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Smoky Mountain Memories
By Diane Berry
This patchwork park has come together to form a beautiful wilderness quilt
Unlike Yellowstone National Park, which was created mostly from public lands, Great Smoky Mountain National Park was purchased tract by small tract from lumber companies, farmers and other private landowners. Created on June 15, 1934, it was truly a labor of love as funding came largely from private contributions, grants from the states of North Carolina and Tennessee and even pennies saved by school children. This June, America’s most visited national park will celebrate its 75th anniversary and it is truly a site to behold!
Consisting of over 800 square miles of mountains and rivers, the park is named for the smoky haze arising from the morning mist in the mountains. Already home to more than 15,000 known species of plants and animals, scientists from around the world have recently reported that they have discovered 890 species of plants, animals and other organisms in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park that are new to science books. Activities to showcase the wildlife, history, music, crafts and lore of the Smoky Mountains are planned throughout 2009 to this celebrate this anniversary.
Aside from the planned events, spontaneous activities abound in the Park. More than 850 miles of hiking trails traverse the Great Smoky Mountains, leading to a wide variety of terrain and topography. Walkers and hikers of all fitness levels can find a quiet place to enjoy everything from a leisurely stroll to a strenuous climb.
The Appalachian Trail, the 2175-mile trail that runs from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine, traverses the park as well. Seventy-two miles of the “AT,” as it is affectionately known, run through the park. This section of the trail is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, the Trail reaches its zenith here in the form of Clingman’s Dome. At 6625 feet, this is the highest point on the entire Trail. Additionally, there is a section of the AT in the Smokies that runs 35 miles without ever dipping below 5000 feet in elevation. Finally, it contains everything from grassy balds (treeless rounded mountain tops) to rocky ridge tops to a Canadian-zone ecosystem. Many day-hikers explore parts of the AT via Smoky Mountain National Park.
One small section of the AT commonly tackled by day-hikers is the four mile stretch from Newfound Gap Road to a rocky outcropping with the most unusual name of “Charlie’s Bunion.” This curious formation was so-named when the park was in its infancy and several visitors happened upon it, one of whom remarked, “Why that sticks out just like Charlie’s Bunion!” The name stuck and this beautiful and, at times, challenging four-mile stretch of trail was saddled with the same moniker as an unattractive foot growth.
BEHIND THE WHEEL
For those looking for a more leisurely way to enjoy nature, there are a number of driving tours available in Smoky Mountain National Park, spectacular for both their scenery and the incredible variety of topography, vegetation and history they reveal about the park. Those interested in the historical perspective would enjoy the 11-mile Cades Cove Tour. Approximately 34 miles into the park from the Gatlinburg entrance, Cades Cove is a broad valley surrounded by mountains.
For hundreds of years, the Cherokee hunted in this area. The first Europeans settled in the “cove” between 1818 and 1821. Loop Road circles it and takes visitors on a journey back in time to the 1800’s and the early farming community that first settled in the park. Scattered along the road are three churches, a working gristmill, barns, log houses and many other faithfully restored structures. Other tours easily accessible by day visitors to the park include Newfound Gap Road, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Cataloochee Valley and Upper Tremont Road. Booklets on these tours are available at park visitor centers that are keyed to numbered posts or landmarks and include information on park history, wildlife and plants.
When through exploring the national park, there is a multitude of activities to occupy one’s time. Dollywood, a musical theme park founded by country star Dolly Pardon, is located in nearby Pigeon Forge, five miles from the park’s entrance. Dollywood is complete with rollercoaster’s and thrill rides, kiddie amusements and games for the younger set, crafters of every kind, and performers of all shapes, sizes and genres and down-home cooking to soothe the soul. A number of meals are created in immense frying pans and contain everything from a variety of sausages sautéed with potatoes and onions to thin strips of beef cooked with green peppers to Miss Lillian’s fried chicken and Granny’s ham and beans.
Dollywood hosts a number of festivals throughout the year. Every spring the Festival of Nations takes place, featuring performers from all over the world. In 2009, this festival included stilt-walkers from Belgium, a group of dancers from Lithuania, a vocal group from Africa with amazing harmony and vocal percussion and a trio from France and England playing sweet and melodic “hang” drums, invented in Switzerland as recently as 2001. There are currently only two craftsmen who can create these unique instruments and there are only 4000 in existence. Most performers also have CDs of their music available for guests to take along home.
The park is open from the end of March through the end of December each year. While the Festival of Nations typically occupies the spring season, taking place from opening day through the end of April, in June, Kids Fest takes center stage, running from mid-June to early August. Barbeque and Bluegrass occupy the month of September and the National Gospel and Harvest Celebrations entertain guests throughout the month of October. The Smoky Mountain Christmas Festival runs from early November through the end of the year and has been named America’s Best Christmas Event.
Shopping is plentiful at Dollywood, as well. Crafters offer their wares for reasonable prices. Woodworkers present carvings and garden sculptures, blacksmiths offer knives, CD’s and musical instruments are readily available. Some items available for purchase at the park one may have difficulty finding in any other venue, such as a horse-drawn wagon. There is also a variety of booths with items from other nations, such as skirts and handbags from India, flutes from Ecuador, gifts from China and the like. It would be difficult to visit the park and not find at least one souvenir of the trip to bring home.
There are several outfitters, catering to AT thru-hikers as well as the tourist shopping for that first pair of hiking boots. There are also boutiques offering boots and western wear as well as establishments carrying music and unique musical instruments. Many shops proudly proclaim their connection to the region, from the Smoky Mountain Angler to Smoky Mountain Outfitters to the Smoky Mountain Riding Stables, it is clear they are pleased to be here.
If you are looking for a slightly more traditional shopping experience, the Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge/Sevierville area also boasts a selection of outlet malls. In the largest of these, the Tanger Outlets, shoppers will find Bass, Eddie Bauer, Rue 21, Pac Sun, Dress Barn, Coach, Aéropostale, Bose, Timberland and a wide variety of other stores. It would be difficult to leave the area with nothing to show for the experience.
A hungry traveler can find many ways to satisfy his appetite in the Smoky Mountain region as well. Visitors can find themselves sated by such standard dining fare as the Hard Rock Café, Olive Garden and T.G.I. Friday’s or may choose to explore a bit of regional cuisine by visiting the Smoky Mountain Brewery, the Park Grill Steakhouse and the Dixie Stampede. There are so many options from which to choose, from the small local barbeque spot to more standard dining fare, everyone should be able to find something they like.
Whether you are drawn to the area for the adventure of outdoor pursuits or the music and culture of this mountain region, you are sure to enjoy both aspects of this picturesque area. It seems to be a perfect blend of natural beauty and interesting diversions that appeal to a wide variety of travelers. It is a most perfect place to escape for a brief or more extended trip and visitors are sure to return home with a few special Smoky Mountain memories to share.