The National Park Service tells us that about 10 million people visit the Smoky Mountains every year. Or is it 10 million visits, not visitors? Or is it visitor-days? I don’t know. But it probably doesn’t matter. Just go to Cades Cove on a summer evening, and it will feel like all of them are there with you. Quibbling about precise definitions loses its significance when you spend 20 minutes sitting in your car with your engine running because someone up ahead stopped to take a picture of a possum.
You visit the Smokies, thus adding to the crowds and pollution that make it less enjoyable to visit. You become part of the crowd that you wish would just go away, knowing that the crowds are there for a reason, the same reason that brought you there. It’s a feeling every fisherman has about his favorite water. Or, as Yogi Berra allegedly said about a restaurant in New York City, “Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.”
So anyone who visits the Smokies has to deal with the crowds. Indeed, every summer and fall at least nine million Smokies visitors “deal with the crowds” by diving in and becoming part of the teeming masses, creating traffic jams of Biblical proportions. Or, you can develop another way of “dealing with the crowds” – avoid them. Yes, it can be done, but it means you have to get off the main roads.
|Trafficatastrophe, Pigeon Forge Style|
I know what you are thinking: Aren’t all the best attractions on the main roads? First of all, let’s not call them attractions, okay? If you want attractions, go south about 600 miles. There’s a place down there… maybe you’ve heard of it… it’s called Disney World. Second, yes the most popular spots are on the main roads. But popular is not necessarily best. In fact, all “popular” really means is crowded.
Most of these crowded spots are popular not because they are more fabulous and breath-taking than the rest of the park but simply because they are so easy to get to. Let’s take Newfound Gap right in the middle of the park as an example. This is the point at which the road from Gatlinburg to Cherokee reaches the main crest. Sure it has a fine view, but it’s definitely not the best view in the Smokies. Yet it is hugely popular. Why? Because it’s the main parking lot on the main road. If the road crossed the main crest a couple of miles to the east or the west, then that spot would be the hugely popular spot. In fact, in the old pioneer days, the main route across the Smokies did cross at a different spot. But explorers found a new gap in the 1850s, and when preparations were being made to improve and pave the road in the 1920s, the surveyors re-routed the road through this “new” gap. Thus the name.
Or, the Loop – the spot on the main road where the switchbacks are so tight that at one point the road just circles around and crosses over itself. I’ve seen postcards of it, as if it were some great natural wonder. If you’ve never seen it in person, get ready for a disappointment. It’s just not that big a deal. It’s a moderately neat bit of road construction in a pretty place. But that’s all it is. It’s only slightly more dramatic than getting off the interstate and then driving back around on the overpass. I suppose a civil engineer might see some beauty in it, the way my mechanic can get misty-eyed about a well-made transmission. So, if you are an engineer, don’t miss it.
I guess what I’m saying is that the main roads through the park have plenty of nice spots on them: picnic areas, scenic views, noisy rivers, Newfound Gap, Clingmans Dome, Cades Cove, etc. But these are not, by any stretch of the imagination, the only highlights of the park. You can see a lot of great stuff without ever traveling the crowded, main roads. But it might take a little extra effort on your part.
Take Forney Creek for example… [To be continued.]