A Smoky Mountains Getaway
We had scarcely been in Great Smoky Mountains National Park for an hour, when we found ourselves face-to-face (OK, I’m exaggerating a bit) with a large female elk grazing near the old barn at the park’s Mountain Farm Museum.
“I think you can move closer,” urged Lucy, my 12-year-old daughter, as we took turns taking pictures while the elk grazed warily, but we kept our distance. Seeing elk had been a major goal of our far-too-short weekend adventure at the United States’ most visited national park, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2009.
Encompassing more than 520,000 stream-lined, wooded acres, Great Smoky Mountains National Park has more than 8 million visitors a year, who come to camp, bike, hike, fish and watch wildlife.
Seeing the elk, which were reintroduced to the area in 2001 after an absence of at least 200 years, was only the first of several magical moments we encountered. Later in the day, we would drive to the top of Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park at 6,643 feet. Lucy ran to the edge of the parking lot to take in the fantastic view of the clouds below, enveloping peaks of lesser size. “If that isn’t magnificent, I don’t know what is,” she exclaimed. Mind you, we hadn’t yet hiked the half-mile up the trail to the mountain’s spiral-walkway observation tower. The top of Clingman’s Dome is also a convergence of several trails, including the famed Appalachian. It is not unusual to encounter hikers attempting to travel the route across the state – or from Georgia to Maine, for that matter.
On the way up to Clingman’s Dome, we detoured to Mingus Mill, near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center on the park’s southeast side. Built in 1886 by Dr. John Mingus, the mill ground corn and wheat for several generations of area residents before being acquired by the fledgling park in the 1930s. Outside, Lucy and I dipped our hands into the chilly mountain water gurgling through the diversion channel on its way to power the turbine. Lucy pointed out the initials of Sion T. Early, the contractor who actually built the mill, carved under the gable above the entrance.
That made us think about the hardy settlers of the region when we trekked the picturesque and remote Cataloochee Valley on the park’s eastern end later in the day. Located at the end of a twisting mountain road, the drive reminded us that the valley is only slightly more accessible today. For that reason, most of the reintroduced elk were released here and still inhabit the flat, narrow valley and surrounding mountainsides.
At the back end of the Cataloochee, where the road runs out, we hiked a mile farther into the trees and rhododendrons, crossing the same stream twice to reach the Woody House, where Jonathan and Mary Ann Woody raised 14 children. Renovated into a three-bedroom home 100 years ago, it had started out as a one-room cabin before the Civil War.
As the sun shone golden across the valley meadow, we stopped at Palmer Chapel, built in 1898. Just outside the entrance, Lucy jumped up to grab hold of the rope that still rings the bell. Across the road, we hiked a strenuous 150 yards uphill to the chapel cemetery, where Palmers and Colwells and Civil War veterans are buried. Why would they put the cemetery so high on this tough slope, I wondered aloud to Lucy. “Maybe so they’d be closer to heaven,” she said.
Good answer. But I’d already been thinking this park was pretty close already.
by Des Keller
by Des Keller
added: June 29, 2009
updated: April 15, 2013