Exhausted from endless driving but feeling the pressure of great weather predicted to turn bad at any minute, I rushed through putting up my tent at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) campground at Deep Creek so that I could get a hike in before it started to rain and t-storm.
A few minutes later, I found myself walking along a well maintained series of trails that completed a 4.7 mile loop beginning at the end of the campground. The forests here are very diverse with plant life and if I knew anything about wildflowers, I am sure I would have stopped a bazillion times to investigate a different variety along the way. Key features here are several pleasant waterfalls and a nice steady climb up onto a ridge through a fantastic hardwood forest. Back to my tent in time to make dinner and clean up before it starting raining, I mean RAINING.
Day two, it's raining heavily but the near-continuous lightening suggests my plan of hiking a section of the AT up by Clingman's Dome probably isn't the best one, so, I ramble into Bryson City, NC to drink some coffee and "discover" that there is a scenic train ride leaving at 10:30 on the great smoky mountain scenic railroad. For $38 I get a ticket on the train that rides along through varied terrain with a narrator talking about key attractions and history with an hour layover at a small village for lunch and a return. Bryson City is a high character little southern blue collar town. It's easy to feel comfortable in this town with a department store that is NOT a walmart, and a coffee shop that is NOT a starbucks!
It stops raining long enough to do a short 2.9ish mile loop hike also at the deep creek campground, have dinner, and clean up. I zip into my tent insanely early and spend some of the time thinking about the quality of the trails here- they are almost groomed- suck a luxury compared to what I'm used to in the ADK.
Thursday dawns and it is not raining and every now and then a little bit of blue sky peaks through the clouds. I break down my tent, throw it in my pickup and drive away. Head to the town of Cherokee where I can catch the road that goes up and over the mountains right across the middle of the park and ends in Gatlinburg, TN. I drive to the Newfound Gap parking lot and we're socked in. I get onto the Appalachian Trail and I hike out to "Charlies Bunion". Four miles through varied forest, most of the time in the clouds, deposits me at Charlies Bunion an interesting geological formation that is quite terrifying to stand on, with its slippery rock surface and 1000 foot drop offs on three sides. While I'm eating an orange, the weather breaks and I'm rewarded with spectacular views and perfectly clear blue skies. I linger for a while and walk back out to my car- with the difference in the weather- it's like having done a loop trail as the way back out feels almost NOTHING like what the walk in felt like- could actually see views through the forests, etc. Back to my pickup, I drive down through the park, stopping at a few overlooks. Into Gatlinburg and through it.
Gatlinburg is the antithesis of Bryson City. They even have their own Hard Rock Cafe. I drive to the town of Cosby Creek and had into the National Park Campground at Cosby Creek. This campground is bigger than Deep Creek and the setting is nice. It's also $3 less at $14. I spend the night here. Note, that there is not alot around Cosby Creek, so, stock up on your supplies before heading there.
Cosby Creek passes through the campground and the sound of the creek with the recent rains is your constant companion. Friday morning, up fairly early, tear down the camp and drive to Mount Sterling trailhead. Mount Sterling features a 2000ft climb over 2.5 miles to an imposing firetower and a spectacular view of the mountains from there. The trail up is through varied terrain of hardwood forests and hemlock forests with an occasional view or two. Horses use this trail from time to time, it's wide, and well maintained. Well worth the hike. Getting to here requires 9 miles driving on a gravel road with sketchy s-turns and scary dropoffs, but, it was well worth it.
100 Hikes in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, written by Russ Manning is well done and gives you all the information about finding the hikes and doing them that you need. Good background information about the park as well.
In my 4 days I experienced a broad-stroke look at the northern half of the park, with another 1.5 days, I could have also taken in the southern half as well.
Adirondack hikers will find the hiking here to be easy, because the trails are so well groomed compared to what we are used to. They will generally find the views to be more like Catskill views. People who like diverse vegetation and great forests will really love this place.
And on your drive back, don't forget to stop in at the gun store in Abingdon, VA where they're having a sale on varmint rifles cuz it's WHISTLEPIG SEASON! YEEEEEEEEHAAAAAAAAAAA