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.
Late Light on Clingman’s Dome
Sunset at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
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.
Lower Grotto Falls Portrait
Spotted Dusky Salamander
Lower Grotto Falls
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.
Mosquito Meter at Congaree National Park
Trees in Congaree National Park
Turtle at Congaree National Park
Creek in Congaree National Park
Congaree Boardwalk Trail
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.