We headed east from Rock Island to Sparta and Crossville before picking up Interstate 40. We were headed to Gatlinburg. The road was heavily trafficked and took us past Knoxville. It rained off and on, but seemed to be clearing as we got farther and farther eastward.
At Sevierville we turned on to Highway 441. Immediately the scene changed and we encountered the beginning of one of the most overbuilt, mind-blowing commercial shrines to American plastic culture either of us have ever seen. Sevierville led to Pigeon Forge and Pigeon Forge led to Gatlinburg.
The frenzy of crass American consumerism continued with hotels, chain restaurants, every big box retailer imaginable and an assortment of shrines to low brow culture including the FunStop Family Action Park, the Dixie Stampede Dinner Show, the Titanic Museum and the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Show.
Of course, Pigeon Forge is the home of Dolly Parton. This is the home of Dollywood. And this is all Dollywood’s spawn. Actually, I don’t mean that to sound so nasty. There is no denying that Dolly Parton is a goddess in these parts. She has brought a tremendous tourism business to this region, supplied hundreds of jobs and never forgotten her roots.
In the wake of the devastating fires which raged around Gatlinburg, the Dolly Parton Foundation gave stipends to hundreds who had lost their homes for months on end. Indeed the payments had just ended with a surprise final bonus check for each household of $5,000.
Dolly was actually in town for the Annual Dollywood Parade during our visit and everyone was abuzz with excitement. She was featured in the parade on the evening local news as reigning royalty.
The Chimney Top 2 Fire which devastated an enormous area around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Gatlinburg began just before Thanksgiving 2016, but its roots went back 80 years to the 1930’s when fire suppression techniques were adopted across the country. Over the decades dead wood and tinder accumulated. After four months with no rain in the fall of 2016, it took only two teens and a match to destroy 17,000 acres, kill 14 people and destroy countless homes. The fire began small, but after four days, hundred mile per hour winds blew it into an unstoppable conflagration.
We were slated to stay at the Twin Creek RV Resort. I had tried to book us in to the Elkmont Campground in the Great Smoky National Park, but it was full. Twin Creek was highly rated and, as it turned out, much closer to Gatlinburg than Elkmont would have been.
We arrived to a darkened campground. When I entered the main office, the lights were off and only then did we find out that the power was off. A big wind event had hit the area the day before. Everyone had lost power. The national park was actually closed as was the main road, Highway 441, through the park. Winds had hit with 100 mph blasts, not unlike those which fueled the Chimney Top 2 Fire, and wreaked havoc in the park. All campers in the Elkmont Campground had been forced to leave.
Our resort hosts were harried. They had been turning refugees from Elkmont and other resorts away all day, but would honor our reservation as we had already paid. They explained that there was power in one part of the park and they planned to move us there. They were trying to get the power re-established in the other part of the park, but had no idea when it would happen. We decided to stay in our original spot. It was much prettier. We could always dry camp until the power came back on. It was a calculated gamble.
Our hosts were very nice. This has been a difficult time in the area. In the wake of the Chimney Top Fire, business had been down substantially. The fire received so much coverage that everyone assumed Gatlinburg was in ruins and stayed away. While there had been tremendous damage and Dolly Parton’s foundation had done much to help many who lost all, the town itself appeared unscathed. This accounted in part for the upset on the part of the resort hosts, they had already been hit and could ill afford more lost business.
We backed into our site and relaxed. We could last for days without power. It wasn’t two hours later that we noticed the power was back on. Our gamble had paid off. The park was pretty empty and we were happy in our camp site.
It was raining again the next day and we accepted with disappointed resignation that there would be no hiking. We headed to the Sugarlands Visitor Center to find out when the park was going to re-open and if we could use the trails the next day.
It was packed at the Visitors Center. An enormous topographical model of the park dominated the entry room to the building. It gave a great context to the enormous size and scope of the park. There was also a small museum dedicated to the flora and fauna of the park. Some of the roads through the park were now open, but the higher elevations had been hit with snow and 441 was still closed. We watched a 20 minute movie on the ecology of the park and got some guidance from a ranger as to where we should hike.
The rangers we spoke to at the information desk looked a little overwhelmed. She said they had not been able to assess damage to the park yet. They were still working on getting the highway open. It would be months and months of work to clear the trails. She urged us to be very careful as there were bound to be trees down on the trails which could be dangerous. We felt sorry that they faced another big challenge in the aftermath of yet another devastating weather occurrence. It was absolutely pouring when we left the Visitors Center.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was chartered in 1934 and dedicated in 1940. It is one of the first parks to have been purchased with federal as well as state funds. The federal government agreed to support the park if the states of North Carolina and Tennessee would each purchase part of the land. The park has two main entrances, one in Gatlinburg on the Tennessee side and the other in Cherokee, North Carolina. It is the largest protected area in the eastern United States and one of the most visited parks in the country.
The park is known for its tremendous diversity in terms of geography and biology. Ridges roll off into the distance in all directions. There are mountain tops and deep valleys. The area gets a lot of rainfall and is quite humid which makes for tremendous biodiversity. The park features over 850 miles of trails and unpaved roads. We had been waiting for this visit for weeks.
We drove back into Gatlinburg. Surprisingly, despite the torrential rains, the streets were packed with people. Waddling from fudge store to burger joint, they were intent on consumption. We were intent on our own kind of consumption. I had heard the Pancake Pantry had excellent corn meal pancakes. We dove in out of the rain for a lunch of pancakes and sausage.
Waddling ourselves back to the truck, we took refuge in the Airstream. We did make one quick stop on the way back. I had seen in the Gatlinburg tourist brochure a write-up of a local fiber shop. It was the Smoky Mountain Spinnery. Incredibly, this was my first and only stop at any retail establishment with fiber for this entire almost five month trip. I had been a pillar of restraint for months on end. This was a very cute shop with a great selection of wheels, roving, rug hooking materials and some yarn. I tried out a very nice Ashford portable wheel. Restraint again. However, a little roving did somehow drop into my bag. Jim and Dakota waited patiently in the truck during this fiber foray.
We were getting a little tired of all this spring rain. The forecast was perfect for the next day. Meanwhile, since we were in a fancy RV resort, we had cable and we spent the evening watching television.
It was a glorious morning the next day. Having visited the Sugarlands Visitor Center, we knew exactly where we wanted to hike. We drove back through the craziness of downtown Gatlinburg. Oddly, it was a lot less crazy than it had been during the driving rain. It was, however, Sunday. I guess everyone was in church.
We headed to the Elkmont Campground area to hike. Our route took us past the Elkmont Campground. It was open, but close to empty.
We parked near the trailhead and discovered an unexpected treat: the remains of a former summer vacation community. Early in the 20th Century the Little River Lumber Company began selling plots of land to Knoxville residents many of whom were executives with the railroad which hauled lumber. They established The Appalachian Club. Every summer this retreat became quite a social scene.
The Club was divided into three sections. Daisy Town, was located in close proximity to the club house and consisted of more modest cabins, some were almost shacks. There was also Society Hill which was located on the banks of the Jakes Creek and Millionaire’s Row located on the rushing Little River.
With the creation of the Great Smoky National Park, residents were given lifetime leases to their cabins. Those were turned into 20 year leases most of which were renewed until 1992. Two cabins retained their leases until 2001.
Now the cabins sit vacant. A few have been made historic buildings and will be maintained but under the terms of the National Park, the rest will be torn down and the land returned to its natural state. They were actually in the process of tearing down cabins on Society Hill as we visited.
It was here that we learned the difference between a national park and a national forest. National parks are dedicated to the preservation of the land in its natural state. Hence, the tearing down of the cabins. National forests are used for multiple purposes. They may be harvested for lumber, used for grazing and, of course, for recreation. Making the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a park rather than a forest was controversial at Elkmont and a tremendous sacrifice for those families.
The Spence Cabin and The Appalachian Club buildings are now available for day use and indeed a wedding was taking place while we were there. It was an exquisite setting for a ceremony. The Little River rushed right past the cabin. It was easy to imagine how delightful summers must have been here: the heat of the day softened by the cool of the running water and mist from the rapids. Surrounded by towering trees, the daily soundtrack was that of the river’s waters.
Our hike took us along the cabins on Society Hill and the Jakes River Trail. We then ascended the Cucumber Gap Trail. The woods were very beautiful and the weather was perfect. There was definitely damage from the storm and we threaded our way carefully around and under downed trees. The rivers were running very high and it was hard to cross without getting wet.
The Cucumber Gap Trail was one of the most magnificent we had hiked. The trees were enormous. Rivers ran along the trail. There was tremendous natural beauty and we were constantly exclaiming at new sights.
Our hike was a good long one with lots of hills and we were tired and footsore at the end. We were also really sorry that we had only that one day to explore this absolutely entrancing park. Now we understood Dolly Parton’s passionate devotion and loyalty to this land. We vowed to come back one day and spend several weeks exploring this remarkable place.