We left Lake Lure NC heading for the Blue Ridge Parkway and ultimately the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. With really poor weather in North Carolina, we were looking forward to hopefully driving out from under the fog and clouds and into the clear in the Smoky Mountains. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case.
We picked up the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville and headed towards Cherokee. Before reaching there, however, we turned off to take the Balsam Mountain loop road which is just inside the Smoky Mountains National Park, still within NC.
The start of the loop road was paved and two lanes. Just beyond a picnic area, it became a "primitive" one lane gravel and dirt road. In places, it was horrible, bottoming out our van in many places. While the ranger at the Waterrock Knob visitor's center on the Blue Ridge Parkway did forewarn us that it was slow going, but never did we think that meant an average of 10 MPH. I think it took us two and a half hours to do the 30 mile loop.
It was a nice ride with some pretty forest area, along with creeks, waterfalls and lots of butterflies. No bears, however, which were the whole reason I wanted to take this journey.
Once out of the forest, we drove on through to Cherokee which is also a very built up tourist area on the Indian reservation. This also serves as the main entry point into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from North Carolina. We passed on through town, stopping at the park's entry visitor's center (Oconaluftee) that has just opened earlier this year.
While featuring a lot of exhibits and a gift shop, for us it was a chance to stretch our legs, use the bathrooms and get my US NPS Passport book stamped. With the biological needs taken care of, we estimated it would take approximately an hour to traverse the center of the park in order to head to our real destination - Cade's Cove - the main bear habitat where visitors can most frequently see these iconic animals. In total, the drive from the Oconaluftee Visitor's Center to Cade's Cove would be two hours.
The road from the NC entrance over to Cade's Cove was very twisty with lots of hairpin and 360 turns. The views (when you could see through the fog) were pretty. I really enjoyed the drive from Sugerlands Visitor Center to Cade's Cove because the road followed along a decent sized stream with some white water rapids that were pretty in the setting sun breaking through the trees.
By the time we reached Cade's Cove, it was around 6:00pm. Fortunately traffic wasn't too heavy in the park and we were able to take a nice drive at a decent speed. Inside at Cade's Cove, the loop road is also one way. The early part of the trip was nice, but not much in the way of wildlife. We did see some turkeys and deer, but no bear. I was become discouraged, while David and his Mom were patient but tired.
We stopped at the visitor's center in Cade's Cove, again for bathrooms and for me to get my Passport book stamped. I asked the rangers about bears and was told that they often see them when they get off work in the evening (7:00p) which made sense since folks had been reporting seeing bears at dawn and dusk in this area of the park.
About a mile down the road, I saw a black hump out in a field, through the trees. Sure enough, as we turned the corner, there were cars pulled off the road and down the side lane all gathering to take photos of a momma bear (sans cubs) dining on the tall grasses.
We stopped and got some photos, which were OK given that she was some 75 to 100 yards away. The rangers on site here said that the momma did have two cubs tucked away out of sight along the tree line. As much as I would have loved to have seen cubs playing, I was ecstatic that I got to see a black bear in the wild here. Mission accomplished!
From Cade's Cove it was just about an hour out to Gatlinburg, TN where we had hotel reservations. It was a very long day, but worthwhile in getting that Kodak moment of the bear grazing in the meadow.