Oconaluftee Visitor Center
Yesterday I spent over two hours at the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The building is beautiful, airy and so convenient.
The highlight was definitely the history museum which focuses on the rich cultural history of the Smokies - yes, including moonshine, or Corn in a Jar, as they put it. See the picture above.
But there are several great improvements for hikers.
The left side of the Visitor Center is devoted to orienting visitors to the Park. A large video screen shows closed roads and weather conditions. Another area of the orientation section discusses easy hikes and minor roads within the park. It also answers the perennial questions such as "How far is it to Sugarlands?" and "Where is the Blue Ridge Parkway?"
For serious hikers, the biggest improvement is the open air information kiosk in front of the Visitor Center.
They've moved the backcountry permit station to the kiosk, so there's no excuse for not filling out a permit. The backcountry sites that need reservations are clearly listed. You can also buy a park trail map for a dollar on the honor system.
The bathrooms are much more visible, located to the side of the Visitor Center.
The trail to the Mountain Farm Museum starts just to the side of the building. The trail then continues seamlessly to the Oconaluftee River Trail. Hopefully that will encourage visitors to walk the easiest trail in the park.
By all means, hikers should visit the history museum and buy a few items at the bookstore. But even if they bypass all that, they'll still enjoy the new layout of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.
Yesterday, I attended a board meeting for the Great Smoky Mountains Association. GSMA is the nonprofit that runs the bookstores in the visitor centers at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In addition, it also publishes many of the books, maps, pamphlets and calendars that it sells.
The organization is now building the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center, just inside the park from Cherokee. I had the privilege of getting an insider's tour before our meeting. I put on a hard hat and walked past yellow tape, half-installed exhibits and smiling construction workers.
The building is awesome and bigger than the current one. The exhibits will emphasize the cultural history of the settlers. and will feature subjects like food, crafts, farming and, yes, moonshine.
The visitor center doesn't look quite ready for visitors now. But if all goes well, there will be a grand opening for the public on Friday April 15. The time has not yet been announced. But watch this spot in the next few weeks.
Put it on your calendar.
November 1. My last day volunteering at Oconaluftee Visitor Center. And there are still questions I couldn't answer and new things I saw for the first time, like the picture spot at the entrance of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
I can answer most questions easily - the most common being "We have two hours. What is there to do around here?" and "What is this building that you're building?" See picture below of the new Visitor Center.
Someone asked me about the fate of the Foothills Parkway. Were they ever going to build a road to connect the two sections of the Parkway. Here's what the website says.
The Foothills Parkway skirts the park's northern side. Only three
sections are currently open to vehicle traffic. Due to funding and legislative
difficulties, the ultimate status of the parkway remains uncertain.
For the first time, someone asked me about Soco Falls. I see the signs all the time when I take US19 into Cherokee but I haven't been to the falls yet. So I haven't done everything - not that I ever will.
This year, I've been volunteering since March. I've answered a lot of questions from visitors who came on Mondays - some routine, some challenging, others that sent me either researching or going out to find the answer on the trail or road. I used to "charge" this researching to my volunteer hours but I kept forgetting.
I've learned a tremendous amount from full-time staff, seasonal rangers and Great Smoky Mountains Association store workers.
I added to my knowledge of flowers, trees and history of the park.
What fascinates me the most is the administrative stuff that you can't learn from printed material or from going on a course. You have to learn it from employees. And there were plenty around to learn from. That was the beauty of being at the Visitor Center.
The disappointment is that my volunteer responsibilities never really grew over the months. The seasonal staff were very quick to do everything around the visitor desk. I finally go to answer the phones, if things were really busy but that was it.
I never got to do an interpretive program, despite my best efforts. I went on the training course in May. I wrote up a proposal and handed it in but it was never followed up. I asked about it a couple of times but then I realized that the system didn't need another interpretive program. And volunteering is all about what the organization needs, not what the volunteer needs. So I "got over it", as they say.
Will I volunteer again? Of course. The Park needs volunteers and Great Smoky Mountains National Park is my park.
The leaf color may have peaked around Oconaluftee Visitor Center but not the visitors. They keep pouring in.
Most visitors have no idea of what to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They've come here and they expect us, the folks at the visitor desk, to plan their vacation for them. And I do!
Questions and answers:
- What is there to see here? You're in the most visited park in the country and there are 800 miles of trails.
- Where do I pay my entrance fee? You're in the only major national park with no entrance fee. But if you'd like to contribute, we'd be ever so grateful. I point them to a donation box put up by Friends of the Smokies.
- Is there any place to do an easy hike? If they want something real easy, it's the Oconaluftee River Trail, just past the Mountain Farm Museum. Otherwise, I suggest Bradley Fork Trail or Kephart Prong.
- Waterfalls? Now that's not a straight forward question. There are no waterfalls off the road. The easiest waterfall to reach is Mingo Falls, on the Cherokee Reservation. Yes, we suggest things out of the park. Mingo Falls is on Big Cove Road and requires only a 1/4 mile walk.
- How do I get to Cades Cove? I show them where we are at Oconaluftee and where Cades Cove is, two hours away. As part of our tool kit, we have official mileages and times from OVC and many other places. I don't have to estimate. But I do question if they really want to do that drive (usually it's already noon, when they get here) and if the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill would not satisfy their hunger for the history of settlers in the area. But they've heard of the Cades Cove loop and for the most part, they're going.
- Where can we eat in the park? There's no place to eat, drink or get gas in the park. The gateway towns, Cherokee, Gatlinburg and Townsend provide all those amenities.
I roved Bradley Fork Trail in the afternoon. Plenty of people on the trail with different ambitions. Several backpackers, day hikers doing the Smokemont look, more day hikers just going up to the bridge and back and a few photographers going maybe a quarter mile.
On the way back, I met Dan on the Trail Crew driving a park service vehicle. He and his colleagues are working on the Appalachian Trail up Hughes Ridge and are camping up there. He had to get down and drove on the trail. But the gate was closed and he didn't have a key. I offered to help him by going to the ranger station but he had radioed his supervisor so I left him. I hope he's not still there.
If you've been following my adventures at Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you may remember that two weeks ago, I met Gee Phillips, a volunteer who works at the Mountain Farm Museum in the fall.
I talked to Gee again this Monday as she quilted and told me about making cornbread. But something was bothering me. There's a lot of heavy lifting on a farm, even in the kitchen. How did it get done?
A bucket of water with a ladle laid on a side table. But how did it get there?
She wasn't going to bring it in from the Oconaluftee River close by, the way it was done at the beginning of the 20th century. A barrel hides a pump situated on a sand pipe, a tubular cavity several feet deep filled with gravel and sand. This system prevents the water pipe from freezing in winter. The pipe is hooked up to the water supply at Oconaluftee Visitor Center nearby.
But how did it get there? I certainly would not volunteer to carry such a heavy load. And then I met Sam Reed.
Sam, a local volunteer and retired construction worker, helps Gee.
He now sports a long beard and wears blue overalls and looks the part of a farmer. He's on the farm the same days as Gee and does whatever needs doing. He also is around so she's not by herself on the farm.
Sam brings water to the kitchen and builds a fire. Even in the old days, great-grandmothers, like Gee, depended on others to deal with the heavy lifting. When he's not helping Gee, Sam works on farm chores. Above, he's with Dan, helping to cut the sorghum heads.
Working at Oconaluftee Visitor Center one day a week is like unraveling a large ball of thread or putting together a large, complicated puzzle. I learn something and then have some questions which sometimes get answered the next week.
Every time I drive out to Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I think I'm going to do the same thing - and I'm surprised every week.
Yesterday, I left before 8 A.M. so I could check out Mac's Teepees Cabins in Cherokee. Last week, a visitor called in to find out if the cabins were still in business. The teepee-like cabins were the site of an obscure movie Digging to China. I told her I had no idea but I was going to find out.
The business is closed. The cabins on the left of the abandoned house have been covered with kudzu. There are a fresh set of similar cabins that look as empty.
The Visitor Center was hopping. Though it was only the first day of fall, maybe they wanted to get a jump on fall colors. I understand the colors are going to be spectacular. International visitors from Switzerland, Germany and even a French speaker from Quebec stood out.
After my four hour stint, I roved the Farm Museum. Dan was cutting sorghum preparing for the sorghum crushing in a couple of weeks.
I met Gee Phillips. See her picture above.
Gee lives in Dayton, OH but has been volunteering in the Smokies for several weeks since 1992. She dresses as if she lives in the beginning of the 20th Century, sits on the porch of the Davis house and talks to visitors.
Gee grew up on a farm in east Tennessee so she feels this is like coming home. She'll cook on the open fire, make soap and do other crafts appropriate to the time period.
While she's here, she works a full 32-hour week. She lives in a staff apartment with a seasonal ranger. What a great lady and an inspiration to us all.
I'd like to end on a positive note but after I left Gee, I noticed that three elk had moved into the field just past the entrance of the park. Visitors had also noticed and parked themselves right in front of the elk. This was not good.
I rushed over across the field, south of the construction entrance. By then two elk had fled but not the people. I put on my Elk Bugle Corps attitude from last year and got the people and the traffic moving. The third elk bounded across the field and into the woods.
Yesterday, the phone rang at Oconaluftee Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I picked it up and a woman from Alabama was on the line.
"You're having the Mountain Life Festival on Saturday?"
I confirmed that it was still happening even though the new construction will be cutting down on the parking.
"Have you ever heard of a movie, Digging to China?"
Mam, I felt like telling her, you're lucky you got me on the phone. "Yes, I've seen it."
"Well, I stayed in the motel and the room where it was filmed in Cherokee. Do you know if the motel is still around? It had tepees in front."
"I'm sorry, I have no idea." Though I'm in Cherokee every week, I stick to the main roads and I've never seen it - I would have recognize it.
At about one o'clock, Libby Kephart Hargrove walked in the visitor center. She's the woman I interviewed on Saturday at the Great Smoky Mountains Association meeting. She and her husband were still in Bryson City. He wasn't feeling well so she was exploring the park.
She had her big 40% off on $150 coupon and she was going to spend it all. (If you're a member of the GSMA, you get a once-a-year coupon for 40% off on $150 of merchandise - It's a good way to get all your gifts.) Libby bought a print of the newly discovered Masa pictures.
Then I took her on my roving tour of Bradley Fork trail. See above. Fall is definitely here. A few jewelweeds, here and there, but mostly the only color were in the changing leaves.
The fall theme was even more pronounced when I drove back on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Autumn blooming clematis, ragweed and of course, the start of changing color.
It's going to be a spectacular fall.
I stopped at the Big Witch Overlook, just to look. See below.
Once I got home, I searched for the mysterious motel. Not so mysterious. It's opposite Food Lion.The motel is Mac's Indian Village
at 60 Teepee Drive.
Here are the directions: It's a mile or so south of town. There is a traffic light at the intersection of US-441 and Business 441 outside of downtown Cherokee, opposite Food Lion.
Some websites report it closed. I'll check it out next week.
A quiet day at the Visitor Center. But that means that we could spend more time with each visitor.
I always ask visitors if they want to hike. I don't make any assumption, based on age, weight or demeanor. When I ask Americans who don't want to hike, they always hem and haw, say "a little" and apologize.
"We don't have time".
"We have little kids," though the children seem more active than their parents.
"We have elderly parents in the car."
But when I ask international visitors, they're quick to say "No!" and I admire their candor. But lately I notice that they make a distinction between "walking" and "hiking".
"Walking" means dayhiking to Brits. And other English-speaking Europeans use the same expression. Yesterday one couple from Germany said that they didn't want to "hike". But I told them about the mile round-trip to Clingmans Dome and the walk to Laurel Falls (three miles round-trip). Both are paved trails so they're certainly not considered "hikes" by Europeans.
I'm going to try that strategy with Americans and ask "Would you like to walk?"
I walked up Bradley Creek and turned onto Chasteen Creek Trail. It was muddy, made more so by the horse traffic. Chasteen Creek Falls is a destination for people on horses.
I've been up and down Chasteen Creek Trail several times but have never taken the time to take the sidetrail to the falls. How could I suggest it to visitors, if I didn't have a clear idea myself? I'm sure that those who work the Visitor Center desk do that all the time, but I can't do it. Now I know where it is and that it's a destination worth recommending.
In other news, the new Visitor Center now has the start of a roof. They're making progress.
I don't know when the building will be finished but I'm looking forward to it.
It was not a quiet day at Oconaluftee Visitor Center in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, yesterday.
When I checked my Facebook page, Lynda Doucette, Supervisory interpretive ranger in the Smokies, had written that Newfound Gap road was closed because of a rock slide near Collins Creek. By the time I got to the Park, the road from Cherokee was one lane because of construction but the rock slide had been cleared up. Great news!
It was quiet for a couple of hours and I helped Ranger Ann Kidd, plot out a backpack in the Hyatt Ridge section of the Park. She was looking to bushwhack to Breakneck Ridge north of Three Forks - looked tough.
I also had a first. I sold three of my books while I was working there. One of the Great Smoky Mountains Association sales assistants learned that I was the author of two hiking guides and started promoting my book, right in the store. I wasn't complaining and I signed and personalized the books.
And then the accident!
Then at around noon, the park radio exploded with bad news. A motor home had turned over and rolled down the "mountain" three miles south of Newfound Gap.
Seven people were in that RV as it tumbled down. The folks in there must have felt like they were in a washing machine. Now, when a vehicle runs off the road off Newfound Gap, it doesn't get stopped by a sidewalk or a house in town. It keeps falling. We heard emergency vehicle after vehicle zip past the Visitor Center - Cherokee Tribal EMT, Bryson City, Swain County Rescue - all the emergency services in the surrounding communities.
Newfound Gap closed again at the barrier just north of Smokemont Campgrounds and then we got busy. Visitors streamed in:
"When are they going to open the road?"
"I have reservations in Gatlinburg."
"I have to get to Knoxville."
We had no real idea when the road was going to open so we gave out written instructions on how to get to the Tennessee side of the Park when the road is closed. Suffice it to say that it's far and complicated.
If you take an Wilderness First Aid course, you're taught that you don't just worry about the people who got hurt but also the bystanders. The phone was ringing off the hook from visitors who had heard about the closures and others who confused it with the morning closure.
Dan, a seasonal ranger, called the surrounding town visitor centers and Cherokee Harrah's Casino to let them know about the road closure. He changed the phone message to reflect what had happened.
I worked the desk and I encouraged visitors to see things around Oconaluftee.
There's the Mountain Farm Museum, Mingus Mill and the Smokemont Church (I bet you didn't know about that one).
If you want to hike, you can do Mingus Creek Trail to a cemetery, Bradley Fork Loop and of course, the Oconaluftee River Trail. There's plenty to do right here - you don't need to go to Cades Cove this afternoon. Some were not convinced.
At 2 P.M., I roved the Farm Museum and River Trail. Plenty of people, since we were sending everyone here. Some were relaxed enjoying the sunshine - thank goodness the weather was on our side. I had 34 visitor contacts.
When I returned a little before 5 P.M., the road was still closed. We heard that the RV had split in two and getting it up to the road was time-consuming.
A WLOS truck pulled up in the Visitor Center parking lot. That's Asheville's ABC-TV affiliate, getting ready to film a live segment on the accident. You know "If it bleeds, it leads." I couldn't resist taking a picture.
No, I don't have pictures of the accidents. I don't have a press pass.
So I changed out of my uniform shirt, put on a T-shirt and went home. Later I read that the road reopened at 7 P.M.
Oconaluftee Visitor Center was quiet today, except when it wasn't.
A family from Eden, North Carolina, north of Greensboro, said that she had a "panther" on her property that growled at her and her daughter.
"What should I do about it?" She asked.
I guess we're the information center for everything. This happened to the telephone company and that's why in the 1970s (I think), they changed their service from "information" to "directory assistance".
I suggested that she calls her county's animal control department and that it was probably a bobcat. "There hasn't been a bobcat in North Carolina since the 1800s."
"OK, bobcat, but they won't do nothing".
"Then you need to go to the state level," strongly hinting that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park couldn't do anything. But she kept on and on. There weren't too many people around so I listened.
I must have listened too intently because I didn't notice that a bee or wasp had landed on my shirt collar or neck. But the next visitor did and flicked it away. The wasp landed on a stack of newspapers on the floor and I promptly stomped on it.
When I told Maryann, a seasonal ranger, about the wasp, she said that she knew about it but "she didn't like to kill things." When it comes to bees in any variation, I don't mind killing.
School is back in session for most of western North Carolina, including Asheville. I didn't see too many visitors on Kephart Prong last week so I stayed close by on the Mountain Farm Museum and Oconaluftee River Trail.
Corn and sorghum are really tall by now at the farm. The rest of the garden is also doing well, being lovingly taken care by volunteers. They also tend the pigs and chickens. Not me! I barely take care of my own yard. And the only animals I feed are the birds at the bird feeder outside. So I rove and talk to people.
The River Trail is one of only two trails that allows dogs on leashes, and bikes. Then the skies opened up and I heard thunder. I kept walking because I was already wet and so did visitors with dogs. Several people on rubber floats on the Oconaluftee River passed by. They didn't care; they were already wet as well.
It is definitely autumn on the trail. Not much but cone flowers and you've seen plenty of pictures of those. But I found passion flowers (passiflora incarnata) in the bushes on the way to the Mountain Farm Museum. Passion flowers are tropical but Passiflora incarnata is an exception in that it is deciduous and can survive winter freezes.
I'm back in Western North Carolina and back at Oconaluftee Visitor Center on Mondays. Never a dull day; I may think it's may be routine when I start out but it doesn't end up that way.
The visitor center was really short-handed. The Student Conservation Association students (the interns) have left and the seasonals are leaving this week. And the visitors were pouring in. Many ask "What is there to do around here? coming in completely unprepared. But that's why we're here.
At 2 P.M., I went to rove Kephart Prong Trail. I was hot in my long pants and heavy cotton button-down shirt that constitute the volunteer uniform. The summer flowers were waning. Bowman's root, yellow coneflowers, red
and jewelweed are on their last legs. Red berries told me that nature was at the end of summer, even if it was 90 deg. in Asheville.
I climbed up to the shelter and saw no one on the way. I found a long-sleeve shirt and hat at the shelter and took it for garbage. I almost bundled it up in my garbage bag until a family of four came down and the woman retrieved her clothes.
Coming down at the second bridge (from the road), a British man with a huge camera stopped me.
"Did you see the three birds orchids?" he asked.
"Huh... I never heard of those."
He showed me a photo that he had taken on his large camera screen and told me where they were. And then I saw them; a small white flower with three petals that look like they will take flight. There's a bunch of them on the side of the trail between the first and second bridge, past the CCC artifacts. I looked them up in various flower books but found nothing.
A Forest Service website identified them as Triphora trianthophora and that's where I lifted the photo from. I felt better about my hike.
I also noticed that the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center now looks like a building - a building with a lot of growing to do, but a building nevertheless.