In what will certainly be the first of many, many national park camping experiences, we spent several days camped at Elkmont Campground inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This put us out of cell phone range and right at the heads of several excellent trails, an outstanding combination for days of uninterrupted fun. Our biggest hiking milestone was a 10.8 mile trail with quite a bit of elevation change from the campground up to one of the many “gaps” between mountains. During our visit saw plenty of examples of the water features – rivers, streams, waterfalls, and water just oozing from the sides of rocks — for which the park is famous. Some of these streams even doubled as part of the trail, putting our brand new trekking poles to the test as we hopped from rock to rock to make our way across. We (and they) made it through with flying colors, by which I mean we may have looked ungainly but no one ended up swimming in a river accidentally.
We happened to visit the mountains as they were just on the cusp of spring. The dominant color was chartreuse – the lime green color of newly emergent leaves. The warm sunny days had all the deciduous trees and shrubs racing to leaf out to soak up life-giving sunshine, meaning that we could literally see the forest turning from brown sticks to lush leafiness before our eyes over the course of just a couple of days. It was like being in one of those nature specials that uses time lapse photography to demonstrate plant growth, except it was in real time. I was half expecting David Attenborough to pop up behind us at any moment and start narrating.
Ever since we learned about trilliums during our stop in Huntsville, we’ve been excited to spot these subtle understory plants in the wild. This turned out to be pretty easy to do in the springtime Smokies, since the blooms basically carpeted the forest floor in several areas that we hiked through. We loved seeing the signs of new life everywhere, from flowers blooming to ferns unfurling to mosses putting out spores. Unfortunately we didn’t see any black bears, but we did see lots of turkeys – in the woods, on the trails, and even walking through the campground. Update: We did see black bears, three of them, on our last day in the park! It’s fortunate there was a crowd of gawkers pointing and taking photos, because we never would have identified the three distant brown lumps on our own. Still, we can say we’ve seen a mama and two baby brown bears in the wild!
One day we also traveled the main Newfound Gap Road all the way through the park. Along the way I got to enjoy the scenery and Ken got to spend an hour holding the steering wheel of the truck with a death grip. Our trip down the long and windy side road to Clingmans Dome, the third highest point east of the Mississippi, was scenic but ultimately a bust. We made a classic blunder. No, we did not get involved in a land war in Asia. Instead, we forgot about the effect of elevation. While the campground was experiencing a spectacular sunny day with a temperature close to 80 degrees, the highest part of the park was inside a cloud, where gale force winds whipped mist and freezing air around us.
So much for panoramic views!
We even had time during our stay to visit Asheville, where we participated in the local iteration of my college’s annual service day. We spent an enjoyable afternoon at the Asheville Humane Society, where we built and stained plywood doghouses. The dog houses are generally given away to people who are identified by the county’s animal control officers as needing assistance to provide a safe environment for their dogs. It was great to catch up with friends in Asheville and spend a day volunteering for a good cause. Getting to use power tools was a bonus. 🙂