“Caution: increased bear activity at this time. Food regulations strictly enforced.”
This was the message posted on the website for Smokemount Campground, the federal campground where we stayed in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee. We already knew this campground was a bear habitat because around 1,500 black bears live in the park - all food has to be locked in the trunk of your car or in your camper at all times - but this news suggested there were bears romping around all over the place. We had completely failed to spot a bear in Shenandoah National Park, but surely we would see one now.
Just off the Blue Ridge Parkway on the North Carolina side of the park, Smokemount was our first experience of camping off the grid. We couldn’t use any AC appliances and we had no cell phone or internet service, but the batteries on our camper and our propane tanks provided all the power and heat we needed and we wished we’d done it before. Why camp close to a national park when you can camp in a national park? With no sounds apart from the creek running nearby, the wind rustling the leaves and the incredible fall foliage, Smokemount is by far the most beautiful and tranquil campground we have stayed in to date. On our first evening, we built a campfire and watched the stars.
It was then that Kathryn realized she was still wearing the jeans that she had liberally sprayed with a cat-calming potion to help Sonny the cat, who had been sitting on her lap, relax during the drive there. The spray is supposed to give off the same comforting pheromones as mother cats. There we were sitting by our camp fire wondering if we would see any bears, when it was much more likely that every bobcat in the neighborhood would turn up looking for its mother.
On our second day in The Smokies, we drove up to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the National Park, and walked up to the observation tower that offers 360 degree views. Check out Shane's video from the top. We stopped off at overlooks along the way to take in more pretty amazing vistas. At the Webb Overlook, we got out of The Beast and were immediately blown away by the incredible colors and the lake of 'smoke' nestling between the mountains in the distance. The Smoky Mountains are said to have more species of trees than Northern Europe, one reason it is a World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve, which creates a spectacular show for 'leaf peepers' at this time of year.
Our campground was only six miles from Cherokee, which is home to the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation and the urban center of their reservation, the Qualla Boundary, which encompasses 56,000 acres. Located here are The Museum of the Cherokee Indian and Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, a very impressive gallery and shop, which exhibits and sells authentic Cherokee arts and crafts, including beautiful baskets, pottery, wood and stone carvings. There’s also a large outdoor theater, which stages nightly performances of ‘Unto These Hills’, a drama that tells the story of the Cherokee people, but sadly those only go on between May and August, so we missed out.
We also visited the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center, which is in the area of the National Park where elk, reintroduced by the National Park Service in 2001, can often be spotted. We didn’t see one around the visitor’s center, and still bereft of bears, we were a bit disheartened, but just as we were driving away from there, one male ambled across the road right in front of us. Completely unfazed by the number of people who quickly pulled over by the side of the road to snap his photo, he strolled through the field next to us, enjoying the afternoon sun. He was magnificent.
Maybe our bear-viewing chances will improve on the west coast.
Kathryn Tully and Shane Sesta are a married couple, one American and one Brit, who are spending a year traveling across America and writing about their discoveries. Sonny is their rescue cat and fried chicken aficionado.