You’ll find them in Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains and Gatlinburg. Looking for a different summer or fall escape, one that blends the great outdoors with culture and history? Then look no further than Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. This spring I had a chance to visit Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains for the first time. Having spent many summers hiking around Colorado’s Rockies, I was struck by how different these mountains are from those soaring icons of the American West. Part of the Appalachian range that stretches from Georgia up to Maine, the Great Smoky Mountains are considerably older than their upstart Colorado counterparts — among the oldest mountains in the world, in fact. The Great Smokies were formed some 200 to 300 million years ago, so they’re lower and gentler in form than the Rockies, though originally they may have reached 20,000 feet. Clingmans Dome, the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is 6,643 feet high. Yet you’ll still enjoy plenty of abundant stunning vistas in this national park and the surrounding region. Nearly every morning, as my companion and I sipped coffee on the terrace of our rented cottage with a postcard-perfect view of the mountains, we could see how they got their name: As the mist rose from valleys, it resembled the blue-gray smoke of many campfires, as if a hunting party of Cherokees were encamped nearby.

It was easy to see why the Cherokees and later the Anglo pioneers loved this land: It looks as green and lush as a rainforest. And like those teeming South American forests, the Smokies are renowned for their biological diversity. Within the national park’s 800 square miles, more than 10,000 species have been documented — including 1,500 types of flowering plants, 1,674 kinds of butterflies and moths, more than 200 species of birds and more tree species than northern Europe. These trees are giants, too: With 16 champions on the National Register of Big Trees, including a 165-foot-tall Eastern hemlock, this national park holds the record for the most championship trees. “We still have trees 400 to 500 years old,” said Tim Cruze, our park ranger guide on a short hike to Cataract Falls from the Visitors Center. This waterfall in the woods was just one of more than a dozen captivating cascades we could hike or drive to in the park. “Water shaped the Smokies,” Cruze added, explaining that they average around 85 inches of rain a year. It’s no wonder the trees are tall — a towering canopy over a ferny, mossy world interlaced by streams, where even the dappled sunlight that filters down has a greenish cast.

Gatlinburg, Tennessee Smokey MountainsPeople come here primarily to hike and immerse themselves in the natural beauty, though fishing is another popular pursuit. Among the most scenic hiking trails recommended by park rangers are the Middle Prong Trail along a river (an easy eight miles), the Elkmont/Little River/Cucumber Gap Trail (a five-mile forest and river loop), the Clingmans Dome Bypass Trail to Andrews Bald (one mile; a “bald” is a high, open meadow), the challenging Alum Cave Trail up Mount Le Conte (10 miles), and the strenuous Ramsey Cascades Trail up to a 100-foot waterfall (eight miles).

travel2Big Creek Trail to Mouse Creek Falls (four miles) passes Midnight Hole, a deep, limpid pool below a six-foot waterfall. Mingo Falls, at 125 feet one of the tallest and most spectacular waterfalls in the southern Appalachians, is accessible from the Cherokee Indian Reservation just outside the national park, and no special permits are required for access (Pigeon Creek Trail, .4 miles). Trail distances are roundtrip hiking estimates. The Great Smoky Mountains combine nature with layers of history and culture, starting with the Cherokees who hunted in their “coves” — verdant meadows framed by mountains on two sides and fed by streams. It was from these southern Appalachians in 1838 that 16,000 Cherokees were forced to leave their rich lands and hunting grounds behind and begin the 1,600-mile trek to Indian Territory (which later became Oklahoma) known as the “Trail of Tears,” for some 4,000 Cherokees died on that journey. Then the Anglos moved in, settling on choice lands in the Smokies such as Cades Cove, where thousands of springs watered their farms and kept their butter and milk cool in the little “spring houses” they built around them. Today the 11-mile loop road around Cades Cove provides a pastoral glimpse into that pioneer era. As we wound in and out of wooded foothills, enjoying the pastoral bucolic views across the valley, we (you can also bicycle or walk the loop), made nearly a dozen stops to inspect sturdy log cabins chinked with mud, barns, simple country churches and a streamside grist mill and waterwheel where corn was being ground. And almost everywhere in the cove we could hear birds singing and the sound of splashing streams. Suddenly the pioneer life didn’t look so bad.

As we rounded a bend, cars ahead were stopped: People were hopping out to snap pictures of a half-dozen deer grazing nonchalantly in a glade beside the road, as if posing for a postcard. I crept to within 15 feet, and the doe just looked at me, not batting an eye. I could only imagine how photogenic this scenery would be in October, when the sugar maples and other trees turned flaming hues. At such busy times, bicycling or walking may be the way to travel around Cades Cove, where traffic can come to a standstill. Gatlinburg, Tennessee Smokey MountainsOf course, to survive in the Appalachians during frontier days, you needed to know your plants like a Cherokee or mountain man. Doug Eliot, our group’s guide on a wildflower hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, looked like a hardy descendant of those mountain men who scouted and helped tame the West — back when the “wild frontier” was the territory that became Tennessee, where backwoodsman and Alamo hero Davy Crockett was born in 1786. Slim as a split-rail fence post, Eliot Doug could hardly contain his ebullient enthusiasm and humor as he regaled us with leafy lore about the Smokies’ rich vegetation.
“Knowing how to use plants is still a tradition here,” he said as he scampered up the steep, slope-side forest trail like a mountain goat, pausing now and then to point out medicinal and edible plants as we scrambled to keep up. “Bees are sex workers — their job is to get the pollen to the stamens,” he explained as the crowd laughed. Then he peeled off a long, thin strip of hickory bark from a tree and demonstrated how it was used to sew bark baskets for berries or even to sew up a hunting dog’s belly after an injury.

Other backwoods lessons followed. Chew on a black birch twig to release its wintergreen flavor for a “natural toothbrush.” Pick sheep sorrel for a tangy salad. Put toothwort leaves — as spicy as horseradish — on a pastrami sandwich. “Plants eat light and suck dirt — a miracle!” he exclaimed. Then he pulled a harmonica out of his jeans and sang his Dandelion Song in between harmonica riffs: “Dandelion, it makes you jump up and shiver; Dandelion, it’s really good for your liver….” Even with less than zero interest in wild plants, we could have listened to Doug Eliot for hours — he was so entertaining. Eventually one has to come down from the mountain and return to civilization, which in this case meant Gatlinburg. Located just outside Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg blends ersatz alpine architecture with the mood of a carnival midway. As you walk down its main streets, signs in all shapes and hues compete for your attention, beckoning with saltwater taffy, pancakes, fudge, T-shirt sales, indoor miniature golf, and a wide array of Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not attractions. Gatlinburg may also be the only town on the planet with a salt-and-pepper shaker museum.

travel4Yet amid all the touristy flotsam were some great finds. Fine crafts from quilts to carvings are a long Appalachian tradition, and the gift shop of the Arrowmont School of Crafts was filled with beautiful ceramics, textiles, jewelry, woodworking and more by its artists. We also took the Arts & Crafts Trolley, which departs throughout the day from town for an eight-mile loop on the Tennessee Heritage Arts & Crafts Trail of shops, galleries, and studios representing more than 100 artists. Some of these, such as Ogle’s Broom Shop, featured crafts passed down through generations. Its handmade brooms with carved handles were pretty enough to hang on a wall. The Smiths shop specialized in exquisite scrimshaw and handmade pocketknives, while Smoky Mountain Pottery featured a wide array of handsome ceramics, including some with a remarkable glaze that formed crystalline patterns. Jim Gray’s landscapes (in a gallery named after him) captured the luxuriant natural beauty of Tennessee. Gatlinburg, Tennessee Smokey MountainsWhen we returned from our art foray, the trolley stop was in front of the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies, where we watched 11-foot sharks, stingrays, and bright tropical fish cruise beside and above us as we rode the conveyor through the longest underwater tunnel in an aquarium in the world. Had we brought fishing gear, we could have fished in the river in the middle of town, which is stocked with trout every Thursday. And if we’d had another day, we might have tried whitewater rafting on the Pigeon River. But we’d run out of time.

On our last night we dined at The Lodge at Buckberry Creek, a new upscale, 42-suite property that’s the hottest place to stay in Gatlinburg. In good weather this family-run luxury inn takes its dinner guests in Pinzgauers — Swiss Army troop carriers that look even sturdier than humvees — down a steep road to a pavilion in the woods beside a mountain stream. There we had appetizers under the stars followed by dinner in the tent-roofed pavilion, which had a fireplace in the corner for cool nights. As we wined, dined and listened to the silvery stream, we knew we’d return to the Smokies.

Photos courtesy of Gatlinburg Department of Tourism