WARNING: This is probably the latest trip report ever posted on TA! I have had the notes from our June trip sitting around the house for months now, and today I finally sat down and took the time to type them up for all of you to enjoy...
TRIP REPORT - June 16-20, 2008
This was yet another great trip to the Smokies! On this trip we watched the synchronous fireflies in Elkmont, hiked up to Gregory Bald to see the flame azaleas, took a ranger-guided full moon hike in Cades Cove, explored the Balsam Mountain/Heintooga area, drove Balsam Mountain Road, watched a sunset from Clingmans Dome, and hiked to 3 waterfalls. We were pleasantly surprised by cool temperatures and great weather, and we saw lots of wildlife, flowers, and blooming shrubs. I have included a link to photos at the bottom of this report.
CADES COVE & ABRAMS FALLS - June 16, 2008
We drove into Townsend just after sunrise. There was thick fog, so we decided this would be a perfect time to go to Cades Cove. The cove was gorgeous. I have never seen it when the fog was so thick. You could only see about a quarter mile in any direction, but you could just make out the sillouette of the mountains in the distance. We saw some deer grazing near the road, and the way the sun was shining down on them, they looked like they were glowing.
As we drove the loop, we decided we would take a warm up hike to Abrams Falls. We have done this hike many times before, but I have yet to see otters swimming near the falls, so I hoped today would be the day. Our hike was nice and cool, and we were all alone. My DH was hiking ahead of me, and he almost stepped on a snake as it crossed the trail. He said it was about 2.5 feet long and it was a brassy color. Thankfully, it bolted when it saw my husband, so I didn't get to see it.
When we arrived at the falls, we wandered around taking photos and videoing. There were lots of flowers blooming, but no otters. Oh well, maybe next time. As we left the falls, we met many large groups of people, so we had timed this hike perfectly.
Once back on the loop, the fog had cleared and it was a beautiful sunny day. Just past the visitor center, we were stopped by a small bear jam. We pulled off and watched a young bear digging around in the woods for food. As he was digging, he suddenly started swatting around and pawing at his face. Apparently he was stung by a bee. He ran off through the woods, rubbing his nose. Poor thing. :(
SYNCHRONOUS FIREFLIES OF ELKMONT - June 16, 2008
After checking in at our motel and a quick meal in Gatlinburg, we headed back into the park to see the synchronous fireflies. We got to Elkmont a few hours before sunset and began our hike up the Little River Trail. This is a very easy walk along an old road bed. Our first stop was at Huskey Branch Falls at mile 2.1. This was a very small cascade that flows directly under the trail and into the Little River. I think these falls would be much more impressive when there is more water flowing. We took a few quick photos, and continued up the trail.
At mile 2.7, we crossed a large wooden bridge and came to the Huskey Gap Trail junction. This looked like a good place to sit and wait for the show to begin. We sat on the bridge, and listened to the sound of the water as it began getting dark. Soon, we saw the first few flashes. We walked back up to the trail junction and sat on a rock beside the trail sign. More and more fireflies appeared, and soon we were surrounded. We waited here until about 10:15pm, and then began walking back down the trail towards the trailhead.
As we walked, the show really started. Soon we found areas of thousands of fireflies flashing almost perfectly with one another. Each firefly flashes approximately 5 times back-to-back, then they all stop for a few seconds of total darkness, and the display starts all over again. They are like thousands of tiny strobe lights. It is truly amazing! I couldn't tell you how many times I said, "Wow!" that night.
As we walked back down the trail, we went through areas where there were thousands of fireflies, and then into areas of little to no fireflies. We found one area, a little over a mile from the trail head, that was spectacular - even better than what we experienced last year. We stayed there for about 20 minutes admiring the beauty of it all. The fireflies covered the trail and hillside. Everywhere you looked there were flashes. It was incredible! After we left this spot, the show was over and we saw practically nothing for the rest of the hike. We made it back to our car just after 12am.
Overall, there didn't seem to be as many fireflies as compared to last year. It may have been my timing, (we were there about a week earlier last year) or it could have been because of the full moon lighting the trail, but the show was still AMAZING, and I highly recommend checking it out for yourself. There really is no way to describe what the display really looks like, it is something you have to see for yourself to fully understand. I can't wait to go back again next year!
Oh, and we also got to see the glow worm walls! There are 2 walls along the trail that we found. The worms (or what ever those little creatures are) glow a faint neon blue color. You have to look really hard to see them, and if there is any light, you will probably miss them. I have never seen glow worms before, so these were a great bonus to the firefly show!
GREGORY BALD - June 17, 2008
After a quick stop at the Parkway Market in Gatlinburg for biscuits, we were off to hike the Gregory Bald Trail to see the flame azaleas. Once we turned onto Little River Road, we started seeing lots of wildlife. Turkey were everywhere, and just before the Laurel Falls trailhead, we spotted a coyote walking along the road. She was a gorgeous animal with beautiful eyes. This was the first time I have ever seen a coyote inside the park, so we pulled over to take a few photos before she ran off. When we stopped, she laid down in the grass looking at us. She stayed there for close to a minute, and I got a few really good pics of her. It was a great start to our day.
When we got to Cades Cove, there weren't too many cars on the road, but traffic still moved pretty slow. We finally arrived at the trailhead off of Parson Branch Road around 10:00am. The parking area was pretty full, but we were able to squeeze in.
I was pleasantly surprised by how unsteep (is that a word?) this trail was. I had looked at the elevation profile for the Gregory Bald Trail, but I guess after hearing all of the horror stories about the steepness of the Gregory Ridge Trail, I just figured this one would be close to the same. Thank goodness it wasn't! We had a nice, mostly easy hike, and the cool temperatures that day were an added bonus. Of the entire hike, the last .5 miles was the toughest, but it was short lived.
When we made it to Gregory Bald, we were both in awe. The views are spectacular, and the azaleas are the icing on the cake. I especially loved the views of my favorite place - Cades Cove.
We sat down in the grass and ate our lunch, and then my DH took a nap. The cool breeze felt so good, so it was very tempting to take a quick nap too, but I decided that I just couldn't sit still for that long.
I was walking around taking photos of all of the different types of azaleas, having a great time, and then it happened - one of the scariest experiences of my life! I was minding my own business, standing close to an azalea bush trying to take a photo of a butterfly. The next thing I know, something is moving under my foot and the bush starts shaking. I look down to see a large snake, 2.5 to 3 inches in diameter, trying to pull itself out from under my foot! My DH was awakened by me screaming his name, and he looked up just in time to see me do my freak out dance across the field in front of everyone. My DH said he thought I had gotten stung by a bee, until I started yelling "Snake! Snake! Snake!" repeatedly. Honestly, I'm not really sure what all I said, because I seem to have blacked out for most of the event. I have no idea what kind of snake it was, but I do know it was dark (almost black), and it was BIG!!! Needless to say, there will be no snake photos for you guys. :)
After I had my nervous breakdown, my DH and I explored the bald together. There were so many different varieties of azaleas, and many of the bushes were over 6 feet tall. We walked along the various trails, but we didn't even come close to seeing all the different plants. After close to an hour of exploring, we decided to pack up and make our way back down the mountain.
Before we left, we stopped to take a photo of the USGS benchmark. Under the benchmark, the name "Les Webb" is carved into the stone. While we were standing there, a 77 year old lady who had made the hike, came over and told us that she knew Les Webb. He was the husband of her second grade teacher, and she said he carved this while he was in his 20's. After speaking with her for a moment, we began our hike back down to our car.
JOYCE KILMER - June 17, 2008
When we got back to the car from Gregory Bald, we still had plenty of daylight left, so we decided to drive down to Joyce Kilmer and the Cherohala Skyway. I have to say, I was very impressed with Joyce Kilmer. Not just because of the massive trees, but they really put alot of effort into the design of the whole thing. It was very well done and we really enjoyed it.
CHEROHALA SKYWAY - June 17, 2008
Now, alot of people will probably disagree with me about this, Cherohala is nice, but I am much more impressed with the Blue Ridge Parkway and Hwy. 441 through the Smokies. Don't get me wrong, the views are incredible from Cherohala, but I was kind of let down by the whole thing.
Almost immediately after turning onto the Skyway, we came upon two men, one of which had just wrecked his bike. He didn't seem to be hurt too bad, but he was really stove up and he couldn't stand. He wouldn't let us help him, and we had no cell service to call anyone. The men assured us that they would be fine, so we continued on our drive. Our next stop was Hooper Bald. This was a disappointment. It was mainly just a large, flat field with very few azaleas blooming. After visiting the balds of the Smokies, I wasn't impressed.
It was getting close to sunset, so we headed straight to Bald River Falls. On the way, we spotted some wild boar walking along the edge of the road. There were at least 8 of them, one of which was huge. There were also 2 tiny, brown, fuzzy babies, who squealed like crazy as they ran away. They were adorable! This was the first time I had ever seen wild boars, so this was the highlight of the Cherohala Skyway for me.
Next stop, Bald River Falls. Bald River Falls is a beautiful roadside waterfall. There were several professional photographers there when we arrived. We stopped for some quick photos, and ended up spending over an hour there talking to the photographers. It was now getting dark, so we headed back to Gatlinburg.
Cherohala is a nice drive, but I enjoy the drives in the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Parkway much more. I prefer the rustic stone and wooden guardrails, and just the overall feeling of the Smokies. Cherohala just seemed generic, and is just too far away for me to recommend it to anyone staying in Gatlinburg. I will give it another chance during the fall, but next time I will drive in from the Tennessee side. I think the views would be much better from that direction.
After our very long drive back to Gatlinburg, we fell asleep immediately.
LAUREL FALLS - June 18, 2008
Today was a slow day for us. We got up early and drove to Laurel Falls for a quick morning hike (we do this hike quite often). We had hoped to be the first ones on the trail, but when we arrived at the trailhead, there were already 2 other cars there. We hiked the trail quickly and sat near the falls for about an hour talking to the various visitors. As we returned to our car, the foot traffic really picked up. We passed over 50 people who were headed to the falls. It's a good thing we left when we did!
CADES COVE RANGER-GUIDED FULL MOON HIKE - June 18, 2008
I have always wanted to do a full moon hike in Cades Cove, so I when I found out that there was a ranger-guided full moon hike, I was very excited. Our hike began around 8:30pm at the orientation shelter near the entrance to the cove. Our guide was a biologist, and he told us some very interesting stories about the cove. We made several stops along the road to learn about the various trees and animals, and ended our hike with a stop at the John Oliver Cabin to watch the full moon rise over the mountains. As we waited, we were informed that one of the hikers near the back of our group had fallen and hurt her ankle. Our guide had to go back and help her, so that was the end of the guided portion of our hike.
The moon rise was awesome. This was my first time seeing a moonrise, and what better place to witness it than in Cades Cove! All of the other hikers started back towards their cars, but we decided to make a loop and take Sparks Lane to the exit, and then back to our car. Once we were on Sparks Lane, we never saw another person. Coyotes were all around us howling and screaming in the distance. It was a little spooky, but a very cool experience. We stopped along Sparks Lane for a photo, and I think it turned out nicely. You can even see the stars over the mountain. One thing we hadn't thought about was the creek crossing on Sparks Lane. I was wearing tennis shoes instead of my hiking boots, so I got a piggy back ride from my DH across the creek.
Once we were on the back side of the loop, it got a little creepy. It was very dark, and we heard a few creatures moving around in the woods, so we sped up our hike a bit. We quickly made it to the exit of the loop road, and took a short cut near the horse stables back to the parking area. This hike was alot of fun, and I would highly recommend it.
BALSAM MOUNTAIN ROAD / HEINTOOGA PICNIC AREA & OVERLOOK - June 19, 2008
Today started off with a drive across the park on Newfound Gap Road (441). In the fields near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, groundhogs were running around everywhere. There were a few very close to the road, so we pulled over for a quick photo. We could see lots of burrows spread across the field. This was another first for me, as I have never seen groundhogs in the park.
We continued our drive, and turned off of 441 onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. There were quite a few rhododendron blooming along the edges of the road. Once we turned onto Heintooga Ridge Road, we found lots of mountain laurel that had just bloomed. This was nice, since these flowers had already come and gone in the lower elevations. We also spotted several hen turkeys with lots of tiny poults (baby turkey) running along behind them.
Now, I have driven the Heintooga Ridge Road before, but I have never been to the Balsam Mountain campground before. I have to say, I think this is my favorite campground in the park. The temperatures were nice and cool, the views were great, and there were only about 5 campers in the entire campground. I loved this place!
The Balsam Mountain Self Guiding Nature Trail is located just inside the campground. This is a .5 mile, one-way hike through the woods. The trail leads back out to Heintooga Ridge Road, so you have the option to either turn around and hike the trail back to you car, or follow the road back to the campground. We chose to follow the road back. As we walked, we heard rustling just off the road. It was a small bear who bolted as soon as he saw us. This was a very pleasant walk, and we really enjoyed it. I have now hiked all of the self guiding nature trails in the park.
Next, we stopped at the Heintooga Picnic Area. This place was awesome! The picnic tables are surrounded by large trees, and the whole place is very rustic with old stone water fountains, and a few large stone picnic tables. If you follow the trail around the picnic area, it will lead you to the Heintooga Overlook. The view was wonderful, and there were 2 wooden benches there to sit and admire the scenery.
Now we were onto Balsam Mountain Road (also called the Heintooga/Round Bottom Road). This was a nice drive with the occasional mountain view. There were quite a few wildflowers blooming along the way, and we saw only 3 other cars for our entire drive. This was another great drive in the Smokies.
SUNSET FROM CLINGMANS DOME - June 19, 2008
After driving back to town for a meal at the Smoky Mountain Brewery, we were off to Clingmans Dome to watch the sunset. On our way, we ran into a bear jam near the Chimney Tops Trailhead. This was a large bear walking high above the road on the rocks. We got a quick photo and were on our way.
Once back on the road, I noticed a ranger behind me. I pulled over at the next available pull off to let him pass, and he pulled in behind me. I knew we had not done anything wrong, but the ranger got out and walked up to the passenger side of the car. He said that he thought he had seen one of us with a beer. I was drinking root beer - does that count? ;) I'm still not sure what we were holding that made him think it was a beer can, but I'm guessing maybe it was a camera lens. He asked if we had anything in our cooler, so we opened it to show him that we had only soft drinks and water. I was surprised by how nice and friendly he was the entire time. We talked with him for a few minutes, and then we were on our way.
When we got to Clingmans Dome it was very hazy. We walked up the paved trail to the tower, to find clouds blocking the sun. We waited at the top of the tower for about 20 minutes, and we finally got one peek at the sun, but there were just too many clouds to be able to see the sunset.
ROARING FORK & GROTTO FALLS - June 20, 2008
Today is sadly our last day in the Smokies. After checking out of our motel, we drove to Roaring Fork. About a mile into our drive we spotted a small bear walking off into the woods. Continuing on just another minute or so, we found a large mother bear with 2 cubs just off the road to the right. As we drove up, the cubs darted up a tree and the mother stood up on her hind legs. This is something that we have only seen once before. The bears in the park seem to be much more aggressive now than ever. We stopped in the road and waited as she moved further off of the road to the other side of the tree that the cubs had just climbed. We thought now would be a good time to continue past her, but just as the passenger side window got to the tree, she grabbed the tree and did a bluff charge at our vehicle. She popped her jaw and lunged slightly - always keeping the tree between herself and our truck. We quickly continued onto Grotto Falls, shocked that we had just witnessed. I am now convinced that we should not hike without bear spray. The bears have just been acting to erratic for us to not carry some sort of protection.
When we reached the Grotto Falls Trailhead, the llamas were being packed up for their hike up to the LeConte Lodge. We got on the trail and hiked as fast as we could to get to the falls before the llamas. In all of the times I have been to Grotto Falls, I have never actually seen the llamas when they passed under the falls, and I was going to make sure I got to see that happen today.
When we arrived at the falls, we were the only ones. We sat up our tripod with our video camera so we could catch the llamas, and then we waited.....
Apparently we underestimated just how long it would take for the llamas to be packed up. We waited for almost an hour and a half (believe it or not, it was just us at the falls that whole time) before they finally made it. We got our video, and headed back to the trailhead. As we were leaving, a few people reached the falls. They told us that there had been a bear jam well before the Grotto parking area, so that is why we had the falls all to ourselves.
Well, I hope you enjoyed my report. Better late than never!!!
Here is a link to view photos from our trip: http://tinyurl.com/firefighterzgrlsphotos