I came into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from the North, coming in off route 40 headed towards Knoxville, TN. After getting off 40, I drove through Sevierville (where my hotel was) and Pidgeon Forge, and just bypassed Gatlinburg which is on the edge of the park. I was shocked by how much Sevierville/Pidgeon Forge (there isn't much of a gap between them) put me off. Along the main stretch of road, there are an incredible number of hotels, chain restaurants, flashing lights and neon signs. There were many 'Dinner and a Show' places, raceways and go carting, a little bungee jump place, indoor skydiving (wind tunnel), arcades, a 'Movie Rider', skate park, 'Jurassic Jungle Boat Ride', and probably many more strange things. I have no idea what the area is built up like this. Dollywood is nearby, I don't know if that's what started it or not. I expected to be vaguely in the middle of nowhere when I got near the park, but instead felt like I was at a circus or something. Only two of the attraction sorts of things were things I wasn't sad to see. The first was cheap helicopter rides. I don't know what it gets you, but all the places had signs that said \$10. The second was pancake houses. There are a half dozen 'Flapjacks' alone (it's 20 miles or so from route 40 to the park - the traffic lights have mile marker indications, which I liked), and many others going by other names. I did eat at a Flapjacks, but wasn't entirely impressed, least of all by their pancakes. I also ate at a 'Buddy's BBQ', which I was pleased to find.
Anyway, I got to the park, and stopped at the Sugarlands Visitors Center, which is basically the first thing you run into when you get to the park. The park doesn't charge admission, so there were lots of donation boxes around. Some of them were associated with buying maps, and I ended up getting a 'Starter Pack' with many maps and guides for only \$5. Seemed like the best deal. Also at the visitor's center (and various other parking areas) there was a First Amendment Expression Area, which I was humored by.
From the visitor's center I headed down Newfound Gap Road on my way to Clingman's Dome. This is at the highest peak in the park, and therefore 'On Top of Old Smoky'. The road to Clingman's Dome ends at a parking lot, and then it's a paved walkway the remaining half mile to the top of the mountain. It's a somewhat steep walkway, and pretty busy.
But that's to be expected, being the highest peak. At the top is an observation deck, with a looping ramp up.
I wasn't expecting that, but it puts you above the trees so you can see all the way out.
Once I was back in my car, driving back down from the dome, I saw my first bear of the trip. It was right along the side of the road, happily just poking it's nose around in the grass, presumably eating something. It seemed not to care at all about the cars and spectators it was attracting. After a few minutes, I wanted to keep moving, so I drove by it, and snapped a picture out my window:
Now mid-afternoon, I headed to my hotel for check-in. The main thing that kicked off this road trip was a Nine Inch Nails concert in Knoxville, which was this evening. On my way in, I'd seen signs that there was some construction on the roads in Knoxville right where I wanted to be, so I wanted to get in early, in case I needed to find my way around. It turned out to not be any problem at all, so I had plenty of time to try to find somewhere to eat. I didn't find much near the convention center, where the concert was, besides 'Market Square' which had a few places, only one of which (that I noticed) was a national chain place (a Subway). I ate at Trio's, which I'd happily go back to.
The concert was, of course, awesome. NIN always put on quite a show. If they release a dvd for this tour (as they have for 2 previous tours), I'll be delighted to get it. They do lots of fun video things, and had an awesome setup. Best of all, they played for nearly 2 hours. With a music library stretching back 20 years, they had no problem filling the time, and drew from all of their albums. The opening act was a band called 'Deerhunter', who, apparently, were from Pidgeon Forge. When the tour was announced, a little 'sampler' was released (still available, at that link), with a song from each of the various opening bands that would be joining NIN along the way. Sadly, Deerhunter was perhaps my least favorite of the three. At the concert, their music was decent enough, but they didn't put on much of a show. The lead singer (a guy) came out dressed as a cheerleader, skirt and all, and couldn't have weighed more than... his guitar probably. It was incredible, and kinda disturbing. They didn't seem to get much respect or adoration from the crowd. All the same, I had a great time. I've not been to many concerts, and the experience in the mosh pit was something few for me. I've now been crowd-surfed over, which is an indication that I was pretty close to the front, I reckon.