We've been meaning for some time now to get in at least one hiking trip to the Smokies before schools let out, and the park becomes too crowded. In April, we finally found time to make some plans for the last week of the month.

You would think it would be easy for us to hike the Smokies just about any time, as we can be in the park in about 45 minutes. Unfortunately, that is only part of the story - the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is huge - like, over half a million acres huge. So getting to the closest boundary with the Park and getting to a particular hiking area can be two very different things.

For example, in 2020 we did a hike to Abram's Falls, whose trailhead is halfway around the Cades Cove loop - one of the closest parts of the Park to us. However, traffic at Cades can be very slow-moving. Getting to the trailhead took us over an hour and a half, with very little traffic. Worse, after the hike, driving the six miles to exit the loop took us almost an hour because everyone was trying to look at a bear in a tree. By the time we made it home, we had been sitting in the car for two and a half hours after a 5-mile hike.

Not good, unless you enjoy hobbling around listening to all of your joints crack.

It can be even worse if you want to hike in the section of the park accessed via the Seviersville/Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg route. Last fall when we decided to hike to Clingman's Dome, it took us just 45 minutes to get to Sevierville, and then over two hours to get the next 15 miles. After sitting in traffic for another half hour on the access road, we finally found a spot to park and walk to the Dome. By the time we made it back home, we had spent about six hours in the car for about 90 minutes on the trail. (Note: Just noticed I never posted anything about that hike! I'll have to rectify that soon ...)

With those facts in mind, we thought we would be clever for once, and book a hotel for two nights in Pigeon Forge. We could drive down on a Sunday afternoon when most of the traffic would be leaving, and get out early Monday morning to hike with just a short drive. Better yet, we would them only have to drive back to the hotel to spend the night and enjoy a nice meal in a local restaurant, and we could get in another short hike before heading back home on Tuesday.

Rita and I have used Booking.com so many times in so many places in the US and at least three other countries, that we have a great "Genius Level". We were able to get a nice, clean hotel room for just $40/night. Even included breakfast, although "breakfast" turned out to be a muffin or breakfast bar, coffee, tea, hot chocolate and juice. And it didn't open until 8am, when we hoped to be on the road. Luckily, there was a coffee machine in the room, and a 24-hour Duncan Donuts across the street.

View from our hotel in ever-classy Pigeon Forge

If you've never been to the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area, it is quite a shock to the senses. The big attraction that started it all is of course Dollywood. Dolly Parton was born in Seviersville, and to her credit she has done a lot to bring economic prosperity to her home county. However, "eclectic" is a tactful way of describing the weird combination of sites that have evolved there. I've heard it called "The Redneck Riviera" and "Hillbilly Heaven", but I tend to think of it as Disneyland if it was designed by WalMart, Nascar, and the cast of Hee-Haw.

Monday dawned a clear, beautiful day with a high expected around 75F - perfect for hiking in the woods. True to our plan, we were able to drive through the rest of Pigeon Forge, cut across part of the Park into Gatlinburg, and find the turn-off to the parking area at the trailhead. Just 30 minutes after leaving our room, we were at an altitude of 2,626 feet and ready to get hiking!

We had picked this trail for our first day of hiking for a couple of reasons. First of all, Rainbow Falls is supposed to be one of the more beautiful sites in the park. Also, we didn't want to push things this first time in the woods for 2022, and the trail is listed at 2.7 miles each way. Although it is also listed as "Strenuous", we weren't terribly concerned, as we walk anywhere from 3-6 miles a day anyway, so the 5.5-mile roundtrip, with a break for lunch at the falls, sounded ideal.

A helpful trail sign - although it turns out, not entirely accurate.

Little did we know we would come to regret that decision.

The trail starts off easy enough, following along beside the Le Conte Creek, and trending gently upwards. 

The trail in this section is well-maintained, and even has some wooden and stone stairs added to make it a little easier.

So far, so good.

It didn't take long though to discover why this relatively short trail is designated as "Strenuous". While we have certainly been on much steeper trails, particularly on the Inca Trail, this trail was relentless. It was looking like the morning would be spent hiking uphill all 2.7 miles to the Falls.

Less than an hour into our hike, we had already gained enough altitude to be able to see the ridge lines through the trees.

At one point, we came to a bend in the trail where we could see parts of Gatlinburg in the distance. And still, the trail continued to climb.

We were also out in the sun now, as this section of the park suffered a fire not too long ago. It was evident in the scenery, and many of the trees we passed showed scars from the event.

Rocky, fire-damaged area above, burned out tree below.

Still, the trail was not without beauty. We came to a log bridge across the Le Compte that featured a small waterfall.

Even this though bore signs of the damage, as here and elsewhere on the trail felled trees littered the landscape.

Fallen trees criss-cross the stream

Rita for scale - some big trees down!

A few hours in, we were starting to get a little hungry, and frankly a little tired of constantly climbing. we were heartened though by Rita's Apple Watch, which told us we were very close to the magic 2.7 mark.

Sure enough, right around 2.8 when we were beginning to despair, we arrived at the waterfall!

Unfortunately, it was not the waterfall. First, it was noticeably less than 80 feet tall. Also, a returning hiker told us that Rainbow Falls was still further up the trail.

Silently cursing the lying park sign at the trailhead, we continued onward and upward. We came upon another small fall as we crossed the creek again, this time over stones spiked in place.

A not-quite natural bridge (above) and small but pretty falls (below)

One more bend in the trail, and one more climb, and we finally arrived at Rainbow Falls! Altitude 4,313 feet, or 1,687 feet higher than where we started the trail.

Rainbow Falls

It was a lovely spot, and we enjoyed our lunch sitting in the shade and listening to the falls. It was here we saw the only wildlife we spotted on the entire hike (except for birds) - a squirrel with a bright red tail. He was completely unconcerned about the hikers, scurrying around the rocks and feeding on crumbs from everyone's lunches. Naturally, we called him Rocky.

Great sense of accomplishment, sure - but tempered by the fact that our pedometers insisted we had in fact hiked not 2.7 miles, but more like 3 and a half. So our 5.5 miles hike was turning out to be in reality a bit over 7 miles.

Still, since the trail had been all uphill this morning, at least it would be all downhill this afternoon. With this consolation in mind, we cleaned up from our lunch, and started back down.

All was well for the first mile or so, but then the constant downhill began to take it's toll on our knees and legs. You see, you use a completely different set of muscles going downhill than you use when going uphill. This new muscle set was starting to wake up, look around, and ask us just WTF we thought we were doing?

Complicating matters, those stone steps were more difficult to manage going down. Even with our hiking poles, it was necessary to be very careful on some of the inclines. Much of the trail is quite rocky as well, so care had to be taken with every step not to turn an ankle.

It was that unplanned mile and a half that almost did us in. We were making good time, but feeling it more and more in our legs. For the last mile, we were afraid to sit down and take a break because neither of us was sure we could get back up again. I carry glucose tablets when we hike, and popping a few of those gave us that little extra energy to continue.

Finally, I spotted the glint of sunlight off of metal through the trees, and realized we were getting close to the parking lot. Just in time too, because I had just drained the last of my three-liter water bag.

We staggered gratefully to the car, and I took off my sweat-soaked shirt to towel off and put on a clean t-shirt. We both changed out of our hiking boots to give our feet a chance to breathe, and drove back to our room in Pigeon Forge.

We made it back out after a shower to have a nice dinner, but I'm not ashamed to say that when we got back to our rooms, we were done. We were both hobbling around the room, and making groaning and grunting sounds whenever we sat down or stood up.

The thought of our plans to go on another hike the next day loomed large in our minds. I think we would have prayed for rain, but our knees couldn't take it.

Fortunately, Mother Nature took pity on us, and brought a nice rainstorm overnight, with rain predicted off and on for Tuesday, giving us a face-saving excuse for just heading home instead of into the woods once more.

So to sum up, we enjoyed (most of) the hike, and were proud to have accomplished it. It was however a wake-up call that we need to up our game a little bit on our walking and exercising routines before our next outing. That will be a two-night camping trip to Elkmont Campground in the Smokies the end of June, where we hope to get in a couple of days of hiking and possibly a glimpse of the Synchronous Lightning bugs if they are a little late this year.

We also learned not to rely too heavily on the stated mileage of the trails we hike. In this case, I believe what happened was that because of the fire, downed trees, and flooding caused by the changes, the trail had to be re-routed from the original 2.7 miles to the current 3.5+. Someone just forgot to update the sign and the trail guides.

We have now completed four hikes the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, totaling about 22 miles - only 778 more to go!