Finding Your Park: Experiencing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park


Madeline Walker

I believe that all parks have value. From the smallest neighborhood trails, to the hulking size of America’s national parks, they are all united by the same goal: to protect and conserve nature. My appreciation of these parks was deepened this Spring Break when I visited a national park for the first time.

The peaks of Cades Cove are shrouded in fog early Thursday morning. Photo by Jenna Hyman

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America’s most visited, is a park of outstanding proportion, spanning 522,427 acres divided between Tennessee and North Carolina. The park, averaging 9.4 million visitors per year, is known for its most famous inhabitant, the Black Bear.

I spent Spring Break with my friend Jenna Hyman and her family. After a weekend in Nashville, it was time to see a different side of Tennessee, so we drove to Townsend, a small town in the northwest corner of the park. The first afternoon we got to our cabin, we decided to go for a short hike before the sun went down.

We took a winding road into Cades Cove and parked at the visitor’s center. I saw people of all ages getting maps and water, headed out towards the trail. We decided on an out and back hike near a picnic area. The trail was wide with dusty red soil and scattered rocks of all different sizes. Along our path ran a quickly flowing stream. The towering trees were bare but all around us at eye level were the green leaves of Mountain Laurel. The hike was calm and refreshing after a morning of driving across the state. We went up the trail for 50 minutes and turned around due to the setting sun. The first day was a success.

Jenna and I
Jenna and I pause for a picture on the way up Mount Le Conte. Photo by Diane Hyman

Day two started off with a hike to Mount Le Conte. A long hike lay ahead of us as we packed our bags.

Mount Le Conte is unique because at the top sits LeConte Lodge, the highest guest lodge in the Eastern United States. No roads lead to the lodge, just 5 hiking trails. Hikers who summit can stay the night in a handmade log cabin, heated by propane and lit by kerosene lanterns.

We began up Alum Caves Trail. I enjoyed the freedom of hiking up the trail, stopping to enjoy the scenery. It was warm day, probably about 70 degrees. As we hiked up the mountain we walked along wide trails, timber bridges and thin paths along ridge. The higher we hiked, the cooler the breeze became. When the trail picked up in elevation, the ground was covered with slushy ice, making for a treacherous climb.

Alum Cave Bluffs
We enjoyed a celebratory lunch of PBnJ’s at Alum Cave Bluffs. Photo by Jenna Hyman

At lunch time, we arrived at the Alum Cave Bluffs, an overarching rock formation half way up the mountain. We stopped for PBnJ’s and to take in the view. The enormity of the mountain’s rolling hills was beautiful. After lunch, we continued up the trail. Along the path we saw hikers of all experience levels, including rookies with their selfie sticks and Le Conte veterans, with their backpacking gear and poles. Finding ourselves a happy medium between the two, we trekked up the mountain until the icy path became too dangerous. Sadly, we did not summit Mt. Le Conte that trip.

That afternoon we hiked Chimney Tops Trail. Leaving our phones and cameras in the car due to the uphill nature of our hike, we didn’t get any pictures. Chimney Tops was a much more popular hike, despite its difficulty. Climbing the steep trail and seemingly endless steps we definitely got a workout in. I reached the top where the famed “chimney top” stood. The rock face jutted into the sky. Not brave enough to go scampering up the cliff,  enjoyed the view from where I stood. To my left and right were sweeping valleys, filed with countless bare trees. That feeling of being atop a mountain is one that can’t be described. The view was breathtaking. We went back down the mountain and retired to the cabin for the evening.

olivers place
This cabin was built by John Oliver, the first white settlers in Cades Cove in 1818. Photo by Jenna Hyman

The next morning we drove through Cades Cove to look at historic homesteads of early settlers. After stopping at log cabins we hiked to Abrahms Falls. The hike was long and hot. We broke up the monotony of hiking by talking and making jokes. It’s funny the things you get to talking about while on the trail. We argued for the longest time about what was bigger, a creek or a stream. We soon arrived at Abrahms Falls. Water cascaded over the falls with great velocity for falls without a lot of height. The water churned below the falls. I picked some water in my hands, freezing cold after coming off the mountains. We hiked back to our car, singing all the way. And with that, our Thursday at Great Smoky Mountains National Park was finished.

Our Friday took a severe blow due to my getting a gnarly sinus infection, keeping us out of the park and stuck in a doctor’s office in Gatlinburg. Major bummer. Determined not to miss my last day in the park, I rallied for hiking in Cades Cove Saturday morning. The last day was more a day of quiet hiking, maybe because of my sin infection, maybe it was because we were enjoying the stillness of the woods. Either way, it allowed for some reflection on the week. So many things went into the making of such a great park. The park rangers and volunteers maintaining trails, the millions of visitors and the 1,000 plus black bears.

Water falls over Abrahms Falls Thursday afternoon. Photo by Jenna Hyman

Though I never made the acquaintance of the famed black bear, I did make friends with a volunteer ranger named Tom. We talked to other visitors and felt a great sense of community. Perhaps my appreciation of the park was greatest on that last day, as I studied my map looking out into the valley. Days before, as I hiked up the mountain dog tired and sick I asked myself: why do people hike? What about it makes us keep coming back for more?

I settled on the answer that people hike to feel good. To enjoy the sense of accomplishment after a long day’s hike. To enjoy the company of friends as you walk along the trail. To experience the beauty of mother nature and to enjoy the simplicity of it all. Great Smoky Mountains National Park made that possible for me.