We had been warned that Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the busiest park in the country. But it’s hard to imagine what 9,000,000 visitors per year means, or even what 60,000 visitors per busy weekend looks like. And then we got there and we got stuck in the Great Smoky Mountains National Traffic Jam. The good news is that the park is huge, and that most visitors stay on just two roads: the road to Cades Cove (a valley settled in the 1800s) and the Newfound Gap Road (i.e. route 441). The bad news is that these roads are amazing and that you’ll want to drive on them too. So do it, by all means, but be prepared for some animal jams, insane bikers (motor, mostly), tailgaters, slowpokes, and construction vehicles. Go early.
The lower elevations were in the full throes of spring, while the trees on the higher peaks were just starting to think about budding. The number of things growing here is mind boggling. I could spend an entire day standing in one place and looking at the ground, then taking a few steps and looking at the ground there, and there, and over there, and never get bored. It’s a very unique and special place for plants, trees, animals, mushrooms, salamanders, and bugs, of course. Rather than try to explain, I’m going to let the friendly NPS website describe it for you:
No other area of equal size in a temperate climate can match the park’s amazing diversity of plants, animals, and invertebrates. Over 17,000 species have been documented in the park: Scientists believe an additional 30,000-80,000 species may live here.
Almost 95% of the park is forested, and about 25% of that area is old-growth forest–one of the largest blocks of deciduous, temperate, old-growth forest remaining in North America. Over 1,500 additional flowering plant species have been identified in the park. The park is the center of diversity for lungless salamanders and is home to more than 200 species of birds, 66 types of mammals, 50 native fish species, 39 varieties of reptiles, and 43 species of amphibians. Mollusks, millipedes, and mushrooms reach record diversity here.
But back to the crowds. The Appalachian Trail crosses the Newfound Gap Road at the pass, where the general visitor can park and hike for a bit on the trail. We didn’t do it. Just as we were about to get started, a school bus belched a load of rowdy field trip kids onto the trail. Nearby a trail-worn, dirty, exhausted hiker sat on a boulder with a look on his face that was somewhere between amusement, dismay, and disgust. This was probably the largest number of people he had seen in days. I felt like it would be disrespectful to hike a mile down the trail, to turn around, to get back in my car, to drive away. Plus, I was feeling really lazy.
Most visitors don’t emerge from their cars, except to take a pee break at the visitor’s centers, so most of the 800+ miles of trails are deserted. One of our trip missions has become the scouting out of future vacation spots. I’m looking forward to returning to the Smokies for a few weeks and to getting lost among the plants on the quiet paths.