My Favorite Playground … Smoky Mountain National Park


My friend Ann is on vacation in the Smoky Mountain National Park this week. She posted a video of a bull elk and some cows on Facebook. What? I never saw elk in the Smokies when I lived in Knoxville. All I ever saw was deer.. lots of ’em … but only deer. Ann informed me that they have re-introduced elk into the National Park in 2001 in an effort to re-establish the species in the Appalachian Mountains.

After a hike to Mt. Leconte with a group of friends.
After a hike to Mt. Leconte with a group of friends.

I lived in Knoxville for 10 years, and I spent my weekends and any free time I had in the trails, streams and meadows of that beautiful natural resource we call the Smoky Mountains National Park. It is the most visited National Park in the country with July 4 of every year being the peak time for visitors. I learned while I was there to avoid the heavy traffic summer months and focus my visits there during  non-peak times or to head around to the back of the park to the harder-to-reach and less visited trails. On Saturday mornings, they closed Cades Cove to traffic until 10 AM for bicyclists to pleasantly ride around the old homestead area without danger of being hit by cars or being suffocated by automobile exhaust. Those play times in that park are some of my best memories. In fact, when I meditate about the forest, it’s the Smokey Mountain trails that manifest in my mind.

Playing in the park with friends…

One summer I took two classes from the Smoky Mountain Field School. One was a birding course and one was on mammals. Both were taught over the weekend, and we explored the birds of the Smokies in all kinds of habitats in the birding course. Saturday night, we went on an evening owl prowl where the group identified the calls of numerous owl species and learned to call Great Horned Owls. It was fun, and I’ll never forget the great conversation we had with a couple of Great Horned Owls underneath a full moon in the middle of a deep, secluded forest.

Webcam from Purchase Knob

In the mammal workshop, we studied the black bear, and I realized that I was always looking for bear in the wrong places. While I was looking on the ground, the black bear’s habitat is in the trees among it’s preferred food source, vegetation. I wonder how many trails I’d walked completely oblivious to bear that were looking down on me from above. That Saturday night, we loaded into the back of pickup trucks and drove around Cades Cove with spotlights looking for mammals whose green eyes shone through the dense vegetation. Cades Cove has its own indigenous species of white-tailed deer, and I think we counted over 100 in the few hours of our pickup journey. We also flashed upon a family of raccoons hanging out in a tree on the side of the road. They looked down on us as if to ask what the heck we were doing disturbing them in the only quiet hours of their day. They were so cute. In that particular course, I came home with the worst case of chiggers I’ve ever had. But, I had so much fun, and I learned so much about what was going on in the mountains beyond my limited scope of awareness.

My love of the mountains always stabbed me in the heart when I drove up into the higher elevations. Although the views were beautiful, it’s in the upper elevations where the poor air quality is taking it’s toll most visibly. Automobile exhaust clings to trees and pours down into the waters of the park in every rainstorm. Some of the ‘smoke’ you see in the Smokies is natural, but increasingly the content of the ‘smoke’ is smog and pollutants. Invasive species such as the hemlock wooly adelgid pose a serious threat to the future of the park’s health. The hemlock trees in the Smokies are the trees that help keep the temperature cool, and they are the most common tree in the eco-system. The wooly adelgid found it’s way there in the 1950s, and there is no natural predator for the insect. I haven’t been to the park in many, many years, but I’m sure I could see the difference  from my last visit in 1996.

Webcam from the Look Rock

Apparently the elk disappeared from the area due to human encroachment and overhunting in the late 1700s or early 1800s. It is exciting to think they are putting them back where they belong. I hope that they can thrive. You can read more about the re-introduction here. There are problems we will never be able to solve. There have been discussions of banning cars in the Smokies for years, forcing visitors to travel on foot or on trolley. Some parks already do this, so it is not far-fetched. I personally never understood why people drive through such a beautiful environment and don’t get out of their cars except to shop or eat on a picnic table. There is so much to see beyond the pavement and parking areas. I played there for 10 years. I miss the mountains. I’d miss them incredibly if I knew I’d never see them again. Some of my best memories are of climbing rocks and boulders underneath a roaring, cascading waterfall. I was most surprised on a guided hike when I discovered that beautiful red salamanders lived under a majority of the rocks in the streams. Right under my eyes was a world of beauty and miracles that, unless I explored it intentionally, I never would have known it existed. It would have been a immeasurable loss.


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