Smoky Mountain High : Once they've been there, most visitors yearn to return to the scenic woodlands that straddle North Carolina and Tennessee

WASHINGTON POST

The lofty green ridges of Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park roll across the horizon in spectacularly scenic waves that lap gently at the soul. Plunging into this wild woodland expanse, with its misty peaks, hidden coves and tumbling streams, dazzles the eye and invigorates the spirit.

But I had my doubts. More than 8 1/2 million travelers tour Great Smoky annually, making it America's most heavily visited national park. Surely, I thought, the place has been trampled by the vacationing hordes.

Well, I'm happy to admit I was mistaken. The park is beautiful, as I should have known, and my fears of overcrowding proved foolish. The lush forests that blanket the steep mountain slopes have been remarkably resilient in the face of the annual tourist invasion. And I didn't find myself tripping much over my fellow visitors, even though--like everybody else--I mostly took sightseeing drives and short day hikes. The park seemed to absorb us all nicely.

And now I can't wait to get back. Fall, when the leaves are changing and days are crisp and sunny, is an especially popular time to visit.

At what point in my three-day visit did I become a convert? Maybe it was the first morning, when I awoke in a cozy hilltop inn just outside the park to watch a thick blanket of clouds lift slowly from the broad shoulders of Mt. LeConte, soaring high above me in the distance. Or was it the sunny afternoon I followed a rocky trail that led me right under cool, cascading Grotto Falls?

I spent much of my last day hiking and driving through remote Cades Cove, a small mountain valley deep in the park where thick woods and sun-splashed meadows wove a magical beauty. At one especially scenic spot, I sat on a stump for half an hour, or perhaps it was an hour, drinking in the view as if it were a tonic--which in a way it was. By then, of course, I was solidly hooked.

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The week I arrived, in early May, a late-season storm dumped more than a foot of snow in the park's upper elevations, temporarily closing the major highway across the mountains. At the foot of the mountains, at an elevation of about 2,000 feet, spring was in full bloom, and I was in shirt sleeves. But up at 5,048-foot Newfound Gap, winter was throwing a departing snit. Blocked from hiking the scenic high country, I diverted my attention to some of the park's other less-heralded features on the lower slopes, particularly the many white-water streams spilling out of the mountains. I soon realized that almost every road I drove or trail I hiked traced the course of a stream or river.

As I explored, I also became aware of something called "Quiet Walkways," short paths to nowhere leading into the woods. As best as I could determine, they are unique to Great Smoky. Dotted along the road, each of the unusual trails departs from a parking area limited (by design) to only one or two cars. The idea is to lure motorists--a few at a time--out of their vehicles and into the comforting solitude and quiet of the forest. You don't have to walk very far to escape into a wilderness realm.

Once the park's deep valleys were home to about 6,000 rugged subsistence farmers and their families, the now almost-legendary Appalachian folk who were forced to move from their old homesteads when Great Smoky was created in 1934. Many of their weathered old structures--the wood-frame cabins, barns, corncribs and outhouses--have been preserved in the form of open-air museums.

Shaped like a large and lumpy potato, Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border. Much of its rugged interior, where the mountains climb above 6,000 feet, can be reached only on foot. Some 900 miles of hiking paths lace this formidable wilderness, including 71 miles of the Appalachian Trail, which roughly parallels the two-state border along the soaring backbone of the Smokies. But only a single paved highway, the Newfound Gap Road, bisects the park--crossing the mountains from Gatlinburg, Tenn., in the north to Cherokee in the south.

And yet the park's lush interior is surprisingly accessible, even to less adventurous travelers for whom a hike of a mile or two is a major challenge. Several short paved roads make deep cuts into the backwoods; other unpaved roads probe even farther, and there are several easy, well-marked nature trails extending beyond. The visitor center distributes individual brochures detailing auto tours and short, informative hikes.

For most visitors, the park's primary destination is Clingmans Dome, the highest point at 6,642 feet. Because of the snow, I never got there, but the vistas from a slightly lower elevation at Newfound Gap were superb. To reach the summit, you must detour from Newfound Gap Road, drive a short distance and then climb a steep paved walkway, which is usually the park's busiest trail.

Like other national parks, Great Smoky faces a combination of threats from encroaching civilization. The park originally got its name from the natural smokelike haze that hovers on its peaks and slopes. But nowadays much of the haze is man-made, caused by auto exhaust and regional power plants and industries. The result is "some of the worst air quality in the national park system," according to park spokesman Robert Miller, and continued deterioration in visibility.

To combat the threat, park officials have begun to speak out more strongly against potential new sources of air pollution that they believe endanger the park. "I don't begrudge them their economic development," says Miller, "but we can't sit back and watch air pollution destroy the park."

And then there is Gatlinburg.

A bustling tourist town at Great Smoky's northern entrance, it is by reputation the epitome of tacky--a noisy blight that detracts from the park's serenity. But I don't agree. Gatlinburg is indeed a hodgepodge of depressing commercialism at nature's front door, but the shops, motels and cafes are tucked compactly into a narrow, tree-shaded canyon, which hides the excesses. No, tacky is the neighboring town of Pigeon Forge, a crowded highway strip zone that is home to Dolly Parton's Dollywood, a musical theater, and other entertainment.

To avoid the towns, to the extent that I could, I stayed in a small bed and breakfast inn, the Hippensteal Inn, just outside Gatlinburg. It perches in seclusion atop a high hill at the end of a winding road lined by the crafts studios of woodcarvers, potters, weavers and other Appalachian artisans. Innkeeper Vern Hippensteal paints lovely expressionist watercolors, many of them with a mountain theme. I was given a room called "October Promise," named for one of his colorful works. A print of the painting hung over the fireplace, and I'm sure it was the same grand view I saw from my room. Each day's excursion into Great Smoky sent my spirits soaring, and since I wasn't camping, I felt lucky to find a place to stay that sustained this emotional high. To give Gatlinburg its due, twice I ventured into town for dinner and was grateful for a varied choice of restaurants. And, yes, I managed to escape each evening with my good mood intact.

Though restricted by the snow to the Tennessee half of the park, I found plenty to fill my days.

To the east of Sugarlands is the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a five-mile loop drive on a road so narrow, steep and twisting, you wonder if you should put hiking boots on your car. At a couple of points, it's a tight squeeze between trees. The shady, woodland drive begins just beyond the Noah (Bud) Ogle Place and follows the racing descent of Roaring Fork as it drops from a high ridge.

About midway on the drive, I parked to hike the easy, three-mile round-trip trail that climbs through a virgin hemlock forest to Grotto Falls. En route the path intersects three small streams, which hikers must cross on wobbly steppingstones. At the end, like the two couples who had preceded me, I ducked beneath a curtain of water tumbling from an overhead ledge to examine the falls from inside out.

In local parlance, a "cove" is a mountain valley, and Cades Cove Loop Road is a self-guided auto tour that skirts the edges of the valley for 11 miles. On the valley floor, horses graze in a rolling, stream-etched meadow. They keep the forest from reclaiming the open land. Heavily wooded mountains ring the valley, wrapping it in isolation.

Cades Cove's story is recounted in the old homesteads along the road, but I was even more captivated by the area's natural beauty. Had I been a resident, I'm sure I would have been very reluctant to leave, as were some of the farm families who were forced to move for the creation of the park. As a visitor, I lingered as long as I could. As I said, the valley was a tonic, and I wanted to drink deeply.

GUIDEBOOK

Fired Up for the Smokies

Getting there: Closest cities to the national park are Asheville, N.C., and Knoxville, Tenn., with only connecting service out of LAX to either. USAir and Delta connect to Asheville for about $420 round trip, non-refundable. Northwest Airlines and USAir connect to Knoxville for about $395 round trip. From Knoxville, take Interstate 40 east to U.S. 441 south to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. From Asheville, take I-40 west to North Carolina 19 to Cherokee.

Where to stay: The Tennessee resort towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge at the northern entrance to the park offer a variety of lodging choices in high-rise hotels, motor lodges, condominiums, golf resorts, bed and breakfast inns, private vacation homes, cabins and motels, including most of the budget chains.

I booked a room in the Hippensteal Inn, a plush new eight-room bed and breakfast inn perched on an isolated hilltop just outside Gatlinburg. Both of the inn's upper floors have covered, wraparound balconies with rocking chairs facing the mountains. Each guest room has a whirlpool tub. A room for two with gourmet breakfast is $110 a night; for reservations, telephone (800) 527-8110 or (615) 436-5761.

The rustic-style Wonderland Hotel, a newly constructed 29-room inn in a woodland setting just outside the park, has doubles for $58 (one bed) or $63 (two beds). All rooms have private baths, but no TVs or telephones; a restaurant serves three meals daily; the hotel is closed January and February. For lodging reservations, tel. (615) 436-5490.

Where to eat: Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge offer fast-food outlets to fine riverside dining. The Peddler Restaurant & Lounge, a steakhouse that overlooks Little Pigeon River in downtown Gatlinburg, is regarded as one of the town's finest.

For more information: Contact Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, Tenn. 37738, tel. (615) 436-1200. Gatlinburg Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 527, Gatlinburg, Tenn. 37738, tel. (800) 568-4748 or (615) 436-4178. Pigeon Forge Department of Tourism, P.O. Box 1390, Gatlinburg, Tenn. 37868, tel. (800) 251-9100 or (615) 453-8574.

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