There’s nothing like a good hike in the mountains, even in the winter time! The anticipation of the moment while putting on your insulated coat, gloves, wool tobogan, scarf and gloves is only surpassed by the actual trek through the quiet solitude of a pristine mountain wilderness. East Tennesseans are especially blessed to have many mountainous areas that are virtually untouched by the intrusions of the modern world. Yes, this is where you wanna go when you’ve had enough of civilization.
Since my wife is still recovering from her foot surgery, we decided to stick to light day hikes this past weekend, still very strenuous and rewarding in the Smokies. As we entered the park (like we did so many times before), we were excited to see some traces of last week’s snowfall still clinging to the rocks and trees along the roadside. We traveled South along US 441 just passed the Sugarlands Visitor Center, until we stopped momentarily at Campbell Overlook (named for Carlos Campbell, author of “Birth of a National Park”, and one of the individuals responsible for the Park’s establishment) for a snapshot of Mount LeConte (elevation 6,953 feet, the third tallest peak in the Park, the fourth highest in the Appalachians, and the tallest peak from foot to summit east of the Mississippi).
About a mile south and another 500 feet higher, we pulled over to one of the many trails designated by a sign to be a “Quiet Walkway”. These trails give the tenderfoot a chance to experience a true wilderness experience, because once you walk about a quarter mile down the trail, all the intrusive noises of civilization disappear into the muted mountain landscape of winter; truly a spiritual experience for any city slicker (and sometimes a frightening one).
We, of course, went even deeper down the trail (about a mile and a half). The wonder of the beautiful, towering, virgin timber never diminishes for us in these magical hills. Eventually, we came to the Little Pigeon River, a wonderfully roaring whitewater paradise with some of the best trout fishing that exists (here, they are best taken on salmon eggs (hell’s flame work’s best for me) and corn). One can easily lose all track of time, standing hypnotized by the sound of the pure mountain water tumbling over the rocks, smooth and round from eons of polishing and erosion.
As we climbed back up the hill (my wife is one tough lady, more than a little determined to hike the way she used to), we decided to try and go further up the mountains. The roads at this point started to get a little icy, and more snow remained than did at lower elevations. As we carefully drove our 2003 Eclipse up the mountain, we could only marvel at the stupidity of the tourists flying down the ice-covered mountain highway, praying that they didn’t lose control of their vehicles and take us over the side with them!
By the time we arrived at the Chimney Tops picnic area, we decided to pull in and hike a little ways along the river. This wonderful place provides picnicking and camping for both tents and RV’s, and even has flush toilets and potable water, along with bear-proof dumpsters. Keep walking, and you will eventually find your way along the river via unmaintained trail spurs; decent trails in the winter, but become quite impassable as the summertime approaches. For the day-hiker or even the average tourist in the average tourist’s physical condition, these little trails are a godsend, because they can take you well away from civilization and paved roads without giving you a coronary!
As much as we would have liked to continued all the way to Newfound Gap (elevation 5,048 feet) and eventually Clingmans Dome (elevation 6,643 Feet, the highest peak in the Park), the road conditions were forbidding to our little Rice Rocket (fortunately, we are smart enough NOT to try and go for it, in spite of all the SUV’s with out-of-state tags sliding all over the highway; oh, well, at least it gives the park rangers something to do!). We headed back to our hotel, and stopped one last time on the Gatlinburg By-Pass to get a great photograph of Gatlinburg, nestled in its mountain valley. This may not have been one of our more fruitful mountain outings, to be sure, but every trip to the great, mighty, ancient Appalachians is truly memorable!