A colorful change of seasons
© Becky Linhardt 2013
Autumn arrives early in the higher elevations of the Great Smoky Mountains. Cool nights and warm days bring a change of color that dots the slopes and then washes them with bright yellows, reds and a range of glowing oranges that boggle the mind.
Along the edges of the roads and at the overlook at Clingmans Dome, late summer wildflowers add a dash of purple as they bravely face the elements. Fog-like clouds hang over forests and lift as the sun warms the air. The vista at 6634 feet can be amazingly clear and the next minute obscured. At lower levels, things are still mostly green in the woods – and it is cool enough to enjoy a leisurely hike.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of only a few national parks east of theMississippi River and the only one that does not charge an entrance fee. That’s because there is a national road, US 441, that crosses through the park northwest to southeast from Tennessee into North Carolina going up and over the mountainous terrain of both states.
The road is only two lanes wide, has numerous tunnels, and a very low speed limit. That is not a bad thing when you are not in a hurry and can take the time to really look at the scenery.
About mid-way across the mountains Clingmans Dome Drive turns off US 441 to the west and runs along much of the ridge that is the state line and not far from the Appalachian Trail that cuts through the park from southwest to northeast. It may seem like only a few mile drive but the rangers will advise you to plan for at least and hour to loop out and back to US 441.
For those who are driving through there is another overlook just at the top of the ridgeline between the two states. It is quite breathtaking as you view the road ahead, or behind, depending on your direction of travel. There are many turnouts some with scenic overlooks on US 441 as it passes over the mountains – there are no restaurants, no gas stations, few facilities so plan ahead.
The Tennessee side of the mountains
Most people consider Gatlinburg, with its many restaurants, hotels, and tourist attractions, to be the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains. The city line and commercial interests abruptly end at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as Parkway/US 441 heads into the national park. Within a few miles you arrive at the turn off for Sugarlands Visitor Center where there are rest rooms, rangers with maps, activity schedules, and a wealth of information to help you plan your visit.
Drive times and weather conditions can be vital details at any time of year. Cades Cove to the west can get very crowded so ask about traffic conditions. Temperatures at Clingmans Dome can be as much as 20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than in the lower elevations at Sugarland and Cades Cove. Rangers can give you current information and predictions. There are educational displays and a video presentation. Sugarlands also schedules nature programs and a few short nature trails begin nearby.
Cades Cove and Townsend
Occasionally, there are open spaces within the SmokyMountains, land good for farming and families. Such areas are called “coves” by the locals. One of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is Cades Cove, once home to a few small communities. Families were relocated, newer buildings torn down; those structures that fit the range of history targeted by planners were restored.
The guiding concept was a plan to present a look at life in times past. The original churches and graveyards remain, some houses and barns, and a mill. All utilities to the park buildings are underground so the feeling is idealistic. Some fields exist and many meadows are maintained so the wildlife comes to forage and is more easily seen than in the forests.
You can drive the 11 mile Cades Cove “loop” slowly and stop at points of interest. Do NOT stop on the narrow, single lane roadway to take photos. There are places to park along the way. Sometimes traffic comes to a complete stop when inconsiderate drivers park in the middle of the road to watch an animal so prepare to be frustrated. You need to plan for ½ day to see just this area. Some people bicycle; others take a “hayride” and in good weather it is a wonderful way to “see everything”.
Consider booking a Cades Cove Tour from Townsend, a small historic town just outside the west side of the park. The tours generally start from the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center, a museum and village of historic area buildings located in nearby Townsend. The center has informative exhibits and a large music/event space for performances.
Many people find it easier to access the Smokies from the west side (I-75/US129/US 321). Promoting itself as “The Peaceful Side of the Smokies” Townsend/Blount County has a more open rural feel. It is hard to believe that much of the park had been “logged out” by the beginning of the 20th century but the facts are on full view at the Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum.
The North Carolina side of the mountains
For those arriving from Cherokee, the Visitors Center is at Oconaluftee on US 441 just inside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On this side of the mountains, the transition into the park is gradual since the road enters through a less commercial space that is part of the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Adjacent to the Visitors Center is the Mountain Farm Museum with buildings that recreate the early settlers’ life – log buildings, live chickens, and heritage seed crops in small plots within split rail fences.
A River Walk from the Visitors Center is a lovely place to stretch your legs before or after the drive over the mountains. Shaded and paved, it meanders along the side of a rushing a mountain stream that flows near the Mountain Farm Museum.
Water was an important source of power to grind grain crops after the harvest so a few miles up the road you will find a turn off to access Mingus Mill. It can not be seen from the parking lot. In fact you go down a path, across a stream, and turn a corner before you see the mill and the mill race that powers the machinery inside. Staff personnel will explain the process and the historic importance that water mills had in communities in the 19th century. The area around the mill is growing back to a wilder state, closer to what the original settlers in the area would have to clear away as they attempted to “tame” nature.
From whatever direction you come, from whatever road or trail you take within the park, the glorious colors of autumn are yours to enjoy in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park – often starting as early as September in some years. For although many Southern states experience the fall colors in late October, the cool temperatures at high elevations start the process on a different schedule in the mountains.
Great Smoky MountainsNational Park: www.nps.gov/grsm
Smoky Mountain CVB: www.smokymountains.org
Gatlinburg CVB: www.gatlinburg.com