Shangri-La of the US
Climbing up the Newfoundland Gap road, the scenery gets more dramatic and the namesake smoky fog more visible. This surreal scene reminds me of Shangri-La, a fictional heavenly mountain in southwest China described in pictures and books. Shangri-La is a peaceful place where monks contemplate the meaning of life. The Great Smoky Mountains, with its trademark blue haze, conjures up the same image and really beckons one to reflect on life, but where is the needed solitude?
Scenery and History
The Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited National Park for good reasons. It’s close to populations centers with easy auto access. There are many pullouts to view beautiful scenery, including the blue haze that gives the park its name. Leaving the car behind and venturing out on foot, the crowd starts to fade and the beauty of the forest takes center stage. There are plenty of camping options.
Unlike many National Parks in the west, people lived in the Great Smoky National Park well before it became a National Park in 1934. There are many historical buildings, water wheels, churches and cemeteries that link you back to lives from not so long ago.
Going with the Herd – Auto Touring
Sugarlands is the main visitor center on the western side of the park. Cades Cove offers the widest variety of historic buildings in this park. There are churches, a grist mill, barns, log houses, and many 18th and 19th century buildings. The 11 mile loop at the end of Fighting Creek Gap road crosses meadows and an old town. Opportunities abound for wildlife viewing, with many pullouts so to enjoy the drive. However, the road can resemble slow moving traffic in rush hour. The single lane road requires commitment to the full 11 miles. Allocate enough time. No solitude here.
The other major auto touring route is Newfoundland Gap Road, also known as US 441. This is a beautiful mountain road that bisects the park, going from Gatlinburg to Cherokee. Leaving from the Sugarlands visitor center to start the climb, the switchbacks appear as the mountain scenery gets more dramatic. Often, the road goes into the clouds, with many lookouts to view the never ending mountains shrouded in the haze. As nice as the scenery is, there are crowds. No solitude here.
A branch from Newfoundland Gap Road goes to Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak in the park at 6,643 feet, and surpassed only by Mount Mitchel (6,684 feet) and Mount Craig (6,647 feet) as the tallest peak east of the Mississippi.
There is a paved trail to the observation tower that is surprisingly difficult because of the steepness, rising 334 feet in a half mile. Despite the wide trail, it can feel like walking on the sidewalks of New York because of the crowd. Fortunately, there are plenty of benches to stop and rest at. The view can be dramatic on a clear day, but as is often the case, you can see only white mists when the mountains are covered in fog. The potential for a tranquil, mystic, Shangri-La like environment to reflect upon the meaning of life is there, but not with the crowds. No solitude here during peak season. Perhaps in the winter time.
For a less crowded place on the auto route, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is the answer. The nature of this road invites you to slow down. It’s a one way road that is much less traveled. Some solitude here as the road meanders along Roaring Fork creek in the dense shade.
Hiking to Seek Solitude
The way to get away from the crowd is to hike. The further the hike, the fewer the people. On the drive to Cades Cove, there is the Laurel Falls trail that rewards the hiker with a nice waterfall. While it’s one of the most popular trails in the park, a sense of solitude starts to set in once you get away from the parking lot. There is a bridge that crosses the waterfall, giving you a nice view. It’s well worth the 2.6 mile round trip.
On the eastern side of the park is the Toms Branch Falls trail. This is an easy walk along Indian Creek, with a short spur to Tom Branch Falls. The entire walk is scenic with plenty of water and a very nice waterfall.
Where to find solitude in the Great Smoky Mountains? Get deep into one of the hikes and the crowd melts away; the beautiful, tranquil mountain in the surreal “smoke” presents itself. This is the second largest National Park in the east so there is plenty of room for those who are willing to do a little work to get away from the crowds.
Thought for Great Smokys
Seek clarity by working to climb above the fog of uncertainty or be patient and wait for clarity to present itself, just like the fog lifting
Impressions of the Great Smoky Mountains
The Great Smoky Mountains offers many recreation activities and very nice auto touring. The ease of access and the proximity to population centers are the reasons why it’s the most visited National Park. The crowd around the auto touring routes during peak season distracts from the natural beauty of the surroundings. A hike into the woods is the only real way to relax and enjoy the park and experience this great mountain range.
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Great Smoky Mountains National Park Rating:
(Note: Ratings are on a bell curve, which means there are as many 5 star ratings as 1 star ratings. All National Parks are wonderful, which makes this a very strict rating scale)
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Practical Info for visiting the Great Smokys
- Check the National Park Service web site for current conditions, especially in the winter.
- The gateway cities of Gatlinburg on the Tennessee side and Cherokee on the North Carolina side have plenty of accommodations. However, they are both very touristy and too commercialized for my taste.
- As commercialized as Gatlinburg is, it is still much better than the larger Pigeon Forge where it feels like a typical suburb of a large city with tacky attractions.
- No entrance fee for this park due to historical reasons.
- Two days is the minimum for this park. Spend one day touring the Cades Cove area, along with some hikes. Spend the second day on Newfoundland Gap road and hike as many trails as you can.
- Do the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail if you have time, but it’s not a big deal if you skip it.
- Cherokee has casinos and buffets, if you are into that kind of thing.
Great Smoky Facts:
- Size: 521,490 acres, ranked 19th
- Visitors: 10,712,674 in 2015, ranked 1st. Almost double of the next park. 2015 had record attendance.
- Peak month in 2016: July with 1,464,456 although October is very close at 1,459,836
- Low month in 2016: February with 353,532
- No entrance fee
Date Visited: July 15, 2016