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April 2000

The Smokies: Backwoods-Style

Here's your insider's guide to The Great Smokies, probably the epitome of a true backpacker's national park.

History You Can Touch

Nostalgia hangs in the Smokies air like a moonshiner’s ghost. In fact, the park harbors 135 known cemeteries within its boundaries. Their weathered gravestones bear the names of mountain folk who once lived in shacks and log cabins that stood on the pre-park land. Look closely and you may see the crumbling remains among the tulip poplars.

More than any other park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park was formed from heavily logged hardscrabble land. In fact, Congress officially designated the national park in 1926 largely to save the remaining uncut forests, which had shrunk to a mere 20 percent of the original scope of virgin woodlands. After designation, the real work began to raise the money needed to buy the land. All told, about half of the necessary funds came from the states of North Carolina and Tennessee through appropriations and citizen donations, with the other half-$5 million-materializing as a gift from the Laura Spellman Rockefeller memorial fund.

But the land didn’t come easily. After a prolonged struggle fraught with in-fighting, accusations of pork-barreling, land condemnations, and unforeseen property value increases, some 6,600 tracts of land were purchased from 1,200 landowners and finally deeded to the federal government in 1934.

On Memorial Day each year, park officials invite the descendants of these southern Appalachian hill people to come and remember their loved ones. When the spirit moves you, visit the graveyards and homesteads along any of these backcountry routes:

  • Bone Valley Trail: This route includes a side trip to Hall Cabin, the most remote historic structure in the park (c. late 1870s), as well as the Hall cemetery.

  • Caldwell Fork Trail: Most commonly accessed from the Cataloochee Campground and ranger station in the eastern end of the park, this trail is best hiked in winter when horse traffic is nonexistent and the mud is frozen. It passes by Union soldier graves and historic sites of a school, blacksmith shop, and farmstead.

  • Old Settler’s Trail: Hiking Trails of the Smokies describes this 15.9-mile trail just east of Gatlinburg as offering “more traces of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century mountain community life than anyplace else in the park,” now reduced to mostly stone chimneys and rock walls.

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