It has been a lifelong dream of mine to go to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park. It was on my bucket list and our visit there was a fulfillment of that dream. I would venture to guess that I’ve watched the Ken Burn’s series, Our National Parks: America’s Best Idea, at least three times all the way through. I’ve read and reread the works of John Muir with a fascination that borders on fanaticism. The call of the wild has been with me all my life. The Great Smokey Mountains National Park is all one could imagine.
Ninety-nine years ago, the National Park Service was created to defend Yellowstone and other sites against wildlife poachers and artifact collectors who were hauling away pieces of our national parks and monuments by the wagonload. Today, the same Service is charged with protecting over 400 parks, seashores,historic sites, battlefields, trails, lakeshores and other national treasures in such a way as to “leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
The National Park Service will reach its 100th birthday soon. On this trip, we have been able to explore some of the highlights of their over-site. Without exception, we have been so very impressed with the work done by this federal agency. The National Parks really are one of America’s best ideas. Without protection they would already have been plundered and lost for all time.
We drove first to the Sugarland visitor Center just south of Gatlinburg, Tennessee. This is a great educational center and the rangers are friendly and helpful in planning your visit to the park. From there, we headed out to drive to the highest point, Clingman’s Dome. The landscape and temperature grew gradually more severe as we reached the summit and by the time we arrived at the top, we were literally in the clouds. We had left a sunshine filled warm day down below and were now in the middle of an actual cloud that was raining cold and wet!
The drive through the park gave us a bit of fall color (peak is not until mid-Oct) as we passed bubbling creeks, rivers with pretty little waterfalls, fields with ancient and still standing log cabins and deer grazing in the distance.
The landscape is awe-inspiring and the volunteer groups who work on historic preservation deserve accolades. They protect the largest collection of historic log buildings in the East. Homes, barns, spring houses, grist mills, a school and more are all still here for us to learn from.
The Motor Nature Trail winds through forest and bern, In this park there are over 800 miles of trails and more than 100 backcountry campsites and shelters. If you are not afraid of the bears, this would be the ideal place for a walk in the woods.There are two bears for every square miles of the park. As we were driving along, a Mother bear and three little cubs hustled across the road right in front of us. We were glad to be driving our backpacks in the car and not carrying them at that very moment!
A draw back to experiencing the park at a slow and thoughtful pace is the fact that it was literally mobbed with cars and tourists. Overlooks were crowed and trail heads had dozens of cars parked along the side of the road. This left us with ambivalent feelings about the visit. While it is positive that so many Americans wish to see one of their most beautiful protected land areas, the numbers of people actually there at the same time does diminish the experience. Maybe we are simply spoiled from visiting less popular areas and having them to ourselves, or maybe the impact of the tours really is as egregious as we find it to be.
Much of this traffic comes from tourists who are visiting the Pigeon Forge and Seiverville area. This area was not our cup of tea. Close to where we camped, was a section of Pigeon Forge that makes Orlando, Florida seems trivial. In fact, it is Orlando on steroids, a sea of Los Vegas style neon lights, with gaudy shops hawking their wares everywhere and impatient clustered traffic waiting to park and shop. We recognize that hundreds of thousands of visitors chose to vacation here and have a great time, but we could not have fled the area fast enough. Dollywood, nope. Give us the Wildwood, the Open Road and Riverbank and turn off some of those lights!