Tennessee and Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Mountain laurel was in full bloom everywhere on our journey across Tennessee.

After leaving Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas, our eastbound trip took us into Tennessee, crossing the Mississippi at Memphis.  Swollen by the heavy spring rains, the mighty river had topped its banks, turning the flood plains on the Arkansas side into expansive, if shallow, lakes. We didn’t stop in Memphis this time, reluctantly leaving the exploration of the Lorraine Motel and the National Civil Rights Museum, and other things Memphis, for another visit.

We camped at three Tennessee Valley Authority campgrounds as we crossed the 432 miles of the state.  Sited along the Tennessee River Valley, these campgrounds are lovely.  Our second stay in the south-central part of the state, allowed us to experience our first-ever visit to a distillery.  We didn’t want to fight the crowds at the well-known Jack Daniels Distillery so we opted for the smaller George Dickel Distillery in Tullahoma.  We took a tour which included a tasting of their product and lots of information about Tennessee whisky.

This sign is painted on the side of a barn so you can’t miss the turn up to Cascade Hollow and George Dickel Distillery.

Dickel was an established Nashville merchant when he entered the very profitable whisky business in the 1870s. He bought land up by the spring in Cascade Hollow since fresh water is the key ingredient in making whisky. Dickel built a reputation for making the smoothest, most mellow spirits in Cascade Hollow and followed in the Scottish tradition of spelling whisky without an “e.” He preferred whisky made in the winter months because he felt it made the whisky taste smoother, so the company began advertising their Geo. A. Dickel’s Cascade Tennessee Whisky as “Mellow as Moonlight.” The whisky is still chilled before undergoing the charcoal-mellow filtration known as the Lincoln County Process and reportedly smooths out the flavor. These guys are known as the only Tennessee distillery to still do it. During prohibition, the distillery was closed, but with some creative marketing, the then-named Cascade Whisky was allowed to be sold as a medicinal spirit. In 1958, a new distillery was opened down the road from the original Cascade Hollow Distillery and it began producing whisky known as Geo. A. Dickel Tennessee Whisky.

Tennessee whisky is aged in oak barrels like these for several years.

Our tour ended in the tasting room, with shot glasses lined up in front of us.  Peter quickly offered his to the other guy on our tour and we all marveled at the variation in color (from completely clear to a deep honey color) of the 4 samples we had.  New to the whisky experience, I asked how one should taste the samples. It was most helpful, especially with the first sample, the unaged corn liquor (a.k.a. moonshine).  I had never tasted corn liquor before and Dickel’s was predictably hot on the throat.  The other two whisky samples got smoother as they got older (8 years, 12 years) and the rye rounded out to 4.  While I am not likely to change my cocktail preference, it was a good way to get to understand a detail that is such an intrinsic part of the southern Appalachian history.  

Impossible to photograph but indelible in the memory, the Great Smoky Mountains.

Our longest stay at a TVA campground was our third stop in Sevierville, TN at Douglas Dam.  For seven days from this base we explored the magnificent Great Smoky Mountain National Park. It is not hard to see why this is the nation’s most popular national park, with over 9 million visitors each year.  Right. That’s 9 million.   We’ve experienced Yellowstone National Park during the very busy summer months and yet their highest annual number of visitors was 4.5 million. 

Cades Cove was a lively farming community between 1820 and 1920. Gorgeous land where these happy horses hang out.

The Great Smoky Mountains is a living laboratory of extraordinary proportions.  With elevations from 850 feet (and 55 inches of rain) to 6,600 feet (and 85 inches of rain/snow) packed into an area of 800 square miles, its collection of flora and fauna equals the diversity that exists from Georgia to Maine, with a wider selection of trees than in all of Europe. Underscoring its rich biological diversity, it is home to some endangered creatures that live only in this place. The history of the park is compelling as it preserves a rich cultural tapestry of southern Appalachian history. The mountains and hollows (or as they say around here, the “hollers”) have had a long human history spanning thousands of years from the prehistoric Paleo Indians, to the Cherokee, to early European settlement in the 1800s, to loggers and mining companies, to the Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees in the 20th century.  

The cemetery at the Primitive Baptist Church in Cades Cove.

The park was created in 1920s and 1930s mostly from private lands owned by settlers and lumber and mining companies.  In some cases, people and companies sold their homesteads to the park. Some were granted long term leases. Some considered they were being forced from their land.  Some land, especially that located in the southwest part of the park around what is now called Fontana Lake and Fontana Dam, was taken by eminent domain and now either lies under the surface of the lake or has become isolated islands in the middle of the lake.  To this day, descendants of some of the original residents are ferried across the lake on Memorial Day to the cemeteries of their ancestors.

The park service has saved many of the original log, and some frame, structures, creating a vital historical record of the region which is believed to be the largest of its kind in the country. We spent one magnificent spring day in Cades Cove, once a farming community where about 132 families (with a population of 685) lived from around 1820 through the formation of the park.  Now, a paved one-way loop road encircles the area.  Twice a week the 11-mile road is closed from 8:00am to 10:00am to motorized vehicles so it can be enjoyed by hikers and cyclists, unencumbered by vehicles.  

Oldest cabin in the park, the John Oliver place.

We visited the oldest log cabin in Cades Cove, the John Oliver cabin. The Oliver family owned this land for 100 years and lived here with their large family.  We learned that usually, parents, infants and daughters slept on the first floor and sons slept in the loft. John’s son Oliver, born in this cabin in 1824, married and moved across the Cove after the Civil War.  His log cabin, which we also visited, was equipped with a “stranger room” which would accommodate overnight visitors.

The Cable Mill in Cades Cove was the second grist mill we visited in the park.  Both mills are on the original sites but are different in the way they collected water to power the mill. Grist mills probably were the Cove’s first industry.  The Cable Mill directed the water flow along a wooden flume and dropped it over the water wheel which turned to create the energy to turn the shaft which powered the grinding process.  In the Mingus Mill, (in another part of the park) the water was directed into a 30 foot high column where it was collected. The weight and volume of the water was directed down and through a turbine, turning it on a shaft that then powered the grinding process.  Both mills were chiefly grinding corn, the most important crop grown in the area.  

Mingus Mill was powered by a water-fed turbine.

Besides corn, farmers grew wheat and sometimes rye and barley.  As we learned from our visit to the Dickel distillery, this combination of crops offered the raw materials for both the  legal and illegal distilleries that operated in the Cove. George Powell was one of two licensed distillers in the Cove.  He owned fruit orchards and produced apple and peach brandies.  Some say that Powell “forgot” to quit his distillery after Tennessee voted for prohibition. 

One afternoon, we toured another section of the park called Roaring Fork which is perched on the mountains above and behind Gatlinburg in an area called Mt. Le Conte. The community was settled in the 1850s and about two dozen families scratched out a living here.  The Roaring Fork River winds its way through the community and the road now follows it.  The farms we saw here were reflective of a much harder lot.

Ephraim Bales and his wife Minerva raised nine children on this farm along Roaring Brook.

The home of Ephraim Bales and his wife Minerva reveals that.  In a small, split log, two-room cabin, they raised nine children.  They owned 70 acres and cultivated 30 acres, the balance stayed in timber for cooking, heating, and building things.  The larger room was the living area, the smaller the kitchen.  No windows except for one, called a “granny hole”, which looks out on the corn crib, the most important part of the family pantry. We read that Ephraim kept his rifle hanging right over the granny hole. “If he heard the shutter squeak on the corn crib, he took his rifle down”.  Alrighty then!

When the park began taking up the land, most of the families moved down the hill into Gatlinburg.  We followed the road down to town, driving through one of the areas devastated by the fires of November 2016.  It was stunning to see the destruction.  We could still smell charred wood.  The fire was started by two teenage boys, age 15 and 17, who reportedly dropped lighted matches along a trail in the national park that was designated as a  “no-burn area”.  They have been charged with aggravated arson for the fires which spread to the neighboring communities, killing 14 people, burning 17,000 acres, destroying more than 2,000 homes and businesses and forcing the evacuation of as many as 14,000 visitors and residents. Damages are estimated at over $800 million.  Yikes.

Laurel Falls in full glory on this lovely spring morning.

What we noticed this time was not the drought, but the abundance of water.  Streams and rivers and waterfalls were prolific and gorgeous.  We hiked up to Laurel Falls, three miles beyond the visitors center at Sugarlands and up a trail lavish with mountain laurel. The falls were spectacular and the temperature was so much cooler that the valley floor had been.  We were grateful that we went early in the day having been warned by the park ranger that parking was limited.  Great advice since by the end of our hike the lot was completely full.

We had a similar experience with the busy park when on another day we decided to hike up the highest point in the park, Clingmans Dome.  With our 10:00am arrival, we were able to get a parking spot as we drove in.  By noon, the line of cars was inching along as people waited for someone to leave and get a place to park.

Along the Appalachian Trail at Clingman’s Dome, elevation 6,600.

The view from the 6,600 foot elevation was spectacular on the mostly clear summit and try as I did, it is just impossible to capture this grandeur and majesty with a photo.  The Appalachian Trail comes up here and winds along the spine of other peaks in the park on its way to Maine.  We did see a couple of through-hikers coming off the trail, fully loaded and enjoying lunch at the summit of the Dome.

The Eastern Cherokee tribe is still in residence at the southern edge of the park in the town of Cherokee.  We spent an afternoon at the Museum of the Cherokee, a profoundly impressive museum that told the deep and rich story of the people.  The Eastern band was the band that resisted the bloody assault of the U.S. government to relocate the entire Cherokee nation to reservations in Oklahoma, force marching them along what is called “The Trail of Tears”.

Sculpture in the Museum of the Cherokee in Cherokee, NC, at the south entrance of the national park.

It was a stunning example of a low point in our country’s history and a sobering way to conclude our visit to the national park.

Once, many years ago, when we were touring around the North End of Boston, I saw a sign that read, “History happened here”.  As we wrapped up our time here at Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Gatlinburg, the memory of that sign came back to me. During our time here, we had peaked into the history of individual people and their lives and their stories and the land and the trees and the immense force of nature and the folly of man and the mysterious beauty of a place the Cherokee call “land of blue smoke”.  Wth grateful hearts, we travel on.


 Liz and Peter continue their pilgrimage to here, meandering through Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio and New York on their way to New England in their Airstream. 






2 thoughts on “Tennessee and Great Smoky Mountains National Park

  1. Found your blog and am enjoying reading and catching up on some of your thoughts and travels. We too enjoy the Smokies but didn’t know it had twice the visitors of Yellowstone and it being the largest National Park for visitors. It is an awesome National Park with a lot of history in it and the primitive way of life back in the early days. I remember when we were at Yellowstone after the big fires out there and how devastated it looked at that time. Safe travels and thanks for the post.


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