My Park Story: 100 Miles in the Smokies
I grew up in western North Carolina, just five miles from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smokies are the most visited park in the world with over 12 million visitors annually. People come from all over the world to watch the sunset over the Blue Ridge Mountains and get their chance to see a real-life black bear. I realized I spent most of my life near the Smokies without ever truly exploring them.
Of course, I have visited some of the most popular destinations of the Smokies. Visiting places like Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park, and driving the main road that bisects the National Park between the two main visitor centers of the park, Oconoluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, North Carolina, and Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. But visiting the main attractions of the park was just not the same as walking among one of the most ancient forests in the world.
When I found Xplorer Maps, they had just completed their Great Smoky Mountains National Park map. I connected with the map immediately and was so happy to have found a connection to my home 2000 miles away in my new home of Missoula, Montana.
When deciding to move away from Western North Carolina, I wanted to spend some time within the National Park, as I had never immersed myself in it. I used the time I had left in the area to explore my home and become more connected with it. I learned of a hiking trail log that the Great Smoky Mountains Association had produced for jotting down the information about all your hikes within the park, like the name of the trail, how long the trail was, and on which date you completed it. The log included the incentive to hike by giving out decorative pins for hiking 100 miles, 250 miles, and 500 miles. I was determined to log 100 miles of hikes before leaving the Smokies. I went to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and paid one dollar for the ‘Hike the Smokies Trail Log.’
The first hike on my journey was the Shuckstack Fire Tower along a section of the Appalachian Trail. This section of the Appalachian Trail is a through-hikers first taste of the Smokies. The trail begins at the Fontana Dam and climbs 2,244 feet over 3 miles to an old fire tower lookout. The lookout had long been abandoned but is still sturdy enough to climb to the top for a spectacular view of the Smoky Mountains. The hike rounded out at about 7 miles round-trip, leaving me tired but excited for more. This hike sparked a fire in me and helped me focus on completing the 100 miles over eleven separate hikes over the next few months.
My journey through the Smokies allowed me to become more in tune with the landscape. I learned about the Pink Lady Slipper wildflowers and the variety of Trillium flowers that surrounded me as Spring turned to Summer. I became familiar with Leave No Trace practices and how to efficiently hike for my body and mindset. I learned to navigate and be aware of my surroundings while also letting myself sink into the natural world. I learned that hiking is just walking, and I knew how to put one foot in front of the other. I gained confidence that only the woods can teach. I became comfortable in the landscape.
Hiking is now an essential aspect of my life. I use it for exercise and exploration of a new place. But I also use it for balance. To connect with or quiet my thoughts. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an ancient and special place that I will always be drawn to. But thankfully, I’ll always have the Smokies with me when I get cozy on the couch with my Great Smoky Mountains National Park map blanket.