Our National Parks: Great Smoky Mountains National Park

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1992

Our National Parks: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
By Alston Chase and Debra Shore

Gatlinburg, TN 37738
Established 1934
520,000 Acres

The Big Picture: In the early 1920s, the fledgling National Park Service first realized that most of its parks were out west, yet most of the taxpayers were back east. What better investment for the future, it reasoned, than to simply bring a park to the people? A decade later, Great Smoky Mountains was born. These days Great Smoky Mountains is greatly appreciated: More visitors pass through its gates than through those of any other park. Granted, many of them choose to see the park from their cars--a 1988 study determined that one in six visitors never shuts off his engine--but if they took a walk they might see 200 species of birds, 28 species of salamanders, and an astounding 125 species of trees, just a day's drive away for half of the country's population. Don't be fooled by its aura of gentility: The Appalachian peaks that form its spine can be steeper than the Rockies, as many as 600 black bears roam the underbrush, and park rangers mount 70-odd rescue operations each year. There's a reason the tangled, six- to 20-foot-high laurel and rhododendron forests are known locally as "hells."

Where Everyone Goes:
Traffic report: 8,664,459 total visitors, 77,200 backcountry visitors

Every day between 9 and 11 A.M., thousands flow into Great Smoky Mountains via Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441), a two-lane north-south highway that bisects the park. From points along the road, the observation tower atop 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome; Alum Cave Bluff, Chimney Tops, and Rainbow Falls trails; and the Elkmont and Smokemont campgrounds are just a blink away. Good thing, too: These folks have places to be. At about three o'clock the park empties out as everyone heads for the outlet malls in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, or for Cherokee, North Carolina, a real rubber-tomahawk town. Just about everyone who's left in the park is likely ensconced at Smokemont, Elkmont, or Cades Cove, where there's also a campground, a ranger station, a visitor center, and an 11-mile paved loop open to cars, bikes, and walkers.

Where You Should Go: The park's bucolic, wooded northeastern tip and its more riverine southwestern reach. Start in the northeast at the Cosby ranger station and take Snake Den Ridge Trail 4.6 miles south. Then follow Maddron Bald Trail 1.5 miles to Otter Creek campsite, one of 116 backcountry sites in the park (you'll need a backcountry permit, available at any ranger station). Spend the night there among giant spruce and Fraser firs, then hike another 2.5 miles to the spur into Albright Grove, an old-growth cove hardwood forest that escaped the saw during the park's former life as timber-company land. You'll know the trees by their giant size and their variety--about 30 species. From Cosby you can also catch the 2.5-mile Low Gap Trail to the Appalachian Trail, which cuts a 70-mile diagonal through the park along the crest of the Smokies. Camp on 6,621-foot Mount Guyot in one of 12 Adirondack-style shelters situated every eight to ten miles along the trail. Each three-sided stone shelter holds eight to ten hikers; call 615-436-1231 to reserve a space. And if you hear the gate rattling in the night, don't worry--it's only a bear trying to get at your pack.

Or from Bryson City, North Carolina, take the Road to Nowhere seven miles to the parking lot at Forney Creek trailhead, and pick up the 4.5-mile Forney Creek Trail to the Bear Creek campsite. From there, head north to the lookout tower at 5,190-foot High Rocks. Eight miles farther on Hazel Creek and Welch Ridge trails--Hazel Creek has a backcountry campsite and very overlooked rainbow and brown trout--you'll find yourself on the AT near the shelter at Silers Bald. Make your way to the Twentymile ranger station, Fontana Dam, and Eagle Creek, which shares Hazel Creek's obscurity and trout abundance. Call 615-436-1251 for fishing permit information; Tennessee licenses are honored in North Carolina, and vice versa. Rent a canoe at Fontana Lake's Village Resort ($22 a day; 704-498-2211).

Finally, if you are driving, try the winding, precipitous roads in the southeastern part of the park. They're also empty enough to bike safely; unpaved Round Bottom Road is good for mountain bikes, and Balsam Mountain Road is paved and fine for touring. Smokemont Riding Stables in nearby Smokemont (704-497-2373), is an excellent livery operation.

Don't Forget: A mushroom guide, a skillet, and a little butter; 2,230 kinds of mushrooms grow in the park, many edible.

Where to Bunk: LeConte Lodge ($53- $58; 615-429-5704), open late March through mid-November, a cluster of seven walk-in cabins and three small lodges atop 6,593-foot Mount LeConte.

Food Is: Nonexistent inside the park, so pack your own. But don't leave without trying the nouveau Native American cuisine--rattlesnake with cornmeal breading, sautéed alligator over pasta, and Indian fry-bread with buffalo chili, for example--at Spirits on the River, on the Ocanaluftee in Cherokee.

Park Lore: Great Smoky Mountains may be the Bermuda Triangle of North America. Since 1928 there have been 38 airplane crashes in the park, the latest a collision last January between two F-15 Eagle jet fighters from Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta, Georgia (no one was killed).

Your Park Service at Work: The park has inherited a lot of wildlife problems, many of which it is aggressively combatting. Exploding populations of rainbow trout (introduced to area ponds and streams in the 1930s) have reduced the range of the native brook trout by 75 percent. The Park Service is currently catching rainbows and relocating them to areas where they won't compete with brookies.

In 1957 the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, determined to create a pristine trout fishery in neighboring Chilhowee Reservoir, eradicated all "trash" fish and inadvertently wiped out whole populations of endangered smoky madtoms and threatened yellowfin madtoms and spotfin chubs in both the reservoir and its feeder, Abrams Creek, which lies inside the park. Since 1987 a recovery project has been in progress, and the madtoms, at least, are starting to come back. Over the past two years the park has also received $394,000 to shoot and live-trap 1,000 nonnative wild hogs, descendents of invaders from a nearby hunting preserve. And Great Smoky Mountains is the test site for the reintroduction of a mating pair of red wolves and their two pups.

Where the money goes:
Budget: $8,766,333
Science: 0%
Visitor services: 30.5%
Maintenance: 51.1%
Other: 18.4%

Flashlight Reading: Last Train to Elkmont, by Wilma Dykeman (Olden Press, $15); Mountain Roads and Quiet Places, by Jerry Delaughter (Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association, $6.95).

Fun Index: This is an island of montane tranquility in an ocean of lowest-common-denominator tourist schlock. 4

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