It is always neat to add another National Park to the list of those seen. I believe the National Parks are a must do as they provide a special experience unlike so many other places. Smoky Mountains National Park made the 6th National Park we have seen during this trip. I had some concerns about exploring this park, mainly because it is the most visited National Park in America and crowds are high in the summer and fall seasons. Over nine million people visit the park each year. One of the reasons is because unlike some National Parks that are more isolated, this park is closer to population centers and therefore easier to get to. I was envisioning traffic jams with difficulty parking and manuevering through the park. For those that don’t know, Smoky Mountains National Park is shared by North Carolina and Tennessee and has three different entrances, two in Tennessee and one in North Carolina. I thought we were fortunate to be staying near the North Carolina side of the park because that is the “quiet side” with less tourist traffic. On the Tennessee side is the most popular entrance near the busy town of Gatlinburg with the Dollywood theme park. In this post I will share part of a day exploring the Smokies and finish up that day with the next blog post.
After entering the park and stopping at a few viewpoints I was struck by the amount and variety of vegetation. I felt like I had landed in Central or South America with all the lush greenery around us. This was an unexpected delight. After the visit I read that the park is known for many species of plants, shrubs and trees and on the park website I noted this statement: “If allowed only one word to justify the Smokies worthiness as a National Park, that word would be plants. Vegetation is to Great Smoky Mountains National Park what granite domes and waterfalls are to Yosemite and geysers are to Yellowstone.” As we traveled through I could tell that it is indeed a special place and a very appealing destination for many visitors.
We stopped at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center which had some interesting exhibits and photographs of the families that once lived in this area. Living in the mountains was not an easy life and these people were tough and self reliant. In order to create the park more than 1,200 families were removed from their homes and their communities were dissolved. As can be expected, there were mixed feelings about leaving their homeland. Some were happy to take the money and settle elsewhere, but many never got over their loss. Some sold their land and paid rent to stay temporarily. A few, mostly the elderly, were given lifetime leases. We also learned of a similar situation when we visited Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Many families that lived in the valleys and hills that were proposed lands for the park were asked to leave so the park could be established. Some left willingly, but others were not happy to do so.
Smoky Mountains National Park is known for having historical structures that can be found throughout. At the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is the Mountain Farm Museum featuring a nice collection of log farm buildings mostly built in the late 19th century. They were gathered from different areas of the Smoky Mountains and moved here in the 1950’s to give visitors an opportunity to see how families may have lived 100 years ago. Buildings include a farmhouse, barn, applehouse, smokehouse and spring house. And of course I cannot forget the ever present blacksmith shop. The photo above is a picture of the Davis Farmhouse, a rarity because it is made from chestnut wood before the chestnut blight decimated the American Chestnut trees here in the 1930’s and 40’s.
I really enjoyed seeing this meadow view with the barn on the right from the Mountain Farm Museum. The National Park Service put a much needed sign on the barn which is one of the best I have seen. It is tragic that people deface historic structures with their signatures and artwork. It is such a frequent occurrence that it no longer surprises me but still so hard to understand why people feel compelled to disfigure priceless buildings.
Oconaluftee River flows next to the Visitor Center and is a beautiful and serene place to walk. For those that have the time, there is a trail you can take along the river that goes to the town of Cherokee. The valley where the river flows once had a Cherokee settlement and although the Cherokee people roamed throughout the Smoky Mountains area, this is the only known permanent settlement within the park boundaries.
After spending some time at the Visitor Center we drove to Mingus Mill, an 1886 grist mill that uses a water powered turbine instead of a water wheel to power machinery in the building. The mill is located at its original site and at times there are demonstrations of grinding corn into cornmeal. The mill was the largest in the Smoky Mountains and served over 200 families. Some families would bring corn and wheat from 15 miles or more to have it ground at the mill.
Water is channeled from Mingus Creek into the elevated flume and carried through a series of mechanisms into the turbine next to the building. This turns an attached metal rod that leads into the mill and turns the grinding stone to process the grains. My favorite part of the mill was the flume with its old mossy boards, rushing water and small waterfall from a loose board like you can see above.
Leaving Mingus we continued on Newfound Gap Road which is the main road that crosses through the park, allowing visitors to access overlooks, pull-offs and trails. You can start the 33 mile drive from either Cherokee or Gatlinburg. Below is a photo of the road that I took from an overlook.
The Cherokee described these mountains as “shaconage” meaning “blue, like smoke” since they appear to have a smoke-like natural bluish haze. Large quantities of moisture and organic compounds are emitted from the lush vegetation, forming the natural haze which is thickest on calm, sunny and humid days. Before visiting the park, I was wondering if I would notice that smokiness but when I saw the mountains, especially in the distance, I could understand how they got their name.
I will close with a shot coming out from one of the tunnels. Just like on the Blue Ridge Parkway, there are a number of them on Newfound Gap Road as well. In my next blog post I will continue writing about exploring the park.