Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Smoky Mountains to close 2009

After burning an unspeakable hole in our pockets all year through various unjustifiable indulgences, travel and others, Arun and I were victim to a rather unfamiliar bout of financial prudence as we neared the end of 2009. Let's just call it our last ditch attempt to earn some Karma points with the money Gods. I don't have to tell you about the astronomical cost of flying during Christmas. Add to that the tiny detail that we didn't decide where we were going until a week before our trip. But we are not ones to pass up on a vacation! Naturally we picked a quick 10 hour drive to the Smoky Mountains, despite numerous warnings and scares about the terrible cold weather from well meaning friends. To add to the fun, we roped in Swetha, an unsuspecting, cold weather-averse friend of mine from high school who I've not met in 10 years.

Come Christmas eve, we printed up a few trail maps, donned our hiking shoes, gassed up Arun's car and set off to Tennessee. We sped down the freeways for 10 straight hours, heeding nothing but hunger and the urge to pee. Swetha and I productively used the time to catch up on old friends and swapped important life stories. I suspect I heard Arun snore a couple of times even when he was at the wheel. Yappity Yappity girls!

Cut to Pigeon Forge, a town at the foothills of the Smokies. We were instantly surrounded by festive green and red lights. The roads were lined with blue lights made to look like falling snowflakes. Sale banners and dinner specials and party announcements hung from every lamp post and building front. Christmas it was indeed! But of course, the lights were all that were on. Pretty much everything was closed and we had to eat breakfast food at iHOP for dinner. So what's new, eh?

An indoor amusement park standing on its head we found in Pigeon Forge, TN

The next morning we drove to a place called Cades Cove at the West end of the Smokies to hike the Abrams Falls Trail. The temperature was a balmy 45 deg F and the sun was out too. It was an easy 2.5 miles each way with the trail constantly going up and down with no steep climbs. We reached the falls in an hour and were surprised to find we had it all to ourselves. So we used a rock as a makeshift picnic table and ate sandwiches and candy bars. Arun jumped around from rock to rock taking pictures. But even his wizardry with the camera could not make Abrams Falls look any more interesting than the muddy cascade it was.

Swetha, Kavitha and Arun at the Abrams Falls trail head

Abrams Falls

On our way back we met hordes of hikers on their way to the falls. Boy! Were we glad to escape all those kids. Pepped up by our snack, we did the hike back in 40 minutes. We even caught some deer and turkey along the road in Cades Cove.

An hour and a half later we got into Gatlinburg, another Tennessee town bordering the Smokies. By then the world had woken up and descended upon the streets with a vengeance. It was like a carnival, people walking around with food and soda in their hands, music playing from every store and dazzling signs inviting us to partake in the festivities.

Swetha and Kavitha at Gatlinburg,TN

We dumped the car and walked on the packed streets to find a quaint old fashioned restaurant, replete with stone walls and fire places. After lunch we inched our way out of Gatlinburg and drove up the mountains hoping that the road to Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the Smokies will be open. It was snowed down and closed. So much for our optimism. Instead we discovered Newfound Gap, which offered brilliant views and resolved to come back for sunrise the next morning. We did. And here are some of the pictures. All the shivering and looking like shriveled up Turkeys at 5000 ft paid off I guess.

Waiting for sunrise

First rays of the day, we were actually standing above the cloud cover

We thawed with an indulgent breakfast and coffee at Gatlinburg before we drove to the trail head to hike the Rainbow Falls Trail. We'd read that this hike was more challenging with a 2.8 mile steep uphill climb of 1500 feet to reach the falls. The trail was beautiful, the creek flowing along the trail almost the entire distance, with numerous creek crossings on narrow wooden footbridges with handrails. An hour or so into the hike, we were looking down proudly at all the elevation we had gained and guessing that we should reach in 30 more minutes. This is when we met a middle aged couple on their way back. They popped our bubble saying we were only half way there and it was going to get slower because the rest of the trail had a lot of ice. The real adventure started when we hit the ice. It was slippery as hell and my being extra paranoid about such surfaces, didn't help one bit. We labored on gingerly, slipping and sliding over the ice until we reached these falls.

A minor letdown before the actual Rainbow Falls

We felt rather shortchanged when we saw this trickle of water. "Did we hike all the distance for this measly thing?", we contemplated silently to ourselves. We saw that the trail which continued for 4 more miles to reach the peak of Mt. LeConte was completely covered in ice and wondered if the Rainbow Falls actually lay further ahead. Our suspicion was indeed confirmed by a couple of hikers returning from the actual falls. One of them even slipped and fell on his butt to give us a preview of the rest of the trail. So we moved on, holding hands this time to keep each other from falling, for as the elevation increased there were even longer stretches of ice. 20 more minutes of skating freestyle brought us to these waterfalls which made even the idea of the hike back seem worth it.

Rainbow Falls

Last stretch of the trail before Rainbow Falls

The creek narrows suddenly below the falls, causing a heavy spray which yields a rainbow effect. We could not see it however, because the day was very cloudy. Instead we got squirrels that were not scared of humans and pranced around a foot away from us, demanding food.

Squirrel relishing a midday snack

It was 2.45pm by the time we hiked back to our car. We had promised to meet a bunch of Arun's friends from college at a place called Cherokee in North Carolina at 3pm. There was no way we could make the time, for we had more than an hour's drive away and we still had to grab lunch. When we managed to catch them on the phone, thanks to hopeless AT&T service in the mountains, it turned out that they were late too. We should have known considering whose friends they are. So we stopped for a delicious Mexican lunch at a local restaurant before heading to Cherokee.

Much of that evening went away in banter and catching up with Arun's friends Reshmi,Vishu and their spouses. They had a 3 hour drive ahead of them, so they left at around 8pm. Too tired to venture out for dinner, we ordered pizza and ate it while watching Shrek 2.

We began our drive back home pretty early on Sunday. But our feet were itching for some action to break the monotony of the drive. So we decided to take a detour through a scenic highway called Blue Ridge Parkway which promised wonderful views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. After taking a 30 mile detour and navigating through remote rural roads, we were extremely excited to find Blue Ridge Parkway. There it was right in front of us, like a shiny temptress in white. Yes! It was completely covered with snow. But there was no sign saying it was closed and there was a single car track leading into it. That spark of hope was enough for us. We took the plunge and drove the reluctant car into the snow, careful not to veer away from what seemed like the road. Only to find a sign saying the road was closed, hidden a quarter of a mile away from the entrance. Here's what the place looked like. Don't blame us for trying.

Snowed down Blue Ridge Parkway, spot the road if you can!

That wraps up the trip! Here were are, back in Philly. And here's 2009, coming to an end. Looking back, it's been a wonderful year of travel. Arun and I have etched our myriad memories in this blog which has become as much a part of our journeys as maps, hotels and cars. We want to thank all you lovely readers for egging us on with our crazy plans and for enduring and encouraging our uber-long posts. Here's to 2010! We hope it holds even more travel, photography and writing. Happy New Year everyone!


Siddharth said...

Wow! Awesome Pictures!

A & A Diary said...

Been a regular reader of your road trips.

Wishing you guys too a Great New Year.

Hoping to see lots of interesting travel posts. Keep it up.

Alan Smithee said...

I think you should buy new shades.

Kavitha said...

Siddharth, A: Thanks!

Alan Smithee: I think you should buy me a pair :-)