Destinations: Springtime in the Smokies
It depends on what you expect from a national park. For scenery alone, there are spectacular choices. Yosemite has El Capitan, Yellowstone has Old Faithful, Acadia has Cadillac Mountain, and the Grand Canyon has, well, the Grand Canyon. The Great Smoky Mountains also have breathtaking sights. Blue mist clings to their peaks, which rise to over 6,000 feet and command a view of four states. But there is much more here than natural beauty to fascinate the casual visitor.
First, the Smokies are located in the heart of the Mid-Atlantic region, straddling Tennesee and North Carolina, less than a ten-hour drive for over one-third of the American population. They remain part of a living culture, from prehistoric Paleo Indians to the Cherokees to European settlement in the early nineteenth century. Even when the national park was created in 1934, some settlements remained; farm buildings, mills, schools, churches, and graveyards can still be seen in even the most remote areas of the park.
The history of the region is haunting and evocative. It’s redolent of family feuds, cabin fever, illegal stills, winter hardship, logging disasters, and the Civil War. Just pick up a copy of Wilma Dykeman’s The Tall Woman or any of the collections of Great Smoky lore on sale at the four visitor centers in the park. The region’s past is well-documented and knowledge of it will greatly enhance the experience of touring such historic communities as Cades Cove and Cataloochee.
A trip along the Roaring Fork nature trail, one of many scenic trails accessible by car, is an ideal way to experience a cross-section of this park’s greatest hits in terms of natural beauty. There are rushing mountain streams, glimpses of old-growth forest, and a number of well-preserved log cabins, grist mills, and other historic buildings. There are also dozens of wildflowers, especially in spring. April and May are the best months to see white and yellow trillium, columbine, dwarf iris, foamflower, showy orchis, and many other native plants, not to mention their backdrop of flowering dogwoods and redbuds. Be sure to keep an eye out for any of the thirty species of salamanders that live in the park—this is why the Great Smoky Mountains are known as the salamander capital of the world. The other must-do scenic task is a walk up to Clingmans Dome. This, the highest point in the park, offers a clear-day view of 100 miles in any direction—and you can say you’ve been on top of Old Smoky.
In order to experience a decent range of the park’s attractions, a stay of at least four days here would be advisable, and there is a huge range of accommodation options. The park is surrounded by small but bustling communities—Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are all close by on the Tennessee side—and a family group might do well to consider the cabins owned by Dollywood, which are convenient both to the national park and Dolly Parton’s eponymous theme park. Dollywood, for all its size, is surprisingly homey and rustic in feel. There is sensitivity to its location evident in the thoughtful landscaping, and a variety of educational and cultural attractions compete with the state-of-the-art roller coasters and other thrill rides. Four days gives a family enough time to explore the park, spend a day at Dollywood and perhaps take some side trips to such smaller, quieter towns as Townsend or the artisan studios of Cocke County. Foodies should expect downhome standards in most of the restaurants here; look for exceptional apple pastries at the Apple House in Cosby. Drinkers should know that the alcohol regulations around here vary from county to county (usually within a five-minute drive), so it’s good to know ahead of time, and prepare.
Western New York is not really known for its long, scenic spring. That may change, but for now, an April trip to the Great Smoky Mountains may be the best way to experience the sights, sounds, and gentle bite of a true country spring.
Flowering trees in bloom (March through May): Redbud; Serviceberry; Dogwood; Silverbell; Magnolia
Elizabeth Licata is Spree’s editor-in-chief.