What is the Smoky Mountains like?

Exploring Smoky Mountains

A jewel of Appalachia, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park rarely gets excelled in its diversity and beauty. Abhijeet Deshpande shares an experience.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Driving in The Great Smoky Mountains National 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.

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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.

Popular Attractions in Smoky Mountains

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.

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Treks, Trails, and Adventure in Smoky Mountains

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 honored 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.

Be Safe in Smoky Mountains

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.

Car-Rental Deals for Smoky Mountains

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!

Sleep in Smoky Mountains

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.

Fun Fact: Pick up American English

As an Indian expatriate in the US, the American English and way of speaking brought some newness – especially the numbers. If you are anything like me, it’d help to get the essentials right. Learn how to speak American.

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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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53 thoughts on “Exploring Smoky Mountains

  1. Looks like a fabulous pace to explore even when the weather is a little cold. The smell of the forest… Actually it’s aspects like smell that causes my preference for travelling by motorcycle. Makes you feel closer to nature. Nice article. Very interesting and descriptive.

    1. Thank you! Yes, visiting Smoky Mountains in the winters, especially December, was like having the entire park to yourself! The variation in landscape between differing altitudes offered unique visual treats (pics above). When sunny, it would make for an excellent biking itinerary too 🙂

  2. For us, This would be a dream come true ! Your pictures has taken our imagination right to where you were…. now we physically want to be there !

    we absolutely LOVE your pictures, and blog posts of course <3

  3. Omg this is just wow! I love exploring forests and nothing beats staying close to the nature. Thanks for the lovely article????

  4. We love the Smoky Mountains. We’re not backpackers, but there are plenty of short day hikes for the average person–several leading to waterfalls.

    1. Yes Madison. Its all so fresh. And we would love to have others explore the Smoky Mountains too! Thank you.

  5. Wow oh wow! Thanks for sharing this. Your article is awesome. I have learned a lot about the Smoky Mountains from it.

  6. The Esoteric Smoky is somewhere I will love to be at. I love every bit of your explanation on this place.

  7. I am glad that you enjoyed a part of the Appalachia! My mom would always travel into the deep part of the West Virginia and Virginia parts of the Appalachia, and it was gorgeous! It is like you get lost in a different world (as I lived near Washington DC at that time).

    1. Wow! Your mom must have loved it. Appalachian trail a quite long. We hope we can cover the the complete trail some day.

  8. I just recently involved myself to hiking and camping.It relieves my everyday stress and made me calm.

    p.S What a great location is that.

    1. Happy to learn that you are hiking and camping more often. A great way to stay fit – physically and mentally! Thanks a lot.

  9. I have to admit, I’m not one for windy roads but this place looks interesting enough. Though I would be scared if I saw a bear. Overall, you did a great job at covering everything the smoky mountains has to offer.

  10. That seems like an amazing trek. Loved the giant trees next to the snow lined roads. Would gladly spend a week here! Great tips!

    1. It was breathtaking Sreekar to see those trees and icy roads. They could be tricky to drive on though! We went in a good weather! One week would be great! Hope you plan soon.

  11. I’m glad you were safe and you trusted your intuitions – sometimes its simply not worth waiting to find out whether people are who they say they are! And also glad you didn’t meet any bears on the way back! What an adventure. Interesting you could sense something wasn’t quite right.

    1. It was an adventure indeed Juliette. You are right. After traveling for over 20 years now, we have come to rely on our intuition quite a bit! Overall, we loved our experience of this national park and would happy to go back!

  12. I’m so glad you listened to your gut instinct ! It was probably all innocent but you never know! But what a beautiful area, I would love to go hiking there. Have pinned this article for later 🙂

    1. Thanks Sarah. Yes, you are right. Its always good to weigh the risks 🙂 Hiking is amazing in Smoky Mountains. And there are many trails to venture into! Hope you get to the Smokies soon. Happy travels.

  13. Such an interesting read. I’d love to go hiking in the Smokies someday but it does sound a little eerie. Good thing your reflexes are up to scratch to dodge that tree! Thanks for sharing.

  14. Maybe I’ve watched too many scary movies but your experience on that hiking trail in the Smoky Mountains really spooked me! I’m glad that you were able to get back and find your way. Good idea to let hotel staff know where you’ll be hiking just in case of an emergency. Not as many people hike in December, so just be mindful of who you might meet!

  15. Exploring Smoky mountains in winters looks like a beautiful adventurous hike. Encountering the exotic wildlife must be interesting and sometimes scary too. You are brave enough to do this whole hike as you did all this in offseason. In some of the places you were all alone, but it must be exciting. Thanks for sharing tips on safety, renting 4×4 vehicle details, and informing someone or hotel staff about our future hiking plans.

  16. No, not really. But when I saw read the smoky mountains title I thought you were referring to the smoky mountain that we have in Manila, Philippines. But it’s totally different because that place is like a place for unfortunate people. This, your trail, trek and exploring Smoky mountains look adventurous but cold, isn’t it? I would love to camp if the weather condition cooperates!

  17. Oh my God! That was quite an experience. In the middle of the Smokies, climbing up to nowhere, I might have been scared to death! We visited Smokies when I was living in Charlotte, NC but we did it in the summer. More people were about then. Don’t know if I would do a trip in the winter. But I will make sure I will carry a flashlight if I do!

    1. Haha. Yes, it is important to be prepared when venturing to national parks. Smoky Mountains is charming in winters too. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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