By Michael Lanza
In the last couple hours of a recent 34-mile backpacking trip through Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I was walking along Noland Creek when I saw yet another captivating scene of tumbling water, rocks, and fallen leaves. I stopped, set up my camera on my tripod, and captured the image above. I was hiking a loop on the North Carolina side that took me from lower elevations near Fontana Lake up to the park’s crest, traversing a stretch of the Appalachian Trail over 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome and the park’s highest bald, 5,920-foot Andrews Bald, where I enjoyed classic Great Smokies views of an ocean of blue ridges.
But well before I reached Noland Creek, I had already come to understand that these rounded, ancient mountains hold many of their best secrets below the treetops, in the cascade-rich streams that plunge energetically down through some of the most diverse forest found anywhere in America.
The Appalachian Mountains deliver their grandeur in a more intimate manner than you find in the sprawling, wilderness parks of the West. This is scenery that you immerse yourself within, streams that numb your bare feet and fill your ears with their song. But unique to the Great Smokies, compared to other parts of the Appalachian chain, is a forest that harbors 1,600 species of flowering plants, including 100 native tree species and over 100 native shrubs. Over 300 species of native vascular plants and 200 of the park’s 450 non-vascular plant species are considered rare—which means they may occur in fewer than five spots in the park—and 76 species of plants are listed as threatened or endangered in North Carolina and Tennessee.
Stop randomly on a streamside trail and you’ll probably find yourself standing beside a lovely cascade pouring into a pool reflecting more hues of green than you knew existed. The Appalachian Trail through Great Smoky Mountains National Park is justifiably popular, for its grand, sweeping views. But give yourself the full Smokies experience by also doing some hiking at middle and lower elevations. Stop beside a stream and just watch and listen to it for a few minutes.
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My 34-mile hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, from the parking lot at the end of Lakeview Drive East (reached via Bryson City, N.C.), follow the Lakeshore, Forney Creek, Bear Creek, Welch Ridge, and Appalachian trails to the Silers Bald shelter, where I spent the night. The next day, I hiked the Appalachian Trail northbound to Clingmans Dome, and descended the Forney Ridge, Springhouse Brook, and Noland Creek trails back to Lakeview Drive East. I’ll post a feature story about that backpacking trip, with many photos and a video, later at The Big Outside.
See also my “Photo Gallery: Fall Hiking and Backpacking in the North Carolina Mountains,” which includes more photos from my Smokies backpacking trip and from dayhikes I took in western North Carolina the same week.
And see all of my stories about national park adventures at The Big Outside.
Having a backpack that fits your body and backpacking style makes every trip better. See my favorite packs for backpacking.
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