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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Moonshine: America’s first drug war


We romanticize it. We make shows like “Dukes of Hazard” and films and songs like “Thunder Road.” I’ve heard old timers telling campfire tales of their liquor running adventures. We also ridicule it. We show cartoon hicks running around with bottles that show off strings of xs that later generations associate more with porn.

Nowadays in places like Gatlinburg, “moonshine” just means “unaged wiskey for tourists.” They have tasting rooms for flavored ‘shines. I’m not complaining. It’s a distinctive experience and I hope it’s more than just a fad. It makes Gatlinburg different from every other Ripley’s developed collection of roadside attractions.

Old Smoky Moonshine
Still, if it’s from a legal tax paying business, that just makes it … whiskey. But nice marketing.

For more on this issue, you can read what some people in the industry have to say here.

Even in the 1950s, long after prohibition, rural sheriffs considered it a serious matter to enforce liquor taxes. And moonshiners hid in under cover of forest in the mountains.

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The ruins of what might have been a distilling operation in Prentice Cooper.

During my 2012 hikes that inspired my book “Wildly Strolling Along” I remember seeing what might have been distilling-related ruins in Prentice Cooper State Forest near Chattanooga, probably related to the black market liquor industry.

Later on in the trail’s Soddy section, a hiking companion described a rusty truck we passed as a “hoopee,” a moonshine running truck.

Hoopee
A possible hoopee or car used for running bootleg liquor.

The book includes a short sidebar on Moonshine, which actually was at the request of my grandmother.

But I’m no archaeologist. I can’t recognize an illicit whisky operation from any other truck stuck in the woods or collection of pipes and barrel ribs that could just be for water for all my suburban mind knows. And I certainly can’t sort everything out by when it was from.

Given, I even confused a coke oven for a mine entrance in the book, and that was involving the legal coal industry, I can’t think of how bad I’d bee at identifying illegal stuff.

Mariah Prescott a trail builder for the recently opened Richie Hollow Trail recently told The Chattanooga Times Free Press about her wish for signs to highlight some of Prentice Cooper State Forest’s moonshine ruins.

Is it at all worthwhile to remember mere profit-seeking criminals? Especially when there is still an unpopular war on drugs, just different drugs?

I think so. If we can get past marketing gimmicks, silly caricatures and the like and dive into actual history, we’ll have a fuller picture of the past, the present and the future. History isn’t just about battles. Sometimes it’s about booze.

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.