Thursday, April 29, 2010

Cades Cove, in the Smokies.

Wow, what a great day yesterday, our last in the Smokies. I went for a mountain bike ride up into the park, but hadn't even left the campground before the camera was out - the high hills were dusted with snow!

I stopped freqently, not because my legs and lungs are out of shape, no no! I stopped because the swollen river and warm sunshine provided such great scenery that I had to stop to admire it...

In the afternoon we packed a picnic dinner and drove through the park to Cades Cove, in the south-west end. This is a picturesque pastoral valley, where horses are still kept and some of the fields are still mowed. Many families had to leave here when the park was formed, which must have been difficult. Now, it is a popular desitnation within the park, with a big campground, and an 11 mile loop road which is open to bicycles. On Monday and Wednesday mornings, only bicycles are allowed! There is abundant wildlife, from turkeys and deer, to otter and black bear. Like anywhere in the park, dogs are only allowed on roads, so we found a dirt side road and had a nice walk:

Then we drove the loop road, stopping to admire the white-tailed deer escaping the heat under a shade tree:

AND, most awesome of all, we saw black bears! First, I caught a glimpse of one in a densely wooded area, but by the time I stopped and got Nancy in position, it had moved into cover. But then we drove on, and there was a mother and three little cubs in a grassy area away from the road. My 12X lens came in handy. You'll have to click on the photo to enlarge it, and in order to see anything other than black specs:

But the next bear was not so shy. It was foraging bearly (ha!) a hundred feet from the road, un-phased by the 50 or so people and their cars that stopped to gawk. It was amazing to be so close to a wild bear! It seemed so content and uninterested in us humans that everyone was at ease - perhaps too much so. No one tried to feed it, which is good, and only a few fools whistled to try to get it to lift its head up for a better photo. A Kodiak moment, perhaps!

Contented, we found a nice spot for our picnic, somewhere away from the bears so that our grilled hamburgers wouldn't cause a scene! That would have been embearassing! HA! Could have gotten grizzly! Ha HA! How unbearably punny! Ooh...

Our bear sightings weren't through - on the drive back out a mother and her yearling cub were ambling down a hiking trail right along the road, so we got another good look. The camera couldn't handle the low light, so these images will reside only in the bear recesses of our minds. On that note...

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Sunday we left the Asheville area and headed back into the national park, this time continuing over the other side of the pass and down into Tennessee. Gigantor pulled strongly, pulling the whale up the 3000 feet or so to Newfound Pass. In tow mode I thought that the engine would provide enough resistance to keep me off the brakes for the ride down, but this was not the case. About half way down I sensed that the trailer brakes weren't right, and pulled over. Sure enough, they were smoking and stunk of burning brake pads. We sat there for almost half and hour letting them cool before descending again. While we waited we took in the view:
The rest of the way down I forced the truck into a lower gear, which helped, and although I still had to use the brakes, they did not overheat again. One of the turns was a complete 360 degree loop!

Safely down the other side, we found our campground (Greenbrier) and picked a nice spot by ourselves.

This campground is an island, bordered by a branch of the Pigeon River on one side and diversion of the same on the other. I fly-fished and caught a nice rainbow trout. Didn't have the camera with me when I caught it, though.

We also walked the bizarro town of Gatlinburg, which is the wierdest town I've ever seen. It's like someone took an entire amusment park midway and made a town out of it. There's T-shirt shops, old-timey photo places, fudge and candy shops, arcades, freak-show exibits, mirror mazes, corn-dogs and funnel cakes, mini-golf, wedding chapels, even barkers luring you into their shops. Several restaurants and legitimate shops are stuck in there, but they seem strangely out of place. No coffee shops, drug stores, boutiques - normal Main Street staples. A carnival town in the Smokies.

On the other hand, the National Park borders the town, and a few minutes in you're back to wild nature. I drove Gigantor up into the mountains to go fishing, lurching over potholes and squeezing her through narrow bridges:

It rained hard while I was up there, and the rivers quickly rose several inches and became boiling torrents of whitewater, completely unfishable:

Taking cover under a bridge, its easy to see why this is known as the salamander capital of the world:

There's a rainforest feel about the place, moss covers rocks and trees, and everything is green. Its gorgeous, and we've enjoyed our walks and hikes here.

Saturday, April 24, 2010


Friday we drove back to the national park, this time to the northeast end, to Cataloochee Valley. We learned that the elk that were re-introduced to the park are often seen here in the early morning and at the end of the afternoon. We don't get up as early as elk do, so we opted for day's end, packed a picnic dinner, and headed out. Getting there is the adventurous part, as the road to get there leaves one valley floor, climbs up and over a ridgeline and back down into Cataloochee. At the point where it starts to get really steep it also turns to a 1.5 lane gravel track carved into the hillside.
They ain't kidding: All the turns were blind, and the surface was often washboard. There was no shoulder , no guardrail, and the drop to the next loop of road often hundreds of feet. Nancy was terrified. I put the truck in 4WD to keep the rear end from hopping around too much, and tried to keep it under 15mph.
Click to enlarge and look closely and you can see the roof of a house on the next loop of road down from here. I took video of this too, but the file is too large to upload. It was fun and exciting for me, and traumatic for Nancy. Anyway, we arrived safely on the valley floor, and were rewarded almost immediately by seeing several elk grazing by the road...

...and by the brook...

...which I fished in and, OMG, I caught a native brook trout!!! Can you believe how HUGE my hand is?

Then we parked in an elky looking place and had our picnic dinner:

Sure enough, a herd of 23 elk paraded out of the woods nearby and moseyed along in front of us as the late afternoon sun turned the valley to gold:

It was a great afternoon, very satisfying, and all that was left to do was drive the same unbelievable road back up and out of the valley, which I again enjoyed completely. Nancy pumped her imaginary brake 'till the floor was dented, hung onto the Oh Sh*t handles for dear life, left fingernail marks in the dashboard, and required an extra shot in her gin and tonic when we got back home to Mama Gertie's!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Yesterday we drove to the National Park, about 1.5 hours from here, which included a piece of the famous Blue Ridge Parkway. A great road with stunning overlooks on both sides, lots of places to pull over for a rest, a view, a picnic, or to let your engine or brakes cool off! The tunnels on the section that we drove are semi-cylindrical affairs, with clearances along the centerline of 18 or 19 feet, but at the road's edge, as little as 10'6"! We won't be bringing the Whale down this stretch of road, with its air vents up at 12'6"! We stopped at the visitor's center to pick up some advice and some maps, then continued on up the road to look for a place to have our lunch. I took many, many photos of spectacular vistas, rushing streams, and tumbling waterfalls. (So far this month, after culling, I've kept almost 300 pics, and a week more to go.) So, here is a sampling from another great day:

At lower elevations spring is well along, and the blooming dogwoods dot the landscape. The smoky haze that colors the more distant hills give the park its name:

We lunched at one of higher overlooks. Many of the trees have yet to leaf out at this elevation:

Newfound Gap is the hightest spot on the road, and very crowded with tourists. The Appalachian Trail crosses there as well, so many day and through-hikers were there. We spoke to a father and son, the latter just back from Iraq, and whose desert boots didn't fare so well on the AT. The blister on his heel was an inch across. They were awaiting a ride home. Also, there's Bike Rally this weekend in the town of Cherokee back down the mountain, so there were Harley's galore rumbling around up there. We headed back down to find a quieter place to get a hike in.

The Kephart Prong Trail did the trick, following a beautiful stream up the valley. We followed it for a while before turning back. No dogs allowed on most NPS trails, so we wanted to get back down to the visitors center to walk again on one on which they are allowed.

This bridge is just a log with a handrail:

At the visitor's center is a historical mountain farm, where we walked dogs and got this nice picture of a bluebird:

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Biltmore Estate

Wow, Biltmore House - its going to be as hard to do it justice in words as it is in pictures. Go see this if you're ever in south-west North Carolina. Biltmore is George Vanderbilt's country retreat. It sits on 8000 acres of park-like land with often stunning landscaping. The house is the largest private home in America, and has 250 rooms. Besides the mansion, there's the gardens, bass pond, a farm, a winery, an inn, several restaurants and shops. In addition to the organized tour, you can hike, bike, ride horses, fish, and picnic on the grounds. Its the type of place you could spend a week in all by itself. An afternoon wasn't enough. Reminded me a lot of Hampton Court Palace outside of London, except less rainy. We did the self guided tour of 55 of the rooms, and walked the gardens, first without, then with the dogs. It was amazing. Here's a few images from the day:

The driveway is over 3 miles long, lined with flowering trees and shrubs in a natural style. Then you see this:

When your house sits on 8000 acres, you don't see your neighbors. Just the Smokies:

The planned gardens were a dazzling display of tulips:

Pretty, eh?

The conservatory in enormous, and has several annexes catering to various plant climates, cool, hot, etc.

An azalea garden filled a small valley, criss-crossed with trails, dotted with dogwoods:

Shearing and lamb season:

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Mama Gertie's, Asheville & Chimney Rock

Well, here we are at Mama Gertie's Hideaway campground in Swannanoa, NC, just outside of Asheville, in the Appalachian Mountains.

Lots to show & tell, so its a long one today...We left gently rolling hills in Raleigh/Durham area, and gradually these hills gave way to low mountains, and Gigantor was required to dig a little deeper into that torque band to haul the Whale up and up, eventually cresting out at around 2500 feet. The campground is itself cut into a mountainside. Each site is on its own tier, and often then roofline of the lower rig is about even with the wheels with its neighbor. We are up at the top level, and the grade seems almost impossible, but sure enough, truck and trailer roared to the top. Now our picture window looks out over the campground and the valley. A tiered campground! Who'd a thought? Here you can see us in our parking spot, and see how the campground drops off to the right, and the valley wall rises to the left and behind:

Nearby Asheville has a lot to offer, and lots of good pamphlets to guide you there. The local mountain biking community is strong, so I was able to find an excellent network of trails and go for a good proper mountain bike ride. The trails I was on were not rocky, but lots of ups and downs, and the downs offered a multitude of berms from which to get knarly big hang time!

That was in the morning. In the afternoon we drove to Chimney Rock, about 45 minutes, half of which is on amazingly curvy roads winding first up the mountains to a pass, then back down into the far valley. During that stretch of road the steering wheel was rotated back and forth, passing through but never stopping at center. It reminded me of Maui's Road to Hana, except on a wicked slope. It was fun but intense. When we got to town, we had to drive a similar 3 mile long driveway to the base of Chimney Rock, then ascend 26 stories of wood and stone steps to get to the top. Here is Nancy during the climb up. You can see how steep the stairs are and how they are built along the exposed sheer cliffs:

Watcha you head:

I like to perch myself onto the most precarious outcroppings available:

Nancy at the top of Chimney Rock. It was a clear day, so all 80 miles (I think) to the horizon were visible:

I was very proud of Nancy for making not only this significant climb, her fear of heights notwithstanding, but also for continuing upward to climb an equally challenging distance to the highest overlook, Exclamation Point, which faces up the valley. We ascended more than 400 stairs.

Afterwards, the dogs, who'd been cooped up in the truck, needed a walk of their own, so we all did a short distance, and Toby and I continued on a trail to the base of a 400 foot waterfall:

Here is a view of Chimney Rock on the left (insert your own obscene reference here), Exclamation Point at the top, and a 400 foot waterfall on the right.

It was a great day, and my legs were tired from the ride and the hiking. There's so much more here. Today it rained so we wandered around downtown Asheville, with lots of neat shops and good restaurants. Finally, ethnic food! We had Thai for lunch. Tomorrow we're going to tour Vanderbilt's Biltmore estate and mansion.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Jordan Lake

Stopped for a couple of nights just outside of Raleigh/Durham at a state recreational area called Jordan Lake, with several enormous campgrounds that are wooded and largely lakeside - very nice. We selected a site which has the most space either side, and its worked out nicely (=quieter dogs).:

The lake is large enough for boating, waterskiing, etc, and is already warm enough to swim in, at least for children and northerners, or should I say Yankees:

Now that we're inland the bugs are more present, and I'll be damned if I'm going to put up with it any longer!

The smoke from the campfire kept them nicely at bay, so I could cook my dinner of barbequed country ribs without being dinner myself:

Today we drive to the Asheville area, and will spend some time there before heading into the Smoky Mountains.