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Monday, August 27, 2012

Monster Geocaching Trip: Day 4, Smokies

With a big day playing in the Smokies ahead of us, we got an early start and headed south out of Cherokee to the Tsali Recreation Area along the southern shores of Fontana Lake.  We drove through quite a few showers on the ride down, but it seems the gods were smiling upon us and it stopped raining just long enough to do the 7 mile roundtrip hike/run to a virtual cache out on the well-maintained bike/equestrian trails.

The next stop was a short one at Fontana Dam: a large concrete mass which you can still drive on, even after all of the restrictions coming out for structures like this after 9/11.  I suppose because this is one of the few access points to the National Park on this southern side, it may need to remain open.

The next area to visit was the town of Proctor, along Hazel Creek on the northern shores of Fontana Lake.  The only dilemma was, it's either a 20+ mile roundtrip hike, or a $50 boat ride from Fontana Marina.  Given the interest of time (and the opportunity of setting the record for the most expensive geocache ever), we opted  for the boat ride to the mouth of Hazel Creek and we really enjoyed the 2 or so miles we hiked around the ghost town of Proctor.  This was also our first official entry into the National Park, and an official "bucket list" item checked off for dad.

Approaching Fontana Marina

Getting dropped off at Hazel Creek
I look really annoyed here, but was actually having a great time!

Main Street in Proctor
The 3 hours flew by and we were soon back at the lake, waiting to be picked up.  While we were sitting, we enjoyed some intimate experiences with nature in the forms of a hummingbird buzzing overhead and a curious water snake near the banks of the lake.

After we got back to the car, we immediately got on our way to the next location on the list: Clingman's Dome (the highest peak in the smokies, Tennessee, and along the Appalachian Trail).  Interestingly enough, the "crow flies" distance from Proctor is roughly 14 miles, but the shortest route by car is to go around the park to the east (back through Cherokee) and nearly 70 miles to reach the dome parking area.

It was getting hot and humid at the lower elevations and we were glad to be getting back up above 6000', where the weather was a bit cooler!

The long, steep climb from the parking area to the top of the mountain was very deceiving, as from the parking area, it looks to be only a few hundred foot climb.  Needless to say, the 1/2 mile up got our blood pumping along with many, many, others on this gorgeous day.  The NPS kindly placed benches along the way up to rest our legs and lungs.

Approaching the CROWDED top of the dome

We could almost touch the parking area!  (this photo was actually taken about half way down the path)

Along the steep approach trail up Clingman's Dome
What do you do after visiting the highest point in the Smokies?  Go down of course...about 5000' down to the Sugarlands Visitor's Center and the mile loop Fighting Creek Nature Trail and some good old fashioned Tennessee Virtual Cachin':

One of the final stops of the day was in the Elkmont area of the park, where we encountered the star of the video below, just a couple hundred feet from a heavily occupied car camping area.  This guy was obviously scouting for food, and this is another reminder that when we stay in "their home", we really need to store food properly, or fellas like this could end up shot.

We got a room in the bustling town of Gatlinburg for our final night of the trip.  This place was a serious commercialized contrast to the park's North Carolina neighbors to the east, like Bryson City and Cherokee.

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