The Great Smoky Mountains Review – A Joy to Behold

When my husband invited me to join him on a trip to Knoxville, Tennessee where he was giving a talk to engineering students at the University of Tennessee, I never expected such a wonderful experience.  Two days that were filled with the magic of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park sent me home with colors dancing in my head. We were fortunate to have beautiful weather and fall colors barely hanging on but magical when driving through the woods.

The visit begins at the airport (Photo:Karen Liaw)

Arriving at the attractive new airport, we noticed the charming display depicting the Great Smoky Mountains. Greeted by our hosts, we were driven through the charming areas in and near Knoxville.  It was very pretty, especially with the mountains in the background wherever we drove.  Our hotel was located fairly close to the University and also close to the Knoxville Museum of Art.  One of the exhibitions there was the work of David Bates: The Katrina Paintings, which were very moving.

The trolley in Knoxville

Driving around there appeared to be charming shops and restaurants, which I would like to visit in the future.  There were trolleys driving by from time to time and I learned rides are free in and around the downtown area.

Surprising-an upside down house, really a restaurant

One day I was escorted to the Pigeon Forge entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Sugarlands Visitor Center.  Driving on “Parkway” toward the park entrance, I was amazed by the array of tourist attractions - it is a vacation hub.  At the beginning of the strip there was the Eastern Shanghai Theatre where acrobats perform and then we passed hotels, shops, restaurants, helicopter rides, car rides, a discount mall, Dollywood Amusement Park, and kiddieland and more.  Toward the end of the strip, we passed the upside down house that is a restaurant and the Mountain Valley Winery where we decided to stop. During our visit to the winery we were invited to taste blackberry and mountain berry wines both of which were delicious.  We were invited to return earlier in the fall next year because we were too late this season to see the vineyards.  Our guide offered very interesting information about the equipment and procedures used in making wines.

Inside the Mountain Valley Winery

Our guide at the Mountain Valley Winery

Driving a short way we entered the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and I was in for a treat.  It was a mild, sunny day and we were suddenly driving through a wonderland of color with the mountains in the background.  Stopping at the Sugarlands Visitor Center, we had the chance to see a wonderful film showing some of the flora and fauna in the area and depicting the history of this area.  I found the film and the nearby museum fascinating.

Announcing the entrance to the park

Learning what an amazing gift this park is to our country, I was especially impressed with the wisdom and sacrifice of the early settlers to this area. They became alarmed as commercial logging threatened the forests and moved to save this space. Congress authorized the park in 1926 and it was established in 1934 being among the first national parks assembled from private lands.  Private citizens and groups, and schools from North Carolina and Tennessee contributed money to purchase these lands for donation to the federal government.

Museum at the Sugarlands Visitor Center

And what an amazing park this is. This is America’s most visited national park and the largest east of the Mississippi.  It is world renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture.

Exploring the Appalation Trail

About 100 native tree species make their home in Great Smoky Mountains National Park—more than in all of northern Europe. The park also contains one of the largest blocks of old-growth temperate deciduous forest in North America.

The river below

This exceptionally beautiful park is home to more than 3,500 plant species, including almost as many trees (130 natural species) as in all of Europe. Many endangered animal species are also found there, including what is probably the greatest variety of salamanders, an important indicator of overall ecosystem health in the world. (Many of these can be seen in the museum.)  Since the park is relatively untouched, it gives an idea of temperate flora before the influence of humankind. This is one of the most ecologically rich and diverse temperate zone protected areas in the world. There are over 1300 native vascular plant species, including 105 native tree species, plus nearly 500 species of non-vascular plants - a level of floristic diversity that rivals or exceeds other temperate zone protected areas of similar size.

Driving through the beautiful colors that remain

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a major North American refuge of temperate zone flora and fauna that survived the Pleistocene glaciations and includes the largest remnant of the diverse Arcto-Tertiary geoflora era left in the world.  It provides an indication of the appearance of late Pleistocene flora. Large enough to allow the continuing biological evolution of this natural system, its biological diversity exceeds that of other temperate-zone protected areas of comparable size. Within the park there are undisturbed, virgin forest including the largest block of virgin red spruce remaining on earth.

Sign sharing information about the Appalachian Trail

The history of the Appalachian Trail

Leaving the visitors center, there were more surprises as we headed toward the highest point in the park.  We were surprised to see a fair amount of snow as we were surrounded by warm air and sunshine.  I was delighted when my hosts brought me to the spot where President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park and where it connects with the Appalachian Trail. I have always wanted to walk this trail.  At Newfound Gap, I walked a short part of the trail that starts in Maine and ends in Georgia and covers 2, 174 miles.  This was a project of the CCC.

Is that really snow?

Peaceful and beautiful

My last surprise of the day was stepping into North Carolina.  I had no idea I would be there, straddling Tennessee and North Carolina. This is an amazing place, a true gift to our country, and a must see for anyone who can get there, even for a short time.

Straddling Tennessee and North Carolina (Photo:Karen Liaw)

To learn more go to:
Photos: B. Keer

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