The first time I visited The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, both of us were babies. In 1936 the park was born. In 1939 I was born. In September 1940 President Roosevelt dedicated the park.In the summer of 1941, I visited the park with my parents, grandparents and great aunt. In June 2015 I’m back.
This is a picture of my daddy and me on that long ago road trip, but I don’t know exactly where it was taken.(Not in the park.) Do you recognize the monument?
We entered the park from Gatlinburg, and stopped at the Sugarland Welcome Center. A short nature trail there provides a good intro and you can get maps and booklets and great temptations in the gift shop. From the welcome center take the drive that goes out to Cade’s Cove. You’ll see wildlife..We just missed a family of bears …And many of the buildings of the farming community that existed here before the park displaced them.
By the way, bears are very aggressive this summer, so heed the warnings and use common sense.
The next day, we followed the shorter loop out of Gatlinburg called Roaring Fork, a stunningly beautiful drive through light and shade streaked trees forming cathedrals of nature with the road as the central aisle.
Then we headed up the mountains to the highest point, Clingman Dome. Along the way we had plenty of opportunity to see views like this. (I took this one a couple of years ago from a cabin.)
We climbed the 1/2 mile trail (300’gain in elevation) to the observation tower and huffed and puffed.
Would have felt cockier had not we met hikers pausing on their Appalachian Trail hikes. That is the real deal. (See Bill Bryson’s great book on the Appalachian Trail. A Walk in the Woods).
Although the mountains have not changed perceptively since FDR and later a baby VMB visited, there are, fortunately, more and better roads and facilities and unfortunately man-made haze sometimes obscuring the “smoke” of low hanging clouds for which the area is named.
We were at the Smokies during the high tourist season and on a weekend so cars lined up on the roads and finding a parking spot took great patience. But still, the peace of nature will soothe the soul of anyone who has had to cope with Pigeon Forge, in my opinion a town to be avoided.
Three towns line up along the highway called Parkway, north of the park itself. At the top, Sevierville, then Pigeon Forge, then Gatlinburg. Pigeon Forge is the home of Dollywood, a downright charming amusement park that outclassed the endless row of tacky entertainments in the town. In town, you can eat dinner while watching lumberjack compete. Bungee jump above the chaos of downtown. Drive on mini race ways. Eat at every fast food joint known to man or at pancake houses vying to be the hokiest.
On one section of parkway, I amused myself as we crept along in bumper to bumper traffic by jotting down the restaurants in a row…broken up only by one chain motels along the way…
Long John Silver
A veritable convention of healthy eating!
Gatlinburg, although plagued with similar crowds, has less garish entertainments. The very nice Aquarium, for instance and an impressive convention center. Gatlinburg is also known as a craft center and in general just seems more grown up than Pigeon Forge.
So where did we spend two nights? Because I was being a cheapskate and didn’t like the prices of cabins, we stayed in the non chain Inn at the River in (blush) Pigeon Forge. It was, however a very nice motel with a balcony overlooking Little Pigeon Creek with big trees and little ducks and entertaining geese. You could almost forget the madness out on the street. Particularly with a new and delightful seafood restaurant, Harpoon Harry‘s next door.
Our 2nd night, we escaped Pigeon Forge and went out of town to Wear’s Valley to a great home cooking, locally sourced food place called Elvira’s. Highly recommend the 10 mile drive.
I was a bit depressed thinking about all those families dropping hundreds of dollars on amusement park stuff and probably never savoring the natural beauty of the surrounding Great Smokies. But then, if all of them descended on the National park, we would never have been able to drive or hike in peace. So keep up the good work, Pigeon Forge.
In parting, here’s one of those photos parents take solely to embarrass their children. Me, going, on my first road trip.