The 120-foot-high veil of Mingo Falls(Taylor Bruce)
Eight hundred square miles of old-growth forest and quartzite crags, the Great Smoky Mountains make up the most visited national park in the country. Covered in that famously blue blanket of fog, these woods are like something conjured up by the Brothers Grimm—a natural wonder with a dash of fairy tale. But for all the park's appeal, most of its day-trippers, long-haul hikers, and Harley caravanners come looking for just one thing: autumn leaves. To them, waterfalls are a trickling Smokies side note. If only they knew...
Once spring is within shouting distance, cascades suddenly begin tumbling from all over the place as the Smokies' 2,100 miles of streams swell with high-country melt and rain. Imagine it: Big, thundering falls and delicate, burbling cataracts. Some run for a few weeks, some for months at a time, but most are gone or vastly diminished by June. Instead of hunting color with the masses, during April you can chase falls in solitude, at their gushing peak.
Chattanooga, Tenn., to Sevierville, Tenn.
Throw a rock from pretty much anywhere in the Smokies and it'll splash a fall in spring. With only two days to
explore the region, I wasn't interested in quantity—I was more interested in being selective. To zero in, I downloaded maps from the National Park Service website, then talked to some experts at local outfitters in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This ridge city is a rising star, a Bluegrass-music and organic-bakery kind of place, similar in flavor to another of my favorite small Southern towns: Asheville, North Carolina. If I were to bookend my route with the two towns, I could cut straight through the park, past some of its prettiest falls.
I arrived in Chattanooga for lunch at noon and headed straight for Warehouse Row, a former Civil War fort that's been converted into boutiques, galleries, and a modern comfort-food café called Public House. Their fried-chicken salad was topped with slap-your-knee-delicious hickory bacon from local curemaster Allan Benton.
Driving east out of Chattanooga, I veered off I-75 near Madisonville (home of Allan Benton's smokehouse) and steered toward the park's western hub of Townsend. At the Smoky Mountain School of Woodcarving, I met the genial, white-bearded Mac Proffitt. Porch-sitting is an art in his family, which settled in the Smokies back in the early 1800s. With one of Mac's beginner Murphy knives and a block of soft basswood, I felt ready to channel my inner hillbilly between waterfall stops.
I ignored Gatlinburg's taffy stores and T-shirt shops and instead pointed my wheels straight into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the unofficial heart of Appalachia, with more than 9 million visitors a year. As I traced the winding, 18-mile, Etch-A-Sketch-like Little River Road, foothills grew into full-blown peaks, cloaked in hardwoods at the base and spruce and firs on top.
I'd heard good things about two falls in the area—Abrams near Cades Cove Loop Road and the 80-foot Laurel near Fighting Creek Gap—but I was eager to get on to Rainbow Falls, a notoriously gorgeous cascade along one of the park's top ascent trails. I parked at the Rainbow Falls trailhead off of Cherokee Orchard Road and hiked in. After a little more than an hour of low-grade climbing, I was rewarded: Winter's ice formations had melted into a misty, 80-foot veil. The continual collision of water with rock sounded like a turbo-charged, amplified washing machine. The large slabs had been smoothed by time, and dry, mossy nooks made awesome reading benches. Somehow I managed to sit for a solitary hour here, half of which I spent watching a family of black salamanders in a small pool. I could have contentedly whiled away the whole day but decided to press on, with a hike-in hotel in mind.
Only the devoted climb the 6.5 miles to LeConte Lodge, set at the end of the trail atop the tallest peak east of Colorado. The cluster of seven cabins and three lodges has been a Smokies institution since 1926, with some of the best views in the park. If you can snag a reservation here—they tend to book up months in advance—expect the best of the South: rocking chairs, Hudson Bay wool blankets, family-style suppers, and, if you're lucky, a black bear sighting. John Muir would love these digs.
How to go
Lodging: LeConte Lodge, Sevierville, Tenn., $79 per person
Food: Public House, 1110 Market St., Chattanooga, Tenn., fried-chicken salad from $9.50
Activities: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, free entry
Smoky Mountain School of Woodcarving, 7321 Lamar Alexander Pkwy, Townsend, Tenn.
Sevierville, Tenn., to Balsam, N.C.
With nearly 85 inches of annual rain, the upper Smokies qualify both as a temperate rain forest and one hell of a spot for showers. And Mingo Falls stands above them all. The 120-foot cascade, just a whisper off the famous Blue Ridge Parkway, is one of the tallest in the area. I slowly wound south down U.S. 441, stopping half a dozen times to take snapshots of overlooks, rippling creeks, and two napping elk. Twenty-one miles into North Carolina, Mingo sits on the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Luckily, there's no strenuous hike involved for this one. Inhaling the brisk, ion-rich oxygen helped me forget that my legs were still throbbing from LeConte.
About an hour south of Mingo Falls, past gemstone sellers and dream-catcher stands, I came upon the chill little town of Sylva, North Carolina. Sylva embodies that new breed of Southern town, in league with places like Black Mountain and Brevard, North Carolina. Its Main Street is lined with coffee shops and a fly-fishing outfitter.
I rode a quick stretch to a 103-year-old inn, just short of Asheville, in the town of Balsam. If LeConte is the Smokies' old settler-style hangout, then the Balsam Mountain Inn is its Governor's mansion. Built as a summer getaway, the 50-room house has a two-story porch long enough to bowl down and rooms laid with heart-pine floorboards. It has, blissfully, little else—no phones, no TVs—and gives new meaning to the idea of a restful stay. Wood-carving block in my hand, a train calling in the distance, and nothing but foggy Blue Ridge views for miles—the Mountain Inn was exactly what I wanted after two days of waterfall trekking. Civilization could wait.
How to go
Lodging: Balsam Mountain Inn, 68 Seven Springs Dr., Balsam, N.C., doubles from $145
Activities: Blue Ridge Parkway
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