RealImaginarySmokies – Fall Color Camping in the Appalachians

We’re taking one more big road trip to explore our sixth new national park this year and take in the spectacular fall color in the Appalachian Mountains! We start off at our friends’ house in Delaware, Ohio and follow the Scioto River through Columbus to Portsmouth. After following the Ohio River briefly, we’ll head south on US-23 until we get into Northern Virginia, where we’ll go west to Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. Then, we’ll go through Knoxville and set up camp for four nights in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Finally, we move to Indian Boundary Campground in Cherokee National Forest for a night or two, and then we head back home to Cleveland on I-75 and I-71.

Let’s Capture Some Fall Color!

My original plan was to enjoy this year’s fall color while camping for the week at Hocking Hills State Park. This is hands down my favorite park in Ohio, and always gives me ample photographic opportunities. It’s easy to camp there over a weekend, though, so we’re there rather often. Our RealImaginaryWest road trip in July expanded my mind toward new possibilities…and got me thinking about how to scratch another national park off of our list.

Ash Cave at Hocking Hills State Park in Southern Ohio is the largest recess cave east of the Mississippi…and there are a million other beautiful things here…but we have been here many, many times…

Brandywine Falls in Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Northeast Ohio

Frozen Niagara in Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky

The view from the top of Stony Man in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia

We’ve hit three of the four national parks within a day’s drive…Shenandoah in Virginia, Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, and Cuyahoga Valley in our own back yard. The Appalachian Mountains should look incredible this time of year, although higher and colder elevations up north are probably well past peak color. Trees further south should be at peak this week just like our trees in Southern Ohio, so let’s go to Great Smoky Mountains National Park! When I floated the idea past Becky…she was on board, and I began hunting for campsites…

So off we go on another adventure to what will be our sixth new national park for the year! Back in July, we visited Badlands, Wind Cave, Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Rocky Mountain National Parks. Before this, I was always afraid that camping in temperatures lower than 50°F would spell trouble for my asthma, so I never risked it. When I found out that overnight temperatures regularly dip below 40°F at most campgrounds in Yellowstone, I told myself to suck it up…because you’re camping in Yellowstone! Thankfully we risked it and everything was fine, which is great because we’ll have to endure a couple of sub-40°F nights early this week in the Appalachians.

It was well worth enduring chilly nights to enjoy a place like Yellowstone National Park!

Rough Itinerary

Day 1 Sun Starting in Delaware, Ohio, follow the Scioto River down through Columbus to Portsmouth. Follow the Ohio River and then US-23 from Ashland, Kentucky to about Prestonburg or Pikeville where we’ll hopefully find a cheap motel for the night.
Day 2 Mon Continue south on US-23 into Virginia, and then cut over to Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, where the borders of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee meet. From there, we’ll proceed via Knoxville, Tennessee to Elkmont Campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Day 3 Tue Explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Elkmont Campground.
Day 4 Wed Explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Elkmont Campground.
Day 5 Thu Explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park from Elkmont Campground.
Day 6 Fri Leave Great Smoky Mountains National Park and move south to Indian Boundary Campground on the Cherohala Skyway in Cherokee National Forest.
Day 7 Sat If we can get another campsite at Indian Boundary Lake, we’ll stay one more night in Cherokee National Forest.
Day 8 Sun If we’re still there, we’ll depart Cherokee National Forest and take I-75 and I-71 back home to Cleveland.


Even though I’ve done very little planning for this trip, I’m nowhere near as anxious about it as I was when we did our RealImaginaryWest trip back in July. I’d never tried to do anything as extensive as that in my life! I spent some time planning where we would stop and for how long, and I looked at routes…but I was too depressed and overwhelmed to do much beyond that.

Becky took charge of making sure we’d have all the stuff we needed to take with us, and she’s very good at that. But before we headed out, I have to admit that I was still afraid we’d forget something we desperately needed. When I expressed this worry to a friend in Australia, he said, “There’s always Walmart! That’s the best thing about traveling the U.S.!” I never thought about what it’s like in other countries, and I frankly never thought about how much the massive American retail system provides travelers with a safety net.

In any case, I can’t imagine that trip being such a huge success without Becky’s wizardry planning out the logistics. Thanks to her, we had all of the stuff we needed to stay fed, stay watered, stay warm, and stay dry. As a result, I’m sure we spent a lot less time hunting for things we didn’t realize we needed. All of the experience from that trip really decreased my anxiety and increased my confidence that things will work out just fine no matter what—even if we forget the tent.

The only thing I’m even a little concerned with on this trip is our first couple of nights in the tent. About a month after our RealImaginaryWest trip in July, we pulled our air mattress out to use it and discovered it now has mold growing on it. Apparently it was not dry enough when we packed it up at Colter Bay Campground at Grand Teton National Park. So for this trip, we have these very thin and rather uncomfortable mats to sleep on. I’m not sure that they will effectively prevent the ground from sucking all of our heat away. The good news is, we should be able to find something better on the road if these mats don’t work out.

Conserving Cash

Another hope I have for this week-long trip is that we’ll be able to keep our budget down to a minimum. On the trip in July, I felt like I could have planned better to save money on motels and eating out. I’m trying to employ some of what I learned then on this trip. We did pretty well staying at really cheap motels, with only the moldy one in Missouri being a miss. Though I’m not afraid anymore to camp in temperatures below 40°F, I draw the line at the freezing point—and since tonight is the first freeze of the season for the Midwest and Appalachia, I’m hoping we can find another bargain motel for our first night.

Our Route to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Now to get to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the fastest route for us is to follow I-71 and I-75 south to Knoxville, Tennessee. But since we’re leaving on Sunday and won’t be camping until Monday night, there’s no rush. Therefore we’ll take the scenic route south of Columbus along the Scioto River all the way to the Ohio at Portsmouth. From here we’ll follow the Ohio River and cross over to US-23 and drive along the Big Sandy River through Eastern Kentucky, where we’ll hopefully find a cheap motel for the night.

From Eastern Kentucky, we’ll continue down US-23 into Virginia, and then work our way west to Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, where Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky all meet. Cumberland Gap was an early gateway across the Appalachian Mountains for explorers, traders, and settlers from the Eastern Seaboard. From here, we’ll head southwest to Trader Joe’s in Knoxville to stock our cooler for the week. Finally we’ll head out to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where I reserved four nights at Elkmont Campground.

Cherokee National Forest

Back in the late 1990s, I drove across Cherokee National Forest on US-64 on my way from Chattanooga, Tennessee to the coast. The mountains here were gorgeous, so I wanted to take advantage of our proximity and go back to explore this area. After our stay at Elkmont, I was able to reserve a site for one night at Indian Boundary Campground. There were no sites available here for two nights, but it looked like moving to an open site on Saturday would be possible. I decided to forgo reserving a second site to leave our options open.

After we finish up at Cherokee, we’ll head out to I-75 and take it to Cincinnati, where we’ll come home on familiar I-71. It’s only an 8- or 9-hour drive home via freeway, so this should give us a little time to explore in the morning and still get home at a reasonable hour.

Oh the Excitement!

So that’s the plan for this trip! I’m excited once again to see someplace I’ve never been. The weather forecast looks wonderful for the entire week, so we should really be able to enjoy the fall color and get in some good hiking. It will also be our last hurrah for the camping season, and a wonderful cap on a fun year of travel!

Next Post: Day 1 – The Scioto Valley & Eastern Kentucky

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