The Great Wild East: The Smoky’s, The Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park

Me with a sunset at Shenandoah National Park

Smoky Mountains appear in the distance

The Great Wild East.
Words you don’t hear very often. It is true, the East often is not thought of as a big place for wilderness or wildlife, yet if you look in the right places you can find spectacular beauty that holds it own to the other natural wonders of the world. It’s true you won’t find jagged glacier capped mountains or grizzly bears, but the Appalachian Mountains tell a story of their own. Driving through the rolling hills of Tennessee you first start to see them appear, and it looks something like this:

Little do you know what kind of a treat you are in for if you haven’t been to Appalachia before, the Smoky’s combined with the Blue Ridge Parkway (469 miles) and Shenendoah National Park (101 miles) give you over 600 miles of scenic driving to view wildlife, panoramic vistas, mountains, rivers, waterfalls and more. We made the journey through the parks in around 9 days. We camped 8 of those days, sometimes in pouring rain, other days in weather well over 90 degrees and one of the days we had intended to camp it turned out the National Park Service had previously closed the campground without updating their park literature. Aside from that minor speed bump it was a great time spent hiking, exploring, camping and living outdoors!

Smoky’s with the sun starting to set in the background

The first major hike we took was took a waterfall in the Smoky’s called “Ramsay Cascades”. We weren’t really sure what we were in for. Sure the hike guide said it was strenuous, but we didn’t realize it’d be the hardest hiking in the park. The trail is 4.4 miles into the middle of the wilderness one way. A dusty single lane dirt road leads you down a river creek bed to the parking lot where you cross the river and are hopefully prepared for 4 of the most brutal miles of hiking the Smoky’s have to offer.

View of part of the Ramsay Cascade trail.

The hike is virtually uphill the entire way and at the end it gets very rocky and well… turbulent. I enjoy hiking over craggly huge rocks but it took us a while to navigate up the trail to the waterfall. Along the way I partly thought Nicole might die of overheating and that’d be the end of our vacation. In a funny way I always thought it’d be a bear that’d eat one of us that would end our trip… Uhh where was I, we were able to overcome the obstacles of a rocky steep hike and make it to the top where our reward was a beautiful pristine waterfall cascade:

View of Ramsay Cascade

Ramsay Cascade is quite the beautiful falls, it might not be the pure uninterrupted flow that Yellowstone or Yosemite Falls offer, but it’s intricacies of water falling down from level to level make it a complex, stunning sight in person. We even got to dip into the falls to cool down, which was well worth it, the weather was somewhere over 100 degrees with the heat index that day.

Me after taking a triumphant waterfall dip.

Just making it up the hike and dipping your head into the water feels amazing, we even saw a salamander in the fall, which apparently the park is home to a ton species of.

Salamander Under the Falls

The Cascades were definitely the highlight of the Smoky’s as far as waterfalls go, the park is fairly huge though and everywhere you look there is more pristine natural beauty. The next day after a fairly rainy night (an unfortunately common theme in our time at the Smoky’s) an exhausted Nicole offered me the chance to solo hike up to one of the more popular hikes in the park, the Alum Cave trail. The trail, which starts up the side of the mountain gives you a pretty good cross section view of what the park is all about. Rivers, mountains and as the visitor center welcome video so wonderfully eloquated “quirks”. Odd beauty that is seemingly special and different from anything you can see anywhere else. The Alum Cave trail takes you right through the heart of one of those quirks, the “Arched Rock” formation.

Arched Rock in the middle of Alum Cave trail in the Smoky Mountains

Arched Rock is exactly what a sounds like, a large arched rock that sits smack dab in the middle of the trail, seemingly coming out of nowhere to form a beautiful halfway marker for the trail. You might be thinking to yourself “but wait Jesse, this is Smoky Mountain National Park, not Arches National Park,” I thought the same thing, but nevertheless the arch is in the middle of the trail.

Other side of the arch

Solo hiking always brings out the competitive nature in me. I always aspire to see how fast I can hike difficult hikes, with no one else to wait for or slow me down I push the pace to the hardest I can. I was able to make the ascent to Alum Cave, a fairly strenuous hike in less than an hour, which for being straight up hill was very good time.

Green Smoky Mountains on the hike up

The Cave itself is really more of a overhang which is cavernous, seemingly coming out of nowhere you feel dwarfed by it’s magnitude while sitting inside of it.  It makes you feel as if you are just a tiny pebble sitting under the stoop of life… or something like that.

Alum Cave
View looking out of the cave.

Overall the hike makes for a very good cross section of the different environments you’ll experience in the Smoky’s. From the beautiful river running through the beginning of the hike, to the ascent up the slopes of the mountain to the fascinating quirks of the Arch and the Cave it has something for every nature lover to enjoy.

The Smoky’s was a truly fantastic park with beautiful unique scenery everywhere you turn your head, overlooks provide fantastic views of the moutains and it’s highest point, Clingman’s Dome is the 3rd highest point east of the Mississippi.

Smoky Mountains and clouds

The views from Clingman’s are accessed through a steep .5 mile hike up to a veritable monstrosity of a concrete lookout tower.

Ugly concrete lookout tower

There used to be another wooden lookout tower, but I guess they though this thing looked better? I guess it’s become somewhat iconic, but it’s an eye sore, and you can’t even get a 360 view without looking at a big concrete pillar. At any rate it does offer you some pretty phenomenal views of the surrounding areas.

Me on the concrete monstrosity

While the Smoky’s did offer there fair share of panoramic vistas and scenic views little did I know that they would pale in comparison to the 469 mile stretch of driving ahead of us on the spectacular scenic byway known as the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Entry sign for the Blue Ridge Parkway

No stop signs, no semis, no traffic jams, just two lanes of traffic as far as the eye can see and more than enough opportunities to stop your car get out and view the beauty of scenic North Carolina and Virginia over and over again.

Early view from the Parkway just outside of Smoky Mountain National Park

Little did we know the Parkway is basically a fully featured National Park on it’s own right offering camping, hiking, visitor centers, over 100 scenic overlook opportunities and more to those who drive on it. Unfortunately our first day on the parkway was much the same as our experience was for most of Smoky’s. Rain. Rain rain and more rain. The mist ran so thick at some parts it was hard to see the road in front of you.

Oh boy, what a view!
Misty Mountains
Highest Point on the Parkway! View shrouded in mist.

Fortunately our luck took a turn for the better in the next few days. It also afforded us spectacular views of some of the most spectacular panoramic vistas I’ve ever seen. In particular, the view from Devil’s Courthouse was absolutely spectacular.

View of Devil’s Courthouse

Words cannot possibly describe the beauty and pictures cannot do it justice. For lack of justice here is a picture of part of the view:

Me with part of the view
Another part of the view

The view was seriously one of the top 5 most amazing pieces of scenic nature I had seen. Already having been to see some amazing places out west where the elevation was higher I was not expecting this, but it blew me away with how unreal it was.

Panorama of the View from Devil’s Courthouse

There were several other “wow” moments from the views on the Parkway as well. This is without even mentioning the phenomenal hiking throughout. There are various different places to camp alongside the road on the parkway and they also afford you the opportunity to experience a night outside with the parkway itself. The first place we camped at Mount Pisgah, the altitude (5000+) feet and winds at night made it very unique, but there were many opportunities like this all across the park to stop and see something truly special.

Panoramic View from the top of Craggy Gardens
Me with the view from Craggy Gardens
Blue Ridge Parkway continues to run through the Mountains

The beautiful points on this road are numerous, things such as Mount Mitchell (the highest point east of the Mississippi), Craggy Gardens, Devil’s Courthouse, Mount Pisgah, Linville Falls, Grandfather Mountain, Linn Cove Viaduct, Otter Peak and many many more sites all run on this stretch of road. I would recommend it to anyone with the time, even seeing it without Shenandoah or the Smoky’s would make for an incredible vacation.

View from the top of Mount Mitchell, highest point East of the Mississippi.
Another view from Mount Mitchell State Park
View of Lower Linville Falls
View of me with the Linn Cove Viaduct and Grandfather Mountain

Nicole and I even managed to go on a small canoeing trip at a lake right past Grandfather Mountain which almost ended in disaster. When my commands of “paddle out” didn’t work we careened full speed into a large rock (seemingly the only one on the shore of the lake). No worse for the damage though as we luckily didn’t tip the canoe and I only got a small bruise on my leg after being thrown from my seat into the canoe support beam.

View from the lake of Grandfather Mountain, pre rock collision

All in all the Blue Ridge Parkway was a glorious drive through the eastern scenic parts of Virginia and North Carolina. The only real issue we encountered was the fact that the Roanoke Campground had for some reason been closed and no one decided to update the park information about that. This resulted in a somewhat harried scramble to find a place to stay in Roanoke, VA. Fortunately we met a fairly eccentric man named Roberto from AirBnB who was able to provide us a place to stay so we did not have to spend a night in the Prius, cursing the National Park service.

View from the top of Otter Peak via the Sharp Top Trail. (Not pictured ravenous swarm of black biting bugs)
Rocky Overlook on the top of Otter Peak
At Roosters Roost on the Sharp Top Trail
View from the Roost

The next day after spending roughly 4 days and nights on the Blue Ridge we headed into Shenandoah National Park. It for all intents and purposes was set up very similarly to the Blue Ridge Parkway, just much much smaller. The park was 101 miles of road called Skyline Drive which passed over various scenic overlooks and places to camp and hike. Not to be outdone though, Shenandoah offered spectacular views of Northern Virginia.

National Park Sign entering Shenandoah National Park

On our way into the park we saw something we had been anxious to see our entire trip. A massive black bear sat directly on the side of the road, I tried to get a picture but the bear stumbled across the road and out into the forest before I could get a decent image. Our first night there we were able to find parking and set out to hike up to the top of Loft Mountain near our campground to view the sunset, and what a spectacular sunset it was.

Me with the setting sun from the top of Loft Mountain
Sun sets over the Mountains

The next day we decided to do some hiking and to our surprise, a lot of that hiking include large rock scrambling which is always a lot of fun.

Big Ole Rocks

The combination of climbing over big rocks and panoramic vistas made it quite different than the Blue Ridge, it was an adventure with a view!

View from the top of the rocks.
More rocks to scramble over, and mountains to view
Big ole’ rocks with a view from Hawksbill Mountain

To see one last sunset over these beautiful green mountains we headed for a scenic overlook. It was a fitting ending to our visit of this chain of National Parks that encompasses the Smoky Mountains,  the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park. The beauty of these parks will forever be etched into my memory. The Great Wild East, something I had never thought much about being beautiful scenic and wild is alive and well. These monuments of the Appalachian Mountains are beautiful and offer stunning scenic visuals in this area that rival any natural beauty on Earth that I have seen before. As the sun fell below the horizon I smiled knowing that I had seen the parks exactly how I wanted to, and they were far more beautiful than I could ever have imagined.

Me watching one final sunset over the Appalachian Mountains

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