Sunday, June 7, 2015

Smoky Mountains: Elkmont Campground, Synchronized Fireflies, Abandoned Cabins, Road to Nowhere

A couple of weeks ago we drove up the Smoky Mountains to camp for two nights with a handful of our other friends' families at the Elkmont Campgrounds, the largest campgrounds in the Smokies and home to a unique species of firefly that are known for their synchronous flashing.

On the way up we made a quick pit-stop at the TVA Visitor Center at Raccoon Mountain. The actual visitor center was closed, but thankfully the bathrooms were not.  

We also stopped to sample cheese at Sweetwater Valley Farm. Nothing is better than a long hike in the mountains followed by bread and cheese or waking up at camp and having cheese at breakfast. 


Speaking of breakfast, Esther became so furious with me the next morning that her glasses steamed over and I have proof below.

Chan survived the night in the bear-ito hammock
And now for a quick review... One of the two plants below you should avoid, the other is not a problem. 

Poison Ivy: three leaves

Virginia Creeper: five leaves

On the second day we teamed up with the other families for a hike along the Little River to Cucumber Gap trail, right out from the campsite.

Mountain Laurel

The clear waters of Little River


We stopped at a small cascade falls along the river to replenish our water supplies. Esther picked up this SteriPEN UV water purifier not too long ago and it's been a handy thing to have along on long hikes and overnight trips without city water.

For some reason cairn building became the thing to do at this same point on the river. There was a furious stacking of rocks and balancing of stones. 

The trail along the river was super gradual and very pleasant, the air slightly cooled by the water. When the turned to follow the Cucumber Gap trail we lost the water feature but gained moss-bordered paths and earthen embankments. The canopy was thick and the way shaded so I really can't complain.

Back at the campsite most everybody else was playing in the section of Little River that runs through the camp and under the main road into the site. There was more cairn building and wading. We were watched by a two watersnakes, the lighter colored of which was very curious and did not hesitate to approach and be photographed at close range.

Aside from the fireflies, the major feature of Elkmont is the colony of abandoned vacation cabins. I found this video which gives some insight into the history of the cabins and shows many more than I've posted pictures of. In the video it talks about 56 of the cabins being slated for demolition- these are still standing as of our trip. There were plans announced to restore some of the cabins in 2009, but that doesn't appear to be happening either. I'm only posting the exterior shots of the houses here (more pictures in the links at the end of the post) but I would note that we did not at any time enter the cabins (mostly due to the heavy fine for doing so).

As for the fireflies themselves, you really have to experience it in person. I have found this video about the fireflies, but the recording of the flashing lights doesn't really do it justice. They follow the loose pattern of six to nine flashes about ten seconds apart. Their coordination isn't exact and the timing differences of the individuals give the impression that you are standing in living wave of rolling signal. Sometimes the wave appears to come from left to right or right to left and other times it's like giant ripples in a pond. It is one of the most amazing natural events I've ever seen.

I do highly recommend this Radiolab episode titled "Emergence" that mentions the firefly phenomena as it occurs in Thailand.

Later that night I caught two creatures doing their thing on our picnic table.

Grasshopper nymph?

Granddaddy long legs spider munching on a firefly remains

On our last day of the trip we left the campground and drove up to the Clingman's Dome parking area for a hike to Andrew's Bald. Esther had read that this trail was one of the most satisfying hikes in the entire Smoky Mountains. I'd have to agree. The trail is a sampler of almost everything we love about the area. 

Bluets along the trail

As you approach the bald the trail is made of sections of timber to control/limit erosion.

Almost there!

Esther and Ben emerge from the canopy

View from the bald

New growth on a conifer

On our return to the parking area, the cloud cover had cleared and I grabbed a quick panoramic.

As we left the mountains we made one final stop before driving home, the "Road to Nowhere" outside Bryson City, NC. Just like with the cabins at Elkmont, there's a story and it's full of one side versus the other and plenty of questionable efforts to maintain or demolish what some would call the "Broken Promise". Years ago when we first visited the tunnel you could still drive through it. Now stanchions prevent vehicles access but you can still walk through it's quarter-mile length to where the unfinished highway gives way to a dirt path. 

Pictures from all three days of our trip (including many more of the cabins) can be found below:

May 23, 2015
May 24, 2015
May 25, 2015

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