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Seventeen Days in Appalachia

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

In eight days, well seven and a wake up now, we will be heading off for our next adventure. I have to burn some annual leave as I am over the max and as the end of fiscal year is near the department will take it from me. Originally I had a few random shifts off but as things continued to devolve around here the thought developed that a few random days was not going to be enough to maintain my sanity. An idea was born.

One week simply wouldn't do it. If we were going to travel somewhere we would need time. No where south as I already live in Satan's taint and it is bloody hot here. The idea of returning to North Carolina, home in many ways to me, took hold and I starting digging around topo maps and weather forecast and found cooler weather predicted at elevation.

My senior guy at the station, Tim Nagim, had just returned from romping around TN and North Georgia area and told me about having cooler weather while camping along the Ocoee River. Having nearly meet my end on the Ocoee many years ago it has always held a found place in my mind and I find the whole region amazing. As I was looking on the map I saw this little snaky road know as the Cherohala Skyway and my plans starting taking shape.

Stop one is the campsite Tim told me about on the Ocoee and from there we are loosely going to tour the entire Blue Ridge Parkway with a focus on water falls, night skies, and amazing views. We'll stop off in the Mt. Mitchell area, camp on Roan Bald, and even return to Table Rock. Who knows I may stop at many of my favorite crags from my climbing days as I ended taking off 17 days! That is one of the most amazing things about traveling with no true itinerary. The only solid thing is the first night, from there it is open to the Universe unfolding.

This will be the first adventure I've ever taken where I plan on writing along the journey. This single post will certainly change, evolve, and likely morph a few times before this journey brings us back.

Well, the time finally arrived and we were free from work. The pups and I had been slowly packing gear for a week or so into crates so when the day came I just had to throw the crates into the truck and away we'd go. We had everything from backcountry gear to two Yetis slammed with food. Polar opposites in many ways, but with no real plans it's nice to be ready for anything. We said goodbye to family and friends and we were in the wind just an hour after the time we were shooting for. The only reason I was even remotely concerned about time was the availability of daylight when we got to Thunder Rock campsite. Not that I'm bothered setting up camp via headlamp of course, but its always nice to have a look around.

The drive up was uneventful though we did arrive after dark. There was only one other group in the campground and our chosen spot, thanks to Nagim's suggestion, was waiting for us with no one in sight. We were just 20 feet away from the Ocoee River and there are few sounds I like more than rushing water to sleep too. The hammock was quickly thrown up and the new fly secured as rain was likely. Indeed a few small showers came in and unfortunately it was a touch warmer than we would have liked. Sleep is nice though with the sounds of gentle rain landing on a fly, or a metal roof in an old farmhouse.

The next day we were off to see Benton Falls as it was another suggestion by Nagim and it didn't disappoint. Even the drive up was fairly decent. The weather was a touch bit warm again but we were soon playing at the base of the falls.

The original thought was to take forest service roads and check out a few more falls along the way to Tellico Plains to start the Cherohala Skyway. Since I figured we'd lose service I had downloaded the map to my iPhone only to find out I didn't complete the download and soon we were without signal and completely lost somewhere in Eastern Tennessee, but there are no wrong turns. We roamed around aimlessly for awhile and eventually found a major road and made our way to Tellico Plains. A quick jaunt south and we were at Conasauga Falls. The walk in is shorter than Benton, but a wee bit rougher. Still so very worth it. Beautiful place, save for me walking around the bottom trying to not slip and fall in as the iPhone is not waterproof.

After this beautiful stop we were off to drive the Cherohala Skyway. We has plans to stop at Bald Falls, but that's nine something miles round trip to it has to stay on the list for now. The drive is nice though I imagine it will be much nicer with cooler weather and leaf change. The logical side of the brain wanted to stop at Lake Santeela and camp so we could check out the old growth forest at Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and Yellow Falls just a bit north. However, Labor Day weekend had other plans as there wasn't a single available site anyway (no dispersed camping in this part of the Cherokee National Forest) and the humidity was too much. Time to punt so we headed off toward Pigeon Forge for the closest Red Roof Inn. My preferred hotel with pups as they allow large pets.

The drive to Pigeon Forge landed us on the Tail of the Dragon! Man that is a road built for sports cars and motorcycles. There are hundreds upon hundreds of twist and turns and I think I was dizzy for a good 20 mins once we were off it. Not only did I get to drive the Cherohala Skyway and the Tail of the Dragon in one day, but I also landed on The Foothills Parkway. What a beautiful drive! A lot of windshield time for sure, but we saw so much beautiful country.

Im just going to come out and say I absolutely hate Pigeon Forge. It reminds me of every single touristic overrun death trap I've ever encountered. I felt dirty just from staying there a single night, but some people like Pimento cheese so I guess it works for some of us. Of course if everyone where perpetual searches of solitude like me then none of us would ever find any. Perhaps it is a good thing that some are attracted to feeding troughs, trinkets, blinking lights, and bottomless holes to through their money in.

We left Pigeon Forge the next morning skipping out on the included all you can eat pancake breakfast and headed north toward Shenandoah National Park. The park is the northern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway and as such seemed like a place to visit once we arrived there, but Mother Nature was driving us north. Checking the National Park camping reservations site I saw the only thing listed was first-come-first-served and knew it was a gamble, but had to escape the heat. Fair bit of windshield time but we were rewarded with a sign showing vacancies at all of the Shenandoah's campsites. I asked the ranger if she had a recommendation on escaping the heat and finding the perfect spot and she quickly suggested Loft Mountain. Sounded perfect.

Shenandoah has been on my list for many, many years, but I had never really looked in detail to see what she offered. Turns out, she is a loverly park. The entire park seems to be running the ridge line of the mountain range and the views are numerous and gorgeous. Loft Mountain is indeed on top of a mountain, Loft Mountain actually, and is a monster camping area. When we arrived just after 1500hrs there were only 40 sites left available, and they were gone before nightfall.

Sunset shot from the Amphitheater and not the best spot as the sun was actually out of our view.

As a general rule I tend to avoid crowded places as I obviously prefer dogs over people. Spending three nights on Loft Mountain over Labor Day weekend has confirmed that position! It is a nice campsite and would quickly stay here again when in the area, just not on their busiest holiday weekend. Thankfully the tent site we chose was on the outer ring and below the road a bit, but it didn't save me from my site neighbors children, and the incessant barking of two Scottish Terriers. Thankfully I was able to find some brief moments of solitude as the pups and I explored bits of the Appalachian Trail and Dark Hollow Falls.

Our first full day in the park and we were off to explore and head all the way to the northern terminus of the park. There are some beautiful picnic areas, scenic pull offs, and an absolutely amazing drive. We found the trail head to White River Falls on the backside of a picnic area and am so happy we headed out. Round trip it was one of the best 2.6 miles I've ever walked in the woods. Absolutely stunning, stunning place. For much of it the trail follows along the White River as it slices its way down hill. There are many places to soak your feet, let the pups get a drink, take pictures of dozens of small falls and even a few cascades. The morning light coming through the trees was nothing short of inspiring.

White River Falls is visible from a rocky outcropping, but you can't get a really good angle on the third highest falls in the park. Sounded amazing, but honestly the falls were anticlimactic and absolutely paled in compression to the walk. The walk alone was perfect.

Shenandoah is a long park and it takes much longer than you'd expect to drive the distance. After the brief stop at White River I made the decision to push on to Port Royal and then sight see on the way back. The drive is awesome. No questions that I will return one day, though later in the year, just to see the forest ablaze with color. Along the way we saw a few places worthy of stopping, but storms had rolled in and blocked most of the visibility with fog.

Dark Hollow Falls was an exception as the rain had stopped and is an amazing place. It is very popular and the trail is a heavily trodden wide path. The upper viewing area was somewhat impressive but you are baited with a sign that says lower viewing area 1000'. Once you're there you have to go the last thousand feet. It takes you to the base of the falls and you can explore them at your will. Three tier fall that is over 80 feet tall and was perfect.

The trail goes further down and I believe there are two more levels though we only explored the next one down.

A quick cold water parking lot shower and a change of clothes and I felt human again. Long and beautiful drive back south toward camp. The pups and I pulled over to enjoy the sunset but though beautiful in its own right it didn't translate well as a photo.

This morning with all of the commotion and people in the park I decided to stay in camp and write. In fact, most of what you've read above was jotted down this morning while most of my fellow campers were out and about offering me some brief moments of peace and quiet.

I'll likely get back to finishing off this adventure later but for now I will just say the heat caught up to us and I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I will return later when the cooler weather is certain but for now we are headed home.

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1 Comment

Wayne Hunsucker
Wayne Hunsucker
Aug 25, 2020

Time is a real precious commodity, and it's a treat to have so much of it to give to exploring the Blue Ridge parkway. Very cool!