Everybody's National Parks | ENP 26: Great Smoky Mountains Revisited with Moon’s Jason Frye
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  • ENP 26: Great Smoky Mountains Revisited with Moon’s Jason Frye
    Fontana Lake, Great Smoky Mountains National Park - photo by Jason FryeFontana Lake, Great Smoky Mountains National Park - photo by Jason Frye
    Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park book by Jason FryeMoon Great Smoky Mountains National Park book by Jason Frye
    Jason Frye in Great Smoky Mountains National Park - photo by Jason FryeJason Frye in Great Smoky Mountains National Park - photo by Jason Frye
    Danielle speaks with author Jason Frye. His updated guidebook, Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is available starting April 21, 2020. Jason offers tips for avoiding crowds, how to see the synchronous fireflies and off the beaten path places to explore.

    Moon Travel Guides

    Thank you to Moon Travel Guides for sponsoring this episode. We love Moon Travel Guides. Whenever our family is deciding where we want to go next, we consult our copy of Moon USA National Parks. This is a great follow up to our podcast series on the Smokies that came out in June of 2018: Everybody’s National Parks episodes 6.1-6.7. If you're planning a trip, you'll want to listen to those episodes and get the new moon guidebook.

    Hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains for Generations

    Great Smoky Mountains National Park sign, Lakeview Drive - photo by Jason Frye Great Smoky Mountains National Park sign, Lakeview Drive - photo by Jason Frye
    Not a whole lot has changed in the park since Jason first visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park in the 1970s. Visiting with his family now brings back memories of past visits with his siblings and parents. He can take a hike with his wife and reminisce about playing on a particular rock with his sister when she was three year’s old. To Jason, the static nature of the park is one of its most beautiful aspects. One thing that makes The Smokies special is its wilderness, protected since the logging companies left at the inception of the park in the 1930’s. It creates a wild, untouched and natural place that is a rarity in today's world.

    We did an interview with Ken Burns (episode 13). Last year, and that was one of my biggest takeaways from that conversation was that it's important to see these places, the Smoky Mountains, the Grand Canyon, the walls of Yosemite, but it's equally as important, whose hand you're holding. I love visiting the parks, but it's more than seeing a place. It's the memories we create together.

    How to See the Synchronous Fireflies at Great Smoky Mountains

    There is a colony of synchronous fireflies at the Elkmont Campground, which is located midway between the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Cades Cove on the western, Tennessee side of the Smokies. You may see them during the fireflies mating season, which runs from mid-May to early June in the Smokies. To protect the ecosystem and the firefly colony, there is a lottery system on recreation.gov. The fireflies show up around dusk around seven o'clock. until maybe 9:30pm. “It's an amazing experience to see that. It really does look otherworldly. Almost like Christmas lights or fairy lights are just sort of hanging there and someone's controlling them like the lights in a concert, but it's nature. And that's one of the most amazing things about them.”

    Tips for Avoiding Crowds and Visiting Cades Cove for a Weekend Getaway in the Smokies

    Photo by Jason FryePhoto by Jason Frye
    Abrams Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park - photo by Jason FryeAbrams Falls, Great Smoky Mountains National Park - photo by Jason Frye
    • Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park. If you go more than two or three miles down a trail, you get away from crowds. You will find that quiet place to get away from the crowds.
    • For a weekend trip in the front country, Jason thinks for all of its popularity one of the best spots to go is absolutely Cades Cove. He recommends this even though hundreds of thousands of visitors drive that 11-mile loop every year.
    • On Wednesdays and Saturdays, it's car free from dawn until 10:00 am. Bring your own bicycle or rent a bicycle from the camp store so you may spend the whole morning riding your bicycle around that loop. You will see wildlife and have the best photo opportunities in the Smokies’ misty dawn. Those are moments that you're looking for. It's a perfect time to get out especially if you have kids. If you're looking for a front country camping weekend, camp at the Cades Cove Campground, bring your bikes or rent a bike and take advantage of that Saturday morning when you can go out and ride car-free.

    • Inside Cades Cove, do a 5-mile hike to Abrams Falls. It's a good distance for beginner to intermediate hikers. “I've seen everybody from toddlers to 90 year olds on it, and every one of them has the same reaction when they pop out at the end and see that waterfall. They do exactly what I do. They stand there for a minute. They look around. They breathe in that air. That smile breaks across their face and then they pop off their boots and socks and put their feet in the water for a minute to rest.”
    • Another thing you can do from Cades Cove is travel the one-way, primitive Rich Mountain Road located across from the Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church before the halfway point of the loop. It offers unique and spectacular views of the park and ends near Townsend, Tennessee. And right where it comes out is the cave system of Tuckaleechee Caverns. The Smokies are full of caves, and this is one of the bigger ones. You can visit this cave and you'll get a break from the summer heat.
    • You can hike to Rocky Top, the one from the song. It is one of the mountains that rings the valley around Cades Cove. It's 14 miles roundtrip, so plan accordingly. It is an excellent place to go for a weekend front country experience and a quick getaway in the Smokies.
    Jason Frye at Abrams Falls - photo by Jason FryeJason Frye at Abrams Falls - photo by Jason Frye

    Off the beaten Path Weeklong trip in the Smokies

    To see the different sides of the park is important - not just the North Carolina side on the east and the Tennessee side on the west, but the different sort of pockets of it.
    • Fontana Lake: Start near Fontana Lake in the southern end of the park near Bryson city, North Carolina for a day or two of hiking, fly fishing and time on the lake. The Appalachian Trail crosses Fontana Dam and enters the Smokies there. At Fontana Lake, there's the Road to Nowhere, which is a failed building project. A few miles outside of town at the end of Lakeshore Drive there is a tunnel that goes through the mountains and leads to some trailheads. You walk through this quarter mile long tunnel, which is a very odd way to start your hike in the middle of a paved road, and you pop out the other side and right there where you hike the 5-mile Goldmine Loop or the 35-36 mile Lake Shore Trail, which follows the whole northern edge of Fontana lake. There are a dozen backcountry campsites or some B&Bs and motels in Bryson City. There are also private and National Park campgrounds at Deep Creek. -- there or you can go back control And stay at one of those campsites for a night or two or even do the whole of the lake shore trail.
    • Gatlinburg: Then move over to Gatlinburg or to Pigeon Forge, but instead of getting down in the middle of all the kitsch and bright lights, find a cabin in the hills surrounded by nature nestled up against The Smokies. You get the conveniences of town just 15 minutes away with restaurants, shops and entertainment while still being only a few minutes from many trailheads.
    • Cades Cove: Explore Cades Cove if you haven't done that yet.
    • Cosby Campground area: Explore the Cosby area. There's another big campground that people overlook in favor of the larger, more popular ones. From Cosby Campground, there are several great long and short hikes that connect over to the Appalachian Trail.
    • Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail: Explore the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, which goes through a little cove that's packed with waterfalls and old home sites and has several great hikes.
    • Asheville, NC: Finally, by the time you've done days of hiking and exploring in the woods, you've earned a little urban oasis. Jason likes to end a week long trip with a night in Asheville, NC with its fantastic food and beer scene. If you want to take your time, you can spend a few hours on the Blue Ridge Parkway from The Smokies near Cherokee, North Carolina all the way to Asheville. Alternatively, you may drive just over an hour on the interstate. Asheville has hiking, tubing and stand up paddle board or kayak rentals on the French Broad River. You can combine city life and outdoor adventure to transition back into the regular world.
    Elk at Oconaluftee - photo by Jason FryeElk at Oconaluftee - photo by Jason Frye

    Solitude on a Weekend Backpack Advenure around Fontana Lake

    If you're looking for a weekend trip focused on the backcountry, Jason loves Fontana Lake for its isolation and the wild ruggedness of the mountains in that area, juxtaposed against streams and waterfalls that are emptying out into the lake. You get all the natural elements of the air, the water and the campfire in the backcountry to build a great weekend. From The Road to Nowhere, there are several different trails you can take to Clingmans Dome, to the Appalachian Trail, or take you to some of the seldom seen spots. If you're an angler, get your permit and your North Carolina fishing license and bring your fly rod because several of those streams are loaded with trout.
    Watching the Falls with Tubes - photo by Jason FryeWatching the Falls with Tubes - photo by Jason Frye

    First Time Family Backpacking Trip with Kids in Catalouchee

    Cattalouchee has a good place to camp that is more front country than backcountry. But for inexperienced backpackers and young kids, it's easy to get into a more isolated front country campsite than to camp deep in the woods. There's an elk herd in the valley. Elk used to be native to the Smokies and were hunted to extinction in the late 1700’s. They've been reintroduced in the last 20-30 years and the populations are booming now. There are short, medium and long trails. The Rough Fork Trail is only a couple of miles out and back, flat, and beside a stream where you will see historic structures. There’s the Little Cattalouchee Trail, which is six miles one way with significant elevation gain, but you can hike as far as you want, turn around and come back. That's a good way for beginners and young hikers to get a taste of the outside before you go on to tackle one of the bigger trails like Booger Man Trail or Big Creek to Midnight Hole - a waterfall and swimming hole. That’s a good way to experience camping before you really decide to go get a backcountry permit, stay in a shelter, keep your food up in the tree so the bears don't get it and the whole more hardcore camping experience.

    Visiting the Smokies in Fall, Spring and Summer

    • Fall: Jason’s birthday is in October so he finds fall to be a stupendous time in the Smokies. The colors out there are unbelievable. There's enough elevation that if you're there at the right time, you can take that picture where the top of the mountains are just a blaze of color, but it's still green down at the bottom. You can also get there when the whole mountain looks like a patchwork quilt.
    • Spring: Jason loves the spring for wildflowers.
    • Summer: However, living on the coast of North Carolina in the summer gets hot and humid, summer in the mountains offers some relief. For every thousand feet in elevation that you gain, you lose three degrees in temperature. You get high in those mountains, exposed on a ridge line with a breeze coming through and it's already cooler up there.

    Sunset in Great Smoky Mountains National Park - photo by Jason FryeSunset in Great Smoky Mountains National Park - photo by Jason Frye

    Blooming on the Abrams Falls Trail - photo by Jason FryeBlooming on the Abrams Falls Trail - photo by Jason Frye

    Tips to Avoid Cars and Crowds in Fall

    There are corners of the park that get less crowded. Just like on the trails, if you go a little further than everybody else, you’ll find those less crowded spots. Your most popular spots on the roads are Newfound Gap Road, which is the one road that bisects the park. There's no avoiding that road if you want to make an efficient trip. Just know you're going to go a little slow, so listen to a good podcast, book or music and enjoy the ride. During peak visitation, it's going to take you longer than the 45 minutes it usually takes. Cades Cove is a hotspot. The speed limit on the 11-mile loop is 20 miles an hour, but with all the stopping it takes a couple of hours anyway. In fall at the height of color season, it can take four hours to get around that loop. Either go first thing in the morning and try to be one of the first five dozen cars to get in and get around that loop early or try to find one of these other spots.
    • Foothills Parkway: Go see the Foothills Parkway that borders the western edge of the park. There are two sections of it completed, the southern and the northern section, both of which terminate near Gatlinburg. There are a few spots to stop and take pictures as well as hike. Rather than being in the Smoky Mountains National Park, you're looking at it so you'd get a little bit of distance and perspective and has fewer people on those roads.
    • Cattalouchee: You need to put in a little bit of work to get to Cattalouchee and some people aren't willing to do that.
    • Blue Ridge Parkway: On the Blue Ridge Parkway, which terminates against Great Smoky Mountain National Park, there's a spot that you can drive up to the top of the mountain and take a four by four road, about 15 miles into the National Park and then it comes out just outside of Cherokee on the tribal lands. The road is amazing to drive. Seeing The Smokies from that point of view gives you a different perspective.
    • Taking your time is really the biggest key: In fall realizing that everybody else is there for the same reason you are to love and appreciate and gain more of a tie to this place than they already have. If all of us realized that and take our time a little bit, maybe let a car or two out of the parking lot, maybe you get the good spot next time. Patience really goes a long way to helping enjoy it during the peak crowded times.
    Clingman's Dome - photo by Jason Frye Clingman's Dome - photo by Jason Frye

    Additional Recommendations for Gateway Towns

    • Knoxville, TN: It is a big city and considered a gateway town 45 minutes or an hour with traffic from the entrance to the Smokies. There's plenty of outdoor recreation inside the city there's Ijams Nature Park, which is a converted quarry and series of lands that The Nature Conservancy has purchased. There are great museums, art museums, and history of Eastern Tennessee and of the Smoky Mountains. There are options for concerts, food and shopping. It makes for a great base to build your trip from. If you don't want to stay in Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg, with their kitsch, Knoxville certainly is an excellent option.
    • Gatlinburg, TN: Jason’s family has been going since the 1970’s and always used to stay in Gatlinburg. It's kitsch, big and loud with lights all of the time. It's full of funny tourist shops. According to Jason, “There's something really endearing about that to me. It's changed in that it's updated, but it If you just put everybody in 1985 clothing, it's the exact same place that I went to in 1985...And that's fun.” It's the city of pancake houses, But the pancake pantry in Gatlinburg is the first Pancake House in all of Tennessee. And you go there and have one plate of pancakes and you'll know why they're there. There are a lot of pancake houses and there are a lot of moonshine distilleries in Gatlinburg. With the Smoky Mountains on the North Carolina and Tennessee side being hotbeds for moonshining going back to Cades Cove and “Rocky Top”, that's what that whole song is about. They get their corn from a jar. They're not talking about canned corn. They're talking about moonshine. You have some historic moonshiners in Gatlinburg.
    Sunset in Great Smoky Mountains National Park - photo by Jason FryeSunset in Great Smoky Mountains National Park - photo by Jason Frye

    A Brief Description of the Blue Ridge Parkway

    The Blue Ridge Parkway has a lot to offer. It runs 469 miles from Cherokee, North Carolina, to Waynesboro, Virginia. “It is rural, rural, rural.” The closest you get to a city is when you do a loop around Asheville in North Carolina or a loop around Roanoke in Virginia. Other than that, it's woods, farmland, and a few houses here and there. There are plenty of hikes with waterfalls. There are summits, like Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina, which is the highest mountain east of the Mississippi River at 6,684 feet. There's so much to do on the parkway. We talked about the Smokies being crowded in fall. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a mob scene in the fall. Even if you just get up there and drive 10 miles on it, you will understand why and you'll be ready to come back the next year. The way the road is situated, it creates these long views to the south and to the east or to the north and to the west, depending on which side of the mountain you end up on the road. “You get these long bucolic gorgeous views that make you know why people are painters, poets or filmmakers. You look at these [views and think], that's...an inspiring spot. And so they draw people by the thousands and it's just amazing.”

    With the Blue Ridge Parkway terminating right there against the Smoky Mountains, it creates a really nice relationship between those two parks. From overlooks on Newfound Gap road, you can look back and see the Blue Ridge Parkway. From the Blue Ridge Parkway, you can look back and see the mountains that are in the Smokies and really get a sense of the vastness of that space. “I think that the relationship between those two is really critical and driving visitors to both.” You can hop on the parkway and do a few miles. You can come off the parkway and just cross over the mountain through the Smokies over to Tennessee for lunch and come back. It is conducive to people who are making those quick visits.

    In Virginia, The Crooked Road Music Trail takes you to historic spots from the origins of bluegrass and country music, including where the Carter family started singing and the recording studio where country music was first recorded in Bristol.

    “[The Smokies and The Blue Ridge Parkway] showcase the mountains, and demonstrate that they are more than just nature and more than just a place to go see, but they're real, living, breathing places that have contributed to the American culture, and to world culture. They're fascinating to go find those stories that maybe you didn't know about and those connections you didn't realize.”
    Jason Frye at the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail - photo by Jason Frye Jason Frye at the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail - photo by Jason Frye

    Discussion includes the following:

    0:02 About Jason Frye and Moon Travel Guides
    3:23 Jason talks about how Great Smoky Mountains National Park has not changed much since its inception. Every visit brings back memories from his youth.
    4:46 Danielle recalls Ken Burns’ interview on Everybody’s National Parks (episode 13) when he talks about how it is equally important with whom you see these places.
    7:08 How to see the fireflies at the Great Smoky Mountains
    13:12 Description of Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park
    16:02 Suggested weekend itineraries: Tips for Visiting Cades Cove, Abrams Falls Tuckaleechee Caverns, Townsend, TN; Rocky Top
    20:08 Suggested Off the Beaten Path Weeklong Itinerary - Fontana Lake, Bryson City, NC; Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge, Cosby, Roaring Fork, Asheville, NC
    24:22 Solitude on a Weekend Backpack Advenure around Fontana Lake
    27:17 Intro to Family Backpacking with Kids at Catalouchee
    30:56 Visiting the Smokies in Fall, Spring and Summer
    33:14 Tips to Avoid Cars and Crowds in Fall: Foothills Parkway, Cattalouchee, Blue Ridge Parkway
    36:38 Additional Recommendations for Gateway Towns: Knoxville and Gatlinburg
    41:27 A Brief Description of the Blue Ridge Parkway
    45:59 Jason’s Favorite Moment


    Follow Jason Frye on Instagram @beardedwriter
    Get the updated guidebook, Moon Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Listen to Everybody’s National Parks podcast series on Great Smoky Mountains National Park (episodes 6.1-6.7).

    Note: This episode is coming out in spring of 2020 during COVID-19 please be safe and follow guidelines to stay at home in social distance. If you are going to a national park, check the website for specific closures and guidelines for that park. The content of this interview is to inspire future travel once it is safe to do so. Thank you and we hope you and your loved ones stay healthy.