In 2009, Great Smoky Mountains National Park (www.nps.gov/grsm) will be celebrating its 75th anniversary and the park has never looked better. Unlike most other National Parks that were created using public land, Smoky was once private and commercially owned property and in the early part of the 20th century, was being decimated by the timber logging industry. Some forward-thinking locals, benefactors and the state governments of Tennessee and neighbor North Carolina decided that the only way to save their beloved Smokies was to purchase all the land holdings from farmers, logging companies, and individual owners and to create a National Park. It was a good job they did and what exists today is the legacy of that desire to preserve the heart and soul of the Appalachians. The landscape is a combination of pristine wilderness, prime pasture land and mountain cultural heritage. Access is open to all with no admission fees.
Smoky Mountains boasts a statistic of being the most visited National Park in the U.S., which could be a bad thing except that the size of the park and its multiple entries means that you rarely are aware of it. In fact, in many ways you often feel like you have the entire park virtually to yourself, whether you are hiking through the backcountry, visiting historic sites or taking a short nature walk along one of the hundreds of marked trails. The only place that you may get a sense of the crowds and numbers is along the main driving routes.
Fall is an ideal time to visit with the changing colors, temperate climate and bountiful wildlife.
Many of the park's millions of annual visitors choose to drive through and take in the stunning scenery from the luxury of their own vehicles. That is fine if you like a bit of windshield tourism and are restricted with time, but venture off road slightly and you will have a greatly enriched experience. From a material culture perspective, Smoky Mountains is rich in history and heritage, offering a snapshot into late 19th century and early 20th century life in the Appalachian Mountains. In particular, Cades Cove is a treasure trove of historic buildings, quaint rustic cottages, cemeteries and rural architecture.
In the Cades Cove area you can choose from walking, taking a hay ride ($6 per person or $8 with a park ranger as your guide), horse riding from Cades Cove Riding Stables (tel. 865/448-6286; $20 per hour), or renting a bicycle from Cades Cove Bike Rentals (tel. 845/448-9034; $4 per hour or $20 per day April through the first week of November) as you follow the 11 mile loop road past 19th century cabins, unique cantilevered barns, traditional wooden churches, and mills. You may also come across a bear or two as they inhabit the trees, green fields, and wooded forests that surround the Cove. Deer are also plentiful as are many species of birds, otters, raccoons, and butterflies, among other fauna. You can pick up a copy of the Cades Cove touring map ($1) at the visitor center and be sure to speak to a park ranger about highlights that aren't necessarily marked on the map -- like hidden graveyards and special picnic spots.
If driving through is of particular interest, then your best option is to take the Newfound Gap Road from Gatlinburg, TN to Cherokee, NC or vice versa. You will climb almost 4,000 feet and have a chance to see some truly spectacular scenery including the namesake smoky blue haze that often envelops these mountains. The 31-mile trip from point A to point B includes many opportunities for you to get out of your car and take short walking trails, stop for a picnic, have a little dip in a cool mountain stream, or stopping at a scenic look out point for that picture-perfect photo op.
A little less than nine miles in (traveling from north to south), you reach the Chimney Tops trailhead, a two mile walk named after the chimney-like gap through one of the peaks. It is a steep path but one that will reward you with exceptional views of wildflowers, bridges, and creeks. At just under the half way mark, you get to Newfound Gap which lies on the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Here you will find the Rockefeller Memorial, the spot where President Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1940 (it took him a couple of years after the park's creation to visit). It is also from here that you can join the Appalachian Trail, or for less exertion, embark on a walk up to Clingman's Dome, a half-mile paved path to reach the very top of Old Smoky and a spiral observatory tower that juts out above the tree line. The walk may be a little steep (and oddly feels like more than half a mile) but the view you get from the top is well worth it -- a 360 degree panorama over mountains and valleys of Tennessee and North Carolina.
Although you can camp within the park, for extended and more comfortable stays in area, you have the choice of three very different kinds of towns -- low key and laid back in Townsend (seven miles from Cades Cove) -- considered the peaceful side of the Smokies; a little more action but still relatively small scale in Gatlinburg (just outside the Sugarlands entry point to the Park); or larger than life and full of action in Pigeon Forge (about seven miles from Park Headquarters). A few accommodation suggestions include:
- Romantic and secluded Richmont Inn (tel. 866/267-7086; www.richmontinn.com) from $160 per night including breakfast.
- Christmas spirit and décor all year round at The Inn at Christmas Place (tel. 888/465-9644; www.innatchristmasplace.com) in Pigeon Forge from $99 per night including breakfast.
- Rustic charm at Hickory Mist Luxury Cabins and Lodges (tel. 877/462-6478; www.hickorymist.com) in Gatlinburg from $165 per night.
- A traditional country lodge atmosphere at Laurel Spring Lodge (tel. 888/430-9211; www.laurelspringslodge.com) in Gatlinburg from $99 per night including breakfast.
- Black tie class with blue jeans comfort and a 360-degree view of the Smokies at Gracehill Bed and Breakfast (tel. 866/448-3070; www.gracehillbandb.com) in Townsend from $250 per night including breakfast.
As part of the 75th birthday celebrations, the park has established a special website (www.greatsmokies75th.org) which gives users a virtual tour of the planned activities and events that will be scheduled throughout 2009, both within the park itself and in neighboring communities. There is also a family album section where people can upload photographs of themselves, family and friends during visits to the Smokies and become part of a large online album with pictures ranging from the 1910s to today (the early 20 century photographs depicting life in the Smokies are especially interesting). Event highlights for 2009 include the spring wildflower pilgrimage from April 22 to 26; National Junior Ranger Day on April 25; Music of the Mountains festival on April 28; Cosby in the Park (no, not Bill Cosby but the local Cosby community) on May 16; the official Great Smoky Mountains National Park 75th Anniversary celebrations at Cades Cove on June 13, at Park Headquarters on June 14 and at Oconaluftee on June 15; the Women's Word festival on June 20, the 75th Anniversary Rededication ceremony on September 2 and the Festival of Christmas Past on December 12.
Note: The author traveled to Eastern Tennessee as a guest of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.