Our Davy Crockett Adventure: Day 3
Day 3: King of the Wild Frontier – Climbing Clingman’s Dome (August 5)
Today was our first full day in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Over a breakfast of dry cereal we decided that we would spend our day exploring the park as widely as possible. Our first stop was to the Sugarlands Visitor Center to get expert advice, a schedule of ranger talks, and new gear. August donned his ranger outfit over his camouflage shorts outfit. Perceptive readers of this blog will note that this makes three days in a row in the same outfit. So what! It’s all in the true spirit of camping!
August was already sporting 15 or so Junior Ranger badges on his hat when we arrived, which caught the attention of all the staff, particularly those in the gift shop. After August bought a walking stick (with his own money), the shop keeper wanted to take this picture of him. Apparently they have been trying to persuade higher-ups at Easter National that they should carry the uniform (shorts, shirt, vest, hat and backpack) in the store and thought this picture would help.
After a tour of the mountain ecology museum, we attended two ranger talks. The first, led by Ranger Julianne, was about animal scat (or animal poop). It was very engaging and tactile – at one point she disected bear scat she had found just the day before. August promptly whipped out his animal scat I.D. card from his backpack to compare what he was looking at with the pictures he held. His hand was up for every question. Every question! I could not resist the photo below as he resembled Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies, waving her hand in the air just in case the instructor did not see her.
The second talk involved a hike to Cataract Falls, during which August made fast friends with guide and was dependably at his side, ready to answer every question. This was primarily about tree identification, something August and I are trying to get better at.
Again, when we reached the falls August whipped out his Pond Ecology I.D. card and set to work. He must have spent 40 minutes examining lichen, mosses, insects, and water animals in just the position you see him here. I love him so much!
There are two ways to earn a Junior Ranger badge at Great Smokey Mountains National Park. Kids may purchase and complete a Jr. Ranger book from the gift shop, including a single ranger talk, or they may attend three ranger programs and, with the signatures of the rangers, receive their badge. We chose the latter as the best way to learn about the park.
With two ranger programs complete, we opened our lunch kits and snacked our way over the mountain toward the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. This took us through Newfound Gap, passing from Tennessee to North Carolina. Of the nearly ten million visitors to Great Smoky Mountain National Park (the most visited park by far – the second most visited is Grand Canyon at 4.5 million per year), only a small percentage make their way over the mountain.
At the Oconaluftee Visitor Center we had plenty of time to spend in the Mountain Farm Museum and experience demonstrations of blacksmithing, hearth cooking, gardening, and weaving before attending our next ranger program. The museum is a replica 19th century village, all of which is authentic and some of which has been relocated from Cade’s Cove. The ranger talk we attended was called “Lost and Gone Forever”: the story of how the passenger pigeon became extinct and what lessons we can learn from its passing. While August brought a lot to this program, he deepened this understanding of the connection between human caused climate change and species extinction. At the end of this program, August was sworn in as a Junior Ranger at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
On our way back over the mountains, we detoured up to Clingman’s Dome, the highest elevation in the park and the highest point on the Appalachian Trail (more on that tomorrow). Upon arrival, August and I made a meal out of that salami we had purchased at Katz’s Deli in Manhattan. Actually, we made sandwiches all along the two mile march from the parking lot to the peak. Along the way we passed irresistible climbing rocks. Really … irresistible. We each scrambled over and up these glacier formations and ventured into the woods beyond, but August was mostly enamored with jumping. I think this is my favorite photo from our vacation: “Boy in Flight!”
Though they are not seen in this photo, these rocks were crawling with children – a much needed “peer experience” three days into our trip. As the only adult who was also climbing the rocks, I took lots of cool pictures of cool kids and emailed them to parents. I honestly think we could have spent all day here, but we still had the mile long hike to the top ahead of us.
Before heading out on this trip, August and I began reading books about the Appalachian Trail. As a result, we were familiar with Clingman’sDome, and were duly awed by standing here. To cite wikipedia:
At an elevation of 6,643 feet (2,025 m), it is the highest mountain in the Smokies, the highest point in the state of Tennessee, and the highest point along the 2,174-mile (3,499 km)Appalachian Trail. East of the Mississippi River, only Mount Mitchell (6,684 feet or 2,037 metres) and Mount Craig(6,647 feet or 2,026 metres), both in the Black Mountains, are higher.
The dead trees in the distance, unmistakable in every direction, are the result of the hemlock wooly adelgid, a non-native insect that may well destroy all the hemlock trees in the park. The majesty, or what John Muir would call the glory, of these mountains simply took our breath away.
For August and I, this was also our opportunity to take our first conscious steps on the Appalachian Trail and the beginning of our plans to someday section hike the trail together. While books about the trail will be a significant part of the rest of our trip, I need to mention here that this was the day August “disappeared” into books in general. August had brought with him “Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book One: The Lightning Thief” by Rick Riordan. Each trip by car was a chance to “get back to the story.” Much as I would have liked to travel to the tunes of the Grateful Dead, Levon Helm or even the Carters, we travelled in silence as I watched the road and the trees and he read ancient greek myths.
Though arriving back to our campsite well after dark, we enjoyed a roaring campfire, roasted vegetables and hot soups, as well as “space ice cream: for desert, thanks to our stop at Economy Candy in Greenwich Village. Exhausted but thoroughly full, we acknowledged a good day, and went to sleep.
Recommended Reading: A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail, by Bill Bryson. August and I began this book before our trip and laughed out loud through the chapter on bear attacks. (Yes, we did). After that the book quickly moved on to even more mature topics, and I finished it alone. Nevertheless, stories from Bryson’s and Katz’s travels were a constant companion on our Davy Crockett Adventure. See our TRIP INDEX for more of our Davy Crockett Adventure.