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The Long and Winding Road

August 17, 2012

I was pretty down by the time we checked into our hotel Wednesday night, but Thursday turned me right round baby right round like a record baby right round round round.

The entirety of today was spent in Great Smoky Mountains (GSM) National Park, supposedly the most visited National Park. Well, not quite the entire day: first we spent a very entertaining half-hour or so driving through the hillbilly tourist towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee. I have never seen more dinner theater options in one place, and every one of them was hillbilly themed: Dueling Lumberjacks, Hatfield & McCoy, Dolly Parton’s Dixie Wonderland, and on and on. The restaurants and shops were all hillbilly themed, too. I spent much of my childhood watching The Dukes of Hazzard, so this was by far my favorite:

Yes, that’s the original TV Cooter in the picture on the side of the building.

Once we were past all the fake (and real) hillbilly stuff and safely in the park, we stopped at the Sugarland Visitor Center to pick up maps. While we were there I mentioned my plan of attack for the day to a Park Ranger and asked him if it was realistic. He laughed and shook his head. Then he suggested a completely different plan, I suggested a few modifications, and we came to an agreement.

We headed west to Cades Cove, one of the park’s very few open areas, in hopes of seeing some elk or bears or at least some wild turkeys. Nothing. At one point we got stuck in a ton of traffic because there was a mama black bear and three cubs wandering around, but by the time we got up to it they were so far away that I barely made out the head of one of the cubs before they all disappeared into the tall grass. Big disappointment. After practically tripping over herds of buffalo, elk, deer, and prairie dogs everywhere we turned in Yellowstone last year, we expected to see lots of animals here, too. The best we did at Cades Cove was a cool butterfly.

We did, however, make a few stops before we got to Cades Cove to check out waterfalls. (We love waterfalls!) Most of the really impressive waterfalls at GSM require multi-mile hikes, which we weren’t going to do. But the elegant if not humongous Laurel Falls required a mere 1.3 mile hike, which we decided to take, not realizing that all 1.3 miles were uphill. At least there was a pretty good reward waiting for us at the top:

And there to entertain us on the long walk was this rather dire warning about the consequences of letting your kids run wild:

In other words, either watch your children or watch your children die! Enjoy the waterfall!

Anyway, once we were done with Cades Cove it was time to slay a dragon. Tail of the Dragon is a particularly windy section of U.S. Highway 129 on the Tennessee-North Carolina border and is widely considered one of the best drives in the world. This reputation is due to a mix of stunning mountain scenery and a completely ludicrous 318 curves packed into just 11 miles. Tail of the Dragon also happens to be on the outskirts of GSM, and thus has been in my plans for months. The only problem was how to get there. Looking at the park map, I noticed a one-way road that went southwest from Cades Cove and would dump us out directly onto Tail of the Dragon. The Park Ranger at that first visitor’s center recommended a different route, saying that the one-way road is very slow. I decided to take the one-way road anyway, which seemed like a great idea until we came upon a rather interesting sign that seemed to indicate that the Ranger had severely understated his case.

Undeterred (and yet terrified), we held our breath and drove in. The road was barely paved and gravelly with huge ruts here and there, constant turns, and streams occasionally flowing over the road. The road, which was barely wide enough for our car, was flanked closely on both sides by tall trees that blocked out all sunlight except for momentary gaps when the sun was able to suddenly sneak through and blind us. The strobe lighting had our pupils getting larger and smaller and larger and smaller so quickly that we may as well have been cartoon dogs staring at a gorgeous woman. There were also several parts when the trees on one side would disappear and we’d suddenly be on the edge of a cliff with absolutely no room for error. For eight miles, this lasted. I don’t know what the speed limit was but it doesn’t really matter because the preposterous conditions meant we couldn’t go faster than 10-15 mph for most of the way. Between the near-constant tight turns, the steep hills and drops, the ruts, and the loose gravel, I felt the tires slipping on several occasions and cursed our lack of four-wheel drive. And have I mentioned the fallen tree trunks and branches that occasionally stuck out into our path with no warning?

Needless to say, Parson Branch Road is FREAKIN’ AWESOME!

And when it was finally over, our reward was 11 miles of one of the windiest roads in the world. The turns were so constant that driving the Tail of the Dragon felt very much like a slalom, especially as we watched countless motorcycles actually slalom through it, leaning left and right and left and right. Except, of course, when the road turned almost completely around on itself, like it did at this curve:

I must say that after spending the past two weeks driving more than 3,000 miles for the purpose of getting to various places, and especially after spending all afternoon and evening Wednesday driving to go nowhere, it was especially fulfilling to be able to truly enjoy the act of driving.

We then circled back into the park and on to Clingman’s Dome, an observation deck on top of the tallest peak in the park, 6643 feet above sea level. We got there with about an hour of daylight left and enjoyed the extraordinary views. “It looks like the picture on the front of a water bottle,” Sam noted as we looked out onto the Smoky Mountains, and I had to agree.

I’d buy that water.

In addition to the long-distance views on the summit there was plenty of close-up eye candy as well:

As the sun set we headed southeast to exit the park on the North Carolina side. We’d had quite an adventure, but Sam was still a little upset that we hadn’t seen any wildlife besides the butterflies. And then, just before the park exit, there it was: a gang of elk enjoying a picnic dinner in the dusk.

It was a perfect end to what turned out to be a damn near perfect day.

Considering the ups and downs of the past couple of days, it seems like that drive through Tail of the Dragon is a microcosm of our entire trip: full of twists and turns and rather worrisome at times but ultimately exciting and fun and a great experience we won’t soon forget.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jeremy chwat permalink
    August 17, 2012 9:31 am

    Great line about the cartoon dogs! Sounds like an awesome day.

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