by Lee Foster
America’s most popular National Park is not the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite, as one might imagine.
The honor goes to The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in eastern Tennessee and northern North Carolina, which draws over 8.5 million visitors each year. Visitors enter mainly from Tennessee.
Just how does a National Park become America’s favorite?
There are two factors.
First, you need to have a special natural resource. The Great Smokies is 500,000 acres of outstanding forest, with over 130 species of trees. Within the Smokies are the largest intact virgin forests in the eastern U.S., fully 100,000 acres of pristine, old-growth forest. The Smokies rank as one of the world’s finest examples of a deciduous forest in a temperate climate.
Second, you need an accessible public. The Great Smokies is within two day’s drive for 50 percent of the nation’s population. This rubber-tire tourism access to the natural treasure is the key to sustained use of the park. As long as gasoline is cheap and plentiful, travelers will come to the Great Smokies. Moreover, non-park attractions, from outlet shopping to music entertainment, flourish adjacent to the park, attracting visitors to the park.
When approaching the Great Smokies from the west, be sure to stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. Sugarlands boasts one of the better displays of plants and animals that you will see in a National Park visitor center. You’ll make the acquaintance of the wild turkey and the white-tail deer as well as the red spruce and the deciduous beech.
THE PEACEFUL SIDE
The Townsend entrance to the park is often called “The Peaceful Side of the Smokies.” One understands this peacefulness, later, at the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge entrance to the park, where human activity, such as outlet shopping, competes with nature as the attraction.
Near Townsend, stop in at the art studios of the “Artist Laureate of the Smokies,” Lee Roberson. Roberson paints pastoral scenes of country life and representative landscapes of the Great Smokies. He paints 12 works per year, which are then lithoed to make relatively inexpensive prints. His public loves him, though art critics may find him precious and sentimental. A typical painting will be a cozy winter scene, at night, with the full moon out, two deer drinking in the stream, two raccoons snugly in the tree, the light on in the distant cabin, and the entire painting titled “Harmony.” Roberson cultivates the personal contact with his art buyers that you find with Country Music singers and their fans. His studio is folksy. There is a bulletin board on which his fans indicate which lithos they want to barter with each other.
From Townsend, you can drive into Cades Cove, the most engaging area of the park. The Cove is a 4,000-acre rustic valley noted for its vistas and the remnants of pioneer life. An 11-mile loop road amounts to an outdoor museum. Early settlers compared the indentations in the mountains with the coves of the sea on the Atlantic shore to arrive at the name. Be sure to stop at the Cable Mill Visitor Center to witness the pioneer story and peruse the excellent display of nature books. A truck-pulled hay ride can take you around the loop and may persuade you to agree with Tennesseans that Cades Coves may be the most romantic place in the state.
Unlike wilderness parks in the western half of the United States, the Great Smokies is a celebration of both nature and pioneer life. Originally, Cades Cove was cleared of trees by settlers, and some of the fields continue to be mowed for grazing, creating hayfield landscapes backed by trees. The trees are particularly striking during fall color displays in October. When the park was founded in 1936, those living in the park were permitted to continue their habitation with lifetime leases, but the land eventually is being ceded to the park. Gradually, the hardwood forests take over the abandoned meadows. Eventually, this park will return to a state of wildness.
Another favorite nature outing in the park is the drive up the mountains to the ridge at Newfound Gap. You’ll see plenty of red spruce and beech trees along this road, plus the understory of rhododendrons that flourish in the shade. The exceptional range of plant life, especially trees, is one of the Great Smokies’ main attributes. There are over 130 species of native trees. The Great Smokies became a place of retreat and survival for plant and animal species during the ages of glaciation in the past.
The land forms are also interesting. Striking spires, called The Chimneys, can be viewed from turnoffs on the road. At Alum Cave Bluffs you can hike to a tall peak, Le Conte. At the top of the ridge, on Newfound Gap, you can hike on a section of the Appalachian Trail, the 2000-mile trek extending from Maine to Georgia.
The “peaceful” side of the Smokies at Townsend is a sharp contrast with the more frantic human scene at Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville. Before plunging into this human drama, the other natural and historic attractions of eastern Tennessee near the park should be mentioned.
The Cherokee National Forest is a major resource, with a drive recommended to Buck’s Bald for the scenic view. Again, the hardwood forests are the magnificent sight here, extending over low mountains as far as the eye can see, with always a slight natural haze in the air, the “smokies” aura that named the region. Nearby, you can hike into Coker Creek Falls after getting information on the area from Coker Creek Village. There are interesting crafts people to visit, such as wood carver Ken Dalton in Coker Creek.
The limestone subsoils of Eastern Tennessee are subject to the dissolving influence of water. Underground caverns result, creating a spelunker’s heaven. At the Lost Sea Caverns you can go underground and then boat around on a four-acre lake. At Forbidden Caverns, the nuances of stalactites, stalagmites, and draperies are fully explained.
The historical story of the region, especially that of the Cherokee Indians and the early British soldiers, is engrossing. The Cherokee, known as one of the Civilized Tribes, had attained architectural skills to enclose 500 people in one council house. The most remarkable Cherokee was Sequoyah, who formulated an alphabet for his people, allowing them to leap toward instant literacy. Sequoyah is the major resource in the Indian heritage center, known as the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, at Vonore. The Great Smokies is Cherokee country. Both hunters and planters, the Cherokee attained a high cultural level. One of the Cherokee villages, Tanasi, provided the name for the state.
At Fort Loudoun, near the Sequoyah Birthplace, you can find “re-enactors” in the garb of the British redcoats. Loudoun was the most westerly penetration of British influence. The trade in deerskins and the wish to thwart the French were the twin objectives that prompted British interest. The stockade of the Fort has been recreated, circa 1756-1760. Originally, the Cherokee were allies of the British in the territorial struggle with the French. However, the Cherokee eventually turned against the British and starved them out of the Fort when the trade and treaty goods promised to the Indians proved to be inferior.
The modern human drama of the region, immediately adjacent to the park, focuses on Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville. This area booms as an outlet shopping, entertainment, and vacation region.
If your passions run to outlet shopping, Pigeon Forge breaks all the records and claims to be the largest outlet shopping center in the country. Five huge malls of shops include some 250 manufacturer stores. Frenetic shoppers create monumental traffic jams on the narrow roads. From the point of view of some nature lovers in the park, the proliferation of outlet shopping is a touristic excrescence marring the beauty of the region. It can definitely be said that Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville have vitality. One of the interesting shops is The Knife Works, which sells just about every cutting device in existence. Be sure to see their collection of historic knives, ranging from Indian deer-skinning flints to 18th-century Bowie knives.
In Gatlinburg, stop in to see Ken Jenkins’ photos of the Smokies at his Beneath the Smoke gallery, 467 Parkway. Jenkins organizes nature and photo tours of the Smokies in the spring and autumn.
For dinner at the local restaurants, Tennessee cured ham would be a good choice. The aperitif of choice should be good Tennessee sippin’ whiskey, your choice of Jack Daniels or George Dickel. These are produced, incidentally, in “dry” counties further west in the state. The counties are “dry” because the Bible-thumping locals see sin lurking in all pleasure, requiring that the product be exported. For breakfast, try corn grits, at least once, perhaps with applebutter or sweet sorghum molasses. In restaurants, when ordering tea, you will find yourself below the imaginary line that runs across the South. Below the line, tea automatically means ice tea rather than hot tea.
Dollywood is another major local touristic entity. The word Dollywood, an entertainment complex associated with singer Dolly Parton, may conjure up images of a schlock tourist trap. But that is not the case. Dollywood exceeds the expectations, even of a cynic. Abundant music entertainment and hundreds of crafts people demonstrating their skills, from weaving to whittling, are the draw. Here you can see the wood bowl carver scooping out wild cherry wood or watch the tinsmith practice his trade. The entire east Tennessee country is rich in craft skills. It’s always interesting to hear a cultural force at its source, so take in a few stagefuls of Country Music, here, where the barefoot beauty came from, only a short space from “up the holler.”
Dolly Parton is a major cultural force in this region, her home. Parton is a rags-to-riches story of an impoverished girl who came from a holler and went on to music superstardom. At the Sevier County Courthouse, in Sevierville, you’ll find a bronze bust of her bust, plus the rest of her body, and her guitar. The bronze bust isn’t there for her music skills only. She has endeared herself to the locals. She provides a $500 grant to each kid in the county who graduates from high school, suggesting the need for incentives in this under-educated area. She also finances putting a second teacher in each first-grade class in the county, hoping to fight the endemic drop-out mentality.
Aside from the music created by instruments and song in eastern Tennessee, there is another music in the area when the local people speak. This is the South, where the I become Ahhh. The single syllable well become two syllables, we-ell. The accents tend to move up-word, so the buffet become BUFfet and the insurance become INSurance. This is local color, and much delights the ear of the outsider, at least for awhile. The unfortunate side of local color occurs when, beyond the pleasure of accent and the clusters of feelings trapped brilliantly in a local phrase, you find the undereducated butchering the syntax of standard English because of ignorance. It is said that eastern Tennessee locals are a little more reserved towards outsiders than are citizens in the Tennessee valleys to the west. The eastern Tennessee native still thinks of the outsider as a descendant of the “revenuer” out to discover their whiskey stills.
The Cherokee Indians called this place Shaconage, Land of the Blue Smokes, which means that a natural haze rather than latter-day pollution named the area. If you want to experience America’s most popular National Park, visit the Great Smokies. It’s worth a trip to gaze at the great hardwood forests, even if you have to battle your way through the rush hour traffic of crazed outlet shoppers at Pigeon Forge.
Nature, pioneer history, outlet shopping, and music entertainment comprise an unusual mix, but together they account for the Smokies becoming our most-visited National Park.
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK: IF YOU GO
For Great Smokies information, contact Superintendent, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 107 Park Headquarters Rd., Gatlinburg, TN 37738; 865/436-1200; www.nps.gov/grsm/index.htm.
The overall Tennessee information source is Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, 320 6th Ave. North, Nashville, TN 37243; 615/741-2159; www.tnvacations.com.