Trip Report: Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a National Treasure
Dr. John Woods 04.15.15
America is blessed with numerous public access national parks, which were created under the presidential administration of Theodore Roosevelt in 1916. The National Park Service is a branch of the U.S. Department of the Interior. To date there are 59 officially designated national parks in the United States.
Alloutdoor.com readers should be interested in this park from the sheer standpoint of the wildlife viewing as well as the beautiful habitat terrain within the park. The near day-long drive through the park makes a great fun and family trip.
Among these many national treasures is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park within the States of Tennessee and North Carolina. Authorized as an official park in 1926 then established in 1934, the GSMNP is located south of I-40 east of Knoxville, Tennessee on Highways 441 and 321 near Gatlinburg.
Settlements of this eastern mountains region began as far back as the 1790s. Frontiersmen and their families found the Cherokee Indians in residence then they arrived. The Cherokee’s called the mountains “Shaconage” or “blue, like smoke.” Hence the name “Smoky Mountains” given to the areas. Once you see the area, you will definitely understand the smoky reference part.
Of all the area park brochures and materials I have read on the Great Smoky Mountains National Park I have not been able to find out exactly how big the park is, but it is obviously huge in the tens of thousands of acres over all. If you study one of the maps you can acquire on site or study on the national parks web site, you can get a sense of its span of territory. Check out the official web site at www.nps.gov/grsm.
As with virtually any national park (and I have toured several), it would take days to do a complete visit honest justice. However, even a day in a park like this one is worth the trip.
We started out from Gatlinburg during our Thanksgiving Day holiday trip on Highway 321 to the Sugarlands Visitor Center, which also serves as the park’s headquarters. This is a full service visitor center with complete facilities, restrooms, gift store, maps, and park rangers on hand for questions and tour information.
I recommend a stop at one of the four visitor centers to start your exploration of the park. These centers are Sugarlands, Cades Cove, Clingman’s Dome, and Oconaluftee. This will get you oriented to the park in good fashion.
Permitted activities within the park grounds include driving tours, hiking, horseback riding, biking, fishing, and tons of sightseeing. The park is home to the smoky hills, wildflowers, fall foliage, mountain vistas, streams, rivers, creeks, historic buildings, as well as wildlife and bird watching.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park contains some 1,500 flowering plants, 200 species of birds, 100 species of native trees, and 60 species of mammals. These include the white-tailed deer, black bear, fox, grouse, wild turkey, bobcats, and small game.
One of the best self-driving tours leaves out of the Sugarlands Visitor’s Center some 10 miles through the mountains to the Cades Cove area. The Cades Cove drive is an eleven mile loop taking you through the heart of the park, mountain vistas, open pastures, hardwood forests, active rivers and streams, and many pull over spots to observe nature and wildlife.
At one point when traffic was temporarily backed up to a stop, a black bear silently appeared out of the woods beside our car and passed right by in front of us. He paused long enough for me to take some photos from the back seat as though he had done that before. Be forewarned though, these bears are not tame and should not be approached. Feeding the wildlife in a national park can lead to a $5,000 fine.
Several miles ahead, we saw a white-tailed buck slipping up a hillside to the left of the car. We circled around the hill to a parking spot. I got out of the car, walked around the side of the hill in an open pasture, and the buck walked within ten feet of me never so much as even glancing my way or paying any attention to the camera firing away. I would have to say that was a super cool moment. As a hunter though, I knew no buck in the “wild” would react so nonchalantly toward a human.
At another stop along the Cades Cove loop, we stopped at the John Oliver log cabin built by one of the original families to settle in the area in 1821. As the story goes, the family arrived with little to live on, no shelter, no food, and not much else. Apparently the Cherokee Indians brought them dried pumpkins to eat, helping them survive their first winter in the forest, which of course was later to become part of the park.
It was interesting to examine the cabin the Oliver family lived in to understand just how small the space was for an entire family to live in. Today most private homes have living rooms bigger than this entire house. It is a humbling experience to say the least.
The Cades Cover loop eventually winds its way around to the Cades Cove Visitor’s Center and park gift store. This made for a great and welcomed rest stop to stretch a bit. There is an old farmhouse complex on site with a house, barn, and an old blacksmithing shop complete with old tools, which are still used for active demonstrations throughout the year. Some of the old horse drawn farm implements are still in the barn.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers much more to do, including hiking trails and trout fishing for the so inclined. And speaking of inclines, the peak of the park can be hiked to the summit some 6,643 feet in elevation to an observation tower.
The really cool part about this park owned by the American people is that to date it is one of the few national parks in the country with no entrance fee. You can contribute to the upkeep of the area via donation boxes about the property. I hope the park can maintain its open status so more people can come to enjoy the beauty of the area.
So, Alloutdoor people, if you are ever in the Knoxville area or are looking for a travel trip destination, I can highly recommend this national park as just part of the general area including Pidgeon Forge and Gatlinburg. There is much to see and do in this picturesque region of the country.