Monday, October 1
It rained steadily through the night, but our new tent held up fairly well, with only a little dampness. I jumped out early under dark and gloomy skies. The foliage at these lower elevations was pretty lackluster; we were a bit away from peak, sadly. However, there was a beautiful creek nearby to keep me occupied for a while until my wife rousted herself and we broke camp.
Turbulence, Creek Bed, Creek at Smokemont, Smokemont Campsite, Cradled, Abandoned Bridge, Cornerstone
Back at the visitor’s center, the options for a gloomy overcast day full of rain seemed a bit slim. Most of the scenic vistas were clouded in at high altitude, and some of the hikes would have just been too slippery. Instead of the mountains, we headed to the southwest side of the park and did some hiking in the Deep Creek area. The drive was very pretty (once we got past the Cherokee tourist area), but you never got to forget that this was prime tourist territory even in the rural sections outside the park. I was pretty excited to find one of the old “See Rock City” signs painted on an old shed by the side of the road. The rain continued to intensify as we hiked through the trail to various waterfalls[i] at Deep Creek. The waterfalls themselves were practically out of a postcard, and the leaf lined trail was picturesque. On a better day in better light it would have been truly outstanding.
Smokemont Vista, Visitor’s Center, Visitor’s Center Vista, Color in the Rain, See Rock City!, Bridge on Deep Creek, Deep Creek Trail, Juneywhank Falls, Tom Branch Falls, Color and Flow, Indian Creek Falls
Braving the Cherokee tourist gauntlet one more time, we circled back to the Park to head to the Cades Cove area where we’d be spending the night. Back in the park, we stopped briefly at Mingus Mill, a surviving historic structure[ii]. Throughout the high latitudes on our way to the north side of the park, the views were most occluded, even though the fall foliage colors gradually improved.
Given the gloom of the day and the rain, we were racing against the light[iii] to get to the campsite before dark. Regardless we stopped along the way to get in another hike to Laurel falls[iv]. The hike was pretty, but the scenery wasn’t especially unique. Just as we reached the falls themselves, light broke through the clouds and struck the top of the falls[v], making it glow. On our way back we got our first few glimpses of the valleys and ridges as the clouds parted here and there.
Laurel Falls, Laurel Falls in Late Light, Laurel Falls landscape
Finally arriving in Cades Cove, a decision was needed as to whether we continued to sightsee along the Cades Cove loop (an auto path along a sweeping valley surrounded by mountains) or get the camp set up. I coerced my wife to take a run around the valley and I’m glad we did, because the clouds broke and golden afternoon light poured in between rain bursts. There was a large double rainbow over tan meadows of summer grasses as we made our way along through wooded outskirts. Deer were everywhere, and wild turkeys crossed in large flocks between cars. Every so often a car ahead of us would stop and its occupants would run excitedly into the woods after a potential bear[vi]. We underestimated how long the loop would take, with stops, and by the time we got back it was dark, and the rain had commenced in earnest.
Cades Cove Landscape, Deer and Graves, Cades Cove – oil painting style.
We scouted out a site and got our tent up quickly, but cooking in the campground was out of the question without a secondary tarp. Luckily, we had passed a covered amphitheater at the ranger station. We backtracked to it, and spent a damp and chilly time making food under its sprawling roof. The rain did not let up until the next morning…
[i] The first of many, many, many waterfalls. By the end of the trip, after a couple hundred pictures of waterfalls from all angles, I was waterfall’d out.
[ii] Of which there were many in the park. The park did a really good job with its historic buildings. Some places rope them off, and they feel almost isolated from their context. Everywhere we looked here there were historic structures, often just in their original state/context. So even the creepy cabins in the woods felt somewhat less creepy because the sites were so well preserved. Still creepy though. You could almost hear the echoing strains of many a joyous cousin-marriage under their beams.
[iii] You may recognize this phrase from descriptions of other camping trips. We are perpetually horrible about getting to our campsite before dark, and inevitably are setting up by flashlight. As someone who is pretty interested in being out in the last of the golden afternoon light at scenic places, this usually doesn’t bother me as much as it does my wife. However, in bear country, dark is not my friend.
[iv] Waterfall #4 for those keeping track. (1-3 = Juneywhank Falls, Tom Branch Falls, and Indian Creek Falls from Deep Creek)
[v] Part of me was ecstatic at the beauty. Part of me was fretting over the ability to properly expose photographs for the expanded dynamic range.
[vi] We finally saw our first bear in the park when we came across a treed cub. It was far too dark to make much out, and I was fairly wary of a mother bear being somewhere nearby, so we left, even though there was a crowd of idiots taking flash pictures of the bear in the near dark woods.