A Brief Visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It was a surprise to me—and probably a lot of other people, too—when I learned from my wife’s cousin that Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited in all of America. Even more than Grand Canyon, Yosemite or Yellowstone. Hard to fathom.

One big reason is that there is no fee to enter the park. Tennessee can be thanked for adding the free-access stipulation when Newfound Gap Road, then the main artery for crossing the southern Appalachians, was transferred to federal jurisdiction. Lying between North Carolina and Tennessee, the park has over 800 square miles of protected land that hosts an incredible bounty of plant and animal life. Ample rainfall exceeded only by my own Pacific Northwest has produced a temperate rain forest. All that moisture gives rise to abundant condensation, giving the appearance of the characteristic blue smoke that seems to hover over the mountains.

One of the best ways to experience this diversity up close is to take a hike among the 800 miles of trails. Being wildflowers enthusiasts, my wife’s cousin and her husband, who live in Asheville, took us on a couple of hikes that showcased some of the over 1,500 wildflowers that bloom during the year.

We were also taken on a drive along the Newfound Gap Road along which are high-elevation lookouts with spectacular views of the Smokies. Their gently sloping sides are indicative of extreme age; geologists estimate 200-300 million years old. In the early summer, the hills are literally covered with spectacular catawba rhododendrons.

Our brief visit here only whetted our appetite for a return visit or two.

Catawba rhododendrons near Grassy Ridge (photo taken by the husband of my wife's cousin)

Catawbas ( June 2011) at Grassy Ridge (photo taken by JB, my wife’s cousin’s husband)

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Wildflowers of the Great Smoky Mountains (NC)

I was surprised to learn that the Great Smoky Mountains have the most species of wildflowers of any place in North America. There are reportedly over 1,500 that bloom year-round, and all you have to do is take one of the many trails in the park to view them. Because my wife’s cousin and her husband live in Asheville, they take many of those hikes. They have become experts at identifying them and knowing what time of year the various flowers blossom. Since we were visiting them, they were happy to take us on a few trails.

Since we arrived in late April/early May, the literature points out that this is the time for what are called spring ephemerals, flowers that blossom as early as late winter and into early spring before the deciduous trees overhead leaf out, lasting only a month or two before they die.

The following are photographs that were taken on two separate hikes.

Smith Rock State Park (Terrebonne, OR)

North of Redmond, rock climbers flock to Smith Rock State Park to scale the spectacular vertical walls of hardened volcanic tuff. We made a brief stop here on the way home, even though I was under the weather with chills and body aches. Probably against better judgment, I decided we should take the brief hike down to the Crooked River and watch some rock climbers in action. There are other hiking trails, one of which leads to the top of the rocks, but this will be reserved for another day.

Smith Rock attracts rock climbers from around the world

Smith Rock attracts rock climbers from around the world (note climbers at the base)

These rocks were formed when volcanic eruptions blanketed the area over a half million years ago in a half-mile thickness of ash that eventually welded, then eroded. Rhyolite dykes with their jagged edges are also found in the park, especially dramatic when they intrude into the tuff.

Rhyolite dykes make their appearance throughout the park

Rhyolite dykes make their appearance throughout the park

It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there has been a lot of cataclysmic volcanic activity all around us in the distant past. While this fact is not difficult to see where there are fields of hardened lava, such as around Bend only a few miles from here or the basalt layers all over eastern Oregon and Washington, Smith Rock tells the story in a different way, no less spectacular.