The Great Smoky Mountains. Just the name conjures up images of magnificent mountain peaks with “smokes” rising from their flanks. It’s easy to see why this is the most-visited national park in the United States with all that it has to offer, from activities that appeal to the outdoorsy, adventurous types to those looking for world-class shopping to the younger set wanting to fill their days with theme parks, game rooms and water parks.
Gatlinburg, Tennessee, makes an ideal base camp for partaking of all the activities associated with the Smoky Mountains, with the literally thousands of hotel/motel rooms, overnight rentals and campgrounds available. The location, near the middle of the northern boundary of the national park, provides access to anything you would want to do while in the Smokies. Just 27 miles west of Gatlinburg along the Little River Road (allow a good hour to drive this extremely scenic but slow road) lies the 6800-acre Cades Cove. Settlers came into this beautiful valley in the 1800’s; the National Park Service has restored some of the original buildings to give visitors an idea of what life was like back then. Seven cabins have been restored along with three churches and the Cable Mill area which contains a number of buildings as well as an operational grist mill and a visitors’ center.
Near the beginning of the 11-mile loop road and accessed by a short, well-maintained and traveled trail sits the John Oliver cabin, the first to be built in the valley. I had an astounding bit of luck one day when I chaperoned a small group of mentally challenged adults around Cades Cove on their annual vacation. We walked the trail to the cabin when, lo and behold, a juvenile black bear crossed the trail just a few feet in front of us! As a matter of fact, another small group of tourists were just a little further ahead, and the bear actually passed between our groups, not paying the slightest attention to us.
I had been told that the black bear population is quite large in the Cove, and that was actually the second time I’ve seen a bear there, but this sighting was much better than the first one. Needless to say, my little group was overjoyed to see such a sight.
Not only is Cades Cove of historical interest, but the hiking is quite good as well. You can do an easy nature trail or one of the more challenging trails. The Abrams Falls Trail is about five miles round-trip and of only moderate difficulty. It presents a nice walk with a lovely waterfall at the turnaround point, although the trail actually continues quite a bit farther, all the way to the Abrams Creek Campground, if you feel up to it.
Not far beyond that point is the visitors’ center/Cable Mill area which sits beside the intersection of the loop road and Forge Creek Road, a one-way, unpaved, single-lane road leading south out of the national park into Tennessee. One morning in November some years ago, I got up especially early to reach the Cove as close to dawn as possible. It was well worth it: Spread across the Cove, peacefully grazing were literally hundreds of white-tailed deer. No one else was around. The scene was incredibly beautiful and peaceful. This was what it must have looked like to the early settlers. I had heard that early morning was the best time to view the deer, and it is.
But I got more than I bargained for that day. I was headed to the Forge Creek Road, off of which is the Gregory Ridge Trail, a 10-mile round trip hike up to the Appalachian Trail and back. The turnoff to the trailhead parking lot was not far from the loop road and just before you reach the one-way section. As I drove up the road, I spotted a wild pig trotting along the side, a pretty rare sight since these critters are extremely shy. Unfortunately, he veered into the woods before I could get my camera into position. That was my first sighting of a wild pig, although I had also heard that quite a few of them called this national park their home.
But that wasn’t the end of my wildlife encounters that day. The hike turned out to be quite exhilarating. The closer I approached the Appalachian Trail, the colder it became, of course, since I was about 2500 feet higher up. The weather conditions were just right for all the tree branches to wear sheaths of crystal clear ice. I appeared to be walking through a magical crystal forest. Quite a bonus!
Finally, returning to the parking lot, I heard the unpleasant sound of someone insistently blowing their car’s horn. To make a long story short, another tourist had been trying to drive away a black bear that had broken into a car parked there: my car! I had left an apple in the back seat that it smelled through the vent, and it almost tore the door off to get at it. The critter was just coming out of my car when I arrived. What an ending to an incredible day! (Check out my blog at http://www.hikinggal.blogspot.com for a more detailed story.) One thing I learned, besides not to leave any food in my vehicle, is that bears don’t necessarily stay in hibernation all winter. As a matter of fact, they may not hibernate at all if they haven’t put on enough extra weight before the start of winter.
Every season is beautiful in its own way in the Great Smoky Mountains. Although the Rocky Mountains are higher and more rugged, the Smokies are more accessible in the winter. (And did you know that, millions of years ago, the Smoky Mountains were higher than the Rockies are now?) You can marvel at frozen waterfalls, crystal-wrapped tree branches, bear tracks in the snow, rocks encircled with crystal necklaces in every stream and more. All you need to do is get out of your vehicle and look. The pressing crowds of summer are gone, leaving you with a quiet, peaceful wilderness just begging to be enjoyed.