RealImaginarySmokies Day 2 – Cumberland Gap & Camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

We continued south on US-23 into Virginia and cut west on Alt-58 and US-58 to Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, where Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee all meet. After enjoying the view there at Pinnacle Overlook, we stocked up on groceries in Knoxville and drove through Townsend into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where we set up at Elkmont Campground.

In Search of Breakfast

We spent our first night on the road in a warm cozy room at the Eastern Heights Motel in Ivel, Kentucky. We were up bright and early at 6:30am and got on the road just before first light at 7:15am. An early high fog hung just over the hills, shrouding the tops in mystery. About a half an hour after we got going, the sun quickly burned it all off.

We decided to start our day by looking for breakfast. I preferred finding a mom & pop greasy spoon over a national chain place. I expected that there would be plenty of these along US-23, but I was hard-pressed to find any using Google Maps the night before…maybe they never got on the map? So we kept driving south along the highway, keeping our eyes open for prospects.

As we came up to Pikeville, about 10-15 miles from our motel, we decided to exit and search there in hopes of finding something. What I didn’t know is that Pikeville is a more sizeable college town. While there were large sports facilities, parking decks, and big-brand hotels, there was not much in the way of restaurants—especially for breakfast. On the main drag that appeared to be where the US highway used to snake through, we did find Roasted, Coffee and Cafe. However, I didn’t see any breakfast choices that appealed to me for the $5 price tag. So Becky bought her usual espresso and we continued south.

Eventually, we began ascending further and further up hills in the mountains until we went over Pound Gap and crossed into Virginia. Mom & pop dining options along the way were sparse, and we often missed them until we were about to pass them at nearly freeway speed…so it was after 9am and I was still quite hungry. Finally, near the town of Wise, we passed through a commercial strip area where I settled for Huddle House. While the food wasn’t super spectacular or super cheap, it did hit the spot so we could continue on our way.

Morning fog lingers over a valley to the south of Pound Gap.

It wasn’t far to the south where we finally diverged from US-23 at Big Stone Gap and started following Alternate US-58, which is known as Trail of the Lonesome Pine Road most of the way. We passed through several quaint little old valley towns with some beautiful brick buildings right up against the street. In Jonesville, the alternate leg of US-58 joins the mainline highway again and we began following the Wilderness Road. After we meandered our way through countryside and a few more hamlets, we arrived at Cumberland Gap National Historic Park.

Cumberland Gap National Historic Park

Now the Wilderness Road was one of only two good routes across the Appalachian Mountains into Kentucky (the other was the Cumberland Road, which later became part of the National Road that went across from Cumberland, Maryland). Daniel Boone was the man hired in 1775 to blaze a trail that opened up settlement in Kentucky, and that trail became known as the Wilderness Road. It crossed the mountains at Cumberland Gap, which is now the site of a national historic park run by the National Park Service.

Cumberland Gap had been used by Native Americans to cross the Appalachians long before the colonial era. After Daniel Boone carved his trail, it was later widened to allow wagon traffic to pass. It held a great deal of strategic significance during the Civil War, changing hands multiple times. When the US Highway System was created in the 1920s, Cumberland Gap carried US-25E. The Wilderness Road across Cumberland Gap was restored to its historic appearance as a wagon trail in 1996, when US-25E was rerouted through the new Cumberland Gap Tunnel.

Cumberland Gap Tunnel

Inside the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park Visitor Center

Fern Lake between the trees at Pinnacle Overlook

When we arrived, we passed back into Kentucky through this tunnel, and exited the highway to go to the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park Visitor Center. Besides taking a quick look around, I asked a ranger about which parts of the park were the best. It was already about noon, and we still had at least 2-3 hours to drive and a stop for groceries before we made it to Great Smoky Mountains National Park…so we didn’t have more than maybe an hour or two here if we were going to beat rush hour traffic out of Knoxville. The ranger said that hiking across Cumberland Gap doesn’t offer much to see besides the trail itself—but she definitely recommended that we drive up the mountain to Pinnacle Overlook.

So we set out on the winding switchback road up the mountain to a parking lot with ample space. Several short trails, including one that is handicapped-accessible, took us just over the Virginia state line to Pinnacle Overlook. The view here did not disappoint! You can see for several miles across a few towns, countryside, and forested hills to the south, including Tri-State Peak, where the borders of Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee all come to point, and tranquil Fern Lake. I spent a good hour photographing from the vantage point here, since it was a relatively clear day and lighting conditions were rather favorable.

Hey, a stranger we met snapped a decent picture of us!

Becky with one foot in each state on the trail back to the parking lot

Overlooking Tennessee and Kentucky from Pinnacle Overlook in Virginia…I will post a link to the full-res version (1.2 gigapixels!) when I get it uploaded…

Heading to Knoxville

Driving back into Tennessee through Cumberland Gap Tunnel

Crossing Norris Lake, where a new bridge to carry TN-33 is under construction

After another restroom break, we didn’t get on the road again until almost 2 o’clock…which meant that we’d probably get across Knoxville OK, but we could have trouble getting out. I’d scouted some scenic highways across to Gatlinburg, but with our time much shorter than I expected and a big city rush hour approaching, I fired up Waze and took the most expeditious route it offered to get to Trader Joe’s out on the west side of town near I-75. A good portion of the route had a fair amount of development along it, but we were still in Appalachia, so there were some very pretty spots too.

Driving through Knoxville

As I’d hoped, getting through Knoxville was no problem, and Trader Joe’s had everything we’d hoped to stock for the week. Target was close by, so we stopped there to see if they offered any promising options to the cheapy camping pads we’d brought with us to sleep on. Unfortunately, they didn’t have anything that would work for us, so we got out and got back on the road so that we’d at least beat some of the traffic.

Although I knew there were more direct routes, Waze told me that taking I-75 to I-140 and going into the park through Townsend was better than heading back into Knoxville to go in through Gatlinburg. My biggest fear was that we’d get stuck in city traffic long enough that we’d get into the park after dark…and perhaps too late to score some essentials like firewood. While traffic was definitely heavy, things did move well, so we did manage to get into the park without too much fuss.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Once we got through the more populated areas around Knoxville, we drove on some pretty country highways on our way to the park. By the time we got into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, however, we were shrouded under the cover of thick forest. By the time we reached Metcalf Bottoms and began winding our way along the Little River toward Elkmont, cellular service waned. This was no big deal to me at the time, but Becky became concerned.

The Panic for Star Wars Awakens

Did I mention that Becky is a rabid Star Wars fan??? Well, I grew up with Star Wars and there’s never been a time when I didn’t love Star Wars (…well, except maybe some of the prequels, especially Episode II! I mean, how would a classy, accomplished, sophisticated girl like Padmé fall for an angry, whiny, unstable jerk-boy like Anakin?!? I’m so glad Lucas isn’t writing the new ones!). Anyway, Becky loves Star Wars so much that it makes me feel like I actually hate it. And now that we were just inside this wonderful national park and already without cell service, all she could think about was Star Wars

What I didn’t know until just then was that the new trailer for the new Star Wars movie, Episode VII – The Force Awakens, would debut tonight during Monday Night Football. And after they debut the new trailer, ticket sales would open too. To make matters worse, it apparently never crossed Becky’s mind that we could be completely disconnected from the 21st Century while camping. And now she was in a panic over how and when she would see the trailer and getting opening night tickets before they sell out.

Being a steady voice of reason, I comforted her by reminding that we had plenty of cell service at Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and pretty much everywhere we camped this summer, so we will probably be able to get service at Elkmont and she’ll be just fine. My priority was getting the tent pitched before it got dark, and to get a fire going for dinner. Star Wars wasn’t until December, and as much as I would like to see a trailer that actually gave some indication of what the movie was about, I was hungry, I was tired, and I knew it would get cold if we didn’t get set up quickly.

Elkmont Campground

When we arrived at Elkmont Campground, it was almost 5:30 and the sun had dropped behind the mountain next to the campground. Also, there was no cell service. At this point, I realized that this mattered to me right now too! My lack of preparation caught up to me here, as I was now unable to pull up the email with our campsite reservation to see what site we were supposed to be on…oops! There was a board there that showed open sites, and thankfully I remembered about where I’d booked since it was way out on the edge of the campground. So it was good we got there before darkness really set in, or it may been a lot harder to find our site.

So after we found the site I was pretty sure I booked for the next four nights, we quickly pitched our tent so that we’d prevent someone else from thinking it was free for the taking. Our site was on the N Loop and had a level tent pad with a fine gravel surface. Since the camp office was already closed, I thought we’d better buy firewood ASAP as well, so we set out for the camp store and hoped that it too was not already closed for the day.

Of course Becky’s thoughts had returned to getting Star Wars tickets—so while I went to get wood, she took every quarter she could find to our only connection to civilization—a lonely old payphone across from the camp office.

Concessions at Elkmont

Campground Concession in Elkmont…it doesn’t look like much, but they had plenty of camping necessities available at totally reasonable prices.

Now I have to say that I totally overestimated the scale of commercial services at Great Smoky Mountains National Park! Not only was there an absolute lack of cellular coverage in what I thought would be a highly-visited area, the only concession operation was in a very small building manned by only one person. This was such a contrast to what we became accustomed to in the Western national parks! Yellowstone and Grand Teton had literal villages, complete with gift shops, gas stations, grocery stores, sporting goods shops, restaurants, hotels, campgrounds, and cellular service. By comparison, Great Smoky Mountains so far was almost completely wilderness with no lodging and no services except for what this modest campground offered. I suppose this is because towns like Gatlinburg and Townsend are just 20-30 minutes from here, rather than an hour or two away through more wilderness.

Either way, the concession stand at Elkmont Campground was well-stocked with firewood, and actually had more camping essentials than I’d seen in far larger camp stores. This included queen-sized air mattresses…which would be way better than the hard foam camping pads we had with us…hmmm…

May the Force be with the first payphone we’ve noticed in a lonnnnggg time!

While I loaded some newly-purchased firewood into the car, Becky relived the 20th Century. She popped several quarters into the payphone to call her best friend, Jenny, so she could get online tonight and buy tickets for the Star Wars opener. Jenny picked up the phone in the middle of a peaceful nap. Barely awake, she said, “Somehow I knew it was you…what do you want me to do?” Becky replied, “I need you to write something down and I’ve only got four minutes, so get a pencil and paper!” Somehow she managed to get Jenny our credit card information, and instill the importance of the matter before she ran out of time and quarters. I’m sure that payphone saved our sanity for the night!

An Easy Early Evening

Anyhow…Becky came over and agreed that we should buy the air mattress. We got everything else at our campsite set up, and I got a fire going with no problem. We had plenty of time to just sit and relax by the fire after dinner, although it was quite chilly. Temperatures were dropping toward the mid-30s overnight, and we’d had a long day on the road, so we didn’t stay up very late.

As we’d done for cold nights at high elevations over the summer, we put a blanket between our air mattress and sleeping bags, and put another blanket on top. I wore a pair of wool socks and thermal underwear with my sweatpants, along with three layers up top, and my Cleveland Cavaliers hoodie to keep my ears warm. Becky also threw a tarp over our tent for a little extra insulation. By 9 or 10 o’clock we were cozy and mostly warm in bed. We looked forward to our first real adventure tomorrow, in our sixth new national park for the year.

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