Clingmans Dome! This morning, we are off to Clingmans Dome for the third day in a row. This place is 90 minutes from our campsite! First attempt: 60 degrees and rainy; Second attempt: crazy traffic with cars parking nearly half mile from the parking lot. We are not to be denied today.
Our plan is to arrive at CD by 9am, so we can hike the half mile to the top and back, and be at the Visitor Center when they open at 10am.
Our first stop of the day is at the Artistic Bean, a small coffee shop in Townsend. It is honestly probably the only reason we were able to get all four of us in the car by 7:15. Their hours were listed as opening at 7:30, but when we arrived, the place was locked up tight and the sign said they didn’t open until 8. Not a promising start.
During our drive through the park this morning, a small bear walked across the road behind us but in front of the car behind us. We were so excited. Our first bear sighting on the trip. First thought: that bear is kind of scrawny.
The roads around the park are all two lanes, but in exceptional shape. And the roadsides are all well maintained and mowed. (Which make it easy to see the turkeys. We see a turkey daily.) This morning, we saw the mowing crews out, which helped explain how they keep the roads looking so nice.
We arrived at the Clingmans Dome parking lot at 8:45. That’s the good news. The not-so-good news was that it was 55 degrees and zero visibility. The allure of Clingmans Dome is that it is the highest point on the Appalachian Trail and the third highest point east of the Mississippi River. You can see for miles and miles from the top. On a clear day.
The hike from the parking lot to the observation deck is only a half mile, but quite steep. It took us about 20 minutes to make it to the top. We were not in a hurry!
We made it back down to our car and hung out until closer to time when the Visitor Center opened at 10. When we did walk up to the Visitor Center, we learned that their generator was out and we were not even sure they were going to open. We were the second family in line.
They did open the Visitor Center on time, but you only placed your order at the door. Nobody was allowed inside. That was a COVID-19 restriction, not a lack-of-a-generator restriction.
It was interesting watching the visitors hike to the observation deck. I counted 5 people that were wrapped in a blanket while walking the trail. It was also obvious to us why yesterday was so popular at Clingmans Dome. The skies were clear and the sun was shining. Of course it was busy. You could see for miles!
Now we headed back to Townsend, but managed to stop at a general store in Wears Valley that had a man named Tony making bear carvings next door. Stephanie has had her eye on a carved bear this trip and she bought one while I was inside the store!
When driving through Townsend, we stopped at the Artistic Bean coffee shop and they were finally open. We got fancy drinks and vibed in their seating area for a minute.
Desperate for shopping, we stopped at Jake’s On The River to shop for t-shirts. The guy who owned the place was a friendly guy who had all kinds of stories. He is a professional drummer, who has played with bands such as UB40; was married a long time until his wife unexpectedly passed away two years ago; and had planned to tour the country in his RV this year and visit every National Park. Then the pandemic hit. We left with our hands full of bags, so hopefully we are contributing to his future National Park tour.
Once back at the campsite, we put on our swimsuits, ate lunch, and made our way to River Rat, for tubing down the Little River. Floating in canoes down the Illinois River is popular in eastern Oklahoma, but here in Townsend, tubing the Little River is the thing to do. And according to our UB40 drummer, River Rat is the best in town.
River Rat had a pretty sweet setup. You paid for your float, grabbed a life vest and tube, and walked through a tunnel directly to the river launch.
Tubing was a *very* popular activity today, but we were outside and for the most part were very spread out. It felt like it was pretty safe.
The water was surprisingly pleasant. We expected it to be ice cold. The float took us about 2.5 hours and once we reached the end, we climbed into a shuttle bus that pulled a trailer full of tubes back to the start line.
Back to the campsite. Change of clothes. Grab some snacks. Hit the road. Our last stop for the day was a scenic drive through Cades Cove. This is a valley located within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that is known for its wildlife viewing. We arrived about 6:45. We stopped at the entrance to pick up a self-guided map for a $1, but they were all gone. Booo. We were forced to make up our own stories & history as we drove through.
The Cades Cove 11 mile scenic drive is via a one-lane, one-way road. Just a few minutes into the drive, we were at a complete stop. There were cars bumper-to-bumper as far as you could see (which was not terribly far because of the winding road).
Now is a good time to mention that not only is the Great Smoky Mountain National Park the country’s most visited National Park, it is also fee-free. Never once did we have to pay a dime to use the park the entire week we were there. And to think we were so excited to find out that our National Park Annual Pass did not expire until June 30! Never used it.
As we continued, we realized that the heavy traffic was generally because there was some wildlife to see so every car would slow down (or stop) to look. Between wildlife sightings, the traffic would move pretty good. We did see lots of wildlife during our two hours on the drive. Turkeys, at least a dozen deer, and two bears! What a day for bear sightings for us. The bears on this drive were two cubs, but they were difficult to catch more than a glimpse of because they were in some very tall grass. Visitors were pulled over to the side of the road, standing in the back of their trucks with binoculars to get a good look.
Cades Cove was a pretty tranquil place and I’m glad we made it a priority to visit it at the end of our last day at the Smokies. The best part is that Cades Cove is pretty close, comparatively, to Townsend. We stopped in town to fill up and get a bag of ice for the cooler. We first tried the combination Shell Station / IGA, but the store was closed. It was 9:15. We found a gas station and filled up, but the store itself was closed. A guy in the parking lot said there was one gas station in town open until 10 so we backtracked so we could get our ice. Townsend does not have any time for your after-dark tomfoolery.
Once back at the campsite, we lit the charcoal for dinner and started breaking down camp. Everything besides our tent was either completely broken down, or cleaned up for easy removal in the morning.
The campsite right next to us had a couple of small children. One of the kids was not having a good time and he was crying and carrying on. We could hear the other kid saying loudly, “Levi? Levi? Are you okay, Levi? Levi?” It was a very caring moment, and also very funny to us.
We finally sat down at the table to eat at 11:00. Thankful that we are a flexible, happy family!