Like a good friend, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would much prefer you remember them fondly as “The Smokies,” without fanfare or pretense. Recollections of the seemingly endless ridge of forests lilt and float in the memory like the famous mist synonymous with the land. It’s a symbol of the ancient coexisting with the present as the old growth forests thrive among the new. It’s the individual memory, but also the sense of belonging to a collective, cultural consciousness. Visiting the Smokies is a rite of passage for the young and old. It is true connection with the earth and its bounty.
Straddling the border between Tennessee and North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park hosts an astounding 11 million visitors each year, making it America’s most visited national park. In its massive holdings reside an International Biosphere Reserve with over 187,000 acres of old growth forest in addition to waterfalls, trails, and mountains. The name of the park has origins quite simple in nature; “Smoky” comes from the omnipresent fog that hovers over the mountain range.
History is enmeshed in that beautiful, ethereal “smoke” that lingers across the lands. Long before European settlement, the Cherokee tribe not only lived and hunted in the Smokies, but also found deep spirituality on this natural landscape. One Cherokee legend speaks of a magical lake hidden deep within the Smokies, inaccessible to humans. Another tale talks of the “rabbit place,” and foretold the mountain to be dominion of the Great Rabbit, the eponymous trickster in countless tales of Cherokee tradition. It holds ancient forests and conceals the wisdom of the ages in its stone. When it became a national park in 1934, the Great Smoky Mountains were unsealed to a world ready to marvel in its radiance.
It all begins at Cades Cove. The lush, green valley snuggled between the mountains is inarguably one of the most visited places in the Great Smoky Mountains. Watch for the parade of wildlife in this verdant sanctuary. Spy white-tailed deer, coyotes, and maybe even a black bear while enjoying the trails during the day and camping out under the stars at night. Feel the cool spray of the waterfall while walking Grotto Falls Trail. Head up high, 6,643 feet to be exact, to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in Tennessee and the third highest in the Appalachian Mountain Range and breathe in the strong scent of spruce-fir as old as the Ice Age in the air. Finally, go low and hike the Alum Cave Trail. Pass Arch Rock and look out at the views at Inspiration Point and maybe even spy a peregrine falcon soar by. There is no shortage of natural gravitas here and it will remain so in memorandum.
When the the Smokies' mist revisits your mind, it’s easy to retrace that serene journey anytime. From falls to forest, peak to path, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is just a wick away. Run through the wildflowers, inhale the fir trees, enjoy the brisk air at the top of the dome and feel that all-pervading mist dance across your nose once more in every breath.
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