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Wandering In The Smokies: Part 1

Kirk and I were headed East for a family wedding in Virgina and decided to plan in a trip to Great Smoky National Park while we were out there. Ford couldn’t take the time off from school now that he is a teenager so he couldn’t come but we figured now was the testing point for how travel would be with an infant, so Kirk and I packed up Walker and hit the road. The flight in was good till we hit the huge storm 2 weeks ago on the East Coast. Turbulence was pretty good the last 30 minutes as we approached Dulles which baby didn’t like but he dealt with it (by harfing up on me….yay). While it wasn’t cheap buying Walker a ticket, it was worth every dollar. He was safely secured in his car seat and didn’t have to sit on our laps for the long cross country flights. I cannot imagine how parents carry babies on their laps, it has to be miserable! After doing family stuff for a couple days we packed up our rented mini van (gasp….I never thought I’d be seen in one. They are Satan’s tool I swear. How can something so ugly/lame be SO comfy and well appointed? AHHHHHHH! Darn you Stow n’ Go© seating! The leg room and gas mileage was freaking unbelievable.)

With Kirk’s level of airline status (thank you business trips for that) we were able to check 2 items each for free, meaning I didn’t have to haul much with me on the planes. With baby in tow this made life a lot easier. We packed our day packs in boxes, with our trekking poles and even carried Walker’s Pack n’ Play© so he would have a safe bed at night. Our local UPS Store custom cut me a box to fit it, well worth the cost.

We drove down from Virginia and settled into Pigeon Forge, Tennessee with the warnings from my sometimes hiking partner Jeff in my mind “Stay away from Gatlinburg!”. I thought “how bad could it be?”. Oh yeah. Poking eyes. We kept reminding ourselves to not look while driving in from 40 through Sieverville and on. As we said to each other “we are here for the park”. And kept that as our focus. Because barf-o, that area is awful. Migraine inducing reader boards 24 hours a day and an entire industry built on putt putt golf, schlocky dinner reviews, t-shirt joints and pancake houses. Thankfully the Gatlinburg by-pass was such a nice drive. If only there was a by-pass around the rest of it. Hehheh! I’ll just say this…Ford being 13 would have been in tack-o-ville heaven. Any town that has at least 14 pancake joints is beyond comprehension to me. And that doesn’t even bring in places like the Dukes of Hazard Cooter’s museum. Yech. On the other hand the visitor center/rest stop on I-40 at the state boundary was one of the nicest ones I have stopped at. Tennessee, you did a good job on that!

We “base camped” at the newest place in Pigeon Forge, the Marriot SpringHill Suites, which opened this year. Yeah, OK, I admit no backpacking. I had no desire to take the baby out into the cold for extended periods….and truthfully I wanted to play Tourist this trip. I wanted to visit historic churches, graveyards and town sites along with hiking. We had a car made for touring so why not! The hotel was miles nicer than nearly anything else in the extended area and wasn’t on the main street. And it had a Starbucks in the parking lot. Perfect. It wasn’t the cheapest (but we got a great deal due to AAA rates and going during the week) but it had a passable continental breakfast and huge rooms. The wet bar sink and frig made life easy with Walker and having an in room iPod dock was a nice touch. The employees were very nice, something you often don’t get in tourist driven towns. We stayed for 5 days so we got a nice immersion into the park. It is nice to be able to spend most of a week or longer in a new park, which we have done with Yellowstone and Glacier in the past!

Our first day we took the main road (Highway 441) up into the park. We played Tourist and stopped at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, picked up maps and watched the movie in the theater (which was actually quite good!) It was very cold the first couple days, it had been snowing that morning. As we drove up to Newfound Gap the temperature kept dropping. It was maybe 36° when we ran out of the van and Kirk took this photo of us on the state line:

We jumped back in and drove towards Cherokee, where it got warmer as we dropped down in elevation. We stopped at the Mingus Mill and took the short trail to see it:

Walker loves being in his Bjorn packs. He didn’t a couple months ago, but once he could look out he was happy. We have two of them, the Original and the Active. The Active is a bit more complicated to put on but is better for longer hikes. I packed both of them to be safe and have choices. I rigged his lap blankets to wear over him for warmth and as well he wore heavy sleep n’ play outfits. We were wishing we had brought his bunting suit though those first couple days!

The mill was neat and there is an on-site interpreter who will explain its history and how it works.

We followed the creek’s diversion channel up to where it ended, the trail crosses and continues on and as with many trails in the park, connects to many other trails:

We spent a nice potion of the afternoon exploring that side of the park and just relaxing! On the way back up the highway we turned into Smokemont where there is the quiet Lufty Baptist Church:

Of all the churches we visited this was my favorite. It had a feeling none of the others showed. An area rich with history:

Following vague descriptions we crossed Bradley Fork on the old one lane highway bridge:

The old road bed wanders through the trees with the sound of the Oconaluftee River flowing by. It passes the Smokemont Loop Trail (the trail travels on the road for the last bit):

I wanted to see the Bradley Cemetery, which is not marked but is findable if one looks. Many of the graves are unmarked sadly and obviously have had a rough time over the years, with rocks marking the locations. The largest grave site is sadly a child and one of the few marked ones. It is a lonely place, the wind runs through. The view from the graveyard, looking into the mountain ridges is one to sit and think about, A beautiful and extremely sad place, it made me think of the small graveyards in the PNW of the pioneers, headstones hidden under brambles, history being forgotten.But also realizing how far back time goes here, with a number of settlers having been born in the 1700’s. Indeed it was well worth the walk to this tiny meadow.

On the way back I looked down and both Walker and I were covered in tiny cockle burrs. I shook them off and not long after I spied a vivid blue butterfly flying around us:

As we walked back to the car the sun was settling low, getting chillier by the minute. We drove back up to Newfound Gap where we met dropping temperatures and rain/snow just starting to fall. We drove back down and relaxed.