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The first rays of the morning sun streaked through the clouds highlighting the blue fog which ringed the soaring ridges and blanketed the valley floor. We were standing, for the first time, in an expansive, lush valley surrounded by mountains in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Mesmerized, I allowed the emerging view to envelope me.
Kathy, my wife, and I had determined to be at the park as the sun rose. We were rewarded with that iconic look which lingers in your minds-eye for days afterward.
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America’s most visited national park, The Great Smoky Mountains, is seldom without the blanket of fog that gives the Smokies their unique name. The Cherokee referred to the area as “Schconage” (Sha-Kon-O-Hey), which means “land of the blue smoke.”
To experience this picturesque scene, we had made our way into the valley, known as Cades Cove, via the Little River Road, a twisty, turning slow-going scenic byway.
Encountering Bears on the Cades Cove Loop Road
After we had witnessed the eponymous early morning fog or “smoke” we settled back into the truck and eased our way onto the Cades Cove Loop Road. The road is an 11-mile one-way paved lane that loops around the lush and scenic valley. This was our entry into one of the more beautiful and most popular spots in the park.
Although the sun had barely risen, there were already a few other early morning risers joining us. The loop road is meant to be driven slowly so as to take in its beauty and not miss any of the spectacular sites and surprises that might occur. That being said, we found ourselves riding the brake behind a Florida-plated car that took “slow” to all new heights.
So, with an impatience born of countless hours of commuter traffic, I eased around the sunshine state and proceeded at a sedate speed that any pedestrian could have kept up with.
I scanned the open meadows out my window as Kathy looked over her shoulder at the sunrise. Turning my head briefly to ensure that we were not running off the road, I was stunned to see a mother bear midway across the thoroughfare less than 50 feet in front of us. While I babbled incoherently trying to alert my wife, two cubs tumbled onto the roadway following their mother.
When my wife finally positioned the camera all three had nearly disappeared into the tall grass. We were left with a beautiful landscape picture with three shadowy shapes near the bottom that we have to continuously tell doubters are our bears. Oh well, we saw them.
The Rich History of the Valley
Besides its natural beauty, the Cove is also a bit of a museum. The first permanent white settlers entered the 6,000 acre valley in the early 1800’s. By this time, the Native American inhabitants (mostly Cherokee) were being relocated to the Oklahoma territory in what became known as the Trail of Tears.
The height of European settlement saw as many as 130 families. However, in a bit of irony, the last settler left in 1937 through eminent domain as the park came to fruition. Today, there’s a working gristmill, numerous cabins and barns, and three churches from the early 1800s open for exploration that remind us of those long-ago settlers and the lives they led.
The first home we hiked to was the John Oliver cabin. The cabin, built in the 1850’s of roughhewn logs, is a single dark room with a loft right out of Daniel Boone. It is difficult to believe a family of 10 was raised in it.
J. D. Mc Campbell, a blacksmith and carpenter, built our next stop. He constructed a church for the Methodist congregation in 115 days for $115 in 1902. The morning dew glistened on the headstones marking century-old names.
We found ourselves constantly on the look-out for sights, but the next one was a little unexpected. As we walked towards another cabin, the young woman ahead of us gave out a startled yelp and pointed to what she referred to as an Anaconda. Slithering across our path was a medium-sized copperhead snake. After briefly eyeing us, he went on his merry way into the brush. I chose not to follow.
Cades Cove is home to a wealth of animals throughout the year. Besides our brief encounters with bears and a snake, we came across several deer, many of them yearlings. One, in a moment of playfulness, galloped by us with his tongue lolling out of his mouth without a care.
A coyote and the usual array of squirrels and chipmunks were also seen. By far the most numerous were the flocks of wild turkeys. Seemingly not at all bothered by the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, they would strut right by us seeking some morsel in the grass.
We pulled over at the Cable Mill Historic Area which is located near the half-way point. Besides taking advantage of the facilities, we explored several of the buildings representing life as it was a century or more past. One the more interesting ones was the grist mill built in the early 1870s and still functioning. We left with a bag of fresh ground wheat flour.
The Little River Road and Sugarlands Visitor Center
The forested hills of Great Smoky Mountains National Park spans the southern Appalachians along the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. At over 500,000 acres, there was no way we could experience anything but a small part of the great park. So, on this day, we decided to continue on to the highest peak in the park, Clingmans Dome.
It’s roughly 50 miles from the Cove to the Dome which under normal circumstances might take an hour, but driving through the Park is not normal circumstances. The Little River Road curves and winds its way over an old railroad bed between the Cove and the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg for roughly 20 miles following the Little River.
Remarkable scenery awaited us with several waterfalls and turn-offs. We stopped at “The Sinks”, where the crystal clear river cascaded down a 15 ft. waterfall, tumbling over huge boulders. There we met and briefly spoke with a couple from Georgia who stated that this was their 3rd trip to the park this year.
Even after Labor Day, the park is still heavily visited. We found parking difficult at several of the popular trails and overlooks. And, of course, we had to accept that achieving posted speed limits was seldom going to happen as we negotiated the painfully slow moving traffic. The upside was that it gave us more time to take in the surroundings.
Midway to our destination, we stopped at the Sugarlands Visitors Center. With exhibits and a free film about Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s an ideal introduction to the park.
As Kathy had her National Park passport stamped, I asked the ranger at the Information desk staff how much further to Clingmans Dome. “I wouldn’t go” he replied, pointing to the live-feed screen on his desk. The top of the mountain was completely socked in by clouds. “They’re calling for thunder storms”, he added.
It was our only day available, so, throwing caution to the wind, we headed for Newfound Gap and the Dome.
Driving Newfound Gap to the Highest Peak in the Park
The drive itself is worth it. Bracketed by great swaths of towering hardwood forests, the road took us ever upwards with gorgeous views of Mount LeConte, the 3rd highest peak, the Chimney Tops with their bare rock summit and through a tunnel that loops up and over itself to ease the steep ascent.
In reaching Newfound Gap, we encountered the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. The Appalachian Trial, which runs nearly 2,200 miles from Maine to Georgia, also intersects here. At an elevation of 5,046 feet, Newfound Gap is the lowest drivable pass through the Smokies.
On this site in 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt formally dedicated the park at the Rockefeller Memorial, constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps to honor the Rockefeller family for its $5 million donation to help establish the park.
Just south of Newfound Gap, the seven-mile Clingmans Dome Road climbs to within 0.5 mile of Clingmans Dome, at 6,643′ the highest peak in the Smokies. As we ascended to the top we were rewarded with blue skies emerging from dissipating grey clouds.
From the large parking area at the end of the road, a trail climbs steeply to the top of “ol Smokey”
The half-mile trail to the summit of Clingmans Dome is paved, but very steep. During the short hike, you will gain 332 feet, which makes the climb gradient almost 13%. There are benches located throughout the hike in case one needs to stop for a minute to catch their breath.
After a stop-or-two ourselves, we reached the summit where we were greeted by a massive concrete tower. The 45 foot high observation tower has a spiraling 375 feet long ramp that carried us high above the forest to the top.
The rigorous climb was well worth it. The 360-degree panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and spruce forests are marvelous. We were able to see Pigeon Forge, 15 miles away, easily and beyond.
The descent was far easier. Afterwards we sat with our legs dangling over the truck’s tail-gate as we enjoyed a late and well-earned lunch.
As wisps of clouds floated by, I watched a broad-winged hawk lazily ride the thermals as he eyed the valley far below. The view was amazing.
If you go:
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park runs along the ridges of the Smoky Mountains on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. The Park is the most visited park in the United States, receiving more than 14.1 million visitors in 2021. This is more than twice the number of people who visit the Grand Canyon, making it the most popular national park in the US.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park includes over 522,000 acres. There are two main entrances, one in Cherokee, NC and another in Gatlinburg, TN.
The park is open year-round, though some roadways close in the winter.
The park is admission free; however there is a fee to park for more than 15 minutes — $5 for one day, $15 for a week or $40 for the year.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park https://www.nps.gov/grsm/index.htm
Clingmans Dome https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/clingmansdome.htm
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Author Bio: Frank Hosek is an Illinois-based Director of Human Resources who revels in traveling with his wife, Kathy. He enjoys discovering new experiences, meeting the people that make those experiences enjoyable, and sharing their adventures. He is a freelance writer for newspapers and travel websites.
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