An area Smoky Mountain resident’s plea to park visitors
I see them every so often: Someone visiting one of our national parks with little or no common sense. Maybe they’re out west and get too close to a buffalo. Or maybe they’re in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and want a photo op with a family of black bears (I see that one all the time).
The National Park Service makes a monumental effort to educate people on the do’s and don’ts of visiting places like the Great Smokies, Yosemite and others. Some people, however, refuse to listen. Cumulatively those guests reduce the experience for others who come to the country’s most visited national park. This is why, I thought it would be helpful to create a guide of sorts for first-time visitors. A plea, if you will, from a local who loves these mountains to those who are just passing through. In an effort to make everyone’s visit to the Smoky Mountains an enjoyable experience.
IN THIS ARTICLE
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1. Don’t skip the visitor center
The Sugarlands Visitor Center at the park’s Gatlinburg entrance and the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the park’s Cherokee entrance offer a wealth of information both in the exhibits on display and the knowledge of rangers and staff at the facility. Are you looking for something different or off the beaten path? Maybe a tip on the best spot to see a bear or elk? Or maybe just a place where you can learn more about this historic and beautiful region? A park visitor center is a great place to start. Plus they have maps. You’re going to need them. There’s rarely cell phone service in the mountains.
2. Don’t vandalize historic buildings
The Smokies are filled with little pieces, echoes of life in the mountains prior to the national park. Along the 11-mile loop in Cades Cove, there are a number of historic structures, including the historic grist mill. The mountains are known for the quality of their remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture. Please don’t ruin it for other people. Over the years, certain visitors have taken the opportunity to leave their mark on these edifices of time. The same thing happens along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. When you see something timeless, whether it’s a tree or an ancient cabin, please summon all your strength and fight the urge to carve your initials into the thing.
3. Don’t take your pet hiking
Look. You love your pet. Certainly, you love hiking. You want your pet to get some exercise. Why not take Fido hiking? Because it’s a bad idea. There are two short walking paths in the entirety of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that allow dogs. The Gatlinburg Trail and The Oconaluftee River Trail. Pets are not allowed on any other park trails. Dogs are allowed in campgrounds, picnic areas and along roads, but must be kept on a leash at all times. The leash must not exceed 6 feet in length.
Why? Well, dogs can chase and threaten wildlife. And even if they don’t directly harass local animal life, their scent can indicate the presence of a predator and disrupt the park’s wildlife behavior. According to the park service, small animals may hide in their burrow the entire day after smelling a dog. Therefore, they may not venture out to feed. You want to bring your dog because you love animals, right? Remember to respect the ones who live there. Plus, on the other end of the food chain, your pet might represent an opportunity for a meal. Even if a bear isn’t in the mood to eat your pet, an encounter on one of the park’s hiking trails could leave you, the pet and the bear in an untenable situation. Also, many people, especially young children, are afraid of dogs. Finally, it’s just not considerate.
4. Don’t leave your trash
The park has several scenic official picnic areas. With this in mind, if you stop in an unofficial area, make sure you take all of your trash with you. There are some that don’t see biodegradable food items as true litter. People will toss something like an apple core or a leftover bit of sandwich “harmlessly” into the woods. Take that stuff with you.
First of all, it’s incredibly rude to leave it. But secondly, it’s dangerous to wildlife. The National Park Service is vigilant in working to keep animal life in the park away from access to human food which is incredibly harmful to a black bear. Once the bear associates humans with food, it will cross boundaries that should be preserved. These can lead to a bear having to be put down. If you’re interested in cleanup efforts around the park, check out the nonprofit group Save Our Smokies.
5. Don’t bother the plant life
Did you know that it is illegal to remove plant life from the national park? The Smokies is home to hundreds, maybe thousands of species of plants and native tree species. The diversity of plant natural habitats means the Smokies are home to many cool, growing things. For most of us, it’s easy to forget that we need to respect plant life just as we do animal life.
It may seem harmless to some people to pick a bouquet of spring wildflowers. However, what happens when dozens or hundreds of visitors take the same liberties? What happens when ginseng poachers sneak into the deep forests to claim all the old-growth roots in the woods they can find? What happens when tiny pieces of that plant diversity are plucked away? I’m not here to tell you picking a daisy or pulling a ramp will be the end of the national forest. But that doesn’t mean you should do it, either.
6. Don’t touch the rocks
This is one I’ve had to correct myself on. I love skipping stones, finding a deep creek and tossing in a big stone to make that satisfying kerplunk sound. Who am I hurting? Maybe no one. But maybe the salamanders. Most of us don’t need to be told to keep a respectful distance from the bears or not chase the wild turkey or try to mount an elk. But the Smokies’ most plentiful animal is the salamander. And there is a pretty diverse range of amphibians living in the park.
The massive Hellbender can grow to more than a foot long and a new species was recently identified; a kind of black-belly salamander. So tossing those rocks around the waterways of the Smokies could affect the salamander habitat. Certainly, the last thing I want is an angry Hellbender salamander haunting my dreams. In general, leave the Smokies’ wildlife and their habitat alone.
7. Don’t get close to the bears
In this day and age, I still can’t believe this needs to be said – but please keep your distance from our black bears. It is rare for a black bear to attack a human, but it can happen. A study by The Wildlife Society documented 59 fatalities from black bears between 1900 to 2009. While it’s unlikely to be provoked, it’s still extremely important to keep your distance from a wild black bear.
Plus, it is illegal to willfully approach a bear within 150 feet or any distance that disturbs the bear. As a rule of thumb, if you see a bear, fully extend your arm in front of you and stick your thumb up. If the bear is not covered completely by your thumb, you are too close. Not to mention the fact that when bears become too familiar with humans they sometimes have to be put down. So you’re not only endangering your own life, you’re endangering the bear’s life too.
8. Don’t forget the North Carolina side
I love Hendersonville and Bryson City. I love Cherokee and the Blue Ridge Parkway and Downtown Asheville and Clingman’s Dome. The Western North Carolina mountains don’t get all the hype that East Tennessee gets, but they’re wonderful, and often less crowded. Give them a chance. The border is just a day trip away.
9. Don’t be myopic or possessive
I apologize. That’s harshly stated. A lot of people feel a deep and personal connection to the mountains or the region. For this reason, changes – like the new parking fee being instituted – seem like a personal affront, a slap in the face. Really, it’s just a way to try to protect the park and enhance the experience for future generations to come. I do respect that it comes from a place of best intentions.
Recently, the leaders of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee tribe announced they’re beginning a process that may end with an official request to the federal government to restore the original name given by the Cherokee people to Clingmans Dome. Some people disagree with the name change. But “Kuwohi” – translation The Mulberry Place – was the mountain’s name for generations before a Swiss mapmaker named Guyot came in and renamed the place after a buddy of his, a former Confederate general named Clingman.
I don’t for the life of me understand why anyone would be attached to the name of a mountain they have occasionally visited. I see a certain poetic reason for restoring the original name if the Cherokee leaders decide that they’d like to do that. It wouldn’t be erasing history. It would be acknowledging a deeper, older history. If people are clinging – sorry – to the old name, they certainly could keep the name for the observation tower. Honestly, I thought for years that Clingmans Dome was the tower’s name, not the mountains. Did I wonder why they named a tower a dome? Reader, I did, but not enough to look it up in the days before the internet. Anyway, the mountains belong to all of us.
Do you have a what not to do in the GSMNP to share? Let us know in the comments!