Even though I had been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park on numerous occasions, I couldn’t wait to see the park with fresh eyes. As I read about the many offerings, I realized that I had not done many of the classic Smoky Mountains experiences. I hadn’t even seen Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park. I hadn’t done one of the many waterfall hikes. I knew I had my work cut out for me.
After leaving Asheville, I headed towards the Tennessee side of the park, partially because I wanted to enter the park from a new direction and partially because I was so wrapped up in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods that I missed many of the turns I was supposed to take. Whoops. I ended up just outside of Gatlinburg, which, even at night, was clearly a resort/tourist town to the fullest. Bright lights, bustling crowds, and countless shopping districts all stood in stark contrast against the darkness that hung above the Smokys. Although Bar Harbor is clearly a town that derives much of its economy from the park, it is nowhere near as gaudy as Gatlinburg was. In fact, none of the parks I had seen thus far had gateway towns like Gatlinburg. It served as an obvious reminder of what might have crept into a place like the Great Smoky Mountains if they hadn’t been protected. After processing some of my long overdue Florida pictures, I headed for bed.
In the morning, I realized that all of my worst fears for the park’s Tennessee entrance were true. It surprised me how different the two entrances were. In North Carolina, most visitors enter through Cherokee, which is an Indian reservation. On the Tennessee side, Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are the main thoroughfares. What a difference it makes. As soon as I entered the park, I felt noticeably calmer than when I was navigating the crowded streets of Gatlinburg.
As always, my first stop was at the visitor center to see the park’s film and to check in with the rangers. The quality of both differs from park to park, but I found the film and the rangers to be top notch in the Smokys. The film charted the park’s history as both a Native American homeland (from which they were forcibly removed), to an area settled by early Euro-Americans (from which they were also removed), to its current role as one of the largest bio reserves in the United States. Afterwards, I waited for a tour bus of elderly Americans to push off before I made my way up to the information desk. There a young red haired female ranger greeted me and gave me all the local knowledge for the best hikes, views, sunset spots, etc.
On her advice, I set off for Ramsey’s Cascades, an 8-mile trek to a towering and voluminous waterfall. As with many trails in the park, this one began as a railroad or logging road. Its wide, gentle trail made for quick hiking as I left the overflowing parking lot behind me. Following the Little Fork River, I walked through old growth forest, brilliant displays of fall foliage (which were only a taste of what was to come), and over massive boulders and log bridges. After a mile and a half, the trail became intimate and steep, encouraging careful consideration before every footstep. The fall leaves were beautiful, but can be totally treacherous when there are roots and rocks hidden underneath. After an hour or so, I began to hear the falls. This 60-foot wall of water plunged over water-smoothed boulders, sending rainbows in all directions. The icy water , however, felt out of place in the heat of the day, but refreshing all the same.
I jogged back to the car, slowing whenever I found myself alone, listening to the sounds of the forest. Despite its status as the most popular park in the United States, one can still find solitude in the Smoky Mountains.
With my hike complete, I headed further into the park in search of a spot to watch the setting sun. After stopping briefly at Newfound Gap, I decided to climb even higher to the parking lot at Clingman’s Dome. Even as I arrived, I could see a few people pulling out tripods and hulking DSLRs preparing for the sunset. I grabbed my Crazy Creek, Kindle, and water bottle and hunkered down for the show. A top Clingman’s, the temperature and wind were an impressive combination. I eventually slipped into moccasins and a down pullover to stay comfortable.
As the sun set, the blue ridges became more and more apparent. What a stunningly beautiful place.