Welcome back to Traveling With Tom. This week, I’m taking you on a journey back to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. My Traveling Partner and I stopped at this park in mid-November 2017. We were on our way to spend the week of Thanksgiving with family at a rented house on St. Simons Island, Georgia. This beautiful stop is located on the ocean near the Florida state line. We decided to drive and enjoy the sites along the way. We stayed one night in Gatlinburg, Tennessee so we’d have plenty of time to explore the National Park and the surrounding area. Both Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge cater to tourists, it kind of reminded me of the Wisconsin Dells. We did our best to find a hotel and restaurants away from all the action.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the states of Tennessee and North Carolina. The border between the two states runs right down the middle of the park. There are three mountain ranges that are part of the park, the Great Smoky Mountains, the Blue Ridge Mountains, both divisions of the Appalachian Mountain chain. This park is huge, covering over 522,000 acres.
After the Cherokee Indians were forcibly removed in the 1830’s, the area was quickly settled by farmers, miners, and loggers. By the early 1900’s, clearcut logging was destroying the natural beauty of the region. A movement began create a national park that took off when John D. Rockefeller donated five-million dollars to purchase land to establish a park. The federal government chipped in two-million dollars and the states of Tennessee and North Carolina made purchases to accumulate the park land. The park was officially established in 1934 and came under the management of the National Park Service. This was at the height of the Great Depression so many of the structures and roads were built by the CCC and WPA. This park is the most visited in the United States with over 12.5 million visitors each year. And there is no fee to enter the park, the donors stipulated when land and money was donated that no tolls could be assessed. A big bonus in my mind!
After checking into our hotel, we drove to the closest visitor center, Sugarlands. There we picked up park maps and chatted with one of the friendly rangers. He pointed out some of the highlights to see during our stay.
We had a little daylight left and needed to stretch our legs after a days worth of driving. We found a nearby trail and set off through the woods. The sun was shining brightly but the air was cool on this November day. On our walk, we saw the remnants of one of the pioneer farms. I can see why they settled here, the setting was perfect for a house. For farming, I’m not so sure!
After an excellent dinner and a good nights sleep, we headed back into the park the next morning. Our destination was Cades Cove, a historic district located in a beautiful valley, once home to numerous settlers. The earliest European settlers arrived in 1818 Within the next thirty years the population increased to nearly seven-hundred residents. Although the residents depended on trade in a nearby town for goods they couldn’t produce, they established a post office and even had telephone service before 1900. There was a mill and a couple of churches established in the valley. During the Civil War, most of the residents were abolitionists and were subject to confederate raids. During Prohibition, moonshiners proliferated resulting in raids by local and federal authorities. Many prominent citizens were members of the local Baptist church and condemned the drinking and production of alcohol. As mentioned above the National Park came into being in the 1930’s. Almost all the descendants of the original settlers moved on after being bought out by the Park Service.
Several of the original homes, outbuildings, churches, and cemeteries remain as part of the Historical District. The day of our visit, there were volunteer docents who gave brief talks about the people that lived in the dwellings. Their talks were informative and interesting.
On the edge of the Historic District was an operating grist mill and a demonstration of crushing sorghum to make syrup. There is also a snack bar where we scored some lunch before continuing onward.
Our journey continued east, climbing higher into the mountains. There was a large parking lot at the Tennessee/North Carolina state line. The famous Appalachian National Scenic Trail also passes through the Park with a trailhead nearby. My Traveling Partner and I decided to walk on the trail just so we could say we did. But, alas, it was only about a quarter of a mile, then we turned back! I keep thinking if Bill Bryson, the author of “A Walk in the Woods,” could hike the Appalachian Trail, maybe I could too. Or maybe I’ll just lay on the couch and think about doing it!
Near the Trail was an overlook that allowed us to “see over the treetops.” Below are a few photos of the distant mountain range and a look at the fall foliage.
As we were driving around the Park, we kept seeing signs that said “Watch out for Elk.” My Traveling Partner was beginning to believe there weren’t any elk, just signs. Just as we were about to leave the east side of the park, we saw this fellow lounging in a picturesque meadow. There was a traffic jam of cars on the side of road with people taking photos of this lone bull elk. Up a few hundred yards was a parking lot with a few open places, we only needed one. Even though we had to walk to get in position to watch the elk and for a photo, it was worth it. My Traveling Partner’s faith was restored in the signage, there were really elk in the park!
It’s easy to see why the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited. It’s close to high population areas and the scenery is spectacular. Being close to other attractions in Asheville, North Carolina, Gatlinburg, and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee adds to the draw. We wondered if there was slow season, a ranger told us “not really.” He did say winter was a little slower but there are still plenty of visitors that want to experience snow. Go figure!
I’ll close with a few parting photos of the beautiful scenery. If you have the chance, the Great Smoky Mountains is definitely worth the effort.
Until next week, happy virtual travels!