Posts Tagged ‘Great Smoky Mountains National Park’

Big reward for little effort at Great Smokies

October 13, 2009
Buildings at Mountain Farm Museum

Buildings at Mountain Farm Museum

October is a peak season at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most heavily visited national park in the country, with more than 9 million visitors a year. Despite all those people milling about, it’s still amazingly easy to get away from them. Some, of course, don’t leave their cars, and others don’t venture down trails. With only a few hours to spare, we did both, and were majorly rewarded for a minor effort.

Great Smokies 75th anniversary

Great Smokies' 75th anniversary

We started our afternoon at the park at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, two miles north of Cherokee. It being July Fourth weekend, the place was packed. After a tour of the fascinating outdoor Mountain Farm Museum, a collection of preserved historic log buildings gathered from throughout the Smoky Mountains, we were itching to take a walk, but didn’t want to drive for an hour to reach some of the more remote trailheads.

A ranger told us about the Kephart Prong Trail (a prong is a bend in the river), a four-mile roundtrip hike that crosses the Oconaluftee River six times. Perfect! Oddly, the trail isn’t marked from the road nor is it on the basic park maps, which probably contributed to the fact that we passed only a few other people during one of the park’s busiest weekends.

Tree pose on footbridge for beginners

Tree pose for beginners on footbridge

The trailhead is only seven miles beyond the visitor center. Look to the right for a small parking area on the right, and a footbridge, the first river crossing. The other river crossings were not really bridges but logs, some more secure than others, but all with a railing, so not too much balance was required. That’s a good thing, because no matter how many times I do an erect “tree” pose during yoga, get me on a log over water and I’m like jelly.

Bright red bee balms are found along the Kephart Prong Trail

Bright red bee balms are found along the Kephart Prong Trail

The wooded hike, mostly along the river, was just lovely, and I wish we could see it this month when the leaves start to change. The trail is an old road-bed, so the walk is quite easy, with only 800 feet of elevation gain, most of it on the way in. It’s an up-and-back, not a loop. Along the trail in the woods are a few remains of a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp, there from 1933-42. Turnaround is at a nice backcountry shelter. No one had set up there, so we stretched out on the platforms for a little contemplation of nature. Wessel was snoring in no time.

Water flows down a millrace to the mill

Water flows down a millrace to the mill

On the way out of the park we stopped at Mingus Mill, a 1886 grist mill that uses a water-powered turbine to power all of the machinery in the building. The mill is operated daily from mid-March through mid-November, with a miller demonstrating how corn is ground into cornmeal, which was for sale there. In a break from tradition, the corn was shipped in from the Midwest. I can think of only one word to appropriately express my disappointment. Shucks.

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In the Smokies, a magical hike through time

August 10, 2009
Cook Cabin in the Cataloochee Valley

Cook Cabin in the Cataloochee Valley

A “step back in time” is such an overused phrase accompanying many a historic town or exhibit. But in the Cataloochee Valley of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina, it’s truly possible.

The descendants of Cataloochee, who have their annual reunion every August, have a rare blessing and a curse. Remnants of their ancestors’ community are frozen in time, preserved as they were when the government in the 1930s-40s displaced more than 1,200 family farms to create the national park, uprooting some 7,000 people. Over the years, descendants have acknowledged that the land would likely have been developed if not for the park, but that is of little solace to the people directly affected.

Diane walks the Little Cataloochee trail

Diane walks the Little Cataloochee trail

For the visitor, Cataloochee, accessible only by foot, is a marvel. Wessel and I spent a few magical hours there last month. While nature has altered the landscape and buildings, those changes have been gentle, unlike those brought about by highways and bulldozers.

The drive to the trailhead requires some effort. We entered through Little Cataloochee (as opposed to Big Cataloochee) because reaching the buildings we wanted to see is easier at that end. But the road is rougher — about eight miles of winding dirt roads too narrow for two cars to pass. It was quite the adventure, but doable even in our low-slung 15-year-old Honda Civic.

Wessel at Cook Cabin

Wessel stands in front of Cook Cabin

Ours was the only car parked at the trailhead on a Sunday afternoon. Using the map in the Cataloochee pamphlet we’d bought from the park service, we headed up the main wooded trail, no doubt a main drag back in the day. We first passed Hannah Cabin, built in 1864 and occupied until national park days. Amazingly, the intact cabin has not been vandalized, at least not to our eyes. We also visited Cook Cabin and Messer Farm, which once housed the apple house for storing the apples that brought valley families much prosperity. (The apple house now stands at the park’s Mountain Farm Museum.)

The 1889 Baptist Church sit on top of a ridge

The 1889 church sits on top of a ridge

The most amazing building here is the Little Cataloochee Baptist Church, built in 1889 on a ridge top and painted white with a gingerbread trim. This is there the annual reunion is held. Cobblestone steps lead to a plain interior, painted white, and guests are welcome to poke around. A Bible at the front was opened to the Book of Daniel. Was this a sign for me? Visitors are allowed to ring the 400-pound bell in the belfry, which, of course, we did, the sound floating off through the woods.

Diane rings the church bells

Visitors are invited to ring the church bells

Next to the church is the cemetery, one of several scattered throughout the park and maintained by the park service. Of course the names Hannah and Messer appeared on some of the gravestones.

As we left the woods, we thanked the park service for tending to this sacred ground while sympathizing with the families displaced, as they have been here and during the creation of many other parks in our nation and beyond. Is their loss worth our gain?