do visit our full gallery from the Smokies and let us know what we think. You’re patronage is sincerely appreciated and helps us to continue to bring you content you love.

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