Having been to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park any number of times, and given that it's the most visited of all our parks, we didn't expect it to generate any off the beaten path reports during a recent visit. I'm happy to report we were wrong.
Did you know it was possible to enter the Smokies from the north and completely miss Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg? Driving in through the tiny town of Wears Valley, we noticed a sign in front of a local church advertising a potluck dinner and talk by a park ranger the following night.
Up and over the mountain we arrived at Elkmont Campground. On the road in, we remarked a dead end spur with a sign–Elkmont Cemetery. The next morning we took the spur and found ourselves alone in a light mist in a graveyard filled with stones–some simply large rocks–from the early 1900s. We were struck with a number of markers for children only days old.
A little used path across from the gate struck off across a hillside where we'd seen a tumbledown house, so we took it in hopes it would lead to the ruin. Sure enough it did, and we found not one but a half-dozen old summer homes in various stages of collapse, all perched overlooking the little river below. The path was rich in wildflowers and discarded artifacts from a century ago.
Conversation with the campground ranger about the dwellings led us to another nearby area, not on any visitor map, where the park service is restoring a street of summer homes from the same era. At the end of the row is a fully restored social club built in 1934, complete with rockers on the wide porch and a big dance hall.
We spent the afternoon wandering along the street, thinking about what it must have been like to summer in the mountains a century ago, gathering in the evenings for card games at the club or a weekend dance. Then we hopped in the RoadTrek and drove back over the mountain to Wears Valley and the little Methodist church.
After surveying the pantry, we were able to come up with a satisfactory plate of deviled eggs as our ticket to the dinner. And what a dinner it was! The church members insisted the speaker and his family go first, followed by a couple of folks with canes and wheelchairs. Next, all eyes turned to us, in the back corner of the room. “You're next,” they said. As the only ‘guests' in the hall, we got special treatment.
Like most good small town potlucks, there was a feast of choices and a separate table for desserts. After the meal, everyone gathered in the sanctuary for the talk. The speaker was introduced as the recently retired chief wildlife ranger from the park, who grew up in the valley and worked in the park for more than 40 years.
“Well,” he said, “when I looked in the rear view mirror of the Jeep and saw a bear looking back at me, I knew it wasn't going to be an ordinary day.” He spent the next two hours telling stories about skunks, elk, river otters, beaver and, of course, bears. He also told a few stories about hunters and “tourons.”
We've been to the Smokies any number of times, but nearly everything on this trip was a surprise. Almost all of it came from a willingness to take a little risk, dig a little deeper, and step a bit outside the comfort zone. The reward was spectacular–history, entertainment, and an afternoon completely alone with history and nature in this beautiful and crowded park. So turn left when everyone else is turning right and you may find us, out there somewhere, off the beaten path.