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Tennessee travelblog: Experiencing Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Sisters Sadie (left), Tinley (center) and Riley Argyle climb rocks in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Photo by Berry Tramel)
Sisters Sadie (left), Tinley (center) and Riley Argyle climb rocks in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Photo by Berry Tramel)

The mountains can mess with you. Especially mountains that aren’t quite as severe as the Rockies. In Colorado, roads are not abundant. In the Smoky Mountains, it’s a little easier to carve a path over and around the ancient formations. And people do.

So it was with great surprise Monday when we discovered we weren’t quite as remote as we thought upon arrival Sunday at our cabin on the edge of a bluff in the Smokies. We came in from the Pigeon Forge side on Sunday, and it was quite a twisty-turny adventure. But when we headed out Monday, we went the other way.

Turns out not two-tenths of a mile from our cabin is a little arts community, Glades Village, with a bunch of shops and a few restaurants and lodges, and Glades Village basically is connected to Gatlinburg. Took us about five minutes to see a McDonald’s. So though we thought we were remote, we’re actually quite near civilization. I’d estimate there are 20,000 people staying within five miles of us, but I could be low.

Not that our cabin is easily accessible. I told you about that driveway, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to write about it every day. It’s a fright. Like I said, it has to be about a 40-degree angle, up about  50 feet, then a sharp right turn for another 50 feet at still the same angle. The cabin rental agreement said there were room for three cars to park at the top, and I would agree, so long as you’ve got three Ford Fusions. Alas, we have a Ford Expedition, and try as we might, we couldn’t get figure out how to back up and get the Expedition pointed in the right direction. So we backed halfway down the driveway until the sharp turn, then were able to start driving forward down to the main road. And Monday, both my son-in-law, J.J., and I spun the tires trying to get up the narrow driveway. This is going to be a daily situation.

Anyway, we cooked a big breakfast, then headed out for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which sits on the other side of Gatlinburg.

The Smoky Mountains – so named because of a blue mist that occasionally rises and makes you think you’re driving through clouds – are part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are part of the larger Appalachian Mountain chain.

The border between Tennessee and North Carolina runs right down the middle of the park, northeast to southwest.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park claims to be the most-visited park in the U.S., with 11.3 million tourists a year, almost twice as many as the Grand Canyon, and I believe it. Being so close to Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge draws makes the park accessible even for vacationers who weren’t necessarily devising a trip around the park.

The park was chartered in 1934 and dedicated (by President Franklin Roosevelt) in 1940, courtesy of activists who were concerned about the timber industry decimating the huge forests. We should thank them.

Today, the park is a gorgeous piece of American real estate, its 816 square miles featuring beautiful settings. The main park entrances are at Gatlinburg on the north and Cherokee, North Carolina, on the south.

This is the area that was home to the Cherokee Indians. The Smokies were where the Trail of Tears began. Some Cherokees remained, and many of those descendants still live south of the park in the Cherokee, N.C., area.

The highest peak in the park is 6,600 feet, at Clingmans Dome. Sixteen peaks reach above 5,000. So the Smokies are not nearly as high as the Rockies. But you can drive through the Smokies more easily. We drove the 24 miles from the Gatlinburg entrance to the Cade’s Cove area, and you hug rivers most of the way. It’s some of the most beautiful driving in America.

We stopped and hiked 1.3 miles up a rugged trail to see Laurel Falls, a multi-level waterfall. The final stretch was particularly dangerous; a straight and deep dropoff from the trail. We held on tight to the girls. But Laurel Falls was worth it, with a small, natural pool to refresh in, and a bigger pool at the bottom for the adventurous who wanted to climb down about 200 feet.

On the way, we saw natural springs and two copperhead snakes and great rock formations. Cell service was non-existent. You’d have thought it was 1983.

The temperature was in the high 70s. It gets into the 80s here but rarely higher. It can snow in the Smokies but doesn’t much.

At Cade’s Cove is an 11-mile, one-way loop that takes you around to several sites – a gristmill, a couple of old church, a few log cabins – and serves as an educational tool for life in the Smokies. Cade’s Cove is the most-heavily visited area in the park. The only downside is, you’re stuck. There’s no getting around stragglers, so you must go at the slowest car’s speed.

Throughout the park are campsites, and people recreate throughout the rivers.

In many ways, it’s an idyllic setting.

At Cade’s Cove is a store for campers. We bought a couple of items for the cabin and some ice cream cones and headed back. We drove back through Gatlinburg – it’s not nearly as crowded on a Sunday evening as it was on Saturday evening – and will explore the town Monday.

The only bummer of the day was our failure to realize we needed trash bags. So after getting back to the cabin, while J.J. started our spaghetti dinner, I had to navigate that danged driveway again to get to the store. I’m glad it was only five minutes away.

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Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›