Natural wonders of the Smokies require getting out of the car

Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers 800 square miles in two states.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers 800 square miles in two states.

GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS NATIONAL PARK, Tenn. — The Cherokees were the first public relations people for this timelessly beautiful region, calling their misty mountain domain "The Land of a Thousand Smokes."

In later years, this was shortened to simply "the Smokies" by a people less poetically inclined. Whatever the appellation, the perpetual bluish-gray gauze that wraps itself around these peaks gives them a mysterious and brooding quality (for non-poets who insist on a scientific explanation, the haze is created by humidity and water vapor emitted by the dense, old-growth forests covering 25 percent of the park).

The Smokies encompass 800 square miles of the Southern Appalachians, straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. With more than nine million visitors a year, it is America's most visited national park, luring twice as many visitors as its closest competitor, the Grand Canyon.

You might be surprised to discover, however, that 80 percent of those who visit are what park rangers dub "windshield tourists," who never get out of their cars or tour buses.

"A quick drive-through and they think they can cross it off their bucket list," says one ranger, shaking his head in disbelief.

Determined not to be in that number, I am at Sugarlands Visitor Center, the main park entrance on the Tennessee side, two miles south of Gatlinburg. During my two-mile hike, I will get only a glimpse of what the park offers: more species of trees than can be found on the entire continent of Europe; 1,600 flowering plants and 4,000 non-flowering plants; 200 varieties of birds; and more than 10,000 species of mammals, fish and other wildlife forms (one species of salamander, frequently seen on muddy creek banks, is found nowhere else in the world).

With so much diversity in flora and fauna, it's little wonder that the United Nations has declared the park an International Biosphere Reserve.

Above all, there are the mountains, rising from the perpetual mists. According to the Cherokee creation story, "the great buzzard flew all over the Earth, and when he reached the Cherokee country, he was very tired, and his wings began to strike the ground. Wherever they struck the earth, there was a valley, and where they turned up again, there was a mountain."

Clearly, the Cherokee preferred fantasy to fact — the mountains were born 200 million to 300 million years ago, and they were once as tall as the Rockies. Almost as soon as they were created, they began to erode, sculpted by millions of years of wind and water into the lush, rounded shapes seen today, with elevations ranging from 840 feet to more than 6,600 feet.

Clingman's Dome, at 6,643 feet, is the highest point along the Appalachian Trail, and it straddles the two states (half of the observation tower is in Tennessee and half is in North Carolina).

There are few reminders of what our continent looked like before it fell prey to developers, but standing on an overlook gazing toward Mount LeConte, I am looking at the same vista that the Cherokee did — ridge upon ridge of forest in varying shades of green, stretching to the horizon.

Elsewhere in the park, waterfalls provided a symphony, from the tinkle of bells to the crash of cymbals. The air smelled fresh, with just a hint of the rain that was to come. Later that day, I would see a black bear appear from behind a distant tree and pose briefly before lumbering off.

I felt renewed, and I left thinking that being a part of something this primeval is the ultimate travel experience.