Shenandoah and the Smokies Display Fall Color at Its Finest
In this world, there are day-trippers, weekend warriors and long-distance ramblers seeking outdoor activities to rejuvenate their lives. America’s mountain roads and coastal highways are filled with travelers determined to exchange stress, problems and boredom for days immersed in fresh air, sunshine and exhilarating recreation.
After 40 years of an office calendar full of project deadlines and daily must-do lists, I moved from weekend warrior to long-distance rambler. It was the autumn of my life, and I felt it was time for a journey to reconnect with nature, family and friends. My first long-distance trip would take me through the mountains and shoreline of the eastern United States. My traveling companions were my recently retired husband and our 5-year-old Chihuahua.
We headed out from Connecticut the first week of October. Winding mountain roads lined with glowing gold, auburn and burgundy leaves greeted our newly purchased Class B Roadtrek RS Adventurous. We chose the 22-foot motorhome because it’s easy to park, it fits all campsites and city roads, it has a fuel-efficient diesel engine, and it has a separate bathroom, bedroom and kitchen area.
The first night, we dry camped at a lakeside site at Tobyhanna State Park in Tobyhanna, Pa. The following morning, we awoke to a golden sunrise that sent sparkles dancing through the mist across Tobyhanna Lake. A five-mile hike on the Lakeside Trail introduced us to turtles sunning on rocks, blue jays and crows announcing the day, a flock of geese landing on the water and a hairy woodpecker hard at work.
Fall Colors in Shenandoah National Park
After three days of camping, hiking and meeting people at the campground, we continued our trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. We drove through Virginia on Skyline Drive, winding along the crest of the central and southern Appalachian Mountains. (Caution: The clearance at Mary’s Rock Tunnel at mile 32.2, just south of the Thornton Gap entrance from Route 211, is 12 feet 8 inches.)
Our first campsite was at Big Meadows in Shenandoah National Park. The park has three campgrounds – Mathews Arm, Big Meadows and Loft Mountain – with pull-through and back-in sites that can accommodate motorhomes. The campgrounds don’t have hookups, but they do have potable water and dump stations.
At Big Meadows, a 1.4-mile hiking trail carpeted in autumn leaves led us to Dark Hollow Falls, whose waters cascade down 70 feet of rocky ledges to the pool below. The trail can be steep and rocky in spots, so watch your step. Shenandoah has more than 500 miles of trails – including the Appalachian Trail – that range from easy day hikes to overnight backpacking and lead to waterfalls and mountain vistas. Many are pet friendly.
A large population of black bears prompted us to carry bear spray as we hiked, and the National Park Service repeatedly reminds visitors through printed brochures and ranger programs never to feed or approach a bear. While hiking the Appalachian Trail to Fisher’s Gap, we encountered bear scat consisting of brown fur, grass and pieces of acorns. When we reached Fishers Gap Overlook – at an elevation of 3,140 feet – we were treated to an expansive view of the valley below, blanketed in fall color.
During our visit it rained a couple of days, so we spent a few hours at Big Meadows Lodge, which offers access to the Internet, cellphone connections and ranger programs. There is a large meeting room where visitors can enjoy board games, friendly conversation and a panoramic view of the mountains. If you’re hungry, try the local fare and blackberry ice cream pie.
From Big Meadows we headed south on Skyline Drive to our next campsite at Loft Mountain (milepost 79.5), which has outstanding views. While camped there, a moderate wind, sunny skies and a 75-degree Fahrenheit temperature inspired us to hike to the camp store. The neighboring mountainsides were ablaze with autumn color. After a scoop of homemade ice cream, we hiked to the top of the mountain to watch the sunset. Swirls of charcoal and smoky gray clouds danced against the slate blue sky as a glowing orange ball lit the horizon and slipped behind the darkened distant mountain. As we walked back to our campsite, several whitetail deer crossed our path but, thankfully, no black bears.
Blue Ridge Parkway
The following morning, we left Loft Mountain and drove 469 miles along the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway, stopping to camp in Virginia’s Peaks of Otter Campground (milepost 86) and Julian Price Park Campground (milepost 297), which is in North Carolina. Both campgrounds are located near lakes, which offered multiple hiking trails, fishing and boating. Many of the hiking paths were lined with brown ferns, rhododendron, hemlocks and ground pine. While walking on Price Lake Trail, we crossed a broken beaver dam and found evidence of trees the beavers gnawed and felled. The elevation here is 3,400 feet and the temperature during our visit was a chilly 45 degrees Fahrenheit.
Fall Colors In The Great Smoky Mountains
After a restful night, we continued our trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway to Smokemont Campground, which is strategically located on the Oconaluftee River at the base of the Smoky Mountains, approximately six miles north of Cherokee, N.C. Nine campgrounds in Great Smoky Mountains National Park can accommodate RVs (though the length limit at Abrams Creek Campground is only 12 feet), but they don’t have hookups or showers. Restrooms are available. We stayed two nights at Smokemont, hiking on trails, horseback riding and relaxing.
A visit to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, two miles south of Cherokee on Highway 441 adjacent to the Cherokee Indian Reservation, is certainly worthwhile. The center has an outdoor museum, the Mountain Farm Museum, where visitors can explore a log farmhouse, barn, apple house, springhouse and a working blacksmith shop to get a sense of how families may have lived 100 years ago. Bordering the Oconaluftee River is a pet- and bike-friendly trail for visitors to stretch their legs.
Our last mountain campsite was at Cades Cove in Tennessee. The 18-mile route into Cades Cove begins on Little River Road, a slow and winding zigzag road. From their perch in a roadside tree, a mama black bear and her two cubs watched our approach.
It was late afternoon when we arrived. Our site was a pull-through with picnic table and fire pit. There are no electric hookups, cellphone service or Internet connections at Cades Cove. The campground was full of activity with children riding their bikes, people walking their dogs and food cooking on campfires and grills. Several visitors were sitting outside the camp store enjoying ice cream cones. We were glad we made reservations in advance. After grilling hot dogs, we attended a presentation about the settlers of Cades Cove and then went to sleep, determined to rise early for a bike ride.
The following morning, a cool mountain mist encircled my face while statuesque shadows watched in quiet darkness as I cycled an uneven road illuminated by my LED headlight. My peripheral vision recorded a pair of antlers on the side of the road, and I pushed harder on the pedals, winding and rolling up and down the darkened Cades Cove Loop Road. A glimpse of my husband’s bike reflector and then the beam from a ranger’s truck lights guided me to turn off the main road to Sparks Lane.
We came to see a fireball emerge from the haze rising over the mountain ridge. As thin layers of fog melted away from the tree line, photographers and leaf peepers gathered alongside us. Meringue clouds of pink and gray were lit by the sun as Mother Nature dressed her mountains in gilded splendor. We rode back to the campground through rows of maple and sweet gum trees and passed a field dotted with jellyrolls of hay aglow with the morning light.
According to the Smokies Guide, the official newspaper of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, “fall colors usually peak between October 15 and November 7.” Cades Cove’s 11-mile-long loop road has extremely heavy traffic in late October, with people stopping to photograph meadows, mountains and wildlife. Frequent stops occur to visit log homes, cantilever barns, smokehouses, churches and a gristmill. Early settlers from Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia, who came to raise families, farm and graze cattle, built most of the buildings.
For the establishment of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the State of Tennessee bought the land in and around Cades Cove and gave it to the federal government for park use. The last school in the Cove closed in 1944 and the post office closed in 1947.
Shorter days, colder nights and an inner craving for warm ocean breezes and sandy marsh trails revealed it was time to leave the majestic mountains of Appalachia.
Our trip continued for another 45 days and satisfied our desire for sandy marsh trails as we stayed in oceanside campgrounds, visiting Savannah, Ga., and St. Augustine, Fla., climbing the stairs of four lighthouses and reconnecting with old friends. After traveling 4,854 miles, we arrived back in Connecticut in December ready for the holidays.
A quote from John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley In Search of America summed up our experience: “The journey had been like a full dinner of many courses, set before a starving man.” Traveling by motorhome and camping in state, national and private campgrounds certainly satiated our appetites.
For More Information
Blue Ridge Parkway
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Shenandoah National Park