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Picnic Perfection

Posted by Leif Palmer in Wears Valley

With its awe-inspiring mountains, scenic landscapes and abundance of wildlife, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the ideal spot to have a picnic. Whether you're looking for a place to enjoy an outdoor meal with family or perhaps a quiet spot for two, the park's many designated picnic areas are fine choices when it comes to dining in the fresh air of the great outdoors.

Having a picnic at Metcalf Bottoms

This week, we're going to make a case for choosing Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area for your next al fresco meal in the national park. In and of itself, it's a fine picnic destination, but there are other activities you can enjoy while you're in the neighborhood, so you can plan a whole day of vacation memory making in that neck of the woods without having to burn too much gas.

Let's start by getting you to Metcalf Bottoms. From Sugarlands Visitor Center in the national park, head west on Fighting Creek Gap Road (which later changes name to Little River Road) and drive for 9.5 miles until you reach Wear Cove Gap Road. Along the way, you'll pass Laurel Falls and the Elkmont area.

From Townsend, take Lamar Alexander Parkway into the national park and then turn left at the “Y” intersection onto Little River Gorge Road. From there, drive 7.8 miles until you get to Wear Cove Gap Road. You'll pass Meigs Falls and The Sinks along the way. In either case, once you reach Wear Cove Gap Road, you're pretty much at the Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area.

From Wears Valley, take Line Springs Road off U.S. Hwy. 321 and follow it about a mile and a half south until you cross into the national park and the road name changes to Wear Cove Gap Road. Follow that another mile and a half until you reach the picnic area.

Once you're there, you'll notice there are two sections, one on either side of Wear Cove Gap Road. The larger of the two areas is accessible via a one-way loop road. Between the two sections combined, visitors have a choice of 122 picnic sites. They look much like campground sites, except there's no place to put up a tent. In fact, camping there is prohibited.

But each site does have multiple parking spots, a picnic table (some sites have two tables) and a charcoal grill. The picnic area also has several bear-proof dumpsters, water fountains and bathroom facilities with flush toilets and sinks with hot and cold running water. All of the sites are within an easy walk of the Little River, and many of the picnic sites are actually on the water.

There's a covered picnic pavilion in the larger of the two picnic sections. It seats as many as 70 guests, so it's a popular spot for family reunions, church picnics and other group outings. There's no electric service, but there are drinking fountains. The pavilion is open from mid-April to late October, and while park guests can use the space without a reservation, guests who do make reservations have priority use of it for that designated time. Advance reservations and payments can be by visiting recreation.gov or by calling 800-365-2267. Each day has two rental periods available - from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 4 to 8 p.m. The fee is $25 per rental period.

Of course, picnicking is the main activity at Metcalf Bottoms. The site is largely protected by mature hardwood trees, and there's lots of shade protecting most of the campsites from the sun. Just as you would at a campground, however, guests are encouraged to dispose of unused food and other garbage in dumpsters so as not to attract wildlife and to keep the sites looking clean.

Water play in the Smoky Mountains

Another popular activity for picnickers is to interact with the nearby Little River, either by wading/swimming, floating in an inner tube or by fishing (fishing license required). Note that even in warm weather, the waters of the river can be pretty brisk, but that makes it the perfect place to cool off on those scorching summer days.

There are also several hiking opportunities that originate at Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area. The Metcalf Bottoms Trail begins on the far side of the wooden bridge spanning the Little River. The trail itself consists of packed dirt, with some roots and rocks embedded. The first destination, about a half-mile down the trail, is the Little Greenbrier Schoolhouse. Most of that section is fairly level, but it does get steeper as you approach the schoolhouse. You'll also cross the river by footbridge three different times along the way.

Old school house in national park

The schoolhouse was built in 1882 by area residents Gilbert Abbott, Ephraim Ogle, John Walker and others. Classes began that fall and continued until 1936, when the National Park Service took possession of the land. If you visit the schoolhouse, you'll see the original blackboard as well as the benches that served as combination desks/seats. But please don't deface these fixtures or paint graffiti on them. That's a crime, punishable by fine, imprisonment or both.

If you decide to continue hiking, the trail continues past the schoolhouse under a new name: Little Brier Gap Trail. It continues another 1.4 miles until you reach the junction of Little Greenbrier Trail. The most notable point of interest along Little Brier Gap Trail (accessible via a side trail) is the Walker Sisters' Place, which is a total of .9 miles from the schoolhouse.

The Walker family had lived in that area for decades prior to the formation of the national park. In 1921, five of the seven Walker sisters inherited the family's 123-acre mountain farm, and in 1940, the sisters finally gave up the fight to retain control of their land and came to a settlement with the National Park Service. They accepted $4,750 for the site but with the stipulation that they could live out the remainder of their lives on the land. The National Park Service took ownership in 1948 but gained full control of the land in 1964, when the last remaining Walker sister died. The sisters were the last private residents to live within Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Today, hikers can visit their homestead, which was restored in 1976 by the National Park Service and eventually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The sisters' springhouse and corn crib can also be seen on the property.

Leif Palmer - Smokies blogger

About Leif Palmer

Leif Palmer loves residing in the Smoky Mountains. He is an avid outdoorsman: rowing for exercise on the lake, trail hiking, and free climbing rocks in the mountains. He indulges his arty side by periodically beating up pieces of marble by sculpting. He is always frustrated by his inability to sink long putts, and hates his curly hair (but his wife loves it). Leif has been known to muster enough courage to change a diaper, and hopes his son will become a chip off the old block.


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