This greeting was common as made our trail from Madison to our eventual Thanksgiving destination, the seashore on the Georgia/Florida border. After a day and half of driving we made a layover stop at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Before checking into our lodging in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, we headed into the park to check out Sugarlands Visitor Center. There are four visitor centers in the Park, Sugarlands is the main center on the Tennessee side. It received it’s name from the many sugar maple trees in the area that early settlers tapped to make maple syrup used as sweetener.
After stamping our National Park passport and talking with the friendly and informative park rangers, we found our way to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. This short (about 6-7 miles) but scenic drive offers visitors babbling brooks, old growth forest and a number of well preserved farmsteads and other historic buildings. It was a pleasant couple of hours before darkness set in for the evening.
I should back up and tell you a bit about this National Park that straddles the ridgeline of the Smoky Mountains, the southern part of the Appalachian Mountain chain. The park covers nearly 525,000 acres, one of the largest protected natural areas in the eastern United States. This park receives over 11 million recreational and another 11 million non-recreational visitors each year making it one of the most popular parks in the US. The park was chartered by Congress in 1934 and dedicated in FDR in 1940. The history of the creation of this park is quite interesting. The idea for a public park to preserve the unique features and scenery of the southern Appalachian Mountains began in the late 1890’s. By then this area had been settled by thousands of farmers and timber and paper companies were logging the abundant wood resources. First attempts by supporters in Tennessee and North Carolina at establishing a park failed as the states had competing ideas. But when they came together on the location along with support from conservationists, fishermen, motorists (auto clubs such as AAA were becoming popular) and businessmen interested in drawing tourists, the movement took off. The effort took a lot of money as there were over 6000 tracts of land to be purchased. In the 1920’s Congress, donors, and the States of Tennessee and North Carolina allocated funds to begin the acquisition of land for the park. While many were glad to take the money and run, others were reluctant to give up their way of life. Some holdouts were granted life easements. All this work and money culminated on September 2, 1940 when President Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the new Great Smoky Mountains National Park at Newfound Gap located on the Tennessee/North Carolina line.
After a pleasant night in Gatlinburg, we scraped the frost off the windows of our car and traveled back into the park along the winding Little River Road bound for Cades Cove. This area of the park was settled around the 1820’s and offers a wide variety of historic buildings and sites in the park. There are log cabins, barns, churches, cemeteries, a working grist mill, and other restored buildings along the one-way 11 mile Cades Cove Loop Road.
Some of the sites required short walks through the woods but it was such a pleasant day with sunny, blue skies one couldn’t help but stop and admire the leafless trees and birds singing their song. We also admired the undergrowth of rhododendrons throughout the park. I’m sure it’s a spectacular site when they bloom in late May and early June.
At the busy, Cades Cove Visitors Center, we got more stamps for our National Park Passport and toured the many historic structures. Of interest was the working grist mill, here’s a photo of the water flowing down the chute to power the water wheel that grinds the corn.
Across the meadow, a fellow and his mule were pressing sorghum for making molasses.
After a fun and pleasant few hours of driving and exploring Cades Cove, we were getting hungry as noon approached. The only place to purchase food was at the campground store where we shared a delicious pulled pork sandwich and a few provisions we brought with us, enough to get us through until dinner that evening. After this refreshing stop, we made our way back along the Little River Road to Hwy 441 that traverses through the Park. Our next stop was the Clingmans Dome Visitor Center, a 7 mile drive off the highway. Clingmans Dome, “the top of old Smoky,” is the highest summit in the Smokies and the third highest east of the Mississippi River at 6643 feet.
There is a well marked 1/2 mile trail to Clingmans Dome but it’s steep in places and we were short on time. The views from the overlook were spectacular and the air so clean and fresh. So after getting even more stamps in our Passport, we back to the highway and on to our next stop, Newfound Gap, the lowest point in the Smoky Mountain range. At this busy stop, visitors can straddle the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina and learn more about why they are called the Smoky Mountains. The Cherokee considered these mountains to be sacred and referred to the area as “Shaconage,” the land of blue smoke. The “smoke” is actually fog created by the dense vegetation when they exhale VOCs (volatile organic compounds). In heavy concentrations these vapors create the bluish, smoky, foggy look.
Also at Newfound Gap, the 2200 mile Appalachian Trail makes an appearance. We walked about an 1/8 mile or so just so we could say that we walked on this famous trail.
Since it was mid afternoon and we had miles to travel before we could stop for the night, we headed east on Hwy 441 to exit the park. After driving a short distance, we saw one of those large flashing message signs that the road ahead may be congested. Wondering out loud what this could mean, we soon came upon a bunch of cars randomly parked in a small pull off and a crowd of people staring into an open area. There a bull elk was taking a rest (it was rutting season) and posing for photos!
I should mention that my traveling partner views those yellow warning signs to watch out for elk as being “fake” so to her delight there was actually a real live elk! When we returned to the car after a period of gawking and the obligatory photos, she exclaimed “but there was only one! Where were the rest?” I was a little flabbergasted because now she wanted to see more!
Our last stop was at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center (named after a nearby river valley) located at the North Carolina entrance to the Park. We got more stamps for our Passport including one for the Appalachian Trail. I asked the Ranger on duty if it was permissible to use the stamp even though we walked only a short distance on the trail. She said ok and gave me one of those “oh really” looks! I used the stamp anyway! After a quick look around the Visitor Center exhibits we left the Park behind. Here’s a couple of parting photos.
The first town after leaving the Park is Cherokee, North Carolina, the headquarters for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. The area bordering the Park and surrounding Cherokee is in a “land trust” rather than a reservation as the Cherokee people had to repurchase the land after is was taken through treaties by the US government. The Indian Removal Act of 1830, passed by Congress and signed by President Andrew Jackson, forcibly removed the Cherokees and other Native American tribes located in the Southeastern US from their lands to reservations west of the Mississippi River. Many thousands died from exposure, disease and starvation en route. This became known as the Trail of Tears, a sad, often forgotten and ignored chapter in our nation’s history. About 800 out about 15,000 Cherokees either resisted or avoided relocation thus remained in the area and eventually regained some of their ancestral lands.
Our visit was way too short, one day just barely skims the surface. We’ll return to do more exploration of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, a must see.
Up next week, our home for Thanksgiving week.
Until then, travel safe.