Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Tennessee

Dates: November 21-27, 2020

Day 1

This was our first time taking a flight in the pandemic era. We were prepared to cancel if needed, but that situation didn’t arise luckily. San Jose airport was close to empty as compared to pre COVID-19 holiday travel, Southwest early morning 7:30 am direct flight to Nashville (4 hours fly time) was very convenient.

The flight attendants were careful, the cabin clean, no middle row seating, around 60 people flew out with us on the plane, which is less than 50% capacity. We picked up a rental car at the airport, grabbed lunch at the Taj Restaurant, shopped in Walmart for regular stuff, drove to McMinnville TN which is around 1.5 hours southeast of Nashville. There are very few hotels/motels in the area, we checked into to a known brand (Best Western), ate some leftovers from lunch, and called it a day.

Day 2

We got up at 4:00 am and drove to the Isha Institute of Inner Sciences for Sadhguru darshan on the outskirts of McMinnville TN. It was about 20 mins drive from the hotel. The turn into the ashrama was well marked, volunteers directed us to the parking lot. The ashrama is situated in the midst of woods on a beautiful hill, surrounded by greenery. The property is around 4000 acres, with a huge prayer/yoga hall shaped like a dome on the hill. The darshan was organized in the meditation garden outside the prayer hall.

Sadhguru came to the stage around 6:30 am, spoke for about an hour and left in Hummer royally. It was a divine atmosphere all around; with soft music, and Shiva hymns on the speakers. Around 150 people had scattered around the lawn with social distancing in mind; there was no personal visit with Sadhguru for safety reasons. It was freezing cold in the outside setting; we had bundled up in layers and also mask was mandatory on the premises. The lawn was damp, the tarp we had bought in Walmart the previous day was a wise choice. After the talk, we visited the Adi Yogi statue. Viewing was only allowed from the mezzanine; wish we could go inside but it is a new normal nowadays.

We hung out till 8:30 am looking around the ashrama, drove back to the hotel, picked up grab-n-go breakfasts (another new normal), checked out and started driving towards Gatlinburg TN around 10am (note that Gatlinburg is in EST, we lose an hour). We decided to drive straight to the Sugarlands Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. On the way, we stopped in a rest area for an hour to sleep, since we had had an early start.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a free national park for entrance, so we had to buy park maps at the visitor center for $1. The ranger at the desk wasn’t that helpful, she almost scared us that roads will be closed and we won’t be able to hike. We later figured she was at the end of her shift and had no energy to explain. The second ranger we talked to was very helpful in marking all the good hikes from easy, moderate and strenuous after coming to know we were hikers. This definitely helped us plan our entire trip. Since it was already 3:30 pm, we decided not to drive any further, but do the small nature trail behind the visitor center. This is around a 1-mile round trip leading to Cataract falls, which wasn’t that impressive given it was the end of November. From pictures online, it looks better during spring/summer time. It started to get dark, so we drove to Brookside Resort in Gatlinburg TN which was our home for the next 5 nights. This turned out to be quite a nice place, with a river running through the property. Our room was in 2nd floor. With our balcony facing the river, we could hear the soothing sounds of running water inside. We did a quick grocery run to Food City (2 miles up from hotel and open late) for the next day’s picnic lunch. We decided to do Cades Cove auto loop and hiking trails around that area next day.

Day 3

We had breakfast buffet at the hotel, it was a good spread of eggs, biscuits, gravy, fruits, coffee and other meat items which is not for us as we are vegetarians with exception of eggs. We started our drive around 9.15 am towards Cades Cove, stopped at a couple of viewpoints. It took us around 1 hour to go 25 miles to reach the beginning of one-way 11-mile auto loop. There are restrooms near the campground just before the loop, good idea to use them before starting as there is none till half way. There were a lot of cars, everyone was driving slow taking in the scenery, be ready to tag along behind a long line of cars.

There are couple of shortcuts to get off the one-way loop at around 2 miles and 7 miles. We decided to do the whole loop since we had planned to hike Abrams Falls and the trailhead is in the middle of the auto loop. As per the rangers, this is the best area to see wildlife like deer, elks, bears, etc. There wasn’t much that day, we saw a few deer, no elks or bears. Nevertheless, the drive was beautiful with huge meadows and stunning views of the cascading Smoky Mountains. This auto loop also has a number of historical buildings along the way, we decided to skip these buildings and hike to the falls instead.

The turn off to the Abrams Falls trailhead is in the middle of the auto loop around 6 miles in. The hike is 5 miles round trip, rated moderate. An older gentleman ranger at the trailhead warned us of bears and how people have died slipping and falling into the falls going off trail. After a nice chat with the ranger, we started down the trail. The trail meanders along a beautiful stream, going up & down initially but then downhill all the way to the falls. It took us around 1 hour 5 minutes each way. The falls was beautiful. One of the must-do hikes in the park. We finished the loop with not much on wildlife front, ate a quick picnic lunch at the campground parking lot, and then headed back to Gatlinburg around 3:00 pm. The best part of the trip was ahead of us.

On the drive back, we passed by an adult black bear foraging along the side of the road. It looked like we were one of the first ones to arrive at the scene, a ranger had just arrived and had started controlling the traffic. We parked by the side of the road close to the bear (as the hysteria had not yet set in). We had missed seeing black bears in Grand Teton a couple of months back, this fulfilled our long-standing wish. We spent around 45 minutes observing and photographing till it climbed further up the hill. As we headed back to Gatlinburg, we ran into another throng of people lined up near a pull-out. There you go, there was another adoring bear cub foraging right by the road. We hit double whammy!! Since it was a cub, we were cautiously looking around for mama bear. The ranger at the site told us it is a yearling, out of mama’s care and also had 3 siblings. The cub was very entertaining; foraging and looking up at people occasionally. We spent almost an hour taking videos and following him along the road.

It was getting dark by then; we drove into busy Gatlinburg. The city was all decked up for Christmas. We stopped by Coffee Shack for a much-needed cappuccino & hot chocolate, Food City for next day’s picnic lunch, ate pre-packed MTR upma & poha (Indian staple food). The next day was a big day, hiking Mt. LeConte. We packed lunch and snacks, planned the route, and hit the sack. It was an eventful day.

Day 4

The plan for the day was to hike Mt. LeConte via Alum Cave Trail. The peak is at 6600 ft elevation, 11.5 miles round trip with 2800 ft elevation gain. We woke up early around 6:00 am, it was freezing 35F outside. We wore multiple layers, packed food and drove to Alum Cave Trailhead. There were many spots open to park, not full yet but still had many overnight cars (we could see frost on all) who would have hiked previous day/s to stay overnight at LeConte Lodge. It is a good idea to start the hike early as the parking gets full fast because of popular mid-point hike till Alum Cave.

After eating a quick breakfast (cereal with milk) in the car, we loaded our day packs with picnic lunch, some healthy snacks and 4 bottles of water. The board at the trailhead said Alum Cave 2.3 miles, Mt. LeConte summit 5 miles. The trail starts off along a stream for almost 1 mile, then it turns left, less than half mile to Alum Arch. This is a good photo stop. There are stairs to go under and through the arch on to Alum Cave.

After this, the trail starts climbing for 1.1 mile with a few more bridges to cross the stream. As we get close to the Alum cave, there are around 150 stairs to get to it. Even though the name says cave, it is not a cave but a huge caved in rock area. You will see lot of people here, not all hike to Mt. LeConte. This is a great spot to take in the views, rest a bit, fuel up for the dauting task ahead. We climbed through the Alum Cave and followed the only trail on the left after the board, which says 2.7 miles to the summit.

Initially we gain some elevation, the trail has few rock ledges with iron railings attached on the side for support. There are few scary spots as it can get slippery with water seeping through the rocks. At around 3/4th mile of climb, it flattens out but don’t be fooled as the ascent comes back with a vengeance, so enjoy the flat stretch while it lasts. The last 1.5 mile is very strenuous ascent with few steeper portions. After climbing for quite a while (at least it feels that way as the fatigue is set in by now), the trail is flat as it goes in between a wooded area. It was icy as we got close to the lodge, we had to be careful on where we step. Finally, we reached the famous LeConte Lodge on the left of the trail. Today was the last night the lodge was open for the season, it was fully booked.

There are couple of must-do side trails for the view, as there is no view point from the lodge area. One of the returning hikers recommended a 0.2-mile hike (on the right of the main trail) up to Cliff Tops area. The trail was icy but worth the deviation, beautiful 100-meter-wide vistas of smoky mountains. We had chosen a perfect day to hike, the sky was clear for the views. After that, we had to go past the lodge for another half mile to reach the actual Mt. LeConte summit going past the shelter. It’s marked with a large cairn (pile of rocks); we added a small pebble on the top to commemorate our presence. Myrtle Point is another 0.3 mile from here, which we skipped as we were hungry and it was getting late.

The lodge dining room was closed for day hikers due to Covid-19; the office was open for souvenirs; we were glad we packed enough food. As it was end of season, the office was out of t-shirts so we bought a fridge magnet. We rested for a bit, ate lunch, took photos and were ready to hike down around 1.30 pm. A quick summary of time: in the morning we started the hike around 8:00 am, reached Alum Cave at 9.30 am, after 10 mins stop for water/photos, it took us 2 hours to reach the lodge at 11.40 am. The side trails, rest, lunch, gift shop etc. added approximately 2 hours at the summit.

The descent is always harder even though it is faster, lot more pressure on knees, also the enthusiasm is less after reaching the summit. We climbed down in moderate pace (saw few people running down, we didn’t dare), reached Alum Cave at 3:00 pm and back in the car at 4:00 pm. The national park brochure timed it to be 6-8 hours hike, with 2 hours at the top, that’s exactly what it took us to accomplish. Our Fitbit totaled 15 miles.

On our drive back into Gatlinburg, near Chimney Tops picnic area we saw emergency vehicles parked by the road including 2 ambulances. As we slowed down, we saw the EMTs/park officials pull up a dead body using rope and pulley from the drop off below. Later in the news, we cane to know an Alabama native had accidentally slipped and fell into the ravine while taking photos and dies because of head trauma. It was a sad scene; we prayed for the family and drove on. The hike deserved a good high-carb dinner, we did take-out from Taste of Italy in Gatlinburg; yummy food, happy stomach, aching body, bed never looked so comfortable.

Day 5

It was decided to be a rest day after that hike (meaning no NP hikes but walk around town). Rain and gusty winds were predicted later in the afternoon, but the morning was 70F outside, perfect weather to explore Gatlinburg. We took it slow, had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel. The day we drove in, we had noticed The Salt and Pepper Museum across the road from the hotel office. After breakfast, we walked over to check it out.

The entry fee is $3 per person + tax. It was a very unique museum with over 20,000 salt and pepper shakers from around the world. The curator told us his mother started collecting it as a hobby, and also realized that these artifacts have historic significance. It was mind-blowing to see so many different ones; they have done a phenomenal job categorizing and showcasing it. Also, in display are the tiniest and biggest shakers. It is a must-visit place for its uniqueness. We bought a small souvenir and put in in our hotel room.

We took the trolley into Gatlinburg downtown to explore the city. The trolley stop was conveniently just in front of our hotel office, got down at the Aquarium (all trolleys stop close to the aquarium, at the transit center) which is at the beginning of downtown. We walked into the crowded downtown lined with all kinds of shops and restaurants. Some people were wearing masks (probably visitors, our theory, no proof), some weren’t (looked like local people, again our theory). All the shops mandated masks, so theoretically all had masks; but few people weren’t wearing it all the time.

We browsed through a few shops, bought gifts to take home for family & friends, till fatigue set in from yesterday’s long hike. Just in time, we stumbled upon Kilwin’s ice cream shop. We ate best-tasting sea salt ice cream on waffle cone (a must try). The previous night we had bought tickets online to ride the Gatlinburg SkyLift to go on SkyBridge, the longest suspension in North America (as per what their ad said). However, when we stopped by the ticket office, the ride was temporarily closed due to the prediction of adverse weather.

That gave us time to explore other side of downtown, get Auntie Anne’s pretzels, sit on one of the benches, and people-watch for some time (and legs were hurting like crazy, so get some rest as well). As soon as we finished eating, it started raining as predicted and got windy too. By then, it was 4:00 pm and started getting dark. The city was all decked up with Christmas theme all around, town nestled in the valley, mountains all around, scene was magical. We took the trolley back to the hotel from the transit center, settled onto the couch for a movie and left-over dinner.

Day 6

This day was the last hiking day in Smoky Mountains. So, we got up early, ate cereal in the room, picked up coffee and headed to Clingmans Dome area. It is around 20 miles from park entrance. There is a 7-mile deviation to Clingmans Dome after Newfound Gap lookout parking, end up in a huge parking lot.

This is a very popular in the park and as per rangers the parking lot fills up quickly by early afternoon. We reached around 9.30 am, and there was still plenty of parking available. The plan was to hike Andrews Bald first to beat the crowd and then hike up to Clingmans Dome (no beating crowd at the dome, as everyone goes there). This turned out to be the best decision in many ways.

The trailhead to Andrews Bald is just before the paved path ascends to the dome; on the left at the end of the parking lot. The board says 1.8 miles to Andrews Bald through Forney Ridge Trail. It starts off with many steps down a rocky path, in the middle they have laid some wooden planks to avoid wet patches. Lot of small streams all along, the trail was pretty wet too from rain the previous night. We were the only people on the trail, with the sun trying peep out of the trees and hitting the hiking path, mist raising up from the ground, it was just magical and surreal.

After a 1.1-mile descent, we came to a small clearing from where the ascent starts. It’s another 0.7 mile up to the bald (here finally we met another family hiking back). Initially the ascent is steep for around 0.5 mile with lot of stairs, the last part flattens out and opens up to the huge meadow-like flat top which is called Bald. We were the only ones on the top, had it all for ourselves to take in the beautiful view of Smokies all the way eyes could see. It was mostly clear, with scattered clouds adding to the breath-taking scenery. It took us an hour to hike up, stayed there for 20 mins, and hiked our way back. Because of the ascent and descent combination, it took an hour to come back as well. The real crowd started coming in now, it was good timing for us.

Once we came back up to the parking lot, we figured why they say it’s the most famous spot in the Smokies. We saw a brimming parking lot with cars waiting for parking spots. We made our way up the paved path to Clingmans Dome; weather was clear with views of smokies all the way. Needless to say, there were loads and loads of people trying to conquer the half mile steep ascent. We had our masks on, made it to the top, quickly looked around, took few photos, came back to the car.

It was lunch time. We took the car out so that someone else can park and went to Newfound Gap lookout area to eat. After eating our packed picnic lunch, we roamed around the lookout. Newfound Gap is also the NC/TN state line, the Appalachian trail passes through here (Katahdin ME is just 1972 miles from there by foot).

Our original plan was to hike Chimney Tops, but we decided to skip and do the SkyLift to go on SkyBridge in the city. We parked the car at the hotel as we could not find any parking in the city, waited for trolley but ended up walking the 1 mile to the downtown. The weather was perfect, in upper 60s (no rain), a lot more people were up and about even though it was Thanksgiving Day.

That means the line to sky bridge ride was long too, but it was moving quickly as the lifts were coming through continuously. It was sunset time, and the view from up top was gorgeous. Almost the entire city of Gatlinburg is visible from up there. Walking on the suspension bridge was a whole another experience, we saw lot people with different levels of agitation. Another caveat is that the bridge has around 6 glass slabs right around the midpoint of the bridge; that freaked out people to the next level.

The all lit up swinging bridge was beautiful, as we walked to other side city lights came on after sunset to add to the festivities. This was definitely the best time to visit the town, if not the Smoky Mountains. In terms of fall colors, if we had come a month earlier, we could have seen a lot more fall colors but it would not have been this peaceful to hike. All the hikes and drives into the park were less crowded, we enjoyed the whole experience. We checked off few wish-list items on this trip, and hiked some great trails. We went back to the hotel, ate some home-bought ramen for dinner, and store-bought cheesecake to celebrate Thanksgiving. The last day at Gatlinburg was well hiked and spent. Our special thanks to the idea of national parks and preserving the natural beauty for everyone to enjoy.

Day 7

This was the travel day, we woke up late, ate a leisurely breakfast at the hotel, loaded luggage into our car and started drive back to Nashville to catch our flight back to San Jose. Even though the flight was at 5.30 pm, we kept the whole day open to explore nice lunch options in Nashville (we gained an hour driving west from EST to CST).

We found this amazing hole-in-the-wall vegetarian Indian restaurant called Surati Street Food. The food was super tasty, the best way to end the trip with a bang. After returning the rental car, we boarded the flight back home, reached San Jose around 8:00 pm (pilot decided to zoom off cutting almost 40 mins flight time). Glad to be home safe and sound, but with lot of great memories.

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