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Cherokee to Gatlinburg - A Day in the Great Smoky Mountains by Peter Thody

[Map of Route]

A personal greeting from a Cherokee elder, a walk in the woods in Bill Bryson's footsteps, and two entirely different bear encounters end Peter Thody's three-week trip through the eastern U.S. Join him as he travels across the Smokies and discovers that there's still plenty of room to breathe in America's busiest national park.

Jerry Wolfe

Tribe elder, story-teller and "preserver of Cherokee traditions", Jerry Wolfe today acts as a cultural ambassdor for his people, talking to young Cherokees and visitors to the superb Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

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Photo by Peter Thody


Great Smoky Mountains is, by a long chalk, America's favourite national park. Every year, nearly 10 million people come here to hike, camp, canoe or simply drive through, shutter fingers poised in anticipation of an appearance by one of the park's 1,500 or so black bears. Ten million people. That's almost as many as the combined total for Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone, respectively the nation's second, third and fourth most popular parks.

So what is it that attracts people in such numbers? Well, location is certainly a major factor. Straddling the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, the park is no more than a good day's drive from most of the major cities of the eastern United States. It's also free to enter. When Tennessee handed over ownership of its section of Newfound Gap Road - the road that crosses the park from north to south - to the National Park Service, it stipulated that no toll could ever be charged.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is also surprisingly accessible, a "bite-size" park. This may seem an odd way to describe "the largest wilderness east of the Mississippi River," but if you were so inclined, you could cross the park on Newfound Gap Road - now U.S. Highway 441 - in under an hour. This makes it a perfect diversion for vacationers looking for a change of scenery from the theme parks, outlet malls and other temptations of the flesh of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge to the north, and our starting point, Cherokee, to the south.

Cherokee is the headquarters of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. With its picturesque setting next to the Oconaluftee River, it ought to be a great place to visit, but the truth is that it's a bit of a mixed bag of nuts.

Alongside the native arts, theatre and interpretative events at the Cherokee Village, there are also cheap-looking amusements, three bear pits that many believe to be little short of barbaric, and in some roadside stores at least, a distrust of visitors that couldn't be more apparent. Of course, had I been forcibly removed from my lands then "given" the right to earn a living through tourism and casinos, I too might tend towards curmudgeonliness, but surely a basic level of politeness is a prerequisite of a sustainable tourism-based economy?

The shining light in the whole town, however, is the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, where we are personally and warmly welcomed by Jerry Wolfe, one of the tribe's most prominent elders. He tells us a little about his own life (including a period in the U.S. Army, during which he took part in the D-Day landings), explains what we're about to see, and finally, without prompting, signs our museum guide.

The museum is superb, too, bringing to life the story of the Cherokee people through film, traditional stories, displays, and artefacts. It's as different from the town's main drag - with its gift shops, amusement parks and tubing rides - as day is from night, and we head for the park feeling slightly more affection for Cherokee that we had an hour or so earlier.

The sun's already higher in the sky than we'd originally planned, so we limit our stop at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to picking up a map and eavesdropping on a ranger recommendation to "be sure to visit Cades Cove before you leave." Then we make our way along an avenue of sun-dappled trees into Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The road rises almost imperceptibly at first, the only indication of an incline being the shallow-flowing Oconaluftee River that passes us by in the opposite direction. We stop here and there, attracted by a scenic pool or the splash of a small waterfall. The occasional sight of a parked car reminds us that there are other people here, but generally we have the place to ourselves.

America's busiest park it may be, but "busy" is a relative term. Were my home country, England, to become the USA's 51st state, it would rank 29th in size between Arkansas and Alabama. But to match England's density of population, you'd have to ask the good folks of Alabama to squeeze up so 36 million Californians could fit in. And 10 million Georgians too.

View Great Smoky Mountains in a larger map


As the road emerges from the valleys and begins to rise more steeply, the views become ever more magnificent: perfect blue skies, foliage at its greenest, and a slight haze - the smoke-like "fog" that gives this range its name - emphasising the shapes of the mountains as they fade towards the horizon.

In no time at all we're at Newfound Gap, the high point of this route over the mountains, where North Carolina turns into Tennessee. It's also, to my tremendous delight, an access point to the Appalachian Trail, the 2,175-mile walk that links Georgia to Maine and is best known to many as the subject of Bill Bryson's book "A Walk in the Woods." Incredibly, I seem to be the only person excited by the idea of a short stroll affording one the right to say "The A.T.? Yeah, I remember this one time in the Carolinas …" and therefore have it to myself.

From Newfound Gap we head back down into the valleys along roads that are more winding and, if anything, even quieter. The only sign of other people is slightly more litter than you'd expect in a national park, and a great deal more graffiti. "Becky Loves Freddy Belcher." "Tennessee Rocks." That kind of thing.

After stopping for a picnic (and resisting the temptation to carve "PT hearts CT" into a tree), we realise that we're almost at the northern exit and it's still only early afternoon. The park really is that compact. OK, time to follow our overheard ranger tip and extend our visit by turning left to Cades Cove.

"Cove" in these parts means "valley" and it's a very different countryside, more rural but no less attractive for that. The fact that all drivers have to follow a one-way 11-mile loop does mean it can be slow going, but it's not the kind of place you'd want to rush anyway. The mountains provide an impressive backdrop to views over open fields and meadows, and the road leads past a number of historic buildings, remnants of the farming community that was forced out in the 1930s as the park was created.

Aside from its history and idyllic setting, the appeal of Cades Cove lies in the frequency with which bears are spotted. And sure enough, as we crest the brow of a small hill, we're greeted by the telltale sight of a logjam of cars, RVs, coaches and motorcycles, their owners jostling for the best view of a black bear who's wandering through the woods, seemingly oblivious to the commotion he's creating.

As he crosses the road between the crowds, it strikes me that were the park authorities to apply the maximum penalty of $5,000 for approaching within 50 yards of a bear, they would top half a million dollars here. Not that our bear appears remotely bothered; he even stops for a drink from a roadside puddle before negotiating the parked cars and disappearing back into the trees. The only downside of this encounter is that we're now stuck in the middle of a good half hour's worth of collected traffic but even then there's no sense of impatience on anyone's part.

However, as this is our last "real" day on the road (tomorrow's a get-to-the-airport day), we don't want our final memories to be those of the back end of a burgundy Ford Explorer from Maryland. So we make a break and head for Rich Mountain Road, a winding, one-way gravel track that leads us out of the park in complete and utter solitude. Well, almost. About 20 minutes into the drive, in an encounter that couldn't be more different from the one earlier, we're joined on the road by a mother bear and her two bouncing bundles of fur. It's just us and them in a moment so captivating that the idea of disturbing their play by getting out with a camera is unthinkable.

This year's trip has taken in a number of historic roads - the Natchez Trace, the National Road, the Blue Ridge Parkway, even a short section of the Lincoln Highway - so to enjoy a final highlight like this, on a primitive road that began life as a Cherokee trail, provides a perfect memory with which to leave Great Smoky Mountains National Park. That and hiking the A.T, of course.

We began in Atlanta, Ga., three weeks ago and our route has taken us through 14 states, plus the District of Columbia. By the time we hand the car back tomorrow, we'll have driven almost 4,000 miles through Bible Belt country, rich farmland, sprawling cities, Civil War battlefields, shanty towns, seaside resorts, coastal marshlands and mountain woodlands. As ever, we have met some truly wonderful people, from the gun-toting store owner who chased after us to give Carole a T-shirt to the girls in a Kentucky bar who introduced us to Maker's Mark, Knob Creek and Wild Turkey.

To them, and to everyone else we met during our three weeks on the road, you should take as much pride in the open-armed welcome you afford your visitors as you already do in your beautiful country. Once again, we owe you our thanks.

Peter Thody


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