A backcountry refuge in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
By MARY WINSTON NICKLIN | The Washington Post | Published: March 15, 2019
Somewhere along the precipitous gravel road that leads to the Cataloochee Valley, a sign looms large. "No cellphone service." For hyper-connected, news-addicted individuals such as ourselves, this could have caused panic. But on this humid summer day, we tried not to bat an eye. Our mission? Escape Parisian civilization for a few days ... on the densely populated East Coast of the United States.
We planned a summer trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to introduce our young daughters to camping. Not that we urbanites didn’t try to immerse ourselves in nature at home. In Paris, where we live, we look for nests, collect odd pebbles and gather autumn leaves. We even keep composting worms on our apartment’s balcony. But our younger daughter usually ends up admiring snails and pigeons for lack of other critters.
Like many Europeans obsessed with American national parks, my French husband was intrigued by the idea of exploring one such wild space. But was it possible? Could we find one close to the Virginia family we visit every summer? Was there even a vestige of untouched American wilderness left on the East Coast?
The Great Smokies seemed to provide the answer.
Veering off Highway 276 north of Waynesville in North Carolina, the access road to the remote Cataloochee Valley was empty of cars. Riddled with blind curves, the unpaved track ascends without guard rails, edged by steep drops. We didn’t pass a single vehicle. A fawn leaped out from the greenery, sunlight piercing the lush tree canopy in dramatic shafts of light. And when we finally reached an overlook, we were treated to panoramic vistas of what the Cherokees called the "land of the blue smoke." Wave upon wave of mountains stretched to the horizon, mist coiling in threads above the valleys.
When we pulled up at the campground, a tarp served as a lean-to protecting the friendly park ranger Buck and his wife from the drizzle. Here in the backcountry there are only 27 campsites, compared with the 200 sites that can be found at other Great Smokies campgrounds. We were surprised to see that a few RVs had braved the road, but rules regulate the timing of the generators. They must be shut off by 8 p.m. to combat noise pollution. In fact, Buck told us that one family had fled the park when their kids couldn’t watch movies at night. There’s no concession stand, nor gas station, nor motor lodge. The closest shower would be in Waynesville, almost 40 miles away. (Although the stream looked inviting.)
Formed between 200 and 300 million years ago, the Great Smokies are some of the oldest mountains in the world. The park’s 522,000 acres are dense with forest, fostering tremendous biodiversity beneath the canopies of ancient giants. The fertile land also bears witness to the generations of humans who have sought, since prehistoric times, to reap its bounty. The Cherokee hunted the woods and fished the streams, followed by European settlers in the 19th century, who pursued their trails as they pushed into the valleys. Preserved barns and homesteads showcase the Appalachian pioneer mountain culture.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established in 1934 as the result of a local conservation movement. Unlike national parks in the West, developed on public lands, the territory that became the park had been in private ownership. It was a herculean effort to buy up private parcels with funding allocated by the states of North Carolina and Tennessee matched by private donations and the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund. A total of 6,600 tracts were purchased. The states later transferred deeds of ownership to the federal government, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially inaugurated the national park in September 1940. To this day, there is no entrance fee.
It is a reflection of New Deal initiatives developed during the Great Depression. Starting in 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps provided work for unemployed men to construct roads, trails, and fire towers throughout the park. The zeitgeist was as much about land enjoyment as conservation, democratizing the nature experience for the benefit of the American people. The resulting ribbons of roads allow motorists to take in the scenery from the comfort of their cars.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most popular one in the United States, having welcomed 11 million visitors in 2017. In comparison, the Grand Canyon attracted 6.2 million visitors. Areas such as Cades Cove in Tennessee and its Loop Road are notoriously clogged with cars and swarming with people.
But a twist of fate preserved the Cataloochee Valley in its isolated splendor. In the 1970s, the National Park Service planned to pave Cove Creek Road to transform the area into a tourism hub. Local opposition, then budget cuts, ultimately prevented this from happening. So the gravel link to the outside world has kept the valley blissfully remote.
As we made camp, our daughters didn’t see the tasks -- collecting kindling wood for the fire, pumping water, setting up the tent, unrolling sleeping bags -- as chores. Instead, there was a satisfied sense of accomplishment. (Plus, visions of first-ever s’mores as rewards danced in their heads.) We gathered around the fire, drawn to the eternal, primitive appeal of flame. The evening calls of whippoorwills faded into the night, replaced by the sonorous stream crashing at the edge of the campsite. We breathed in the chilly mountain air, redolent with damp leaves and earthiness, then hit the hay.
The delight of breakfast in the great outdoors: Pancakes sizzled in the pan and coffee brewed on the camp stove. Along with a rising mist, the morning brought a mission. Buck the ranger told us about black bear cub sightings, and we were going to make our own attempt. The cubs love climbing the gnarled apple trees, vestiges of the pioneers’ old orchards, next to the road that runs through the Cataloochee Valley. Derived from a Cherokee word thought to mean "standing up in ranks," Cataloochee is in fact composed of three parallel valleys. We set out on a road flanked by flower-filled meadows where a herd of elk grazed in the sunshine. Scientists successfully reintroduced a herd to the Great Smokies in 2001, and the population draws leaf-peeping visitors during autumn rutting season.
We craned our necks to look for the bears, but with no luck. Our daughters were more interested in the brilliantly colored butterflies known as pipevine swallowtails. There were so many of them -- fluttering clouds of wings poised on plants -- that we lost track of time doing nothing but watching them.
The Cataloochee is threaded with excellent hiking trails like the Boogerman Loop, named for Robert Palmer (the "Boogerman") who once owned the land and refused to allow logging companies to timber the property. The result is an old-growth forest with majestic towering trees.
Below, the woods are damp and lush with rhododendrons. Log footbridges cross trout-stocked streams, and the ruins of old homesteads peek out from the vegetation.
These Cataloochee dwellings are haunting. We entered unlocked houses like trespassing time travelers, half expecting to walk in on a scene from the early 20th century. At that time, the Cataloochee harbored the largest community in the Smokies, numbering 1,251 people. The Caldwell House, built in 1903, is a proud vision in white clapboard and blue trim. Across the footbridge over a rushing creek, an old barn stands sentry over fallow meadows. In the Beech Grove schoolhouse, initials are carved on the desks. The Bible on the Palmer Chapel’s pulpit is left open to the last page of the Old Testament. Hiking a wooded hilltop, we discovered an old cemetery guarded by giant, moss-covered trees -- a mystical place.
Inside the Palmer House, an exhibition shows vintage photos of the valley before it was absorbed into Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Settlers had razed the land and denuded the mountaintops of trees. So when the park was created, efforts were made to rewild the region, returning it to its natural condition, ridding it of human influence. Most buildings and farms were destroyed, but some were kept in homage to the culture and customs of the settlers. Descendants of these Cataloochee families still gather for reunions every August.
On the road, we spotted an excited Buck the ranger waving for us to stop. He pointed into the meadows. Two black bear cubs were making their way through the high grasses. We stood in a trance, watching rippling paths advance toward the tree line. And then we counted a third! The girls had been keeping a running tally of all the animals we had seen -- skittering chipmunks, snoozing elk -- and the baby bears were a triumphant addition to the list.
Returning toward camp, we were startled by rumbles. Clouds rolled into the valley. The air was electric.
We could feel the energy: Booming cracks of thunder seemed to split the mountains. Thunder bounced off ridges, resounding back and forth in the valley. Mesmerized, we watched the dancing lightning illuminate the grandeur of the Great Smokies.
Nature’s spectacular show was more riveting than anything on a screen.
If you go
The only campground in the Cataloochee Valley offers 27 idyllic campsites next to a stream. There are bathrooms, but no showers or hookups. Peak season runs from May 15to Oct. 27. $25 per night.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Located in North Carolina and Tennessee, the national park is the most popular one in the United States. Check the website for seasonal road closures related to weather. Free.