Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and Congaree National Park, South Carolina
Is it common knowledge that Dollywood – a family-friendly Vegas surrogate that targets the countrified Ned Flanders demographic – sits just outside the northern entrance to Great Smoky Mountains National Park? I was expecting to pass through sparsely-populated farmland as I approached the park from Interstate 40 and instead found myself confronted by a seemingly endless sprawl of cheap hotels, miniature golf courses, and huge billboards advertising a live nightly “Hatfields vs. McCoys” comedy show.
Once the Dollywood gauntlet had been run, however, there was a dramatic transition into a beautiful green wilderness of dense forests, small picturesque waterfalls, and mountain ridges stretching out to the horizon in hazy layers. I drove straight up to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park, for sunset photos.
The next day I hiked to Grotto Falls. The trail was more popular than I anticipated, and so many people were tromping around the primary falls that I couldn’t get a clean photograph. I decided to set up my tripod at a smaller waterfall just a short walk downstream.
After exploring more of the park I left through the southern entrance and continued on to Columbia, South Carolina. From there it was just a short drive to Congaree National Park, which had only been a National Monument until its promotion in 2003. I wasn’t expecting much and was pleasantly surprised. Congaree is a relatively small park, but there were only a handful of other visitors and I had the trails almost entirely to myself.
Congaree’s raw, teeming plant and animal life somehow amplified the park’s already-powerful sense of solitude. The throbbing drone of countless insects filled the air. Massive water tupelo and Bald-cypress trees rose from the swampy ground, creating a canopy that blocked the intense summer sun and kept the trails pleasantly cool. I saw turtles, blue-tailed skinks, wild hogs, and a Red-bellied Watersnake, but I wasn’t lucky enough to spot any of the river otters that sometimes frolic in Cedar Creek and Weston Lake.