Archive for October, 2005

Greensboro, N.C.
Visited: October 31, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 277 of 353
NPS Website

General GreeneWHAT IS IT?
Site of a bloody March 15, 1781 Revolutionary War battle won by the British forces commanded by General Cornwallis.

BEAUTY (6/10)
Battlefield endangerment purists probably won’t like it here because much of the Battleground lays outside the Park boundaries, victims of development. There are also lots and lots of monuments. Monuments and statues honoring everyone from War heroes like Nathanael Greene (hence Greensboro) to North Carolina’s Declaration of Independence signatories to a woman who lost her son in the battle to the countless people who made the Guilford Courthouse NMP possible.

But we liked it. The Park occupies a lovely narrow bit of public green space wedged between the suburban sprawl of Greensboro. Its humble acreage creates a cozy, well-trod feel. The Battlefield was manageably walked and easily completed in less than two hours.

“Another such victory would ruin the British Army,” was the response of Charles James Fox, head of Parliament’s opposition party, when informed of the results at Guilford Courthouse. He was, as they say over there, spot on.

In fact, the British Army never got a chance to win again. Their “victory” came at a high cost: the loss of the American colonies. General Cornwallis lost ¼ of his 1,900 men and was forced to retreat to Yorktown, Virginia where he would surrender his Army seven months later.

The Site claimed Guilford Courthouse as the most important Revolutionary War battle fought south of Philadelphia. We agree. We also agreed when the same thing was said at Kings Mountain, Cowpens, Fort Moultrie, Moore’s Creek and Yorktown… but we really agree this time.

A Pleasant WalkCROWDS (8/10)
We saw hundreds of Greensboro-ians enjoying the beautiful day at their National Park. No, they were not touring the battlefield, they were picnicking, running, walking and utilizing the grounds more as a pleasant City Park than a Battlefield. Seeing non-history-buff-type people was nice, especially after walking mile after lonely rural mile through the Carolina’s other Revolutionary War parks.

The sprawl of Greensboro, N.C. has completely engulfed the once separate village of Guilford Court House. The Park is located just off U.S. Route 220, about three miles northwest of downtown. An isolated 2¼-mile auto tour, populated with more joggers than cars, circles the battlefield. Numerous paved and unpaved trails weave around the battlefield meeting at unexpected angles.

The Guilford Courthouse NMP is so extensive and chock full o’ titles that we openly wondered, “are you sure this wasn’t a Civil War battle?” You know, because the Civil War-related bookstores are all great. OK, maybe this is only funny to us; we have been to a lot of battlefields.

COSTS (4/5)
Free. An in-depth Revolutionary War education is cheap.

Rangers are posted at the entrance desk armed with answers. The fully self-guided Museum is bound to generate questions.

When did “electric maps” become “fiber-optic battle presentations”? Guilford Courthouse’s fiber optic presentation is encased in a soundproof glass booth. We felt like we were on a quiz show.

The tremendous map is par for the Guilford Courthouse’s educational course. An excellent and new Museum examines the southern campaign of the Revolutionary War at great length with skilled panels and original artifacts. The Museum also included a tactile map of the Battlefield, combined in its display with a Braille recap of the different stages of the fight. Amazing stuff.

If the free NPS exhibits do not satiate your 18th-century appetite, the Tannebaum Historic Park is less than a ¼ mile away.

Charming BridgeFUN (7/10)
Guilford Courthouse NMP offers the best learning experience of the seven Carolina NPS Revolutionary War Parks. We came here last, which was not a bad choice. The Museum tied together everything we had learned over the course of our whirlwind tour.

March 18-19, 2006 marks the 225th Anniversary of the Battle that won the Revolutionary War. If you are in Greensboro on that date, you should definitely enjoy the festivities. Why would you be in Greensboro then, you ask? Well, that date coincides with Greensboro’s hosting of the 2006 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. The first round games are on the 16th, second round on the 18th. We say go to the second round games and enjoy history on the 19th. Go Hoyas!

TOTAL 61/80


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stretches from Shenandoah NP, Va. to Great Smoky Mountains NP, Tenn.
Visited: October 30, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 276 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

469 miles of two-lane road that follows the Appalachian Mountain ridgeline, each mile more breathtaking than the last.

Shining PathBEAUTY (10/10)
The Parkway rides the long, bumpy spine of the Appalachians, roller-coastering its way above the fray and the madness below. Its humble two-lane, 45-mph speed limited road is free from billboards, litter, cross traffic and tractor-trailers. The Parkway is almost 500 miles of panoramas, sweeping vistas and majestic overlooks.

The Blue Ridge Parkway bisects the mountainous areas of Virginia and North Carolina known as southern Appalachia, where coal and logging industries introduced a diverse group of workers to the region previously inhabited (and probably named) by Native Americans.

Appalachian history is highlighted in many of the Parkway’s roadside stops, exhibits and remnants of farms and mills. Appalachian culture is alive in the folk art centers and music center that lie within NPS boundaries.

CROWDS (8/10)
Every Visitor Center was full. Pullouts were packed. An unseasonably warm day brought sunbathers from (we are assuming) Appalachian State University to the lawns around Moses Cone Manor. We were part of a sea of people moving along the previously inaccessible Blue Ridge in either direction.

The accessibility of the Parkway guarantees at least 20 million visitors a year. 20 million people driving just to drive, drawn by the beauty of the Blue Ridge Mountains. We felt a connection with our fellow travelers. The Blue Ridge Parkway is an essential American experience.

Nine out of twelve months this rating would be a five, but icy conditions intensify at the higher altitude passes in the winter and late fall. Plan on a few road closures and detours if you visit the Parkway between the end of October and spring thaw. We encountered two.

The rest of the year, the Parkway is the easiest way to explore the Appalachian hills and ridges. The Parkway stretches from Rockfish Gap, Va. to the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina. Mile markers increase in number from North to South. Should you find yourself missing life in the fast lane, Interstate 81 parallels the east side of the Blue Ridge and the Parkway.

Road BlockThe Parkway did not connect from end to end until less than 20 years ago. 461.5 of its miles were ready by 1967, but a 7.5-mile boulder-filled course over Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina was impassable until the construction of the Linn Cove Viaduct in September of 1987. Site literature calls the Viaduct, “the most complicated concrete bridge ever built.”

Asheville, N.C. and Roanoke, Va. are the largest cities close to the Parkway; the smaller towns of Lexington and Lynchburg are also easily reached. We know because we spent nights in each of them.

There are not one but two opportunities to lose yourself among the rich crafts of the Southern Highland Craft Guild along the Parkway. The Parkway Craft Center is housed inside the stately Moses Cone Manor at milepost 294. The Allanstand Craft Shop, the Guild’s flagship and oldest continuously operating craft shop in the nation, occupies the first floor of the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Folk Art Center at milepost 382, east of Asheville, NC.

Craft HeavenSo if you are kicking yourself for not picking up that piece of glassware, patchwork quilt or hand-carved puzzle box when you first saw it, odds are you can find something similar further along in your journey. The Moses Cone Manor should be awakening any day now from its winter dormancy. The Allanstand is open and active with events and demonstrations year round.

COSTS (4/5)
There is no toll for the East’s most famous drive but we dare you not to buy souvenirs at the Park’s extraordinary folk art centers.

Rangers were on hand at every Visitor Center, but most were occupied with rerouting visitors around the two road closures on the Parkway. As we lined up to let the Ranger highlight our map and tell us how to get back on course, we wondered how many times she had gone through this routine already today and if perhaps there were a better way to disseminate this information.

The works of the Southern Highland Craft Guild rival any museum of American folk art that we have seen. The Folk Art Center at milepost 382 gives credence to our statement with its second floor gallery, showcasing both current artisans and works from the past while it explains the raw materials and process by which each object was made.

The brand new Blue Ridge Music Center at milepost 213 is filled with sunshine, smells of freshly hammered timber and gold records acquired by some of the forefathers (and mothers) of bluegrass and the blues. The bright and spacious main building tells of Appalachia’s contributions to American music and hosts concerts and open jam sessions in spring, summer and fall.

Mount Mitchell State Park, just off the Parkway’s milepost 355 offers more educational opportunities and exhibits, but its concrete observation deck with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains is why we strayed from the Parkway. Mount Mitchell is the highest point in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains.

Lovely MillFUN (10/10)
One would think that after being in the car together for almost two years, we would not seek out roads that necessitate low speeds and prolong our drive time. We enjoyed every minute of our time on and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Every time Gab started to fidget, a sign for the next Visitor Center appeared or a stunning overlook emerged from around a bend. Perfect timing.

We chose the trails around Linville Falls (milepost 316) as one of the sites to stretch our legs, as did everyone else it seemed. Trails were crowded but well kept. The 45-mph Parkway speed limit must have rubbed off on us. We were so relaxed and unhurried that we didn’t really mind waiting as a family scooted their throng of little ones up steps and closer to the falls. Driving the Parkway is all about going with the flow.

We were nervous about hitting the Parkway at such a peak time of year, but we can’t say our visit was affected by people. The biggest challenge was finding a high perch for sunset but still making off the Parkway and down the ridge before dark. The only disappointment was the early winter closing of some of the smaller Visitor Centers.

We kept reminding ourselves as we cruised along that these mountaintops were once totally out of reach to most of the American public. The Parkway serves as a memorial to the vision of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the ingenuity of the American people to make it real.

Although it took over 52 years to complete the Parkway, today’s visitors need only get in the car and go. This unforgettable drive requires low effort and yields high rewards. Since it is closed to commercial vehicles, one can take those curves as slowly as one would like, allowing for plenty of time to take in the mountain air and enjoy the peacefulness of the drive.

The only way one could not fully enjoy a trip along the Blue Ridge Parkway is to see it as a route between two National Parks and not a destination in its own right.

TOTAL 67/80

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Middlesboro, Ky.
Visited: October 29, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 274 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

The Cumberland GapWHAT IS IT?
Mountain crossing where hundreds of thousands of pioneers from 1775 to 1810 crossed the Appalachians and into the unknown frontier.

BEAUTY (7/10)
Present-day westward travelers no longer take U.S. Route 25A over the Cumberland Gap. In 1996, a tunnel was built that burrows under this famed landscape. As a result, views of the Gap are less spoiled by screaming cars and dull asphalt. The twisting road that leads up to the Pinnacle Overlook offers stunning looks at the land below.

For millennia, bison traversed the path over the Appalachian Mountains and through the Cumberland Gap. American Indians followed the worn animal trails, using the Gap for their own trade and transportation needs for 10,000 years.

In 1775, Daniel Boone blazed his famous Wilderness Trail over this same well-worn Gap and into the promised land of Kentucky. By 1792, Kentucky’s population had swelled to over 100,000 and it was admitted into the Union as the 15th United State.

Park literature and accepted historical yarns call the Cumberland Gap “the first doorway to the West” and infer that the Gap was the only place anyone ever crossed the Appalachian Mountains. None of this is true. For example, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was founded in the 1750’s, was regarded then as being the Western frontier and sits west of the Appalachians.

The Daniel Boone-Cumberland Gap story is an important American frontier creation myth but was not the only story of westward expansion. Cumberland Gap NHP, at best, serves as an Ellis Island-like place for long-time Kentuckians, a place where they can trace their roots and know where their great-great-great-great-great grandparents once passed.

CROWDS (5/10)
We saw few people; how could all the guided tours be sold out? That is a question for the ages. Permits were still available for ridgeline pack in camping along the Gap’s many trails. We saw group of hardy travelers apply. Sub-freezing temperatures, wet, foggy weather…no thank you.

Sunshine Morning

The Cumberland Gap is no longer a traveler’s hub. The nearest lodging is in the wholly inhospitable town of Middlesboro, Ky. The Park’s entrance is reached via the first exit of U.S. Route 25A west of the Cumberland Gap Tunnel.

A road up from the Visitor Center leads to the Pinnacle Overlook that provides vistas of the Gap. Most of the Park, however, is accessible only by hiking trails, one of which, the Ridge Trail, follows the Kentucky-Tennessee border for over 15 miles.

The Southern Highland Craft Guild has recently opened their fifth store at the Cumberland Gap NHP Visitor Center. The Guild’s products are some of the best traditional handmade products found anywhere in the United States. The selection at all five stores varies a great deal. The biggest drawback of the Cumberland Gap store is its relative lack of square footage, especially when compared to the sprawling Parkway Craft Center and Folk Art Center, both located along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

COSTS (2/5)
Park entry is free, Gap Cave tours are $8 per person. We had not intended on spelunking. Good thing because tickets had already sold out for the next two days.

From May 1 to November 13, two Ranger-led tours leave daily for the deep woods Hensley Settlement. These tours run $14 per adult. These tours also sell out in advance.

There are Rangers, but to get their attention you need to pay for a guided tour.

We were disappointed by the Park’s new film, a 23-minute, hi-def gargantuan screen, elaborate costume drama called Daniel Boone and the Westward Movement. The film speaks more to legend than historical fact, numbs you with inane re-enactments and smothers you with superficial conclusions. In addition, every single scene takes place with a peak fall colors background, just vexing to this pair of autumn foliage hunting failures.

Crossing the BorderFUN (4/10)
Two things at Cumberland Gap NHP turned our frowns upside down: the Southern Highland Craft Guild and the Pinnacle Overlook. We stopped grumbling about the sold-out tours and ridiculous movie when a carpenter beckoned us over to look at puzzle boxes he was shaping. We forgot about the Visitor Center altogether when the Nissan started winding steeply up the drive to the Overlook, crossing through early morning sunbeams along the way. At one point, we pulled the car over and ran out into the road cameras in hand to try and capture some of the glorious otherworldly light streaming through the trees.

Only if you plan on: a) staying in a metro center like Knoxville, Tenn. or Lexington, Ky. and making a day trip or b) getting a backcountry permit and doing some serious ridge hiking. Cumberland Gap is an either/or choice. A night in Middlesboro, Ky, a dry town where Arby’s is the best option for an evening meal and inflated motel prices are the norm, is almost enough to negate the beauty of the artisan crafts and the Park’s ridgeline overlooks.

TOTAL 39/80

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near Oneida, Tenn. and Stearns, Ky.
Visited: October 28, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 273 of 353
NPS Website

Coal Mine SignWHAT IS IT?
Over 125,000 acres of Cumberland Plateau coal country. The Park is largely a reclamation of lands completely stripped by large-scale mining that are now blossoming with new trees, recovering waters and oodles of outdoor recreational opportunities.

BEAUTY (4/10)
We were disappointed by our drive to the East Rim Overlook. We expected sweeping vistas, a deep gorge, stunning colors and a raging river confluence. Instead, it looked a lot like what we had been driving next to the entire day. Perhaps the Site gets prettier once you make your way into the interior or maybe we just hit the wrong overlook.

The Stearns Railroad Depot looks rather decrepit in the evening light of an early winter’s night. The NPS Visitor Center’s mustard yellow siding does not work as well for it as it did for Michelle Williams’ 2006 Oscar dress, especially when contrasted with the lime green siding of the building it faces.

The area’s transformation from wilderness to ravaged landscape and back to protected National Park land is interesting enough. The outdoor Blue Heron Coal Mining Community is located near the Blue Heron campground in Kentucky and is at the end of the line for the Big South Fork Scenic Railway.

CROWDS (5/10)
We were here in the off-season but it certainly feels like a place that could get crowded. Campsites number in the hundreds, on-site horse stables teem with pack animals, and there is a scenic railway and a public pool. NPS visitation stats quote about 800,000 people here per year. That number is higher than it sounds because a) Big South Fork has no casual (passerby visitors) and b) there so few places in it to go to and congregate.

The Park was nearly empty during our visit. That did not prevent us from being stuck behind a 25 mph driver on the Park’s only road. Normally, we would have been patient, but this time it was nearing 5:00 p.m. and we needed to get to the VC before it closed to get our National Parks Passport Stamp… and we succeeded.

DecorationEASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
The Park is not located far from the U.S. Interstate system. I-75, Exit 11 passes by 26 miles to the east of the Stearns, Ky. Visitor Center and Oneida, Tenn. is about 25 miles northwest of I-75, Exit 144. Nevertheless, only one paved road travels through the Park, the Leatherwood Ford Road in Tennessee, making a majority of the Site accessible to only the most adventurous.

Whoa, nelly! Located next to the horse stables is the Bandy Creek Bookstore. It is so large that it could probably house a few equines itself. Just when you think you have seen everything, you enter another room. Here are a few of the things it sells that we never expected to see in a National Parks Bookstore: votive candles, formal floral greeting cards, old-fashioned lye soap and a Tennessee Volunteers quilt. How come the Wildcats can’t get any love?

COSTS (3/5)
Park entry is free. Camping runs between $15 and $20 per night, advance reservation can be made. There are many campsites at Big South Fork. Standard charges apply for a few of the Park’s activities, including $2 for use of the Bandy Creek Pool, $5 for backcountry camping, and $15 for a ride on the Big South Fork Scenic Railway.

There were a few milling about the Bandy Creek buildings. None seemed that eager to engage us in conversation.

The small Bandy Creek Museum took a back seat to the bookstore space it shared. The Blue Heron Coal Mining Community Museum might be worth a trip. It is a coal mining ghost town. We did not go so we have no recommendation either way.

FUN (4/10)
We were a little overwhelmed by the Park’s size and unclear as to what we could do. The day was ending and there were no viable hotel choices within a 50 mile radius. We were rushed, the air was nippy and the Site just was not that exciting. If we had come in summer, the situation might have been different. However, we might be a little leery of the 100 Bandy Creek campsite pre-hooked up with electric and water. This place could be a motor home mecca.

100% Filter InducedWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10)
Our planned excursion from Knoxville was a trip to the Obed NSR, then to Big South Fork NRRA and then a night at the Cumberland Gap. We expected two identical parks with limited things to do. Well, we were right about the limited things to do in the off-season part, but wrong about the Parks being similar.

The Obed NSR has few facilitates, even fewer visitors and feels constricted by the surrounding private lands. The Big South Fork NRRA is a monster destination with campgrounds, horses, bookstores, museums, trains and untold acres of sprawling space. We would only travel again to both River Parks if we lived nearby. The opportunities offered here are just not spectacular enough to warrant a vacation to this remote location.

TOTAL 35/80

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Obed Wild and Scenic River

near Wartburg, Tenn.
Visited: October 28, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 272 of 353
NPS Website

The Clear CreekWHAT IS IT?
The Obed WSR protects a few dozen miles of some of the last free-flowing water left in Tennessee.

BEAUTY (7/10)
The scenery was a lot more beautiful than we had ever imagined. The Clear Creek and Obed River have cut gentle 500-foot gorges in the surrounding sandstone. The views are dramatic, especially with the fall foliage.

It is amazing to find a stretch of whitewater in eastern Tennessee where FDR and the TVA did not place a dam.

CROWDS (3/10)
The Park Ranger in Wartburg warned us about the lands surrounding the Obed. “The Park is only the immediate cliffs that border the water. The locals run the rest of the land. Be careful, stay on the roads I tell you and don’t wander off the trails because, while it may not hunting season, there might be people out there hunting.” The Ranger succeeded; we were petrified.

That being said, we hiked up to the Lily Bluff Overlook and were attacked only once; and that was by a white-tailed deer. More on that later.

Lily Bluff and MichaelEASE OF USE/ACCESS (1/5)
Wartburg, Tenn. is located along U.S. Route 27, about 20 miles north of Interstate 40, Exit 347. The nearest city is Oak Ridge, home of Manhattan Project, located 20 miles to the southeast.

Once you reach Wartburg, go to the Visitor Center (there are signs) and pick up a map. The River has only four paved access points. The shallow River runs only in the winter, when the temperature is bound to be cold. There is only one NPS-marked hiking trail. Sandstone rocks along this trail seemed to be good rock climbing spotsh.

There was no bookstore at the Park Visitor Center.

COSTS (4/5)
Everything here is free.

The Ranger at the desk was super helpful and very kind.

Uh, nothing. But the nice Ranger answered everything we wanted to know.

FUN (5/10)
We were a little scared to hike up to Lilly Bluff overlook, 500 feet above where we parked our car. No one wants to be mistaken for a deer and shot. So we stuck close together and talked loudly. Once we grew more confident in our solitude, we reverted to our usual hiking routine: Michael plowing ahead while Gabby takes her peaceful time.

At the bluff top, the trail zigzagged upward, finishing at a beautiful overlook of the rivers’ confluence and the surrounding sandstone cliffs. While at the top, Michael heard a rustling in the trees. Then the rustling started to move away from him and right towards where he imagined Gab to be moseying up the trail. He nervously chuckled, waiting to hear what he could not see.

Gorge-ousGab was indeed moseying along when the shrubs three feet to her right came alive with motion. She looked up to see a beautiful doe charging directly at her. Both froze, stared at each other and then one of them (the deer) had the sense to change course inches before contact. She rushed up to find Michael and confirmed the near collision that he expected.

Unless you live in Oak Ridge or Knoxville, there is no reason to travel here except to get the National Parks Passport stamp.

TOTAL 30/80

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near Gatlinburg, Tenn.
Visited: October 26, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 271 of 353
NPS Website

Tranquil CreekWHAT IS IT?
Wonderfully vast and diverse Appalachian mountain park that boasts over 500,000 acres and more plant species than the continent of Europe. This wilderness playground is home to many superlatives including our most visited National Park and our most polluted.

BEAUTY (10/10)
Newfound Gap Road, the two-lane highway that bisects the Park, gets our vote for one of the most scenic roads in the United States. Even though Great Smoky Mountains NP has hundreds of thousands of acres which can only be explored by trail, the casual visitor can get an astounding sensory snapshot of what the Park has to offer and hardly has to leave his or her vehicle.

Appalachian cottages are clustered near the north and south entrances of the Park. In between, the Newfound Gap Road travels aside the Oconanluftee River, winds through five distinct forest types and climbs up to meet the highest point of the Appalachian Trail. Changes in elevation guarantee that the landscape, fauna and flora will vary from start to finish. Waterfalls, stone bridges and small animals appear when you least expect them. We found it impossible to drive farther than a few miles at a time without stopping to admire the scenery around us.

Great Smoky Mountain NP is designated both as an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site, meaning it is recognized as a core area that preserves and protects both biological and cultural resources.

The cultural resources protected by the Park include Appalachian homes, mills and artifacts from the 19th and 20th centuries left behind as the Park was assembled through the acquisition of private lands.

Great Smoky Mountain NP is one of the first National Parks east of the Mississippi as well as one of the first patch-worked together from private lands.

On Top of Old SmokyAlthough not without opposition, activists in the 1930s convinced the states of Tennessee and North Carolina to protect the Smokies from commercial logging, purchase the land and donate it to the federal government. What is amazing is the amount of land the National Park Service has been able to manage and preserve one-half million acres?! To set aside that amount of land on the East Coast and protect it from urban and commercial development unfortunately seems like an unattainable dream today.

CROWDS (4/10)
The Great Smoky Mountains NP is perpetually packed, as in no room to walk or even breath packed. In 2005, 9.2 million people visited the Great Smokies. In the same year, 10.5 million combined people visited Grand Canyon NP, Yellowstone NP AND Yosemite NP!

We approached the Park from its southeastern entrance at Cherokee where the crowds were modest but steady. Once we crossed the Blue Ridge and entered Tennessee, there were cars and people everywhere.

The Clingman’s Dome overlook parking lot overflowed while no less than 100 professional photographer types (sturdy tripods, high-end Canons, bulging camera bags, multiple light filters, old press passes hanging from their necks and cigarettes dangling from their mouths) lined the parking lot’s ridge at sundown prepared to get the perfect sunset photo.

The descent towards Gatlinburg means more and more people and constant traffic lines along the Park’s narrow, tortuous two-lane roads. Luckily, there are ample places to pull over and take in the ethereal scenery.

The Perfect SunsetWe avoided the Park’s signature drive (we’re blushing in shame) the Cades Cove Loop Road. Evidently, the 11-mile loop takes between 2 and 4 hours to traverse because a) all the cars and b) bear jams. Black bears hang out on the road, people take pictures and traffic stops. Makes sense to us. The Cades Cove Loop is “the most heavily visited destination within the most heavily visited national park in the U.S.”

Despite the swarms of people, the Park feels like a place where, if you wander of the beaten path, you will be rewarded with tremendous scenery and some peace and quiet. Nearly the entire Park is wilderness and inaccessible by car; there cannot be people in these places, can there?

The Park’s only accessibility downsides are the large crowd deterrence and twisty roads. But heck, this is what an appreciated National Park looks like: lots of people and smoggy sunsets.

Unlike Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion and the Grand Canyon, megalithic-sized tourist towns have sprung up around Great Smoky NP. If you cannot find a cheap hotel room here, you are not looking hard enough.

Gatlinburg is a quaint, Swiss-chalet-ish town with narrow streets, kitschy cute shops and a Dukes of Hazzard-tribute restaurant owned by the actor who played Cooter. Pigeon Forge is eight lanes of traffic (Route 441) sided by go-cart tracks, bungee jumping towers, motels and themed restaurants. Route 441 is numbered with mile-markers as if it were a beach town. Pigeon Forge’s most famous denizen is Dolly Parton and her amusement park, Dollywood.

Who’s That Girl?If Dollywood isn’t your speed, the Park is within 40 miles of both Knoxville, Tenn. (to the west) and Asheville, N.C. (to the east). These two quirky, growing college towns both boast prominent literary sons (James Agee and Thomas Wolfe) and desirable downtowns.

If you want to stay in the Park, there are over 1,000 campsites in 10 campgrounds. 500+ of these sites can be reserved ahead of time. Backcountry permits are free and probably the preferable way to get away from it all.

On sale are hundreds of books raging in topic from local history to Cherokee heritage to mountain ghost stories. The store is also generous with the stuffed animals; we were partial to the Plush Turkey Vulture. We think those soaring omnivores are super cuddly and endearingly clumsy. The bookstore hands out an eight-page glossy flier called “Smokies Gift Ideas” which can be very helpful amid the overwhelming selection.

COSTS (5/5)
The Great Smoky Mountains proudly stands in the pantheon of American National Parks and remarkably charges no entrance fee. Perhaps that is why it is our most crowded and most visited National Park.

Great Smoky Mountains NP gets mad props for manning each Visitor Center with a throng of Rangers and volunteers to direct, recommend, and manage its seemingly unmanageable number of guests.

How do you deal with 9.2 million people coming through your Park every year?

A) Offer a high-definition introductory movie in a large theatre playing on what seems like a continuous loop at Sugarlands, the most popular VC; B) Showcase your cultural exhibits outside in historic villages like Cades Cove and living history museums like Mountain Farm; and C) Publish an excellent array of supplemental booklets and brochures that visitors can purchase for a nominal fee at self-serve stations at every VC.

Climb at Your Own RiskUsually we wince at having to pay extra for trail maps or guides to scenic drives. That was before we peeked inside these wonderful, thick-papered pullouts produced by the Great Smoky Mountain Association. These single-subject supplements to the official park brochure and the park newspaper are filled with detailed information on everything from birding to backpack loops, to favorite long and short hikes. Scenic drives, wildlife, waterfalls and wild flowers also get their own specialized treatment. Priced from 50 cents to a dollar, we found these to be well worth the cost. We emptied our pockets of change and left with several.

It is hard being so well-liked. The Park’s film, newspaper, and pretty much all of its official materials highlight the challenges created by the steady stream of people and cars through the protected lands. More than an explanation or an excuse, the publications invite the public to join in the stewardship of the Park. That gets another thumbs up.

Not officially part of the Park, the newly renovated Museum of the Cherokee Indian just south of the Oconaluftee VC highlights the Trail of Tears and ten thousand years of Cherokee history.

Just before the north entrance of the Park, the Southern Highland Craft Guild operates one of their Craft Shops. As beautiful as any gallery or art museum, the Shop warrants a stop, if only to browse and admire.

FUN (10/10)
A road closure on the Blue Mountain Parkway and its mandatory detour gave us a later start in the Park than we had hoped for. We still managed to traverse Newfound Gap Road before dark, stopping frequently to climb down into creek beds, gaze up at foliage, stretch our legs and just stare.

We even took a non-mandatory but highly recommended detour up to Clingman’s Dome. Because of the altitude, we have a feeling this road leads to a winter wonderland almost any time of the year. We happened to drive up it before the road closed for the winter but after an early winter snow storm which left everything in a coat of white sticky snow.

He’s a WaterfallCan you picture how gorgeous this is with the late afternoon sun streaming through the pines? If you can’t hundreds of photographers were there to capture the moment on film.

Because of our late morning start and meandering drive, we experienced the blinding glitter and glam of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge at night. The unending commerce of Pigeon Forge makes the protected peace of Great Smoky Mountains NP all the more appreciated and quite frankly, unbelievable. We found a place to rest our heads and returned to the Park the next day to do it all again.

Absolutely, emphatically, yes. There is a reason, in fact many reasons, why 9 million+ people make the pilgrimage here every year.

TOTAL 67/80

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Flat Rock, N.C.
Visited: October 26, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 270 of 353
NPS Website

Longtime home (and goat farm) of Carl Sandburg, famed 20th-century American poet and Abraham Lincoln biographer.

BEAUTY (6/10)
The Sandburg’s whitewashed clapboard house is probably the least impressive home along the streets of Flat Rock. Its interior is equally drab, save for Carl’s thousands and thousands of books. Furniture and wall hangings are sparse, at least that’s what we were told. Much of the home’s items were under plastic wrap during some necessary restoration work on windows and walls.

If we lived in the Sandburg home, we would spend much of our time where Carl did: outside. Connemara’s 245 acres overlooks the rolling pastures dotted with Mrs. Sandburg’s prized goats, a lake stocked with trout and the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains.

Carl Sandburg wrote about a 1/3 of his literary output here at Connemara. Sandburg is remembered as singularly American because of his populist poetry, his Illinois prairie roots and his vast and iconic Lincoln biography, often called the best work written about America’s most-written-about hero.

Lovely ConnemaraCROWDS (7/10)
Tours of Connemara max out at 15 people. Our 9 am tour of the house reached capacity and felt even larger since we had to squeeze past several NPS employees already working inside. We were carefully herded through the halls and around the protected belongings of the Sandburgs. Space was tight. This house tour is not for the claustrophobic, especially when there are acres of pasture, forest and a lakefront to enjoy.

Flat Rock, NC is just south of Asheville, NC and north of Greenville, NC along I-26. Carl Sandburg Home NHS is reached via exit 22, US-25. Once you are on US-25, turn on to Little River Road which is between the post office and the Flat Rock Playhouse (Flat Rock is a very small town), go just 0.1 mile and the parking lot will be on your left.

The Site’s brochure says just follow the signs to the Sandburg Home NHS, but if you are coming up from Greenville, signs are less prevalent and the exit is easy to miss. We did.

The walk from the parking lot up to the Sandburg home and Park VC is a steady incline which may prove difficult for elderly visitors or those with physical disabilities. Luckily, there is a small information building at the foot of the walk with a phone. You can call up the hill and, if staffing allows, a Ranger will come get you in a little shuttle.

The best bookstores are ones that offer treasures to every budget range. Mr. Sandburg’s writings were available in lovely hardbound editions as well as dollar paperback versions.

COSTS (2/5)
A tour of the Carl Sandburg house runs $5 per person, free with the National Parks Pass. During our tour the House’s star attraction, Sandburg’s vast book collection, was hidden behind dust-resistant covers for cleaning and inventory purposes. If we had paid the $5, we would have been very disappointed.

We found two Rangers at the Goat Barn letting the goats out to graze. After oh so many goat portraits, we wandered back to the house where another Ranger invited us in the basement Visitor Center, gave us our tour tickets and settled us in for the film. We assumed she would be giving the tour. Not so.

A kind, but less than knowledgeable volunteer escorted us through the Sandburg home. With a limited timeframe and a tour group that tended towards tangential questions, we would have appreciated a more dexterous and informed guide.

We were even more frustrated by this bait and switch when we peeked through half-opened doors to find several Rangers engaged in inventory inside Connemara.

The Park’s introductory film is a must-see whether you are a Sandburg scholar or are just taking a side trip from your Asheville fall-colors vacation. The film is just a rebroadcasted Carl Sandburg interview done by famed journalist Edward R. Murrow. Sandburg sings, recites poetry, speaks philosophy, plays with his goats over the course of 20 minutes. His personality jumps off the screen and pleasantly frames the rest of your visit. You see Sandburg’s quirks and whimsies in his books, his farm, his views, his house and his life.

The volunteer-led tour was not so great. Your experience could be different. Sandburg 14,000 books were covered; you could not even see the titles. Had we known, we would not have taken the tour.

FUN (8/10)
Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats! Goats!

Well, HelloWhat is more fun than running around a stunning Appalachian mountain estate with friendly goats? We say nothing. Well, maybe listening to Gab’s impressions of Carl Sandburg reading his poetry. Maybe she can upload a .wav image, because you cannot capture her mimicry skills in print.

The wonderful thing about Carl Sandburg’s vast estate is that it is now Americas to enjoy. He has given it back to the people. Five miles of trails weave through the mountains and pastures. His views are now our views, his inspiration now ours.

The NPS’s roster of literary-related sites will do nothing to dispel the myth that writers are bonkers. Edgar Allan Poe, Eugene O’Neill and now Carl Sandburg. While Poe and O’Neill’s sites might throw you into a severe depression, Sandburg’s will just make you feel good. He was kooky and lived in a separate planar dimension but he loved life, humanity and America. It is impossible to leave Flat Rock without a warm feeling towards the bard, his wife, his wonderful prize-winning goats and even yourself.

TOTAL 52/80

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