What a whirlwind of a trip! I had a very limited amount of time to enjoy the park, but it was perfect weather and enough time to get my feet wet and add a few more destinations to my wishlist for my next trip!
Joey and I got up at 5am so we could make it to the Great Smoky Mountain Jeep Invasion by 9am. I knew that the show was HUGE, and I wanted to take advantage of the least amount of foot traffic, figuring that Friday morning would be our best bet. The drive to Pigeon Forge takes you straight through the heart of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and the morning drive shows you how the park got its name – the valleys are usually full of whispy morning fog and clouds.
We got an extra special treat immediately after entering the park – elk! I have driven through the park on multiple occasions but have never been blessed with spotting the elk herds. The elk were reintroduced to the park in 2001, and they have been very successful so far. You can spot some tracking collars on a few of the individuals in my photos.
Joey had a brief meeting to tend to, so we stopped off at Newfound Gap where the view was pristine and the cell phone reception strong. Probably the most beautiful place to have a meeting if you must!
Once we arrived at the Great Smoky Mountain Jeep Invasion, my photographic sights shifted from mountain views to mountain crawlers! I’ve never seen so many fabulous Jeeps in one spot, I was certainly in hog-heaven. Joey and I had a list of must-see vendors on our phones, and we methodically made our way around the indoor and outdoor show floors, jotting down the sales specials and interesting items as we checked off our list. We have so many things that we want to buy, and of course must prioritize what we want to spend on first and consider what discounts are in effect during the show. Once we visited all the vendors at least once (and some more than once), we retreated to grab a bite to eat and discuss our game-plan.
I very rarely travel anywhere without making a tentative food game plan, so this trip was no exception. I yelped all the best spots, checking reviews and menus. I selected Local Goat for our first meal, and it certainly did not disappoint! We both opted for burgers – I ordered the Farmhouse, pictured front, and Joey ordered the Smokehouse. Both were delicious, but we agreed that the Farmhouse was supreme – something about an egg on a well-built burger just takes the ribbon. The fries were absolutely delicious – and plentiful – very crispy and thin, almost reminiscent of those crunchy potato sticks that we all ate as kids.
After eating all that we could of our burgers (and neither of us could finish, they were huge!) we pulled out all our show information and made our purchasing plans. You’ll have to wait for Magnus’ big reveal to find out what all we bought, but I promise it won’t be much longer.
After lunch, we spent a few relaxing hours in our hotel, overlooking the show-grounds. Some afternoon thunderstorms rolled in and chased all the foot-traffic away, so once the rain cleared we walked back to the show to enjoy visiting with the vendors without nearly as many people crowding the booths. It was perfect!
My Jeep bestie rolled into town after work, and we all headed out Blue Moose Burgers & Wings. Having already eaten burgers, we all shared the 25 wing sampler platter along with fried jalapeno bites (and queso dip!) and sweet potato fries. The wings were all divine, not a single wing left amongst us. The jalapeno bites were also excellent, but SUPER SPICY! At least to my delicate sensibilities. The sweet potato fries were like dessert, but that didn’t stop me from ordering ACTUAL dessert – peanut butter pie!
We met up with our local Jeep Club (East Atlanta Jeepers) and hung out for a little bit, but called it an early night, because Kim and I had early morning plans for hiking Great Smoky Mountain National Park. 6am comes early, but the early morning mountain views just can’t be beat.
We chose Rainbow Falls, a moderate hike located on the northern side of the park, just a few minutes outside of Gatlinburg. The trail is well marked and well maintained – they were even nice enough to install stairs for some of the steeper sections of trail. The trail winds along next to the creek for the entirety of the hike, and there are several small falls leading up the the main showcase.
In November of 2016, the area suffered tremendous forest fires that destroyed many homes and businesses and killed 14 people. Damage was estimated to be over $500 million, and of course the scars from the fires are still evident in areas of Gatlinburg. While the undergrowth in the forest has regrown thick and green, there are still enormous shells of hardwood trees that were completely decimated by the flames.
We were fortunate enough to spot a black bear while hiking, along with a white hickory tussock moth caterpillar, a Desmognathus salamander of some variety, and wild turkey. Its quite clear that the park is teeming with life.
All in all, the hike was six miles round trip, and we took about three hours – with lots of time spent hanging out at at least three of the water features. The elevation gain is about 1500 feet, and pretty steady the entire time. Of course coming back is a lot faster as it’s all downhill.
After hiking, you guessed it, time to eat. We headed for Sawyer’s Farmhouse Breakfast, which looked completely packed judging from the parking lot, but got us seated with ten minutes. Thats one thing you can be sure of in Pigeon Forge – the restaurants know how to handle a rush. Kim chose a BLT, but Joey and I fell for the french toast – he had Banana’s Foster and I chose classic Cinnamon. There was not a bite left on any of the plates! Kim said she particularly enjoyed the crescent fries, and I loved the Cinnamon Creme syrup served with my pancakes. Joey’s pancakes looked divine, with what must’ve been an entire fresh banana sliced and a pile of southern pecans on top!
After breakfast, it was time to part ways with Kim as she headed to the show and we headed back to Great Smoky Mountain National Park for some additional sight-seeing on our way back home. It was mid-day, and so there weren’t any misty morning clouds left, but the sky was bright blue and full of rainclouds. We headed for Clingman’s Dome, hoping for an epic view.
It was sunny and beautiful at the base of the observation tower, and we spotted several more friendly fauna – a grey fox puppy, a common garter snake and a bumblebee. The parking lot was nearly full – we actually snagged one of the last two parking spots – and there were plenty of pedestrians lingering around the edges, but not as many people seemed game for the climb to the observation deck.
The paved trek is only a half mile, but it’s a 13° climb. Once we traversed to the peak – 6643 feet above sea level – we were nestled firmly in the bottom of a raincloud. We waited for about fifteen minutes to see if it would clear, but as soon as one section of the cloud would part, another section would move in behind it. It made for some spectacularly moody photos, especially with the dead Fraser firs peppered throughout the landscape. The dead trees are from an invasion of Balsam Wooly Adelgid, an aphid-like pest which has killed ninety percent of the Fraser firs since 1962 when it was first discovered in the park. Our Frasers are Appalachian endemic species, and are federally listed as a species of concern. A large majority of the living trees are found within this national park boundary.
Our departure from the park was largely uneventful, and I was pretty discourage that we would not spot elk again since we passed many open and empty meadows. But then, low and behold, the last clearing before Cherokee, NC, a small herd of elk was eating on the shoulder of the road and generally clogging up traffic! I seized the opportunity to snag a few departing shots.
I do so adore this park, and Teri and I are already planning another trip in the near future. What did we miss that you would love to see on our next go-round?