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Fall Foliage - Elkmont

posted Oct 22, 2013, 10:12 AM by Justin P   [ updated Nov 13, 2013, 10:21 AM ]

This past weekend was our annual Fall Foliage trip to the Smokies.  Fortunately, the states of Tennessee and North Carolina paid to open the park and the federal government shutdown finally ended, so our trip was on.  We all met up in Chapel Hill and made the long drive out to the Tennessee side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  It’s a good 5 to 6 hour drive from the Triangle, so we left early at about 7.  We stopped for lunch at Subway while still in North Carolina and got to Gatlinburg in the early afternoon.  Not surprising, the traffic was terrible in Gatlinburg as it usually is.  With the park just reopening and being near the peak of fall color, Gatlinburg was packed.  We passed through town and entered the park at traffic light 8 onto Historic Nature Trail.  From here, we got on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a one-way winding gravel road that makes a loop and pulled off at stop #5, which is the trailhead for Trillium Gap Trail that leads to Grotto Falls.  As we were getting ready for our first hike, we saw a number of classic cars driving down the road and a couple parked in the lot.  We also saw the llama truck and trailer.  There are no roads leading to the lodge at the summit of Mount LeConte, so all supplies must be brought up by llamas, who make the trek up via the Trillium Gap Trail.  Unfortunately, the llamas had already started up the mountain and we didn’t get a chance to see them, but someday I’d love to be here when they are making their trip up the mountain, especially when they pass under Grotto Falls.  But not this time.  We hiked up the easy Trillium Gap Trail for about a mile and a half to the waterfall.  The trail runs through a nice old-growth hemlock forest, but at the lower elevations, we weren’t seeing much fall color yet.  Ultimately, the trail leads to the lodge on to Mount LeConte, but we were only following it for the first mile and a half to the falls.  As expected, the waterfall was very crowded.  It’s a 25-foot waterfall that wouldn’t be too impressive, except that the trail runs behind the falls through a natural grotto (hence the name).  And of course everyone at the falls wants to get a picture behind the falls. 

Grotto Falls

So we waited our turn to get some pictures and then headed back.  Just downstream of the falls, there were some nice cascades that I climbed down to see and get some pictures without another a bunch of people all around.  After that, we hiked back to the car and continued on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.  Driving on the road is slow, especially during peak tourist season with everyone stopping to take in the sights.  One car in particular was driving extremely slowly and stopping frequently, sometimes right next to a pulloff.  But they sure were not going to actually pull off so the line of traffic behind them could get around.   Finally, when we were almost done with the loop, we pulled off to see Place of a Thousand Drips and not be stuck behind the rude driver.  When we pulled off, there must have been a line of 10 or more cars backed up behind the slow car.  I understand that this is a nice waterfall during wetter times, but it was pretty dry today.  We got a couple of pictures, but it was more like a dozen drops today and not so impressive.

Place of a Thousand Drips

We finished up the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail and got back on US-321 through Gatlinburg, getting stuck in the traffic yet again.  It’s too bad the one-way road doesn’t go the other way so we could use it to bypass Gatlinburg altogether.  Past Gatlinburg, we pulled into the Sugarlands Visitor Center for our next waterfall, Cataract Falls.  This one is a very short hike along the Cove Mountain Trail from the parking lot, maybe 0.1 miles to the falls.  With such an easy hike, this one was fairly crowded as well.  It’s a small waterfall, maybe 10 or 15 feet, and with the water level low, it wasn’t very powerful.  We got some pictures and then made the quick trip back to the car. 

Cataract Falls

Our next stop was the trailhead for Laurel Falls Trail, roughly half way between Sugarlands and Elkmont.  We parked here and got ready for our hike.  The hike is 1.3 miles to the falls from parking area and is moderate in difficulty.  It is one of the few paved hiking trails in the park.  As one of the most popular trails in the park, it was paved in 1960s to reduce erosion from heavy traffic.  From the parking lot, the trail ascends for a while, crossing Pine Knot Branch, and then levels off as it runs parallel to Laurel Branch.  The left side of the trail has a very steep drop to Laurel Branch below and the right side of the trail has some neat rock outcrops.  We were starting to see a bit of fall color along this trail, but were still not high enough in elevation to see the peak color.  Soon, we arrived at the waterfall, which was crowded like all the others we had seen.  The waterfall has an upper and lower section, with a footbridge running across between the two at the base of the upper section.  We got a few shots of the upper section and then climbed down to the base of the lower section.  It is a steep, rocky climb down and initially we were the only ones down here, but I guess when people saw us going down, they decided to follow.  Down here, it's possible to get a shot of both sections, but it was challenging with all the people milling about.  Once it got crowded at the base of the lower falls, we headed back up to the trail and back to the cars.  From here, we made the short drive to Elkmont and set up camp at group site 2.  We had dinner at camp to avoid getting stuck in Gatlinburg traffic again and made a nice big campfire to keep warm.  We could tell that it really is fall now as it was very chilly once the sun went down.

Laurel Falls

We woke up very early Saturday morning, well before sunrise, to get an early start and hopefully beat some of the crowds.  We were heading to Cades Cove, one of the most popular areas of the park, so it was sure to be packed on this nice autumn day.  By leaving early, we hoped to miss most of the crowds and get to the parking lot while there were still spots available.  From Elkmont, we turned left on Little River Road, which changes to Laurel Creek Road, and drove to Cades Cove.  Here, we got on the Cades Cove Loop Road, another scenic one-way road through a beautiful valley.  The sun had come up by the time we reached Cades Cove, but fog was hanging over the mountains, giving them a mysterious and beautiful "smoky" look.  The views across the open fields of the valley with the misty mountains were wonderful in the early morning light.  We saw some deer and elk grazing in the fields, but didn’t stop to get a closer look.  Perhaps it’s the signs telling motorists to be courteous and not stop in the road and block traffic; while the traffic was moving slowly, at least it was moving, much better than on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

Cades Cove

After going about half way through the loop, we turned onto a short side road that led to the trailhead for Abrams Falls Trail.  There were only about three cars in the parking lot when we arrived, so we would not be expecting crowds on the hike to the falls (but maybe on the hike back).  From the trailhead, it’s a 2.5-mile moderately strenuous hike to the waterfall.  Immediately, the trail crosses Abrams Creek on a bridge and continues following the creek downstream to the falls.  We crossed three narrow footbridges before reaching the falls.  It’s only about 20 feet high, but very powerful for its size.  We first stopped at the far end of the pool and climbed out on some rocks to get some pictures from a distance.  Then we went closer to the falls and climbed out on the very wet and slippery rocks along the side of the waterfall to get some pictures right next to it.  An old log leaning against the side of the falls made for some interesting poses.  When we had taken enough pictures, we rested for a bit and had a snack, enjoying the solitude at the waterfall.  But soon, more people began showing up.  So we started making our way back to the cars, passing quite a few groups making their way down to the falls.  It was definitely a great idea to wake up so early and get to the waterfall first thing in the morning.  Back at the trailhead, the parking lot was now completely full.  What a difference a couple of hours makes. 

Abrams Falls

From here, we made the short drive to the Cades Cove Visitor Center.  This parking lot was also full, so we had to squeeze in along the side of the road.  We stopped at the gift shop and I bought Sandy a stuffed bear.  I had gotten her one last year on this trip, but she gave it to her cousin a few weeks later and now wanted another one.  She promised not to give this one away.  After shopping for a bit, we ate lunch outside and then did a quick walk around the area to check out some of the historic buildings.  I really liked the John Cable Grist Mill here that uses a water wheel to mill grain.  A series of wooden diversions directed water from the creeks to the wheel to provide enough power. 

John Cable Grist Mill

When we were done, we continued on the Cades Cove Loop Road to the end and parked at the Cades Cove Ranger Station for another hike.  Again, we were stuck behind a slow driver and at one point, got passed by a bicycle going uphill!  Finally, we finished up the loop and parked by the ranger station at the entrance to the Cades Cove Campground.  We planned to hike the Crooked Arm Ridge Trail, a 2.2-mile trail that supposedly leads up to nice views of Cades Cove.  We walked over to the beginning point of the loop road and the trailhead for Rich Mountain Loop Trail.  Almost immediately, we saw several wild turkeys run across the path.  After half a mile, we came to an intersection and turned right to get on the Crooked Arm Ridge Trail.  The trail was quite steep and seemed to go on for quite a ways.  After climbing quite a bit, the trail finally leveled off and followed a ridge line through a couple of saddles with only gradual slope, but it seemed that we had gone more than 2.2 miles.  But we had not come across any scenic overlooks or signage indicating that we were on a different trail.  At least we were high enough that we were starting to see some good color, though.

Indian Grave Gap Trail

We continued on until we had gone over 4 miles and still no great overlooks.  There were a couple of spots with decent views, but still a lot of trees and foliage obscuring the views.  And the views were to the north, towards Townsend, not towards Cades Cove.  After going more than four miles, we decided to turn back.  Along the hike back, we met two other groups who were looking for that overlook at 2.2 miles.  We warned them that it may not exist and the trail keeps going on and on, so they decided to head back with us.  When we got back to the start of the trail at Rich Mountain Loop Trail, we got off the trail and walked through an open field to see a couple of bucks grazing in the field.  Across the loop road, we could see horses running across the field.  It looked like they may have been the horses for riding or pulling carriages and they were being let loose at the end of the day to run free and graze. 

Cades Cove

When we got back to the ranger station, Justine and I spoke to park staff at the station and told them about our hike.  We were told that several people had gotten lost on the trail and clearly there needs to be better signage.  From my GPS, we had finished Crooked Arm Ridge Trail and gotten on Indian Grave Gap Trail, but there were no signs indicating so.  Hopefully, the park will put up some trail signs in the future.  With the hike being longer than planned, it was getting very late in the day, so we started heading back to our camp at Elkmont.  However, we did hit one more roadside waterfall on the way back – The Sinks.  It’s more of a big cascade than a waterfall per se, but definitely worth the stop.  The parking area is along Little River Road between TN-73 towards Townsend and Elkmont.  An overlook just past the parking lot provides views of the waterfall, but they are partially blocked by trees, so we climbed down below the overlook to get a better view.  It was almost sunset by this time, so we continued back to our camp, arriving just as it was getting dark.

The Sinks

Sunday morning, we woke up a bit later as it was starting to get light out, although still very cold.  We had a more leisurely morning, eating breakfast and breaking camp, and finally leaving at around 930.  We would be heading home, but not before getting in some good views of fall color.  For this, we would need to go higher in elevation.  Wanting to avoid traffic congestion in Gatlinburg, we took US-441 through the park and stopped at the trailhead for Chimney Tops, shortly before Newfound Gap.  Since it was already a little later in the morning, the parking lot was almost full.  Jim got the last open parking spot and we were able to pull in behind another car that was leaving.  We seemed to have been very lucky on this trip in getting the last available parking spots everywhere we went.  The hike up to the Chimney Tops is a strenuous two miles.  The trail initially crosses a bridge over West Prong Little Pigeon River and starts heading up.  There were a couple more bridges across Road Prong and many steps leading up alongside the creek.

Cascades on Road Prong

The rocky stream didn’t have any waterfalls on it, but the many cascades over the rocks were beautiful.  After 0.9 miles, the trail splits, with left being the Road Prong Trail and right continuing on Chimney Tops Trail.  From this point, it really gets steep for quite a ways and then finally levels off as it gets to the ridgeline.  Overall, the trail gains about 1400 feet over the course of two miles and so the cool weather made for good hiking under strenuous conditions.  The trail finally terminates at Chimney Tops, a steep rock outcrop with amazing views of the Smoky Mountains from nearly 5000 feet.  There were some interesting trees up here and we had to climb up and around the roots to get to the end, but there was much more climbing to reach the top.  Although quite a few people made the strenuous hike up, few continued on to the top of Chimney Tops.  This was more rock climbing than hiking and was a little scary but lots of fun.  I’m not particularly afraid of heights, but looking down the sheer drop-offs on either side was enough to give me a little bit of anxiety.  The rocks go almost straight up at about a 60° angle or more, but there are many ridges and bumps to provide hand and foot holds.  We slowly made the climb up to the top and sat on the edge enjoying the views.  From here, the fall colors on the surrounding mountains were fantastic.  Looking down at the lower elevations, the leaves were mostly green, but up here near 5000 feet, the colors were exploding in bursts of orange, yellow, red, and purple.   There were a couple of really interesting patches along the mountains of intense color running across a part of the mountain while all around it was mostly green.

View from Chimney Tops

We took some pictures up here and enjoyed the view, then started heading back down.  I would have expected going down the Chimney Tops would be worse than going up, but that wasn’t the case.  I found going down to actually be easier, using a combination of butt-sliding and stepping down between the ridges and grooves in the rock face.  For safety, I always made sure I had at least one foot and one hand on a sturdy hold before going down another “step”.  Once at the base, we started hiking back to the trailhead.  It was all downhill from here and we made it back to the parking lot quickly.  Back in the cars, we continued on US-441 past Newfound Gap and into North Carolina towards Cherokee.  At the high elevations near the center of the park, the colors were great.  Unfortunately, everyone was hungry so we didn’t stop and could only enjoy the views from the car.  To avoid the expected traffic congestion in Cherokee, we got on the Blue Ridge Parkway and got off at US-19 near Maggie Valley and made our way back towards I-40.  We stopped on the way home at Las Salsas, my favorite Mexican restaurant, for an early and very satisfying dinner and then finished the drive back to the Raleigh area.

View from Chimney Tops