By Jim Ferri
Two weeks ago I was driving up from Atlanta on my way to Asheville, NC, and decided to spend a day en route visiting the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I had no idea what a great decision I had made.
Straddling North Carolina and Tennessee, the park encompasses 815 square miles of unspoiled Appalachia. It is, astoundedly, the most visited National Park in the USA.
Although there are several roads in the park, it’s bisected by only one paved road, a 30+-mile stretch of US 441 between the kitschy towns of Cherokee, NC and Gatlinburg, TN. But don’t let the short distance fool you; it normally takes a few hours to drive across due to its numerous twists and turns, as well as the frequent stops most people make to admire the scenery, flora and fauna.
I entered the park on the North Carolina side where I passed several carloads of families that had stopped to take photos of their children in front of the large park entrance sign. Just a little way up the road I pulled into the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, the park center that showcases the culture of the region. The other visitor center, Sugarlands on the Tennessee side, focuses on the geography and nature of the area.
I spoke with a park ranger, a retired schoolteacher from Florida, who was exceptionally helpful in telling me a lot about the park and showed me on a map the popular places to go. I loaded myself up with numerous maps and brochures but before leaving headed out back to the mountain farm. The Ranger had urged me to visit it and I found it was well worth the half-hour diversion.
My first stop after leaving the center was at the Mingus Mill, a mill that for more than 50 years ground corn into meal and wheat into flour for the mountain community near Mingus Creek. To get to it from the little parking lot you take a five-minute walk on a trail through woods filled with huge rhododendrons reaching up beneath a tall canopy of trees.
There are 100 species of native trees in the Great Smoky Mountains, more than in all of northern Europe, as well as an extensive variety of other flora and fauna. According to the National Park Service, scientists currently know only about 17 percent of the plants and animals that live in the park, or about 17,000 species of probably 100,000 different organisms.
As you travel through the park can see many things right from your car, although walking the numerous trails, even for a short distance, provides a much richer experience. Hiking is popular in the park – the famed Appalachian Trail, stretching from Georgia to Maine, threads its way the length of it – and there is also bicycling and horseback riding. Pressed for time, though, I spent a good deal of my day in the car and after leaving Mingus Mill, headed further into the forest.
At one point I came around a bend, found a line of cars stopped and thought there was an accident, until I realized that many of the people out of their cars were taking pictures. I pulled to the side, got out and found several elk grazing in a broad flower-dappled meadow. It was an incredible sight, and I was amazed at how close they grazed to the road, unperturbed by the numerous cars and people walking about snapping photos.
For most of US 441 the two-lane road runs along a small river that cuts through the verdant forest and there are frequent cutouts all along the way, where you can stop and admire the beauty all around you. Although the highway is exceptionally winding, I found that to be an asset since the slower pace provided more time to appreciate it all.
Since the road crosses the peaks of the Smoky Mountains, for the first half of your ride you’re headed uphill, and downhill once you reach the top. Near the peak at Newfound Gap there’s a large, popular turnout providing beautiful vistas over the mountains. When I got there though, it was totally fogged in (although still surprisingly crowded) so I moved on down the road a quarter of a mile and found another beautiful view under the clouds, all along the way admiring the patches of Black-eyed Susans that poked their heads up out of the roadside greenery.
The day was overcast and at the higher elevations every now and then wisps of clouds would drift out of the forest and float across in front of me. At one point, when I found myself driving along a ridge in a light mist with clouds on both sides, I pulled into a cutout and was surprised to find two people sitting in lawn chairs next to their car, just watching the changing vista all about them.
The Ranger at the visitor center had told me about Chimney Tops Picnic Area on the Gatlinburg side of the mountains. “Even if you don’t have a picnic try to stop there,” she advised me. “It’s a really beautiful site with large rocks in the stream.”
When I spied the sign for the picnic area I turned up the short road and immediately realized what she meant. Large boulders peppered the riverbed and along the banks people were sitting and admiring the beauty of the pastoral Appalachian scene. There were picnic tables and parking spots all along the trail, and a sign warning “Bear Habitat – do not leave food unattended.”
I didn’t see any bears but found myself wishing I had brought a picnic along for the trip. It would have been well worth delaying my journey a bit for the experience.
If you go:
Great Smoky Mountains National Park