Monday, August 26, 2013

The Great Smoky Mountains

What a wonderful time we have had at the most frequently visited national park in the US - The Great Smoky Mountain National Park!

We arrived in Pigeon Forge from Nashville on Friday afternoon and got checked into our campground. We had a little glitch with the water hookup not working, but the campground was kind enough to let us use the site next to ours instead.  Soon afterwards, it was pouring down rain and we had our first experience with thunderstorms since leaving Texas.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in the 1930's due to the environmental threat from the logging industry.  These majestic "old growth" forests were being threatened by an industry that was booming due to Americans' need for wooden products.  The forest was disappearing quickly, and soil erosion was the result.  The mountainsides were literally washing away.  Not only that, but the natural habitat for many creatures was being disrupted, most notably that of the American Black Bear.

So in 1926 Congress authorized the park, which was established in 1934.  This park was among the first national parks assembled from the purchase of private lands.  As a result, many of the original log cabins, country churches, and one-room schoolhouses are still standing and preserved in the park.

We didn't do anything touristy on Friday, but Saturday morning we headed into the national park.  After stopping at the visitor's center, we spent the rest of the morning touring through Cades Cove.  This is where you get a good taste of Appalachia and the lifestyle of the "hillbillies".  The entire driving tour lasted most of the day, but we saw many original log cabins (and all their associated outbuildings), several country churches with hillside graveyards, and a few mills, not to mention breathtaking views of the Appalachian mountains!

On Sunday we took a different road through the park called the Newfound Gap Road.  This route takes you up the Tennessee side to the peak of the mountain ridge, and back down again on the North Carolina side.  Along the top ridge of the Smoky Mountains is part of the Appalachian Trail, which runs over 2000 miles and stretches from Maine to Georgia.  We hiked for a little way along the Appalachian Trail, just to say that we did it.

One turn off the Newfound Gap Road and we found ourselves at the highest peak in the park, Clingmans Dome (elevation 6,643 feet).  We huffed and puffed our way up a VERY STEEP half mile trail to get to an observation tower, but it was worth the hike.  (And it was COLD up there!) We were in the clouds!

After Clingmans Dome, we came down the other side of the mountains on the North Carolina side, and we found our way to a working mill , a mountain farm museum, and another visitor's center where our 7yo son received his "Junior Ranger" badge which he proudly wore during the rest of our visit.

On our way back to our campground, just outside the national park, what should be crossing the road in front of us but a wild black bear!  We were so excited to see it, but it disappeared back into the forest before we could get our cameras clicking. I think that seeing the wild bear so close up was definitely a highlight for our entire family!  It's too bad that we didn't snap a picture of it in time!

Come Monday, we needed to spend a little time getting groceries and doing housekeeping - there's just no escaping it! - but in the afternoon we took one last jaunt through the park on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.  This is a narrow, one-lane, one-way, curvy, twisty road though a section of the park (speed limit is 10mph!) in which I sometimes wondered if we were going to fall off the side of the road down the mountain!  Again there were many historic buildings to stop and see along the way.

One highlight of the Roaring Fork was when we stopped at a trailhead and hiked 1.5 miles (UP the mountain!) to a grotto waterfall.  It was simply breathtaking, and the water was so cold and crystal clear!  We spent some time there before we headed back DOWN the mountain (another 1.5 miles).  We didn't see any bears on this trail, but there was plenty of... er... "fresh evidence" that bears had been on the trail recently.  We had to watch our step!

Our time in Pigeon Forge is coming to a close, as we are heading out of here in the morning.  Pigeon Forge and neighboring Gatlinburg are very touristy areas and look like a lot of fun (and no, we didn't go to Dollywood - bummer!), but because of budgeting concerns we stayed disciplined and only did things in the free national park.  (Although we might yet hit that Russell Stover's chocolate candy outlet store on our way back to the interstate highway! YUM!)