Do you remember the movie “UHF”? Remember that part where Stanley congratulates the kid who won some game on his show “Stanley Spadowski’s
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is a favorite of John and myself. Not least because it is the most easily accessible from Dayton, OH, requiring only (only!) a 6-7 hour drive instead of a day long marathon involving driving, flights, and airport layovers (or a really really long drive).
We have been to the Smokies a couple of times, and always at the tail end of the season, around Halloween, when the park is quieter and there is already snow up at the top on Clingman’s Dome.
This year, I had just made campground reservations for our trip when the government shutdown happened and a whole lot of stuff, including the national parks closed for business. Really closed – as in even the park websites were shut down and off line. We had just started to discuss possible alternate vacation plans (Hocking Hills State Park? Part of the historic bourbon trail down in Kentucky?) when the government reopened, allowing up to take our vacation as planned.
About 1.5 hours into our drive down we hit car troubles… heading down 75 we heard a sudden klunk! and then the engine noise got about 10X louder. Some part of the exhaust system had dropped out. We were obviously still able to drive just fine… but the car was temporarily a rolling noise and environmental violation, and I cringed a little every time we got in it and started it up. (Note: the car is now fixed.)
Driving in to the park through Pigeon Forge And Gatlinburg is always … interesting. Mostly because of the extreme tackiness and hokeyness of just about everything. There is a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” something on just about every corner in Gatlinburg. John and I call this Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg stretch the Honkey Tonk Vegas or Redneck Vegas. It is Vegas without the desert and without the veneer of respectability. It does have shows, though, if you want to think of something like “Lumberjack Fued” as a show.
As soon as we got to the campground and checked in, we did what we have always done – headed up top. To Newfound Gap and Clingman’s Dome to see the views and maybe catch the sunset. (According to the ranger who checked us in at the campground, the last stretch of road up to the top had been closed that morning because of overnight accumulations of ice and snow)
We have never seen it as crowded up at the top as it was then. Never. We made our way up to the parking area near the top at idling speed and were seriously worried for a little bit that we would not be able to find a spot to park, it was that bad. Either there were a lot of people at the park that weekend taking vacations that had been delayed by the shutdown (a possibility) or there were a lot of people there in whom the shutdown sparked a desire to show their patriotism by visiting a national park (also a possibility). Either way. More people then we have ever seen at the park at the tail end of the fall season.
Up at the top, there is a 1/2 mile trail to a fire tower, where the views are even more impressive. This is probably one of the toughest trails in the park, especially if you have just gotten out of the car after a 6+ hour drive. It may be short, but it is very steep. Hard on your knees, ankles, and just about everything else, especially when the trail is slick with packed snow and some ice. We started on the trail just in time to stand aside so that an ambulance from the Cherokee Nation (other side of the mountains) could come down the trail. Near the top, we found a ranger who was warning people off to the side of the path because of a large patch of black ice that spread several yards down the center of the path. (We guessed that the ambulance had been there, and the ranger was there, because someone had fallen and hurt themselves on the ice.)
In years past, we have had to physically drag ourselves up the ramp, hand-over-hand on the railing, because the ramp was so covered with ice. It wasn’t as bad as that this year, but the trees and other vegetation around the tower had a several-inches-thick coating of packed on snow.
It goes without saying that it was cold up there. I had on a sweater, a fleece over that, a neoprene coat over the fleece, a knit hat, and a scarf, and was still a bit chilly. The wind up at the top never stops blowing, and it just cuts right through you.
By the time we were done with Clingman’s Dome, Newfound Gap, had done some grocery shopping for camp breakfasts and trail lunches, had had dinner, and were (finally) returning to camp it was after dark. We set up the tent by flashlight. Fortunately it was just the small backpacking tent (the old, green, Coleman boyscout tent having gone to the campground in the sky after Pennsic) so it went up pretty quickly and easily.