Or…Lil’ Henz goes to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
I’ve mostly avoided working on this entry for over a week now. I started on it one day early last week but never really found the flow so I stopped and haven’t had much interest in picking back up. Internally I’ve tried to blame the summer heat and humidity for giving me a bad case of lazy. While that was probably at least partially true, I generally write these entries in the air conditioned comfort of our dining room. There had to be some other reason. I had a few minutes to work on this entry over the weekend so I opened up the text file on my computer and as I skimmed over what I had written previously one word jumped out at me…“final”.
What if I’m not just being a lazy slug? What if I’ve actually been avoiding writing this entry? Three years ago, about this time, I wrote about moving Jenna into her dorm room at the beginning of her first year of undergrad at Flagler College. I think back to that weekend at the start of her first year in college and graduation seemed so far away. Of course I knew that they weren’t and that time would fly by like a bullet…and it has. Now we’re at the beginning of her ‘final’ year.
So what does all that have to do with anything? Well, the national parks trips that we’ve taken this summer were the beginning of her ‘final’ honors project which she will work on over the next few months and present her work in the spring. In a few short months, after she’s presented her work, undergrad will come to an end and she will be off to whatever is next. Bittersweet? You bet it is. I can’t help but wonder if my reluctance to work on this entry isn’t something down deep inside trying to avoid the march of time. Of course I know that time moves on no matter what and that we have to move with it. I have to keep reminding myself that the end of her college adventure is simply the beginning of a different adventure. Maybe with that in mind I can finally make a little progress on this entry.
We were back on the road (literally) to visit the third and final National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, for Jenna’s senior honors research project. Since we were going to be driving, we decided to change things up a little bit and bring ConnieLou and our pups, Sirius and Lyla, with us.
Over the course of these trips, the three of us have assumed various roles based on the needs of each trip and our talents. Jenna was the principal researcher and photographer, ConnieLou was our travel agent and took care of booking airline tickets, car rentals and arranging lodging, I took care of general logistics and was our driver, navigator, and sherpa.
To start the process, Jenna would search out old photos of locations in each park that might have experienced some man-caused change. She would give me the photos and some information about their locations. It was then my job to try to find each location on a park map and then figure out a plan to visit each of the locations. We had originally planned for four days for the Smokies trip but after I’d had some time to ponder the photos and park maps, I decided that we could probably do the trip easily in three days instead of four which would allow me and ConnieLou to each save a vacation day and the cost of a nights lodging for later in the month when it’s time to move Jenna back to school in St. Augustine.
Friday morning we loaded up the car and got on the road. We wanted to avoid Atlanta traffic as much as possible but we weren’t in too big of a hurry so we waited until after rush hour (and a stop at Chick-Fil-A for breakfast) to get on the road. Our plan for the day called for three stops in the park, two near Cherokee, NC and one at Clingman’s Dome before driving on to our hotel in Pigeon Forge, TN.
Out first stop was at the Mountain Farm Museum at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center located just inside the park. The Mountain Farm Museum is essentially an open air museum in the form of a mountain farmstead. According to the museum’s website, most of the buildings were built before 1900 and were moved to the museum site in the 1950s.
While at the Farm Museum we noticed small groups of people beginning to gather at the edge of the meadow. Everybody seemed to be looking in the same general direction and we soon noticed that a small group of elk had come out of the woods, crossed the road and walked into the meadow. I’ve seen plenty of elk out west but not in the southern Appalachians. Elk were largely gone from North Carolina and Tennessee by the 1850s. Elk were reintroduced in the Smokies in 2001 and 2002 and the herd has thrived since.
Our second stop was at Mingus Mill, just a short drive from the farm museum. Mingus Mill is an 1880s-era grist mill that used a water powered turbine instead of a water wheel to turn the millstones and power the other machinery inside the building. Mingus Mill was also the first of a handful of caches I’d log over the course of the weekend.
Clingman’s Dome, at 6,643 feet above sea level, is the highest mountain in the Smokies. The walk from the parking lot to the observation tower at the top of the mountain is only half a mile and is paved but is somewhat steep and is still a pretty good work out. Unfortunately, pets aren’t allowed so ConnieLou elected to stay down below with the pups while me and Jenna went up to the tower. The weather at the top of Clingman’s can be somewhat of a gamble on any given day. We got lucky in that there were broken clouds in the area rather than the sky being completely overcast. Still, we had to contend with clouds moving in and out to get the photos that Jenna needed.
As we walked back down to the parking lot I was excited to nerd out over some of some bedding planes and joints and fractures that I noticed in a couple of the rock outcrops along the trail.
Of course I nerded out, what else would one expect from a geologist?
Around sunset we found ourselves on the north side of the park and rolling through Gatlinburg on our way to Pigeon Forge. We haven’t been to Gatlinburg in at least 15 years and its changed just a bit and has it ever changed. Maybe it was just that it was Friday night but it was wall-to-wall people and lights, Like a down-scaled version of Times Square in New York City.
Saturday morning we headed over to Cades Cove in the northwest portion of the park to visit a handful of locations. We’d barely entered the cove when we got caught up in our first wildlife slowdown of the day, a bear in a tree. Unfortunately we weren’t able to stop as the park rangers waved us on. We’d only traveled a short distance farther when we encountered our second slowdown for another bear in a tree. This time around we got to get out, get a good look at the bear and take a picture or two.
We traveled on to the Cable-Gregg house and Cable Mill at the west end of the cove where was able to visit the rest of the Cades Cove locations that she needed to see and spent a little time checking out the Cades Cove Visitor Center.
While the girls were inside I noticed a deer and several wild turkeys feeding at the edge of the woods between the visitor center and restroom building. As I watched the turkeys and the deer I also watched the people that came and went from the two buildings and was surprised at the number of people who never looked over towards the woods or noticed the wildlife.
After we finished up in Cades Cove we headed to the Little Greenbriar Schoolhouse at the end of a half-mile long single lane unpaved road.
Single lane unpaved roads are always an adventure. You’re almost guaranteed to meet someone coming the other way and the vehicle coming downhill has the right-of-way. Fortunately we didn’t encounter anyone going to the school (uphill) but encountered two other vehicles on the way down. One of the vehicles was able to squeeze by in a wide spot in the road but the other had to put it in reverse and back down a couple hundred yards to the next wide spot where we were able to pass one another. Once we finished at the Little Greenbriar School we called it a day and headed back to town to our hotel and then grabbed some supper.
We only had one stop at the Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg planned for Sunday morning before we headed home. We weren’t in any hurry and ConnieLou and Jenna wanted to make a quick trip to the outlet stores in Pigeon Forge before we hit the road.
Once at Sugarlands Jenna had a chance to talk to a couple of the rangers that were able to tell her the locations that a couple of the historic photos that she had in hand were taken, one being along the nature trail behind the Sugarlands Visitors Center and the other near Newfound Gap on our route home. After visiting those two locations and taking the necessary photos we called it a weekend and headed home.
As I mentioned in a previous entry, Great Smoky Mountains National Park it the most visited of the National Parks and unfortunately, it lived up to that billing. It seemed that people were everywhere, even in some of the lesser visited locations. Parking lots for Visitor Centers, trailheads, scenic views and points of interest were packed as were picnic areas and campgrounds. I’m sure we’ll make it back to GSMNP someday and will even visit Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge again…but I think it will be during the week when the weather is cool or even cold rather than a summer weekend.
Photo creds: Jenna Davenport