The mountains are calling. In fact, they’ve been calling for some time.
Hubby and I got the opportunity to spend a little bit of time in Tennessee in April – a beautiful state that we adore – and took every opportunity we had to explore the area.
We booked a cabin – an absolutely amazing cabin, in fact – at the highest point of the mountain we could find. Didn’t exactly know that at the time of booking. And, despite the terrifying drive up, up, up, and up, the views we got were worth every frightening hairpin turn. Although, the first evening we arrived it was pouring down rain, the front office had just closed for the day, and the road at the near top of the mountain was completely closed. Can we say panic? But, despite this chaotic detour, we managed to find the cabin and we were in heaven.
The first day there, we decided to explore Clingmans Dome. The last time we had been there, the fog was so heavy, we could barely see a foot in front of us. This time, it was like we had walked into a winter wonderland. Yes, in April. Because of the previous night’s torrential downpour, and the freezing temps still at those high altitudes, we had this. Can we say absolutely breathtaking?
The hike to the top isn’t a long one. In fact, it’s a whopping half a mile. But it’s the steepest, hardest half mile I have ever trekked. We hadn’t exactly planned well since I was wearing a pair of Converse sneakers, but luckily the walk – even though insanely straight up – wasn’t that awful. I would like to think, however, that the high altitude had something to do with me having to work so hard to get to the top.
Once we arrived at the top, the views were stunning. This is the highest point of the Smoky Mountains at an insanely high 6,643 feet. We snapped a few pictures, trying to do a dance around the other brave tourists since the concrete platform we were standing on was iced over – Ice! At this elevation, the wind was intense. I wasn’t exactly sure how cold it was, but it quickly cut right through the thin jackets we were wearing. Once we took all the pictures we could stand, I was ready to head back to the warm car.
On the descent down, we managed to warm up some. We discovered part of the Appalachian Trail and a couple of other side trails. We decided to venture off, following one of the trials for a little while. Since we had more plans that day, and it didn’t include getting off the grid too far that day, we turned it back around before it got too late – but of course not before having way too much fun taking more pictures.
The next day, we decided to tackle not only one, but two hikes. Call us a bit gung-ho. Before deciding on which trails to take, we stopped at the Sugarland Visitor’s Center to get some information from one of their volunteers. The gentleman we spoke to had been a great source of information. After speaking with him, we decided on the Alum Cave Bluff Trail and Laurel Falls. Since Laurel Falls was the shorter of the two trails, and likely to be the most crowded as the day went on, we started there first.
We arrived at the trailhead around 8:00 in the morning. At this time of the day, there were only a few hikers and we felt like we had the trail all to ourselves. This particular trail is 2.6 miles round-trip and is paved the entire way. It’s a great trail for anyone of any fitness level. Because of this, the entire trail is completely accessible to everyone.
On the way up, the views were beautiful. Since it was so early and there were so few hikers, we were able to stop and take plenty of pictures. As we neared the falls, you could hear the water rushing in the distance. Laure Falls is a beautiful, picturesque waterfall that stands 80 feet high.
As we wandered around, we noticed a man had climbed down the side of the trail and perched himself on one of the rocks below to have breakfast. Like children, we couldn’t resist following suit. So down, down we went. The climb down wasn’t difficult and we were able to take some more pictures, but it wasn’t long before other hikers decided to join us. That was our queue to head back up.
As we headed back to the car, we passed a ton more hikers. Clearly getting here early was the key. We met up with a nice couple from New York that commented on how they were enjoying the heat. Heat! We just laughed and said how much we were enjoying the cold weather.
Next on the agenda, Alum Cave Trail!
The drive to the Alum Cave Trail entrance from Laurel Falls took us a good 30 minutes. Distance wise, it’s not that far, but between the slow, winding roads and the traffic, it slowed us down quite a bit. However, I couldn’t complain. The drive there, through the mountains and alongside the river, is simply stunning.
When we reached the trailhead, the parking lot was already completely full. We parked on the side of the road, like other day-hikers, and started for the entrance.
The first portion on the trail is beautiful – you’re walking adjacent to one of the rivers for quite some time. We stopped a few times, noting the color of the water. Other than some of the Caribbean waters I had seen, this was the clearest, most pristine water ever. We tried our best to capture it in pictures, but I’m not sure photos will ever do it justice. Hubby filled up one of our water bottles so we could see if it was just as clear as it looked. It was incredible. Holding it up next to our unopened bottle of water, they looked identical.
As we continued on the trail, it began to grow a little steeper. Since I had failed to start my watch at the trailhead, we weren’t getting a completely accurate read, but it was up, up and up. We walked through the cave stairs, continuing up. The trail began to grow pretty steep after this point. At the halfway point, we decided to turn around. We weren’t intending to go all the way to the top today, but after listening to some other day-hikers, we definitely put it on our list. I didn’t realize when we began this trail that at the very top was the LeConte Lodge, a completely electricity-free lodge that held numerous cabins where hikers could spend the night, have dinner, or even have lunch. How had I missed this?
On the way down, we talked about how we would love to do this hike again, maybe even inviting sis and Jake with us, since they were such hiking fanatics. The idea of spending the night on top of the mountain with no cell phone service, no electricity sounded . . . . well, kind of amazing.
Once we reached the bottom, and completely out of the National Park before I got cell service again, I began researching. Since hubby and I were pretty novice hikers, we needed some better gear. My feet were a bit sore after hiking all day in a pair of old running sneakers.
As we talked, my fascination with this new sport grew. We pulled into an outdoor center before heading back to our cabin. Maybe this runner could do a little cross-training in the mountains from time to time. As I said, the mountains were calling. In fact, they had been calling for quite some time.
Note-worthy restaurants in the area
Log Cabin Pancake House in Gatlinburg, Tennessee – French Toast Royale. That is all I will say. Every time we stop at this breakfast place we both order a plate, and eat every delicious morsel of it. Imagine French toast doused in a sugary, cream cheese syrup, topped with bananas. It’s by far the unhealthiest breakfast you can have, but sitting there, next to the restaurant’s fireplace, with a cup of coffee and this meal in front of you, is worth every fat-laden calorie.
Old Mill in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee – If you like southern cuisine served homestyle, this is your best stop. We have been to this restaurant on many occasions and it never disappoints. The meals offered are your typical southern fare of fried chicken, pork chops and chicken and dumplings. Definitely bring your appetite to this establishment. The servings are overly generous.
Apple Barn in Sevierville, Tennessee – This is another one of our favorite stops in this area. Not only does this restaurant serve delicious southern cuisine, it also has a store where you can buy their famous apple butter, along with a ton of other goodies. They even have a creamery where you can buy real ice cream to go with a fresh baked apple fritter. One of our must-stops is the Apple Barn Wine store. We always seem to come home with one too many bottles of their delicious and unique wine.