Cataloochee Valley: Great Smoky Mountains

Cataloochee Valley is one of those places I could picture myself sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of a log cabin.  It is part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is located in the north east corner of the park in North Carolina.  The area and valley is reminiscent of Cades Cove at the other end of the park with it’s many historic buildings and fantastic scenery.

It is however not as easy to access.  The closest town is Maggie Valley and it takes about an hour to get there.  It is not far distance wise but the majority of the road is very steep, winding and narrow.  There is about 5 miles of a one lane gravel winding road with steep drop offs and no guard rails.  This part of the drive is a little nerve racking and exhausting.

Because it is a challenge getting there the number of tourists is minimized.  It is well worth the trip just to see the Elk!!

Close Encounters of the Elk Kind

I just wanted to see the elk.

I discovered last year that Elk had been re-introduced into the Smokey Mountains in 2000. The small herd has grown to over 150. I’ve tried a few times to visit over the last year but, as Cataloochee Valley is out-of-the-way and hard to reach, I have not been able to make this happen. I was bound and determined to see the Elk on this trip to North Carolina.

We left our hotel in Maggie Valley early in the morning not being sure if the road was open into the valley due to recent snow. The cards were in our favor as we drove over the mountain on a winding, one lane gravel road with no guard rails and sheer drop offs and found the gates open. We drove slowly through the valley looking for the elk. At the southern end of the valley, we came across a herd of about 40 having breakfast and basking in the sun.

We had read the flyer on interacting with elk and the park service is pretty serious about protecting them. Basically, these are really big mammals that can be aggressive and to stay away from them. We parked the car along the road and I got out and walked about 30 feet from the car. It was 22 degrees, so Jennifer stayed in the car. I was about 300 yards from the herd and started taking a bunch of pictures.

Now the car is parallel to the road with woods and a stream on the other side of the car at my back. I finished taking about 15 pictures and turned around and froze. Standing in front of the car was a large female elk looking right at me. She was no more than 40 feet away. I noticed immediately that her piercing eyes were at a higher level than mine. As my new acquaintance and I stared each other down many things went through my brain:

  • I just had spinal cord surgery 2 months ago and CAN NOT run.
  • My cane is in the backseat of the car (weapon?)
  • Where in the hell did she come from?
  • How does something that big sneak up on you?
  • She is closer to the car than I am.
  • How did Jennifer not see this and warn me?
  • Is she in a good mood?
  • I could be on the evening news being interviewed in my hospital bed.
  • This could end up ugly……
My new friend
My new friend

The elk and I maintained eye contact. I yelled at Jennifer because she was oblivious to why my face looked so awkward. Jennifer finally saw our new friend and realized there was nothing she could do either.

Still maintaining eye contact I could sense it was going to be okay. Something about the elk’s demeanor and eyes indicated to me that she was probably just as curious as I was and she knew I posed no threat. I have no idea how long it was from when I first saw this beauty until she started to slowly walk towards the herd.

Up Close and Personal
Up Close and Personal

Her trek toward the herd brought her within 15 feet of me. I shook off my shock and was able to get off 3 shots of her as she walked by. The first click of the camera put her in a trot and she was soon with the rest of the herd.

As I think back, I am still stunned.  Having that short few moments of eye contact with this incredible animal will always be a surreal and incredible memory that I will not soon forget…..

I got to see the elk!

Cades Cove – GSMNP

December 1, 2013:  Cades Cove.

Cades Cove
Cades Cove

Absolutely my favorite place in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park and definitely on my top ten favorite places to visit.  I enjoy history, the mountains, waterfalls and wildlife.  Cades Cove, a once thriving mountain settlement, has it all.

The Cherokee Indians were here long before it was settled in the early 1800’s.  They forged many trails through the area and had a settlement at Cades Cove.

The first permanent settlers, John Oliver (1793–1863), a veteran of the War of 1812, and his wife Lucretia Frazier (1795–1888) arrived in 1818 from Carter County, Tennessee.  Between 1820 and 1850, the population of Cades Cove grew to 671 and 708 people in 1900.

Tennessee and North Carolina started buying property for the National Park in 1927 and gave it to the federal government.  Many people in the Cove resisted the government’s efforts to buy their land.  Some went to court for years but lost.  Many moved to eminent domain.  Some were allowed to stay on until their death for less money.  The last school in the cove closed in 1944 while the post office shut its doors in 1947.

Today Cades Cove is a wonderful experience.  There is a one way 11 mile paved road around the cove that covers all the sites.  Some of the homesteads are quite a hike from the loop road but were easy walks.

Deer are abundant in the cove.
Deer are abundant in the cove.

Deer are highly abundant in the cove and it really amazes me how the people stop as if they have never seen wildlife before, maybe they haven’t.  There are pullovers everywhere, but if there is a deer around, someone jams up the traffic on the one lane road.  We did not see any bears, but were there probably too early in the day.

If you had a choice between Gatlinburg and Cades Cove while visiting the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, choose Cades Cove.  The 25 mile drive from Gatlinburg is worth it by itself.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Main drag: Gatlinburg, Tennessee
Main drag: Gatlinburg, Tennessee

December 1, 2013:  Gatlinburg, Tennessee, well is Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  Every parent’s vacation nightmare.  The amount of money that could be dropped in this area on a vacation is unthinkable.  My problem is that I would rather take the kids through Cades Cove and not to Ripley’s Believe It or Not.  I’m sure though, they would rather see the world’s longest earthworm instead of some old log buildings and the off-chance of spotting a bear.

Fifteen years ago Gatlinburg was big and busy.  Our visit welcomed a larger, cleaner Gatlinburg, disturbingly but enjoyably quiet.  Being the weekend after Thanksgiving, the town and surroundings were peaceful and empty. This is something I would never believe I would say about this tourist’s paradise.  I have been here when you could not find a place to park and walking on the sidewalk was akin to being in a pinball machine.


Ripley’s has expanded, 5 Guys is there now.  And of course the numerous overpriced gift shops.  These gift shops do not have the quaint feel that is received from a little mom and pop place that you find in an obscure out-of-the-way destination.  There was a small arts and crafts show going on. And it was quiet.

I could not talk Jennifer into taking the Aerial Tramway up to Ober Gatlinburg, so we drove up.  I have never seen this ski area before.  Fortunately they had just opened 2 days earlier and was the earliest they had ever opened.  They had 14” of artificial snow.  There is a little mall inside and a skating rink.  They also have an Alpine Slide they use in the summer, a water slide and few smaller amusements.  Kind of disappointing for $5 we paid to park, but growing up skiing, it brought back some very old memories.

Definitely wanting to go back to the Smokies, but Gatlinburg is just not my thing.

Clingman’s Dome and Newfound Gap Road

Another view from the ramp at the observation tower.
Another view from the ramp at the observation tower.

December 1, 2013: Over the past 30 years I have been to the Smokey Mountains probably 7-8 times, in all seasons except winter or close to winter.  If you have never been, it is worth the drive, however going at peak times can make it miserable.  Being the Sunday after Thanksgiving, it was almost deserted.

We headed off early Sunday morning from Maggie Valley for the trek over the mountain from Cherokee, North Carolina, through Newfound Gap, to Gatlinburg, Tennessee.  It is probably one of the most memorable scenic drives I have ever been on.  It is a different experience each time and the experience changes depending on the direction you are driving.  There are numerous pull offs, waterfalls and tunnels.

Heading from Cherokee to Newfound Gap is a much more direct and straighter route than going down the backside in to Gatlinburg.  One of the drawbacks to this auto excursion is being the driver trying to take in all the views without driving off the side of the mountain.  Fortunately there are plenty of places to pull off the road.

The road from Newfound gap to Clingman's Dome
The road from Newfound gap to Clingman’s Dome

Just before Newfound Gap, there is a turn off for a 7 mile drive to Clingmans Dome.  We were luck as this was the last day of the season this road would be open.  This drive is along the mountain ridge parallel to the Appalachian Trail.  This is an incredible drive with awesome views.  There was snow and ice in many places, and most of the tree limbs were covered in ice.  We came across one rock face that was a solid sheet of ice, amazing!  The parking lot affords more spectacular views.  During a previous visit years ago, this parking lot was above the clouds towards North Carolina, but it was clear towards Tennessee.  Today it was clear for 360 degrees with clouds miles away that we were above.  Reaching the parking lot was easy, now the hike to the observation tower.

Start of the trail.
Start of the trail.

The hike up to the dome is a half mile, very steep walk and it seemed that it lasted forever.  It is nicely paved but you can certainly feel the reduced oxygen and the nicely spaced benches were very welcoming.  I used each and every bench and the views were absolutely unbelievable and indescribable.  The pictures do not do them justice.  The trail finally leveled off and turned right where we joined the Appalachian Trail for a few hundred yards.  There were a few spots that were completely covered in ice and required fancy footwork to cross.

Observation tower from the bottom of the ramp.
Observation tower from the bottom of the ramp.

The observation tower was finally in sight, a 54 foot high concrete tower built in the early 1960’s that has a curving ramp to the top.  At the top of the tower it was very windy and cold, but after the trek we were sweating so it was not too bad.  Being a clear day we had tremendous views.  I think of all the times I have been here, this was the only time I had a complete 360 degree view.

Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 6,643 feet.. It is the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. Only Mt. Mitchell (6,684 feet) and Mt. Craig (6,647 feet), both located in Mt. Mitchell State Park in western North Carolina, rise higher.

Apparently there have been several plane crashes into the mountain in this area.  In the early morning hours of June 12, 1946, a Boeing B-29 Superfortress crashed near the summit of Clingmans Dome, killing all twelve aboard.

The walk back to the parking lot was much easier however it worked the “brake” muscles, so I could be sore all over.  Walking back gave a different perspective on the scenery.  I remember turning the corner and seeing the parking lot way down there.  So that is what a half mile with a 300 foot descent looks like.

At the bottom, near the parking lot, is a gift shop and book store.  Inside was a fireplace and several park rangers serving hot cider and cookies.  Nice little cozy resting stop after the hike.

We left and made the 7 mile drive back to Newfound Gap and headed down the Mountain to Gatlinburg.  The drive down seems much steeper and definitely requires a slower speed due to more curves and some areas of snow.  This side has great views and a few tunnels.  The times I have seen bears in the past were along this stretch.

Three hours after we left our hotel we arrived in Gatlinburg.