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Road Trip: Great Smoky Mountains

From the May 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

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Oconaluftee farmstead provides visitors a glimpse of life in the southern Appalachians in the early 20th century.

In the early 1900s, outdoorsman Horace Kephart likened the Great Smoky Mountains to an “Eden still unpeopled and unspoiled.” A century later, the range the Cherokees once called the “land of the blue mist” stars as the showpiece of America’s most popular national park, drawing nine million annual visitors. Most enter through a jumble of go-kart tracks and outlet stores along Tennessee’s neon-bright Gatlinburg–Pigeon Forge gateway corridor. But for those who know where to look, the Smokies still offer the “wild beauty and grandeur” that entranced Kephart, who led the campaign for national park designation. Sneaking in through the back door, on the quieter North Carolina side, offers savvy travelers near-private viewings of the park’s unrivaled biodiversity, including 1,660 species of flowering plants as well as deer, elk, and black bears. Those fortunate few can also relish ethereal, blue-haze valleys in peaceful solitude.

Asheville serves as the North Carolina headquarters of the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway, with the Great Smokies as its southwestern bookend. Though the city is known best for its 250-room Biltmore Estate, a French Renaissance vision in Gilded Age opulence, its laid-back residents are more likely to be found at a drum circle or bluegrass jam—a banjo cradled in one arm, a pint of local brew in the other hand.

Art galleries and indie coffee shops and bistros line the historic downtown, attracting a congenial mix of buskers enlivening street corners, young couples pushing strollers, and active retirees lacing up hiking boots. Duck into bookstore Malaprop’s to peruse North Carolina authors and perk up with a Pigment of Your Imagination latte.

Just south of downtown, the North Carolina Arboretum beckons with 65 acres of cultivated gardens and more than ten miles of hiking and biking trails. Walkways seam the blocky Quilt Garden, a living take on the Appalachian craft (digest the whole pattern from an overlook). Over in the bonsai garden, endemic Blue Ridge trees such as American hornbeam and eastern white pine are painstakingly cultivated, some into tiny, artful replicas of the mountain landscape.

Back in Asheville, head 30 miles west toward the Smokies on I-40. This mostly rural stretch of interstate, where wildflowers sprout in medians, skirts the edge of the sprawling Pisgah National Forest, a pristine hardwoods wilderness laced with waterfalls, white-water rapids, and mile-high peaks.

Few day visitors to the national park venture to the remote Cataloochee Valley, accessed from I-40 via a serpentine, packed gravel mountain road (without guardrails). Entering the park through this secluded southeastern gateway provides spectacular views of the surrounding 6,000-foot summits as well as a glimpse into Smokies life before the creation of the park.

Once home to a thriving farming and tourism community of 1,200, the valley is now populated by native wild turkeys and deer as well as majestic elk, successfully reintroduced to the park in 2001 after an absence of more than 200 years. To admire the 600-pound behemoths huddling in mist-shrouded meadows, plan to visit by midmorning or early evening. (Bring binoculars to view them from a safe distance.)

Follow Little Cataloochee Trail to discover the isolated valley’s historic frame buildings that date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Ring the church bell inside Little Cataloochee Baptist, a plain white chapel built in 1889, and slip inside the 1864 Hannah Cabin, with its original handmade brick chimney, to see the sleeping loft. Carefully drive back to the main road, and then hike all or part of the seven-mile Boogerman Trail loop, and reap the restorative rewards that come from walking in silence through towering old-growth woods. The trail, named for a Cataloochee pioneer, zigzags along and over the rushing water of Caldwell Fork through a quintessential Smokies forest: damp, lush, and thick with hemlocks, rhododendrons, and flowering highland dog hobble.

Pull off the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 461.9 at Big Witch Overlook (elevation 4,150 feet), named for Tskil-e’gwa, a Cherokee medicine man and tribal elder. Spread a blanket on the grassy ridgetop to bask in unobstructed mountain views. In May and June, the panorama glows deep pink and red with blooming flame azalea and pinkshell rhododendron.

Reenter the national park at the end of the parkway for a crash course in Smokies heritage at the bright new Oconaluftee Visitor Center, which focuses on the people who lived and worked here, including those displaced to create the park. Exhibits such as “Voices of the Smokies” feature the personal histories of early settlers; “Corn in a Jar” offers a moonshine primer including a replica of a Tennessee white lightning still.

Behind the visitors center, join a ranger-led tour of the Mountain Farm Museum, an authentic Smokies log homestead complete with farmhouse, barn, smokehouse, apple house, blacksmithing shop, and corncribs. May through October, reenactors demonstrate early 20th-century mountain life. Elk can often be seen gathering in the surrounding meadows at dusk.

Nearby, the town of Cherokee sits close to the center of the Qualla Boundary, current home of the 12,500-member Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. Skip Cherokee’s tacky shops and tepees (the native residents lived in wood cabins). Head instead to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, a stop along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail. At the entrance stands a 20-foot statue of Chief Sequoyah, inventor of the Cherokee alphabet, here chiseled from a single California redwood. Inside, start in the Story Lodge for an overview of ancient tribal myths; then trace 10,000 years of Cherokee history on a self-guided tour.

Across the street is Qualla Arts and Crafts, the nation’s oldest Native American cooperative. Browse the extensive collection for sale, from Darrin Bark’s glossy black vases to Lori Reed’s narrative prints.

From Cherokee, the Blue Ridge Parkway offers a slow (top speed: 45 miles an hour) but rewarding route back to Asheville, forming scallops past turnoffs such as the Devil’s Courthouse overlook trail (milepost 422.4). The half-mile path climbs straight up to the rocky 5,720-foot summit. The payoff is a 360-degree view; look for peregrine falcons circling above the valley.

For a quicker return to Asheville, cut across Maggie Valley via Highway 19 and I-40. Unwind from your mountain ramble at Jack of the Wood, a Celtic-style pub that hosts live music. Sample the handcrafted English ale made at nearby Green Man Brewery, one of ten microbreweries to take advantage of the city’s soft, pH-balanced mountain water. At the packed Thursday night bluegrass jam, pickin’ starts at 6:30 p.m. In true Appalachian form, everyone’s welcome to join in.

Maryellen Duckett has lived in the eastern Tennessee foothills of the Smokies since 1984.

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