The rhododendrons had begun blooming, and their little purple faces peeked out from the edge of the glowing river water.
We didn’t have to stray far from the town of Cherokee to become swept up in the vivid green forests of the Smoky Mountains. The Oconaluftee River Trail goes for about 1.5 miles from the Cherokee Welcome Center in town out to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Oconaluftee Visitors Center. When we tipped our heads back anywhere along this path we saw trees reaching right up to the sky.
The Oconaluftee River Trail is ideal for walking, running or biking, and we took a run or rode our bikes on it most mornings during our stay. The ground is soft, and the path is wide, and no one is out there early in the morning.
There are signs on the trail that say elk are in the area, but who believes signs like that?
Well, believe it! One morning Mark stopped dead in his tracks ahead of me when he saw a bull elk and his harem of females standing hoof deep in the river getting a morning drink. He could practically reach out and touch them!
Where was the camera? Neither one of us had taken a camera on our run. But when we went back on our bikes one morning a few days later, we saw the elk again, and this time I had my trusty pocket camera with me.
A female elk came right to the edge of the River Trail and hung out for a while, not seeming to be the least bit concerned about me as I laid my bike down and walked over towards her. She nibbled the greenery around her and kept a close eye on me, turning her head this way and that to get a better look.
The elk in the Smoky Mountains were reintroduced in 2001-02, and this one had a collar on her so the rangers could keep track of her movements. The herd has done well, growing from 52 elk back then to 150 elk now.
The elk herd isn’t the only attraction in this part of the park. The Mingus Mill, dating to 1886, is an old grist mill that makes for some fun photo ops. A flume of water flows down to a water-powered turbine to power all the tools in the mill.
More interesting to us was finding ways to get a creative photo of this aging building. When we heard that Nikon had put on a Smoky Mountains photography workshop and spent some time at this mill, we just had to give this place a try too!
Art and nature aside, back in town we had fun watching the local Cherokee Indians perform some dances and music on the streets in town. They did an Eagle Dance and a Warrior Dance that delighted everyone watching.
This was a fun roadside show, and all around town we saw Indians dressed in special warrior and ceremonial outfits, eager to share their history with the tourists.
We were really loving the greenery and waterfalls here in the Smokies, and at Deep Creek in the southern part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we discovered there are three waterfalls you can see in just one easy hike. The first is Juney Whank Falls. It has a park bench set up right in front of it. Better than watching TV!
The second is Tom Branch Falls, a long skinny waterfall that snakes down out of the woods. There are park benches here too, and we had lunch and watched folks in tubes floating by on the river!
Wildflowers were blooming here and there, and we saw lots of Mountain Laurel which are really dainty little flowers that grow in lovely clusters on trees. As I was getting ready to take some pics of the mountain laurel, a couple approached us and said, “Do you write a blog?”
Huh?! Well, yes, I do, I thought, but not that many people know about it!
As it turned out, this couple, Dale and Linda, were vacationing in the Smokies and, with plans for more far-flung travel adventures when they retire soon, they had been reading this blog and had just seen my post about the unnamed waterfall we found on the Oconaluftee River, so they knew we were in the area. What are the chances?!! We were totally, blushingly flattered to be recognized out on the trail. Good luck, you two, and thanks for coming over to chat!
A little further down the trail we found Indian Creek Falls, and in looking back at the pics now, it is neat to see that each of these waterfalls is quite different than the others.
As our travels took us up the Blue Ridge Parkway in the coming weeks, we decided to make waterfalls be our travel theme, and we hiked to quite a few. Every waterfall and every hike was unique, and each was special in its own way — as you’ll see!
This first trip we took to Great Smoky Mountains National park was brief and very one-sided, since we stayed on the North Carolina side and didn’t explore the Tennessee side at all. Dale and Linda told us they saw lots and lots of bears and bear cubs on the Tennessee side, especially on the Cades Cove loop, so that is on our bucket list for the next time we point our RV towards the Smokies!!
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Our most recent posts:
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Here’s more info about this area:
- Where is this part of the Smokies? – Google Maps
- Where are these waterfalls? – Google Maps
- Oconaluftee River Trail – National Park Service Website
- Mingus Mill – NPS Website
- Indian Creek and Tom Branch Falls on the Deep Creek Trail – NPS Website
Our blog posts from the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Parkway:
- Shenandoah National Park, Virginia – Climbs & Falls! 06/20/15
- Blue Ridge Parkway (Virginia) – Waterfalls & Rhododendrons 06/18/15
- Blue Ridge Parkway Highlights (Virginia) – Mills, Music & Farms! 06/14/15
- New River Trail State Park – Galax, VA – Pizza, Beer and Biking! 06/12/15
- Waterfalls of the Blue Ridge Parkway (North Carolina) 06/10/15
- Blue Ridge Parkway (North Carolina) – Wildflowers Everywhere! 06/07/15
- Floyd Country Store Bluegrass Music Jam – So Much Fun! 05/28/15
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park – A First Glimpse 05/25/15
- A Jewel of a Waterfall – Great Smoky Mountains National Park 05/12/15