We've been in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a lot over the years, but today we had our best Black Bear sighting - a sow and two tiny cubs. And we followed that up with a waterfall hike and a scenic drive.
Today we were hiking with our dear friends Bill & Nancy.
We put on our hiking boots, picked up Bill & Nancy, and headed toward Gatlinburg, TN. Nancy had picked out a three-mile round-trip hike for us in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
As many times as we've been in this area, it's been years and years since we've hiked within the park boundaries. In fact, we couldn't remember if we'd done any hiking in the park.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park in the U.S. with over 9 million visitors a year. In 2013, as usual, the attendance was over double that of the second most visited park.
Nancy gave directions as we drove into Gatlinburg and then turned left at stoplight #8. We followed Cherokee Orchard Road into the park toward the Rainbow Falls Trailhead. At a certain point the road changes into a one-way loop.
Past the Rainbow Falls Trailhead, another road, the six-mile Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail went to the right. We were supposed to take that turn, but we were indecisive and missed it. So, we continued on and would have to loop back.
Nancy said "Because we missed our turn, now we're going to see a bear". Not two minutes after she made that statement, she spotted a black bear in the woods below us. I pulled off the narrow, paved road as much as I could and turned on the emergency flashers.
We were far enough away up a steep ridge to get out of the Jeep to get a better look. And then we spotted a tiny cub with her.
I quickly snapped on my zoom lens and we watched, ready to hop back in the Jeep if necessary.
The cub started to climb a tree, and then we noticed there was another cub way up in the same tree. It started climbing down.
Linda got a couple of minutes of video as we watched this unfold.
With both cubs on the ground, the sow relaxed and inspected her babies.
The cubs were adorable.
And mama was certainly beautiful herself.
Eventually, the three bears casually walked away.
According to the National Park's Black Bears web page, there are approximately two bears for every square mile in the park; however, they are rarely seen. So, we were feeling quite fortunate to have gotten such a good look at these wonderful animals. What a treat!
The four of us were so excited, the hike was now secondary. We could have driven home and been perfectly happy.
But we circled back around the loop and made the correct turn on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. A couple of miles up the road, we parked at the Grotto Falls trailhead.
Soon, we were on the Trillium Gap Trail headed toward the falls.
There was a heart-shaped root in the middle of the trail ....
and we crossed over a couple of lovely streams.
This hike was at around 3,000 feet elevation and mostly shaded. That was nice since the mid-day temperature in town was about 90 degrees. The hike is a gradual uphill climb and it is very popular.
The rhododendrons are starting to bud, and we're glad we'll be in the area another month to see them in full bloom.
We arrived at the falls where several others were gathered. The main falls is in the upper right corner of the photo below.
I liked the smaller, more secluded lower waterfall, so I climbed down into the stream and took photos of the others at the top of the falls.
We continued on to the taller falls where Linda and Bill posed for a photo.
I took these shots from behind the falls.
Linda and Bill & Nancy followed and passed behind the falls.
The trail continued on, and we walked just a little ways beyond the falls before turning around and retracing our steps.
We decided to scramble down to the lower falls and have a snack in the peaceful, beautiful setting.
After our little break, we made the easy downhill hike back to the parking area. Then we continued on around the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail which has more lovely scenery.
There are several pull-offs and photo ops along the road as it heads back toward Gatlinburg.
What a spectacular afternoon. Thanks Bill & Nancy for choosing the hike and spending the afternoon with us.
Bears, waterfalls, natural beauty, and good friends. What a life.