Ep. 52 – Tourist Traps and the Worst Hike in the Smokies


SHOW #52  February 8, 2015


This week on Episode 52 Smoky Mountains Radio, News From Around the Mountains, Biggest Tourist Traps, and the Worst Hike in the Smokies.   Let’s Go!


It is Sunday, February 8, 2015 and this is episode 52 of SMR.  Welcome back to the show.  As, always, I am your host Mike, and I am here to bring my nearly forty years of experience in and around the Smoky Mountains help you have the best possible time on your next trip to the Smokies.

I invite you to check out our website, SMR.com.  There you will find a wealth of information including hikes from all over the Great Smoky Mountains including length, difficulty, and a short description of what you will see and and can expect as you hit the trails.  If you are planning on staying in one of the surrounding towns, you can find information about those as well.  You can contact me directly by emailing me at mike@smokymountansradio.com, on Facebook at facebook.com/smokymountainsradio or on twitter @smokies_radio.  You can also call the listener line at 865-325 9784.  Finally, of course, every one of our shows can be found on the website for you to stream or download. Of course, you can make sure you get episodes the moment they are released by subscribing to the show via iTunes or stitcher.  Leave me a review while you are there.  Those links can also be found on SMR.com.  If you have anything you would like me to cover on the show, please feel free to contact me at any time.  Again, all the ways to reach me are right on the website at SmokyMountainsRadio.com

Unfortunately, it has been one heck of a last couple weeks for me.  We’ve had sicknesses, surgeries, and unfortunately a family member passed away last week, so I was in no mood to do a show.  Thanks for everyone for staying with me through the absence.  Much appreciated.  I could go on about that at some length, but instead….


Let’s get on with the show.

News From Around the Mountains

  1. Well, i’ll start off with some bad news.  Jack has decided to come home.  He sent me a text yesterday and said that the ankle just isn’t right, and he is going back home.  Before he left trail, he did make it to the North Carolina border, but that was about as much as his body would let him do.  He is going to try to negotiate with work for extra time off and pick up at North Carolina in March.  He said it is about 50/50 whether that will happen or not at this point.  Regardless Jack, congrats on getting that far.  You still went farther than about 25% of the people that set out to thru hike each year, so kudos to you.  If Jack gets back on in march and finishes, it will still be considered a thru hike since he completed it all in the same calendar year or hiking season.  Can’t wait to hear from you buddy.
  2. The work on Alum Cave Trail is getting a boost in the form of a private donation from a foundation all about helping out national parks.  In all, 15 grand will be given to help fix the problems on the trail and an extra $3,000 will be given to update the privies in the backcountry.  That makes me particularly happy.  There are a couple privies in the Smokies that make Port a Johns at a state fair look good.  So thank you to the Richard Haiman Foundation!
  3. There’s always something going on in the Smokies behind the scenes.  On such project has been happening for three years.  The goal?  To accurately map all the streams in the national park.  We know from last week that there are close to 900 miles of trail in the Smokies.  But there is more than three times the miles of streams at right about 2,900 miles.  This appears to be more of a baseline for biological experiments to come with fish and aquatic creatures, but a definite reason for the study was not apparent.  I called in to the park service for clarification, but the call was not returned.  Must be a conspiracy!
  4. New Years was a massive hit for the town of Gatlinburg with about 60,000 people crowding the streets in Gatlinburg around the Space Needle for the countdown.  That would be a new record.  It has become a bigger and bigger event each year.  The music, fireworks, and everything else has made it huge.  The crowds?  No thanks.  You’ve heard me say before I don’t like a ton of people.  I’ll pass on that one.  I’d rather bring in the new year atop a mountain, or more likely, laying in bed asleep.  Still, 60,000 in that little town is pretty darn cool.
  5. Back in late October, it looked like it was going to be a very wet winter.  Snows covered roads and trails and essentially closed the entire park.  Well here we are in January, and Ober Gatlinburg, that relies on snow for their business, is still waiting for a return.  They are cranking out the fake stuff as quick as they can to keep their slopes open.  They are hoping for a good blanket in the next week.  I am as well.  As most of you know, I am a school teacher.  My two favorite words are SNOW-DAY.

I’ll put more about this in the show notes and on SmokyMountainsRadio.com


Biggest tourist traps around the Smokies

The next segment was inspired by listener David who wrote in about falling into tourist traps.  For most of us, money is finite and it seems to go faster on vacation than just about anywhere else.  Since that is the case, the worst feeling is spending money on something that ends up being a total waste of money.  The money is gone, you can’t get it back, and you are left with either lame memories or a pile of junk you just paid way to much money for.  Every vacation destination has them.  This is not unique to the Smokies.  Trying to weed through the garbage to get to the good stuff can be a challenge, but it is certainly doable.  So where do we start?  With all the t-shirt shops all around you, it can be tough to find the needle in the haystack.  Well, that is as good of a place to start as anywhere.

Putting down t-shirt shops has become a past time of mine on this program.  There’s good reason.  They are freakin’ everywhere and most of the stuff they sell in is total crap.  But should you stay clear of these places?  Yes and No.  If you are somebody that goes to the Smokies a lot, there is basically no reason to ever go into one.  They all sell essentially the same junk.  It is like they all got together and agreed on common stuff to sell.  I realize some of them are owned by the same people, but still.  If you are a new or infrequent visitor, you might find something.  A tshirt or sweatshirt that commemorates your trip can be a good souvenir.  They all have something on them that says Gatlinburg, Cherokee, or Great Smoky Mountains.  And this can be great.  There are several places all over the area that have shirts priced very cheap.  Granted, the material used is not among the best in the world, but the prices can be.  BUT, and this is a big butt, you have to shop around.  Prices can range from 5 dollars all the way up to 40 bucks.  That is a huge disparity.  Sometimes it is exactly the same item at that range of prices.  Be sure to check it out.  I’m not advocating going to every shirt shop…God forbid, but do shop around.  And haggling is just fine.  Don’t pay sticker for anything in those stores.

So outside of clothing shops, there are still a million other hits and misses along the Smokies.  A good rule of thumb is to see if there are similar experiences that you can compare it too.  For example, if you are looking to do some mini golf, there are about a hundred of those places around, and most of them are very close together.  If a 15 dollar a person price tag makes you shudder, go to the next one.  Just like the t-shirts, the prices vary wildly.  In my opinion, there is no one place where you just gotta go to mini golf.  Some places are better than others, but in the end…it’s all mini golf.

Let’s say the experiences can’t really be matched exactly.  But they are at least similar.  Look for those.  The Skylift, Space Needle, Ferris Wheel all have similar experiences though they are different rides.  They are also very differently priced.  It’s a good idea to check that.

Don’t discount the good ole eye test.  If you walk up to an attraction, restaurant, or store and it seems to be deserted, there is probably a good reason for it.  Don’t assume it’s just because you lucked out and beat the crowds.  Crowds tend to go to the best stuff. Not always, but it is a good indication of how good an experience is.

An easy thing to do is a little research before you go.  Trip reports can vary quite a bit, but sites like trip advisor do a respectable job of informing you about real world experiences.  It baffles me that people go to a horrible attraction and put a review on line, and the same reviews keep coming year after year.  You would think that people would read a little before they go and avoid the bad experiences.  Do a little research and save a lot of money.

Another one is to look for experiences that you can’t do at home.  It is not likely to be very memorable if you can do the same thing in an area near you.  TGI Friday and Margarittaville are great, but they are chains all over the place.  I’m not about to plunk that kind of money down if I can get it twenty minutes from home.  On the other hand, the Aquarium is excellent and unlike anything else.  The one in Chattanooga is also great.  So if I lived there, I might bypass this for a new experience.  Most of us don’t have a sky lift at home, so that tends to be a good option.  Park Grill, anyone? You don’t have that at home.  How about horseback riding through Cades Cove?  Again, great experiences you likely don’t find anywhere else.

Finally, beware of fake stuff and stupid stuff.  This is heavy in all mountain towns but perhaps the most disappointing in Cherokee.  If you are looking for authentic Native American goods, be sure to at least check for the Made in China label.  You will find it more than you think.  But besides cheap china stuff everywhere, there are also those really dumb purchases.  To be clear, i’m not calling you dumb if you have made one of these….I have too….but think before you dish out the cash.  Some of the strangest things that I have seen on sale is airsoft guns and swords.  Theres nothing wrong with owning either one, but who the heck goes to the mountains and thinks, “You know what says Smoky Mountains to me?  A Samuri Sword!”  They are obviously selling, because you can find them everywhere now.  There are even stores dedicated to just selling that.  It gives you a very odd feeling walking down the streets with people with three airsoft guns, a sword, and a couple ninja stars…yep, they sell those two.  Again, its fine to have these, but buy them somewhere else.  Better things to spend your money on here.

And then there’s just the weird stuff.  There are more bongs and other legal paraphernalia on sale all over the place.  It’s just strange to me. It sounds like a good t-shirt idea.  “I went to the Smokies and all I got was this stupid bong.”  Weird.  Again, if you are into that, pretty sure you can get it at home.

And that’s the thing.  If you spend money on something here, it should commemorate your trip or give you good memories of the trip.  I bought a radio controlled helicopter here a few years back.  That was a huge rage in town back them.  Yeah, it was ok.  And it worked alright until I crashed it the first time.  But looking back, I could have used that money for something way better and just waited till I got to a hobby store and bought a better quality helicopter.  Come to think of it, I never really wanted one before that.  I haven’t wanted one since.  That is quintessentially what we call a bad purchase.

Not all tourist traps are bad.  Heck, i’ve reviewed a couple of them on the show.  It is just a matter of whether or not they add to the experience of your trip.  And if it’s a souvenir, my last piece of advice is if you want it, come back for it the next day.  If you still want it, buy it.  I’ve saved a ton over the years this way.  It’s amazing what sleeping on it has for clarity!

I’ll put more info about this in this week’s show notes and on SMR.com


The Worst Hike in the Smokies (Laurel Falls)

I love the Smokies.  All things being equal, I would much rather be there than doing just about anything else.  Give me a trail, any trail, and I will hike it.  But are all trails created equal.  Certainly not.  Some are better than others.  Some of it might be obvious because of the number of visitors.  But that doesn’t tell the whole story.  Some of the best trails are those that are in more remote and lesser visited areas of the Smokies, but they just don’t get all the press.

For most of us, getting into the Smoky Mountains is not an every day, every week, every month, or even every year occurrence.  So when time is a precious commodity, we don’t want to waste time on bad trails.  Come on, there are almost 900 miles of trails.  Some of them have to stink.  And today, i’m going to go over what I consider the granddaddy of them all.  No doubt it will be controversial, but here it is.  The worst hike in the Smoky Mountains is……Laurel Falls.

Before you burn me in effigy, let me explain.  I started this show over a year ago with a spotlight on Laurel Falls.  Laurel Falls was the first hike I ever went on in a baby carrier on dad’s back.  It is the first hike my wife and I shared together in the Smokies.  I’ve been down this trail nearly 20 times over my life.  So what is the problem?

Let’s start with the thing that I hate most about a wilderness trail….crowds.  This hike is easy, centrally located, and ends in a waterfall.  That is a recipe for throngs of people.  Early morning, afternoon, and into the evening, this hike is packed.  Sometimes just the act of parking resembles a mall at Christmastime.  People quickly weave into parking spaces and sit in the road waiting for a space to open up.  Obviously, all the people in that parking lot have to go somewhere.  And they all occupy the short 1.3 miles of trail leading to Laurel Falls.

Laurel Falls is a beginners hike in every sense of the word.  Should everybody do it?  Yes!  But, being a first hike for so many people means that there are a ton of people on it that have zero hiking etiquette in the woods.  You will hear people screaming in large groups up and down the mountain.  You will actually hear people booming music from their phones or boom box…..do they even make those anymore?  The noise pollution takes away any chance of having a wilderness experience on this trail.  Oh wait, speaking of pollution, that brings me to real pollution to the environment…litter.

I have seem more litter on this trail than any other trail in the national park.  Candy wrappers, beef jerky, leftover food, and enough cigarette butts to go from the beginning of the trail to the end.  People routinely just throw down what they don’t want to pack out with them.  It will all decompose eventually, right?  In the meantime, in addition to the noise pollution, your eyes can only focus on trash, because it is all over the place.

The trail is paved.  Seriously?  Paved.  Paved trails serve a great purpose.  People with mobility problems or in wheelchairs can access trails.  That is a great thing.  The nature trails and even the incline to Clingmans Dome are good ways for people with mobility issues to see the mountains.  Laurel Falls is another story.  It is paved as I mentioned before.  That makes it easy to travel for anyone with mobility issues, right?  No, not at all.  The pavement is uneven, cracked and even missing in places.  Strollers and wheelchairs need not apply on this one.  But what is left is just ugly, jagged pavement going up a mountain.  It’s yet another thing that takes away from the scenery in this trail.  I totally get why it was paved.  The trail erosion is/was awful on this trail.  Any trail with heavy use gets eroded fairly quickly.  But the fact remains that it is an eyesore.

Speaking of eyesores, if you get through the loud crowds and scenery filled with garbage, you end up at the falls.  The falls are nice.  not spectacular, but nice.  Except for one problem.  There is a huge pipe running under your feet at the base of the falls.  Again, gotta control the erosion and water issues.  So here is a huge pipe!  Joy!  That is truly a kodak moment.  Perhaps its me just being too much of a purist or snob.  I’ll take it.  whatever.  But I just don’t like it.

So after 2.6 miles roundtrip on this easy hike, it is unlikely that you will have had a good experience.  For certain, you will not have seen what makes the Smoky Mountains so great.  I mentioned that this was the first hike that my wife and I went on together in the Smokies.  As soon as we got back to our car, we headed to the Jakes Creek trail and did some real hiking to cleanse the pallet a bit.  It may be a bit of an oxymoron to say this hike is the worst and a don’t miss at the same time, but it really is.  If you want a real Smoky Mountain experience, I can recommend about 100 trails better.

The last thing i’ll say about this one is that it can be an amazing trail if you do it right.  Okay, so you can’t do the first part with earplugs and a blindfold.  BUT, once you get past the waterfall, nobody, and I mean nobody keeps going.  You have the remaining 2.7 miles to where the trail to yourself.  Beautiful forests, dirt trails, and a fire tower await you at the end.  It is positively a tale of two trails.

I’ll put more info about this hike in our show notes and on Smoky Mountains radio.com



Good to be with you all again this week.  Be sure to check out the show at our website, Facebook and twitter pages, and on youtube.

It is about time for me to start planning our next show.    So until next time, have a great week everybody.  Hope the snow has taken it easy on you.  But even if the snow does come this week, it makes it even more gorgeous outside.  The best way to enjoy it?  ……go take a hike!





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