For a former New Englander, the big shock of being in the Great Smoky Mountains in July was the bug situation. Following standard practice from the Appalachians in MA, NH, VT, and ME, we had brought enough DEET and picaridin to cover a herd of elephants and yet found ourselves in the woods without being bothered by any flying insects, even in wetter lower-lying areas.
We spent our first day driving to Kuwahi, known to the white invaders as “Clingmans Dome,” the highest point on the Appalachian Trail and, at 6,643′, the third highest mountain in the land that we stole east of the Mississippi. We left the cabin before 7 am because we had been warned that parking lots within the park tend to fill up.
Our reward for the drive was getting progressively deeper into a cloud until, at last, nothing was visible.
On the way, official government scientists reminded us that, while diversity is our strength and non-native humans are hugely beneficial for any ecosystem, non-native insects are a disaster:
Cars feature a lot more religious and political expression than in Florida. We can be grateful to Jesus for the dinosaur blood that saved us from walking up 4,000′ from the Gatlinburg airport (KGKT):
On the back of a small SUV, a reminder not to follow the examples of Al Franken and Harvey Weinstein when visiting the Knoxville Zoo:
How about the bears? We spent a day driving to Cades Cove to see the bears. The approach to Cades Cove from Gatlinburg follows a winding river and features more curves than all of the roads in South Florida combined. The kids loved it and asked if we could go back the same way.
Upon reaching Cades Cove the National Park Service warned us, via a big electronic sign, that it would take 2-3 hours to drive the 11-mile loop. This was, if anything, an underestimate. Traffic moves slower than in midtown Manhattan. We were grateful to take a break in the middle and walk to Abrams Falls:
How about those bears? We did see a few during the Cades Cove day, usually at least 100′ away and often obscured by trees. After a long day of attempted bear-viewing in the National Park we found that the street right in front of our cabin was blocked by four bear cubs and a bear parent of unknown gender ID. After 20 minutes, one cub hadn’t moved at all and we began researching wildlife rescue options, thinking that perhaps the cub had been hit by a car. Eventually, though, all of the bears got up and moved up the hill and we were able to get to our cabin (that’s actually our rental, in the photo).
Apparently, even the bears can’t handle the epic crowds within the National Park and prefer to hang out in Gatlinburg and even inside our rental:
After a day off at Dollywood (maybe I’ll do that as a separate post), we returned to the park for a walk to Grotto Falls. We didn’t get out quite as early and found that we needed to park roughly 1/2 mile downhill from the trailhead. The parking areas within the Park would need to be 3-4X bigger to handle even the weekday demand for the more popular trails. Most of the photographs taken in the Park are lies. Most visitors, even those willing to go on a 2-3-hour hike, will have an essentially urban experience inside the National Park. The trail to Grotto Falls is more crowded than a typical American city sidewalk, but it is possible, even in the middle of the day, to make it look like you’re in the woods by yourself:
Where to stay? We liked our cabin, which had a great view from the desk and enabled us to see bears up close and personal. But it was 10 minutes of driving down some scary mountain roads to get to a supermarket, restaurant, or the main roads into the Park. Remarkably, there were delivery services that would, at a reasonable price, bring groceries (the Publix app works!) or meals up to the cabin, and it was also possible to get an Uber either to or from the cabin. If you want to go back to your lodging in between activities it probably makes more sense to stay closer to one of the towns.
Pigeon Forge, home to Dollywood, is a serious challenge to those who believe that markets will result in reasonable outcomes. It is a strip of hideous commercial development, fronted by massive parking lots, jammed with 6 lanes of traffic, and inaccessible to pedestrians. Every urban planning major should be sent here so that if he/she/ze/they is ever experience self-doubt or doubt in his/her/zir/their chosen profession, he/she/ze/they can think back to the Pigeon Forge experience.
The only thing that can be said in favor of Pigeon Forge is that people are friendly and seem happy to be working. Well, and that it is possible to purchase socks celebrating Rainbow Flagism:
And maybe the Titanic Museum, which gets great reviews, but was rejected by our 8-year-old: “Titanic hit an iceberg and sunk. What’s the problem with you?” The kids were irresistibly drawn to the medieval castle containing MagiQuest (not to be confused with MAGAQuest, in which the task is helping non-partisan FBI agents find documents) and it was actually a lot of fun (buy the unlimited time option because there is no way you’ll get out of the Magi section in less than 2.5 hours) and a smart air-conditioned choice on a hot afternoon or evening.
Gatlinburg is just as traffic-clogged, but at least it is walkable and it is closer to the Park:
Maybe the best compromise between a mountain experience, access to the Park, and access to services and attractions: the DoubleTree Park Vista hotel. It is right next to a road leading into the Park and high enough above the town that you get some mountain views and mountain air. We drove by it on our way to Grotto Falls. The reviews suggest that the place needs renovation, but once it does get a make-over it should be nice.
Travel tip: bring some mini bottles of maple syrup. The local mania seems to be for making pancakes (not obviously better than those McDonald’s serves as part of the Big Breakfast), but corn syrup with a touch of artificial flavor is the only topping that is reliably available. Our kids got a surprise after we asked a waitress “Do you have real maple syrup?” and she responded “Yes,” then returned with what used to be called Aunt Jemima. We explained that this was “real” to her.
Overall: Great Smoky Mountains National Park is, in fact, great. But unless you’re a serious backcountry hiker, it is also mostly ruined by the crowds. Everything was designed for the U.S. circa 1960 (population 180 million and most people had to work on most days), not for the U.S. circa 2022 (population 333 million and the entire laptop class can pretend to work from Gatlinburg just as easily as pretending to work from home). If you don’t love crowds you probably won’t find the Park relaxing.
At the same time that we were in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a friend was in a $7,000/night dude ranch in Montana. The elites were paying $7,000/night for, essentially, the same experience that our family had in the National Parks circa 1980. An elite family could go for a walk without bumping into a lot of other people. They could park wherever they wanted to. They could get into a restaurant and eat without waiting 45 minutes or an hour. They could ride horses without making reservations in advance. But we could do and actually did all of those things as an upper-middle-class family (my dad worked for the Federal Trade Commission) in the early 1980s in Yellowstone, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Grand Canyon, etc.