The Great Smoky Mountains
Heading south over that inviting highway, US-25E, into Eastern Tennessee, we stopped
at an overlook at Bean Station. Cherokee Lake, formed by the damming of the Holston River was sprawled out over the old warpath used by the Cherokees as they engaged with other tribes long before Europeans arrived. A sign provided this description:
One of Tennessee's earliest settle-ments. The valley you see was a warpath for the Cherokees, led Daniel Boone to the Cumberland Gap and was traveled by Davy Crockett. Across Highway 11W to the right stood Bean Fort, built by William Bean, first permanent white settler in Tennessee. In front of the fort stood Bean Station Tavern, the largest tavern between Washington, D.C. and New Orleans. It housed Presidents Polk, Johnson and Jackson. During the Civil War, the Battle of Bean Station was fought around the tavern.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is only 90 miles from Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, just a short afternoon drive. Our expectation was to proceed easily to the park, set up camp, then maybe after a short drive or a tour of the Sugarlands Visitors Center, turn in for the night. However, we did not anticipate the popularity of Gatlinburg on the weekend.
Gatlinburg, Tennessee, it turns out, is a defacto extension of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I guess pristine mountain scenery, backpacking, fishing, and skiing is not exciting enough. Gatlinburg offers an awesome smorgasbord of supplemental entertainment, mostly family oriented. In addition to mountain tramways, there are ghost and terror shows, movies with motion simulators, theme museums, art galleries, theaters and live shows with musicians and celebrities, mountain miniature golf, illusion shows ... much more than I can enumerate.
If you are interested in learning more, you can avoid the traffic by simply going to: http://www.gatlinburg.com
But the thing that impressed me most was the stop-and-go, bumper-to-bumper traffic and the thought that perhaps we had missed a turn. So, we departed from the main drag to follow a delightful, curvy mountain road for 20 minutes. Guess who persuaded me that we were lost. We turned back. The "main drag" of Gatlinburg was indeed the right road. As we proceeded , the city excitement eventually faded behind us, but the traffic didn't.
The teeming "Sugarlands Visitor's Center" was very nice compared to certain other National Parks. Lines were short, not like those we found in Denali National Park, Alaska. That visitor's center was more like a bus depot for mass transit to the "unspoiled" areas of the park. Here we could have a conversation with the receptionist at the information desk.
I was advised that the Elkmont Campground might have a place for us... if we hurry.
The registration desk at Elkmont was indeed very busy. After enduring the suspense as my patience was eked out, we were finally assigned a site. Yippee! We're in!
Everyone in the camp-city seemed to be happy and oblivious of goings on outside their own small campsite. Although we couldn't have had less privacy in a Walmart parking lot, this was perceptibly better than camping under a freeway! It was under a forest canopy and it wasn't even raining!
Just 100 yards from our campsite, the bustle of Elkmont Campground is quickly left behind in exchange for the roaring solitude of "Little River."
There are campers just inside the trees on the right bank.
Here we see how thickly the forests can grow in parts of the Appalachians.
If we ever return to Smokies, we'd probably want to take the time to explore some of the more remote corners of the park such as Cades Cove, Forge Creek, Cosby Creek, Big Creek or Palmer Creek. But today we chose to drive the main road, US-441 that bisects the park. it was a beautiful day to climax our visit to the great mountains of the east. It would be good for all Americans to know more about these Mountains that figure so importantly in the early days of our country.
The state line between Tennessee and North Carolina runs northeast by southwest through the middle of the park. Right about here is the spur road to Clingman's Dome, the highest mountain in the park at 6636 feet above sea level. The highest peak of the Appalachians is 70 miles east in North Carolina, but it's not quite 50 feet higher.
At any rate there is a nice parking lot, rest area and trail head to the dome at the end of the spur. Here we finally see some real fall color to spruce up our trip. These are not leaves, but bright red berries, probably poison. I didn't check. I do know they made my eyes feel very good.
A few more twists in the road and we leave Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The south exit drops us into the Cherokee Indian Reservation where many Indian cultural exhibits and activities are offered. It is a fitting way to leave these mountains by remembering the race that made them home long long before even our ancestors did.
These mountains have a warmth and homeyness not approached by the larger, more magnificent ranges of the West. Mary and I are walking into our 70's, but I would hate to think we'd never return, to this place again.
Regardless, it's for certain that the warm images of the great, long and wide Appalachian Mountains have been indelibly burned into our minds.