When I was a child, my family spent weeks camping in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Though I never liked the inconveniences of camping, I loved to be outdoors and partake of the undisturbed beauty of the area. We usually camped at Smokemont or The Chimneys, both operated by the park service. I loved playing on the huge boulders that filled the roaring streams. The aroma of campfires and dinners cooked on camp stoves is with me still. My mother and I would splash in wide, quiet areas of the rivers, so clear and fresh that I once dropped a ring in water several feet deep and was able to reach down and retrieve it with ease. Once, I had an unforgettably close encounter with a bear at our campsite. I was putting some trash in a can at the edge of the dirt road, when I looked up to see a huge black bear looking quizzically back at me!
At night, there were programs at an outdoor amphitheater, lead by a ranger. He (or she) would tell us stories, share legends and invite us to sing songs handed down by the early settlers. An abundance of trails lead visitors through lush forests filled with wild flowers, gentle streams and thundering waterfalls. A more rigorous hike might find lead to sharp, craggy peaks, that looked out over countless rows of the misty mountain range that gave the park its name. Nearby, there were free museums, operating grist mills and restored settlements to visit. Camping, horseback riding and a few other sites charged only minimal fees. The most wonderful part of this place is that it still exists today much as it was in the 1960’s. It is easily accessible, and still free, with the exception of camping and extras. Indeed, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in our nation! It is well worth the ride and price of gas to immerse yourself in the beauty of our country as it was before the influence of tourism and commercial businesses.