A couple of weeks before our annual family trip, this year to Tennessee, my brother Cooper called me to find out how interested I was in spending some extensive amount of time in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I really hadn’t given much thought at that point to the fact that we were only going to be a few miles from the park entrance and that we would have more beautiful views to conquer than we could possibly count. Though I don’t do it frequently, I do love hiking and being outdoors, but I wasn’t at all prepared. My brother lives in central Oregon, surrounded by national forests and just hours drive from the Pacific Crest Trail. My sister Gracen is a jet-setter, ready for any and all adventures and though she doesn’t live in the mountains, certainly had a better idea of what we were in for than I did. To round it off, my husband is in the military and was definitely better equipped than myself. “You’ll need a rocket if you want to keep up,” my mom confirmed.
So with a week to go, and hoping to not make a fool of myself in front of my siblings and husband, I was on the hunt for some hiking boots. If I was going to try to keep up with the three of them, I was going to need something better than worn out tennis shoes. I settled on some Keens with minimal ankle support and with no time to break them in, crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.
As it turned out we only had two days of hiking time to fit in as many trails as possible. We started the first day by stopping at GSM Outfitters. In addition to purchasing a much needed Buff headband to keep my ears warm and a not-so-needed sticker for my Nalgene, we got some free advice on where to start our adventure.
We had a beautiful drive into the park (major points to my sister for doing all of the driving) and other than a hiking as fast as my legs would move, a very nice jaunt to a stellar set of waterfalls. We saw practically no one that day, a few fishermen in the creek, but absolutely no one else at the waterfalls. I’m not sure we would have found the place without such great directions because it was definitely off the beaten track.
We must have explored for at least a half hour as Cooper, who’s a fantastic landscape photographer, captured every moment, and my nature loving sister froze her toes off in the water and contributed to the cairn collection. I found a little cave that looked perfect for bear hibernation (I didn’t linger) and can confirm that my new hiking boots are indeed waterproof as well after several untimely slips.
So I’m 5’10” and I’ve got long legs. But I had to practically run to keep up with my brother and sister. At one point on the way back that evening my husband and I concluded that it was easier to run past them down the trail and then walk till they caught up and repeat until we got back to the car than it was to keep up. But after 8 miles in those Keens, I can tell you I’m a believer. Not a single blister! It took me a day or so to recover from that adventure but after a couple good nights rests a solid soak in the hot tub at the cabin, I was ready to do it all over again.
This time Cooper had decided we should hike up to a point called Charlie’s Bunion, assessable via a 4 mile chunk of the Appalachian Trail. As it turns out, the outcropping was named after someone (surprise, surprise) named Charlie, a friend of Horace Kephart who was instrumental in getting the government to recognize the area as a national park. He’d been completely unprepared for the hike up to the stunning view and, instead of appreciating it, spent the entire time complaining about how bad his feet hurt. I guess he needed some Keens.
The gorgeous view requires about 4 miles of hiking along part of the Appalachian Trail. It was so cool to get to see part of the trail and few through-hikers. The trail was well marked and moderately easy. At this point in the season the leaves were starting to change colors and the forest floor was awash with reds and yellows and browns and occasional openings in the trees hinted at what was to come. The final destination was as beautiful as we had heard. There were a ton of people when we arrived so we ate some snacks, climbed around a bit, took some pictures, and waited for it to clear off so the view could truly be appreciated in all its glory.
The finale of the day/week was the hike up to Clingman’s Dome. We wanted to make it in time to see the sunset so we beelined it back to the car and headed to see one of the weirdest structures I’d ever witnessed. Apparently the hike is only about 800 yards but I could have sworn it was 8 miles strait up. I haven’t been that exhausted in a long time and I remember thinking that I had to get to the top as quickly as possible because if I stopped, I wasn’t going to start again. Unfortunately the dome itself was closed for renovations but we found a good spot to hole up and watched the sky change colors over the valley. It was a beautiful end to a beautiful trip.