Carolina: Cruising Past 70: Camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Part 1

Monday, June 14, 2010

Camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Part 1

After driving through the Blue Ridge Parkway, we finally reached the most visited national park in the country, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park!  The border between Tennessee and North Carolina runs northeast to southwest exactly through its centerline.  Out of ten campgrounds, we chose to stay at Elkmont near the Park Headquarters at the Tennessee side because one of Bill’s high school buddies lives near there.  Besides, that was one of only two that can accommodate our 37-foot rig.

In 814 square miles, the variety of elevations, the abundant rainfall, and the presence of old growth forests give the park many species of plants (100 trees, deciduous leafy trees in the lower parts and coniferous trees at higher altitudes, and over 1,400 flowering plants and 4,000 non-flowering plants) and animals (200 birds, 66 mammals, 50 fish, 39 reptiles, and 43 amphibians).  An additional 90,000 undocumented species are also estimated to live there.

We were not backcountry camping nor tent camping but, since there were no hook-ups and generators were not allowed, we lived primitively. Would you believe I survived?  This Part will cover the wonderful Park interior: the southwest side at Cades Cove, the southeast side at the park entrance near the Ocanaluftee Visitors Center at the North Carolina side, the northern park entrance at the Tennessee side, the center of the Park at the Newfound Gap, and the area around our campground.  Part 2 will be about the border towns.

Cades Cove is the most preserved and popular attraction in the park.  It is a valley with many historic log cabins, barns, and churches. Self-guided automobile and bicycle tours offer a good glimpse into the old Appalachian life especially at the preserved farm buildings near Cable Mill. But do you know what the highlight of this tour was?  Four bears (out of about 1,800 that live in the park) gamely gobbled the grass before us.  We also saw many white-tailed deer, turtles, and wild turkey!  

The Park Headquarters is witness to the heavy flow of visitors.  The highest number is recorded in July with June and August following closely.  But October is another bump because of the spectacle of fall colors. Near the Center is a short fully accessible hiking trail that ends at a small waterfall, a visitors’ delight.  Only 7 miles beyond is our campground where one hiking trail leads to the 80-foot Laurel Falls.  Another is the trail to the unique species of fireflies that all blink at the same time! Only in some parts in Asia does this phenomenon also happen. 

There is a farm museum at the Oconaluftee Visitors Center at Cherokee, North Carolina.  Near the Center is the northern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway at Mile Post 469. There was the Mingus Mill, too.  But, guess what the highlight of the tour was?  Four elk, of the 110 that are thriving in the Park after being introduced in 2001, were grazing by the road side. Some local Carolinians who did not have a camera gave us their email address so we could send photos.  They could not believe there were elk in their state!

Newfound Gap, the center of the Park offers great views, including the dividing line between North Carolina and Tennessee, a part of the Appalachian Trail that runs through the Smokies, and the Rockefeller Memorial to the creation of the first federally funded national park.  That was also where we realized, when we were returning to our campground, that the clear views we photographed in the morning turned into smoky views at dusk (hence, the name).

The Newfound Gap Road that connects the two visitor centers (Park Headquarters and Oconaluftee) features most of approximately 850 miles of hiking trails that lead visitors to glimpses of many other park attractions.  Some of these are Mt. LeConte and its Alum Bluffs, the Clingman’s Dome, highest point, where an observation tower was built, and the Chimney Tops, dual humpbacked peaks.  The Smokies is truly a great park to visit! Our four days seemed too short a stay!

Next Stops:  Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Cherokee and Asheville, North Carolina