The mountains soar up from the deep forest glades. Streams of clear water tumble over mossy stones before they glide into quiet pools. Trout hide in the shady overhanging banks while squirrels and possum move about the treetops.
Bears claw rotting logs in search of tasty grubs. Wildflowers riot in color in the open fields and every shade of green imaginable carpets the mountainsides. It’s spring in the Great Smoky Mountains. They are part of the Blue Ridge range which is part of the Appalachian Chain. The famous Appalachian Trail bisects the park on its 2,200-mile course from Georgia to Maine.
The region boasts the National Park that receives more than double the visitors as the second-most popular national park in the nation, with more than 11 million visitors each year and an additional 11 million passers through. It covers over half a million acres, spanning eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina.
Singer Dolly Parton was raised in Pigeon Forge on the very verge of the National Forest. She has developed her hometown almost single-handedly into one of the foremost family-oriented tourist centers in the world. The streets teem with vacationers sporting sunglasses and reeking of sunscreen. Miniature golf courses, go-cart race tracks, and various tourist rides compete with Parton’s elaborate dinner shows and Dollywood: full blown amusement and water parks.
Nearby, Gatlinburg, at the very gate of the national parks, has a similar crush of tourists. Mountain coasters, ziplines and gondolas make the most of the mountain setting. Tourists pack the pancake houses, specialty shops and amusement attractions.
But Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the main attraction.
The Cherokee Tribe lived in the region before settlers came. The Cherokee name meant “Mountains of Blue Smoke.” Indeed, from the mountain peaks, the layers of ridgelines fade into the distance as though painted in blue smoke.
But when the Indian Relocation Act began to be enforced in 1837, the Cherokees were forced to travel the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. Settlements expanded and grew.
They cleared the land and soon grew into independent settlements. The Baptists and Methodists built churches. The village of Cades Cove had a trading post, a blacksmith shop, a grist mill and a sorghum mill. Most farmers raised sorghum, corn, hogs and milk cows. The hillbillies, as they were called, traded with each other and needed very little else from the broader world.
To a modern visitor, the most remarkable aspect of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the seemingly endless forest. Not surprisingly, lumber and paper companies bought huge tracts of land in the 1900s and began clearcutting.
Some American conservationists became alarmed. Propaganda circulated that there were two choices: A desert or a national park. The idea was popular in the 1890s, and the U.S. Government approved the concept of the park, but forbid the use of taxpayer dollars to buy the land needed from the lumber and paper companies, as well as hundreds of small farmers.
Most of the locals were violently opposed to the idea of a park. The Great Depression intervened. Tennessee and North Carolina couldn’t honor the pledge for monies to buy the land.
For the first time, the U.S. government spent taxpayer dollars to help purchase the land for a national park. Private donations, including half the total amount from John D. Rockefeller Jr., and state money cobbled together the $10 million needed.
By 1934, the previous landowners had been evicted and the land purchased. FDR opened the park, and the Works Projects Administration helped provide jobs by building trails, bridges, watchtowers and other infrastructure around the park.
Now, the clear-cut scars have reforested. The bears are back from near extinction and tourists’ vehicles form a slow-moving chain along the one-way scenic routes.
The one-way nature or historical loops are also the best areas for a chance at seeing black bears. When the chain of cars stops, you know there’s probably a bear sighting ahead. On Wednesday, the Cades Cove loop is closed to motorized vehicles for the sake of cyclists and runners.
Every season in The Great Smokies offers something special. The meadows and woods bloom with wildflowers in the spring. Summer is lush with myriad shades of green and the fall explodes in color like a hillbilly crazy quilt. It’s a national treasure.
Only in America, God bless it.