Pulling up stakes at our campsite near the Blue Ridge Parkway didn’t mean we intended to leave the mountains. Our mindsets weren’t on heading home to Indiana . . . not quite yet . . . not while the fall foliage was still hanging on. Besides, there was another outstanding destination nearby and we figured it deserved a piece of our time. Despite the popular season, we lucked out procuring a campsite for a few consecutive days. That sealed the deal! We took off while the mist was still draping those mountain peaks.
You might have heard the words before. Or read them on someone’s bumper sticker. “It’s the Drive that’s the Destination” is a mantra many travelers espouse. We have many spectacular drives across our country, often labeled as Scenic Byways. It’s not uncommon for them to have hairpin curves, steep grades, and deadly drop-offs as they traverse landscapes of intrinsic beauty. But rarely do you find an interstate highway, a major artery across our country, worthy to be labeled as such. Yet such is the case with Interstate 40 as it cuts through the western North Carolina mountains. Tightly following the course of the Pigeon River, its unrelentingly curving route is surely a marvel of engineering and construction. We have traveled this segment many times and it never ceases to amaze and astound us. It also requires a tighter grip on our truck’s steering wheel.
Fortunately for us, as we were approaching the more critical section, the low-lying fog began dissipating . . . the better to see those breathtaking views. And perhaps make the drive somewhat easier.
Begun in 1956, the highway segment that runs through this Pigeon River Gorge was the first part of I-40 to be constructed. Winding and narrow, the first 16 miles through North Carolina have steep grades and pass through a set of tunnels, the first interstate tunnels east of the Mississippi River.
Because much of the road was cut through mountainside, concrete retaining walls have been built on both sides of the road and in the median, cutting down on the width of the breakdown lanes. Coupled with speeding vehicles, the extremely thick fog that tends to plague the area, and little room to maneuver in case of an accident, this area has become notorious for its severe and many times fatal accidents. It is reported that a person is 20 times as likely to die on I-40 in Haywood County than they would be to win the Powerball lottery, which equals to be twice the average of any other Interstate highway in North Carolina.
And then there are the rockslides and the warnings to be alert for falling boulders. Interestingly, that’s mainly due to an engineering flaw where the highway was built on the north side of the river. With the rock layers angling more toward the highway, the chance for mountain slides has been more prone to happen.
Yet if you ask me, I’d say the real danger is in the surroundings. Could there be a more scenic stretch of mountains to drive through? It’s a spectacular drive to take in any season . . . the scenery has so many different looks to attract your gaze. And distract you from your driving. Surely the fall takes the blue ribbon prize—and our drive this particular day seemed to prove it.
Yes, we did make it safely through once again. Shortly thereafter, we veered off the highway; country backroads would take us to our last stay in the mountains.
“If you drive to . . . Shenandoah National Park, or the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll get some appreciation for the scale and beauty of the outdoors. When you walk into it, then you see it in a completely different way. You discover it in a much slower, more majestic sort of way.”
We weren’t walking into Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but perhaps we were doing the next best thing. Staying in the park means primitive camping; there are no ordinary lodges or inns within its boundaries*–it’s the best way to have an intimate experience here.
*Take the 2,600’ elevation gain hike for 5-1/2 miles to the mountaintop LeConte Lodge if you want a truly unique and memorable stay in the park. Where only the adventurous dare to go (our next trip?).
There are close to 1,000 campsites to choose from ten different campgrounds within the park. Five of these have reservable sites. If you’re looking for more creature comforts than primitive camping, the gateway communities of Gatlinburg, Townsend, Cherokee and Maggie Valley offer private campgrounds with full amenities. But trust me, you won’t get the full flavor of what this park offers until you stay within its borders.
Don’t try to compare this national park to those out west. There’s just no way to make a fair comparison. You might not be blown away by bold and dramatic scenery, but you will find something very unique within this park. Impressive in its own unique way. Views both expansive and intimate. Waves of rumpled mountain ridges rolling on to the horizon; vast forests of virgin hardwoods cloak the land . . . and you don’t find this color out West!
Many words and phrases have been used to describe the essence of the landscape within and around this national park. Water vapors and hydrocarbons exuded by the leaves of the forests create a blanket of haze when combined with sunshine and warm, humid air. The earliest settlers to this area called it the land of the blue mists. The native Cherokee Indian tribe who had lived here for hundreds of years before called it Sa-koh-no-gas, which simply translates to “blue”.
We had come to this park many previous times. Taking day trips in to hike its trails and drive its most popular road. We’d learned a lot taking in its two main visitor centers as well as savoring the views from Newfound Gap and Clingman’s Dome. This visit would provide us the opportunity to explore what’s slightly more hidden—as well as gaining insights into the area’s past. We began early our first morning with a drive on an isolated park road.
During the 1790s white settlement began in the lowlands of the Smokies and climbed the hillsides as eastern farmland became scarce. The indigenous Cherokees were pushed out to reservations, forcibly removed in the 1830s. Over the next hundred years small farms and communities were established in these mountains, mostly owned by Scotch-Irish immigrants. It was a hard life living off this rugged land, but people stayed for generations and made it work.
At the turn of the 20th century, vast forest lands in the eastern U.S. were being devastated by clear cut logging and mining operations. With a growing nation hungry for lumber and ore, these industries were thriving. Impoverished rural areas and mountain folk such as the ones in these Appalachians saw job opportunities and an infusion of capital bringing hope for a better life. They welcomed in these companies and operations, literally with open arms.
Within a generation, large tracts of mountain lands were laid to waste. Too late, the local people began to recognize their once revered mountains were no longer the pristine forest they use to be. With forests clear cut, the wild game they depended on disappeared, along with other natural resources that were once plentiful. Once the landscape was stripped of its natural resources, the companies packed up and moved on to new opportunities to exploit. Never restoring the land they left behind, the mountain communities had to fend as best they could. They often faced greater hardships to overcome than before the destructors had arrived.
Establishing national parks in order to preserve our country’s landmarks and places of outstanding beauty had already caught on in our western states. Seeing what natural treasures were being lost here in the eastern U.S. began garnering public attention. Though he did not begin the conservation movement, President Theodore Roosevelt was a leader in supporting the preservation and regulations regarding the harvesting of natural resources from our wilderness lands. He saw that more would need to be done with respect to safeguarding the forestlands in the eastern United States where the abuse of natural resources was running amok.
It would not be easy to accomplish. Unlike out West, most of the land east of the Mississippi was in private holdings. To create a national park in these mountains, land had to be purchased by private citizens as well as by the states of Tennessee and North Carolina, and then donated to the federal government. Our country was in the throes of the Great Depression, and Congress was defeating bills to allocate money for this new park. Then along came John D. Rockefeller Jr., who donated $5,000,000 for purchasing the new national park, and a total of $12,000,000 was eventually collected.
All the while, timber companies were refusing to let go of their intent to exploit every bit of timber they could cut. They owned land from the valley floors to the summit of Clingman’s Dome. When they saw this conservationist movement on the horizon, it was full steam ahead in cutting down trees. They fought the sale of their profit-making industry by every means they had at their disposal. After the lawsuits and trials were over, the companies were forced to sell their lands, often receiving top dollar. Sadly, by the time all the land for the park was purchased, almost two-thirds of the old-growth forest had been over-logged or even burned due to the lumber barons’ mill operations.
In 1934, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially established. Composed of 522,000 acres, it is almost 95% forested, of which the park service estimates 36% is old growth. It is one of the largest blocks of deciduous, temperate, old growth forests in North America. At least 100 species of native trees exist in the Smokies, which is more than in any other North American national park. It is home to over 1,500 flowering plants, 200 species of birds, 66 types of mammals, 50 native fish species, 39 varieties of reptiles, and 43 species of amphibians. On account of its obvious qualities, the U.N. has designated the park as an International Biosphere Reserve.
With over 10 million people visiting GSMNP in 2014, it was by far the most visited national park in our country. To put that statistic into perspective, the attendance was at least twice as much as any of the next three most popular parks—the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone, each of which is substantially larger in area.
Our morning drive followed the route of the Roaring Fork Auto Tour, a one-way narrow road that climbs up the skirts of Mount LeConte. It leads to the site of the Roaring Fork community that was settled about 180 years ago. At its height, two dozen families lived in the area. The hamlet, composed of a school, church, general store and tub mills (for grinding corn and wheat) was self-sufficient, not being on the route to anywhere. Folks learned to ‘make do’, making their living by hunting and fishing, and farming the rocky, unlevel land. When the park took control, most people moved away. Some stayed on for a few years, eventually finding another life beyond its boundaries. Park officials removed many homes and structures, but have maintained a few examples from Roaring Fork’s earliest days. Those that still stand are evocative of a long-ago time as well as a tribute to the families that lived in them. A few acres of cleared land still exist, nearly enclosed by the primeval forest. It is a place that invites reflection, where it’s easy to lose all sense of time.
As the narrow, twisting road descends Piney Mountain, it begins to follow the course of the Roaring Fork stream. While there aren’t many opportunities to pull over, the landscape is one of the iconic park scenes. Dense, hardwood forests with the ubiquitous rhododendron understory crowding close to the water’s edge. The bouldered stream gushes from higher elevations, its cascading waters stairstep down the hillside. And the autumn colors add a mellow glow to the whole landscape.
We ended that day following a popular trail leading to a small mountainside waterfall. Taking the hike as evening approached insured that the crowds would be on their return trek. Good planning (or just plain luck) provided a solitary destination. Waiting for the sun to shine on the forest, I took my best shot at this somewhat meager, yet picturesque waterfall.
The return hike was a magical time, as only late afternoon light can sometimes provide. The trees in their glory of autumn colors take on a luminescent glow from within. To be there when these things come together is an experience you will not soon forget. And it sure helps when your camera can catch it. It’s just one of the special gifts that this park can deliver.
Perhaps the highlight of our stay here was the day we spent visiting Cades Cove. Known for its idyllic mountain setting and historical background, it is a favorite photographers’ destination. It had been on my bucket list for years. Early spring as well as fall brings out its best photogenic qualities, so our timing seemed just right. Known to be “the single most popular destination for visitors to the park”, we departed our camp in the darkness of early morning in hopes of beating the crowds.
An isolated valley located in the Tennessee section of the park, Cades Cove was home to numerous settlers before it became a national park. The first settler family to live here arrived in 1818, and barely survived the first winter. A couple of years later more families had arrived and began working the land. Other early settlers would build houses on the surrounding mountains, and between 1820 to 1850 the population of Cades Cove grew to 671, with the average size of cove farms between 150 and 300 acres. They cleared the land, built log homes, barns, corncribs, smoke and spring houses. The land was “rich and fertile, and produced abundant crops” . . . deer and bear were “plentiful”. The early cove residents, although relatively self-sufficient, were dependent upon another nearby hamlet for dry goods and other necessities.
Cades Cove continued to grow through the years. A forge was constructed for smelting iron. Several churches were built in the 1820s, the school came sometime later. There were blacksmiths, storekeepers and distillers. They grew cotton for making clothes. Once they had a saw mill, they were soon replacing log cabins with frame houses. Cades Cove began to take on the appearance of a regular town.
Of all the Smoky Mountain communities, Cades Cove put up the most resistance to the formation of the national park. When residents were assured their land would not be incorporated into the park, they didn’t contest its formation. But then policy changed, and Tennessee approved money to buy land for the park, giving the park commission the power to seize property by eminent domain. Long-time residents were outraged, and one owner fought it through the courts. In the end, the park won out. The school closed in 1944, the post office followed 3 years later. The remaining family finally left the cove.
At first, the park service planned to let Cades Cove return to its natural forested state, removing all evidence of human habitation. Until the Great Smokies came into its domain, the Park Service had not decided how to manage a big agricultural area such as Cades Cove. Yielding to the requests by the Great Smoky Mountain Conservation Association, the park officials decided to manage it as an “historic district.” They issued permits
for cattle owners to graze their livestock in the Cove, planting fescue grass for forage. They have also issued haying leases for more than 500 acres. Several buildings that reflect the early life of the settlers are being maintained by the park service; the relatively modern frame homes have been demolished. Scattered throughout the entire valley, the few remaining structures give just a fragment of what the Cove once was.
But through the morning mist, so common here in this mountain valley, it doesn’t take all that much effort to imagine what life was like in earlier times. The serenity of a pastoral setting makes it obvious what brought people here.
And if you are here before the crowds arrive, and have the setting to yourself, it isn’t all that hard to envision life as it once was . . . could that be smoke drifting out from their chimney?
But then, the sun breaks through and clears the air, the mist of times long gone soon dissipates.
The shreds of morning fog lift from the fields, revealing the true setting of this valley. Mountain-rimmed with stands of hardwood trees, it’s a valley of pristine beauty.
A way of life has come and gone, but fortunately the land still remains.
And most fortunately of all, we still have access to see it.
Trust me when I say, it’d be worth your time to visit.
It’s never easy to leave a place that brings us such enjoyment. This is one supremely special park, with many assets to offer visitors. To take advantage of its offerings, both historical and natural, makes your stay a memorable experience. But leaving is inevitable, even when you’re dragging your feet.
Cascading streams and colorful drives are just some of the images we’ll remember . . .
. . . and mountains piled upon smoky mountains.
With a last look as we leave the mountains and forests behind us.
Melinda and Chris