Sunday, February 12, 2017

Tennessee Roadtrip & Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Smoky Mountain leaf sketches
Hello from Great Smoky Mountains National Park!

Ever since visiting my first national park in April 2015, I seem to have developed the happy habit of visiting these magical places during the off season. No crowds, few people, and endless beauty everywhere.

In April 2015 it was Olympic in Washington; in Winter, Spring, and Summer of last year it was Rocky Mountain (on account of living there), and in September of last year it was several more parks across Utah and the West. 

I've been pretty spoiled, strolling along the Appalachian Trail or climbing the highest peak in Colorado with less traffic than would be found at the local forest preserve near my home in Illinois.
enter GSMNP!
I arrived in the Smokies Friday evening, coming from a wonderful visit with a friend in Nashville. (And before that, home in Illinois.) I'm on my way to Black Mountain, North Carolina, just outside Asheville, where I'll stay until further notice. 

To say that nature, National Parks, and a more free, creative, simple way of living has gotten under my skin these past few years would be an understatement. I've made it a point to keep adventuring far and wide, to experience as much of this lovely country as I can, while I can.
the little porch outside my room, my reading station and breakfast nook of the past few days
Strawberry Patch Inn, Townsend, TN (If you're in the area, stay here! It's a dream)
the river behind the inn

I've at this point in my life, I've thrown off any semblance of a care about things like whether or not I'm 'using my degree' (or maybe to some people, my intellectual potential, but whatever); whether or not I'll ever be a millionaire (read: I never will); whether or not I'll ever retire (probably not); or whether or not I'll ever be engaged in the traditional familial lifestyle for which I was groomed as a product of Chicago's Northwest suburbs: marriage, a mortgage, and babies (I am currently proud of the care I am taking of a potted fern all by myself).

But really, I write this post with pleasant reflection. I always get wistful when I embark on solo adventures to somewhere new: I love travelling, and like I said, especially when I can enjoy the solitude that comes with seeing the National Parks in the off season. It gives me a lot of time to think, relax, and remind myself of the simple things that make my soul happy, the things I want to chase.

On trail these past few days I've felt a lot of gratitude for the carving out of space in my life to pursue those things which I really love. I feel most at home in nature and I can't imagine living anywhere else, or chasing any other experiences but those which allow me to keep doing so.
West Prong Trail, my first hike in the Smokies
hike no. 2: Lumber Ridge Trail
an encouraging find on a trail sign
I'm staying on the 'quieter' side of the park (east of the very famous and popular areas of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg), in a town called Townsend. It's quaint, local, and not touristy at all; I hear Gatlinburg especially is just the opposite- I'll experience that on my way West tomorrow.

After arriving here on Friday evening, I took myself to dinner and enjoyed a night on my porch (it's been 60-70 degrees here!), reading a book by the river for hours. Saturday I headed into the park for my first two hikes, West Prong and (some of) Lumber Ridge Trail

Today, I decided to tackle Cades Cove, an area of GSMNP which includes a one-way scenic road road loop 11 miles long. I heard horror stories of it taking 4-5 hours to drive in the summer, during the busy season. I don't know whose idea it was to put a one-way road in one of America's most visited national parks, but luckily for me it's February right now, and it was a pleasurable drive. 

The rain, which they were calling for all day, held out, and there weren't too many cars on the loop.
the beginning of the Cades Cove loop drive, as see from the trailhead of my first hike today
Rich Mountain Loop trail, located just before entering the Cades Cove loop
The Smokies from a pull-off in Cades Cove (I have a feeling this will become a painting...)
About halfway around the loop, just before reaching the visitor's center, was my favorite hike of my trip, Abrams Falls. This one was a beauty! It was the most trafficked path I'd been on since I've been here. It was very green and lush, like being in a wet, dewy rainforest. The falls were about 2.5 miles in, and then you hike back out.

I'm really enjoying the South so far, and can't wait to make it home for a while. I'm looking forward to getting my paints out when I arrive in North Carolina (I leave Tennessee tomorrow), and creating some work from what I've seen traveling through so far. I can't yet imagine loving anything as much as Rocky Mountain, which holds such a special place in my heart, but I also have the best, most hopeful feeling about the season of life and growth ahead. 
beginning of the Abrams Falls trail


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