hiking · History · National Parks · outdoor adventures

The Great Smoky Mountains

Note: I wrote this before the deadly fires in Tennessee, which have burned over 17,000 acres of land destroyed entire neighborhoods and hundreds of buildings, and killed at least 13 people so far.  Many of the views shown below have been marred by those fires. If you would like to help the people affected by the fire, please consider donating to the Red Cross, The Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, the Dollywood Foundation or read more about other ways to help here

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the creation of the American National Park System, one of the country’s greatest investments.  Since before we got married, my husband and I have talked about visiting all the national parks in the USA.  We finally visited our first National Park together this fall. For our first park, we decided to go to  Great Smoky Mountains National Park, located near Gatlinburg Tennessee. The drive from Maryland to Tennessee, via Lynchburg, was a treat in itself. The beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia are home to Shenandoah National Park, which we hope to visit sometime soon.

Smoky Mountain National Park, which lies on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, was designed for motorists to enjoy, and as such is a very handicap accessible park.  Even if you never left your car, you would still get to see beautiful views on the park’s main byway, Route 441. We enjoyed both driving through the park and hiking in the more remote areas. Here are some views from the road!

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View from the Scenic Route 441
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View from NewFound Gap Parking Lot

 

Some of the best views in the park can be seen from the observation tower on Clingman’s Dome, the highest mountain in the park at 6,643 feet elevation. To reach the observation tower, you have to drive to the Clingman’s Dome parking lot, and walk a paved but steep half mile to the observation tower. Once you reach the observation tower, which looks like it belongs on the set of Lost, you walk up a concrete ramp to the observation deck, which features 360 degree views of the park.

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View of the ramp leading up to the observation tower at Clingman’s Dome
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View of Smoky Mountain National Park from Clingman’s Dome Observation Tower.

Sadly, the view from the top is often obscured by air pollution, resulting from a combination of weather patterns and emissions from nearby power plants, and automobiles. The dead white trees in the pictures below are casualties of the hemlock woolly adelgid, an invasive species from Asia, which can kill large stands of trees in just 2-4 years. Read about the National Park’s efforts to stop the Hemlock Wooly Adelgid here.

The Smokys are part of the Appalachian mountain chain, some of the oldest mountains in the world. During our stay at the Smoky’s we hiked along some portions of the Appalachian trail, which cuts through the park. Due to the 85″ of rain received annually, the Smokys are also one of the most biodiverse areas of the world, featuring over 19,000 identified different species of plants and animals. On the hikes that we did, I often felt like I was walking through an ancient rain forest due to the lush vegetation and tricking streams and brooks we passed by. The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is truly an American treasure!

On our first day at the park, we hiked Chimney Tops, an iconic park, known for the steep, bare rock summits at the top, which look like chimneys from a distance. Sadly, Chimney Tops is where the fires that recently destroyed large areas of the park and heavily damaged local communities around the park are thought to have been started. I’m sure it looks much different than it did 2 months ago.

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View of Chimney Tops Summit from the trail.
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View looking up to the summit of Chimney Tops, near where the wildfires started. I wonder what it looks like now. =(

*Please consider donating to one of the organizations listed above to the help the Smoky Mountain Communities recover from the devastating fires that occurred over Thanksgiving week.

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