By Sarah West
There is a place hidden away between the mountain tops of eastern Tennessee, many have explored and yet there are many more who unknowingly pass her by. Off the beaten path there is a winding, one way mountain road known as the Historic Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
On many a summer or an early autumn day, I’ve begun my adventures by departing from Gatlinburg, Tennessee (a tourist destination nestled between the peaks of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park). As one makes a north easterly turn at traffic light #8 out of downtown Gatlinburg, the road winds steadily increasing in incline as the car climbs higher above and father away from town. The trees canopy overhead. In summer the canopy creates a nearly tropic scene and in late autumn, trees put on an brilliant color parade. They sparkle as the sunlight pours through, while fallen leaves blow about in crisp breezes. Black bear and American White-tail Deer can often be seen throughout the forest, with the rumble of woodpeckers echoing above. Along this route, many hikers choose the trail to Rainbow Falls to begin their trek to Mt. LeConte, the third highest peak in the Smoky Mountains with an elevation of 6,593 feet. Some select Mt. Le Conte as a day-hike destination, while others hike in for an overnight stay at the LeConte Lodge near Cliff Top, a point which boasts spectacular sunset views throughout the year.
Although, Roaring Fork isn’t a secret at all, when one explores further, the forest and streams which surround seem to close in, providing one with a sense that you have just discovered a place for the very first time. You feel as though you have just become a keeper of the mountains best kept secrets. Old settlements like the Ogle Cabins, Bales Place and Alfred Reagan’s Mill provide one with insight into how these mountain families lived for generations.
I adore exploring these old structures in the autumn as the sun creeps through the trees burning away heavy frost. Also, the autumn season doesn’t present as great a risk of making unpleasant acquaintances with natives such as the rattlesnake (beware: they like the cabins which provide cooler shade during the summer months). Mist rises from the streams which flow along defining the contour of the trail. Moss envelopes stones along creek beds and mushrooms glow in hues of yellow, green and white. The Great Smoky Mountains region is home to more than 450 species of non-flowering plants such as ferns and mosses, and here along Roaring Fork they thrive. After a summers rain, this place’s named sake seems only right.
Around every bend of this 6-mile mountain road, one finds aesthetic delight. Nature roams free and in such a place as this, one’s spirit bears a striking resemblance to nature. Here all things seem to breathe in perfect unison. Water flows from the peaks above and the springs below, and as one reaches the end of this journey, you can hardly believe your eyes. Just before civilization closes in, just before the roads end one arrives at The Place of a Thousand Drips. The Place of a Thousand Drips seemingly other-worldly rises high above and reaches to the depths far below. Hikers pass by ascending while others descend natures wonderland. Many stop to take photographs and some simply stand with mouths wide open as they gaze in awe of this natural marvel. Mist fills the air on humid days. After much rain only drips fall, tranquil and soft, one after the other. This place is quiet yet loud. It seems to have so very much to tell to those willing to stop and listen. From places like this there is so much that we might learn. Out of a classic storybook or modern Jurassic tale, this place enchants all. It tugs at one’s imagination and inspires. It encourages us and places conviction upon our hearts to do more to protect the rare untamed places. May we not only share tales of these places with future generations, but may we take them to these places so that they might gain appreciation and learn to care for them. So that young and old alike may continue to find both intrigue, peace and adventure in natural hidden treasures like The Place of a Thousand Drips.