Do you know which is the most visited national park in the United States? The Grand Canyon, right? Well, that’s what most people think, but this is actually not the case. The most visited national park in America is The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Established in 1934, it encompasses 2115 square kilometers of land, making it one of the largest protected areas in the eastern US. Every year it is visited by approximately 9 million people! Why so many, you might ask? The reasons go beyond just the fact that it’s extraordinarily beautiful and there’s no entry fee – it is also located near several very densely populated areas, only several hours of driving away from half the population of the US. During the spring, thousands of wild flowers blossom there, there’s a large amount of rhododendrons growing, tons of leaves of various colors in the fall, but during the summer it is a pleasant oasis for when the cities get too hot. Most people come to the park in the fall – in fact, in the span of two months during the fall there are more people visiting it, than in the rest of the year combined. Since the altitude of the park is very varied from location to location, the season for colorful autumn leaves is long, and maps can be found on the internet, detailing when it begins in various areas of the park. We visited the park in February, which is certainly not one of the more popular times for a visit, therefore we were able to drive trough all the roads at our own pace and leisurely walk along the paths by the waterfalls. We had decided that we would spend two days in the park. And we were glad we did, because we got to see some fantastic sights!
Visiting The Smoky Mountains was a part of our nearly three week long road trip across the East Coast of the United States. I used Lonely Planet books and National Park Service websites to plan our route. If you go to The Smokies from the Shenandoah National Park side, you can drive on the famed Blue Ridge Parkway, deemed America’s favorite road. However, we chose to go there from the side of Georgia, having already explored Atlanta, and headed to Ashville. As we were driving on the Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway, which is famed for having some very beautiful sights along the way (and is often included as a location of interest in tourist guides), we only stepped out of the car a couple of times, since it was nearly constantly pouring rain and very cold. In the spring, when rhododendrons are blossoming, this road is surely much more beautiful than at the time we saw it. We did stop at Lake Keowee and the corresponding national park, where we encountered the typical American payment system. Take an envelope from a designated box, put cash inside, tear a talon off of the envelope, and leave it on your windshield. Throw the envelope into a mailbox-like container. Nobody really checks how much money you put in (or whether any at all) or how much time you stay. The soil in the park was really quite strange – very distinctively red. You could also see all of the islands in the lake while standing on the shore, which was quite a sight to behold. That day, there was nobody but us at the lake, but during the summer this is a popular destination for swimming and yacht rides. Later, as we were heading to our main destination – The Great Smoky Mountains –we saw lots of really nice-looking cottages, with a yacht beside almost every single one. The Oconee Nuclear Station is located very near from here, so we saw lots of signs with instructions on what to do if disaster strikes. We arrived in Asheville with the twilight, where we had some very delicious supper at the Mellow Mushroom pizzeria (we later saw these in other states). Tired after the long drive, we soon went to sleep.
The next day started out sunny, but we had been warned that the weather in the park itself may vary. Even before driving into the park itself, but when the mountains were already visible, we stepped of the car and did some sightseeing at several stops. At one such stop, we saw a sign with the words “The Most Photographed Spot in The Smokies,” so we decided to stop and have a look around, but didn’t find anything too spectacular. The sign was probably aimed at tourists like us, who were here for the first time, and were not yet aware of the marvels that the park itself could offer.
We drove trough an Indian reservation, and were finally at the park.The Smokies is one of the most diverse ecosystems in North America. The first inhabitants here were the Cherokee tribe of Native Americans, who began living here around 11 000 years ago. During the 18th century, British, German and Scots-Irish travelers started moving here. The Cherokees attempted to adapt to European customs – in 1808, Sequoyah (Sequoia trees are named after him) created a Cherokee syllabary, which was learned by all members of the tribe within two years. However, in 1828, gold was found in the northern part of Georgia, and in a speech in 1829. President Andrew Jackson declared that all Native Americans must move to Oklaholma – the Indian Removal Act. Cherokees overturned this decision in the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of them, but Jackson refused to comply with the verdict. This is the only case in US history when a president has ignored a verdict of the Supreme Court. In the year 1838, 13 000 Indians were forced to walk to Oklaholma, with a third of them dying of starvation and disease on the way. Over the years, this event has become known as the Trail of Tears. Some of the Indians refused to comply, and instead hid in the mountains. In 1898, they were able to reach an agreement for an Indian reservation being built there. It is now right next to the national park and can be visited by tourtists, with various souvenirs sold. We have driven trough Indian territories many times on our journeys across they US, and unfortunately they have now become places where you can buy guns, alcohol and tobacco for cheap, as well as gamble, since some taxes do not apply to Native Americans.
After Indians were ordered to leave the area, most of the trees in the area were cut down, which heavily damaged the ecosystem. Initially the lumber was used for construction, and buildings from that time still stand in the park, but over time, the lumber started to be sold elsewhere, and this continued until all the easily accessible areas in the park were devoid of trees, and the lumberjacks moved to other locations. Since then, the trees have re-grown, and are now within a protected territory. There are also still some areas with very old trees that were not cut down even then. Unfortunately, not all the damage from that time has been repaired. For example – boars. In 1912, some boars from Europe were brought to a hunter’s private park in North Carolina, from which they soon escaped. By the 1940s, the boars had reached the territory of this national park as well, breeding with domestic pigs. The consequences: nowadays, the park is populated by boar and pig half-breeds, which look just like regular boars for the most part. Since they are omnivores, their diet includes endangered salamanders, bird eggs, mushrooms and plants; therefore they endanger the biological diversity of the park wildlife, as well as polluting the water. Since 1977, there have been efforts to reduce their population, but several hundred still roam the territory.
Upon arrival at the park, we decided to first visit the exhibition of 19th century peasant and lumberjack cottages (with a warning sign that carving one’s initials into them could land the culprit in jail).
We then went on a hike to the waterfalls. We saw several, big and small, along our approximately 6 km long path, and at times were confused as to where to head next, as there were no signs whatsoever, but in the end, we successfully managed to make it back to the car. There were also tons of rhododendrons growing by the falls. We saw a couple of runners, some tourists, but other than that there were very few people at the park. In the end, we decided to head up into the mountains, and driving a bit higher up, everything was shrouded in rainclouds. Some sun did eventually shine trough them, and we were able to marvel at the wonderful sights. There were no autumn leaves, or snow, and the overall picture was rather bland in color, but even that had a certain degree of charm to it. The Smoky Mountains park is known for it’s beautiful arrays of mountains – on a sunny day, when there is not too much pollution in the air from nearby states, you can see seven states (Tennessee, Kentucky,Virginia,North Carolina, Alabama and Missisippi) from the watchtower at the peak of the Clingmans Dome mountain. Since the roads to the watchtower are closed during the winter, we did not end up going there and seeing it for ourselves. We did see a man the next day, sporting a huge hiking backpack, who looked like he had spent the night at the park, and likely had climbed to the top of Clingmans Dome on foot. When we finally reached the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, it was already twilight. There was somewhat of cross between a snowstorm and fog in the air, but no traces of it remained on the ground. There was an asphalt-cleaning car driving by, scrubbing the wet road. A tourist-favorite activity here, is taking a picture standing on the border of the two states, simultaneously being in both. However, due to the heavily unpleasant weather, we decided to not even step out of the car, and instead head to our accommodation at the Pigeon Forge resort city, located on the other side of the mountains.
Pigeon Forge is located in Tennessee, and the first thing we noticed were all the kinds of firearms being sold, and the huge amount of stores selling them. Driving deeper into the city, we saw signs such as Guns & Gas, Guns & Jewelry, and Guns & Pawn Shop. Our first impression was that the city has far more stores offering to purchase guns, than to purchase milk. Also located in Pigeon Forge is Dollywood, the theme park owned by the famous American country singer Dolly Parton. While planning our route, we had missed any information about the theme park, so we unfortunately had not allocated any time for a visit, but it is apparently very popular. You can not only ride roller coasters, but also watch various artists perform live, or visit exhibitions about life in The Smoky Mountains area.
Our hotel of choice was very simple – a motel with a tiny room, for $30 a day. Included into that sum was also almost a typical American breakfast – boiled eggs (they are far from being available everywhere, and if you’re very, very lucky, you might even get some bacon and/or waffles in addition to that), a toast, and coffee. Within the territory of the hotel was also an outdoor swimming pool, which was open, even in winter. Something the hotel didn’t have, though, was a restaurant, so we headed to the center of the city, seeing several Christmas-light sculptures on our way – lynx, turkeys and various other creatures. At the hotel we were given a recommendation to visit the Old Mill Restaurant, and we were not disappointed – we could order one portion for two, because they were truly gigantic. The food was extraordinarily delicious, and we were serviced by a Polish waitress.
After a good night’s sleep, next morning we headed back to the park, but decided to first stop at the Sugarlands ranger outpost. Before driving back into the park, we drove trough the city of Gatlinburg, which looked just like a town from the Alps, with its countless tiny cottages, hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. By the look of things, you would think that Christmas never ends around these parts .
We saw an electronic notice board by the Sugarlands ranger outpost, informing everyone that one of the large roads was closed, which made us worry about whether we would be even be able to make it back into the park at all, and whether our car woul need to have snow tracks installed. We then stopped by the outpost to have a look at the souvenirs and chat with the rangers. While we were examining the fridge magnets and postcards, the rangers excitedly informed each other of the news that the road had been opened again! Good thing that we didn’t get up even earlier that day, since we would have had to wait here anyway. As we were leaving, a ranger told us that “It’s going to be absolutely beautiful up there today.” Finally, we headed into the park. There, we saw some wild turkeys, but not other birds or large animals. After driving some kilometers, we started seeing white trees, and snow-cleaning vehicles leaving the premises of the park. However, it was not snow that was covering the trees, it was frost! As we drove higher and higher up into the mountains, we saw the beautiful serpentine roads on nearby mountains, with blue-grey trees all around, and thick, white fog in the valleys below. In complete silence, we looked in awe at some of the most beautiful winter sights imaginable. At the very peak of the mountain, the trees were covered in frost as thick as 3 cm. Since we were some of the first visitors of the park that day, we got to see the frost completely intact.
When we were done looking at the frosted trees, we went off to the Cades Cove valley, wherein a round road leads to the wide valley, full of cottages, churches and even graveyards, left there exactly as they were constructed back in the day. Some of them had also been moved here from other parts of the park, to have a more concentrated location for the historical buildings, but they are all 100% authentic. Codes Cove is extremely popular during the fall, and according to feedback from online forums, going there during that time of the year is no more fun than sitting in a traffic jam – with so many cars, that’s essentially what you’ll be doing. We were lucky – there were almost no cars, and we even saw some wildlife (mostly fawns) here and there. Just like in other national parks, The Smoky Mountains has spots on the sides of roads, where you can leave your car for a moment and take a picture. Near the biggest and most beautiful sights, you’re also likely to find informative displays about how the various mountains are called, and occasionally also one of the several toilets located in the park.
As the sun was heading downwards towards the horizon, we returned to Newfound Gap, the place where two states meet, with the intention of taking a picture of the sunset there. Upon arrival, we saw several photographers with serious equipment, already waiting to do the same thing. Unfortunately, the weather turned bad, and we didn’t quite get to see the grandiose, orange sunset sky that we had hoped for, but the pictures of the frost-covered trees, that we took earlier that day, are still some of the best photographs we have taken across all of our travels.