Vacation in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

We arrived home late last night after a wonderful week on the Tennessee side of the Smoky Mountains. My folks are celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and wanted the whole family to head back to the place where they spent their early married years. It was super fun! We had two days exploring the Park, one day exploring the places where my parents lived and worked 50 years ago, and another day at Dollywood. It was also quite nostalgic for my brother Stewart and me, as we spent a good deal of time camping here as children, but it was new for Tom and our kids, as well as Stewart's fiancee Niki.

The first thing a Californian notices about Tennessee is the water. Lakes, rivers, creeks, water seeping out of rocks, rain falling nearly every day in the Park, and thunderstorms. Tennessee is rich in water. We took long morning showers and nightly baths, which was a true luxury. Of course, what comes with all this water is humidity, and it took us a couple of days to get used to that again. But by the end of the week we were acclimated and starting to think it's not a bad trade-off.

We stayed at a wonderful inn called the Buckhorn, sharing a large house and walking to the main inn for breakfast. The spring wildflowers were fading, and the fall wildflowers were just starting to bloom. But what you notice more is the trees - the forest - so different from California Redwoods and Manzanitas and Live Oaks and Madrone. I had to have a refresher lesson on poison ivy, as it looks very different from our own poison oak. The bugs were abundant and marvelous - apparently both the 17-year and 9-year cicadas were out at the same time, and the noise at night was a true cacophony. I couldn't get over the butterflies everywhere you look, all different kinds, and of course we were delighted all over again by fireflies.

The Park is spectacular. We only had two days to explore it, and naturally we wanted to hike. My daughter Kate is not a hiker at all, she doesn't mind short walks, but really doesn't like to go uphill for very long. My son Adam enjoys hiking and seemed to like challenging himself by keeping up with his extremely fit grandpa. The first day we tackled the Chimney Tops trail, which gains 1400 feet of elevation in two miles, so is challenging, but is so memorable that both Stewart and I remember hiking it from when we were kids. Kate had a rough time of it, but we all made it to the top. We had seriously underestimated how much water we would need in the humidity and elevation; sweating was immediate and copious. At the top of the trail there is an additional shale cap which is steep and treacherous to climb, especially when wet. I had every intention of climbing it but as I starting stepping on to the flakes of shale, my feet protested (I've been having some serious foot issues in the last few months) so I begged off. But Adam, Stewart, Niki, and Dad all made it to the very top. Niki said Adam looked very comfortable climbing, and I was glad she kept an eye on my boy as they shimmied their way up there.

Starting out

Following the river

Bee Balm



Chimney Tops

Cold soak

Feels good

Our second day in the Smokies was spent in another corner of the Park at Cades Cove. The cove is full of pioneer cabins, and this is where we also saw our first bear, high up in a tree. The other tourists also ooh-ed and aah-ed over deer and turkeys, but we see those every day in our neighborhood, so we ignored those and looked for more bears! We took a truly beautiful hike to Abrams Falls, which was a longer walk than Chimney Tops, but not quite so difficult. There were many more flowers on this trail, butterflies everywhere, and some interesting scat to look at. As we started the return hike, the sky opened up and it poured for the last 2.5 miles, which was fun while it was happening but very uncomfortable for the drive back to the Inn! Thank goodness we weren't camping! (Though had it been 35 years ago, we would have been.)

Four log bridge crossings on this hike

red mushrooms

Shelf mushrooms

Joe Pye weed

Blackberries. We passed a hiker who saw a bear
100 yards down the trail, feeding on these. By the
time we got here, she was gone!

Even the lichen blooms here

Narrow-leaved Sunflower, which I believe blooms
only in the Cades Cove area

Abrams Falls

Dollywood was my least favorite part of the trip, but it was still fun. It's a typical amusement park, with roller coasters and water rides, but there are also a lot of shows. We saw a gospel show, a family show (with relatives of Dolly performing), and a bubble show. We all like Dolly and her music, but decided from now on we'd just go see one of her concerts.

The day we spent exploring Treadway, Sneedville, and the parts of Hancock County where Mom and Dad lived was very interesting. They remember it as very 'country,' and it still is, but I suppose rural areas are all changing as we all become more connected through technology. It's beautiful back there, with the Cherokee Reservoir (where Stewart and I learned to waterski with Dad's old boss, way back in 1980) and the misty hills and everything so very green. People are awfully friendly in Tennessee. We often asked folks questions just to hear their beautiful accent as they replied. We got to look at my parent's old house, the abandoned mine where my dad worked, the place where mom had taught school, gone now. The forest takes back the buildings and begins to hide them within kudzu vines and Virginia Creeper. Every house has a porch, and every house seems to have a creek running through the yard. We had an excellent lunch at a tiny cafe/store in Kyle's Ford and visited all the places where my parent's friends had lived. It was really fun.

Heading back to our bus after exploring the old Zinc Mine
Queen Anne's Lace takes over anywhere humans will let it

You can see how it forms seeds, and why it spreads so quickly

There are vegetable gardens in a lot of yards, but I didn't see a whole lot of beehives or chicken coops. The food scene is still a little behind, though we had delicious and fancy meals at the Inn, and a some great local trout at a spot called Crystelle's in Gatlinburg. There's a lot of fast food and chain restaurants, but of course Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are very touristy places.

Flying back in to California was a harsh reminder of what our state faces in the months ahead. We passed over the Mojave and Death Valley, and the mountains are just as brown as you can imagine, barren and dry. What a relief to finally fly over the coastal mountains and forests and near Santa Barbara, where the Pacific cools your eyes. Back to short showers, water turned off as you soap up, back on as you rinse. Back to saving water from the kitchen and putting it in the garden.

Looks a little different than Tennessee

Speaking of the garden, everything is lush and blooming and producing and ready for harvesting, so that's today's job, in between loads of laundry. Our first task last night was picking tomatoes for a quick pomodoro pasta dinner, which tasted fresh and delicious and healthy, after a lot of heavy (but tasty!) tourist food. We'll blog about what we're finding, as we make our way through the weekend, harvesting and canning and cooking.