This week on Episode 72 Smoky Mountains Radio, leave with crowds behind, and a special announcement at the end of the show! Let’s go!
It is Sunday, July 17, 2016 and this is Episode 72 of Smoky Mountains Radio. I am Mike and I am your host here on SMR. Though this show I hope to give you the information you need to have the best time on your next trip to the Smokies and give you a little bit of that mountain magic in between trips. It was good to hear from everyone this week. I appreciate the feedback!
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Now, let’s get on with the show!
Leave the Crowds Behind
It is the height of summer in the Smokies and with it comes the crowds. Even the backroads have become busy. Trailheads run out of parking spots by 10am forcing people to park far down the road, adding a 1/4 mile or more to the hike. Prime spots at picnic areas must be snatched early or you are relegated to the spot next to the dumpsters or bathrooms. And good luck getting one of those front country camping spots, even with price increases. Unless you are camping in the Balsam area, you will likely be out of luck. The same goes for backcountry permits at campsites. Each area holds a small number of people, and they have likely been reserved for several weeks already. It is an opportune time to visit for many. Kids are out of school (as are most teachers for that matter), days have more sun than rain, and the weather, though hot, is tolerable in most places. But that brings the crowds, and they come in the millions. The summer months in the Smokies will see over three million visitors. If you are looking to connect with nature and leave the hustle and bustle of daily life behind, visiting during this time can be disappointing.
But fear not! Don’t forget that the Smokies encompasses 800 square miles of land, and there are areas to get away from all of that even during times of enormous crowds. This segment was suggested by listener Angela, and what a great idea! She had initially written in about beating the crowds during the leaf-changing season in October, but this will work weather it is October, the summer months, or the busy holidays.
What I will start with is to let you know where to avoid. By far the busiest towns all year long are Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg (and Sevierville by extension). They are a nightmare in traffic. Backroads can save you a little time, but you will spend a lot of time in the car if you stay in one of those places. There’s really not much of any way around it. My first piece of advice would be to avoid those. Wears Valley used to be a great spot to beat the crowds. Unfortunately, with the thousands of cabins that have sprung up over the years, Wears Valley road has become contested and where it connects to Pigeon Forge has gotten equally busy. There is an access road from Wears Valley that puts you directly into the national park near the Little Greenbrier School and Metcalf bottoms picnic area, essentially halfway between Sugarlands Visitor Center and the Townsend Y. If you hiking is concentrated in this area, Wears Valley is still a good fit. Otherwise, it is a very long drive to get to other areas of the park because Wears Valley is not conveniently located close to anything else.
In the national park, I advise staying completely away from the Gatlinburg/Newfound Gap area. This takes away some of the most famous landmarks in the Smokies, but this is where the crowds are. Newfound Gap, Clingmans Dome, Mount LeConte, Alum Cave Bluffs, Grotto Falls, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Rainbow Falls, Chimney Tops trail and picnic area, Laurel Falls, and Sugarlands Visitor Center are all part of this area, to name a few. But they will be overflowing with people. Let me put it in perspective. I looked at my notes from the last trip there during the summer months. Between the parking lot and overflow parking all down the road, there were 61 cars parked there. Yes, i’m a nerd and I checked. Here is where those numbers have meaning.
The trail to Laurel Falls is only 1.3 miles long. That is a grand total of 6,864 feet long. Let’s be conservative and say that each car had two people in it. That is a total of 122 people on the trail. That means on average there will be a person roughly every 56 feet. Think you are getting any kind of hiking or nature experience with those numbers? I don’t either.
I would also avoid the Cades Cove area. I hate this, because I absolutely love this area. The hiking is some of the very best in the park. Rich Mountain Loop, Spence Field, Thunderhead, Rocky Top, Gregory Bald, and Abrams Falls among others are located here in addition to the great wildlife and loop road. If you want to experience Purgatory up close and personal, get on the Cades Cove Loop Road during the summer. Bumper to bumper traffic at a couple miles an hour with people stopping in the middle of the road to get out of their vehicles to take pictures of deer will leave your blood pressure higher than before you came to the mountains.
But all is not lost. There are several places in the Smokies to beat the crowds. My first pick is the Cosby area. There is a small motel, RV parks, and many cabins in this more secluded area of the Smokies. The crowds are comparatively small, and you won’t have any trouble with traffic. If you need a big grocery store, you can take 321 towards Gatlinburg (before the parkway) and you have a few options. Best of all, though traffic gets heavier the closer you get to gatlinburg, you won’t ever get stuck. Getting to the store and back is easy and stress free. You are also close enough that if you wanted to go to Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge, it is a short 20 minute drive away.
As far as hiking goes, you’ve got some great options. This area has some of the best old growth forrest in the park to go along with great hikes including Henwallow Falls, Ramsey Cascades, Mount Guyot, Mount Camerrer and the Appalachian Trail, and of course, the infamous Low Gap Trail. There is a front country campground and some of the best backcountry campsites in the park in the area. There is also easy access to Interstate 40 from here. It is my favorite place to beat the crowds.
Many people like Townsend to beat the crowds. The town even calls itself “The Peaceful Side of the Smokies.” It is half true. The town, despite being a 4 lane highway, has none of the in your face commercialism of Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge. Crowds are much lower, and the pace much slower. There are several motels, cabins, and RV parks right off the strip and access to the national park is minutes away. It feels like a very different and peaceful place. And if you weren’t going into the park I would say for sure that you should stay there.
Here is the problem. The closest part of the park to Townsend is Cades Cove. We already established that we don’t want to go there. If you go the other way, the closet section of the park is the Gatlinburg section which is an hour away and just as busy. Unless your travel plans in the mountains are to the foothills parkway or Look Rock, my advice is to avoid Townsend during this time as well.
Fontana will not usually put you in bumper to bumper traffic, but has become more of a recreational area than hiking area in recent years. The beautiful lake and dam there has given rise to a marina, lots of watercraft, swimming and rafting. The odd thing is, there are not a ton of hiking trails here. Of course the most famous trail in the world is here. The appalchian trail enters the Smokies through Fontana and up Shuckstack Mountain. That is a terrific and hard as nails hike. But there is not a lot else until you get past Shuckstack unless you want to do the famous Benton McKaye trail. It passes all around Fontana Lake and has some terrific views, put at over 30 miles one way, that may be more than you are looking for. You can hike several trails at Twentymile, about 20 minutes west of Fontana, including a trail to Gregory Bald, which is nice because you avoid Cades Cove. The one drawback to the drive to Twentymile is that it is very close to Deals Gap and the Tail of the Dragon Drive. This drive has become very popular with people who love to speed down the road in their crotch rockets or sports cars in the last decade or so, and the idiots that take pictures of them while they do it haven’t helped. Too many people go too fast down that road. That is an annoyance more than a traffic issue, but police have thankfully cracked down on these idiots that fly down the road, and the frequent pull overs sometimes backs up traffic.
The Deep Creek section of the park near Bryson City is another great place to go to beat the crowds. There are a ton of hiking trails and more waterfalls are in this area than any other area of the park. Many of them are within a couple miles of each other, which is unheard of anywhere else in the Smokies. There are a ton of backcountry campsites in part thanks to the intersection of the Benton McKaye Trail and the Mountains to Sea trail. There is also a front country campground and picnic area. Though the traffic in the area tends to be light, there are very few roads into the national park in the Deep Creek section, so parking tends to be a pain. Cars often line the roads. However, unlike Laurel Falls, there are so many trails right next to each other, you are never on top of other people. It is one of the most peaceful sections of the Smokies.
Deep Creek is located right outside of Bryson City which has an RV park, motels, cabins, restaurants, and shopping. It is a small town to be sure, but achieves the best mix of a real town and tourist town with a very at home feel. For my money, it is the friendliest mountain town the Smokies has to offer.
Balsam Mountain will be the least crowded area of the National park at all times of year. There are old growth forests, Spruce Mountain Trail, the Boogerman Loop moving towards Cataloochee, and many others, but there have been times I do not see a single person hiking in this section. There are a couple reasons for this. The first is that the closest town to this area is Maggie Valley, NC. Maggie Valley has everything you need such as motels, restaurants, grocery stores, and plenty of entertainment. But the drive is almost 45 minutes to the park, and in the Winter when Heintooga Ridge Road is closed, it takes almost three times as long. Also, the hikes here tend to be longer than many in other areas. There are not many there and back two to four mile hikes. There are many loop hikes, which I enjoy, but much of the mileage is in the 10-20 mile range. On the other hand, the Blue Ridge Parkway is very close to this area and is some beautiful driving. If I plan on staying at a back country campsite overnight for a night or two, this is my absolute favorite section. If I am going back to a town, it is more of a hassle, but a way to beat the crowds.
So you see there are several places to go to beat the crowds in the Smokies during the busy times. Have one that I missed? Let me know about it. Shoot me an email at email@example.com
I’ll put more information about this in the show notes and on smokymountainsradio.com
I intended to do a segment this week on hiking with a baby, but I wanted to get in depth on beating the crowds, so we will put that one off until the next show. Stay tuned for that one. If you have any comments or experiences you would like to share and hiking with a baby, I would love to hear about it. Shoot me an email or Facebook message. All the ways to contact me are on the homepage of smokymountainsradio.com
Before we wrap up for the week, I wanted to make a special announcement. I have been working on and off for about a year putting together my thoughts about hikes, towns, and my experiences on paper. One page turned in ten which turned into a hundred and on it went. I decided to put them together into a format that I thought would be entertaining and informative at the same time. And so, in the next few weeks I will have a book that will be available in the Kindle and iBooks store. I don’t have a date on hard copy books yet, but I will let you know when that is finalized. The book will be some of the information I have shared on this show, along with my personal experiences throughout the years and some more in depth information to go along with it. It’s hiking, towns, experiences with attractions, wildlife, and people in and around the Smoky Mountains. I have read many guide books on the Smoky Mountains over the years and many memoirs from the mountains as well. I’ve not read any that do both, and that is what I hope to accomplish here. I want a book that has good information without being as dry and impersonal as a how-to book usually is. I wanted a memoir with my own stories, but with information to help you go out and make your own memories. Hopefully, this strikes the right chord with both. If not, it was good to get it all out of my system and onto paper anyway! I’ll let you know through an episode, the website, and social media when it is available. So if you are looking for a little bit of Smoky Mountains Radio to take with you without the annoying voice of the host, this might be the ticket!
Don’t miss the next episode where we will discuss hiking with baby and whatever else you send my way between now and then. Thanks again to Angela for the topic suggestion and for writing in, and thanks to all of you that have taken the time to listen week after week, month after month, and for a few of you poor souls, year after year! But if you are just finding the show, I invite you to head over to SmokyMountainsRadio.com and check out all the previous episodes. I have descriptions and ratings for hikes and the surrounding areas, so there is a ton of info right there at your fingertips. It will help you get the inside jokes such as the Low Gap Trail and t-shirt tops if nothing else. That will about wrap it up for this week. thanks again for listening everyone, so until next time, beat the crowds, take the road less traveled, and GO TAKE A HIKE!!
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