I made my first visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the age of 15. In fact, I entered it at the age of 15, and two days later had my sixteenth birthday at the Laurel Gap Shelter deep in the Smokies backcountry. It was June 28, 1973, and ice had formed in my water bottles overnight.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was formed when this nation was in the grips of the horrible Great Depression. I doubt that the will to create such a national park out of forest lands and developed communities could be done today. Perhaps we need another Great Depression to spur us to preserve that which should be preserved and do away with that which need not be saved.
In the 34 years since my first visit there, I have returned many times. Not as many times as I would wish, but quite a few. I've hiked into almost every quadrant of the Park and seen things that I wish everyone could see at least once. Just five years ago I embarked on a personal mission to view the old growth hemlock groves before they became extinct. This I did, and now most of those groves are standing as dead and soon-to-be-weathered husks where once all was green. Another crime to add to the list of offenses by Mankind.
Following are just some of the things I have seen in my many hikes into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Fifteen-year-old me on my first visit, swimming at Midnight Hole on Big Creek.
Midnight Hole, 2006, with a kayaker going over the falls.
Laurel Gap Shelter. That's me inside, the morning of my sixteenth birthday, June 28, 1973.
The backcountry where Laurel Gap Shelter stands, just below the summit of Big Cataloochee Mountain.
In an old growth hemlock grove, 2004. Those hemlocks are all dead, now. I had to see them before they died.
Inside an old poplar, 2004. Mother Nature.
Alone on Charlies Bunion, 2004.
In the overwhelming green of the Albright Grove, 2004.
In Cades Cove, 2004.
The definitive peak of the Smokies, Mount LeConte.
The Chimney Tops.
The Chimney Tops, up close and personal.
(More Smokies tomorrow.)