Carolina: Cruising Past 70: Camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Part 2

Friday, June 18, 2010

Camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Part 2

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The Smokies’ interior was a delight especially with most of the flowers  already in bloom. But there is another reason why it has become the top destination in the country.  All around the park, within a half to one hour drive from where you are camped are interesting towns with varied local attractions: The Biltmore Estates in Asheville and the last great Indian Reservation in Cherokee, North Carolina and the tourist attractions in Gatlinburg, Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, the heart of the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, and the city of Knoxville, Tennessee.  

The jewel of Asheville, North Carolina is Biltmore Estate, built by George Vanderbilt II between 1889 and 1895. It is the largest privately-owned home in the country with 175,000 square feet, featuring 250 rooms. It stands today as one of the most admired homes in America with English landscape gardens, vegetable patches, and orchards that cover approximately 8,000 acres. The stables have been converted into a first class restaurant and the winery and vineyards still produce great wines. We brought home cute stemless wine glasses for our evening cocktails!

From Asheville and right before reaching the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center is Cherokee, North Carolina.  It is within the Cherokee Indian Reservation, headquarters of the Eastern Band. The city has many historical reminders of the Trail of Tears that began there when the Indian Removal Act forcibly relocated them to the west.  Now the city boasts of a bustling tourism industry with the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino lording it over the area. 

Gatlinburg, Tennessee is a beautiful touristy city in the foothills of the Pisquah National Forest.  The Park Headquarters at the Tennessee entrance to the Smokies is a short drive away.  Bill and I were so surprised to find almost all the tourist chains there amidst flowing streams, pretty flower beds, and green hillsides.  It even had a ski resort for winter time.  But guess how much a one-bedroom condo would cost??? $600,000! Quickly, it disappeared from our list of places for us settle down!

Pigeon Forge’s jewel is Dollywood and Splash Country, Dolly Parton’s theme parks! A resort city just 5 miles from the Smokies, it has a population of just over 5,000. Filled with many tourist chains like Gatlinburg, I do not think any child would get bored there.  I, too, would never get bored there!  It has three (yes, 3) outlet malls! And that’s where I found my wonderful ultra light, air-cooled Clark Bostonian sandals (for only $75) that I wear every day now!  I now know why Bill wanted to get out of there fast!

But the most interesting of the border towns to me is Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  Bill’s high school buddy Jim works as VP of Jacob’s Engineering.  The big firm continues to hold major parts of the decommissioning projects of the huge central production facilities of the Manhattan Project.   Los Alamos did the research, design, and final assembly of the A-bomb. But Oak Ridge produced all the materials that finally ended WWII. Jim showed us a building they were working on with a 43-hectare footprint and 5 million square feet in 4 floors.

Oak Ridge was where the biggest buildings in the world were ever built and where the biggest (and most significant) industrial projects in the world were ran.  He also toured us around the historic part of town and described for us how the whole town buzzed with activity during the time.  At the end of the day, he showed us a great documentary film, The Secret City.  It pulled together for us all the facts that we were hearing for the very first time and told us how indeed the secret was kept.

But that was not all.  Jim also brought us to a little lake in Knoxville where he and wife Carol are considering buying a new retirement home.  The sunset was glorious but the fishing was better.  A guy who just came in caught two big catfish in all of two tries!  I could see that Bill wanted to jump in with him but, sadly, he did not have a Tennessee fishing license.  Besides, it was already getting very dark and the next day we leave for the next wonderful stop in our cruise of a lifetime!

Next Stop: Nashville, Tennessee