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The Great (and Crowded) Smoky Mountains National Park 

(Reprint from News: July 9, 2001)

July 9, 2001

 

I left the Fontana Lake campground the next morning while humming the tune "Tom Dooley" and drove into the town of Cherokee, North Carolina, the eastern gateway to the very popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  As befitting any gateway town, like West Yellowstone, Cherokee is lined with tourist shops, each bursting with rubber tomahawks, plastic pink pigs, and fake arrowheads. 

 

To complete the picture, there were lots of porky parents wearing loud t-shirts while strolling along the sidewalks nursing mega-sodas, with their requisite hyper kids in tow.  Yep, Cherokee is Tacky with a capital T and that rhymes with P.  My wallet and I escaped, though, and we headed west up into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee. 

 

Here's a classic Smoky Mountain bluegrass tune.  These are the Osborne Brothers and Rocky Top.

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This was my first visit to the Smokies, the most popular National Park in the U.S. attracting over 8 million visitors a year, an amazing number considering that places that I think are extremely crowded, like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon National Parks each get only about half that amount.  I'd heard good things about Great Smoky Mountains National Park but overall, I was pretty disappointed.  Yes, the scenery was interesting I suppose... at least for the eastern U.S. (oops, there's my western bias again).  But even though it was a weekday, the place was packed -- and I mean Packed with a capital P and that rhymes with T.  Serves me right, though, for visiting the most popular National Park in the U.S. during the most crowded month of the year.

 

The Park Service has done a nice job of providing lots of pullouts and short, quiet trails, so you can have some solitude here if you want.  But I don't think I'll ever go back to the Great Smokies during the summer again, if at all.  Although the park has some pretty places, like Cades Cove, I was in a hurry to leave.  My plans were thwarted, though, by the congested one-way loop at Cades Cove, the winding roads in the park, and a very pokey Toyota Corolla which I followed at 20 mph on a single lane road for, oh, about 45 minutes unable to pass.  His license plate (CVX 213) and all the stickers on his rear bumper are still firmly etched in my brain.  I finally escaped the Toyota -- and the park -- around five o'clock that afternoon.

 

       

Above left:  Your tax dollars at work. 

Above center:  Cherokee, North Carolina, at the gateway of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  This sign says it all.  

Above right:  A rusting barn on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, near Cherokee.

 

       

Above left:  Here's a tourist trap (oops, I mean a "souvenir shop") near Cherokee, North Carolina, eastern gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  I'm still trying to figure out what plastic pigs have to do with the Great Smokies. 

Above center:  This was the first time that I'd been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  It was pretty but it was also super-crowded.  Next time, I think I'll visit in the fall instead of the middle of summer.

Above right:  The National Park Service has done a good job of restoring old farmsteads here, like this one.

 

       

Above left:  The misty Oconoluftee River.  

Above center:  This is why they call them the Great Smokies, I guess.  Sounds better than the Great Hazies.

Above right:  The higher I got in the park, the foggier (oops, I mean "smokier") it got.  The drive to Clingman's Dome along the ridge of the Smokies is supposed to be spectacular, though I wouldn't really know.

 

       

Above left:  I finally got to the Clingman's Dome parking lot and found it immersed in pea-soup fog.  A half-mile trail here leads to a lookout that's supposed to provide "the best view in the Southeast."  I was surprised at how many tourists were hiking out to it.  I'm not sure what they were expecting to see there... blue skies?

Above center:  An hour later and 10 miles away, the skies finally cleared.  Here I'm hiking on the Appalachian Trail, the longest maintained trail in the world. 

Above right:  Newfound Gap, on the dividing ridge between North Carolina and Tennessee.  In the West, they're called "passes," in the Northeast, they call them "notches," but here in the South, they call them "gaps."  Same idea, though.

 

       

Above left:  The nicest part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park was this area called Cades Cove.  A one-way drive here circles the cove.  I kept pulling over to let traffic pass by until I realized that there was a infinite number of cars behind me.  If I were really polite, I'd still be sitting there letting all the cars pass by.

Above center:  The Oliver House, built around 1820, is one of the oldest buildings in the park.

Above right:  The Cades Cove loop drive was pretty, but with all the traffic I felt like I was on a Disneyland ride.  I kept expecting someone to collect my E Ticket. 

 

       

Above left:  A thunderstorm rolling in at Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Above center:  Mill and waterwheel.

Above right:  A farmstead at the Cades Cove Visitor Center. 

 

 

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