Monday, April 25, 2016

Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Morning and Lunch

From our temporary home at the Lodge at Buckberry Creek just slightly west of Gatlinburg, we took the Gatlinburg bypass to the Sugarlands Visitors Center and Smoky Mountains National Park Headquarters to get the lay of the land.

Knowing that we hadn't eaten breakfast and would have to get some lunch in Gatlinburg, I had it in mind to stay near Gatlinburg in the morning on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and venture further afield to Cades Cove in the afternoon. Before we left the Lodge, we got a couple of recommendations for lunch and decided to stop at the more promising of the two.

At the Visitors Center, a wonderful volunteer gave us a quick orientation on the map and showed us some of her highlights of the park. Ann asked her for a waterfall to see and she suggested Rainbow Falls or Laurel Falls. We decided to see Laurel Falls after lunch as it was on the way to Cades Cove. I would have liked to have seen Rainbow Falls but we didn't have enough time to make that hike and do all the other things on our list.

From the Visitors Center to the beginning of the motor nature trail, it is necessary to drive down the main drag of Gatlinburg. Gatlinburg is unique in that it is basically a one-road valley town whose traffic lights are numbered. This certainly makes it easy to give directions to tourists, such as "Turn right at traffic light number 8."

Gatlinburg is certainly touristy but is nothing compared to the hellhole that is Pigeon Forge: Gatlinburg at least has some charm, some trees, and the beautiful west fork of the Little Pigeon River running through it. I can see how getting around at the height of tourist season would be a chore, but in the offseason, especially early on a Monday morning, we had an easy go of it heading east to the start of the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

Within moments of turning off the main drag, we found ourselves at peace in the woods and as we climbed the views became nicer and nicer.

Overlook on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Almost at once we noticed beautiful displays of wildflowers along the roadsides: large swatches of crested dwarf iris at the lower elevations and higher up above 2500 feet on Piney Mountain, masses of blue phlox, thyme-leaved bluets, and Tiarella cordifolia, so-called foamflower because masses of them in bloom on the roadsides look like someone has spread seafoam on the ground.

Blue Phlox and Tiarella Cordifolia
Blue Phlox
Once you climb to the top of Piney Mountain and start the descent down the other side, Roaring Fork appears on your right as a delightful little creek spilling over masses of boulders as it drops from its source high up on Mt. LeConte. At times it rushes alongside the road and at times it is hidden down in little gullies overgrown with rhododendrons. We had ample opportunities to get out and listen to warblers sing over the rushing sounds of the little creek.

Roaring Fork
There are equally many opportunities to get out and have a look at the log structures that were abandoned by the small Appalachian community that lived here when the park was formed. I was really taken by the interplay of light and shadow on the buildings in the strong morning sun, not to mention the axe- and adze-work necessary to build these structures. The chinking is all gone now, but the bones of the structures remain as a reminder of those who worked these hardscrabble farms.

Detail from Alex Cole Cabin
Detail from Homer Bales Barn
I was worried that we had missed the trillium bloom and indeed we had this far south except for these few that we spotted right near the Homer Bales Barn. We didn't yet know that we would encounter entire hillsides of trilliums blooming north of Asheville along the Blue Ridge Parkway later in the week.

Trilliums in Bloom
It was after noon by the time way made our way down the mountain. We drove to the far western end of Gatlinburg to have lunch at the Smoky Mountain Brewery at recommendation of one of the front desk staff at the Lodge. There's not a lot of non-touristy food in Gatlinburg so we went for the local brewpub, figuring at least we could get a decent glass of beer.

Smoky Mountain Brewery: Beautiful Open Space

Wings for Ann

Ruben for Ed
It was a pleasant lunch in that on an early season Monday, there were few other diners in the brewpub. The food was decent enough but not memorable; certainly it satisfied our need to eat after a long morning with no breakfast. As for beer, I had an Appalachian Pale Ale, which seems to be their flagship ale, and Ann had a Windy Gap Wheat beer. Both beers struck us as a little thin, but they were competently made. I would have liked a touch more malt and more hops in my pale ale, but still, I'd give both beers a B+.

After lunch, Ann wanted to ride the ski lift up the mountain above town, but I put my best pouty face on and insisted that we needed to get a move on. I'm not sure she has forgiven me yet, but we did arrive in Cades Cove in time to see a mama bear and her two cubs. I hope that was at least some compensation for vacating Gatlinburg immediately after lunch.

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