I had thought about getting a pretty early start to the morning to go for a run at an area of the park known as Cades Cove. There is a scenic 11 mile road there, with lots of places to stop and look at things, like historic log cabins. All of the roads in the park (that I was on) had lots of places to stop and look at the scenery, and probably all of the stops are worthwhile, if you've got lots of time. Anyway, the reason I had thought about doing this run was that the road is closed Wednesday (which it was) and Saturday mornings until 10am, to allow cyclists and pedestrians to have the road to themselves. However, when I talked to somebody at the information desk the day before, he mentioned that I was very likely to see bear if I did this. Seeing bear driving is one thing, but running is a whole new matter. Especially because one of the first things they tell you, for if you encounter a bear, is not to run. Besides his warning, at dinner the night before I had seen on the news that there had been a bear attack on a human that same day. It was the first attack since 2000, and billed as quite rare, but I was still a bit un-nerved. I also saw in the news that there was a local school that wasn't starting on time because they couldn't get their budget worked out. I was pretty surprised by this, but when I mentioned it to a friend, he said this was happening in several places. He said some of the schools are going to 4-day weeks to save some costs.
So I decided not to go on the run, planning instead on hiking a trail loop starting at Cades Cove. Cades Cove is less than 30 miles from the Sugarlands Visitor's Center, at the entrance to the park, and it takes about an hour to drive. I figured I could head out and do the hike, then drive the popular road loop. One of the first things I did when I started the hike was to pick up a walking stick. The main reason was that I didn't want to have to be finding sticks to defend myself with from a bear as it attacked me. I wanted to have one ready to go, just in case. Probably silly, but there you have it.
Perhaps a mile or so in on the trail, I came to a clearing with this log cabin:
While still basically in sight of the cabin, along the trail, I saw 2 dear in the woods. I was glad I was doing the hike, instead of one of the many people on the road who didn't get to see the deer. Sure, a cabin or two is probably interesting to see, but deer are more fun. They didn't seem too upset with me, and let me pass without running away. The trail continued slightly uphill for a short while, at which point I encountered my first bear of the day. It was right there on the trail, and actually I kinda came around a corner and saw it, so got closer than I was happy with. After backing off, and getting my picture,
I waited around and listened to the bear wander off slowly into the woods. When it sounded far enough away, I continued on along the trail.
From that point on, I was pretty nervous hiking. Every sound in the woods gave me pause. Not long (15 minutes, maybe) after my first bear encounter, I was heading up a larger hill, and heard something off to my left. I couldn't see anything, but it wasn't far off the trail. So I backed up, and tried making a little bit of noise (coughing, tossing a stone at a larger rock on the trail). I wasn't trying to scare whatever it was, I just wanted it to know I was there, so I didn't surprise it. Bear Grylls [wiki] taught me to make my presence known. Seems to me a frightened animal is more dangerous, and I didn't want to encounter any of that. So anyway, I stood there for a while, not seeing anything, and not hearing it wander off. So I tried heading up the trail again, keeping a keen eye out. Before I got too close, I saw that it was, indeed, another bear. They tell you, in addition to not running, that if a bear attacks you are supposed to make yourself look bigger, by holding up your arms and standing on a rock or tree stump. Being downhill, this knowledge made me fairly uncomfortable. I backed off again from the bear (couldn't get a good picture this time), and decided that perhaps I'd try my luck along another trail (one that I was actually more interested in, since it was in higher mountains).
On my way back down the trail, right where I had seen the first bear, I heard something that sounded large on the side of the trail again. This time the sound was coming up, toward the trail, from a little valley, so I couldn't see anything. I started moving faster, keeping myself pointed toward the noise, holding my arms up, and talking at the noise. I never did see anything, happily. Shortly thereafter, I passed a few hikers heading back in that direction, and told them to keep an eye out. They seemed eager to see a bear, so I hope they got the opportunity. I, on the other hand, was fed up with seeing bears, and was glad not to have any more encounters. However, the rest of the day I was nervous, and on high alert.
The next main portion of my trip was a long hike along the Bull Head and Rainbow Falls trails (in that order), and was probably the highlight of my Smoky Mountains touring. This is a 12+ mile loop, and there's an additional half-mile spur you can do near the top to bring you to some lodges near the peak of Mt. Le Conte, bringing the total to 13+ miles. This made me feel a little better about not running in the morning, since I'd still be getting a workout. The hike took me just more than 5 hours, but I was kinda pushing myself. The first 2 hours were nearly all uphill, which I simply loved (modulo the being nervous about bears bit). I saw only 4 other hikers this entire time, in 2 groups of 2. It's wonderful how much elevation you can get walking uphill for 2 hours. I was also amazed by how much the vegetation changed along my walk. The trip back down Rainbow Falls trail bring you past, get this - Rainbow Falls. Amazing huh? The falls themselves weren't entirely impressive, though I expect that at wetter times of the year this might not be the case. Even so, it's a beautiful area.
The falls are about 2.5 miles from the nearby parking area, so this section of trail is a little bit busier. One group I caught up to mentioned a mama bear with cubs that I'd apparently just missed on my way down the trail. The bears were apparently just on the other side of the creek from the trail. Probably the cubs were cute, but mama bears are especially dangerous, so I'm not sure how disappointed I am that I missed these guys.
After the hike, I followed the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which is a single-lane, one-way road. I think if you buy the \$1 visitor's guide, it has some information that accompanies the various numbered signs you'll see along the way. It was a quite nice loop, and fun to drive, with lots of nice scenery.
This picture was taken from a stop about a mile from the start of the loop. I almost wished I'd just stayed there the remaining time until sunset. I bet it was amazing. I'd recommend this loop to anybody who was in the area. It doesn't take too long to drive (I think it's only about 6 miles), and is quite pretty.
So there you have it. The Smoky Mountains Park is wonderful, and I highly recommend it. Stop in the visitor's center on your way in and buy some maps to both support the park and help you decide what to do with your time. If you plan on hiking alone, some pepper spray might also help you feel more comfortable about bear encounters. I found the webpage also to be helpful, with lots of good information about planning your trip. The trails I was on were all well marked, and very well maintained. There were signs at all the trail junctions indicating which trail was which, and also indicating distances to the next trail. If you are driving the park, pick any (better: several) of the little stop-offs to get out of your car and wander around. I've posted a few more of my (favorite) pictures over on flickr, if you are interested.