Travel File: Smoky Mountains

You hear people talk about the Smoky Mountains and you’re like, “why SMOKY?”  Then you see pictures and it makes sense.  Sort of.  But even after the photos I was wondering, “How?”  How is this vapor happening exactly?  I grew up in the fog of coastal California, and it looks a lot like this “smoke”,  but the ocean isn’t close to the Smokies!   How does something like this happen in mountainous areas?  It turns out that the vapor is released from the vegetation.  It’s humid, y’all.   The molecules that make up the gas scatter blue light from the sky and create what the Cherokee called “blue smoke”.
Great Smoky Mountains
The blue smoke rests on the mountain tops and also lingers above water.  It’s ethereal.
Smoky mountains river with smoke

We specifically took our trip through the south in October to see fall colors.  Everything was so lush and green, but washes of fire-colored leaves were making appearances all through the states.  If you remember from my previous post, it took a while to get out of Nashville (traffic).  We’d hoped to find camping between Nashville and Asheville, but there was a good chance of rain the day we took the drive…We ended up booking a room where we anticipated a good stopping point and  I’m so glad we did.  It took much longer to wind through the mountains than we expected and we would have been hating life had we been pitching a tent at midnight!  The long route through Great Smoky Mountains National Park was slow-going, but what better way to take in all the magnificent mountain sites?!
map of smoky mountainsThe drive was like all the trails, camp spots, rivers and woodlands I had ever been to-combined!  Walls of thick green surrounded us at every turn.  Tunnels, fog, wild turkeys and tiny towns with little, unusual stores scattered themselves among the dips and curves of the land. (“Bearmeat’s Indian Den-Open all year.”)

smokies_1It was late and dark when we arrived at our destination (near Alcoa/Maryville) and we didn’t know until morning what a beautiful spot we had chosen!  There was a river that split right before our motel, with half of it running through the middle of the property and the other half running right behind our rooms.

The drive afforded us to catch the southern tail end of the Blue Ridge Parkway, thick with its famous blue smoke.smokies_2As we wound through the walls of green and fog, we passed RV parks and churches, some villages obviously built especially for tourists and roadside stops for fruit and boiled peanuts (more about those later!)  During a pit-stop at a gas station, I saw four older gentlemen – all in overalls – sitting at small tables set up at the front of the store.  They drank coffee, ate breakfast and read newspapers as the hustle and bustle of morning coffee drinkers and construction workers came and went.  They chatted away, clearly friends for a long time and clearly enjoying a simple life.  As we continued down the road, motels, yards and churches blasted passers-by with signs that proclaimed “One Love for All People” and other similar messages.

We stopped at Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center (just a few miles from the southern park entrance), where the Mountain Farm Museum is located.  This “museum” is set up as an old farmstead; it’s a collection of late 19th century farm buildings that were assembled from locations throughout the area and moved to this location in the 1950’s.
smokies_3_homesteadEverything from a spring house to a pig pen to a lye-making shed were there for us to explore and read about.  It was a beautiful little spot tucked into a valley next to the Oconaluftee river.
near the river
smokies_4_homesteadBetween this visitor’s center and the town of Cherokee (where about 8,000 members of this tribe live, work, and raise their families) on Hwy 441, we stopped for a morning hike.kephart prong hike
kephart trail_1This trail pretty much sums up how beautiful this area is.  No wonder the Cherokee tribe chose to live here!

During the Great Depression era, the CCC did various types of work in this area (built bridges, a water system that still serves Newfound Gap, several fish hatcheries and miles of the road).  The remains of their camp, like the chimney from their barracks, can be seen just off the trail.  There’s also an old camp signboard (first photo below).
kephart trail_2kephart trail_3

We drove through so many beautiful areas on this trip that it would be hard to pick a favorite part.  BUT, the North Carolina woods was definitely at the top of my list.  If you ever have the opportunity to drive through this national park – do it!

Here are some tips and links for you if you’re driving through this area of Tenessee/North Carolina:

Check out all the things you can do in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Read more about the Mountain Farm Museum and the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center in these links.

Want to know more about the Blue Ridge Parkway?  See a map and learn more about it here.

We hiked the Kephart Prong Trail, which is just north of the town of Cherokee, inside the national park.

If you’re interested in knowing more about the Cherokee people who inhabited and still inhabit (part of) this land, read here.

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