50 Hikes 50 States–Tennessee

lush hardword forest with trail

After our hike in South Carolina on our 50 Hikes 50 States Project, we looked forward to a drive through the Smoky Mountains to Tennessee. A gentle drive through beautiful hardwoods with glimpses of amazing Appalachian views held our attention for hours. One of the best thing about the US–our national parks.

Although I don’t frequently recommend hikes in national parks on this project due to cost and crowds, there is no entry free into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As for the crowds, we thought they’d be light because of Safer-At-Home orders in nearby states. We were dead wrong.

lush hardwood forest

Our drive took us through the southern end of the Smokies toward Townsend, TN. We eyed a hike in Cades Cove, only to be jolted off the idea by the two hour wait to drive the Cades Cove Loop to our trailhead. Instead, we did some quick googling and found an off-the-beaten-path hike near the Smoky Mountain Institute called the West Prong Trail.

Up for a Mile, then Down for Another

trail over creek with ferns

What a great decision.

With humidity hovering around 80% but temperatures at a cool 72, we stuffed rain gear in our backpacks and headed toward the Appalachian Trail under a canopy of gorgeous hardwoods, an understory of luscious ferns, and a forest of bright green pops dotted with white and pink mountain laurel.

creek crossing

The West Prong Trail promised a shady walk to a stream. It delivered. Although we passed a few couples on the trail, the West Prong let us slip away from the crowds and cars of National Park lovers. Because not many people were afoot, we found creatures to enjoy.

Up the northern slopes of Fodderstack Mountain we hiked for about a mile, then down the backside to a lovely creek worthy of a snack and a break. Thunder banged, threatening us to return to our cars. I don’t mind rain, but lighting is a different story all together. We turned around.

Slithering and Crawling

snake on the ground. could be cottonmouth

First, I stepped over a snake, not even seeing it. My husband saw it slither up the trail. We stopped and eyed its beauty. Google lens identified it as a cotton mouth, but I disagreed. The habitat was wrong, and we were too far away from water. None the less, we kept our distance. And besides, I wasn’t going to stick around long enough to look inside its mouth to see if it were white.

brown millipede in dirt

Stepping over a snake awakens all of my senses. From there, all I could see was creepy, crawly things. A millipede and a centipede (would you count their legs?) wriggled on the trail, proving that little things can also be interesting and intriguing on our four-mile out-n-back hike.

yellow and brown centipede in dirt

Fortunately, we returned to the car just as the drops started. A short drive to Townsend took us to a family-owned motel on the side of the road that was clean but noisy.

Welcome to Townsend

The small town of Townsend, which remains a small community with just under 500 permanent residents, exists as a gateway to the national park. But it’s also a place locals and tourists gather to enjoy tubing and other river activities.

In our perpetual hunt for vegetarian and/or vegan food on the road, we found a roadside stand called the Burger Master. that offered up vegetarian burgers.

vegetarian burger

It was here that we saw the great mask divide that seems to be differentiating people’s thoughts on how to interact with each other in the time of COVID. Whereas some travelers staunchly wore masks, others staunchly did not. Glares and giggles, snide remarks and thumbs up signs were tossed our way as we stood in line to get our dinner.

Burger Master’s menu could please anyone. With sundaes and ice cream swirls to onion rings and jalapeno poppers, every flavor of hamburger is available. You can even get dog treats for your pup.

In the meantime while waiting in a 45-minute line, we watched the innovative conveyor belt of water tubes move fun back and forth to  the river.

A River Walk of Delight

wide dark river with trees

With veggie burgers in hand, we decided to visit Townsend’s River Walk and Arboretum. Local citizens had organized to create a short trail along the city’s river bank where the town’s gardeners and plant lovers of the Tuckaleechee Garden Club identified the native flora and fauna of the south. Along the trail, we found a bench to sit and eat our burgers and enjoy the river flow of The Little River. It was one of the things we most enjoyed in Townsend. Locals, while walking their dogs, passed frequently, waving and saying hello.

Traveling in the Time of Covid

very handsome hiking couple

Deciding to take this weekend trip from Denver to the Smoky Mountains wasn’t an easy decision. We had originally planned to stay with friends in North Carolina and to visit family in South Carolina as part of this trip. But we decided to be conservative in our travel, don our masks everywhere, and abundantly socially distance ourselves. It was shocking for us to see how different each state, even among the neighboring states of South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina, interpreted CDC guidelines.

Add in how the city of Denver is responding, and our heads were spinning, causing us to question what is science, what is politics, and what is right vs what is wrong. Frankly, it was exhausting.

As we continue this project, we’ll wear our masks, wipe down our seats, stay 6 plus feet apart, and eat at restaurants that are doing the same. We’ve got a long way to go to get back to any sort of normal travel. The new abnormal is going to be with us for a very long time.

I’ll continue to cautiously move through this new world, enjoying my country, appreciating our beauty, and spending out words that I hope spark the adventurer in you.

It’s through adventure that we find connection.

From connection we find kindness.

From kindness we find peace.

And we all need more of that right now.

Be good to one another.

See you on the trail,

Chris

What You Need to Know about This Hike (Click for interactive map)