October 23, 2010 – Since we are in Charleston, we get great Fall weather – but so far, no real Fall leaves. We also missed having all the different colors in CO; don’t get us wrong, the aspen are really pretty, but there’s just something about a red and orange hillside. So, we decided to head over to the Great Smoky mountains.
We drove to Asheville, NC, on Friday night; Saturday morning started out with a great, funky breakfast place, the Sunny Point Cafe. We were there when they opened, so had no problem getting a table. Within a few minutes, every seat was taken and people were waiting in the chilly Fall air. We, meanwhile, were enjoying an omelet with mozzarella, mushrooms and chorizo, a sourdough biscuit topped with coarse sugar and house made blackberry jam, oatmeal and ricotta creme Brulee, and great coffee.
Our next stop was TN and Smoky Mountain National Park. Along the way we stopped at some overlooks, and were rewarded with perfect Fall foliage and ideal lighting conditions. Once we got into the park, we stopped at the visitor center. Fun sights included a group of wild turkeys, and smoke from wood stoves filtering through the valley.
After the quick stop at the visitor’s center we proceeded to Clingman’s dome. However, about a hundred or so other people also had the same idea, and the parking lot was completely packed. So, we turned around and found a deserted pull off across from a mini waterfall. We had good views of the pine forest and the valley, and heard a Pileated woodpecker calling as we ate lunch.
Our trek through the park continued. Although the roads became increasingly crowded – no surprise, since this is the most visited of all national parks – we were able to find less visited areas such as a waterfall along the side of the road. We had also heard that the foliage in NC was supposed to be further along than that in TN. However, we found colorful trees on both sides of the border, and at times, it seemed that the trees on the TN side were more bare than those in NC.
We eventually reached the Sugarland visitor center, and were happy to find a spot to park. We also observed a very long line attempting to get onto the road going to Gatlinburg. At that point, we decided we were going to exit the park a different way, since the line looked to be about 5 miles (and quite a wait) long. We wandered behind the visitor center and found a little trail that eventually took us to a waterfall. The trail continued past the waterfall and up the mountain; we followed it for a little while, and enjoyed the shade and trees. We eventually began to get hungry, and turned around to head to our hotel in Alcoa, TN.
After checking into the hotel we decided to go get dinner in Knoxville. Although the University of Tennessee was playing Alabama, in Knoxville, traffic wasn’t bad since the game was almost ready to start. We got into town relatively early for dinner, and had no trouble getting parking in a lot behind the Knoxville Downtown Brewery. Their beer was great, and the food was good. After dinner we took a detour to a little coffee shop (Downtown Grind), and split a mocha and a blondie topped with caramel, chocolate chips and walnuts. Both were very tasty, and made a good treat as we drove back to the hotel.
October 24, 2010 – On Sunday we got breakfast at Starbucks, then went back into the park. Our destination this morning was Cades Cove, a once-secluded but now frequently visited valley. Despite some interesting traffic, we enjoyed seeing really pretty views of the mountains, another flock of wild turkeys, and hearing another Pileated call. We also drove by some of the older buildings in the valley.
After exploring Cades Cove we drove along some twisting roads over to Fontana dam, which is the largest dam east of the Mississippi River. Along the way we saw two wild boars foraging, and drove along winding mountain roads lined with perfect Fall trees.
We took a wrong turn when we got near the dam, and drove to its base. We eventually found the right road to take us to the top, walked across the dam and took a hike through the woods. The trail is part of the Appalachian Trail, and gained about 1000′ of elevation over a mile. On the way back Tony recognized a pileated call, and we were able to see two of the birds flit around the trees along the road before flying deeper into the woods.
There was some traffic on the way back, but that will happen as you drive across states. We definitely took it easy the following week, though.
Despite the crowds, we were able to find some isolated areas of the park, and had great views of the Fall foliage. It was particularly impressive since you would have red, orange, and yellow trees right next to each other, and the lighting levels were often ideal.