The National Park that didn’t want us

by Britta on 1 July 2013

in Across the USA,National Park Tour

Le Conte Creek

Le Conte Creek in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

First, our fire wouldn’t stay lit. We were cooking foil dinners, Brian’s favorite camping meal, over the fire that night, our first night in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but the “fire” was still just smoke. Two separate attempts to start it left us with coals, but not much flame. We even went to the camp store and bought some dry wood, we stirred it, we fed it, we fanned it, but still, no flame. We had glowing coals, though, so we lowered the grate and hoped it was enough to cook our dinners. When we finally pulled our packets off the fire, they were heated through and edible, but warm potatoes are not the same thing as cooked potatoes.

Later, we lost the rocket box key. We threw all of our valuables into the box on top of the car while we were hiking, having read that thieves commonly hang out at trailheads and break car windows to get at the laptops and phones inside. Thinking the rocket box was virtually impenetrable to someone planning on breaking a window, we locked the box and headed out on the trail. We were right about the box. Without the key, it really is impossible to get into. We made it back to camp after our hike and realized we didn’t have it when we went to get our dry clothes out. We searched our pockets, our backpacks, our socks and shoes, and eventually everything in the car, with no luck. We sighed and piled back into the car and headed back to the trailhead, googling local locksmiths along the way. By a miracle, we didn’t have to call one–we managed to park in the same spot we had earlier, and there, on the ground, was the key.

Evening Mist

Evening Mist

The next day, I got locked in the bathroom. Granted, this one didn’t happen inside the park itself, but a few miles outside, in a little town that had a private campground with showers. After two days of long hikes in the hot, humid weather, we were long overdue for showers, and our campground had bathrooms, but no hot water and no showers. It was a little expensive just for a shower, but at that point we thought it was well worth it. I had to wait a bit for one of the two showers to open up, and but I took a quick one and was out in a few minutes. Out of the shower, that is. The bathroom door handle wouldn’t turn when I tried to open it, and no amount of rattling or shaking or pounding would make it budge. I opened the window and tried to flag down a kid in the pool, but he couldn’t see me, so I flipped over the trash can to stand on it and stuck my head out. He saw me and tried to open the door for me, but he couldn’t get it to open from the outside. Brian was finished with his shower by then, so he tried the door too. Nothing. He then went to get the camp host, who called a maintenance man, who eventually set me free.

Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls

Then, there was the rain. Lightning bright enough to read by, and thunderclaps loud enough to feel, and rain that pounded all night, pounded, and we got a little damp not because the rain fly failed, but because the raindrops hit the ground with such force they sent splashes all the way up through the mesh upper sides of the tent. I slept very little that night, what with the lightning, and the thunder, and the passing headlights of people abandoning the campground because apparently their tents were a little more than damp. And the next day, after my shower adventure, the skies opened up again. The day had started off cloudy but by early afternoon the sun was peeking through and looked like it would burn off the rest of the clouds. But as we made it back to the campsite, and opened up the cold beers we had been craving for the last mile of our hike, we found ourselves in a downpour, and this time, the tent got flooded. We opened the tent to find the floor on one side soaking wet, and the water working its way up the sleeping pads from the feet end.

And finally, there were the people. Not individual people, not any one person, but all the people all at once. The Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited National Park in the country, with more than 9 million visitors a year. We were all there at the same time, it seemed, and it wasn’t even a weekend. We got stuck in several traffic jams–or “bear jams”–and we had to be creative about how we took pictures, in order to make it look like the pristine wilderness we were hoping to find. Road rage in a National Park? Probably not unheard of.

Grotto Falls

Behind Grotto Falls

It wasn’t all bad. We did hike to some gorgeous waterfalls, made even more powerful by all the rain, and I took some pretty great pictures, getting to practice with low light and running water. It was a lot of fun to play around with the camera in those conditions. Apparently, the Smokies boast the most diverse population of salamanders anywhere on earth, and we saw a few of them while we were out. And on our hikes, once we went past the main tourist attractions–the waterfalls–we were suddenly alone, alone enough that we started yelling “Hey Bear!” while we hiked. We also never saw any bears, which was another plus.

It was while we were packing up our flooded tent and soaked hammock that the sun finally came out. Steam started to rise off the roads and the campsites, and there was blue sky visible as we left the campground. We had a moment of regret, thinking we should stay to take advantage of the improving weather, but soon we realized that it was the park, smiling as we drove away.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Warren B. July 2, 2013 at 6:29 pm


Sort brings back some memories, mostly good about hiking on the Appalachian Trail through the park. At the time, as a Scoutmaster, I escorted my troop to camp mostly by the adirondacks that the trial boasts. And in SMNP, there are heavy screens across the open end of the adirondacks….

Maybe you would have been better off up on the AT?

Better luck on your next camping sites,


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