Trading urban life for nature continues to be my COVID coping strategy. As a result, my husband and I have hiked roughly 200 miles since April. Based in New York City, we often venture upstate to the Catskills, east to Connecticut and west to the Delaware Gap discovering new trails along the way. Recently, we drove down to my original home state of Tennessee for a few days in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Autumn brought brilliant blue skies, crisp cool air and a touch of color to enhance the experience. If you’re itching to escape, maybe it’s time to road trip up to the Smokies!
Road Tripping on the Foothills Parkway
Driving north from Chattanooga, we made our way to U.S. 129 beside the Little Tennessee River to pick up the Foothills Parkway. Meandering along the two-lane road, we were treated to mesmerizing views of the Smoky Mountains living up to their name with an ever-present circle of clouds hugging the mountain tops.
Day 1 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
We started our Great Smoky Mountains NP explorations on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Our adventure began with a stop at the old homestead of Noah “Bud” Ogle where we embarked on a self-guided walking tour of an authentic mountain farmstead. From there, we moved on to tackle the moderately strenuous hike to Rainbow Falls. The 5.4-mile round trip challenged me as we gained about 1,500 feet in elevation en route to the falls. Of course, it was worth every huff and puff when we reached the 80-foot-high cascading waterfall named for the rainbow that often appears in the mist.
Day 2 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Our second day in the park began with a short hike and a drive along the Newfound Gap which bisects the park taking visitors from Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina. From there we traveled to Fontana Lake for a boat cruise and hike with Jason of The Sunny Day Adventure Company. Formed by the Fontana Dam, this mountain lake serves as the southern border of the North Carolina side of the park. Few park visitors venture here which made it all the more alluring. From adorable houseboats floating in the lake to a hike in the remote forest and a stunning sunset, the entire cruise was fabulous. Afterward, we drove back through the park at night and listened in the darkness to the bugling of the elks as the males worked to attract the females. Welcome to mating season elk style!
Day 3 in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Our final day in the park brought more sunshine as we explored the park’s human history at Cades Cove. Once home to a thriving Appalachian community, this popular park attraction provides a nod to the past with well-preserved period buildings scattered along the 11-mile loop road. We stopped about halfway at the trailhead for the Abrams Falls trail. This gorgeous hike follows the creek as it meanders through a tranquil old-growth forest. We scrambled over a few boulders along the way but the stunning sight of the thundering falls validated every step of the 5.5-mile hike. As we drove along the loop trail to conclude our tour of Cades Cove, we met one of the furry residents nonchalantly gobbling up berries beside the road.
With 522,427 acres split between East Tennessee and Western North Carolina, our three days in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park barely scratched the surface. We’ll be back to tackle new trails and meet more of the local wildlife—hopefully from a distance!