The second part of my June road trip took me to a familiar place in the hills of North Carolina. Although I had visited the Smoky Mountains before, I was excited to be able to see the sun rise over the mountains for the first time at one of my favorite places to hike. Of course, waking up before dawn (which during the summer months occurs very early in the morning hours) and allowing enough time to drive there safely meant getting out of bed at 3:00 a.m. While I do wake up for work on time (most days), forcing myself to be awake at such an early hour proved to be an interesting endeavor. Lots of coffee and lots of groaning were required, but somehow I managed to crawl out of bed and stumble to the shower.
As it turned out, the reward was well worth the effort.
Newfound Gap, located on the North Carolina/Tennessee border has some of the best sights, vistas, and hiking trails in the region. Located right along US-441 (which runs between Cherokee, NC and Gatlinburg, TN), this trailhead and rest area is perfect for anyone who wishes to stop and snap a few photographs of the surrounding valleys and mountains or take on some of the long hikes that await those who are brave enough to tackle them. Many tour buses and tour groups visit the area on their way to other parts of North Carolina or Tennessee, and for good reason. Dollywood and Cherokee are both within a few hours (or less, depending on weather and traffic) of one of the highlights of this particular drive.
Of course, for those who wish to travel further off the beaten path, there are trails leading down into the less-traveled expanses and valleys below. Some trails are a mere two or three miles. Others are ten miles or longer. In fact, some hikers choose the spend the entire day in the area. During the summer, many families choose to make a long weekend out of the endeavor, hiking in the area one day and rafting down the rivers below the next.
For those who are less inclined to exert themselves, Gatlinburg is filled with resorts, restaurants, and other attractions. Cherokee is home to a resort as well (Harrah’s Cherokee) that offers guests luxury hotel rooms, a spa, swimming pool, casino, many restaurants, golfing excursions, and other amenities. The tourist town of Asheville, North Carolina, is also within driving distance (it takes one or two hours by car, depending on traffic and weather conditions). Atlanta is about a three or four-hour drive away, so anyone looking to head back into the big city is not too stranded either.
For me, however, the reason for coming here again and again is undoubtedly the ability to tune out, turn off, and get lost in beautiful, natural surroundings. There are not too many places where this is possible anymore. I certainly do not get the chance to do so in my daily life in New Jersey very often. I think the forest and the mountains remind me of where I grew up in Northern California. Things were much simpler back then. As I kid, I would venture out into the woods behind my house and get lost for hours, days on end. I liked that.
I still like that.
Because I had started the day so early, I was able to hike down into the valley while the sun was still rising. No one else was within eyesight or earshot, and it felt as though I had the entire trail to myself. I could hear birds and trees moving about. I could feel a slight breeze drifting in from the area above me. It was relaxing. It was serene.
After awhile, I realized that I had gotten so wrapped up in my own thoughts and zen rituals that I had reached the start of the trail again. By this time, there were others who had parked their cars and stepped out onto the ledges at the edge of the mountainside to take photos of the valleys below. Some were quietly chatting about how pristine it all looked and felt. Others were simply quiet in staring out into the great unknown.
I suppose that is how it was all meant to be, really.
After all, what else is the point of disconnecting from the world if you cannot be free with your own thoughts?
As for me, it was time to continue my journey into the southern regions of the United States. My road trip was just beginning, and I had a lot of things starting straight at me in the coming days. Part two completed. Part three, awaited.