Great Smoky Mountains: Laurel Falls Trail


I used to know a girlfriend who would panic at the possibility of crossing streams, or climbing over rocks in a way that might lead to broken bones.

She’s not the Yvonne Rogers I took with me to Laurel Falls last March.

We were sitting down below the part of the falls most people see, a bit off the main trail, but still with all the crowds above us.

Yvonne climbed over a rock, held on to a falling tree and grabbed a bottle that had fallen, held in an eddy.

“I didn’t really like being there all that much,” Yvonne tells me now. She still says she doesn’t like being in danger. But that bottle bothered her.

“Here, catch!” she shouted.

And then it tumbled down further. But, thankfully, it landed somewhere more convenient. She climbed down and grabbed it, later shoving it in my backpack.

Laurel Falls in the Great Smoky Mountains, one of many with that name in Tennessee, comes crashing down before a bridge crosses, then it crashes down further.

The path to it is paved, passing mountain views and lichen decorated-rock formations. Orange beetles gathered on them.
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The falls is, for Tennessee, very crowded. The crowds are often people of many different ages, races and even languages and to me anyway, part of the place’s charm.

Still, seekers of solitude should keep walking. At least last March, once Yvonne and I passed the falls and climbed up on the dirt trail beyond it, we were alone.
The trail continues into old growth forest full of tall wide trees untouched by any recent ax.

Also near the falls, look out for salamanders. We saw one, briefly. It was brownish and probably a dusky, meaning as stated in my book, I should probably give up on finding the precise species.

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Great Smoky Mountains: Cucumber Gap Loop.


A Smokies gallery of icicles
A smokies gallery of icicles.

As winter continues, I look back at the many-icicle strewn hikes I’ve taken through evergreen rhododendrons in the Great Smoky Mountains. Icicles are a glorious part of winter in the Smokies. Ice is rare here in Tennessee, but that makes its formations, in places where water drips over rocks, more special.

Smokies Iciciles
Icicles form on water dripping over rocks.

Here is my story on Cucumber Gap Loop in the Elkmont Area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, nearly three years ago, in 2017. As usual, the News Sentinel can only scratch the surface of the pictures I took for the story. Here are some more views of the area.

First, we started out in Elkmont, which was at the time full of old abandoned vacation homes, no longer open, but one of the places where people first contemplated the park that would surround them.  I have not returned since 2017 and don’t know how many are still standing, but here they are, abandoned. It’s not the most popular set of cabins for photos, but indeed an out of towner “discovering” the town made headlines at Huffington Post to which a Knoxville TV station responded “We didn’t know it was missing.” To be fair, the word “discover” has multiple meanings. I continue to discover new things here in Tennessee and the Smokies.

img_8985 elkmont cabin

Beyond Elkmont is the natural charm of the Cucumber Gap Loop, with small, but beautiful waterfalls and the “sights and sound” of streams. Be warned you’ll have to cross one of them, but if you’re careful, even in the winter, everything should be all right. Overall, it was a quiet place to spend a winter day in the Smokies. Here’s a slideshow of some highlights, but you should go out and enjoy the route for yourself.

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Fall color on Cateract Falls Trail, Great Smokey Mountains


Upward view on Cateract Falls Trail

People get so focused on straight in front of them or below to avoid tripping on roots that they often forget to look up, especially if it’s not at a mountain.

This weekend is a crowded time at the park. But I encourage you to get out and enjoy the colors and if you enjoy them, the crowds. I again did not have time for a long walk, but rather revisited a short one.

Cateract Falls
Cateract Falls

Cateract Falls edited

As I have written before, the Cateract Falls Trail is an easy, flat hike close to the Sugarland Visitors Center.

 

Autumn in the Smokies


Fall colors on Alum Cave Trail
Fall colors on Alum Cave Trail.

My last trip to the Great Smoky Mountains was with a friend who rarely got to see the mountains or even clean wild streams. To her everything was like being on the moon would be for me: new but wondrous.

I have seen plenty of mountain streams before. But there was one thing that made this trip special: the beginning of autumn or fall as we in the U.S.A. call it. The leaves had just begun to change at a certain elevation, like here on the Alum Cave Trail, not far from parking. We hadn’t intended to get off here and wouldn’t have except for the restrooms nearby. Our goal was Newfound Gap and Clingman’s Dome. But this mountain stream beneath changing leaves was a highlight for her and for me. Enjoy it for yourself.

Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains


Ah, Clingman’s Dome, highest point in Tennessee! Climb the tower’s spiraling path above the spruce trees, up to the deck where you can see an amazing view of …

Foggy view from Clingman's dome
… nothing.
Clingman's Dome in the fog
This picture was in color. I swear.

But then, just as we were about to leave a wind whooshed away those clouds giving us this:

 

Sunset at Clingman's Dome, Great Smokey Mountains
This speaks for itself.

 

Clingman’s Dome is a rather odd place. It’s at the crossroads of the Appalachian Trail and a rather uphill but paved path leading up from an overcrowded parking lot. A spiraling path leads to the top of a viewing tower.

Indeed between its benches, its gift shop with cute stuffed foxes, bears and forest critters, and its interpretive signs it’s hard to think of a place less like the wild, narrow and uninterpreted AT.

The signs are unique in that they are bilingual, in English and Cherokee, using the syllable alphabet Sequoyah developed. As they explain the Cherokee found the spot to be a sacred place. Indeed the spot emphasizes the multiple traditions: scientific, Biblical and Cherokee describing the formation of the mountains.

The Cherokee tradition, as I explain in my book Wildly Strolling Along is as follows: a giant vulture shaped the land into mountains and valleys by accident through the force of his wings, feeling very sorry afterward. There’s a certain beauty to that — unintelligent design.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies


Yvonne Jellyfish
Yvonne admires a jellyfish at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.

Landlocked folks love ocean stuff. People want something exotic, themed to something that isn’t nearby. It’s with all this in mind, I assume, that Ripley’s decided to make Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies.

It’s smaller than its nearby competitor the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga with far fewer fish and other creatures of the deep. I visited Tennessee Aquarium last year and will give a review here at some point.

In any case, Ripley’s has got some advantages that make it more geared toward children. With a playground in the center, two chances to touch sea creatures, a crawl-through tunnel that lets children be surrounded by penguins and various interactive exhibits, it makes for a very kid-friendly place. Also the smaller size makes it a great place to cool off in the air conditioning after a hot hike — which is what we did after climbing House Mountain -rather than spend all day.

Lionfish
A lionfish.

While the place doesn’t seem to trust the animals to carry the attraction, it does have some good ones. With giant crabs, graceful sharks, speedy rays, cute penguins, piranhas, mudskippers, jellyfish, eels, clownfish (kids know them as Nemo), blue tangs (kids know them as Dori) and lionfish among others, the place is full of some impressive creatures. The focus is on fun, but there’s nothing wrong with having some fun.

Nautilus
Nautilus.

Adults can visit too, although it is a bit pricey. But I can say Yvonne and I certainly had a good time.

Iguana
A sleepy iguana at Ripley’s Aquarium.

I visited Sat. June 7, with Yvonne, fairly late at night (from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. when the crowds had thinned out, letting us crawl through the children’s penguin tunnel to view the penguins. Don’t judge us.

The best part, as far as I’m concerned, is the shark lagoon tunnel, allowing you to see sharks swim above you as you move through a tunnel, along with a sawfish who likes to rest on the tunnel’s top. It’s best to visit this part when crowds have thinned because you can walk on the carpet rather than being stuck on the conveyor belt. The moving sidewalk has the advantage of speeding up some people while slowing down others.

The use of Pacobell’s cannon as background music there made Yvonne joke it sounded like the sharks were about to get diplomas. But the piece does its job in making people see the sharks as something other than scary.

Yvonne’s favorite part was getting a chance to touch moon jellies, a species with so little venom they’re harmless to touch (as a side note, that link’s to another aquarium, but I like to mix things up in terms of sources when it comes to learning about animals). The aquarium also lets visitors touch horseshoe crabs.

Horseshoe crabs
Visitors can touch these horseshoe crabs.

The weakest parts of the aquarium are in the special exhibits sections. The shipwrecks exhibit would be OK interactive fun due to its interactive archaeological activities and educational touch screens, but there’s something just annoying about hearing a repeated snippet of “The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald” by Gordon Lightfoot over and over again. For some reason it’s not even the full song. It’s not a bad song, in fact it’s a good one, but for Yvonne especially, it just gets to be too much.

Since I don’t know how else to end this, here’s that song in its full version and only playing once.