Escaping Winter's Chill
Trees grow a lot in 65 years. When Great Smoky Mountains National Park was dedicated in 1934, many of the roadsides were raw but the views out across the mountains were vast. The great shield of the Eastern hardwood forest seemed to extend infinitely out across Tennessee's rolling hills and valleys.
But then the trees grew up, and blocked much of the view. Except in the winter, when the leaves have fallen from the trees and you can again see through the branches and out across the forest. Don't get me wrong; nobody could be happier about the recovery of the forest. But it's a nice change to see for miles and miles, and not just a few short yards. But don't miss the sheltered cove forests, which you'll find below 3,000 feet. These coves protect huge trees and the greatest concentration of species in temperate North America.
Like the Mojave, several great ecosystems meet in the Smokies. Elevations range from 800 feet to well over 6,500. Spruce-fir forests typical of Maine are just a couple of hours away from lush southern hardwoods. The main road in the park, and the only one across the mountains, is the Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441). The renowned Blue Ridge Parkway picks up at the road's southern end. You can take the parkway up down to the Balsam Mountain Road, which leads back into the park for a joyful, twisty ride.
Mountains can be beautiful to look at as well as from. But to do that you have to back off, the same as if you wanted a wider camera view. The Little River Road in the north gives you such a view, or approach the park from Highway 28 or Interstate 129 in the south, then take the Foothills Parkway just east of Chilhowee.
Other activities: This is a hiker's park, with zillions of trails. If you're yearning for a quiet midwinter camping trip, Cades Cove and Smokemount campgrounds are open all year.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication