Isn’t it cold there in November?

(Second of four posts about trip to Smoky Mountains and Asheville, NC.)


Isn’t it cold there in November?


And a few lessons learned.


That was the comment, or some form of it, thrown my way when I told people I was going to do a little camping and hiking in the Smoky Mountains, over Thanksgiving.


The definitive answer, without a doubt is, maybe. Average daytime temp is low- to mid-50s. Overnight it can get down into the 20s. That’s pretty much how it turned out during my time there, plus rain one night.


Even so, as an old Boy Scout who’d earned that merit badge for camping out in the winter snow, I know how toasty those sleeping bags and tents can be. Which, the second night, is exactly how it was. I'm still guessing what happened the first night when I curled up in a ball feeling like frost was forming on my nether regions.


The only possible explanation I have is I used an air mattress and maybe the air inside was cold after I inflated it and did not fully warm to normal until the next day. Everything else was the same both nights, the sleeping bag, my clothes, the tent and outside temperature, so that’s the only explanation I can think of to explain why I was so cold one night and almost too warm the next.


Lesson #1: If there's room to fit, I'll try partially inflating the mattress inside the vehicle before even leaving home when doing future cold weather trips.


I'd planned to spend three nights camping but cut it to two after my previous distillery visits took a little more time than expected. But those visits were a well-worthy diversion.


I stayed at Elkmont Campground primarily because most of the campgrounds are closed that time of year. With it being a holiday weekend I was concerned it might be busy with people taking one last opportunity to get away before the full force of winter blew in. I was pleasantly surprised that wasn’t the case with my preferred choice of spots relatively close to the restrooms available.


That’s right, I said it, restrooms. I know a lot of people don’t like being near the restrooms because of the slamming doors that sometimes go off in the middle of the night with people coming and going, and the possibility of certain unpleasant fragrances, but I’ll happily take a chance on those not happening for the convenience of not having to walk all that far either at night or in the morning when getting ready to start the day.


So there.


I timed my arrival for when the park ranger office opened, where you pay for your camp spots, giving me plenty of time to set up camp and hit a trail before nightfall. I hiked three trails during my time and without planning it, each was better than the last with my favorite on the final day.

steps built into mountain hiking trail
Hiking those trail steps can be a killer.**

Charlies Bunion – First Day

No it’s not Charlie, it really is Charlies and bunion does indeed refer to how the rock outcropping at the end looks like a bunion. The bunion offers those who reach it views of the mountain peaks and valleys below.


The four-mile trail, eight-mile roundtrip, climbs an elevation of 1,600 feet. That’s not all that much but it was enough that I knew I was climbing up when I began to see snow on the ground a little past halfway up the trail, my first of the winter season.


Most of the trails are man-made, you can’t possibly get lost unless you wander off of them on your own accord, not something that is encouraged.


Lesson #2: Those trails include steps that provide a considerable workout. It’s one thing to shuffle along a trail, even when going up, but it’s another when you have to add picking your feet up off the ground to the additional height required to go up steps.

Sign noting Appalachian Trail along hiking path in Smoky Mountains.
Appalachian Trail passes along Charlies Bunion trail in Great Smoky Mountains.**

I never did decide if I preferred the steps over just climbing the trail. The trade-off is the steps are there because it’s pretty steep terrain. I do know I’m going to have to start adding some stair climbing into my workout routine.


Side note, Charlies Bunion is one of the trails of the 2,193-mile Appalachian Trail. Running from Georgia to Maine, a thousand people hike it annually.


Don’t expect me to ever be one. Ever.


Rainbow Falls - Day Two

Rainbow Falls is easily one of the most popular trails in the Smokies. No surprise, people want to see the waterfall.

Photo of man standing in front of Rainbow Falls waterfall.
Requisite tourist photo. Me standing in front of Rainbow Falls.

No doubt, the trail to the falls is beautiful and it is fun to see the waterfall, but the numbers of people does distract from it a bit. Another reason for its popularity is that it’s only 2.7 miles, 5.4 roundtrip, to the falls, a relatively short distance.


The great thing is that the trail continues for another six-plus miles after the falls. With the vast majority of people turning around at the falls you have the trail after that mostly to yourself. You can tell most people turn around just by looking at the trail, it becomes much more narrow and rugged after the falls than it is leading up to them.


I hiked another, roughly, four more miles before turning around and gained another lesson along the way.


Lesson #3: If you really want to enjoy nature, as is probably true with a lot of things in life, take the road less traveled.

Fire damaged forest area.
Fire had taken a large portion of this area in the Smoky Mountains.**

One of the most beautiful views on the trails was further up this section where fire wiped out a large swath of trees. I know people will think it crazy to see it as beautiful but the starkness of the burnt grass and trees with the black and white colors it left behind lent an eerie beauty that’s hard to explain. It had almost apocalyptic feel to it.


Hiking those additional miles also got me to a point where I had a massive view of the area below, including the city of Gatlinburg.


Alum Caves - Day Three

Loved this trail. It’s also a popular one with others but I hit it early enough that I was ahead of much of the crowds. It’s just 2.3 miles, 4.6 roundtrip, but the trail is loads of fun.

Stairway leading through a natural rock arch formation
Alum Arch is one of the great surprises along the Alum Caves trail.**

In addition to a number of stream crossings, on bridges made of a length piece of wood about a foot wide and a single hand rail running along just one side, there is the staircase up through Arch Rock. The arch was formed by the freezing and thawing of soft rock underneath harder rock above. It left an arch that feels much more like walking up stairs through a cave.


The main attraction on this trail is Alum Cave bluff. The extremely large bluff is carved into the side of the mountain with a rock outcropping that provides a canopy 80 feet above the ground. The bluff provides scenic views of the mountain area with many visitors taking the opportunity to simply sit, view and be zen.

Three people sitting on dirt steps looking out toward the trees and mountains.
People soaking up the beauty of nature under the 80-foot tall Alum Bluff.**

I added just a couple of extra miles past the bluff before turning back. Unfortunately, time was an issue as I had a ticket to see the Biltmore Estate near Ashville yet that afternoon, a good two-hour drive away, and that’s in addition to the time it would take to hike back to the car.


I’m told there are other cliffs and great views on up the trail. One of the things I will look forward to in retirement is being able to waste a day or two on a trip, or even more, just being less scheduled.


Lesson #4: This one I learned a long, long time ago, but still need to continuously remind myself. Lose the schedule. Some of my best trips are those where I randomly stumbled along, open to whatever might come.


Gatlinburg

On a negative note, I will never return to Gatlinburg unless it just can’t be helped. Rather than dealing with packing food and eating at my tent, I thought it would be fun to explore Gatlinburg for dinner each night. The first night I hit the main street and it took close to a half hour to drive a single mile, maybe less, with only a few chances to turn off. LA freeway traffic jams are nothing compared to main street Gatlinburg.


It’s essentially tourist trap city. It reminds me of those little towns I see along lakes or rivers, like you might see in northern Wisconsin. Those old towns have seized on the tourist traffic to make a living. The kind of little town where it’s just one souvenir shop after another. The difference is those small towns, with their more laid back feel and cheerful smiles, are kind of fun to spend some time wandering through. You get a feeling of walking back in time when you're there.


Gatlinburg is one of those tourist towns on steroids, packed with shops huckstering every knickknack imaginable, sidewalk-packed with people and store clerks who, while not unfriendly, are too busy and harried to do much more than smile.


I will give a shoutout to Smoky Mountain Brewery, one of the two Gatlinburg breweries I stopped at for dinner on the nights I was there. Even though it was busy I was able to get in fairly easily, it’s a large place, and the food and beer are both good.


Now it’s onto Asheville!






**I allow use of my photos through Creative Commons License. I'm not looking to make money off this thing. I only ask that you provide me with credit for the photo by noting my blog address or a link back to this page.

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