The Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Comments 37 Standard
Great Smoky Mountains National Park

With Steve’s mini-project out of the way, lets talk travel again!

I was surprised to learn before we arrived at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) that this is the most-visited National Park in the USA.  Hmm… and all along I thought that honor went to my favorite – Yosemite National Park in California – which is ranked third.  And I was pleasantly surprised when we drove right into the park without encountering a gate with someone collecting fees.  Entry to this park is FREE!

Perhaps that’s one reason it’s the most visited park, but another is its proximity to several major eastern urban centers in 2/3 of the states that surround it.  The fact that this park offers fantastic scenery, accessible wildlife, a sense of history and many outdoor activities no doubt contributes to its popularity as well.

Clingman's Dome Trail

Lots of visitors on the Clingman’s Dome trail, even before the Memorial Day weekend hit

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was first established in 1934 as a way of protecting it from logging companies which were planning to continue logging the area.  It straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, a mountain range rising along the Tennessee–North Carolina border.  That border runs northeast to southwest through the centerline of the park, and I had to pose at Newfound Gap Road on Highway 441where the two states meet:

Newfound Gap, TN and NC Border

Straddling two states, Tennessee and North Carolina

The land that became the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was owned by hundreds of small farmers, plus a handful of large timber and paper companies.  They were all bought out with the support of the people of North Carolina and Tennessee, and a donation from Laura Spelman Rockefeller. When the state of Tennessee transferred the land to the federal government, it stipulated that “no toll or license fee shall ever be imposed…” to travel the road.  Hence, no entry fee – that works for us!

Great Smoky National Park

So the next obvious question is why are the mountains called Smoky Mountains or “the Smokies”?  Settlers coming to this land noticed a smoky haze that rose from the vast vegetation and decided on the perfect name: the Smoky Mountain Range.  But here is the more scientific version that I gathered from the Visitor Center; Water carried through plants is released through the leaves as a vapor.  The vapor from the conifer trees of the Smokies contains terpenes, an organic chemical.  As the vapor is released, the large amount of terpenens create the smoke-haze, or mist, that gives the mountains their name.  You can clearly see the haze below:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Yep, those are the Smokies!

We accessed the park from the town of Cherokee, which is located in North Carolina just south of the park.  Our home base for almost two weeks was the Flaming Arrow Campground, which was about five miles from the park entrance.  Steve’s review of this nice park can be viewed here.

Flaming Arrow Campground, Cherokee

During our twelve-day stay here we took several scenic drives, and hiked to our heart’s content.  The scenery was diverse – mountain views, old-growth trees, waterfalls, streams, and more shades of green than we’ve ever seen.

Newfound Gap road

No elk here, but we finally saw one elsewhere in the park

US 441, Newfound Gap Road

Great Smoky Mountain Drive

Green, green everywhere!

Our first excursion was to the very top of the Smokies.  At 6,643 feet, Clingman’s Dome is the highest mountain peak of the Smokies and one of the highest peaks in the eastern United States.  The trail to the observation tower was steep and a real lung buster, as it gets chilly up there.  It’s about a half mile ascent from the parking lot to the top, and a pretty good workout.  This is a very popular stop, and it was getting quite crowded already even in the early  morning and before the holiday weekend. This is the most visited park after all!

Clingmans dome observation tower

Clingmans Dome observation tower

The trail was so steep that this man thought it might be too much for his chubby dog to handle!

Clingmans Dome Trail

The observation tower provided us with great panoramic views of the Smokies.  Although not as spectacular as the towering mountain ranges we experienced in Alaska,  or at the Top of the World in the Canadian Yukon, the Smokies definitely had their own unique and magnificent beauty.

Great Smoky Mountains, southern view

Southern view

Great Smoky Mountains

Northern view

Western View of the Smokies

Western view

Clingmans Dome

Lunch View

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a hiker’s and mountain lover’s paradise, with something like 800 miles of hiking trails to explore.  And that’s where we’ll take you next…our hikes and the many eye-catching views along the way.

 

Next up:  Hikes, wildflowers, and waterfalls



 

Back on the road – Blue Ridge Parkway

Comments 18 Standard
Rhododendrons

After surviving my jet lag and cooling down from the sweltering heat of the Philippines, we’re rolling down the road again.  My first order of the day is burning off the poundage I gained from guzzling those delicious, greasy Filipino foods.  Fortunately, the Lake Norman Motorcoach Resort is only a few minutes away from Lake Norman State Park, where entrance and usage are all free.  That is one four-letter word we love.  We are so used to paying park fees that we felt a little guilty using their beautiful hiking trails on several occasions.

Lake Norman lake

View of Lake Norman from our rig

When we were in Alaska we met adventurous and great people from all over the states.  One couple was Joe and Judy, whom we first met during our 18-hour Arctic Circle Tour and consequently bumped into again several places in Alaska.  We eventually exchanged addresses and they promised to host us when we got into their neck of the woods in North Carolina.  Fast forward a year later, here we were knocking on their door.  The door of their brand new class-A motorhome that is, as they met us at the lovely Bandit’s Roost COE Campground for a few days.  We’re so glad we took them up on their offer, as they gave us a wonderful tour along part of the Blue Ridge Parkway and also provided us valuable input for our trek to the northeast this summer.  They even celebrated their 32nd wedding anniversary with us.  Congratulations, and thanks again Joe and Judy!

Bandits Roost Campground

Happy hour at Bandits Roost Campground

While driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway a ribbon of highway, we learned that the Blue Ridge Mountains are noted for their bluish color when seen from a distance.  The Blue Ridge Parkway is a great scenic mountain drive that extends 469 miles along the crests of the southern Appalachians and links two national parks – Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the north and the Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina to the south.  There are nine campgrounds along the parkway, if you are so inclined.

Blue Ridge Mountains

Blue Ridge Mountains, North Carolina

Blue Ridge Parkway Stats

Blue Ridge Parkway Stats

Construction of the Parkway  began in 1935 as part of  FDR’s New Deal to stimulate the economy during the Great Depression era.  The Blue Ridge Parkway, also known as Americas Favorite Drive, was designed especially for leisurely enjoyment of the scenic wonders along the way which can be enjoyed from many overlooks.  There are several worthwhile attractions along the way, including short and long walking trails which give folks even more viewing opportunities.

The area of our drive between Mile 275 and Mile 316 is considered the High Country of NC.  It was tempered with fog, rain and overcast skies during the first part of our day, but things cleared up nicely later on.  For us, the crowning point of the Parkway was at Mile 304, the Linn Cove Viaduct.  It is a 1,243 foot long elevated roadway engineered to wrap around the mountains to minimize impact on the fragile environment.

Linn Cove Viaduct

Linn Cove Viaduct traverses Grandfather Mountain’s boulder fields

The S-shaped structure consists of 153 concrete segments, only one of which is straight.  Weighing 50 tons each and joined by epoxy and massive steel tendons, the segments form a deck nearly one-quarter mile long that is supported by seven piers.  This is an amazing achievement when you consider the technology at that time, and the effort required just to access this area for construction.

Linn Cove Viaduct

Underbelly of Linn Cove Viaduct that skirts around Grandfather Mountain

At Milepost 306 is Grandfather Mountain, best known for its “mile-high swinging bridge” that connects two of the mountain’s peaks.  Heavy fog shrouded the mountain that day, so we’ll save that stop for another visit.

Grandfather Mountain

If you believe me there is a Grandfather Mountain hidden by that thick fog.

Just off the parkway at Milepost 316.3 were trails that led to various overlooks for a wonderful view of Linville Falls, which can be seen roaring through a dramatic rugged gorge.

Linville Falls

Linville Falls

Linville Falls

Joe and Judy with the you-know-whos

There are plenty of stopping points, and everywhere you look there’s something else amazing to appreciate.  Each season provides an ever-changing appeal, and in our case we were just a little early for the blooming of the Rhododendrons that adorn the Parkway.  I captured a few early blooms along the way, but we will be driving other sections of the parkway during the next week and hope to see many more of these beautiful blooms.

During this stop we stayed at Bandits Roost Campground, a COE park at Wilkesboro, NC.  Click here for Steve’s campground review of Bandit’s Roost and the Lake Norman Motorcoach Resort.

Lastly, these Wood Thrushes were rustling on the leaves while Steve and Joe were busy planning.

Wood Thrush

Next up: More of the Blue Ridge Parkway on the Virginia side.

************************************************************