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DESTINATION: TENNESSEE

Solving a Smoky Mountain Mystery

Only away from the crowds can the popular park show off its true--and truly spectacular--colors

October 08, 2000|JEFF SELIN | Jeff Selin is freelance journalist based in Atlanta

GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Ten million tourists a year can't be wrong, but looking at this town of 3,700, I was beginning to wonder.

Signs dangling from lampposts proclaimed this the "Heart of the Smokies," but all around me, I was surrounded by pseudo-Appalachia. There were cheap souvenirs in every shop window, and I found an abundance of wax museums, miniature golf courses and fast-food vendors. It was all so commercial.

That's exactly what I didn't want. I was here in mid-October last year, like thousands of others, to watch the show nature puts on as it packs up and prepares for winter. I wanted to enjoy my last hiking excursion before the snows covered trails and explore some of the more than half a million acres of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border between Tennessee and North Carolina.

This wasn't my first visit to the area. Crossing through in the summer of '98 while hiking the Appalachian Trail, I was told by rangers and others that the park, which has more than 800 miles of trails, is the most spectacular autumn venue in America. I wanted to see for myself.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 29, 2000 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Smoky Mountains National Park, Tenn.--A caption accompanying a photograph of Cades Cove, Tenn. ("Solving a Smoky Mountain Mystery," Oct. 8), misidentified buildings as a church. They are the Smoke House, the John P. Cable gristmill and the Cregg-Cable House.

After my jarring introduction to the touristy Gatlinburg, one of the gateways to the park, I also wanted to solve a mystery. What were 10 million visitors seeing that, at this stage in my travels, I didn't?

I had driven to Gatlinburg from Atlanta, a 4 1/2-hour trip, and checked into the Riverhouse at the Park. (Gatlinburg boasts more than 200 hotels, motels, cabins, lodges, resorts and B&Bs, so lodging isn't usually a problem.)

My room had a stone fireplace and a private balcony overlooking Little Pigeon River. Though $100 was more than I wanted to spend, the room was cozy in a rustic way, enough so that I wished I had brought a guest. Besides, it was almost 8 p.m., and I didn't yet have a camping permit, so staying in the park was out.

After stowing my gear, I headed out to explore. U.S. 441, called "Parkway" in town, was awash with cruising teenagers. Barkers tried to entice passersby into places like Ripley's Believe It or Not and the Guinness World of Records museums. There were little shops designed to look like Swiss chalets and a host of restaurants touting the best trout and catfish in the country. I made my way to the Smoky Mountain Brewery, a restaurant-microbrewery with lodge decor, healthy beer sampler portions and excellent pizza. The atmosphere was fun, but despite the name, there was nothing more Appalachian about this pub than, say, the Hard Rock Cafe Gatlinburg I'd peeked at earlier in the evening. I walked back to my room to get some sleep before my foray into the park.

The next morning, after blueberry flapjacks at a faux-Appalachian restaurant, I headed east on U.S. 441. Just past the Great Smoky Mountains National Park welcome sign, the road carved through stands of maple, birch, oak, beech and hickory, their fat, glove-like leaves forming a multihued canopy that shaded the road.

It was just a preview of the variety that was to come. The park claims more than 100 species of trees. (All of England is said to have 150.) The leaves were changing, and the weather was nearly perfect, about 70 degrees and sunny with a light breeze. The park is often draped in a natural haze, partly a result of all the trees. (The Cherokee Indians called the Smokies "Shaconage," or "Place of Blue Smoke.")

A mile or so from the entrance, I stopped at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, one of three in the park, for a camping permit. Like access to the park, permits for shelters and back-country campgrounds are free. But reservations are required for many spots.

With about 800 square miles of terrain to choose from, I studied detailed trail maps. The ranger suggested Russell Field Shelter, a pleasant walk through the changing woods and not far from picturesque Cades Cove.

I drove out of Sugarlands on Little River Road for the 20-plus-mile drive to Cades Cove, a stopping place for 2 million visitors a year. With the brilliantly hued leaves arching over the road, the lazy musical river just to my left and the crisp mountain air whistling through my open window, I was beginning to get a sense of what attracts so many visitors: Everything seemed extraordinarily vivid and fresh.

About an hour later I came to Cades Cove Loop Road. Signs that pointed to a grocery store and a bike and horse rental place should have been a warning not to enter the loop until I had everything I needed; once you're on this 11-mile one-way road, there's no turning back.

At Cades Cove, I understood why this spot attracts the masses. Imagine grassy fields in a 6,800-acre valley where deer graze beneath a horizon of rolling mountain peaks. Hawks circled overhead, while two black bears drew the attention of tourists. Every white-tailed deer that came close to the road--I counted 27 on the loop as it circled the valley floor--created a traffic jam as visitors scrambled to see and snap pictures.

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