Alum Cave is another short but steep walk through an old growth forest. Its about 2 miles from the parking lot to the caves and you'll go though some elevation to get there. But many people like this trail because Alum Cave is a popular bear spotting destination. The Alum Cave trail also leads to the top of Mount Le Conte, about 8 miles away.
There are three Visitor Centers in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, all are very nice, but this is the most popular because if its location. The Park Headquarters is also here. Sugarlands is so named because of the large amount of Sugar Maples which grow in the area. Naturally, that makes for an awesome spectacle when the trees show their finest colors in the autumn.
The Smokies cover more than half a million acres, and it would take days to see it all - even superficially. I've been exploring these mountains (periodically) for a lifetime, and am still discovering new special places. That's why a stop at the Visitor Center for maps, orientation, and information is a MUST for the first time visitor. Also, free permits are necessary for backcountry camping, and they may be obtained here.
There are numerous waterfalls in these mountains, and this is not the most spectacular, however, it is the easiest to get to. Most of the others require a much longer hike. This beautiful little falls is reached by a one-tenth mile walk, beginning behind the Sugarlands Visitor Center and the National Park office area. Here's a hint for photographers. Go to Cataract Falls early in the day. By mid-afternoon these falls are shaded by the mountain that rises behind them.
The Sinks is a very popular stopping place along the Little River Road. The highway crosses the river just above the top of The Sinks, and there is a small unpaved parking area.
The highway follows an old railroad grade from the days when narrow gage logging railroads ran deep into these mountains. The story goes that once a locomotive fell off the track and into The Sinks, never to be recovered.
I do know from personal experience that the pool below The Sinks if very deep and the water is always cold. As a young man I used to climb to the top of a rock ledge just below The Sinks (near the spot this picture was taken) and dive into the cold mountain stream. I never touched bottom, nor did I find a locomotive, but I did attract a lot of attention. A fond memory is of posing atop the rock and then giving a Tarzan whoop and doing my best dive for a van-load of appreciative Japanese tourists, cameras clicking wildly. Maybe somewhere in Japan today there's a photo of a crazy hillbilly plunging into the foam.
Without doubt, Cades Cove is one of the most beautiful and popular areas within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In fact, there are few other places within the entire national park system where both wild nature and human history can be enjoyed in such an idyllic setting.
A "cove" in Smoky Mountain vernacular is a relatively flat valley between mountains or ridges. This particular cove is a showcase for some of the most inspiring natural and cultural treasures in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. The primary access to Cades Cove is the 11-mile, one-way Cades Cove Loop Road. When this was a farming community, an unpaved road followed the same general route as the present loop.
In the next several tips we will show just a few of the places of interest around the Cove.
Roaring Fork is a classic mountain stream in every way. It is clear, cold, ever-flowing, shady, fast and noisy. Many creatures live here, including crayfish, salamanders, trout, and insects. During its cycle from sky to sea, water seldom displays itself so well as a sustainer of life and creator of beauty as it does here.
In spring and summer the Roaring Fork is also a very green place. There is green moss on the rocks, green ferns between the rocks, green trees growing through the rocks, and green vines draping over the rocks. Did I say it was also rocky?
For many years I always assumed that the Roaring Fork got its name from the roar of its incessant waters. Then an old-timer, whose ancestors lived for many generations along the Roaring Fork, told me another story. He said that an abundance of wild mulberries grow along the banks of the stream, and in the summer when they ripen one can hear the roaring of the Black Bears as they jostle over the bounty. Hence the name. He told me this in the lobby of the Roaring Fork Baptist Church one Sunday after services, and he said it with a very stoical face. It could be so. Or perhaps he was just pulling my leg with his dry mountain wit. I'm still not sure.
Alfred Regan, owner of Reagan's Mill, was one of the more prosperous farmers of the Roaring Fork community as is evidenced by his sawn lumber cottage. He was much more than just a miller. His farm had cattle, fruit trees, crops and timber. but he was also a jack-of-all-trades, and practiced most of them close to this spot. Being a carpenter, he was called upon to make the coffin whenever there was a death in the neighborhood, and being a lay minister, he might preach the funeral too, in the church that he helped build, on land that he donated. Reagan also built a small blacksmith shop and a general store beside the road, across from his mill. He turned the mill over to one of his sons whose job was to keep it stocked and open. Doing this meant wholesale buying trips to Knoxville. Although that is only an hour away today, in 1900 it meant a several days trip by wagon.
In this simple cottage which Alfred Reagan built he used "all three colors that Sears and Roebuck had." That set the house off nicely against its mountain backdrop. Inside, Reagan and his wife, and six children sat, slept and ate on furniture from Alfred Reagan's own hands. What a man!
The house and mill are all that remain of the Reagan's life here. Today their descendents are among the leading families of Gatlinburg and Sevier County.
April and May are prime wildflower months at Great Smoky. I visited at the end of March and it was a bit of a challenge finding the flowers. It is necessary to leave the car behind and get out on the trails. One thing I've learned from my ventures in the national parks, the most interesting sights are never available from a parking lot.
This is the oldest log cabin in Cades Cove. John Oliver arrived in the cove prior to 1820 and bought this land in 1826. It remained in the family until the park was established more than 100 years later. Large families often lived in such small buildings. Exact arrangements differed from family to family. Usually, however, parents, infants and daughters slept on the first floor and sons slept in the loft.
Not much was needed to build a place like this except mules, muscles, simple hand tools and help from the neighbors. Trees were felled nearby, the logs were scored along their length with a felling ax, then hewn with a broad ax. The notched corners need no nails or pegs; gravity holds them together. Chinks (open spaces between logs the logs) were filled with mud to seal out wind, snow and rain. The stone chimney is held together with mud mortar.
John P. Cable bought land in Cades Cove in the late 1860s, and built this water-powered mill in about 1870. This was a dual purpose mill, the same wheel providing power for both a grist mill and a sawmill. It was a sash sawmill with a heavy recipocating blade that cut a short distance into a log with each downward stroke. Faster sawmills with circular disc saws, powered by steam engines, began coming into the Smokies before 1900. Few log homes were built after the advent of sawmills, and some existing ones were modified with sawed lumber.
The channeled stream leading up to this mill is especially interesting to see. Today, Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association operates Cable Mill as an historical exhibit.
This beautiful little 25' high waterfall gets its name from the natural recess, or grotto, which allows the main trail to actually pass behind the falls. It is the only falls in the park that one can stand behind. A fairly easy hike of 1.3 miles, ascending 520 feet, leads to the falls. The pathway is through a deep woods dominated by virgin Hemlock trees, but also some mixed hardwoods: Beeches, Silverbells, and Maples. This is the Trillium Gap Trail, which continues for four more miles beyond Grotto Falls to the summit of Mt. Le Conte. To reach the peak it climbs another grueling 3,400 feet, through more Hemlock and into Red Spruce and Fraser fir.
The hike to Grotto Falls is a very popular one. A motivated four-year-old can make the 2.6 mile round trip - if allowed to ride part way on Papa's shoulders. Parking is limited and may be difficult to find, especially on weekends.
It would be impossible to capture "The Place of a Thousand Drips" in a single photograph. It's spread out far to widely over the face of countless boulders. The waterfalls here are not spectacular. Most of them are small with only a few on the more rambunctious side. Still I always look forward to visiting this magical spot. It is a place of beauty - the home of water loving plants - mosses, liverworts, and ferns. On the hottest day the air around them is moist and cool. Stay here a while and you will continue to see another and then another small cascade or drip - maybe even a thousand of them - gurgling and splashing incessantly over bedrock, until they join the larger waters of Roaring Fork below.
Three roads have crossed the mountain starting at about this point, leading to Tuckaleechee Cove and then Townsend, 12 miles away. First was a Cherokee trail. Most of the Cove's early settlers came in by that route. The second was a wagon road built in the 1830s. It was replaced in the 1920s when the state of Tennessee built this graded road. It is still unpaved, one lane, and very winding. No trailers or large trucks/campers are allowed.
This was one of the main access roads to Cades Cove before the Smokies became a National Park in 1934, and the Laurel Creek Road was built. Laurel Creek is now the only entrance to the Cove. Today motorists may only exit the Cove and the Park by this route, but they cannot enter by it. The road is closed in winter, and year round after dark. One of the most photogenic views of the Cove can be had from a clearing along this road as it winds its way up Rich Mountain.
For those who stay in the resort town of Gatlinburg, at the main Tennessee entrance to the park, the Sugarlands trail provides an easy and accessible, yet very beautiful introductiory hike into the park. The trail parallels the Newfound Gap Road and the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River, from Gatlinburg to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. About half way along the trail you will cross over the river on a footpath. The path is mostly level and the views of the rushing waters of the river are as sparkling clean and clear as any you will ever see.
Along the way are a few signs of former human habitation in these mountains in the form of old stone chimneys and foundations. They blend in with the browns, greens and grays of the forest and add interest to the hike. The last short stretch of the trail goes through the park's office and maintainence areas.
When the Park was created in the early 20th century, from mostly private lands, many buildings of varied construction stood here. The National Park Service decided to save several of the log buildings. A few frame structures also remain - dwellings, mills, churches - about 80 historic buildings in all.
One of the first of these many visitors will see is the Noah "Bud" Ogle Place. Noah and his bride Cindy, started out on this farm of 400 acres in 1879, in spite of a land accessor's comment that it was "not fit for farming." On this very rocky site you will see the old house, barn corn crib, spring, bee gums, garden spot, hog pens, and even a few remaining apple trees. A 0.5 mile self guided nature trail leads through the property. It provides a fascinating glimpse into the lives of a pioneer family in the Southern Highlands. Today the Ogle descendents are among the leading, and most prosperous, citizens of Sevier County, TN.
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