Greetings from Great Smoky Mountains National Park

We revisited Great Smoky Mountains National Park in spring. We had vivid memories from our last visit, of its greenery, dreamy mountains, and a hike of many steps to reach a scenic spot. This time, we hoped to see waterfalls, gushing with rain water, and black bears, from a safe distance. As birders, we looked forward to experiencing the resident and migratory birds of this area.

The very first morning, we spotted Pileated Woodpecker, perched on a pole right outside our cabin, a first ever sight. It flew off before we reached the porch, but we instead caught a gorgeous view of smoke over the forests on the mountains, a sight that reminded us of why this park is called Great Smoky Mountains. We had seen Eastern Towhee, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and Yellow-throated Warbler, the previous evening, and now birds such as Downy Woodpecker, and Brown Thrasher stopped by. Soon, it started drizzling. Nature at its best. We continued birding from another porch, while the thunder rumbled. I wondered if we would ever leave our cabin. Rains finally stopped, and we drove to Sugarlands Visitor Center, where a helpful ranger provided us sightseeing tips. We hiked to our first waterfall, Crescent Falls, a good warm up hike of about a mile, on mostly flat terrain. We then drove to the trailhead for Grotto Falls, a flowing river and wildflowers hugging the road at various spots. We spotted a black bear on the roadside, peacefully munching leaves. A moderate hike of 544 feet elevation gain, 2.6 mile round trip, took us to this waterfall, unique in that one can actually stand behind it, and feel its flowing water. I fully availed of this opportunity to bond with nature. Little did I know then that nature would drench us all over on our hike back, with heavy thunderstorms and pouring rains. Thankfully, we did not run into any bears, as that would have added more excitement to an already adventurous hike. We drove back in the rain, which stopped briefly that evening to let us enjoy a sunset sliver, after which thunderstorms started again.

The next day, we visited the Cades Cove area. After getting a feel for life in the yesteryears by visiting a pioneer cabin, we drove on the Cades Cove loop road, which is closed on some days for vehicle traffic, open then for just bikers and pedestrians. We were enjoying the scenic mountain views, and colorful wildflowers, when suddenly the traffic slowed down to a crawl, and that is when we realized we had entered black bear country. First, we spotted a lone black bear at a distance, while we waited for the cars ahead of us to move. Then, we saw a gorgeous, healthy looking, Mama bear in the grassland, while four of her cubs were up on a tree close by. A little ahead, we spotted another Mama bear, feeding on grass, while two cubs, blissfully slept on a tree nearby, one dangling its paws. When a fellow visitor remarked that Mama could view us as a threat to her cubs, we felt tense, and quickly got back into our car. Further down, we saw yet another Mama bear and two cubs, all grazing. One cub lifted up its head high to check where its Mama was, and then ambled to get closer to her. In all, we had seen almost a dozen bears in just an hour. I learnt later that cubs are usually born in winter, so that explained why we saw so many of them with their Mamas close by. Later that evening, we spotted an adult black bear, right in our cabin’s backyard. I had a mixed feeling of excitement and fear, and we maintained a safe distance from it. It lumbered around a bit, stood on its hind paws to reach leaves on a tree, then walked away, giving us one final look. Its visit was a nice icing on the cake for our day of bears.

Our last day in the park began with first ever sight of Scarlet Tanager. A Bobcat also surprised us by strolling down our cabin’s driveway. We then drove to the trailhead for Mingo Falls, aiming to hike it before the predicted mid-day thunderstorm. This drive was scenic, the road enveloped all along by a green canopy of trees. The 120 feet tall Mingo Falls, one of the tallest in the southern Appalachians, is located in Qualla boundary, outside the national park. We hiked 160 steps to reach it. I realized then this must have been the waterfall that we had climbed many steps to see, during our previous visit. The left side of this waterfall flows continuously, while the middle and right are ebbed by olive-green and rusty vegetation, so it looked gorgeous and unique, with many mini-waterfalls, across a colorful backdrop. It started raining right after we finished this hike, some of the mountains now completely shrouded by clouds. That is when we had to decide whether to visit Clingmans Dome, the highest point of the park, known for its scenic mountain vistas. We decided to give it a try. When we reached its parking area, it was still raining heavily, so we ate our lunch, hoping the rain would stop. We barely finished eating, when the rain paused. We hurried out, and it was biting cold and windy. We pulled on our rain jackets, and started trudging up the hike to the tower, to see the 360 degree panoramic view, when we felt the drizzle. We decided to turn back, and instead, I walked in the parking area, feeling the rain drops, while enjoying the view of layered mountains, of different colors, and dense forests. I extrapolated this view to imagine the one atop the tower.

Rains stopped on our drive back, the sun reappearing to lit the colorful blossoms on trees, its rays shining through gap between wet and hence dark, tree trunks. We stopped to listen to the soothing sounds of gushing rain water in the roadside rivers. We hiked a Quiet Walkway, a favorite from our previous visit. We were alone on this hike, and other than our footsteps, the only other sounds we heard was an Ovenbird calling, and the river beckoning us. We hiked till we reached the river, which welcomed us with thundering sounds of water flowing over boulders, and colorful blooms near its bank. I dipped my hand in its flowing water, then hugged a tree, traditions I follow when visiting any national park, a lovely end to our visit here. But the show was not over yet. A rabbit pair welcomed us when we got back to our cabin. Osprey, which we had last seen in Grand Tetons National Park, perched for a while at a distance, as I sipped coffee on the porch - maybe taking a break after a long migratory flight? A lone black bear cub foraged at a distance, now independent of its Mama.

Overall, we had a memorable second visit, nature treating us to a rainy adventure. Visiting in spring meant we could see fresh beginnings - many little cubs with their Mamas, varied colors of wildflowers, and colorful blossoms on trees. Feeling the water of Grotto Falls up close was clearly a highlight. Rains enhanced the mountain vistas with dramatic clouds, and increased the volume of water in rivers and waterfalls. We spotted about thirty types of birds, including several first ever sights. It was especially exciting to see birds such as Yellow-throated and Prairie Warblers, that arrive to breed here, those such as Pileated Woodpecker, that are all-year residents, and ones that are not seen back home. Nature indeed renders a distinct experience in each season. Maybe a Fall adventure on our next visit?


Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the country's most popular national park sites. It offers postcard-perfect views and plentiful wildlife.

State(s): North Carolina Tennessee,

Established: 1926

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