Duration: 05/25/2019-05/27/2019

Outline: Cades Cove Loop – Ripley’s Odditorium – Synchronized Fireflies – Skylift Park – Clingmans Domes – Salt & Pepper Museum

Keyword: Road trip; Biking; Synchronized fireflies; Cades Cove; Clingmans Domes

Great Smoky Mountain has been the most visited national park for at least 70 years, which beats Grand Canyon NP and Zion NP as the second and the third.[1] I guess the biggest reason might be it closes to major cities and small towns. We drove from Louisville, passed through Lexington/Knoxville, and arrived at Friday night before Memorial Weekends.

The park has two main entrances by connecting with Highway 441: Gatlinburg, TN on the north, and Cherokee, NC on the south. There are many accommodations in Gatlinburg area as it’s very close to the north entrance and has various restaurant options, but be prepared for the crowds especially for holidays. Not recommend to stay in Pigeon Forge town, as you might get stuck on the road to Gatlinburg due to the traffic jam in Gatlinburg!

I attached the map which marked most of the spots we visited this time (mainly Cades Cove and Clingmans Domes),[2] but GSM has way more than this (Roaring Fork, Cataloochee, Fontana Dam). Check out the introduction on NPS website!

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Although most of the roads in GSM are paved, driving in mountains is still challenging. The speed limits are usually 35 mph as a result that narrow roads and blind curves are always appearing.

Why GSM is smoky?

  • The natural blue haze is produced by large amount of organic compounds and moisture emitted from millions of bushes, trees, and plans.
  • The air pollution is becoming more severe in recent decades since the mountains traps air currents, which contributes to the decreasing visibility.

It’s estimated by scientists that 80% of the blue haze comes from nature, while the rest 20% is caused by air pollution.[3]

– Cades Cove Scenic Loop –

There is a 1 hour drive from Gatlinburg to Cades Cove. Cades Cove Scenic Road is a 11-mile one way loop which is very popular for biking. From early May to late September every Saturday and Wednesday morning before 10am, NPS closes the loop for automobile and only allows bicycles/pedestrians to get in. The bikes can be rented in campground store located near Cades Cove Campground.[4]


The loop provides visitors a broad view of the valley and a best place for wildlife watching.

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A mother bear with 3 cubs.


Historic structures can be found in this area due to the first settlement of Europeans in 1800s. Buildings like churches, mills, houses, and barns are scattered along the road.[5]


– Ripley’s Odditorium –

After an early morning biking, we went back to the town and visited Ripley’s Odditorium. Robert Ripley is an American entrepreneur and amateur anthropologist. He collected odd facts and strange events from around the world and became famous by displaying his collections in newspaper panel series. The collections were later adapted into television, comic books, radio, and museum chains. The Ripley’s Odditoriums are established worldwide now and the one in Gatlinburg included a haunted factory, arcades, an aquarium, mini golf courses, and a mirror maze.[6]

The exhibition that really strikes me is “The Shrunken Head”. It’s a special prepared human head for ritual purposes. It was only documented in north Amazon forest for Jivaroan or Shuar tribes. It was believed to trap enemy’s souls from seeping out for revenge, compel them to serve the shrinkers, and warn their enemies.[7] These are the steps of how to make a shrunken head:[8]

  1. Slit the back of the neck and peeled the skin
  2. Removed the skull and replaced it with a wooden ball to hold the form
  3. Sewed the head (including mouth, eyes, and back)
  4. Boiled the head in a broth of secret herbs
  5. Dried with hot stones and sands and decorated with charcoal ash

Also want to share some other fun facts in Ripley’s odditorium:

  • Chamouni, a circus exhibitionist, performed his human roast show withstanding with temperatures up to 350 F. He would enter the oven with a rotten mutton and came out when the meat was fully cooked
  • Gilroy, CA has an annual garlic festival and featured garlic flavored ice cream
  • In Tibet, household items are made from revered ancestor bones! Contact with the bones allow the user obtained the virtues of the deceased
  • Believe in vampires is so common in 19th eastern europe, travelers to the region often carried a vampire killing kit, which contains everything one would need to vanquish vampires

– Synchronized Fireflies –

Watching synchronized fireflies in GSM is the highlight for this trip. NPS holds a synchronized fireflies event for two weeks every year around late-May to mid-June. Due to the high volume of visitors and limited parking, you must win the lottery to get in. I have entered the lottery for the past 3 years, but unfortunately never win. This time, we booked a night tour from “A Walk in the Woods”, which is a high rate tour guide group in GSM area.[9] We assembled at 8:30 pm and were drove to Elkmont area by our lead, Samatha Suttles, who is very knowledgable and full of enthusiasm.

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We were told that synchronized fireflies are one of at least 19 species of fireflies in GSM. They have called down millions of visitors as they can synchronize their flashing light patterns. For most of the fireflies, the light patterns were used for mating purposes. It’s guessed that if those male fireflies synchronize the flashing together, they are more likely to attract females. But scientists haven’t found the solid reason yet. The quality of displays usually depends on temperature and moisture. Cool temperature or after rainfall will shut down the displays at night.[10]

– Skylift Park –

On Sunday morning, we arrived Skylift Park located at the heart of Gatlinburg. It lifts visitors to the top of the Crockett Mountain for up to 500 feet and provides an awesome view for mountain peeks and panoramic of the town. Recently, the North America longest suspension bridge just opened at Skylift Park. Visitors can walk at their own pace and experience a striking moment for its glass floor panels at midpoint. Be prepared to wait in the line to lift down from the top, especially at night after the skybridge is closed at 8:30pm.[11]

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– Clingmans Domes –

Sunday afternoon, we’re heading to Clingmans Domes through scenic US highway 441.

I remembered Samatha mentioned there are over 100 species of trees in GSM which varied from altitudes. Deciduous trees dominated the lower forests, while the higher altitudes were occupied with coniferous trees.


Besides trees, GSM has variety of fish, birds, plants, and mammals. It’s a result that the north-south orientation allows species to migrate during the last ice age. And as climate warms, they retreating back while the southern species are expanding.[12]

After passed Newfound Gap and turned right on Clingmans Domes for 6 miles, we arrived our final destination. Clingmans Domes is a highest mountain (6,643 feet) in GSM and it’s also the highest point in Appalachian Trail. An observation tower, offering a panoramic view of the mountains, was built in 1959.[13]


– Salt & Pepper Museum –

Salt & Pepper Museum is our last destination for this trip and is located at a mile away from the heart of Gatlinburg. The museum is founded by Andrea Ludden (1935-2015), who was an archaeologist and fell in love with shakers history. I was told that the purposes of the museum is to display the creativity and variety, and to show the society’s changes. Currently, it has over 20,000 pairs of shakers and present artifacts from 1500’s to now. The collections are showed by themes and colors. Andrea also put some notes to show the stories for certain shakers.[14]

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The #1 most asked questions from the visitors is: Which shakers has the most amount of holes – Salt or Pepper? In US, the salt is considered bad things, so the salt shaker has few holes. But the story is the other way around in Europe. In UK, the salts were poured out for dipping rather than shaking, so it had a large single hole.[15]

I have also learned some other facts from salt. For example, salt had been used to preserve mummies in Egypt. Chinese emperor was the first to levy a tax on salt. An adult body contains 250g of salts…[16] Check out the website if you’re interested!

– The End –