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Up Close With Bears at The Great Smoky Mountains

Smoky Mountain Bears up close!

Travel Stage: After Asheville, before Nashville
Date Range: May 12 – May 17, 2016
Summary: We cross the Blue Ridge Mountains over to East Tennessee. We stop at Bush’s Beans Visitor Center and visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – andsee the smoky mountains bears up close!! ​ ​

We took I40 across the mountains to Tennessee and ended up on road 411 to our next campground in Seiverville. We came around a bend in the road and there was the Bush’s Beans Factory and Visitor Center!

  ​This is a fun, free place if you’re ever in the neighborhood. We enjoyed the museum, gift shop, and getting our photo with Duke the Golden Retriever mascot. He may or may not have told me the secret family recipe…

East Tennessee

​This was not our first time to this area of Tennessee, but it was our first time being able to explore. We had come to Knoxville to buy our current fifthwheel from RVs for Less, one of the biggest Mobile Suites dealers in the country.  ​It is a special area: it is rural, yet has a mini-Vegas in the form of Dollywood (in honor of Dolly Parton) in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg that has shopping, theme parks, amusement, theater, bars & restaurants, and more. It also has the Oakland National Laboratory and American Science Museum (next blog post) where the first atomic bomb was made, thanks to the secluded yet well-powered location courtesy of the Tennessee Valley Authority. The beautiful and natural Great Smoky Mountains National Park line the whole area, and the quiet park town of Townsend balances out the flashy fun over the hill in Gatlinburg. Townsend was where we made our entrance into the Great Smoky Mountains.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

​We only had one day for the Smokies, but it was a really good day. It started out with a free wine tasting at the cutest little winery near the entrance of the National Park called Cade’s Cove Cellars. It was so fitting because that was exactly where we were heading that day. 

smoky mountain bears distillery
cades cove wine
cades cove wine
wine sign

Cade’s Cove

​Cade’s Cove is a several-mile one-way paved drive through the park around the inside of a cove. Mountains encircle the cove, so every turn has a great view of mountains, trees, and meadow. There are pull offs and some parking lots to see some of the attractions: old houses, cemeteries, and other historical sites. Hiking trails lead from the road off to some waterfalls or streams.   We had also been told this was a great place to see the smoky mountain bears.

  We started the drive with the intent to pull off at some random hiking spot and just enjoy ourselves. The stream of cars in front of us set the pace, and we slowly started to make our way around the circuit. Occasionally we’d have to stop for each car to take its turn gawking at something or taking a picture, which we were guilty of doing, too.  

  ​We finally decided that we could pull off to get some pretty pictures in the blooming meadow with the mountains behind us. We parked at the next pull-off, which was just big enough for our massive truck. There was a foot trail leading uphill into the trees, so we figured we’d get our hike in too after our photo shoot. ​We hopped the fence and took some pictures in the meadow. ​

portrait in meadow

  Then we noticed some beautiful butterflies among the flowers. Tom started photographing them, while I made my way back to the truck to grab the other video camera. I had to cross the road, which had gotten congested with cars stuck behind a hay wagon going slow. As I turned to come back across the road, I see a guy in another car pointing up into the trees. I turned around and not 50 yards from the road up the very trail we were going to hike in a few minutes was a black bear. ​

smokey mountain bears

  ​Then her baby appeared behind her! With video camera in hand, and our truck parked in the perfect spot, we had an amazing view for one of the most incredible experiences:

Close Encounter with Black Bear Mama and Cub in the Great Smoky Mountains!

The Takeaways

  1. We had no idea bears could climb like that! Or that they liked to eat the tops of young trees. Turns out, their shorter curved and sharp claws evolved for climbing trees which they do to escape  predators, find food, sleep and rest. They also target many plants in the spring when young shoots are most digestible and nutritious.
  2. Don’t be that person to go stand underneath a bear in a tree. I believe that is why she came down, and it could have been dangerous especially with the baby bear who-knows-where in the woods. I know it is tempting, but please don’t ever be that stupid just to get a photo. Plus, it is ILLEGAL to approach within 50 yards of a bear. (Since she approached us initially, I think we are in the clear. 😉 )
  3. The Great Smoky Mountains are FULL of black bears. We saw 2 more before we left. Be on your guard when hiking around, and carry bear spray just in case. 
smoky mountain bears

  Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States where black bears can live in wild, natural surroundings.

Bears inhabit all elevations of the park. Though populations are variable, biologists estimate that roughly 1,500 bears live in the park which is approximately two bears per square mile. At one time, the black bear’s range included most of North America except the extreme west coast. However loss of habitat has resulted in a significant reduction in this range. As an added bonus, we saw some other wildlife on our auto-tour as well:

coyote in smoky mountains

  To wrap up our Great Smoky Mountains visit, we took a drive along the western ridge for some spectacular vistas of the smoky, blue mountains.

blue like smoke smoky mountains sign

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About Tom and Caitlin Morton

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of “Go North” on Amazon Prime Video, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for and an Arizona travel guide.

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