Tom and I have been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park many times. I went on vacations there with my family when I was young. Tom and I camped and hiked there when we were newly married. We have pictures of hiking on the trails when John was a little guy. Gatlinburg was our “home base” for one extended visit and we camped with friends at the Smokemont campground for several days during another visit. We have also stopped by several times just for a day hike. But during all those visits, for some reason, I never got a stamp.
National Park site stamps are very important to me. I bought my first Passport book in 1986, which is the year the program started. So I understand why I didn’t have a stamp from when we were first married – the program hadn’t started yet. But we have been to Great Smoky National Park at least six times since I bought the book. My only explanation might be that we just never went to the Visitors Centers.
There are four Visitors Centers in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Two of them are at the main tourist attraction sites – Cades Cove and Clingmans Dome – well into the park. The other two are at either end of the only paved road that goes through the park, US 441. One is in Tennessee, the Sugarlands Visitors Center, and one is in North Carolina, the Oconaluftee Visitors Center. Because Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited National Park in the country, all of the Visitors Centers tend to be very busy. With a week in eastern Tennessee and Kentucky, I knew this would be my chance to finally get a stamp.
Tom and I set out from our campground for the Sugarlands Visitors Center. Although it was only 57 miles from point to point, getting there was slow going because we had to drive through Pigeon Forge. When Tom and I visited in the early 1980’s, Pigeon Forge was a sleepy crossroad. By the end of the 1980’s, Pigeon Forge was known as an outlet store destination. But during the 1990’s and on into the 21st century, Pigeon Forge developed into a destination that takes full advantage of the millions of visitors to the Smoky Mountains every year.
It takes forever to drive through Pigeon Forge. There are dozens of traffic lights and new tourist attractions everywhere you turn. Even though Tom and I drove through at 10 a.m. on an April weekday, there were people standing in line outside restaurants and the hundreds of tourist attractions. As we drove through town, Tom and I kept wondering why people would stand in line to see a wax museum when they could be hiking in the Smoky Mountains instead.
Once we got on the parkway that bypasses Gatlinburg, the going was much easier, more scenic, and faster. When we arrived at the Sugarlands Visitors Center, we were faced with another problem – no place to park. Cars were circling the parking lots waiting for others to leave. After driving slowly through all the parking lots twice, we finally pulled into an RV/Bus parking lot and were one of three cars to park in one of the spots. That parking lot was full of others who came to the same conclusion.
We walked up to the Visitors Center and saw that there was a line to get in. Although masks are no longer required in the National Park Visitors Centers, there was a limit of the number of people who could be in the building at one time. I waited in line while Tom looked around. I got into a conversation with a little girl (about three years old) who was in front of me in line. She had one of the small Passport books. I showed her my big one and asked her how many stamps she had. She said this one would be her first stamp and she was very excited about it. When we got into the building, I showed her where the stamping station was and helped her stamp her book. Her parents were there, of course, taking pictures. Then I stamped my own book. Finally!
I would have been happy to see the movie, but the park is not showing the movie yet. So I took a quick look around the Visitors Center. I asked a volunteer about the brochure or newspaper for the park, and she showed me a big information display where I could buy those items. Buy a brochure!!! This is the first National Park where I saw them for sale, but it makes sense. We find so many of those free brochures along trails or stuffed in trash cans. This way, people had to think about whether or not they wanted one and pay for it ($1) if they did.
Tom and I decided to take a short hike to Cataract Falls just so we could say we had done something in the park. The trail was only a mile long and was an easy, flat hike with lots of families walking along it. We enjoyed seeing so many generations taking advantage of the beauty of the area. There were hundreds of people walking along the trail as we went toward the falls, but then they dispersed from there. In fact, we had a lovely walk hardly seeing anyone, as we walked back to the parking lot from the falls.
This was our shortest visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park but we stilled enjoyed it and took time to capture a little of the natural beauty. I don’t recommend such a short visit, but it is a reminder that you don’t have to get far away from a Visitors Center to find solitude in the busiest parks.