I’ve been meaning to work on Little Kids, Big Trips in Knoxville, an open book, for awhile, but like for several (work-related and other) things, I have dropped the ball a bit. To get the ball rolling, I’m going to share a few thoughts on why it can be hard to understand the Smokies as well as a bit of what I’ve come to understand about them.
Why it can be hard to understand the Smokies
The Smokies can be a bit hard to get one’s head around at first. Here’s an overview map:
View Larger Map
It can be hard to get one’s head around the Smokies for several reasons:
- Their size: more than 800 square miles
- Their location: split roughly between Tennessee and North Carolina, there are many ways to access the park, and there isn’t a primary or best way to do so
- Their variation in altitude: Abrams Creek—the trailhead nearest to Knoxville—is roughly 850 feet above sea level, whereas Clingman’s Dome is roughly 6,650 feet above sea level
- Their biodiversity: it may be the most biodiverse National Park
- Their human history: thousands of people of European ancestry lived in what is now the National Park up until as recently as 1934 (when the park was established); before people of European ancestry lived there, thousands of people of Cherokee ancestry lived there; these histories remain alive and present within the park
I think these reasons are important in general and in a bit of an abstract sense, but they also have a more personal angle: The Smokies are hard to experience for each of these and other reasons, too. They appear and are different in different seasons. They are very different when experienced when walking than when driving in a car. They are different when it’s rainy and when it’s not. And, they are different alone, with family, with friends, and with a child.
A bit on my understanding of the Smokies
When my wife and I first decided to move to Knoxville, I began trying to understand the Smokies, and since then I’ve read a lot of books and spent a lot of time there. I don’t think I can adequately summarize the Smokies, but I can begin to convey my understanding.
The Smokies are a timeless place, at once welcoming and severe. When I drive to the Smokies, I feel like I’m entering into a special place. That special feeling is amplified by the good memories I’ve had there—with my family and friends and on my own.
I value living by the Smokies a lot. This is a function of a lot of things coming together: stopping refereeing soccer, something I’d done for around 12 years up to that point, soon after we moved to Knoxville, the pandemic, which prevented many other activities from happening, and a live for doing things outdoors that motivated me to study biology and enter teaching to begin.
I’ll describe just one trip to try to work to summarize my understanding of the Smokies.
In May, 2020, my wife and little one and I hiked the beginning of the Bote Mountain and West Prong trails to the location of Backcountry site #18. It was one of our first times heading out after the pandemic began, and it was a moderately difficult hike - around three miles, but with nearly 1,000 feet of climbing. When we arrived at the site—where two creeks meet and are crossed by a log bridge—there were butterflies everywhere, which the little was overjoyed about.
This was one trip, and it was probably one that we planned on a whim, picking the trail based on what was within an hour’s drive. That’s what made it special; there wasn’t anything particularly distinctive about that trail, hike, or day (except for the butterflies, which were pretty neat), and both this absence of distinctiveness coupled with a sense of someting special has nearly always been the case for the time I’ve spent in the Smokies.
So, as a bit of a thesis, it’s hard to understand the Smokies: they’re too large, varied, and rich. But, it is possible to experience the Smokies, and doing so doesn’t require making it to Mt. LeConte or Abrams Falls or Clingman’s Dome (though each of those are pretty great). One can perhaps have just as positive of an experience as at those (sometimes busy) sites off trails or at picnic areas in the Big Creek, Cosby, and Tremont areas.
I’ll stop for now but resume with some more specific, practical thoughts on the Smokies and where to walk/hike, backpack, camp, run, and cycle.