I’ve been inspired by photos and stories of Smokey Mountain National Park, Blue Ridge Mountains, Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail for many years. This past fall I finally made my first trip to the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. 26 hrs in the car, 2 days on the AT, 1 night on the Blue Ridge Parkway; A typical long weekend-warrior travel itinerary I suppose. I hope you enjoy the video I threw together. The following is my retelling of our experience. Nothing extraordinary happened, besides the experiences themselves, but I hope this gives some context to the video. If you are interested in traveling to this area I hope this inspires you at least a bit, and if you have any questions or comments, let me know down below!
My partner Jenn and I packed the car for a 4 day weekend and hit the road hard. Driving in from Iowa was a long haul, but it was worth it. Neither of us had ever visited this mid-southeast region of the U.S., so it was an experience both culturally and ecologically. We arrived in Gatlinburg after 13 hours of driving and a quick morning nap. From there it’s a short drive into Smokey Mountain National Park, but the traffic becomes hectic on the one lane winding road leading into the park, especially on these late Fall weekends. We reserved a spot at the Silers Bald shelter for that night from the Backcountry Office. Unfortunately the only road up to Clingmans Dome was closed due to ice, so we had to wait for it to melt off before we could hit the trail. We burned a few hours back in Gatlinburg until late afternoon when the Ranger had advised we check back. Everything had cleared up when we returned to the station, so we continued on up the long, beautiful and completely traffic-jammed road to Clingmans Dome.
The foliage was in its prime, boasting all the beauty you can imagine in late Fall colors. As we climbed higher into the mountains the climate seemed to shift and suddenly we were entering an early winter season. Snow was blowing over the ridges and off heavy-laden boughs. We parked at the top where the visitors van walk to the viewing center and exited the car. Suddenly we realized how frigid it was. We had severely underestimated how cold it was going to be at this altitude. The wind was whipping through our clothing as we threw on every layer we had. Jenn found some lightweight gloves in the car and we had plenty of upper insulation covered in rain jackets to break the wind, but we could have been better prepared.
We were freezing, but we knew we had limited time to make it to our shelter before we lost light so we scrambled to get everything ready to go. It was very late in the afternoon when we finally stepped foot onto the Appalachian trail. We headed west from Clingmans Dome, the highest point of the AT. As I looked ahead at the trail winding into the forest, a strange rush of emotions welled up as I began to live out a lifelong dream. We were hiking on the AT!
Luckily once we hit the trail hard we warmed up immediately. Not only were we starting to burn calories, but we were also sheltered by the dense forest around us, unlike the barren parking lot where we began. After making some quick adjustments and stripping off layers we began a good pace towards the Silers Bald shelter. We were enjoying the scenery, but we knew we had to hurry in order to make camp before nightfall. Every stop for photos meant another minute of walking the trail in the dark, but it was impossible to fight the temptation of trying to capture the endless rolling mountains. On the bright side, we were mainly traveling downhill and the weather was improving drastically. In an hour or two the snow was non-existent, only dry fallen leaves and a fittingly Fall landscape. We powered onwards into the evening. Around dusk we passed the Double Spring Gap shelter and considered stopping there instead of going on, but an older gentleman setting up his cookstove inside told us it was scheduled to be packed full that night.
We carried on, our legs beginning to get tired and the sunlight nearly gone. We reached our shelter at Siler Bald within 5 minutes of pure darkness. We couldn’t have timed it better. Well, I guess we probably could have! We shared the giant, stone, three-sided shelter with 2 friendly Sikhs that night. They were seasoned backpackers with all sorts of homemade DIY gear, and had a nice fire going when we arrived. We all chatted and held a warm conversation while we ate and compared our dinners. Shortly after dinner we strung up our food, set up our beds on the wooden platform and crashed hard. It was absolutely freezing so we were forced to wear full clothing in our Kelty Cosmic 20 deg down bags. Jenn and I both have super warm inflatable 4 season pads from Hyalite Equipment, but it was still difficult to sustain a good sleep. The wind howled through the forest so loud that the leaves sounded like rain in a thunderstorm and the obnoxious snoring from the two guys below in their bivy sacks didn’t help either.
Morning came and we headed out, mildly sleep deprived. We took our time going back, in no hurry to finish the 5+ miles of hilly terrain. We stopped to eat lunch, take photos in the glorious warm sunlight and chat with passerby’s. I felt a sense of accomplishment when we emerged from the trail. The tourist-filled paved path leading towards the spiraling concrete felt fake and wrong in middle of all the surrounding natural beauty. The view from up top sure is nice though! After a few photos we packed up our gear in the car and headed off. It was early afternoon on Sunday and our goal was to drive the Blue Ridge Parkway to a national forest or somewhere we could just pitch a tent. As it turns out, it is rather difficult to judge how far or fast you can travel on the parkway. Between tight, twisting turns, slow traffic and irresistible breathtaking vistas, minutes turned to hours and we were nowhere near our intended destination. To top it off, we were running low on gas and civilization is rather sparse in the area, to put it mildly. Even if we did find an exit off this roller coaster of beauty, a gas station could be up to an hour drive away from the parkway. We didn’t want to get that far off course late in the day, especially when we were enjoying the drive so much, so we decided to just stay put and enjoy it for the night. In the morning we could get off the parkway to find gas and head home. Jenn and I stopped at gorgeous pull-off for dinner. We rolled out a blanket, set up the camera and had a picnic while we watched the sun go down.
As darkness enveloped the winding road and steep mountainsides, we drove a little ways up the parkway and found a semi-secluded scenic pull-off. We parked for the night, pulled down the back seats and set up camp in the car. It felt like cheating, but the temperatures from the previous night were most likely harmless compared to what this night held in store. Our position on the parkway was rather high along the mountain range, with a giant sweeping valley down below us. As the night fell around us, a roaring wind picked up. The barren mountainscape gave little resistance to the impressive power of the forceful gale around us. The gusts began buffeting the car so hard that it became difficult to sleep. After a tense 10-15 minutes, I got up and positioned the car head on into the direction of the wind. If that didn’t help any, I considered driving along the parkway to somewhere safer. Luckily it helped, and we were able to sleep comfortably til morning. Now truthfully, I thought we may have been “camping” illegally, and I was worried that we might get ticketed for parking overnight in the pull-over or something.
When we woke up I was surprised to see a small truck and camper parked 100 meters from us, tucked behind a large berm, safe from the dangerous wind. We pulled unto join the camper couple on the hillside to capture the fiery sunrise. I mentioned my surprise and they ensured us that parking overnight is indeed legal, but fairly uncommon. They swore that it’s the best way to see a Smoky Mountains sunset and sunrise, and I won’t argue with them there. We drove off to find a gas station, filled up our tank and headed towards home. The mountains of North Carolina are simply stunning, and entirely unforgettable. If I were to visit again I would be sure to spend more time on the parkway, where one can truly appreciate the grand scale of the Appalachians. Until next time, these are the memories I will reminisce on!