***This piece was published on Spongefish.com last January, but it seems the site has tanked. So here it is again!***
The second you exit I-40 and head south, doubt sets in: Is this really the destination for me? Exhaust-fume stench from the throngs of traffic hits you like chemical warfare. The temperature jumps 15 degrees, simmering above the naked pavement. While it’s true there are few places in the world with such a high concentration of hokey dinner theaters brandishing 80-foot-high neon signs, garish amusement park rides, mega churches fronted by faux-marble columns, sprawling chain hotels, and grimy diners advertising the “world’s best pancake,” no one would argue that that's a bad thing.
As you approach the park, it only gets worse, until you’re positive you’ve been duped. This attraction, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited park in the country, is surely a fake. The scraggly humps rising in the distance are papier mache, the trees and their orangeing leaves cheap plastic, the majestic, smoky, enveloping mist the product of thousands of well concealed fog machines. Nothing authentic could exist so near to the monuments to thoughtless excess that are Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg.
But wait. Don’t cancel your hotel bookings and rental car reservations just yet. There’s a happy ending to this story.
Despite the artificial shell surrounding it, the park is real. Honest. Get away from the main road, the parking lots with bus-size spaces, the jam-packed scenic overlooks, and you’ll find it. With 800 square miles of mountainous terrain blanketed with deciduous forest, wildflowers, and waterfalls, and more than 800 miles of trails, it’s possible to get lost here.
Head to the secluded Cosby area for an overnight backcountry hike along a segment of the Appalachian Trail. Cycle along quiet roads in the rugged Cataloochee Valley, keeping an eye out for black bear, elk, and wild turkey. Or, in the early morning, ascend to the lonely, windblown summit of one of the park’s several peaks. Up here, there’s no trace of the scars cut into the land below, and you can catch a glimpse of what this natural wonderland was like before someone decided people needed a gondola to reach it.
And on top of everything else, as if to provide a deliberate rebuttal to the incessant mantra of consumerism along its northern border, there is no entrance fee for the park.
There’s also a way to avoid entirely the mess that Tennessee built: Come in through North Carolina’s back door. You’re guaranteed to appreciate the Native American culture on display in Cherokee more than the strip-mall approach on the other side. The atmosphere is more down-to-earth, with hilly little neighborhoods that run right up to the trailhead signs. Vegetation is lush, streams trickle, and traffic is more manageable.
Whatever your experience in getting here, rest assured: Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a sweet nut. You just need to crack the shell.