Salamanders, Crayfish Top Smokies Hikes

Published 9:06 am Thursday, August 11, 2016

ALUM CAVE, Great Smoky Mountains — They hiked like Olympic gold-medalists, four of my half-pint grandchildren — never whining, never begging to turn back. They climbed 2.5 miles halfway up Mt. LeConte to this popular spot far from civilization — into the “No Service” cellphone zone — and made their grandfather proud. They wanted to go further, but older heads determined we had conquered enough ground for one day.

For months I had told the grandchildren of the creamy hot chocolate served at the Mt. LeConte Lodge for hikers who climb five miles to the 6,594-foot peak. We didn’t get there, but Elizabeth poured them hot chocolate with triple servings of marshmallows when we got home — the best ever.

We spent last week on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains, and I showed the grandchildren some of my favorite hiking spots.

All six of the grands and their parents took our first outing on the Appalachian Trail at Newfound Gap, hiking nearly two miles before rain and fatigue turned us back.

We found salamanders along the path and caught crayfish in a mountain stream. We stepped carefully over log bridges and popped Skittles into their mouths to keep the youngsters energized.

It was a week in paradise — a dream come true for their grandfather who got to show the Little Leaguers the wonders of the forest. We spent a couple hours playing in a mountain stream, searching under slick, smooth rocks for crayfish before climbing out for a picnic. It took six of us to join hands and reach around a yellow birch. We spotted countless mushrooms, found slugs and snails and examined rocks of all shapes and sizes. The older children learned to skip rocks on the water.

Who says kids don’t play outside anymore?

Temperatures were mid-90s at the cabin. On the mountain slopes, we hiked in mid-70s coolness.

Rarely had I ventured here in midsummer because of the crush of vacationers. I may reconsider. This was a flowering paradise last week. I spotted the delicate Turk’s Cap lilies on the road to Clingman’s Dome. Crimson bee balm — the flower with a bad haircut — was plentiful along with black-eyed Susans. For the first time since 1975, I spotted a rare Indian pipe flower on the Appalachian Trail. I saw a few yellow-fringed orchids on the road to Grotto Falls. But the biggest prizes were a few delicate fairy wands as I trudged up the difficult Chimney Tops trail.

Appropriately, at the rocky peak of the mountain, chimney swifts were flitting about wildly.

I have always been a Cherokee-side of the Smokies guy. There had never been anything on the Gatlinburg, Tenn., side that interested me. Last week reconfirmed my prejudices.

We stayed in a cabin at Pigeon Forge close to Dollywood. I have studiously avoided amusement parks. I don’t like rides or crowds or long lines. I still feel that way, but when a 5 year old is clutching my hand, I’ll climb into a roller coaster and set aside my fear of rides for a few minutes to keep a tight grip so that she doesn’t fly out.

As amusement parks go, Dollywood was nice. I would never say anything negative about Dolly Parton, who will always love me, but three hours was enough. I had ridden most of the rides a 5 year old could qualify for.

On Saturday, we had to brave downtown Gatlinburg to get to the Grotto Falls trail head. The scene was something like Times Square in New York City. People swarmed the sidewalks, and cars crept at a snail’s pace. I can’t figure the attraction. The Garden of Eden is a few miles away.

A routine breakfast for two in downtown Gatlinburg cost $45 including the parking fee.

The family moms had resolved to do something different this year, having grown weary of the beach every summer. I didn’t object when they settled on this location. Like B’rer Rabbit, I was being thrown into the briar patch. I searched for wildflowers and tested a couple of new trails. We spotted a young bear by the side of the road, lots of turkeys and a herd of maybe 30 elk on the Cherokee side.

I’m told we’re going back to the beach next year, but for me, this was the best vacation ever.

– Dwight Sparks