Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Oconaluftee River

On our way into Great Smoky Mountains National Park on Newfound Gap Road we came through Cherokee NC, at which time we passed right by the Oconaluftee Visitor Center; this was actually where we saw our very first elk (a small part of the Cataloochee Valley herd has split off and now lives in the area). However, it wasn’t until we had completed our loop of the east half of the National Park that we stopped in with several goals in mind.

First, we wanted to have lunch; we had worked up an appetite hiking up to Mingo Falls in Cherokee. We navigated through the traffic jam that had formed around the elk already out in the field, and luckily found a spot in the overflowing parking lot. Having grabbed a picnic blanket we headed to the grassy area just next to the Visitor Center with our sandwiches, only to find that our arrival was just in time for live music! The timing couldn’t have been better; on the porch there were half a dozen musicians playing traditional Appalachian music as part of the Back Porch Old-Time Music Jam series.

Our next item of business after lunch was for the boys to show their completed Junior Ranger activity books to a Park Ranger and receive their Junior Ranger badge and certificate. We had picked the booklets up on the way in at the Clingmans Dome Visitor Center, and the boys had diligently completed each task, picked up litter on their hikes, and engaged with Park Service volunteers in Cataloochee Valley. Once again I am impressed by how involved the boys got into the activities, the material covering a wide range of topics but very well thought out, age-appropriate and suitable to each portion of our visit. Here I would like to note that there was a cost of $2.50 for each Junior Ranger booklet, but as entry to the Park is free, we felt this was a reasonable fee.

The Visitor Center has the usual exhibits, facilities and knowledgeable employees, as well as maps and informational brochures concerning to all sorts of topics related to the Park, its history and its inhabitants. The Visitor Center also has the distinction of being a “green” building; constructed and donated by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, the state-of-the-art facility features energy efficient design and eco-friendly materials.  We stamped our Park Passports, chose a couple of souvenirs from the gift shop, and then headed out to the Mountain Farm Museum.

Most of the farm buildings in the Mountain Farm Museum date back to around 1900, and were moved from their original locations to create the open-air museum. Originally located throughout the area that is now the Park, visitors can explore the structures at their leisure. The Museum includes a log farmhouse, barn, apple house, springhouse, and a working blacksmith shop. Make sure to check out the Davis house, as it was built out of chestnut wood before the chestnut blight eliminated the American Chestnut from our forests in the 1940s.

We continued on along the Oconaluftee River Trail, a 1.5 mile hike that connects the Visitor Center to the boundary of the Park with the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Not only is the trail one of only two in the Park to allow dogs and bicycles, but it is also the Cherokee Oconaluftee River TRACK Trail, with the trailhead on the Cherokee end. On our hike we examined interpretive panels about Cherokee folklore (it was fascinating to see the information translated into Cherokee Syllabary!), passed under the terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway (the 469-mile drive that connects GSMNP with Shenandoah NP in Virginia) and stopped at the entrance to the Park to snap a picture at the welcome sign.

At the southern end of the trail we picked up the Animal Athletes TRACK Trail brochure, and on the hike back various Cherokee legends came to life as we listened to stories of how animals helped create the world and why certain animals look the way they do. As we were doing the pictured exercises to be as strong and fast as the animals in these legends, we kept an eye out for animals that call the area around the river home – and we weren’t disappointed. Not even two dozen feet from the trail an elk was resting in the shade, waiting for dusk to arrive so that it can go feed in the meadow. Groundhogs were running to and fro around their burrows, wild turkeys were foraging along the treeline, and at the confluence of the Oconaluftee with Raven Fork we watched a woman catch and release a beautiful rainbow trout.

Can you spot the elk in the upper right photo? (Groundhog center top, turkeys lower right)

Once we were back within sight of the Mountain Farm Museum we cut over to the river where we spent the next hour relaxing as the sun slowly sank in the sky. Although we had one day left to explore the Smokies, this would be our last day in the Park. It was only fitting that we would get caught in an elk-viewing traffic jam on our way out…

The next Back Porch Old-Time Music Jams at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center are on November 19th and December 17th. The December date is also “Holiday Homecoming,” with demonstrations of old time crafts such as quilting, weaving, basket & doll making, apple cider pressing and apple butter churning. The event is free and runs from 10am to 3pm; for more information visit the Great Smoky Mountains Association website.

Crossing under the terminus to the Blue Ridge Parkway

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