By Ben Wilson
Not too long ago, I really had no idea what a National Park was. Sure, everyone knows about the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone with Old Faithful, but I still had no clue about the National Park Service and all that it entailed. I've been really involved with rock climbing the last few years and camped several times doing that, so I still considered myself the outdoor type. I just had no idea what I was missing.
While bouncing vacation ideas around with my wife, I almost jokingly suggested Yosemite because I'd heard about all the amazing rock climbing there. She agreed to that idea, so I did an internet search on Yosemite and was quickly directed to the National Park Service website. There were parks all over the place! And not just National Parks, but monuments, lakeshores, battlefields, historical sites, and more. Not only that, but every site had it's own page with detailed maps of the park along with explanations of what you can do and how to overcome any logistical hurdles to do It. I started reading about parks all over the country. I watched countless YouTube videos about them and every episode of Rock The Park. I was hooked.
I work as an airline pilot, so I already get to travel the country, but I found myself just sitting in the hotels during overnights not doing anything. I vowed to start renting cars when I had extra time and get out there and visit these amazing places.
My first opportunity came during a stay in Greenville, SC. I got in late but didn't have to leave until after 7pm the next day. Great Smoky Mountains NP was only 2 hours away, so I made it there by about 10am. Along the way, without even realizing It, I ended up on a very cool section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, so I got to add that NPS property to my hit list as well. At one point on the parkway, I drove through a small mountain rain shower that dropped visibility down to mere feet!
Once I finally reached the park, I was blown away by the views at the first overlook I stopped at while driving up the Newfound Gap road.
I drove to Clingmans Dome and hiked up to the peak to check out the lookout. It was still early in the day, so the clouds hadn't cleared yet. The temperature was cool, the wind was blowing, and though you couldn't see very far, it was incredible watching the clouds flow of the mountain peaks.
I also hiked the Forney Ridge trail out to Andrews Bald and back.
Overall, I hiked about 5 miles. My legs burned, but the views were incredible. Even though I was alone and constantly wishing I could share this with the people I loved, the peaceful seclusion had a tremendous therapeutic effect. One look at the eyes and smiles of the other hikers I passed showed me that I was not alone in that feeling.
My last couple hours in the park found me at the North Carolina/Tennessee border as well as exploring the Oconaluftee River.
I think I sure picked a great first National Park to visit. I will be back to Great Smoky Mountains someday, I'm sure.