It's not always about the hike. Rather, for me, it was about celebrating the reopening of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
I wanted to show solidarity with our park employees and park partners, Great Smoky Mountains Association (GSMA) and Friends of the Smokies (FOTS). I lead a monthly hike for FOTS, but couldn't lead it when scheduled. When I heard that the state of Tennessee was going to fund the reopening of the Smokies, I wanted to be there the first day. Unfortunately by the time the Tennessee Legislature made the decision, it was so late in the evening that we couldn't advertise the hike and hope that anyone would show up. So we postponed the hike to Thursday.
We met at the Bradley Fork Trailhead at the far end of Smokemont Campground. The campground already had a sprinkling of tents, RVs, and popups settled in. Campers must have come in the first day they could. Turkeys wandered all over the road, probably still thinking that they were the only ones in the park.
We followed Bradley Fork Trail along the stream. Creeks rippled through and under the trail to join the main creek. Sourwood trees, which are ignored most of the year, showed off their brilliant red color. Purple asters, the last wildflowers of the year, were still in bloom. Autumn colors were at their peak. It was cool and foggy.
Chasteen Creek Trail is always muddy since it's heavily used by horses. We watched for a hitching post on the left and took a side trail to Chasteen Cascade, the destination for the horse trips coming out of Smokemont stables. For most visitors, the cascade is their destination, but we continued up the trail to campsite #48 for lunch. The route follows the Benton MacKaye Trail and the Mountains-to-Sea Trail across North Carolina. By the time we reached our lunch spot, the rain came down steadily. We ate quickly and started down the trail.
Back at the trailhead, we drove almost out of the campground and visited the Smokemont Baptist Church. The church is hidden by foliage and hard to see from the road. We reconvened at Oconaluftee Visitor Center for the next part of the trip, visiting the bookstore. By the afternoon, the parking lot at Oconaluftee was almost full. Tour buses let out their passengers who headed straight for the visitor center. I hope they bought something at the store.
Great Smoky Mountains Association, the cooperating association, manages the bookstores in and around the park. Of course, the four stores in the park had been closed for the past 15 days.
Terry Maddox, executive director of GSMA, posted podcasts every day on YouTube to announce how the shutdown was affecting the bottom line. The association estimates that it lost over $550,00 over the 15 days that the stores were closed, money that will never be made back. Mr. Maddox's last podcast was on the first day of the reopening of the park. He says that, "The losses we have suffered this year are the worst in the 60-year history of GSMA.This will take some time to overcome."
As I left the park, a solitary elk was grazing quietly in the field next to the Mountain Farm Museum. Visitors watched him through binoculars. The elk wasn't bothered by the visitors, or the shutdown.