With the exception of last year because we went on a Caribbean cruise, we always find ourselves in a pretty dark place this time of year. This year hasn’t been much different in spite of the fact it has been a fairly warm winter. Warm or cold, the sun rarely pokes through the clouds over Ohio and there are only so many shows to binge on before the cabin fever is too much and we need to get out.
Sensing we were all approaching the tipping point of sanity, we planned a quick getaway down south. Sadly, not as far south as the Caribbean… We decided to head to the Smoky Mountains! We knew when we planned the trip the weather would be a gamble, but if nothing else we hoped the change in scenery would distract us enough and offer some moments to fill our outdoor needs.
We’ve visited this area several times before, but we almost always hang out on the south-west side of Gatlinburg, toward Cades Cove. For this trip we wanted to head more to the east and south east to explore the North Carolina side.
In spite of our ultimate goal, our anxious start to the day offered some time to kill so we decided to check out the Gatlinburg area that we normally bypassed. This is our first visit since the fires that rocked the area last fall.
It didn’t take long to be saddened by what we saw. In truth, we had buried our heads in the sand to the event a bit and hoped it was just overplayed by the media. Having now visited and seen it with my own eyes, I can assure you, if anything, the fires were underplayed.
Our path would take us out of Gatlinburg on Cherokee Orchard Road. Our plan was to make the connection to Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail but this leg was closed (presumably from damage that had not yet been repaired from the fires). So, we had to take the short loop just after the Ogle Place and go out the way we had entered.
I have no idea what was done to save the Ogle Place structures, but it was clear there were some massive and successful efforts. Evidences of significant burning were just feet from the buildings.
This area was hit hard by the fires. Many buildings were lost and the bottoms of nearly every tree are blackened from the nightmare just a few months ago.
This area is filled with amazing hiking trails and we took the opportunity to explore by foot a bit. It will be interesting to see how the forest recovers from the event, but for now the area needs to be visited with extreme caution.
For those (like us) who are willing to dredge on, there are still plenty of amazing views to be had. Just keep an eye out for dead overhead branches and be a little more aware of your footing.
Once we were back in the Jeep, we headed out of town along 321 before turning on to 32 for a short jaunt. Not long after 32 turned to gravel we decided to take the local Trail Hollow Rd to work our way east.
This road is definitely off the beaten path. While the largely brown and dormant trees offer a drab background, the resting summer foliage allowed us to see through the road side trees to some views that are likely missed in the warmer seasons.
Although we had covered a fair amount of ground, it was still pretty early and there were lots of animals out and about foraging for their breakfast. Some deer we came across couldn’t have cared less that we were there and barely moved off the road enough for us to pass.
Eventually we had to rejoin 32 (Mt. Sterling Rd.) to reach some high clearance forestry roads we were itching to explore just over the North Carolina border. The path to do so was one of the worst visibility intersections I have ever seen. Not much was visible beyond the sky and the grade was so steep the Jeep had to scratch a bit to find the needed traction to get off the gravel.
This intersection was also marked by some interesting brick and castle-like pillars. I’d like to get the history on them someday…
It wasn’t long at all before we were again off pavement and back on dirt. In some ways, I was a little disappointed in how well the forestry service had maintained their roads thus far.
Before we knew it, it was close to lunch time. So, we set our sights toward the top of Tower Trail where we would enjoy the views and feel sorry for the people we could see traveling on I-40 WAY below us.
To be completely honest, just about everything we had done thus far was doable in anything and 4-wheel-drive wasn’t needed, even the water crossings were minivan safe with well-maintained wood bridges.
The afternoon would offer some trails and roads more becoming of a Jeep as we moved deeper into the mountains. Soon water crossings (while still maintained) no longer would keep the tires dry and the term “high clearance” became warranted.
This wasn’t anything that Klondike couldn’t handle, but it might be the limits of some lower clearance AWD type SUVs.
Then, just when things started to get interesting, a reality check hit us that the day was starting to get a little long in the tooth and with the short winter days, it wouldn’t be long before darkness settled in. So, with this said we began to work our way back toward civilization.
Before we made it, we happened upon several elk enjoying the heat from the last few hours of sunlight the day would offer.
Our plan was to continue south-west where we would eventually intersect the Blue Ridge Parkway to hopefully catch the sunset from one of the many overlooks along the route.
Sadly, when we got to the parkway, it was closed in preparation for some snow in the forecast the following day. This forced us to not only take “normal” roads, but also set our path on the wrong side of the mountains where the sunset would be blocked. 🙁
The following morning we headed back home as I needed to be in Toledo by the end of the night for work the following day. Still unwilling to blast along the interstate we set the GPS to avoid highways. We are always amazed at the things we discover by making this simple change.
In this case, our new discovery was the Douglas Dam and Douglas Lake. I’m sure this isn’t news to any of the locals, but for us out-of-towners, places like this are often missed.
Shortly after this we became caught up in conversation and before we knew it were home once again. Hopefully you enjoyed reading about our little weekend getaway.
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