Our last leg of the journey began with driving up the east coast from Orlando; first stop, Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park lies along the border between Tennessee and North Carolina with plenty to do in both sections. However we stuck to the Tennessee side, particularly the area of Cades Cove where we set up camp for 3 nights. We got there mid-week and as it was the end of the summer, the campground was fairly empty compared to other national parks we'd visited earlier in August. We had no neighbors near us so that was kinda nice. No RVs to be suffocated by. Arriving at sunset we set up camp, quickly and efficiently as we were now experts at it, and went to bed.
While planning this particular visit, there were a lot of options for horseback riding and as a childhood pastime of Molly's she really wanted to go. So we set out on an hour long horseback ride through the woods of Cades Cove. It was very peaceful though I was sad we saw no animals. Molly was happy cause she really really didn't want to see a bear. Later we took a drive through Cades Cove stopping along some of the old houses and churches of the original settlers of the area. It was really neat as it was the first national park I'd been to that had a former town and such. As we were about half way around the loop, we took a short hike to Abram's Falls. It was really gorgeous and like the rest of the Cove, really peaceful and serene. Not terribly tall, the falls were thick and full as they fell into the pool beneath.
Continuing on the Cades Cove Loop Road towards the Visitor Center we saw lots of cars pulled over and people on the side of the road looking into the trees. There was also a ranger hanging about. As we drove up we joined in the fun and learned there was a small black bear sleeping up in the trees. After a little pointing and squinting we both saw the bear and Molly liked it because he was asleep up high instead of eating us alive in our tent.
By the time we finished the loop it was already getting to be late afternoon. Since this was the last campsite we were going to be at and had yet to have a campfire (we'd been conserving costs by not purchasing firewood and we were just so tired every night that we were asleep sometimes before it was even dark out) our goal that night was to make a fire. So Molly went off with the hatchet and brought back wood that had fallen or been broken off trees and we collected a good size pile of wood. But no luck in making the fire since it refused to stay lit for more than 5 minutes or so. At least we tried...this was the night we also decided to make mac&cheese from a box with no butter or milk...bad decision.
Day 2 began with a terrific bike ride throughout Cade's Cove. As we had been driving through the cove the previous day we drove by plenty of bikers and thought it would be awesome to do too. Luckily the campground had a bike rental place that was really affordable so we hopped on and took off. It was a great ride and the 11 miles was much easier than I had expected since I'm not an "in-shape" person.
The neatest thing was passing by a couple park rangers who were looking off into the woods, one with a massive shotgun, and telling us to "just keep moving, folks." Apparently there was a wild hog in the woods and they're very very very dangerous and unpredictable so they have to shoot them. We never heard a gun shot so they probably didn't end up doing so, but I thought the whole situation was pretty cool. Another highlight of the biking was exploring more of the homes and churches the homes along the loop because we weren't having to pull off, stop the car, get out etc...
After the fantastic bike ride we headed over to the observation tower at Clingman's Dome which offers a great, sweeping view of the mountains. The hike up the sloped road was long and a little steep but the view was worth it. You could definitely see where the name "Great Smoky Mountains" came from; although there were only friendly cumulus clouds in the sky, there was a gentle fogginess hanging over the mountains.
Our afternoon activity to finish out our time in the Mountains was a hike to Laurel Falls. It was pretty easy with smooth terrain and paved all the way making it accessible for strollers or wheelchairs. The falls were very nice, small but quite pretty. I wanted to explore the area more, and I think Molly did too, but there were a ton of people so we opted for sitting and gazing at the beauty instead.
The Great Smoky Mountains proved to be a great National Park and I would love to return and explore more of the area since the park is HUGE. No bears coming into the campsite but we had a mother dear and bambi stroll through one night. And shower facilities would have been nice too but we made do with a sponge bath in our makeshift shower area.