Exploring GSMNP

Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Cherokee, NC

Great Smokey Mountains National Park straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee. About 50 miles long and 20 miles wide, it was developed during the 1920's and 1930's to preserve the natural diversity and beauty of one of the most spectacular areas in the Eastern USA. Here there are more tree species than in all of Europe, 1,500 flowing plants, more than 200 species of birds, and 60 species of mammals. Black bear thrive here, as do deer and elk. About 25% of the Park is original old growth forest -- saved from logging operations by the establishment of the Park. It's a hiker's paradise with 850 miles of trails that are maintained by the Park Service. The elevation of the Park ranges from 800 feet to 6,600 feet and the mountains are among the oldest in the USA at about 10 million years of age. The Park is one of the most visited National Parks in the system -- about 10 million visitors each year.

On Tuesday we set out to explore some of the Park. But first, our sites were set on that portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway that we didn't see on Monday.

We started at the southern terminus of the Parkway, mile post 469.1, which is right at the entrance to the National Park, and drove northeast. At first it's a long uphill climb onto the ridge that the Parkway follows. Stopping numerous times along the way, we drove to the Parkway Visitor Center at Waterrock Knob, about mile post 450. There we climbed a short trail to a high overlook with an elevation of about 5,500 feet. The view was incredible -- I can't come up with superlatives to adequately describe it anymore. The photos we took will have to suffice until you can visit here and see for yourself.

From BRP & GSM Backroad

One of the things that has really surprised us the past few days is the incredible variation in color that's all over these mountainsides. Locals have told us there's as much, or more, color in the Spring as there is in the fall... certainly a much broader range of color. There are reds, oranges, and browns that come from young new growth on trees. There are pinks, purples, whites, and yellows from budding bushes and flowering trees. Then there's the wide range of greens, from light, almost yellow green to the very dark green of mature pines and fir trees. It's really hard to explain and photos don't do a good job of capturing it. Many say the Spring, May in particular, is the best month to visit the Park and drive the Blue Ridge Parkway.

From BRP & GSM Backroad

Then for something completely different. On the way back westward on the Parkway, there's a spur that goes off toward the north called Heintooga Ridge Road. It's paved to Balsaam Mountain Campground and Picnic area inside the border of the National Park. From that point, there's a one-way two-rut dirt and rock road called Balsaam Mountain Road that goes deep into the Park. An old logging road, it's about as primitive as you can imagine. While you don't need four wheel drive I wouldn't have felt comfortable on it with the family sedan either. Carved out of the sides of steep slopes and running along narrow ridge-lines, it gives Intrepid Explorers the opportunity to see the un-spoiled interior of the Park and experience first-hand the steep and rugged terrain.

From BRP & GSM Backroad

The road loops around, eventually becoming Straight Fork Road before dumping you out onto paved roads that lead to back to Cherokee. During this excursion of 25 miles, which took us three hours, we saw no other cars until we were almost to the end. It was a solitary and personal experience with the Park that's hard to get unless hiking or backpacking. Dar was disappointed we didn't see any bear.

After a long day of exploring we headed back to Smokemont and the bus-house.



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