I love national parks. Every time I set foot in one I feel thankful that past generations had the foresight to protect special places all over our country. It makes me feel lucky and proud and profoundly happy.
So last weekend, when I had the chance to spend three days exploring Great Smoky Mountain National Park with my cousin I was giddy with excitement. I started bouncing and fidgeting in the car before we even reached Tennessee. And this park did not disappoint.
With over 800 miles of trail, it is a great place for hikers of all levels, and offered a wide range of trail lengths and levels of difficult. We spent our first two days going up. I love long trails and big views and that is exactly what we got. On day one, we struck out on a section of the Appalachian Trail stretching from Newfound Gap to a little rocky bluff called Charlies Bunion. The section we did, just over 8 miles round trip, was a steady climb through bare trees and rocky soil ending with awesome views out across the valley. The famous blue-gray haze of the mountains drifted out in front of us and the spine of ridges snaked across the rolling hills of this area like rippling water.
On day two, we did my favorite hike, the Alum Cave Trail up to the summit of Mount Le Conte. At just over 11 miles round trip, this hike offered every stage of beauty the park had to reveal. The trail starts out crisscrossing a clear, boulder strewn river banked by thick stretches of deep, green rhododendrons. I can’t even imagine how pretty this section would be when they are in bloom as it was beautiful with the simple palette of green.
The first main attraction you reach is a natural rock arch, that you hike under where you begin the great march up and up and up. Here the terrain breaks away into rocky outcroppings and brief glimpses between trees of the views that are coming. The trail is rocky, and in some places, steep, but worth it for the views. About 2.5 miles in, you reach Alum Cave Bluffs, a wide stretch of rocks carved out into a dust-colored overhang.
The next section, above the bluffs, offers the best views we saw during our trip: miles and miles and miles of mountain shadows like layers of blue-gray sharks teeth reaching so deep into the horizon it is hard to tell where the mountains end and the clouds begin. Every turn offered more views. And at the top, just above the only lodge in the park (not accessible by car), is the final spur trail to the cliffs that dead-ends at the edge of a rock outcropping that simply drops off into mountain views.
After sitting at the top, basking in the sun and views, it is almost impossible to come down. So beautiful.
Our final day, we traveled to the west side of the park to do the historic driving loop at Cades Cove and for a short hike out to Abrams Falls. This side of the park is very different and showcased much of the history of people in this area. It was interesting to experience a new perspective on what the park encompasses.
Here, the trail follows the river with little drops and rises until it reaches the main attraction: Abrams Falls. The falls are about 30 feet and cascade into a large pool of clear, cold water. I loved the pounding sounded that whispered and then echoed and then whispered again as we drew close and hiked away. A beautiful way to cap off a wonderful trip!