November 7 – 12 — Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are a division of the larger Appalachian Mountain Chain. Confusing? Suffice it to say that however you refer to these mountains – the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Smokies, or the Appalachians – they’re stunning! They take their name from the rising streamers of a misty blue haze which so frequently envelopes the valleys and ridges of this magnificent mountain range.**
The Smoky Mountains are among the oldest on earth; older than the Himalayas and the Alps. Ice Age glaciers stopped their southward journey just short of these mountains some 15,000 years ago, and this is one of the many reasons for the unparalleled diversity found in both plants and animals in the park today.
The border between Tennessee and North Carolina runs northeast to southwest through the centerline of the park, and the Appalachian Trail runs right down this ridge, as well; no doubt making this a popular section of the A.T. for hikers. There are two main entrances to the park: Oconaluftee just north of Cherokee on the North Carolina side, and Sugarlands just outside of Gatlinburg on the Tennessee side. A 30-mile road connects these two cities, following along the Oconaluftee and the Little Pigeon Rivers.
In addition to Oconaluftee and Sugarlands, there are two more Visitor Centers – Cades Cove and Clingmans Dome – each showcasing different elements of the park and offering unique opportunities to understand the rich biodiversity in this area, see the varying flora and fauna in the park (the Smokies are home to over 100,000 different life forms), learn of the pioneering spirit of the hearty farmers of yesteryear in what were once vibrant mountain communities, and marvel at well-preserved remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture that date back to the mid-1800s.
We stayed in the town of Cherokee on the North Carolina side, which is actually on the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Over 1,000 years ago, the Cherokee people wove their culture into this land, and names such as Oconaluftee are reminders to us of who was here first!**
Our campsite was wonderful. We backed up onto the Raven Fork River (see embedded slide show, below, for photos) and thoroughly enjoyed watching anglers in waders fish for the Brown and Rainbow Trout in the cold river waters. As mentioned in an earlier post (Perry & Dee Dee Come Visit), we really enjoyed hosting Perry & Dee Dee for the first two days we were in the area. Then the remaining days found us driving through the park, visiting and learning in all four Visitor Centers, hiking a few trails on a couple of days, touring the Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee Visitor Center, driving the loop road through Cades Cove where we saw demonstrations of the old ways of life in the Smokies, and seeking out wildlife – we saw elk, wild turkeys, a hedgehog, a fox, and we even spotted a black bear in the woods – my Smoky Mountains visit was complete!
Geography, climate, and evolution combined to create this wonderful place. Today, it is the most visited national park in the United States, drawing over nine million visitors each year; more than double the next closest park. It is a place of peace, beauty, and recreation – a true sanctuary to come together with nature.
Hover your cursor over the photo, then click the arrows to scroll through pictures from our visit in Great Smoky Mountains National Park:
** Sadly, much of the blue mist we see today is air pollution; ozone depletion and acid rain have reeked havoc here and elsewhere.
** In another sad chapter of American history… in 1838, as the Smoky Mountains became a destination for ‘new Americans’ to settle and set up their simple farm lives, most of the Cherokees were marched west by the U.S. Government into settlements in Oklahoma. Thousands died on what was called the “Trail of Tears;” the forced relocation of Native Americans. Today, the town of Cherokee is largely made up of direct descendants of the Cherokee people who have lived in these lands for hundreds and hundreds of years.