A jewel of Appalachia, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park rarely gets excelled in its diversity and beauty. Abhijeet Deshpande shares an experience.
Driving in the Park
Townsend was witnessing rough weather every other night. Dawn was at least an hour away. It’s streets in the snowy and sleety cold of December, wore an abandoned look. Cruising, we turned on to a curvy route, on the periphery of the park. Our eyes darted as the headlight splashed on the abruptly ascending deciduous forest to the right and on the river and its rapids to the left. A thick foliage covered either side. All this, for a chance to spot nocturnal wild life. We hoped to detect movements. Coyotes or foxes, may be. Anything.
Half an hour in to that twisty ride, as I was about to pick up my coffee, momentarily focusing on the mug holder, Navita let out a yelp, clutched on to the roof handle and embraced for an impact. Last night’s storm had knocked down a mammoth tree and its solid trunk blocked the road. With little time to act, I steered the vehicle to the foliage of leaves, and braked cautiously lest the vehicle skidded off of the mild sleet and into the river below. It was a dramatic halt, just inches before the blockade. We sat motionless for a few moments, listening to the engine’s whirring. It was a good idea to wait here until sunrise.
After an eventful start, we had had mixed set of days. From following Sugarlands Visitor Center’s guidance that sent us trekking inside the black bear country, driving around Cades Cove loop road, Roaring Fork, Maloney Point, to visiting Ripley’s Aquarium in Gatlinburg and to binging on burger meals with large fries! The road to Clingman’s Dome was closed for the winter. One afternoon, weather had cleared up a bit and we drove to Cosby.
The Esoteric Smoky
Beech, Birch, and Oak occupied the rugged terrain. The mighty trees zoomed in the sky; their muscular trunks stood tall as proud hosts. The sounds of our footsteps were subdued by sounds of a nearby stream gushing to someplace, of twittering finches, and of the susurration of leaves; each distinctly audible. The misty, fresh air brought in the smell of the slightly wet tracks, and a peculiar smell of the forest. The innumerable shades of green mingled with innumerable shades of brown to create a perfect camouflage for the fauna. Though we had ventured inside the woods a few days earlier, and in a part known to inhabit black bears, the magic of the terrain here was distinct. Nature had turned us quiet, mindful.
Treks, Trails and Adventure
About an hour into the hike, we reached that stream gushing-to-someplace. A wood trunk, with a wobbly wooden hand-railing on one side, made for a makeshift bridge. Walking on a relatively narrow platform with icy water below, infused a sort of adventure and alertness. About two-thirds across the ‘bridge’, a male voice cracked through: ‘Hello there!’. Startled to hear someone, in an otherwise isolated patch, we scurried across the remaining bridge with a newfound confidence, turned, and greeted back.
A group of four caucasian seniors; two men and two women were headed the same way. They were agile for their age and crossed that bridge with little or no support of the railing. For the weather, they were dressed rather lightly. John, a tall man with a black cardigan knotted around his neck, prompted us to hike with them to the nearby waterfall. In a snap decision, we joined the group. John was in the front. Navita and I were behind him. The other man, stocky and reserved, followed us. The women, both with crimson coloured lips, trailed behind. John did bulk of the talking while the others either smiled or offered short replies. It felt as if something was not right.
Beware of unmarked trails
Up until the time we met them, Navita and I were hiking effortlessly. While we simply wanted to enjoy the woods, John set a quick pace and led us on to an unmarked trail. When, despite hiking for more than thirty minutes, there was no sign of a waterfall, I inquired about the route. His reply was ‘we are almost there’. The wristwatch said ten minutes to 4 pm. As we scaled up, the forest became denser and darker. The tree-tops converged, cutting off light. It was cooler too, but the hike’s intensity had forced us to take off our jackets. I could feel cold sweat trickle down my neck. We had not carried a flashlight or camping gear, no one knew our itinerary, and our feature phones were out of coverage area. We were growing concerned.
Listen to that inner voice
After thirty more minutes, it was Navita’s turn to ask – when was the last time that you were here? John surprised us with his nonchalant response. ‘I was here two weeks ago to bury someone near the waterfall!’ His stocky friend, walking behind us, was expressionless. Why would he bury someone deep inside a jungle? Why not a proper burial at a cemetery? Whom did they bury? How did that person die? Were they leading us to our burial-ground too? Who were these people? We never shook hands with them or touched them. Were they real? Weird thoughts rushed in. Navita glanced at me, and I whispered to her in Marathi, let us turn around. She nodded.
We quietly dropped a few paces from our stride, let Mr. Stocky get in front of us, and let the crimson ladies overtake. I then called out to John and announced our intention. The ladies turned around with a frown. Stocky was still expressionless; he uttered ‘we are almost there’. John gave a surprised look and offered to go back together from the waterfall. But noticing our firm choice, warned us about bears in the park and said he knew at least two people who were attacked in the vicinity. We thanked him for the concern and waved good byes. In all likelihood they were normal people who honoured someone’s last wish to be buried in the jungle, or they had just pulled a fast one! We’d never know. What we did realize was that we were out of our comfort zone.
Downhill, the eeriness grew stronger. Since meeting the quartet, we had stopped keeping a keen check on the route. We feared we might get lost in the jungle. It was twilight. We feared a solitary night in the forest. Our footsteps made thumping sounds. We feared startling a bear. We continued the descent as fast as we could. Not a word spoken, until we reached that stream gushing-to-someplace and crossed the wood trunk bridge. That’s when we stopped for a breather. From that point, we knew the route back. Though it had gotten dark, we were safe.
We followed through on our adventures with visits to the impressive Hen Wallow Falls, Rainbow Falls and Ramsey Cascade Trail. Only this time, we started our hikes in the morning, carried a flashlight (just in case), and informed the hotel staff about the day’s itinerary! All this in two weeks and it does not even scratch the surface. Then there’s lot more to Smoky Mountains in North Carolina.
Weather and Visitors in December
For some reason, most of the places that we went to inside the park, we were the only visitors. Perhaps, people preferred warmer places to go to. Perhaps, Christmas was just days away. But, visiting Smoky Mountain in the winters is a treat not to be missed.
Top reasons to visit Smoky Mountains
- Fauna: Get here to see a range of animals. Here’s a list
- Nature: Here’s more about the forests.
- Hiking: Explore the Appalachian trail. More on hiking.
We flew to Knoxville, Tennessee, hired a 4×4 off-road vehicle from the McGhee Tyson airport, and had reached the mouth of the national park by sunset. Well, here’s the truth about the 4×4: we’d booked the cheapest vehicle; but the rental company offered a bulk-booking upgrade. Thank you Enterprise-Rent-A-Car! Check for upgrades or discounts when you rent!
Given the weather conditions at the time, we did not camp. It remains a good option otherwise. Here’s more on camping. Besides, there are many inns and hotels in Townsend or Gatlinburg on the Tennessee side of the park.
Have you been to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park? How was your experience? We would love to hear from you (please scroll below to leave a comment).
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