Luke and I talked about driving to the Great Smoky Mountains for a couple of years. We viewed it as a good opportunity to spend some quality time in the southeast, rather than our typical visits to the southwest. And since we’d be piloting our own vehicle, we could bring as much gear as we wanted, specifically our camp chairs. They are a great luxury when you’re accustomed to sitting on tree stumps.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the country because it’s within driving distance of several major metro areas along the east coast. Knowing this, yet not wanting to see the park via the ass-end of a stranger’s minivan, we timed our trip for the first week of June – a sweet spot of low activity between Memorial Day and the last day of school.
I did a bit of research beforehand and learned that a majority of visitors tend to congregate in the center of the park around Gatlinburg, Tennessee and in the western areas around Cades Cove. We decided to go in the exact opposite direction and concentrate our efforts on the eastern side of the park. I earmarked any reference to “quiet, “strenuous” and “moonshine” in my guide book and selected campsites in Cosby, Tennessee and Cataloochee, North Carolina. An email exchange with a friend’s father who lives in the area and a call to the Great Smoky Mountains Public Affairs Office confirmed that our itinerary was solid.
We also wanted to make a stop at Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky for a guided tour of the world’s longest known cave system. There are a variety of tours to choose from and we were momentarily tempted by the six-hour-long “Wild Cave Tour” that requires participants to shimmy through extremely tight spots with colorful names like, “The Birth Canal.” My fairly acute sense of claustrophobia persuaded us to book the more leisurely “Historic Tour,” which was a good call considering I nearly lost my shit going through “Fat Man’s Misery.” More on that later.
Like all great adventures, nothing ever goes according to plan, but it somehow always comes together in the end. For future reference, here’s our original itinerary:
Friday night: Drive from Minneapolis to Champaign, Illinois. Stay in a hotel
Saturday: Get up early, drive to Mammoth Cave. Set-up camp and go for a short hike (above ground).
Sunday: Break camp. Drive to Bowling Green, Kentucky. Stay in a hotel. Shower thoroughly.
Monday: Drive to Cosby, Tennessee. Set-up camp. Hike to Hen Wallow Falls.
Tuesday: Hike to the top of Mount Cammerer to see the Historic Fire Tower.
Wednesday: Break camp. Drive to Cataloochee, North Carolina. Set-up camp. Chill in a hammock.
Thursday: Explore historic buildings in the Cataloochee Valley.
Friday: Break camp and drive to…?
Saturday and Sunday: Teleport home.
As we’ve learned from past national park experiences, having a schedule is fine for planning purposes, but don’t set your heart on sticking to it. Mother Nature does what Mother Nature wants. And your cat will take care of the rest.
To Be Continued…