I’m taking a break this week from my usual essays about Pleistocene Georgia to write a travelogue of a vacation my family forced upon me. For my daughter’s 15th birthday my wife promised her a trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a crowded tourist trap, bordering the north end of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is itself an overhyped haven for wildlife.
The sidewalks are jammed with tourists from early morning till midnight, and they come from all over the world, including Ohio, Louisiana, Iowa, Florida, Texas, Missouri, Japan, and Germany. Little shops and stores, like cigars crammed inside a tin can, stand in line on both sides of the confusing winding streets, beckoning the tourists to throw money their way. There’s a Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream Store, a Guinness Book of World Records Museum, a wax museum, a celebrity car museum, a hat and cowboy boot outlet, a country western bar, pancake houses and barbecue restaurants, a McDonalds, and untold other high, low, and middle end stores. All this exists but with precious little parking. There are no alleys in between the stores and no parking lots in front or to the sides of the businesses. We found a parking lot in back of one museum that cost us $10. My wife is disabled and I didn’t want to have to wheel her chair across town. Gatlinburg’s not that big–I recommend (if tourist traps are your cup of tea) to hike downtown from your motel, or you can take one of the trolleys. The streets are interspersed with rights of way for walking tourists, but out-of-town motorists don’t realize this, creating a dangerous hazard. Other motorists disregarded the pedestrian rights of way, until they saw me stopping.
My daughter chose to throw our money away at the Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum.
Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum
I found this freak show rather lame and outdated, but I guess it’s ok for kids. There’s nothing here surprising to a person well versed in science and history.
This is a hairball from a pig. The poor animal must have coughed its lungs up to get this out.
This is a photo of me next to a replica of Robert Wadlow, the tallest man to ever live. In a boxing match between us it would’ve been hard for me to land punches above the belt.
This poster of spiderman is made out of real spider webs. Amazing!
This is a medieval chastity belt. I bet men found a way to overcome this. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Mark Gelbart Eats an Eyeball–Believe it…or Not
We ate supper one night at the Smoky Mountain Trout House, an overpriced tourist trap restaurant. They serve trout 13 different ways. The sides were nothing special–frozen crinkle cut french fries, the driest hushpuppies I ever ate, and bottled salad dressing. The trout was good–I wolfed down a whole crispy fried one. This was the first time I’d ever eaten a fish with the head left on. I made Andrew Zimmern of the Travel Channel series Bizarre Foods proud when I dared to eat a fish’s eyeball. It tasted strong, much fishier than the flesh, and I could feel the solid texture of the lens on my tongue. I didn’t eat the other eyeball and don’t recommend eating them, unless starvation is imminent.
We ate lunch at the Flying Pig Smokehouse. The prices here were more family friendly, and the barbecue genuine. The apple cinnamon barbecue sauce went well with smoky pork.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
I highly recommend this park for those interested in botany. Situated as it is in the middle of eastern North America and with varying elevations, plant species diversity is high. There are plants that prefer warm climate growing next to species with cold climate affinities, much like what grew further south in Georgia during the Ice Age. I found hemlock, white pine, loblolly pine, white oak, chestnut oak, northern red oak, beech, birch, elm, tulip, red maple, box elder, buckeye, sweetgum, sycamore, hickory, bigleaf magnolia, and black walnut. The large numbers of black walnut within the park boundaries surprised me. This tree’s wood is prized by furniture makers. It’s rare outside the park, though it formerly was a common species of our eastern deciduous forest. Rhodadendron was common in the understory.
This is the view from Newfound Gap. The mountains are literally smoking.
Rhodadendron in the center of the photo.
This is a potential bear den next to the Appalachian trail. When large mature trees fall, the roots rip up caverns, making it easy for bears and other critters to dig deeper tunnels. This part of the trail was busy and noisy. We were sandwiched between a motorcycle convention in the parking lot and a hiker playing loud music.
I do not recommend Great Smoky Mountains National Park for tourists interested in wildlife viewing. By far the most common large mammal species in the park is Homo sapiens–the park is badly overcrowded. The main highway #441 that bisects the park has bumper-to-bumper traffic. I even got stuck in a traffic jam. Supposedly, the park holds 6,000 white tail deer, 1600 black bear, 600 wild boar, and 100 elk. The only mammals I saw were an estimated 40,000 people and one gray squirrel–a bitter disappointment. Supposedly, 200 species of birds reside in the park. I saw 5, and they were species commonly seen in Augusta, Georgia where I live.
95% of the park is a closed canopy forest; the balance is meadow. Some of the forested area is old growth. Large mammal populations are low in old growth forests, and what little lives there is hidden in the trees. No timbering is allowed so mast-producing trees, such as oaks, are being shaded out by less productive trees. Coupled with the loss of the chestnuts to the blight in the last century, this means there is little food available for large mammals. Moreover, most of the areas in the park that are favorable for wildlife viewing were closed. Cades Cove, Roaring Fork, and Clingman’s Dome were all closed either for maintenance or due to rock slides. Cataloochee Valley, on the eastern side of the park where the elk were re-introduced, is remote and difficult to access. It’s at the end of a long, winding, unpaved road that’s steep and has a speed limit of 5 mph. Because my wife’s disabled, I was nervous about continuing on this road. If our car broke down, it would’ve been a disaster because she couldn’t walk back to civilization. So I turned back.
I didn’t even see any interesting small mammals. Red squirrels, also known as chickarees, inhabit the park as well as chipmunks and woodchucks. None of these species live near Augusta, but alas I didn’t see them here either.
I did see lots of butterflies, especially eastern tiger swallowtails. Their larvae feed on many of the tree species so common here. I also saw two different kinds of butterflies from the Pieridae family.
The museum at the park welcome center had many fine stuffed specimens. The museum affords about the only opportunity for a visitor ot see animals in the park.
I did catch a whiff of a nearby skunk at Newfound Gap. It didn’t smell as bad as our hotel room which I nicknamed the Armpit Motel.
This is a tulip tree trunk. Large, mature tulip trees are a dominant tree in the park. None I saw approached this is circumference. Most people don’t realize that much of the original forest in this area was leveled by 1910. The forest now consists of second growth.
This is the biggest bald faced hornets next I’ve ever seen. They’re a marvel of insect engineering.
Supposedly, this is a trout stream. The waters are clear but I saw no fish, turtles, frogs, or fish-eating birds. Don’t expect to catch trout here. The only trout left in the area are grown on fish farms.
Admittedly, I’m a cynic. I suspected the park administration exaggerated mammal population estimates to encourage tourism. So to prove to myself that animals actually live in the park, I looked for tourist videos of wildlife in the park on youtube as evidence that they weren’t just making these figures up. I don’t have direct links but do a search at www.youtube.com for “Bear breaks into car at Clingman’s Dome,” “Cades Cove black bear,” and “Elk in the Cataloochee Valley.” Note how incredibly ignorant some of the tourists act around bears. The footage of bears tearing up logs while looking for termites, and another of one digging up a yellow jacket nest is interesting. The video of a bull elk bugling, while the rest of the herd rests behind a flock of turkeys is the kind of scene I had hoped to see.
Overall, I think the park is poorly managed and underfunded. The current ratio of closed canopy forest to meadow limits quality wildlife habitat and viewing. Selective tree cutting, as practiced by native Americans, would improve both. Bison, wild horses, cougars, and wolves should be re-introduced.
Tags: Andrew Zimmern, Bald-Faced Hornet, Bizarre Foods, Black Bears, Cades Cove, Cataloochee Valley, Elk, Gatlinburg, Great Smoky Mountains national Park, Newfound Gap, Ripley's Believe it or Not Museum, Tennessee, trout