Posts Tagged ‘Tennessee’

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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near Savannah, Tenn.
Visited: February 13, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 153 of 353

NPS Website; Local Website

Artillery LineWHAT IS IT?
An exceptionally bloody April 1862 battle that finally convinced Americans that the Civil War was going to be long, difficult and increasingly horrifying.

BEAUTY (4/10)
The pleasant woodland, the wide Tennessee River and the Battlefield’s many open fields have changed little in the past 140 years. The setting is not much different from any rural landscape in this part of the country.

The Battle at Shiloh has taken on mythic importance in American history, partly because it was the first battle with major casualties, over 24,000, and somewhat because of its profoundly tragic name. Shiloh was a biblical place of refuge for the Israelites.

Tactically, Shiloh was the next fight after Fort Donelson in U.S. Grant’s aggressive push for control of the western theater of battle. Grant’s eventual success at Vicksburg would split the Confederacy in half.

CROWDS (6/10)
The driving tour of the Battlefield follows a circuitous route through monuments and tributes to those who fought. The path is long and isolated; crowds are evenly disbursed and should not affect your visit. We ran into the normal plethora of Civil War diehards dragging along their less than happy wives. We still not sure what connection the excited Scandinavian family of four had with Shiloh, perhaps the most out-of-place tourists we have seen.

Shiloh NMP is located in southwestern Tennessee near Savannah, Tenn. NOT Savannah, Georgia. The Park is smack dab in the middle of nowhere. No Interstates run this way but many roads run into town.

Florence, Alabama is about 80 miles to the southeast; Jackson, Tenn. is about 60 miles to the northwest. Tupelo, Mississippi is 70 miles to the south; Columbia, Tenn. is 100 miles to the east. Those are the closest towns to Shiloh. Can anyone place any of those cities on a map? You really have to want to come here.

The Shiloh NMP bookstore is so big that it gets its own building. Included among its many categories of books are Regimental History, Local Native American History, African American History and a slew of books just about Shiloh, including four different ones whose title is Shiloh.

You can look it up. The authors are Shelby Foote, Larry Daniel, Wiley Sword (that can’t be his real name) and James Lee McDonough. Not included is the Phyllis Reynolds Naylor children’s book, Shiloh, which is about a West Virginia dog and has nothing to do with the Battle.

COSTS (3/5)
Entry is $3 per person or $5 per family.

There was one Ranger on duty at the Visitor Center.

The Shiloh NMP introductory film, Shiloh: Portrait of a Battle was done in 1956. It is abysmal. The footage is primarily re-enactors adorned with pasted on beards. It looks like U.S. Grant might even be portrayed by a woman but it is difficult to tell because of the grainy footage. According to a Ranger we met elsewhere, the film’s Battle saga is completely wrong. Historical research has disproven most of the film’s conclusions. The film is a mess and lacks the charm of other outdated Park films. Skip it.

The exhibits are dated as well, but at least they deliver some interesting trivia and short bios on the future celebrities that fought at Shiloh. Here are a few: John Wesley Powell (lost an arm at Shiloh but was the first man to raft the Colorado River); Lew Wallace (author of Ben Hur); James Garfield (Republican hero and future U.S. president); journalist Henry Stanley (the man who found Dr. Livingston in the Congo) and William LeBaron Jenney (the “father of the skyscraper”).

Gab also enjoyed the period costumes that allowed you to dress up like a Civil War soldier. She picked the Billy Yank uniform. We then worried about knee jerk militancy from our fellow tourists, all Southerners.

Mourning StatueFUN (4/10)
We did not have much fun; battlefields are difficult places to tour. Shiloh is an anonymous piece of land that for a few days in April of 1862 became a killing field. It is impossible to separate Shiloh from its bloody past. All hikes lead down roads that played a prominent role in the fight. Many of them lead to mass Confederate graves. The Southern soldiers were never given the dignity of a proper burial.

Shiloh holds an important place in the hearts of many Americans. It was a place of great tragedy and loss. It is not tops on our list of tourist destinations but we may be in the minority; millions have read the many fictionalized accounts of the Battle.

If you do go, make sure you go to the new Corinth Interpretive Center located 22 miles south of Shiloh first (our review tomorrow). The Corinth Center explains Shiloh well and makes up for the lack of educational opportunities at the Battlefield itself.

TOTAL 41/80

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Dover, Tenn.
Visited: February 11, 2005
NPS Site Visited: 150 of 353
NPS Website; Local Website

Mother Bickerdyke and AssistantWHAT IS IT?
The first major Union victory of the Civil War, one that saw the emergence of two of the War’s greatest heroes, U.S. Grant from the North and Confederate cavalry hero, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

BEAUTY (5/10)
The Park is located along a pleasant bend in Lake Barkley p/k/a the Cumberland River. Two looped hiking trails weave their way along the former river and through the now peaceful woodland forest. Fort Donelson has its share of monuments but is not nearly as cluttered as the more famous Civil War battlefields. There are not thousands of cannons and not every troop movement has been marked with a placard.

The Land Between the Lakes in northwestern Tennessee was a vital strategic location. In February of 1862 they were not yet man-made lakes, they were the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers; two of the three rivers that allowed easy access into the entire western potion of the South, the other river being the Mississippi. Control of the rivers meant control of the War.

On February 8, U.S. Grant captured Fort Henry, along the Tennessee, and proceeded to march 12 miles east to Fort Donelson, which protected the Cumberland. Vicious fighting ensued but by February 16, Grant’s army emerged victorious and the Federals had control of both rivers. Through tough negotiations, the Brigadier General earned his nickname “Unconditional Surrender Grant” here.

Union control of the rivers marked the beginning of the end of Confederate hopes in the War’s western theater. It is not a preposterous leap to say that the South lost the War at Fort Donelson. In fact, we just did.

Every Civil War site we have visited claims to be the turning point and the most important Battle ever and at every place we buy the line until we travel on. So until the Shiloh, Corinth and Vicksburg reviews, Fort Donelson was the War’s preeminent fight.

CROWDS (6/10)
We arrived on the Battle’s 143-year anniversary to few other tourists, just a handful of re-enactors preparing tents for a mock encampment.

Confederate CannonEASE OF USE/ACCESS (2/5)

Fort Donelson NB is located approximately 35 miles west of Interstate 24 and the charming town of Clarksville, Tennessee. Take U.S. Route 79 the entire way from Clarksville to Dover where there will be signs leading you to the Battlefield. We ventured into town before going to the Site, lost track of Route 79 and found ourselves driving the wrong way. So be alert, Route 79 is not that easy to find.

Smaller than most Civil War stores, but still well-stocked. Most books are dedicated to Fort Donelson and its relevance to the war. The usual regimental histories are here. Those new to Tennessee can pick up guide books and state-specific resources. Copies of personal effects, such as flutes, metal pipes, and toothbrushes made of bone are all for sale.

We spent more at least ten minutes staring at a huge U.S. topographical map, complete with raised mountain ranges, behind the Ranger’s Desk. It’s a good thing it wasn’t for sale in the bookstore; we’d never be able to get it home.

COSTS (4/5)
The Site is free.

Two rangers were stationed at the Visitor Center. Two costumed interpreters inhabited the Dover Hotel. Several other staff could be heard via the Ranger’s walkie talkies, assisting the re-enactors and preparing for the big weekend.

Fort Donelson NB was the sixth Civil War we visited and the first not to have a newly remodeled Visitor Center and film. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the old displays and film. There are no regularly scheduled Ranger talks or tours.

We were lucky enough to be at Fort Donelson during anniversary weekend and enjoyed a talk with some living history re-enactors dressed as nurse Mary “Mother” Bickerdyke and her assistant who were holding court in the Dover Hotel. Once we got over the fact that these ladies were speaking in the first person about events which occurred over 100 years ago, it was a pretty nice conversation, even though Gab stumped Mother with one of her first questions, forcing the older woman out of character to consult with her assistant. Sorry!

FUN (6/10)
Our plan was to sneak into the Dover Hotel, get a few snapshots of the site where Grant accepted the Confederate surrender, then leave. We were glad that Mother Bickerdyke’s assistant engaged us in conversation. Our reluctant one word responses turned into a ten-minute discussion on the role of women, particularly nurses, on the battlefield and in post-War society. This was a refreshing change of pace.

Anniversary EncampmentWOULD WE RECOMMEND? (4/10)
Only under two circumstances: if you are vacationing at the Tennessee Valley Authority-created Land Between the Lakes or if you are a Civil War buff. An understanding of Fort Donelson as perhaps the most important strategic battle of the War Between the States is sufficient; you do not need to venture into rural northwestern Tennessee.

TOTAL 48/80

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Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. and Chattanooga, Tenn.
Visited: December 16, 2004
NPS Site Visited: 127 of 353
NPS Website

Peace MemorialWHAT IS IT?
The Site consists of two separate Parks commemorating two different battles. The Chickamauga Battlefield remembers of one of the bloodiest battles of the U.S. Civil War. The Battle of Lookout Mountain, fought a month later on October 28, 1863, was less bloody but solidified Union control of Chattanooga. The Site was designated as the first United States Military Park in 1895, the thirtieth anniversary of the War’s end.

BEAUTY (6/10)
Lookout Mountain offers an unobstructed view of the city of Chattanooga and the Tennessee River, giving meaning to the little dots of light on Chickamauga’s electronic map.

Chickamauga’s Visitor Center is spacious and well-designed, opting for large print displays and high ceilings rather than claustrophobic displays that we have seen at other sites which try to do too much in too little space.

The Battlefield at Chickamauga NMP is home to over one thousand marble reminders of the individuals who lost their lives and the states from whence they came. Varying in shape and size, the largest offering a seasonal observation tower, these monuments have been the victims of vandalism and centerpieces of debate since they were erected. Public and private funds are spent on their maintenance every year. Whether you feel it is the least NPS can do for these veterans or an unwise expenditure, the obelisks, plaques and sculptures shape the Military Park and all others since.

Nearly 35,000 of the 115,000 Americans that fought at Chickamauga either lost their lives or were seriously wounded. The Union victory, assured later at Lookout Mountain, gave the North a toehold into the Deep South and allowed for Sherman’s push through Georgia. Control of Chattanooga proved to be a vital strategic advantage, one that facilitated the Civil War’s eventual outcome.

Perhaps even more historically interesting than the September 19-20 Battle is the way that the Park has been preserved. From 1890 through 1895, Northern and Southern veterans returned to the Battleground and meticulously placed over 1,400 monuments to regiments, soldiers and officers in the exact places that fighting occurred and men fell. Chickamauga served as the model for Civil War remembrance and has been imitated at Gettysburg, Shiloh and Vicksburg.

CROWDS (6/10)
We expected larger crowds at Civil War-related sites and here we found them. Even on a Thursday afternoon, the Site had a good share of visitors. While it is nice to see people interested in history, perhaps they could not read the exhibit panels aloud with an outside voice.

View of ChattanoogaEASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5)

The two Battlefields are not nearly as accessible as they appear especially since they both lie within the city limits of Chattanooga, Tennessee and Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. If you plan to visit both areas, plan an entire day.

The Chickamauga Battlefield can be approached from both the north (Tennessee) and the east (Georgia). From Tennessee take Interstate 24, Exit 180B and go south along U.S. Route 27 (Rossville Boulevard then LaFayette Road). In about five miles, you will pass through old town Fort Oglethorpe and into the Park. From Georgia, take Interstate 75, Exit 350 and go west along Georgia Route 2 (Battlefield Parkway). In about five miles, turn left onto LaFayette Road and into the Park. Both ways are clearly marked.

The Chickamauga Battlefield has a seven-mile driving tour that takes you through the myriad monuments that mark every minuscule thing that happened during the battle. Reading them all would take forever.

The route to the Lookout Mountain Battlefield is much more problematic. As the crow flies, the Visitor Center is less than a mile from Interstate 24. In practice, it could take you about a half hour to get from the Interstate to the Site. Tennessee Route 148 (at this point named Scenic Highway) steadies up the side of the mountain and levels off through a posh residential neighborhood (road now named East Brow Road) until it gets to the Visitor Center.

Good luck getting onto Route 148. The entrance from U.S. Route 11 (also called 41/72 and 11/64 and Lee Highway!) is especially dicey. If you are approaching from the west on Route 11, you come around a blind curve and then have to make a near U-Turn to get on Route 148 (the Scenic Highway). From the east, you can at least see the left turn uphill but you have to make that turn across traffic with cars speeding around previously mentioned blind curve. Pick your poison.

Whatever you do, go to Chickamauga first. It is the more comprehensive of the two sites and the provided NPS brochure has a detailed map and suggested a travel path to Lookout Mountain.

An entire wall full of books written specifically about the Battle of Chickamauga. Who knew that these even existed? The bookstore’s vast selection of Chickamauga books even made us reconsider this Site as a more important historical location. During our visit, a few people bought an impressive companion to the Auto Tour; a fully illustrated Chickamauga guide that comes with a CD-Rom that narrates the battle and gives you a Civil War encyclopedia and computer screen savers.

The selection of Civil War books is huge. The canonized texts are all here as is an entire wall of nicely priced Dover Thrift editions that include Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery and Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. There is an alcove of children’s books, Johnny Reb dolls and movable action fictions, miniature Chickamauga monument recreations, maps and DVD’s; probably every Civil War-related thing you could ever want.

COSTS (3/5)
The Chickamauga Battlefield charges $3 ($1.50 with NPS Parks Pass) to see its multi-media “Battle of Chickamauga” introductory video. Everything else at Chickamauga is free.

Lookout Mountain Battlefield charges $3 for entry into Point Park, a small mountaintop park that offers beautiful views of Chattanooga and access to the New York Peace Memorial.

Entry into all other parts of the Park is free.

A few Rangers rotated at the centrally located information desk. One seemed bothered to answer Michael’s James Garfield at Chickamauga question while the other, his Gen. James Longstreet-style beard indicated he may be a re-enactor, was very helpful.

The exhibits at the newly remodeled Chickamauga Battlefield are tremendous. The panels that line the lobby walls look at the broad historical factors that led to the Civil War with a balanced analytical perspective. We loved their large print, well chosen wordage and helpful timelines. Chickamauga was the ideal Park to begin our foray into Civil War Sites.

Other panels in the lobby look at the development of the Military Park itself and the unique way that Americans honor those who died in the Civil War. Two separate rooms look at the events that led up to the Battle and the Battle itself. Michael loves electric maps and was pleased to find one at Chickamauga. A third room showcases thousands of standard-issue Civil War-era rifles.

Hologram Ghosts of Battles PastThe $3 orientation show is strangely interesting but not an educational must-see. It includes a multi-screen slide show, surround sound, holographic spectral images of a Union and Confederate soldier and a spring-loaded natural background set. While fascinating in its own right, the Museum panels and electric map do a much better job at explaining the Battle.

The only exhibit at Lookout Mountain is an imposing 13×30 foot painting entitled, appropriately enough, “The Battle of Lookout Mountain.” While inside the studio, you can push a button that starts a seven-minute narrative about the painting.

FUN (8/10)
Was it the sunny day, forcing us to get out of the ‘Tima and take a walk? Was it watching the ratio of maroon sweatshirts and jackets of Montana Grizzlies fans steadily increase in the VC and eventually overtake the town of Chattanooga for the I-AA Championship happening later that week? Or was it spending time appreciating the work that Chickamauga has done to modernize their interpretation of these Civil War events that made the day so enjoyable? Probably all of the above.

We spent much more time at and traveling between the two sites than we expected, but we didn’t mind.

Although not the first battles of the Civil War, Chickamauga and Chattanooga NMP provides a good primer for even the youngest history student. Interpretive panels at Chickamauga do not shy away from controversial topics, nor do they lean very far in either side’s favor. Anyone who thinks you need big words to convey complex material could learn from the simplicity of Chickamauga’s new displays.

TOTAL 58/80

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