The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of my favorite places. These weathered old mountains, which may not be considered as impressive by some as higher Western peaks are lush and beautiful, as they are covered in deciduous trees.
Driving here from Atlanta was a challenge. Turns out the spring rains continued, and Hector wound up driving for about seven hours in a rainstorm. We’d chosen to take the interstate highway instead of driving up the mountains thinking it was safer, which may have been a mistake. It was very congested and challenging.
Hindsight now tells us that maybe we should have pulled over somewhere and called it a day, but we were so excited about getting to the Smokies that we didn’t think about that option. And we ultimately made it safely to our beautiful campsite by the river.
We stayed in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, one of two main gateways into the National Park, located on the northwestern end of its main road. Cherokee, North Carolina, the second main gateway, is on the southeastern end of the main road into the park.
The rain arrived in Gatlinburg late in the evening and through the night. After having lived in high desert for a number of years, I welcome the rain. To me, the sound of water, whether it be rain, ocean, or river means I sleep more soundly. And the rain is what maintains the lush green landscape and beautifull flowers here in the South.
Hector likes the rain because it makes for interesting photography. And of course we’re well prepared with rain gear. So we embraced the upcoming rainy days. But we are looking for a raincoat for Angel :-).
My favorite part of Gatlinburg is the Arts and Crafts Community – this is located behind the main drag of Gatlinburg and was first established in 1937, when several artists invited tourists to come to their homes to view their arts and crafts. Artists started to open shops in the area and it’s now an eight-mile loop road with more than 100 craftsmen and artist shops. It’s considered “the largest group of independent artists and craftsmen in America.” And, as a bonus, you also get to experience their Southern hospitality. Lovely.
Also worth mentioning is the Nantahala Outdoor Center – this used to be a small store and raft trip outfitter but since our last time here they’ve built a beautiful wood “REI style” store just prior to entering the park. Lots of great outdoor gear and clothing.
Now back to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is the most visited park in the United States. The mountains are part of the Blue Ridge Mountain Range that begins in Virginia. The park encompasses 521,895 acres and offers 800 miles of horse and hiking trails. Elevation ranges from 870 feet to 6,643 feet (measly by Colorado standards) and 71 miles of the Appalachian trail passes through the park.
- The rainfall and vegetation means tons of flowers (flowering trees, wildflowers) in spring and summer, and lots of color in the autumn.
- The day hikes are very accessible. Many beautiful spots are within a few miles of a trailhead.
- The smoky blue haze – it’s beautiful.
- There are abundant rivers, creeks and waterfalls throughout.
- Cades Cove – This beautiful valley on the west of the park has over 80 historic buildings that are easily accessed from an 11-mile one-way Loop Road.
Our time in the park was split between driving and hiking. We were there just past the wildflower “peak”, but still saw lots of wildflowers. And, because of the recent spring rains, all of the waterfalls were at their peak.
We visited Cades Cove a couple of times. The history of the area begins when the Cherokees camped and hunted here, however, there is no evidence that they stayed year-round. The first white settlers came here in the 1821. The rich, fertile land led the population to grow to about 685 people by 1850. They built log homes, barns, corncribs and smoke-houses. As the community grew they built gristmills, blacksmith shops, churches, and later schools.
As we drove through Cades Cove and looked at many of the buildings, the difficulty of the subsistence farming life became evident. One family with nine children lived in a two-room house. Some ate mostly pork because it was easier to preserve than other meats. Corn was the major crop, and some families ate cornbread three meals a day. They had no motorized farm equipment so had to raise horses or mules to pull plows, harrows, buggies sleds and wagons. Families had to enter and leave the Cove on narrow, unpaved roads, and it took days to get to any outside destination. Water had to be carried from the spring. These settlers were obviously very determined and resilient people.
The walking tour includes a number of other buildings that were relocated from other parts of Cades Cove; a couple of barns, a smokehouse, a corn crib, a sorghum mill, another gristmill and sawmill, a millrace and dam and a small house.
One of the homes that was moved to this area belonged to Rebecca (Becky) Cable and her brother Dan. Becky and Dan bought the house from Leason Gregg, who’d purchased the house from its original owner, John P. Cable, Becky’s and Dan’s father. Leason had enlarged the house to include a store on the first floor. Becky and Dan operated the store and later turned it into a residence and boarding house. Then Dan’s wife got tuberculosis and Dan was hospitalized for mental illness. Becky raised her brother’s children, ran the boarding house, and took care of farm and cattle raising chores. She lived to the age of 96. Love that story!
We saw many wild turkeys throughout the park. I don’t recall seeing a lot of wild turkeys during our past forays into this area but they are certainly here now (there were also a couple that visited our campsite various times).
But the highlight(s) of our trip was spotting three different mama bears with cubs. I’d never seen cubs in the wild, and they are even more adorable than I expected! The ranger told us that the bear cubs were born about three months earlier and left the den about one month ago. They were tiny! Apparently, mama sends them up a tree while she goes to find food and then returns for them. All three sets of cubs we saw were up in a tree, and we were lucky enough to see one mama “picking up” her cubs. OMG!
More interesting history of the park; unlike other national parks established on government owned lands, Great Smokies land was privately owned and was purchased for the park in the 1920s and 1930s. In addition to the Cades Cove community, eighteen lumber and pulpwood companies had owned more than 85 percent of the land and had logged two-thirds to three-fourths of it. Because of an agreement made with some of the landowners upon the sale of the land, this National Park doesn’t charge an entry fee.
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park remains high on my list of beautiful places. It’s truly “Great”. Rain or Shine.