The Heart of East Tennessee
By Alyssa B. Martin
Nestled in the heart of the Appalachian Mountains rests one of the most beautiful wonders of East Tennessee-The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Smoky Mountains are the most visited national park in the United States. If you’ve ever driven through the park, especially in the fall, it’s not hard to imagine why- crimson and mustard colored leaves drift to the ground by a crisp breeze with every twist and turn you take. Breathtaking is an understatement.
There are countless activities everyone in the family can enjoy in the 384 miles of the Smokies and even branching a bit out of the region.
One of the most popular, unique attractions is Cades Cove. This 11 mile scenic loop was once home to early American Settlers. Now it is the best place in the mountains to view wildlife, while learning a bit about the history of the area. At the entrance of the cove, you’ll find a camping area, perfect for picnicking before you begin the loop, and a horse stable, where visitors can take a guided ride through the woods of the cove. If riding horses isn’t for you, visitors are also welcome to bike or walk, although most choose to drive. Whichever mode of transportation one chooses, Cades Cove should be number one on your Smoky Mountain Bucket List.
It is difficult to visit the park without experiencing the beautiful scenery in one of the 150 marked hikes. If you’re a lover of waterfalls, Spruce Flats Falls is the perfect hike for you. Located directly behind Tremont, this 1.4 mile round trip hike provides beautiful views of changing foliage and a quiet resting spot at the end for a quick dip or photo-op, making it the perfect evening hike. If you’re looking to challenge yourself a bit more, Abrams Falls in Cades Cove is 5.5 miles out and back. Even though it, too, has a peaceful resting spot at the foot of a waterfall for a quick dip or photo-op, this hike tends to be slightly more trafficked due to the trailhead starting halfway through the Cove.
However, not all of the hikes in the Smokies have a water feature. In fact, at 4 miles one way, Charlies Bunion is one of the most popular hikes in the Smoky Mountains, and it is also part of the Appalachian Trail. Part of this hike contains exposed cliffs and ends at an elevation of 1600 ft, yet contains some of the most beautiful views in the park with distant mountains and valleys surrounding the end of the hike, perfect for witnessing the colors of fall in the Smokies. More hikes in the park can be found at https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/hiking.htm, along with answers to any questions you may have.
Flowing swiftly through the Smoky Mountains, the Pigeon River is a hot spot for tubing, fly fishing, picnics and relaxing. With so many various activities, it’s nearly impossible for someone to not find something they enjoy doing. Even if it is sitting next to the river reading a book or taking photos of salamanders. On the Little Pigeon River in Townsend, Tennessee-a branch off the Pigeon River-River Rat, a tube-renting company, allows park visitors a day on the river with a bus ride to a secure drop-off spot. They also have a specified pick up either 1 or 2 miles from the drop-off location, depending on your outpost. Park visitors are also welcome to bring their own floats to glide down the river; however, it is helpful to have a ride back to your vehicle.
Not far from the Little Pigeon River, leaves fall like crimson and mustard snow as a musky, sweet aroma filters through the air as people cruise through the Blue Ridge Parkway-not too far from the Smoky Mountains, this is one of the most beautiful drives near East TN. The Blue Ridge Parkway runs 469.1 miles and connects the Smokies in North Carolina to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. During fall months, a day drive through The Dragon-11 miles of switch back curves through dense trees and falling leaves-up to the Blue Ridge Parkway and through the Smokies for some peace and quiet is especially popular and beautiful. For the classic car enthusiasts that help make the Pigeon Forge Rod Runs & Shades of the Past some of the largest classic car and hot rod show in the Southeast, look forward to taking this drive in their beloved hot rods. With dozens of pull offs to enjoy the surrounding mountains and valleys, take photos or divulge in a picnic with your loved ones, the Blue Ridge Parkway exudes all the reasons everyone loves the mountains in East Tennessee during the fall, without having to leave the comfort of your car, if you don’t want to.
The park is more than just beautiful scenery and capturing glances of wildlife. It holds precious memories and represents a part of what it means to be an East Tennessean. A sense of home and feeling centered comes with breathing in the fresh, crisp autumn air. Emily Piercy, lover of the Smokies, photographer, mother and wife, grew up visiting the park with her family once or twice a week and camped multiple times a year establishing a love of nature and adventure in her soul. Now as an adult, she shares her love for the Smoky Mountains with her three daughters by taking them as often as she can. When she enters the park, she is reminded of being a kid and tries to make the most of her surroundings with her passion for photography and love of her family and nature. This is the same for so many who grew up in East Tennessee.
Although originally intended for Yellowstone National Park, John Muir captured it perfectly by stating, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.” Being in the park changes who you are, it alters your perspective, even if it’s just for a little while. With no distractions, you’re able to be as you wish and let the rest of the world move around you, making it the perfect fall destination, whether it be for a few hours or days.