The Great Smoky Mountains can be a wonderful place, with fabulous scenery and lovely drives. There are hiking trails all throughout the park, with many different places to trek. However, this beauty comes at a price for the local (or semi-local) hiker.
When autumn comes to the Smokies, the park is flooded on the weekend with people from all over to view the amazing color. This means that the local hiker who is late to the park may not find a parking space anywhere near a trailhead. The weekend after a failed attempt to find such a space, I tried again, this time getting to the park much earlier.
Success! There were parking spaces right next to the Turkey Pen Ridge trailhead, which was may goal. I had started on this trail once before, but only went for a while, not really knowing much about the trail. This time, I was prepared for the 3.5 miles to the Schoolhouse Gap Trail intersection, resulting in a 7 mile hike through some great autumn color.
This trail isn't particularly difficult, with just a few ups and downs, but it is pleasant and offered some brief glimpses of the mountains through the trees. There weren't very many folks on the trail on my way up, and when I got to the Schoolhouse Gap Trail intersection, I found a fallen tree to sit on and rest for a bit, read for a while and have a snack.
A few hikers came by, hiking the Schoolhouse Gap trail. These were the first hikers I had come across. They went on, and I began heading back in the opposite direction. On the way back, I met a few more trekkers out enjoying the day, including a couple who had set up a small picnic near a switchback. By the time I got back to the trailhead, it was clear that business had really picked up in the park.
And that was where I saw that I still had a lesson to learn about hiking in the park during the autumn, at least. When I had parked, I had parked pointed towards Cades Cove, which was the opposite direction to the one I needed to be pointed. And there was a steady stream of cars going to Cades Cove, to witness the fall colors. And when I say "steady stream," that is very accurate, as it was bumper-to-bumper. I got to my car and decided to see if there would be a slackening of the traffic before I headed home.
After some time, I realized that this wasn't going to happen. So, I pulled out into the stream and went with it for a while, knowing I was going the wrong direction. When I saw the large pullout, I took it, and swung around hard, so that I was pointed perpendicular to the road, ready to turn left. Fortunately, there was a driver who took pity on me and let me out.
I headed home, and between the traffic to Cades Cove and the rest of the traffic, my normally hour-long trip back went over two hours. So, next time, I will make sure to park pointed in the direction I intend to leave.
I'll get better at this, I'm sure.