On our first morning waking up in the Smokies we drove up to Newfound Gap and made the turn to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point of the Appalachian Trail and also the Park at 6,643 feet in altitude. We met a couple thru hikers on the lookout tower that always reminds me of the World’s Fair back in Queens. I tried to impart some wisdom, but they were more interested in getting a photo together and crushing miles.
We had a clear day and got nice views into Tennessee. Then we stepped into the Spruce-Fir forest and hiked to Andrew’s Bald, an open grassy prairie on a mountain top, to look east into North Carolina and our future.
Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited in the parks system, which surprised us. But when you consider the location and relative lack of competition on the east coast it’s a little easier to see. What makes this place so special is the diversity of life. While I often remarked that other parks were like being on another planet, here among the flowing waters and lush green canopies sheltering creatures large and small, walking in the Smoky Mountains is being somewhere that is quintessentially Earth.
The biodiversity here comes down to two factors. The first is that the last ice age pushed various plants and animals here from the North, while the glaciers never reached this far and left the native species in place. The second is the mountains and valleys cover a range of elevations, and create bands of micro environments at the different heights. Fir trees found in Canada can thrive at the top of the mountain while old growth tulip trees tower in the valleys.
The mountain tops get twice as much precipitation as the valleys, literally pulling the moisture from the air. This creates the abundance of springs and streams, as well as the iconic blue smoke that gives the Smokies their name. It is something to witness, like watching the forest breath out and birth a cloud. We didn’t get to witness it on this trip, but we did get to see the other icon of the park.
Seeing a bear is always thrilling, and Kate and I got to see two back to back. Juveniles, and from the safety of our car (until we got out to take pictures) but still pretty incredible. We spotted them on our tour of Cade’s Cove, a small community displaced by the Park’s founding. Not nearly as ancient as the legacy of the indigenous peoples we’ve witnessed over the last few months, but being closer in time and culture made it easier to see myself in the log cabins from the 1800s. Of particular interest was the spring house, where water was diverted through the small structure to act as a refrigerator, and the Baptist church that closed during the civil war since their sympathies were with the Union and they feared rebel retaliation.
It’s easy to see yourself making a home in this idyllic place. After one more day in tents and hammocks we’d be moving on, but as our trip is winding down it’s approaching the time to decide where we’re going to put down our roots. We both agree it’s going to be somewhere like this, where the natural world is front and center, yet relatively gentle and welcoming. Mountains, forests, and hopefully a little flowing water; I’m looking forward to what lies on the road before us.