The Great Smoky Mountains: Great And Smoky (But Too Dang Crowded)
I left the Fontana Lake campground in the morning and drove about 20 miles down a winding rural highway to the town of Cherokee, North Carolina,
the eastern gateway to the very popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As befitting any national park gateway town, like West Yellowstone, Montana
or Estes Park, Colorado, 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, as the Music Man would say, that rhymes with P). My wallet and
I escaped, thankfully, and we both headed west up into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee.
This was my first visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Mainly because it's the largest park in the eastern U.S.,
it's also the most popular national park in the U.S., attracting over eight million visitors a year. That's an amazing number considering that national
parks which I think are extremely crowded, like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, each get only about half that. But trying to look on the bright side,
I've always loved Little Smokies, so I figured the Great Smokies might be even... well, greater.
Great Smokies vs. Little Smokies: Which is better?
I had heard lots of good things about Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But frankly, and to be honest, I was somewhat
disappointed. Yes, the scenery was beautiful -- at least for the eastern U.S. (oops, there's my western bias). But the
main problem was that, 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, huh?
Here's a classic Smoky Mountain bluegrass tune. These are the Osborne Brothers playing
Rocky Top. It's also the fight song of the University of Tennessee.
The Park Service has done a great 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, because being crammed shoulder-to-shoulder
with throngs of visitors is not what I consider to be a "National Park experience." Consequently, and 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 and a very pokey Toyota Corolla, which
I followed at 20 mph on a single lane road there 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.
I liked the Smokies and thought they were beautiful. I just wish millions of others didn't feel the same way.
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: Here's a tourist trap (oops, I mean a "souvenir shop") near Cherokee, North Carolina, the 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 left: On the Cherokee Indian Reservation, near Cherokee, North Carolina.
Above right: I finally reached Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The National Park Service has done a great job of
restoring old farmsteads here, like this one.
Above left: 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. But I wouldn't really know.
Above center: I 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 (including me) were hiking out to it.
I'm not sure what we were expecting to see there -- blue skies?
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 misty Oconoluftee River.
Above center: This is why they call them the Great Smokies. Sounds better than the Great Hazies.
Above right: An hour later and 10 miles away, the skies finally cleared. This is the Appalachian Trail, the longest
maintained trail in the world.
Above left: I thought 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 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 (gee, do they even still have E Tickets?)
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.
From Hollywood to Dollywood
Here's Dolly Parton singing one of my favorite songs,
Coat Of Many Colors.
I left Great Smoky Mountains National Park late that afternoon heading west. If I was a bit disappointed with Great Smoky
Mountains National Park, I was REALLY disappointed with the nearby towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Can you say
"t-a-c-k-y "? Oops, there's that word again. O.K., how about "super-tacky."
Anyway, I drove for 10 miles through here and saw nothing but wax museums, motels, t-shirt shops, go-cart tracks, miniature golf courses,
and more porky parents -- plus, of course, lots of tack. Strangely enough, people there seemed to be enjoying themselves, so maybe I'm
Above: Dolly Parton wanted to expose tourists to Appalachian culture that she feels so strongly about
-- so she built an amusement park (huh?) For $26, she's happy to share her Appalachian heritage with you.
I found very little appealing, though, about Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, not even Dolly Parton's amusement park called "Dollywood."
Dolly was born in Sevierville (pronounced " Severe-ville"), about 10 miles away. Several years ago she decided to contribute some
kitsch to this area because apparently, it didn't have enough, so she built an amusement park in Pigeon Forge. Actually, I shouldn't be so
harsh because I like Dolly and she's done a lot of good things for the people in this area.
I swung by Dolly's amusement park and took a picture of the entrance, then I hopped back in my truck and gladly said goodbye to Pigeon Forge.
My trip had now taken me from Hollywood to Dollywood and I was happy to leave both. I kept heading down the road and, late in the afternoon, pulled
into a park with a crowded campground, where I camped that night next to a dam on the Tennessee River.
As you can probably tell, the oppressive heat, the humidity, and the persistent crowds were taking a toll on
me and I was hoping to find some solace soon. Fortunately, I did.
Above left: Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on the western edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is the hokiest,
tackiest, most touristy city I've ever visited. This type of stuff goes on for two miles. It's awful.
Above right: I take it back. Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, near Gatlinburg is the hokiest, tackiest, most touristy
city I've ever visited. This type of stuff goes on for 10 miles. It's REALLY awful.