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This marks the 14th US National Park I’ve been to in the past two years.
I’ve been thinking of this trip ever since I fell in love with the national parks. I was so crazy about this that I booked lodging 6 months in advance with no plan of where to go and who to go with. Nevertheless, it has proven to be a great plan. On the other hand, I knew I was going to visit here no matter what.
To be honest, I didn’t have a lot of expectations regarding what kind of scenery and people I would encounter. All I knew was it is the most visited National Park in the US and it has the most beautiful fall foliage that close to NC where I live in.
Driving to the park
Of course it is a road trip. We started driving in the early morning on the first day of fall break. To my surprise, I solo drove the whole 6h with only one quick stop to get lunch. The view on the road was also amazing with fall foliage already appearing along the way. Especially when we passed through Asheville where I have been to a couple of times, the trees along the highway I-40 was stunning enough for me to keep saying Oh My Goodness.
When we started entering the park, going onto the winding mountain road, the entire mountain ridge was presented in front of us. Through multiple overlook, we got the chance to peek the greatness of the Great Smokies for the first time.
Chimney Tops Trail
Although rated as hard, it was a very manageable and rewarding hike. It started with normal elevation gains and then we entered the Chimney Tops section, which was closed due to a prior fire. However, since everyone was still hiking and jumping over the fences, we did exactly the same thing.
The final section was truly a chimney rock that scared me a bit when I looked up from the bottom. People who were going down seemed like they were going to slide off at any moment. However, I was determined to continue as it was what I came for. My inner voice told me this was exactly what I needed, reminding me of hiking up the waterfall in Rocky Mountains National Park and climbing up the cliff at Angels Landing. This was just another small challenge I was sure to fulfill.
All my tricks while climbing up involved never looking back. Always focusing on the current step brought me to the chimney top in no time. The view from the top was truly breathtaking, and I couldn’t help but sit quietly on a rock, appreciating the golden forests that surrounded us.
The descent was also easier than expected. I consistently used the rocks as a seat, sliding down them. It was rewarding to take in the surroundings while descending from the top.
And I forgot to mention that I didn’t sleep the entire night before, probably because I was too excited. However, after six hours of driving and then hiking, I almost fell asleep while eating the BBQ dinner.
Rafting and swimming
We set off early the next morning to catch our rafting trip an hour away. It was a bit disappointing for me as I was imagining a thrilling white water experience that would get me totally soaked. However, the water level was too low due to the dam control upstream. To make my trip worth it, I decided to jump into the water at the end of the rafting trip, just to get a taste of the water in the Great Smokies. This is also my way of getting closer to nature no matter where I go.
My friends told me they were asking the guide where I was, and our guide replied, “You have a crazy friend, he’s in the water”. Yes, I am that crazy guy. The fall water was not cold to me, lying on the water surface made me feel free and happy.
Cades Cove Scenic Loop
The is a scenic driving route which took us to a wide terrain that offers an amazing view of the mountain from far, along with some wild animals nearby.
It was really hard to capture the colorfulness, lights, and shades on the mountain with our camera. But what I witnessed there at that moment will always remain in my memory with awe.
5AM for sunrise
Nobody wanted to get up at 5 a.m. with me to see a possible clear sunrise, which I fully understood. However, for me, getting the most out of the park was all I wanted.
It was the first time I had driven for an hour at 5 a.m. by myself to see a sunrise. I truly missed this feeling; it was as if a part of me had been missing for a long time. Driving on the winding road, listening to my favorite songs, lost in the darkness, was the best feeling of freedom for me. It reminded me of the movie “Into the Wild.”
Unfortunately, the dark hiking trail I had planned to take was closed, so I chose the second-best place to see the sunrise at Newfound Gap, right on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. I saw stars, a bit of sunrise before the clouds blocked everything, and surprisingly, the first snow I experienced this fall, in the middle of October.
And it was truly a “Smoky” Mountain now.
Alum Cave Trail
This is a very popular trail that leads to a cave at the top of the mountain. Along the way, we experienced everything possible. From the stunning golden hues of fall foliage and colorful leaves scattered on the ground, to a small hailstorm midway, and real snow at the peak, everything was amazing.
The first time watching snow during the sunrise, and the first time seeing snow while hiking, were two achievements fulfilled in a single day.
A culture immersion
I didn’t realize we could reach a completely different part of the US with just a 5-hour drive. Or I should say, I didn’t realize the difference between a college campus and a normal US countryside. The tension really made me understand why minorities are minorities in the US and why politics are so polarized here. All the stores we visited in the Gatlinburg town near the park were full of political merchandise. Slogans regarding political agendas were everywhere. Even our guide during the rafting trip would bring up politics randomly in a sarcastic way. As a foreigner here, it’s interesting to see a different side of America. Along with the recent political situation, such as the House Speaker being ousted and the War in Gaza, it leaves a lot to ponder over why people think so differently. I would never understand until I experienced it myself.