The Great Smoky Mountains: Great And Smoky, But Too Dang Crowded
I left the Fontana Lake campground the next morning while humming the tune "Tom
Dooley" and drove into the town of Cherokee, North Carolina, the eastern gateway
to the very popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As befitting any
gateway town, like West Yellowstone, Cherokee is lined with tourist shops, each
bursting with rubber tomahawks, plastic pink pigs, and fake arrowheads.
complete the picture, there were lots of porky parents wearing loud t-shirts
while strolling along the sidewalks nursing mega-sodas, with their requisite
hyper kids in tow. Yep, Cherokee is Tacky with a capital T and that rhymes
with P. My wallet and I escaped, though, and we headed west up into Great
Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border between North Carolina
classic Smoky Mountain bluegrass tune. These are the
Osborne Brothers and Rocky Top.
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was my first visit to the Smokies, the most popular National Park in the U.S.
attracting over 8 million visitors a year, an amazing number considering that places that I
think are extremely crowded, like Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon National
Parks each get
half that amount. I'd heard
good things about Great Smoky Mountains National Park but overall, I was
pretty disappointed. Yes, the scenery was
interesting I suppose... at least for the eastern
U.S. (oops, there's my western bias again). But even though it was a
weekday, the place was packed -- and I mean Packed with a capital P and that
rhymes with T. Serves me right, though, for visiting the most
popular National Park in the U.S. during the most crowded month of the year.
The Park Service has done a
nice job of providing lots of pullouts and short, quiet trails, so
you can have some solitude here if you want. But I don't think
I'll ever go back to the Great Smokies during the summer again, if at all.
Although the park has some pretty
places, like Cades Cove, I was in a hurry to leave. My plans were
thwarted, though, by the congested one-way loop at Cades Cove, the winding roads
in the park, and a very pokey Toyota Corolla which I followed at 20 mph on a
single lane road for, oh, about 45
minutes unable to pass. His license plate (CVX 213) and all
the stickers on his rear bumper are still firmly etched in my brain. I
finally escaped the Toyota -- and the park -- around five o'clock that
Above left: Your tax dollars at work.
Above center: Cherokee, North Carolina, at the gateway of Great Smoky
Mountains National Park. This sign says it all.
Above right: A rusting barn on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, near
Above left: Here's a tourist trap (oops, I mean a "souvenir shop") near Cherokee, North Carolina, eastern gateway to
Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I'm still trying to figure out what
plastic pigs have to do with the Great Smokies.
Above center: This was the first time that I'd been to Great Smoky Mountains
National Park. It was pretty but it was also super-crowded. Next
time, I think I'll visit in the fall instead of the middle of summer.
Above right: The National Park Service has done a good job of restoring old
farmsteads here, like this one.
Above left: The misty Oconoluftee River.
Above center: This is why they call them the Great Smokies, I guess.
Sounds better than the Great Hazies.
Above right: The higher I got in the park, the foggier (oops, I mean
"smokier") it got. The
drive to Clingman's Dome along the ridge of the Smokies is supposed to be
spectacular, though I wouldn't really know.
Above left: I finally got to the Clingman's Dome parking lot and found it
immersed in pea-soup fog. A half-mile trail here leads to a lookout that's
supposed to provide "the best view in the Southeast." I was surprised at how
many tourists were hiking out to it. I'm not sure what they were expecting
to see there... blue skies?
Above center: An hour later and 10 miles away, the skies finally cleared.
Here I'm hiking on the Appalachian Trail, the longest maintained trail
in the world.
Above right: Newfound Gap, on the dividing ridge between North Carolina and
Tennessee. In the West, they're called "passes," in the
Northeast, they call them "notches," but here in the South, they call
them "gaps." Same idea, though.
Above left: The nicest part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park was this
area called Cades Cove. A one-way drive here circles the cove. I
kept pulling over to let traffic pass by until I realized that there was
a infinite number of cars behind me. If I were really polite, I'd still
be sitting there letting all the cars pass by.
Above center: The Oliver House, built around 1820, is one of the oldest
buildings in the park.
Above right: The Cades Cove loop drive was pretty, but with all the traffic I
felt like I was on a Disneyland ride. I kept expecting someone to collect
my E Ticket.
Above left: A thunderstorm rolling in at Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National
Above center: Mill and waterwheel.
Above right: A farmstead at the Cades Cove Visitor Center.
Hollywood to Dollywood
Great Smoky Mountains National Park late that afternoon heading west. If I was
a bit disappointed with Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I was REALLY disappointed
with the nearby towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge,
Tennessee. Can you say "t-a-c-k-y"? Oops, there's that
word again. O.K., how about "super-tacky."
Here's Dolly Parton singing one of my favorite songs,
Coat Of Many Colors.
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Anyway, I drove for 10 miles through
here and saw nothing but wax
museums, motels, t-shirt shops, go-cart tracks, miniature golf courses, and more
porky parents... plus, of
course, lots of tack. Strangely enough, people there seemed to be enjoying
themselves, so maybe I'm just weird.
I found very little appealing,
Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, not even Dolly Parton's "Dollywood."
Dolly was born in Sevierville (pronounced "Severe-ville"), Tennessee, about 10 miles away, and decided to
contribute some kitsch to this area (apparently, it didn't have enough) by
building an amusement park in Pigeon Forge several years ago. I swung by Dollywood and took a picture, then hopped back in my truck and gladly said
goodbye to Pigeon Forge, staying that night in a crowded campground next to a dam on the Tennessee River
outside of Sevierville.
As you can probably tell, the
oppressive heat, the humidity, and the persistent crowds were starting to take a toll on
was hoping to find some solace soon. Fortunately, I did.
Above left: Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on the western edge of Great Smoky
Mountains National Park, is the hokiest, tackiest, most touristy city
I've ever visited. This type of stuff goes on for two miles. It's
Above center: I take it back. Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, near Gatlinburg
is the hokiest, tackiest, most touristy city I've ever visited.
This type of stuff goes on for 10 miles. It's REALLY awful.
Above right: My trip has now taken me from Hollywood to Dollywood.
Dolly Parton, a native of Sevierville, wanted to expose tourists to Appalachian culture and preserve the
local customs that she feels so strongly about... so she
built an amusement park here (huh?). For $26, she's happy to share her
Appalachian heritage with you. Actually, I like Dolly and she's done a
lot of good things for the folks around here.
14, 2001 (Roanoke, Virginia)
8, 2001 (Fontana Lake, North Carolina)
5, 2001 (Manchester, Tennessee)
30, 2001 (Hohenwald, Tennessee)
29, 2001 (Corinth, Mississippi)
27, 2001 (Natchez, Mississippi)
24, 2001 (Austin, Texas)
20, 2001 (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)
18, 2001 (Clay Canyon, Utah)
15, 2001 -- Part 2 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
15, 2001 -- Part 1 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
14, 2001 (San Diego, California)
11, 2001 (San Jose, California)
2, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
19, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
30, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
19, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
5, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
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Travels (2001-02) >
U.S. Trip >
July 9, 2001