Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Great Smokey Mountains National Park - Part 2

 Drives around the park

The Great Smokey Mountains National Park (GSMNP) includes some fantastic drives for your auto. Here are a few we did during our COVID vacation in August 2020.

Heintooga Round Bottom Road

Our favorite was the Heintooga Round Botttom Road. This road is accessed via the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is a fine drive itself. If going on this trail, you can first stop at the Oconaluftee VIsitor Center. You are also very close to Cherokee, with some activities to do there. We visited the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

The Heintooga Road is a paved two-laner that takes you to the top of a mountain, where the Balsam Mountain Campground (5535 feet elevation) is located (closed now due to Covid). Once at the top, you can view the Heintooga Overlook and drive back the way you came to the Blue Ridge Parkway, or you can have some fun and take the unimproved one lane road down the other side of the mountain, back to the Cherokee area. 

While regular passenger cars often do this road, having the extra suspension travel of a crossover or SUV makes it much easier, with fewer chances of bottoming out on the trail. The road has many switchbacks and sharp turns and will take 60-90 minutes to complete the 26 miles. 

We found the Crosstrek ideal on this road, it was quite nimble on the unimproved one-lane road, navigating the ruts, mud, and sand with ease, and never bottomed out. 

Interestingly, with the Crostrek PHEV Hybrid, we were able to keep the shifter in "B" mode which does more regenerative braking. By the time we got to the top of the mountain, the battery was well depleted. However, the grade down was steep enough that it not only regenerated enough electricity so that the engine never came on on the way down, but we ended the 26+ mile trek with more battery charge than we started with. It was nice to have the silence of not running the gas engine while on the trail.

If you do this trail, check ahead of time to make sure it's open. Recent storms may cause the trail to be blocked by fallen trees. At the end of the road, you are not far from the Mingo Falls, which is worth the side trip. 

Roaring Fork Motor Trail

The Roaring Fork Motor Trail is a popular loop drive because it starts and ends in the city of Gatlinburg, and is only about 6 miles in length, so it can be done easily and almost any time. The loop portion of the road is paved, one-way, and most any vehicle should be able to drive on it. There are some steep inclines and declines, but nothing that would cause issues. 

Besides scenic overlooks, there are different stops one can make at historical sites. These include the Noah "Bud" Ogle Cabin, Ephraim Bales Cabin, Alfred Reagan Tub Mill, and more.

Besides scenic overlooks, you will cross over or be beside rivers on much of the drive, allowing for picture taking, including some small waterfalls. 

Parking for a 2.6 mile round trip hike to the Grotto Falls will be found a little past the first overlook. This is a popular hike, and parking can fill up, with many people parking on the sides of the road. 

Bear sightings may be common in the morning and evening, as they move into the outskirts of Gatlinburg to look for food. Look along the river banks. 

When you exit the loop drive and enter Gatlinburg again, you will be close to the Hungry Bear BBQ. The main entrance is not far from Bennett's Pit BBQ. Basically, you can get some BBQ coming or going. 

Cades Cove Loop

Cades Cove is probably one of the most popular drives within the Smokey Mountains. Compared to the rest of the GSMNP, it's relatively flat. The complete loop is 11 miles, with many stops along the way at many homestead sites (or buildings from other homesteads moved there). 

While it is a one-way loop, there are two areas where one can take a short cut within the loop. This loop has definite opening and closing times, and certain times are dedicated just to bicycles, so check ahead before going there. 

Popular stops include; John Oliver House, Primitive Baptist Church, Methodist Church, Baptist Church, a nature trail, Dan Lawson Cabin, Tipton Place, farms and more. Half way through the e Cades Cove loop is parking for the five-mile round trip hike to the Abrams Falls.

Depending on when you go, there may be a lot of traffic on the loop. Some drivers go really slow and can back up traffic. A bear sighting will almost always cause a traffic backup. 

Owing to the popularity of the area, there is the Cades Cove visitor center on the loop as well as the Cades Cove campground near the beginning of the loop. 

Partway through the Cades Cove Loop is a one-way road named the Rich Mountain Road, this gravel road (open seasonally) can be driven by most all passenger cars, and takes you to the town of Townsend. Tubing the Little River in Townsend can be a relaxing end to a long day at Cades Cove.

Next Time

We did not drive the Tail of the Dragon, with its 318 turns over 11 miles, but intend to next time.

Charging the Crosstrek Hybrid

There are few places one can plug-in and charge their electric car in and around the GSMNP. Places like Bennett's BBQ have a spot for electric cars, which is often filled by non-electric cars, plus their pricing is very high. 

Cherokee lists a couple locations with a charging port, but none worked while we were there. Some of the GSMNP visitor centers have charging ports, but are difficult to use, and may require buying a card from the desk. Free charging is available at the Tanger's Outlet shopping. 

If you are driving a plug-in electric vehicle, charging may require more investigation before traveling. 

Once over the mountain, and going downhill on the main US441 drive, you will want to use the "B" mode on the shifter to reduce actual braking, and create more regenerative charging. 

Where have you taken your Crosstrek, we'd like to know. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Great Smokey Mountains National Park Part 1

Originally, we had a vacation to Hawaii planned for April of 2020, but COVID put a wrench into those plans. 

Side note, VRBO was horrible at making things right. Their host did not follow the VRBO Covid refund policy at all, and they did nothing about it. 

The runner up destination ended up being the Great Smokey Mountain National Park in August. We actually stayed in Sevierville, which is the area where Dolly Parton is from. This city is North of Pidgeon Forge which is just North of Gatlinburg. While I really like Gatlinburg, as a tourist destination, it's great to visit but I don't want to stay there. 

We debated renting a car, taking the Forester, or the Crosstrek Hybrid. The latter won out because it has plenty of room for two, and I wanted to see how it did in regions with more elevation changes than mid-Michigan.

Driving in the clouds


Overall, the total from Michigan, to Tennessee, tour the Smokeys, and back to Michigan was a total of 1,769 miles and the total trip used 48.77 gallons of gas. Mileage works out to 36.27mpg.


In the Gatlinburg area, there were very few places to charge. On the way out, we did drive about half way, and stay in a hotel between Dayton and Cincinnati. The hotel had a charging port available (I picked the hotel for this reason).

Charging at the hotel

Other than at the hotel, we did charge while at Bennetts Bar B Que in Gatlinburg. 

All the rest of the time we were running mostly as a hybrid, instead of a plug-in hybrid.

Driving Impressions:

One of my concerns was how the engine would handle steep inclines, especially once the battery is effectively drained. The gasoline engine uses the Atkinson cycle and has less horsepower than the standard 2.0L engine in the Crosstrek.

While the Crosstrek Hybrid is no race car, not even close, it handled the inclines well. It never bogged down, or caused traffic to back up, always keeping pace with the traffic flow when going up hill. 

Going downhill, we were able to use the "B" setting on the shifter, causing the car to do more regenerative braking, and use the actual brakes less. I can't say for sure, but I suspect with careful driving, the brake pads will last a very long time, just because of the benefits of regenerative braking. 

The slightly lower center of gravity afforded by the boxer engine, and the battery, caused no issues on the turns and switchbacks in the mountains. 

Jeep Week:

 When we arrived, it was Jeep Week. Here are some pictures of a few Jeeps. We'll have more pictures of the Crostrek Hybrid in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park in the next blog entry. 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Winter and the Crosstrek Hybrid

It's been a while since we posted, and have a lot of new information.

Highlights - this vehicle is absolutely fantastic in the snow and ice. Battery life decreases in the cold. Mileage suffers with snow tires and a roof rack.

Snow tires:

We added snow tires to the Crosstrek in November (and took them off yesterday, March 21) In my case I got the Nexen WinGuard Winspike. We went with a 225-60 on a 17" wheel instead of the stock 18" wheels. These were put on generic steel wheels, with tire pressure monitoring sensors. You can see what it looks like in the picture.

Crosstrek Hybrid is great in the snow
Out on an icy, snowy, day
The Crosstrek AWD system is really good for snowy conditions. With Traction Control, X-Mode, Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC), good ground clearance and highly maneuverable platform, the car is really quite capable in the snow. additionally, the extra weight of the battery did seem to assist initial traction compared to our non-hybrid Subaru's.

Add snow tires, and it's even better. These particular tires are studdable. There are some areas in the Michigan Upper Peninsula I'd like to visit in winter, and some roads require studded tires, or chains. I did not put studs in this winter, as it never got super cold for the places up North I wanted to visit. 

With the snow tires, extra weight, and standard traction control, I had no issues on days where the roads were bad. I was behind a police cruiser on a day of a significant snow fall, and he was sliding all over the road, as were many pickups, Chargers, Mustangs, other SUV's etc, while the Crosstrek maintained composure, tracking, and braking ability.

If you live in an area with a lot of snow or ice, I would totally recommend using winter tires.


Those snow tires come with a disadvantage, and that was weight. While I do not have a scale to weigh them, swapping the stock tires and rims back on I could tell there was a significant difference between the snow tires and stock tires, and the snow tires were heavier.

Plus, they grip the road well, providing more friction. 

Cars generally get worse mileage in the cold, and hybrid batteries lose capacity in the cold. Also, roof racks and roof accessories increase drag. What this means is that on a long trip, all of those factors really killed the mileage.

Last summer, traveling up North to go backpacking, I still maintained over 37 mpg average. This winter, going 250 miles to Boyne Highlands, with a roof rack, ski rack, skis, snow tires, cold temperatures, and a crosswind, the mileage dropped into the mid 20's.

Again you can view the running mileage spreadsheet, but it's not pretty. Look at the dates for 3/5-3/8 2020.

For me, I plan on only using the roof rack only when I have to, but not leaving it on the car all the time. I think the aerodynamic drag, and efficiencies lost, are worth the hassle. 

I'll be curious to see what the Kayak does to the mileage this summer. 

Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid Ski
With Roof and Ski Rack

Battery Life:

There are plenty of times it does not run in EV mode.
  • When the battery is nearly depleted.
  • When driving 65mph or higher.
  • When it's exceptionally cold.
  • When running the defroster and some other accessories.
However, in EV mode, I found the distance traveled in the cold was reduced. I did not keep a chart, but my anecdotal estimate is that EV range dropped 3-4 miles when below 32 degrees. 

When in Northern Michigan, there are not many EV car chargers. Boyne Highlands actually has a spot with Tesla connectors, and you can plug in your 110V charging cables.

Charging at Boyne Highlands

That's a wrap:

Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid is a blast in the snow. You can't get tit to screw up. Mileage and range do suffer, but we expected it. I did not expect such a huge drop when using the snow tires, roof and ski rack, ouch!

Great Smokey Mountains National Park - Part 2

 Drives around the park The Great Smokey Mountains National Park (GSMNP) includes some fantastic drives for your auto. Here are a few we did...