Summer In The Smokies

Let's talk about favorite places I visited while living in the Smoky Mountains/Pigeon Forge area of Tennessee

By: Angie Vasquez + Save to a List

I took a seasonal summer position as a driving guide with a touring company. I’d be taking tourists to areas in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park while talking about the history and culture of the mountain. I am used to working as a hiking guide, so this was something different for me.

I thought it was gonna be a quaint little town with cute antique shops and unique restaurants, but it was more of a tourist trap. The locals called it the Las Vegas of the East and rightfully so. I initially wanted to rent a space in an RV park for the van, but the prices were way more than I could afford. I decided I’d park in parking lots at places like Cracker Barrel, Walmart, or Lowe's instead and explore the mountains on my days off.

I really loved the job of taking people into the Smoky Mountains. I was able to explore with them and teach them the history of the mountain, even seeing wildlife on numerous occasions. There was one thing missing though, adventure for myself. I spent so much time on the road with others, I didn't give myself enough time to explore on my own. I missed being outdoors.

I decided I’d adventure out and chose somewhere simple. I went to a place named Chimney Top picnic area. The picnic area is nestled in the mountains about four miles through the Sugarlands area towards Newfound Gap. Driving down the road leading to the picnic area is so beautiful. The road is forested on each side with tall oak, poplar, maple, and other varieties of the 130 classified species located within the mountain range.

The sides of the road are filled with wildflowers like buttercup, daffodil, and bee balm. It's like driving through a magical forest! The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is nestled in the Appalachian Mountain range. The range is one of the oldest in the world, dating back 200 to 300 million years. The park is known as the wildflower national park with over 1,100 species of wildflowers. The forest is a temperate rainforest because the area receives between 55 to 100 inches of rain every year. For me, the Smokies is very special because of its uniqueness.

Once at the picnic area, I found a spot right next to the river. The water flows along the giant rocks and made relaxing sounds. I hiked the 1.8-mile trail through the forest, passing water cascades and seeing wildflowers in bloom. It was refreshing to be alone on the trail without guests to entertain. I spent the whole day at the picnic grounds engulfed in nature, I was alive again.

Over the next couple of months, I felt like I worked endlessly. Although I enjoyed being a guide, I began to feel the burnout from driving so much. I never realized how exhausting it was driving eight to eleven hours each day. On my days off, I was too tired to explore. I’d spend my time sleeping and preparing to go back to work. The summer wasn’t going as expected. Stress and anxiety moved in where peace once lived, I needed a new escapade.

Cades Cove

My next adventure took me to Cade's Cove. It was located about one hour away from the Pigeon Forge area. The winding road took me up high into the mountains and dropped me down in the valley where I'd be camping for the next two nights. I took an early evening stroll to see the lay of the land. The hemlock trees at the campsite were so tall I couldn’t see the tops. I walked along the nearby trail and sat on a log in the forest admiring the stream even seeing a young buck deer eating leaves.

The next morning I got up, made breakfast, and loaded my backpack with snacks, water, and my camera equipment. I made my way toward the general store where I rented a bike. You can hike, ride a bike, or drive the eleven-mile Cade’s Cove loop. The motor trail was pretty busy with cars but a few other people were bicycling. 

I totally forgot I was in the mountains as I cruised down the hills but quickly remembered as I headed up the steep inclines. I’ll admit, I definitely struggled and probably walked the bike about thirty percent of the eleven miles. That was okay because the scenery was absolutely amazing! I stopped a few times to walk in the meadows among the wildflowers. I observed bears in their natural habitat including a mom with two cubs and a yearling gorging on black walnuts. During my visit, I saw six bears, two deer, and a barred owl.

Photo: Angie Vasquez

If you decide to visit, I suggest taking the Cades’s Cove loop. You can stop at different places along the way. There many are hiking trails to stroll and streams to play around in. The area has historic churches and cabins from the settlers that called the area home in the 1800s. The Cherokee did not live in the Cade’s Cove area but did frequent it for hunting before the settlers arrived. Archeologists have discovered artifacts dating back to 1000 a.d. from the Cherokee nation in this part of the Smoky Mountains.

Cherokee Native American tribes lived throughout the Smokies for many generations. They lived in log cabins and would hunt, harvest, and prepare their food for the winters. The Tribe's lands were encroached upon by the migrating European settlers who pushed them further out of the mountains. In 1838, the Cherokee Nation were forced off the lands and placed on the Trail of Tears in which over 4000 of the indigenous tribal members died from disease, hunger, and exposure to cold.

Not all of the Cherokee were sent on the route to Oklahoma. Some fled into the mountains to wait out the soldiers. They knew the lands better and despite the government recruiting Cherokee from the Oconaluftee tribe to find their own hidden in the hills, there were a few groups who survived the removal. The Cherokee were eventually given 56,000 acres where more than 10,000 tribal members of the Eastern Band call home.

Cataloochee Campground

The Cataloochee campground is located on the North Carolina side of the park fairly close to I-40. I took Parker the van on a very narrow road that only fit one car at a time. I had to literally stop and pull as close to the mountainside as possible to allow other cars to pass. It was terrifying! Once I got to my campground, it was nearly dark. I parked the van and walked toward the sounds of water from Cataloochee Creek. I immediately felt all of the stresses in life melt away.

The very next morning I woke up and made myself a spinach omelet with vegan sausage. Next, I drove to one of the historical cabins so I could get a bit of sun on my solar panels. I parked next to an open field and got out of Parker. Right in front of me at about 200 yards was a lone bull elk with a large rack walking along the tree line. I had never seen elk in person. It was so amazing to watch as he made his way into the tree line and out of my sight.

Large Bull Elk and His Harem- Photo:Angie Vasquez

Walking along the road towards the stream, I was amazed at the beauty surrounding me. I could see mist moving upward through the mountains giving the effect of smokestacks from a chimney. I walked along the stream listening to the sounds of peace that surrounded me and took off my sandals to dip my feet in the chilly water. Emotions overwhelmed me as I sat on the wooden bridge. I couldn’t believe the environment I’d found myself a part of - the blue sky and green forest. I walked back to Parker and headed back to my campsite.

As I passed the next open meadows, I was greeted by a huge herd of elk! The male and his harem came down from the mountain to feed in the open field. He walked around sizing up the females while bellowing to let the females know he was ready for mating. I stood on the side of the road mystified by what I was witnessing. It was amazing. This wildlife encounter was so surreal.

Summer's end

As summer was winding down and my days at work were nearly done, I was truly feeling burnout. A co-worker suggested we go on an adventure. She took me to some of the places I had taken guests in the park. We drove along the motor trail and spotted my favorite animal, the black bear, climbing the white oak trees in search of acorns. Fall is when the bears go into hyperphagia becoming more active in their eating and drinking habits to put on weight in preparation for the winter. It is definitely a sight to see if you get a chance.

My friend and I also walked along the river and even tried to climb up to an old bear’s den but the rocks were too steep. The two of us walked through the fall leaves in the forest and found a cemetery from some of the first European settlers to the area. It felt great to explore and see things through from a different perspective.

Photo: Angie Vasquez

She then took me to one of her favorite spots, Ramsey Cascades. There was such majestic beauty here. I played on the giant rocks along the prong of the Little Pigeon River and laid in the sun watching the cascade waterfall. Taking off our shoes, we dipped our feet in the cool, refreshing water. I may have slipped and fallen in, but it was so worth it! Communing with nature and enjoying a cool fall day is just what my soul needed. It was the perfect way to spend my last few days in the Smokies.

My time in the Smokies was very fulfilling. I learned a lot about the history of the mountain and its culture. One of the things I enjoy about being a seasonal worker and van dweller is that it gives me the opportunity to travel to new places and learn about the culture of the areas I’m in. I connect with the outdoors and humanity in a way people should but may never experience.

I encourage any person looking to work seasonally in the outdoors to research their dreams, I especially would love to see more people of color working in these spaces because the industry lacks diversity. But, I have seen some change in the six years I’ve been working in nature, so there is hope for the future and humanity. I look forward to helping with that change!

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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