Our goal was fall in the Smoky Mountains to see the beautiful color. We got there just about the time of the forecasted peak; but alas, Mother Nature did not cooperate this year. With a dry summer and early fall, then a cold windy front that came in, most of the color was on the ground or never quite blossomed. Not that it hindered the natural beauty of the area and some color peeked through. We still had a great three weeks living just outside the National Park and enjoying the crisper weather.

As we had discovered when we stayed in Asheville last spring, the area is full of waterfalls so we planned to visit a few. We first drove along the Historic Airport Road to arrive at the Roaring Fork Nature Trail, a one way auto loop through nature and some original homesteads.

The view up. This looks deceivingly flat.

Grotto Falls is great fun as you can walk behind the falls. It is likely to be very popular on a hot day. We were out on a chilly, wet day and there were lots of families and groups. While you can continue the hike up 3,400 more feet on a four-mile trail, we turned back.

After the trailhead, we got back in the jeep to continue on the loop that takes you through hemlock groves and past some of the original homesteads of early settlers. This is a very rocky area and those brave enough to live up here endured some travel. As the travel book said, you didn’t go far as a round trip of several miles could take all day.

Several families lived up here though including those whose houses have been preserved. One site was home to Ephraim and Minerva Bales and their nine children. This two room dog-trot cabin is well-preserved and the family farmed 30 of their 70 acres of rocks.

The view toward the “barn” which housed a small mule and cow.

Bales homestead main cabin and on the right, the view from the one window in the cabin.

A reminder of how the Roaring Fork river was used to grind corn

One of the most popular loops to drive and visit in the area is Cade’s Cove, which is about 11 miles long and can take you at least two hours to travel. While some of it allows for stops to see the area and possible wildlife, it is mostly due to the heavy congestion as this one area gets over two million visitors a year, most of which is during peak seasons. We drove out to it, but decided to do a different route nearby, the Tremont along the Middle Prong River. This area was highly recommended by Nye Simmons, a local photographer in his book, “The Greater Smokey Mountains Photographer’s Guide.”

The Smokeys are home to many waterfalls so I decided to investigate two of the more popular and had two very different experiences. The first is acutally just outside the national park on the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Mingo Falls is one of the tallest in the southern Appalachians and required a 300 step climb from the parking lot up stairs built into the hill to the falls.

The other required much more commitment. The hike to Hen Wallow Falls was interesting hike though as it included several creek crossings, some incredible rock formations, and scenic views. I also had a fun start as I met a couple from Minneapolis in the parking lot and we hiked part of the way together. They wanted to learn more as they dream of selling it all to live in a RV.

When they took a lunch break, I continued on to find the waterfall. After a couple hours, I was starting to despair at reaching it. Why is it that two miles up a mountain takes so much longer than anticipated?! It can’t be because I am out of shape! Must be all those rocks and roots that caused me to have to take small steps and be careful. Upon arriving, I rested a bit and enjoyed all the surrounding area, but have to say that I would call this one more of a water trickle than falls.

There is some nice shopping in the area, especially for handmade crafts. I also enjoyed two of the best Christmas stores that I have ever visited – Santa’s Claus-et in Gatlinburg and Christmas Place in Pigeon Forge.

Gatlinburg also has a five mile Arts and Crafts loop where you can find great handmade pottery, leather, soaps, and other arts from local craftspeople who are usually in the store making it. My favorite stops were Alewine Pottery where you can find a wide variety of pottery items and live demonstrations, Judy Jones pottery with some unique pieces and adorable puppy, Cliff Dwellers Gallery which included several artists, and Tim Weberding Woodworking with its amazing baskets.

At Fall Harvest , thousands of scarecrows were set up as they tried to set the Guinness World Record. Each light has a number, this is the turn up to the Roaring Fork loop.

We stayed just outside of Gatlinburg, but tried to stay out of it and Pigeon Forge. The two cities have every form of gimmick entertainment available which didn’t really appeal to us. While I was slightly interested in the Dollywood Christmas lights, the cost of entry and timing made it easy to miss. Both towns have one main road which stay very congested! I can’t imagine how it is in the summer during peak times as it could take twenty minutes on a weekday in late fall to drive the two miles. Luckily our campground had given us directions to come from the other side and avoid Gatlinburg as I don’t think driving a RV through there would be entertaining at all!

View of downtown Gatlinburg from Space Needle

All to say, unless you have children to entertain, you can avoid Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. However, the Smoky Mountain National Park is certainly worth a visit. These beautiful mountains, waterfalls and rivers, wildlife sightings, and gorgeous scenery will entertain you enough. This National Park is free with no set entrances so stop by a visitor’s center. They were very helpful and had great information on the area. Besides, you will want a souvenir and this way you can support their work. The rangers of the Smokies certainly work hard!

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