8/21/2010

My Newest Love - The Great Smoky Mountains - Part 3

Sunrise from Clingmans Dome
I have been to the mountain top and I stood at the highest point in Tennessee at 6,643 feet of elevation. It was the middle of July and the temperature was in the 50's.  Something told me I wasn't in Florida anymore; Hialeah, Florida - Elevation 7 feet.  I was driving into Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Gatlinburg at six something in the morning. Can't even find a place to get coffee in Gatlinburg at that time. (Never heard of a place with no Dunkin Donuts in sight).  I wanted to shoot sunrise from Clingmans Dome.  I was only 15 miles away, but driving along US-441 through the mountainous switchbacks and hairpin turns in the park, I was looking at a 30 minute drive.  I made it to Clingmans Dome road. Talk about a steep and narrow winding road.  I was running late.  The light was amazing.  I debated whether to stop and shoot, or make it to the top of the State of Tennessee. I opted to stop and got the above shot of the morning sun over the layers and textures called the Smoky Mountains.  It was quite a sight to behold.  I made it to the top of the mountain only to find thick fog; visibility....zero.  I'm glad I stopped.  When you have an opportunity in front of you,  I've learned it's a mistake to pass it by in the hope that a better opportunity can be found on the top of the mountain.  
Eastern Phoebe
As I mentioned in my earlier post,  if you want to enjoy nature and the Smokies, you need to get up early.  The park was mine at 7:00am.  I had birds all around me like the Eastern Phoebe.  The rivers and streams were mine.  No tourists. I was one with the forest and the river.  They are alive.  The mountains are alive and I hear their call as John Muir did.  I have no worries in the mountains, except to keep my senses aware of the occasional bear. The only sound around me though was the sound of the streams and waterfalls.  What is it about waterfalls that attract me to them? I will hike for miles just to see one. The Smokies has a lot of them; as does the states of North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania.
Laurel Falls
Black Bear at Laurel Falls
The hike to Laurel Falls is a great hike. It is mostly under a tree canopy so you're out of the sun. It's about a 1.3 mile hike each way. And the latter part of the hike can be interesting. First, it's quite narrow. You have the side of the mountain on one end, and a cliff on the other.  While on my hike to the falls,  I noticed that the hikers on the trail had come to a stop in front of me. Reason? Bear.  A baby bear was on the trail, and smartly, none of us wanted to try to pass him as mama bear would surely be close by. So we waited, until the baby bear decided to leave the trail and we could continue on to the falls.  When we got near the falls,  we came to another stop as mama bear was right at the falls. The light was so poor I couldn't get a decent shot. But I got to see a wild bear and that definately made my day.  After the bear took off, I managed to get my waterfall shots.  Laurel Falls is one of the more beautiful falls in the park, even more so when the flow is stronger than what it was in mid July. I really wanted to jump under the falls, but it was not allowed. I'm sure it felt good.  Unlike the top of Clingmans Dome,  it was a tad warmer and more humid at Laurel Falls and I was drenched, and not in a good refreshing way.

On the North Carolina Side of the park are several waterfalls which are worth visiting.  In Bryson City, you have a series of falls along the Indian Creek Trail. The Juney Whank Falls and Tom Branch Falls.

video

While in this part of the park, I learned once again, that lack of preparation causes you to waste time.  I was so excited to get on the hiking trail, that I neglected to pick up a trail map. I had a map on my iPhone, but it was less than adequate.  I found the first waterfall (Juney Whank - see above),  but the other falls, I couldn't find them. I ended up taking the long way to them and lost some valuable light. Nevertheless, I did fine Tom Branch Falls, and was quite pleased to have just enough light to capture it.  The River here is very popular for tubing, especially in summer. Now I know this for my next trip.

Rafting on the Pigeon River
Tom Branch Falls
Redneck
Mingo Falls
While I don't mind hiking in the mountains. I sure hate driving in them.  Many of the mountain roads out there are dirt roads; they are narrow. There are no railings. You have a cliff on one end and the side of the mountain on the other. And...you have folks driving on those roads talking on their cell phones and speeding which makes driving on these mountain roads an adventure in trying not to crap your pants.  Of course, my kids were in the back of the vehicle playing with the Nintendo DS games as if nothing, while I was honking on every turn. Cataloochee is not an area I want to visit again unless someone better experienced in driving mountain roads is driving.  On that road,  you have to finish it to the end as there is no way to turn back. Took me hours. I got no decent images. But all was not lost. On my way back into the park, I stopped by the Cherokee Nation to see Mingo Falls, one of the tallest waterfalls in the area. And after getting my shots of Mingo Falls,  I finally got to see and photograph some Elk. Those are large critters.  The bucks that were out by the side of the road were drawing a huge crowd. But the annoying thing that I encountered were these numnuts out there who ignored all the posted signs about harassing the wildlife.  One "redneck" went out and got in front of the large Buck (within charging distance) and started making mating calls to it and then was yelling out loud in front of all the kids out there "This buck's gonna want to have sex with you, so be careful."  Geesh. I bet the Elk looked at that moh-ron, and said to himself in Elk language,  "what an butthead!"  If the Buck didn't think it, I sure did. Normally, I photograph a lot of these "idiots" and post their images on the net.  The one above I photographed while he and his family were getting within 5 feet of a bunch of deer in Cades Cove to take photos with their point & shoot cameras. Of course, to get to the deer they had to pass the sign by the chicken wire fences which warned the folks to stay away from the wildlife and not to harass them.  It's like the folks that ignore the loose rocks signs on the Grand Canyon to pose for pictures and wonder why they fall. What can you do?  Well,  let it be known, if I catch you in a National Park harassing wildlife, and you're in range of my lens, you're gonna be photographed and posted on the net. Of course, the other thing I notice that was odd, was that there are so many folks out in the park that insist on wearing flip flops on hiking trails. What are these guys thinking?
Buck Sticking His Tongue At Redneck
One thing for sure, despite the obnoxious rednecks,  the mountain roads,  they were but grains of sand in the whole scheme of things.  The sunrise, waterfalls, bears and elk, were enough to make my day.  As I headed out of the park that evening, I sent my thanks to the mountains.  I shall return I told them. The mountains said, "y'all come on back now, ya hear!"
"Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean."
-- John Muir
TO BE CONTINUED