The Nation’s Most Popular Park
The Cherokee called this area of western North Carolina Shaconage (“mountains of blue smoke”) owing to the “smoke” or vapor that clung to the mountain peaks then as now, caused not by fire but by evaporation and transpiration.
Today, the 800-square-mile Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracts more than twice as many visitors as any other of America’s 300-some national parks (even the Grand Canyon runs a distant second). It boasts sixteen peaks that rise above 6,000 feet, and none within a 36-mile stretch that’s lower than 5,000 feet.
Visual drama abounds, and the diversity of the park’s terrain accounts for a dramatic variety of flora, including more than 120 tree species (compared, for instance, to Yellowstone’s 20) and more than 1,600 flowering plants, which clothe the mountains and meadows from early spring to late autumn. About half of the park’s 800 miles of marked trails allow visitors to explore the way the early mountain settlers did: by horse. (Four stables in the park rent horses for guided rides.)
At an elevation of 5,000 feet, The Swag Country Inn (named for a dip between two mountains) claims to be the highest country inn in the eastern United States, and has its own private hiking entrance to the park. Six original, hand-hewn Appalachian cabins and structures were brought from elsewhere, reassembled on the inn’s 250 wooded mountaintop acres, and appointed with fireplaces, early American crafts, and homemade quilts for a rustic feel, while hot tubs and other luxuries add a dash of the ritz.
From the inn’s lofty perspective one understands how such magnificent landscape has long inspired religious communities and the local poet Joyce Kilmer, who wrote the simple ode “I think that I shall never see / a poem lovely as a tree.”