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Smoky Mountain High : Once they've been there, most visitors yearn to return to the scenic woodlands that straddle North Carolina and Tennessee

September 19, 1993|JAMES T. YENCKEL | WASHINGTON POST

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — The lofty green ridges of Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park roll across the horizon in spectacularly scenic waves that lap gently at the soul. Plunging into this wild woodland expanse, with its misty peaks, hidden coves and tumbling streams, dazzles the eye and invigorates the spirit.

But I had my doubts. More than 8 1/2 million travelers tour Great Smoky annually, making it America's most heavily visited national park. Surely, I thought, the place has been trampled by the vacationing hordes.

Well, I'm happy to admit I was mistaken. The park is beautiful, as I should have known, and my fears of overcrowding proved foolish. The lush forests that blanket the steep mountain slopes have been remarkably resilient in the face of the annual tourist invasion. And I didn't find myself tripping much over my fellow visitors, even though--like everybody else--I mostly took sightseeing drives and short day hikes. The park seemed to absorb us all nicely.

And now I can't wait to get back. Fall, when the leaves are changing and days are crisp and sunny, is an especially popular time to visit.

At what point in my three-day visit did I become a convert? Maybe it was the first morning, when I awoke in a cozy hilltop inn just outside the park to watch a thick blanket of clouds lift slowly from the broad shoulders of Mt. LeConte, soaring high above me in the distance. Or was it the sunny afternoon I followed a rocky trail that led me right under cool, cascading Grotto Falls?

I spent much of my last day hiking and driving through remote Cades Cove, a small mountain valley deep in the park where thick woods and sun-splashed meadows wove a magical beauty. At one especially scenic spot, I sat on a stump for half an hour, or perhaps it was an hour, drinking in the view as if it were a tonic--which in a way it was. By then, of course, I was solidly hooked.

*

The week I arrived, in early May, a late-season storm dumped more than a foot of snow in the park's upper elevations, temporarily closing the major highway across the mountains. At the foot of the mountains, at an elevation of about 2,000 feet, spring was in full bloom, and I was in shirt sleeves. But up at 5,048-foot Newfound Gap, winter was throwing a departing snit. Blocked from hiking the scenic high country, I diverted my attention to some of the park's other less-heralded features on the lower slopes, particularly the many white-water streams spilling out of the mountains. I soon realized that almost every road I drove or trail I hiked traced the course of a stream or river.

As I explored, I also became aware of something called "Quiet Walkways," short paths to nowhere leading into the woods. As best as I could determine, they are unique to Great Smoky. Dotted along the road, each of the unusual trails departs from a parking area limited (by design) to only one or two cars. The idea is to lure motorists--a few at a time--out of their vehicles and into the comforting solitude and quiet of the forest. You don't have to walk very far to escape into a wilderness realm.

Once the park's deep valleys were home to about 6,000 rugged subsistence farmers and their families, the now almost-legendary Appalachian folk who were forced to move from their old homesteads when Great Smoky was created in 1934. Many of their weathered old structures--the wood-frame cabins, barns, corncribs and outhouses--have been preserved in the form of open-air museums.

Shaped like a large and lumpy potato, Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Much of its rugged interior, where the mountains climb above 6,000 feet, can be reached only on foot. Some 900 miles of hiking paths lace this formidable wilderness, including 71 miles of the Appalachian Trail, which roughly parallels the two-state border along the soaring backbone of the Smokies. But only a single paved highway, the Newfound Gap Road, bisects the park--crossing the mountains from Gatlinburg, Tenn., in the north to Cherokee in the south.

And yet the park's lush interior is surprisingly accessible, even to less adventurous travelers for whom a hike of a mile or two is a major challenge. Several short paved roads make deep cuts into the backwoods; other unpaved roads probe even farther, and there are several easy, well-marked nature trails extending beyond. The visitor center distributes individual brochures detailing auto tours and short, informative hikes.

For most visitors, the park's primary destination is Clingmans Dome, the highest point at 6,642 feet. Because of the snow, I never got there, but the vistas from a slightly lower elevation at Newfound Gap were superb. To reach the summit, you must detour from Newfound Gap Road, drive a short distance and then climb a steep paved walkway, which is usually the park's busiest trail.

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