Exploring the Great Smoky Mountains, by Connor Beekman
Tranquil, mystical, wonderful: These are words that come to mind when I think about the Great Smoky Mountains. Sculpted ridgelines are blanketed with lush deciduous forests, while gently-flowing streams wander through the valleys. The Smokies are teeming with life. Brightly-colored salamanders find shelter beneath a log, while black bear cubs lookout from the tree canopies high above. This is nature at its finest.
The natural wonders of the Great Smoky Mountains are complimented by the rich history of the southern Appalachians. More than a century ago pioneers settled in the mountains and built quaint log cabins and idyllic farms. The late 1800s also saw the construction of mills to supply power and schools to educate the region’s growing population. Many historic sites are well-preserved to this day.
When news spread to the big cities about the beauty of the Smokies, a tourism industry was born. Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934, and the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway began construction shortly after. In modern times, millions of travelers visit the Great Smoky Mountains each year. They come for the scenic drives, abundant wildlife, fascinating history, and the mystical fog that earned these mountains the name “smoky”.
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When I first visited the Smoky Mountains on a road trip with my family in 2017, I was amazed by how lush and green the forests were. Having been raised in the arid west, traveling through Tennessee and North Carolina in the summer felt liking trekking through a tropical rainforest. It was an entirely new experience for me.
During our first day in North Carolina, we drove a small portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Getting on at Balsam Gap, we traveled the southernmost 25 miles of the parkway, concluding in the town of Cherokee. With my dad driving the minivan and my mom in the passenger seat, I sat in the far back behind my brother and sister. Each and every time we approached an overlook I would shout at my dad to pull over so I could take some pictures. I had a wonderful time hopping out of the car and snapping away with my camera, but I think my family got tired of it quickly. Fortunately for them, we only drove 25 miles of the parkway.
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The next day the five of us boarded the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad in Bryson City. The railroad offers a couple of excursions: one that follows the Tuckasegee River into the countryside and another that enters the Nantahala Gorge. We opted for the latter and had a great time on the 4.5-hour trip. The train marched along the shoreline of Fontana Lake, a massive reservoir dotted with houseboats. Afterward, we followed the Nantahala River into the gorge.
The train makes a stop within the gorge, giving riders a chance to disembark. My family used the one-hour layover to have a picnic lunch by the river. We watched as dozens of rafters and kayakers flowed by. Due to time constraints, my family didn’t partake in any water activities, but those who did looked like they were having lots of fun. The Great Smoky Mountain Railroad was very enjoyable. It provided a unique perspective of the mountains that you can’t get by driving.
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Over the next couple of days we explored Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We hiked to the summit of Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park. From here, the views are incredible. Layers of mountains and ridges are visible in nearly every direction. You can see North Carolina one way and Tennessee the other. To anyone visiting the Smoky Mountains, Clingmans Dome is a must-see.
On the Tennessee side of the national park is the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Think of it, not as a road, but as a hiking trail for cars. The one-way loop travels through old growth forest, passing by mountain streams, waterfalls, and historic Ogle Place, a cabin and farm from the 1800s. This area of the park is excellent for viewing wildlife. While driving the Roaring Fork, we were lucky enough to come across some bears. A mom and her three cubs! It was so exciting, and of course, I was in heaven taking photos of everything.
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My family road trip through the Great Smoky Mountains is one of my all-time favorite vacations. The combination of pristine natural environments and fascinating historic sites made for an enjoyable trip and a successful photography outing. I hope to go back soon.
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I hope you enjoyed looking at some of my photos from the Great Smoky Mountains. Click on any of the photos above to view purchase options. All images are available as prints on paper, canvas, metal, acrylic, and wood. Photo gifts such as greeting cards, throw pillows, and tote bags are also offered.