The Grand and the Great Part II: The Great
Since Jason and I were already in the area, we decided to take a road trip from Mississippi to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited national park. We are, after all, always suckers for a little taste of nature, especially those delightful nibbles we’ve not yet sampled.
The drive from Mississippi to the town of Pigeon Forge, which is right outside the park, took us a full day and through parts of Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee. We stopped at Chattanooga long enough to check out a cave buried deep within Lookout Mountain, including its 145-foot underground waterfall called Ruby Falls. The cave itself wasn’t too impressive but its tumbling waters were quite cool.
After our long day of traveling, we finally made it to Pigeon Forge. We were surprised by this “wilderness” city since it seemed the antithesis of conservationism or naturalness. If you took a carnival, Las Vegas and a high-class daycare, and jumbled them all together, something like Pigeon Forge would emerge. I’ve never seen so many unusually-themed miniature golf courses in my life. There was something mesmerizing in its amusing chaos but I’d hate to find out what this bustling tourist trap is like in its busy season.
We spent the majority of our first day in the park hiking to Rainbow Falls, one of its many popular cascades. This path was 5.4 miles in total and considered a strenuous undertaking by most guides. I can’t say I noticed the difficulty of it much though. When you come from a state whose slogan is “Life Elevated,” it’s all downhill from there. However, we did encounter one trail obstacle that we weren’t accustomed to while on this trek: ice. Snow and rain had fallen the night before and mixed to form a slippery blockade on the side of the mountain untouched by the sun. I thought for sure I was headed for a smack down at some point but, somehow, I managed to stay on my feet throughout those slick slopes.
We spent the bulk of our second day in the park exploring Cades Cove, one of the most visited destinations within its borders. This area was once home to industrious settlers and is now a curious mix of historical and natural sights. Jason and I did the unthinkable to make the most of our time in the Cove; we woke up at 5:00 AM (3:00 AM back home) in order to have a good chance of seeing wildlife on its grassy hillsides. (Shortly after sunrise, animals usually enter Cades Cove with lively enthusiasm for their day or, possibly, their food.) We saw lots of wild turkeys and deer that morning but Jason was really hoping he’d have a bear encounter.
After examining some of the old cabins and churches in the Cove, which were quite interesting, we decided to hike to Abrams Falls, a 5-mile journey. Although this waterfall is only 20 feet high, it makes up for that lack of stature by gushing relentlessly. Jason and I unanimously agree that this trek was our favorite activity in the Smokies.
Following that ramble, we had just enough time to drive the 4,000-foot climb up the Newfound Gap Road to the state line. We watched the sun sink below the gentle timbered curves of Mount Mingus and Sugarland Mountain from high on an overlook. It was a serene reminder of our limited perspective on the unhurried progress of this planet.
The Smokies were a whirlwind of bygone buildings, pampered wildlife and plunging waters for us. We appreciated this park’s unique outlook on civilization’s impact to its area. It made a point of honoring its past settlers, those hardy humans, while still paying homage to its current occupants, the diverse plant and critter species that have made these graceful giants great once again.