Sugarlands, of course, is the home of the Sugarlands Visitor Center and the headquarters of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Sugarlands is also an area of the National Park that stretches from the Grapeyard Ridge and the Roaring Fork area to Sugarland Mountain. The road out of Gatlinburg runs straight through Sugarlands and is one of the most used access points to the GSMNP.
The Native Americans, particularly the Cherokee hunted the land that came to be known as Sugarlands for thousands of years before the first European Settlers go to the area. The settlers that came to East Tennessee found a valley in Sugarlands that was good for growing crops, protected them from the harshest of the winter storms and provided them with natural insulation from outsiders. The Sugarlanders were isolationary and stayed to themselves. Their communities flourished and though life continued around them (the Civil War and other national occurrences) the people of Sugarlands continued along their path.
With the coming of the logging industry, the people of the Sugarland area began to have visitors to their valley. As the rail lines brought in summer vacationers, the Sugarlanders had new people to sale to their goods to. They embraced the people of other areas that wanted a mountain spot to vacation. In fact many Sugarlanders took on legendary status. Mountain guides like Wiley Oakley helped to map the trails that would become the trails in the Smokies. Oakley guided visitors on a trail through an area called Scratch Britches that would become known as Rainbow Falls Trail.
When Congress passed the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the people of Sugarlands were some of the first to be displaced be the coming change. Most of them took the buyout offered by the Park Service but some of the Sugarlanders had to be forced out of the area. After all of the residents had been removed from the area, the Park Service the CCC began the task of building the structures that we have all come to know and love in the GSMNP.
Modern Sugarlands offers everything a visitor to the Smokies could want and more. Reservations for campsites, a museum of the wildlife in the Smokies, a video about the foundation of the park, trails and of course, contact with the guardians of the National Park – the Park Rangers. Ask them questions, get help planning your hike for the day or even let your little ones participate in the Junior Ranger Program. Sugarlands was a place that visitors of old went to learn about the mountains, some things have not changed.
The Oconaluftee area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located on the North Carolina side of the park. The Oconaluftee River valley widens form Smokemont to the Oconaluftee area. The river is part of the reason that this area has been so vital to the history of the North Carolina side of the park. People settled in this valley early on and in modern times it became the perfect place to have a visitors center for the People entering the GSMNP from the NC side of the mountains.
The Cherokee people are only known to have had one village inside the park boundaries. It is believed to have been near the current boundaries of the National Park itself. The Ocnaluftee area was used as a hunting ground for the Cherokee. The word Oconaluftee comes from the Cherokee word for river. As the early settlers moved into the area the found a valley that was easy to farm and had a ready supply of water available from the river. John Mingus came to the area in the 1790s and was the first European settler in the Oconaluftee area.
In the present day Oconaluftee area there are several historic sites that you can visit. One of the most interesting of these locations is Mingus Mill. This mill was built in 1886 and named for John Mingus and his family that was still in the area up until the time of the creation of the GSMNP. Instead of being the overshot water wheel like you see on other mills around the park (Cable’s Mill in Cades Cove). Mingus Mill is turbine driven which though it is not nearly as iconic as the overshot wheels, it was much, more efficient and therefore more profitable. This mill has been restored and you can walk around it and see how this early industrial tool worked for the people that live din the area.
Also, in the Oconaluftee area, there is a visitors center. Including a small museum, a mountain farm museum and access to park rangers, the visitors center at Oconaluftee allows you to plan your excursion into the national park. Talk to the rangers, make reservations for the various camping spots around the park, walk through the museum and learn more about the creation of the national park and the people that used to call this area home or maybe you want to head outside. Behind the visitors center is a replica of a small mountain farm. The early communities of the mountains lived in clusters of small farms. The people would have enough livestock and farm land to support their families during the year and have a little left over to trade with their neighbors as the bartered for the goods they needed.
The Oconaluftee area of the GSMNP is the entrance for most people coming to the park from the North Carolina side. As you pass through this beautiful area realize that you are passing through an area rich in history and amenities. Stop at the visitors center, speak to the park rangers and explore the museum inside. When you are done head outside and explore the mountain farm exhibit and then head into the park to Mingus Mill. Explore the Oconaluftee area and see everything that it has to offer.
The first people to settle in the area that would become known as Tremont was William Marion Walker and his family. Walker, who gave his name to the valley that Tremont is in, came to the live in the area and became a bit of a legend in his own time. Known for his skills with a gun, this mountain man kept his family fed through beekeeping. Supposedly he kept his hives of bees (over 100) without the use of a mask or smoke. He pulled the honey from the hives and sold it to those people living in the nearby communities.
As Walker’s reputation grew, he opened up Walker Valley to tenant farmers who moved into the area and a small community was formed. This community included farmers and even gristmills to help the farmers process their grains. In the late 1890s the area of Walker Valley saw the first large scale logging operation move into the area. In 1901 WB Townsend opened the Little River Lumber Company. This operation started to log heavily in what would become the GSMNP. The people of the community of Walker Valley either moved out or found a livelihood off the logging camps. The logging company combined the words tree and mountain to form a new name for the area: Tremont.
Eventually, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park became a reality and Townsend sold the land of Tremont to the Department of the Interior who were establishing the boundaries of the National Park. The Tremont area had been a home for logging and then a vacation site for people coming to the mountains during the summer. With the establishment of the GSMNP, Tremont was a destination for people hiking but not much more… until 1969.
In 1969, Maryville College and the National Park Service founded the Tremont Environmental Education Center. Over the years, this project has changed and it has changed names. In 1980, the Great Smoky Mountains Natural History Association took control of this educational center and then in 1985 the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont was formed to further the education of people about this, the most visited national park in the country.
Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont is located on the site of the old summer homes that were part of this area before the establishment of the park. This facility now brings education opportunities to people of all ages. The school age and above come to the institute to learn about the Smokies. It is a residential location that allows day long and week long, overnight events. Whether you are choosing to come and learn or donate your time to help keep the Tremont Institute a going concern, Tremont is a fantastic area in the Smokies.
Elkmont is located between Sugarlands Visitors Center and the Townsend Wye in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you are coming from the Sugarlands end of the park then you will travel about 4.9 miles to the turn off to Elkmont which will be on the left as you head toward Cades Cove. If you are coming in from Townsend, you will travel 12.7 miles from the Wye to the turn off into Elkmont which will be on right hand side of the road.
Elkmont started out as a lumber area in the Smokies. The Little River Lumber Company started logging this area in the early 20th century. They put in a railroad system from Townsend to Elkmont to get the lumber out of the area and to get the lumber jacks into the Smokies. As the forest were cleared, the lumber company started to pull out of the area and the people of Knoxville and Maryville decided to make excursions into the Elkmont area for their summer vacations.
Elkmont quickly became a vacation spot for the uppercrust of society. The built home sin the area and came back year after year. The location of Elkmont along the river, the climate during the warmer summer weather and the feeling of being up in the mountains made this area popular enough that in 1912 Charles Carter built the Wonderland Hotel on a hill overlooking Elkmont. This inn became the ‘in’ place for visitors to stay when they wanted to get away to the mountains.
In the 1930s, the vacation spot of the Smokies begin to change. As the land was being purchased for the establishment of the National Park, the section known as Elkmont was chosen to be included. The people that owned the vacation homes and the owners of the Wonderland Hotel were, needless to say unhappy with the loss of their property. Even though they were going to paid for the land that was being claimed by the US government, they didn’t want to leave the area. They were provided with life-time leases and though they lasted for a long time, even the Wonderland Hotel closed in 1992. The homes and the hotel were both left and have continued to decay without upkeep. Elkmont, the vacation area, have become a ghost town in the Smokies.
Elkmont is one of the best places to see the effect that the Smoky Mountains had on the people that lived around it. It was an economic source of prosperity to the logging industry, a place to vacation for the elite in the surrounding towns and part of America’s most visited national park. Now, it has a campground and is the site of the synchronous firefly phenomenon that occurs each spring. Hiking trails that wind around the ghost town area and one of the older cabins in the Smokies give you a two very unique looks back into history. Add to that a great place to trout fish and you are looking at plenty of outdoor activities and lots of fun.
Cataloochee is a lesser known auto tour in the GSMNP. Much like Cades Cove, it was a valley community in the mountains that was self-sufficient with churches, farms and clusters of mountain homes. When the park service came in and started to establish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park they people were forced to leave and the park took over the buildings, making them into living history that you can now drive through to experience a taste of what their lives might have been like. Now, Cataloochee grows in popularity each year and with the establishment of a herd of elk in the valley, it is no wonder that people are visiting it more and more.
The Cataloochee Valley derives its name from the Cherokee word Gadalutsi which most likely referred to the trees that line the ridges surrounding the valley. The Cherokee used this valley as a hunting ground for elk and deer before the European settlers came to the area. When the first settlers saw the beautiful valley of Cataloochee they knew that they had found a home in the Smoky Mountains. From using the fields around the ridges for free range cattle to graze to actually moving into the valley itself to establish communities, Cataloochee became a thriving town in the Smokies complete with churches, a schoolhouse and much more. The people of Cataloochee were the first to embrace the sound to be founded tourism industry in the mountains. City Folk came to the area to experience the mountains and the town embraced them and their money.
When the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was established, it was decided that Cataloochee would become a part of the National Park. The people of the valley protested the inclusion and though some of them choose to fight, by the 1940s most of the people had moved out of the valley. The Department of the Interior gave the people that wanted to stay lifetime leases and all of these have since expired and there are no longer any people living in the valley of Cataloochee. Cataloochee is now the least known auto tour in the park but though it is not as traveled, it is just as beautiful as Cades Cove.
In 2001, the Park Service began a program of reintroducing elk into the National Park. The elk herds in the park are doing well but none of them are doing as well as the herd in Cataloochee. It is possible to see dozens of these majestic creatures as they roam the fields in and around Cataloochee. During the rut in the fall, the bull elk begin to bugle as they try to court a mate for the season. There are many people that bring a lawn chair and a picnic lunch so that they can sit in the great outdoors and enjoy the elk of cataloochee.
Cataloochee needs to be on your list of places to visit the next time you are in the Smokies. Take a day and head into the mountains. You can reach it by going to I-40 and driving into North Carolina or you can go to Cosby, TN and follow Hwy 32 into the mountains following the signs on a very rustic road. Either way you are in for a treat once you make it to Cataloochee.
Cades Cove is the most popular auto tour and the most popular spot in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. As an auto tour, Cades Cove is second to none. As a place just to go experience the beauty of the Smokies and hang out in nature, there might not be a better place in the southeast. Formerly a thriving Appalachian community, Cades Cove quickly shows you why people chose to call this area home.
Before the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Cades Cove was a typical mountain community. Small farms, cattle herds, churches, all of the usual buildings and community areas that a valley community might need were located in Cades Cove. The first settlers to the area were the Oliver’s. John Oliver, a War of 1812 veteran, came to the area. And while he and his wife Lucretia had a rough first winter the fertile land and the protected nature of the valley brought in many more settlers. At its height, in the early 1800s, the population of Cades cove was more then 650 people. There were quite a few farmsteads and there was even a post office with the Sevierville Post office running a weekly route to the cove for mail service.
The people of Cades Cove farmed the land, fellowshipped with each other and were happy for the most part. Then in the early 1900s, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park went from being an idea to being a reality. The people of Cades Cove were the most resistant to the creation of the park and to their inclusion in the park. In 1927 the General Assembly of the state of Tennessee declared that Cades Cove would be included in the GSMNP. The residents of the Cove fought the inclusion but in the end they were forced out of the area. In the end, some of the residents were given a lifetime lease. In fact the last resident out of Cades Cove was Kermit Caughron who passed way in 1995 and his home was dismantled soon after that.
Today you get to tour a Cades Cove that looked much as it did in the early 1900s. The eleven mile loop road around the Cove gives you access to all the historic structures, hiking trails and of course the wildlife that the cove is famous for. Before you enter the Cove you come to the riding staples, a picnic area and the campground and store. Cades Cove has it all.
A few tips for visiting Cades Cove
Bring a picnic. You may find you are there longer then you thought.
Allow yourself at least two hours to go around the loop road during season and on the weekends. It is only 11 miles but it can take a long time when it is crowded.
Stop at the Campground store and get ice cream if they are open.
On Wednesday and Saturday morning the loop road is closed to cars to let the bicyclists have fun on a closed course.