Sunrise in the Smokies (Smoky Mountain National Park)

Yesterday, this is how my day started – overlooking the Oconaluftee Valley in the Great Smoky Mountains. I was joined by around twenty other like minded photographers – coffee in hand and battling for position on the overlook (there was plenty of room but everyone seemed to want the same spot…I wisely moved about twenty feet down – the view was about the same from what I could tell?). Some stayed huddled in their cars and just had the camera on remote trigger as it was chillier than many of us planned for (when I got out of my car the temperature gauge stated it was 33 degrees) and since I don’t have any of my cold weather gear with me I really wanted a pair of gloves!

The sunrise was a gorgeous site, the only thing lacking was some big puffy clouds in the sky to add some texture to the orange sky in the distance. Beggars can’t be choosers though and I’d rather have clear skies with some color than grey, dull skies any day. The weather looked ideal for the next few days as well and I was excited for to spend the rest of the trip hiking/photographing the quickly changing colors before heading back to Chicago on Tuesday. I had a few sunrise locations picked out – Cade’s Cove, Clingman’s Dome, Newfound Gap Overlook – as well as sunset spots. Throughout the day I’d hike and peek at the fall colors all around me before reaching some summits within the park. It was going to be great but then it happened….

Sunrise in the Smokies (Smoky Mountain National Park)

Sunrise in the Smokies (Smoky Mountain National Park)

If you just want to keep the romantic notion of Great Smoky Mountain National Park in your head that I had before coming here I warn you to not read on. However, if you are interested in reading my true thoughts than go ahead and continue but don’t forget I warned you 😉

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…

― John Muir

I don’t mean to sound like a whiny person but I’m sure it will come off like that. You see the thing is vacations are valuable – we are fortunate to have the opportunity to take them and when I feel like I’ve wasted a vacation it really upsets me. To me the above quote is what the mountains are supposed to be – an escape from the tediousness of my everyday life. The hustle and bustle of living in Chicago can melt away when my feet hit the trail and it is just me, my thoughts and the quiet peacefulness of nature all around me. I don’t think I’m ever happier than when (camera in hand) I’m hiking down a trail and stop and do not hear a single sound except for the wind through the trees, or the ruffling of leaves as a critter scurries off in the distance. I am tired, I am nerve-shaken and I am constantly plugged in. I cannot go ten minutes without checking my phone – I’m addicted. However, when I’m on the trail and I don’t get reception I don’t even think about it. The Internet ceases to exist and you know what (amazingly) college/pro football and baseball games get played and completed despite me knowing what is going on every second of it….Coming to Smoky Mountain National Park I was expecting solitude. What I received was anything but.

Yesterday (see above) my day started wonderfully – sure some clouds would have been nice – but whatever I was going back to pick up my wife and we were going to head out and hit the trails to do some hiking. We were hoping to summit on Mt. LeConte which is an 11-mile round-trip hike that involves some scrambling but nothing that two in-shape, relatively inexperienced city slickers like ourselves couldn’t handle. Before hitting the trail we had a nice, big breakfast of pancakes and Belgian waffles – delicious – and then started our trip into the Smoky Mountains with giant smiles on our faces…this my fellow wanderlust travelers is where the experience went horribly wrong. We entered the park around 11 AM – sure we were ‘late’ by hiking standards but we move pretty quick along the trail (and I’ve got plenty of headlamps) so getting 11 miles in by sunset at 7 PM wouldn’t be an issue. Of course that presumed we could reach the trailhead (8.7 miles from the entrance) in decent time – this is where the plan got foiled.

It took us two hours to drive those 8.7 miles. Yes, we were cruising along at a little over four miles an hour. Why? Because there is only one main road in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park and visitors do not know what the pull-offs are for so they stop their cars in the middle of the road, take their pictures (from their car window mind you) and carry-on. The next driver, wondering what they took a picture of, stops in nearly the same place takes a gander and either

1) shoots their own iPad picture
2) shoots their own iPhone photo
3) Has a conversation about what they are looking at

This goes on for hundreds of cars. Because the roads are so windy this goes on for miles and thus by the time we reached the trailhead our plan was skunked. Not to be deterred we kept on (traffic had lightened up by this point) and decided to take in some sights on the other side of the park because we figured it would be ‘less busy’ and it was for the most part. We hiked out to a waterfall, saw a couple of brown bears and despite the few dozen people we saw on the trail it was actually relaxing. I was re-assessing our plan for this morning and thought that if we just got up earlier and hit the trail first thing in the morning we’d be good. Then the drive home happened and well Great Smoky Mountain National Park is forever dead to me.

For those of you that have been to Great Smoky Mountain National Park I imagine you are familiar with the kitschy, tourist trap town of Gatlinburg. I read reviews on it and people generally had said avoid the downtown area and you’d be fine – sure a bit of traffic in-town but generally just do your best to not drive through it and you’ll be fine. However, therein lies the rub if you are staying in a cabin on the outskirts of Gatlinburg you have to drive through town to enter/exit the park. So…on the drive home from hiking we sat in traffic for another three hours trying to exit the park because the downtown area was so congested that few cars could actually pass through the traffic light that allowed cars to exit the park. It was on this drive back to our rented cabin that we decided our time in the Great Smoky Mountains was over. We got back to our cabin, cashed in some hotel points in Nashville and are making our way there today. We figure the cost of the cabin at this point is a sunk cost but there is no way we are dealing with this traffic again. I thought Los Angeles had the worst traffic I’ve ever seen – and it is bad – but I’ve never experienced anything like Gatlinburg, Tennessee. So if you are planning a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains I offer you the following advice – please do your sanity a favor and take it – RETHINK your plans IMMEDIATELY and go someplace else. There are so many other beautiful places in the world to experience.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the Navy Pier of the United States national park system – it has its moments (think fireworks in Chicago) but otherwise is nothing but a giant tourist trap. I wanted to love it – I really did but I couldn’t even make it through more than two days without quitting on it.

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