There’s a reason they are called the Great Smoky Mountains. The Cherokee described these mountains as shaconage, meaning “blue, like smoke.” During the time we were there we were often enveloped in the fog typical of this area, sometimes so dense it was difficult to even see the road.
In 2020 with the pandemic, a trip to continue our quest to visit all 62 of the National Parks had to be a bit different than we had originally planned. Late September-early October was our chosen time to head east of the Mississippi (we’d already been to all the parks west of the Mississippi). We rented a motorhome so we were pretty much self-contained. We found different national park sites had varying degrees of access. In Great Smoky Mountains, the visitor centers were open but with a limited number of people inside at a time. Rangers controlled both entrance and exit doors and people outside waited six feet apart. Masks were required for entry.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, located in Tennessee and North Carolina, was established in 1934 to preserve the biological and cultural diversity of this area. This complex ecosystem covers just over a half million acres and contains one of the largest remaining virgin forests that once covered eastern America.
The Smokies are a subrange of the Appalachian Mountains and form part of the Blue Ridge. A temperate rainforest, with portions of the park getting 85 inches of rainfall per year, there are more tree species than in northern Europe, 1500 flowering plants, dozens of native fish, over 200 species of birds and 60 species of mammals. There are an estimated 1500 black bears that call the park home but we didn’t see any of them.
The “smoke” is actually fog that comes from the area’s vegetation. The millions of trees, bushes and other plants exhale a collective vapor which creates a blanket of fog. Plants take in carbon dioxide and give off oxygen but they also exhale something called ”volatile organic compounds” or VOCs. VOCs have a high vapor pressure which means they can easily form at room temperature, thus creating the “smoke” of the Great Smoky Mountains. That’s the explanation of the blue of the Smokies but the real lasting impression is the unique beauty of these mountains.
Most of the park is managed as wilderness. Highway 441, also known as Newfound Gap Road, is the only road that traverses the park. It’s two-lane, very winding, with a 35-mile per hour speed limit which is quite appropriate.
Our first full day in the park we spent exploring and scoping out hikes we wanted to take. We traveled Newfound Gap Road, stopping at overlooks (many of which were basically gray with fog).
Near the south edge of the park, the Mountain Farm Museum offers a glimpse into farm life in the early 1800’s.
The Oconaluftee River trail called to us as it is one of the few park trails where pets are allowed. Odin always likes to go hiking with us.
We were a little too early for a lot of color but there were glimpses and the park is beautiful. There are five distinctly different types of forest within the park, mainly dependent upon precipitation and elevation: Spruce-fir forest, Northern hardwood forest, Cove hardwood forest, Hemlock forest, and Pine-and-oak forest.
In order to hike to Laurel Falls, we set out fairly early. The trail to this 80-foot waterfall is rated as moderate in difficulty and one of the most popular in the park. Since parking is limited at the trailhead, the early bird gets the worm or, in this case, the parking spot.
It was a hiking day – we went to Cataract Falls, hiked the Gatlinburg trail with Odin, and hiked the nature trail to John Ownby cabin and back. This park has over 800 miles of trails, many of which are backcountry.
The Mingus Mill is an 1886 grist mill with still-functional sluice, turbine and other machinery. Corn is still daily being ground into cornmeal by the miller.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the most visited national park in 2019 with over 12.5 million visitors. It’s within driving distance of a number of major cities. As a result of its popularity, many trailheads are overcrowded, it is difficult to find parking at visitor centers and, unless you go into the backcountry, solitude is scarce. Even so, this is an amazing park and an important part of our national park system.
For more information go to: https://www.nps.gov/grsm/index.htm