We went on our very first camping trip in the Great Smoky Mountains! When we were there over Fall Break last year, we spoke of returning in the summer to camp. Well, we did it – two-man tent, two-hob propane stove, sleeping bag and all!
Here are some of my favorite things about the trip:
The Rhododendrons – Rosebay Rhododendrons were at their peak of bloom everywhere we went. They framed our views of waterfalls, fringed the banks of rivers, and kept us company on many a forest trail. Back in the fall, we saw only their dark green, waxy oval leaves, and wondered at the form and hues of their blooms, come summer. We had in fact thought we’d already missed them. Imagine, then, our delight, surprise, and joy!
Rosebay Rhododendron in full bloom
The waterfalls – This time round, we got to see the remaining eight waterfalls in the park we didn’t get to see in the fall. Then, we’d planned on seeing two more than the three we did see – but we had arrived too late in the day at one of them to make the hike, and as for the other, well, I felt inadequately prepared for the 8 mile hike. This time, though, we made it to these two, plus another six wow-inspiring falls. Oh, and by the way, I slipped on a rock and fell into a pool at the base of the highest falls in the park!
Ramsay Cascades, the tallest falls in the Smokies
The backcountry driving – Sure, driving on unpaved, narrow, winding mountain roads can be a bumpy experience. But they also bring us to the less-traveled regions of the park, take us deeper into the forests, and afford us greater chances of spotting wildlife and wildflowers. We saw a Barred Owl, for example, just on a branch beside the road wondering at our sudden appearance. We also met four elk who ended up running right up to and past our car to disappear into the forest – it was an oncoming motorbike that scared them away.
A Barred Owl spotted at Parson's Branch Road
The Swallowtails – I was flower watching right from the get-go – so when the Flame Azaleas started making their appearance in the area we were driving into, we had to stop for me to take a picture. We stopped at one of those lookout points, where there wasn’t much of a view due to a very misty sky. The Flame Azaleas were a way down the slope, and I would have been content just taking a picture from a distance. Tim spotted a way down that led right up to the bushes, though, and so there we went. Not only did we see Flame Azaleas in yellow, orange, and vermillion, there was also wild Columbine, and the big surprise – large Tiger and Black Swallowtail butterflies , busy fluttering from bloom to bloom. That was also when finally some of the cloud and mist yielded to long-awaited blue.
A swallowtail butterfly with Flame Azaleas, at Balsam Mountain Road
The camping – Of course the ground was a little hard, and it was cold at night – but the birdsong, fresh mountain air, gurgling of a nearby brook, and stillness of the forest were more than enough to make up for it. Our neighbors at one of the campsites were four little girls (sisters?) and their parents (maybe). Their laughter and cheerful voices were the perfect accompaniment to birdcalls and the sound of running water. How wonderful to think that memories of summer holidays such as these will stay with them long after they outgrow their dainty summer frocks and kiddy childhood games.
In our cozy 2-man tent
The fireflies – We got to see fireflies during their mating season, a synchronized symphony of lights. It was like a kind of stargazing, except that the stars were all around us, instead of above us. As we walked along the forest trail in the darkness, it was as if we were walking into the twinkling constellations, or a sea of Christmas lights. Apparently, synchronized fireflies are an annual occurrence, displaying their glory only in the span of a week a year, and only in two places in the world. Singaporeans, if you’ve not done so already, go see them in Malaysia!
While waiting for nightfall, we sat by the Little River
Camp food – Did we not grow up thinking of camp food mainly in terms of luncheon meat, and combat rations warmed up (or not) in mess tins? Undeterred, though, we packed a cooler box full of groceries, another two bags of kitchen pantry supplies and utensils, and a propane stove. We made sure we had vegetables (pre-washed, and cut), easily cooked sources of protein (eggs, baked beans, naturally cured sausages, pre-cooked pulled pork), quick or no-cook carbs, and pre-baked breakfast items (granola, chocolate chip scones). Stripped of shelves full of condiments and sauces and nifty gadgets, I was surprised and felt silly at how quickly meals could be prepared, and how fun and uncomplicated cooking really is. Modern life with its too many choices has often stupidly stressed, and spoiled me. Then there were the clouds and forest canopy overhead… ah, the forest kitchen!
One of the dinners - A pulled pork bagel, salad, baked beans, and scrambled eggs
What a list of favorites. I could have gone on and on. But there was also the rain, which obscured many a mountain vista from our sight, and caused us to forgo going on two highly anticipated trails. Yet, the rain brought its rainy-day blessings too: a cozy morning lie-in, Bible reading and Scrabble game while listening to the pito-pito of the rain upon our tent, much-appreciated shade and coolness during long hikes, misty after-rain views of mountain streams, jewel-fringed leaves and petals, if only we cared to look.
It was a wonder-filled six days, could you tell?