Thursday, June 21, 2012

Post 18 - The Great Smokies

Day 15 - Monday, June 18
Cherokee, North Carolina
High overcast, warm, no wind

Spent the night at the Pink Motel. No internet connection but I was sent across the street to a large chain hotel where I was welcome to use their wifi and laundry. Sadly, there is some glitch between the hotel's servers and Apple computers. I could not check email.

About 8 pm a torrential downpour of Biblical proportions, started and lasted for two hours. It never stopped. It was so intense I wondered if my tent could stand up to it. I was thankful to ponder this thought through a motel window. I could hear the rumble of motorcycle engines outside. I pity all the riders caught in the deluge.

Cherokee, situated between the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smokey Mountains National Park is a locus for motorcycle riders. Literally hundreds of them drive through every non-winter day. Tourism and the casino drive the economy here.

The Oconaluftee [Oh cone a luf tee] River runs through town. It is small, creek size. By the Park families line the banks and watch their children play in it. Seeing that is a lovely contrast to the loud garish retail businesses along the highway.

Despite the focus on tourism and large number of bikers, the village feels like it could be swallowed by the mountains and vegetation at any moment. Perhaps it will be. The kudzu is plentiful.

I packed the bike and was on the road at 9 a.m. From Cherokee at about 2,000 feet I would travel up to the highest peak in the Great Smokeys, Clingmans Dome. It comes in around 6,650 feet. The Park Highway is wider than the Blue Ridge, but just as smooth and well engineered. Much of the initial ride parallels a stream then you turn onto Clingmans Dome access road for 7 miles. It runs along a ridge that separates North Carolina and Tennessee. The Appalachian Trail also follows this ridge.

You know you are rising out of the valley, up into the mountains, first by smell. The aroma of pine takes over from the more earthy deciduous forest. Around the next bend a wisp of white cloud covers the road. A hundred years ago the Smokeys were forested out. Today it is lush and thick.

Clingmans Dome is an alpine setting. There are many decayed pines and stubby new growth. From the parking lot you must hike up a widely paved but steep walkway to the top. It's a cardio workout for all ages. At the top you find an observation tower with a long curved walkway to take you to the top. Otherwise you would be surrounded by scrub pines and see nothing.

I made the summit and the top of the tower before a major cloud rolled in to obscure the view for everyone. There are some informational displays, but nothing proclaiming the elevation.

On the ride down the access road I passed a car. The main road through the Park is Highway 441. It twists and turns its way down to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. I'm not sure what I thought I knew about Gatlinburg, but I had no clue. It's a town with thousands of motel rooms, restaurants, and sideshows. Find a parking space in one of the many commercial lots (no street parking) and join the throngs of people walking dazedly along the unshaded sidewalks. There were hundreds and hundreds of people strolling about.

The only reason I went there was to get some food before the last leg on my ride up to Cades Cove Campground in the northeast corner of the Park. Gatlinburg is a combination of Las Vegas, Branson, and Disneyland. I did not see a suitable place to eat among the 4 or 5 dozen offerings. I had no clue where to park. No business save for the motels have their own parking. What a place. I rode through and back again. It was a welcome relief to get back in the cool forest.

The ride inside the Park up to Cades Cove runs parallel to the Little River. There are no guard rails, just road and lip and river. There are many swimming, jumping, fishing, and tubing holes. The temperature along the river was in the low 90s. Perfect for swimming.

I was in the campground by 3 p.m. Early, but that's fine. I set up my tent praying it would not rain here like in did in Cherokee last night. The Ranger here tells me there's only a 20% chance of rain.

There is an 11 mile historical/informational loop road in Cades Cove. I assumed it was a road like the rest, but instead it is a narrow one lane, paved one-way, cruise. Top speed 20 mph. It's a big valley and if you have ever seen a broad valley in Vermont, you've seen this one. I felt right at home. The difference was the settler cabins. They are trimmed and notched logs. Fencing is endless rails. The amount of physical labor that went into settling the wilderness is beyond contemporary comprehension.

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