Driving the Smokies, looking for GPS points

Yesterday I drove over 220 miles in and out of back roads in Great Smoky Mountains National Park but didn’t hike one of these miles. On such a beautiful day, I was on a mission and in my car. Sad…

Friends of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail is writing a trail guide for the 1,000 miles MST across North Carolina. It will be first trail guide written by volunteers and owned by Friends of the MST. We have a capable professional editor at the helm, so the guide will be accurate and up-to-date. All sections will have the same format. I’m writing the first section in the mountains: Clingmans Dome to Waterrock Knob.

I’ve written the directions [turn left, turn right] and the other required sections. Only the GPS points for the parking areas remained. That was the job for yesterday.

If you look at the Smokies map, they still show the old route that starts at Clingmans Dome and ends at Mingus Mill. Now, the MST will go down Deep Creek but head for Smokemont campground, up Bradley Fork and Chasteen Creek and eventually end up on Straight Fork Road. From there, you walk to Pin Oak Gap and on Heintooga Rd. If you can’t picture the route, get a map where those trails might be clearer.

I was using my car GPS.

First stop was Waterrock Knob, the end of my guide section. Motorcyclists were already in the parking lot, admiring the views. I must say that I just wrote down the points and moved on.

Going backwards, or west, I stopped at Soco Gap where I saw the sign above.

The piece of paper says NO EXIT.

What it means that you can hike the MST from Soco Gap but it won’t take you to Waterrock Knob, at this time. The Carolina Mountain Club is still working on building the route to Waterrock Knob.  They’re getting there. But for now, at some point, you will hit a trail under construction and then, just a forest.

Then up to Heintooga Road, off the Blue Ridge Parkway, stopping at every named overlook to get a GPS point. When I reached the one-way section, I had a choice. Do I drive the unmaintained road at 15 miles an hour or do I turn around and go through Cherokee and out Straight Fork Rd? I chose the latter, though Straight Fork Rd is just as unmaintained and no picnic to drive either. These minor park entrances are not on the tourist circuit.

Back through Cherokee, following the speed limit meticulously, I finally got to Oconaluftee Visitor Center. I went in to say hello to the rangers behind the desk, dropped off Friends of the MST pamphlets and signed copies of my books, being sold at the park bookstore.

Finally up to Clingmans Dome in the afternoon. The parking area was almost full. I visited the Clingmans Dome information station and went through the same routine as in OVC – hello, give them FMST pamphlets and sign. But here, I paused to admire the view. See above.

It was a slow drive down Newfound Gap Rd. A little way before Oconaluftee Visitor Center, an elk with a large rack of antlers, was just ambling in a field. There was a full-on elk jam, complete with visitors out of their car and getting too close to the elk. Others stopped in the middle of the road to take a picture and a volunteer in uniform trying to keep order.

But what was that male elk doing by himself? Why wasn’t he working on getting his harem together? The rut–mating season–is starting and he’s wasting time just parading for visitors. One possibility is that he’s an geezer elk and past his prime.

Always something new in the Smokies, even if I didn’t walk a mile. Watch for the MST instructions on the web in a little while.


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