Location: Townsend, Tennessee
Webpage: National Park
General Description: Straddling the ridge line between Tennessee and North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park preserves the natural diversity of wildlife and plants and protects the cultural heritage of early America. Elevations in the park range from 876 feet (267 m) at the mouth of Abrams Creek to 6,643 feet (2,025 m) at the summit of Clingmans Dome. Within the park are a total of sixteen mountains that reach higher than 6,000 feet (1,830 m) and covers a land area of over 522,000 acres. As the most visited National Park in the US, the most common activities are hiking with 850 miles of trails, including 70 miles of the Appalachian Trial. In 1976 it was designated as an International Biosphere Reserve for its biological diversity. This is following extensive logging during the late 19th Century that left much of the current park stripped of vegetation from the cut and leave clearcut techniques of the time. The only significant community in the Park was Cades Cove. Beginning in 1818 with the arrival of the first permanent settler, John Oliver, Cades Cove grew to a population of 671 settlers by 1850 with an average farm size of 150-300 acres. After years of conflict with the residents of Cades Cove, the long-time residents eventually had to sell their land to the Federal Government. Initially plans were to allow the Cove to return to its natural forested state, however, public pressure convinced the National Park System to maintain the Cove in pasture while removing the modern buildings, leaving only the primitive cabins and barns that exemplified the pioneer period in the cove. This leads to a distorted view of life in the Cove as it was a developed rural community in the 1930s. Today the Driving Tour takes visitors to the remaining cabins and churches, as well as a working grist mill at the Visitor Center.
1) Over the years, we have visited this National Park many times both with the family and professionally with research projects in the Park. Therefore, this trip was an opportunity to visit some the Park again while we were waiting for the RV to be delivered. Since there is no way to see very much of the Park in a single day, we decided to take Shannon on a trip to Cades Cove, which she was very familiar with already.
1) While this part of the Park does not include the mountain streams, peaks, and waterfalls, that exemplify most of the National Park, the drive up to Cades Cove and around the Cove makes for a very pleasant drive. Since school had already started by the first week in August, the traffic in the Park was very low, especially since we arrived by 9 in the morning. It was actually possible to park our big truck at any of the cabins or churches along the driving tour. For this reason we were able to walk up to John Oliver’s cabin which Shannon had never visited before because it was always too busy.
2) If you are lucky enough to overlap with the tour buses at the stops you can be treated to interesting lectures about the structures. We had the pleasure of this experience at the Primitive Baptist Church. Along with giving a good feeling for what life would have been like and what a church service would have felt and sound like (they had a recent recording of one of the “chants” that would have been used during the service), he also pointed out a unique feature about the ceiling that we would have totally missed. The ceiling of the church was made using green boards and the hand and finger prints were still very obvious if you knew to look for them!
3) The John Cable Grist Mill at the Visitor Center was noteworthy as it is still a working grist mill. While we were there you could watch them grind corn into cornmeal using a water wheel to turn the grind stones. While we had seen many grist mills from Maryland to Alabama, this was the first one we have seen that was still being operated. Very fascinating! From displays at the mill I also leaned of a number of phrases still used today that came from that time. “Waiting your turn” comes from the necessity of having to wait until you could get your grain milled, which was known as a turn relating to the turning of the grind stones. While “keeping your nose to the grindstone” is obviously related to a grist mill, the phrase means you had to pay attention to the smell from the grindstones because if the grindstones were turning too quickly it would burn the grain. “Milling around” comes from the time spent waiting and gossiping with neighbors while you wait for your grain to be milled.
4) Years ago, Kal and I remembered taking a one-way dirt road out of Cades Cove with our car and the children in the back. It was a memorable drive as it was a narrow mountain road descending out of the cove. Come to find out there are two existing one-way roads out of the cove and we decided it would be a good test for our truck. One of them, Parson Branch Road, exits near the Visitor Center and we felt certain it was the one we took before (besides it was not as windy on the map). Even though Shannon was “uncomfortable” about narrow mountain roads, we left the driving tour only about half way around and took off on an 8 mile trip through the woods. The road was definitely narrow and windy with steep inclines and descents. The truck performed better than the passengers at times, even though we were not sure it would make all the tight turns. It was obvious from the scrapes on some of the trees, some vehicles had had problems. The most troubling was when we would come out of the low water bridges with steep short inclines and we would loose all sight of the road. We had to trust that the road did not turn suddenly at the top of the incline! We made the trip still intact and had the joy of driving back to Maryville along US Highway 29. This stretch of the highway has become knows as the Dragon due to its many switchbacks and turns. It has become a favorite thrill-ride for motorcycle enthusiasts to take the curves at too great a speed. It is so popular that there were three photographers along the highway taking pictures of everyone to sell on their websites. While we didn’t look, I would assume there are pictures of us in our truck on the web! We literally had to pull over a couple of times to let the motorcycles by as we were not going near fast enough for them.