I don’t have any photos of the most amazing part of the visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park — the synchronous fireflies. There are news stories about them, most commenting that it’s virtually impossible to photograph. So, I decided to enjoy the show and not spend time trying to take photos.
And, it was quite a show. The massive number of fireflies near the Elkmont Campground would have been impressive, even if that’s all there was to it. But, there’s the whole synchronous part. As it gets dark, the thousands of fireflies start flashing. When they really get going, they all stop — at the same time. No stragglers. Then, a few seconds later, they all start again, at the same time. After a few seconds, they all stop, again at the same time. They repeat the pattern over and over. All flashing like crazy. Then, at the same moment, they all stop flashing, only to start again — at the same moment — a few seconds later.
I had seen a CBS news story about these fireflies. Seemed kind of hard to believe. When I made my campground reservations the prior January, the dates for the fireflies show hadn’t been predicted. That wouldn’t happen until mid-April, with the big show some time between May and July. So, I picked a couple random dates in June, and made a reservation at Elkmont Campground. Months later, when the dates for the show were predicted, my two dates were within the dates. Kind of just dumb luck. My friend Janice decided she’d join me, at least for the days at Elkmont.
Besides the two dates at Elkmont, I had also reserved a couple days at the Cosby campground and the Cataloochee campground, both on the east side of the park. Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park, but from what I read, the eastern side of the park is far less busy than the west side. And, the guidebook mentioned a nice restaurant to stop at on the drive from Cosby to Cataloochee — Janice’s Diner. Well, Janice decided she’d need to check that out, which meant joining me at the Cosby and Cataloochee campgrounds, as well as Elkmont. Sounded like such a good idea, her sister-in-law Cindy decided to join us.
I got to the Cosby campground a day before Janice and Cindy arrived. Time to hike to Henwallow Falls, one of the most popular hikes in that area. No idea how it got that name.
It was a couple miles uphill to the spur trail to the falls, which was a fairly steep down hill. Worth the effort. The falls were beautiful, even though it was a fairly dry time in the Smoky Mountains.
The trail was, of course, in the mountains, but it didn’t offer any open vistas for a big view of the mountains. It was kind of like being in the mountains but not being able to see the mountains.
The next day, Janice, Cindy and I hiked to Sutton Ridge, with a nice view of the Smokies. While the Henwallow trail had lots of exposed tree roots and rocks, the Sutton Ridge trail was in great shape. So, a nice view and a good trail.
On the way back, we caught the nature trail, about a mile along a river. There were markers indicating something to look at, but since we started at the end of the trail, we didn’t have the guide pamphlet. Hence, we had no idea what we were seeing. But, the forest is so lush, particularly along the river, it was like walking in a rain forest. I had not expected that.
The next morning, on our way to Cataloochee, we stopped at Janice’s Diner in the little village of Cosby for breakfast. Great food at unbelievably low prices. No wonder it made the guidebook!
The drive to the Cataloochee campground included about 12 miles on a narrow, winding gravel road through the mountains. Great fun! And, some nice views along the way. Of course, I missed the pull-off for the best scenic view and we had to wait until the way out to make the stop. It was worth the wait.
Cataloochee campground is small, about 25 sites, all reservable. Makes sense. I wouldn’t want to make that drive unless I knew there would be a campsite available. Our campsite was along a stream, with trees spaced perfectly for hanging the hammock. Nice place to nap or read.
We did a nice hike along another river to the Woody Place, an 1800s era farm house. Nice, easy hike, with several of the one-log bridges. (There were several of this type of bridge on the Henwallow trail, including one with a railing broken off halfway across the bridge. Yikes! The railings are really helpful.)
One of the most popular activities in the Cataloochee valley is to watch the elk in the evening. We drove to the end of the road, into the valley, and saw several adult elk. The youngsters were pretty funny. Only their ears were visible above the tall grass. Then, one would stand up, walk a ways, and settle back into the grass. One by one, they stood and walked a bit. Our best estimate was about 15 elk in that area.
Both the Cosby and Cataloochee campground (and areas) were beautiful. And, quiet. The guidebook was right that the eastern part of the park was not super busy. If I had more than a handful of occasional readers, I don’t know that I’d mention either campground. While they both were certainly wonderful experiences, it wouldn’t be the same if they were crowded.
When we left Cataloochee, we headed to the south end of the park, taking a little drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway to get to Newfound Gap Road (Highway 441), the main road from north to south through the park. The little bit of the parkway we saw was gorgeous — making me want to go back and see the entire 465 miles of the parkway. (One end is at Great Smoky Mountain National Park and the other end is at Shenandoah National Park.)
Along the way, we stopped at Mingus Mill, a restored cornmeal and flour mill. Very interesting. Got some very good cornmeal there, although it wasn’t actually milled there. The mill doesn’t meet current food grade standards for corn meal.
Great Smoky is an interesting mix of beautiful mountain views and history. The mill was an example of the history part of the park. There are several homesteads, schools and churches from the 1800’s that have either been preserved or restored. It’s a glimpse at a different time in American life.
A bit further up Newfound Gap Road, we came to the turn off to Clingmans Dome, the highest spot in the park at about 6,600 feet. Even though it was drizzling, we had to go.
The trail from the small visitor center at Clingmans Dome is paved. It’s also very steep. But, it’s only about a half-mile each way. Despite the rain, there was a steady flow of people up and down the trail. On a sunny day, it probably is packed.
Along the way, the Appalachian Trail crosses the Clingmans Dome trail. Well, we had to hike the Appalachian Trail — about 20 feet on each side of the paved trail we were on. Enough to say we hiked it — and to take our photos at the Appalachian trail sign.
There is an observation tower at the top of the Clingmans Dome trail. Even though it was raining fairly hard by the time we got to the observation tower, we had to go.
The view from the observation tower would probably be spectacular. It’s well above the tree tops and facing toward the mountains. Well, we’re pretty sure there were mountains out there. We caught a brief glimpse of what seemed to be a mountain when there was a slight thinning of the clouds — for about 10 seconds. We were in the midst of a rain cloud. Great view of a cloud, up close. Not so much of a view of the mountains.
From there, it was off to Elkmont Campground and the fireflies.
We got there in plenty of time to set up camp and have dinner before walking to a spot where we could set up chairs and wait for the fireflies to appear. I had read that if it was raining, the fireflies would probably not be flashing. The Clingmans Dome experience had me a bit concerned. But, no rain, and a great firefly experience.
The following day, we did experience the crowds that seem to be a typical part of the Great Smoky Mountains experience. We decided to drive to Cades Cove, in the western part of the park, and do the 11 mile scenic drive. It was scenic. And there were some interesting historic buildings, including a farmhouse and another mill. But, for a good share of the scenic drive, we were in bumper-to-bumper traffic, traveling five miles an hour, when we were moving. Guess the stories about crowds at the park were true, although our experiences on the eastern side of the park certainly were quiet, uncrowded and very pleasant.
The firefly show the second night at Elkmont was as good as the first night. Being in the campground and just walking a bit to see the synchronous fireflies was fantastic. There is another option to see the fireflies. You can enter the lottery to get one of 200 parking permits at the visitor center, and then take the shuttle trolley (really a bus) to the campground area. Over the nine days the fireflies are putting on their show, a total of 1,800 parking permits are available. This year, about 29,000 people entered the lottery.
I clearly was lucky to make a campground reservation six-months in advance and just happen to hit the right time to see the synchronous fireflies — for two nights.