In the morning I hiked up to lookout rock - a tower built on the tallest point of the rim as a forest fire lookout. It gave pretty good views of the long flat valley to the southeast,
and the industrialization and development creeping in from the west:
The Smoky Mountains have always appeared 'smoky' due to condensation trapped in the valleys by the mountain ranges. In the last several decades, smog from nearby industry and auto traffic have caused a 40-60% increase in smokiness (so says the sign at Lookout Rock).
I drove back through the National Park on Highways 73 and 441. Traffic was heavy through Cherokee, with lots of tourist shops and street vendors. It looked like some type of Native American festival was going on.
I finally reached Interstate 40 and quickly made it to Asheville. I'd heard good things about Asheville all the way back in Montana. It was kind of early and I ended up heading downtown and hanging out at a cafe. I tried to find a good spot to camp but there was nothing nearby. I ended up staying at the hostel in west Asheville. Everyone was really nice and I ended up making some friends: Casey, who was down from Brooklyn for a kayaking trip in the mountains; Deborah, from Colorado, moving to Asheville to do some forestry research; Jim, an architect from Atlanta who had traveled solo through Mexico; Nisha, a New Zealander who had just moved to Asheville.
Casey, Deborah and I went out to check out the town and found a pretty good Mexican place for dinner and some neat bars afterwards, including a great example of an authentically-named Irish Pub: