By Maggie -- Jun 23, 2014
We spent 3 glorious days in the Great Smoky Mountains. Thick forest and crystal clear lakes go on for miles and miles, and once you're in the mountains, they swallow you up. A few lessons were learned during this part of our trip, which I'll outline below.
Lesson #1: Call ahead for all weekend camping in the summertime. Getting to these mountains was a frustrating experience - we're used to cruising into a campground and getting a spot, because normally we arrive on a weekday. We [stupidly] failed to consider two tiny details about Cades Cove - 1. It's inside a National Park and 2. It was a Friday evening at 6pm. We drove for almost 20 miles up a winding road only to realize that the campsite was full and there was no chance of us getting a site. With no cell service and no back up option (our brains were mush after spending the day basking in the sun at Rock Island) we turned around and drove to a small $10 campground on the other side of the National Park. It wasn't our favorite, so we decided to move early the following day.
Lesson #2: Don't ask locals where to hike in the Great Smoky Mountains. Chances are, they don't hike much. Our one goal for the Smokies was to hike. Easy, right? The start of the Appalachian Trail (I spelled that correctly on the first try...woohoo!) was supposedly near our campsite so we drove in the direction we thought it was. We came to an area called Tail of the Dragon (aka Biker Heaven), known for being one of the best roads for motorcyclists in the states. We hadn't seen any signs for the trailhead we were looking for, so we asked the clerk at the small store, who told us to "Go up to the state line and you'll see a road". We went as directed and found that the trailhead had been re-routed ".5 miles south from here". We went .5 miles south and found an employee parking lot for Tail of the Dragon. ???!!!!??? A nice man told us to check out a different hike around the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, which was "just down the road a piece". That meant almost 30 miles of winding mountain roads. By now, it had been about 2 hours since we set out to find a trailhead. At this point I almost suggested we pull over and make our own damn trail, but Ryan was in a special mood and I think that would have made his head explode. We eventually made it to Joyce Kilmer and hiked practically in silence around the 3 mile loop and then got the hell out of there.
Lesson #3: If you have a license plate from anywhere other than Tennessee or North Carolina, but ESPECIALLY from California, people will either stare at you like you're an alien or want to start talking your ear off about that one time that they went out to Bakersfield to visit their cousins brother-in-law and drove out to Vegas and won $100 playing video poker. It never fails. We hear this the most: "Boy you sure did come a long way to get here! Out here from Cali-fornia!" Yes, yes we did come a long way... Thanks for pointing that out!
We spent most of our time at Santeetlah Lake, fishing right below our campsite, and cooking some pretty delicious meals. I caught three of the largest fish I've ever caught (that doesn't say much, but hey, I'm proud) and we cooked them whole over the fire with butter and "Slap yo Mama" Creole seasoning (which we picked up in Mississippi). The meat peeled right off of the scales and it was to die for. As the sun set over the lake all of the frustrations of the day seemed to just float away.