We’re sure many of you remember well that night two months ago when the news interrupted to bring the shocking statement that the Smokies were on fire.
In just a matter of a few hours, hundreds of cabins, churches, wedding chapels, and homes disappeared forever. In the national park, entire mountainsides were turned into raging infernos, scorching old-growth forests, destroying trails, and killing wildlife who couldn’t escape. Most saddening, over a dozen souls lost their lives, and hundreds more were left homeless with nothing but the clothes they wore that night.
2016 was one of the driest on record, and throughout the autumn months scores of wildfires ravaged thousands of acres across Tennessee and our neighboring states. A thick haze enveloped the Tennessee Valley, hiding our mountains from view and causing health problems for residents. Cherished places such as Chimney Rock State Park in North Carolina were permanently scarred. These all paled in comparison to the tragedy which we saw unfold that windy November night, when all our world seemed to erupt into flames. It hits close to home, because the Smokies are so near and dear to our hearts.
Fast foward two months now. Green grass lines the Gatlinburg Bypass on slopes that were charred black only a month ago. The strip is once again alive and bustling with tourists stopping to taste the moonshine at Ole’ Smoky Moonshine or kids tumbling out of Ripley’s Haunted Mansion running for their lives. Skiers maneuver down the slopes of Ober Gatlinburg, and famlies enjoy the sites from atop the Space Needle. The roaring waters of Laurel Falls mingle with the shrieks and laughter of children getting splashed by its fridgid mists.
At the same time that longtime visitors return to these hills to rekindle old memories and first-time tourists make new ones, the changes brought about by the fire are still readily apparent. The acrid smell of smoke still lingers fresh after a heavy rain. Burnt out cars are trucked out on flatbeds on an almost hourly basis. The Gatlinburg Sky Lift is still closed, the slopes of Crockett Mountain bare of the brightly-colored chairs which have carried millions to the celebrated overlook. Workers sift through the ashes of homes and clear the sites for new construction as businesses and homeowners rebuild.
Last week we finally decided to revisit Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the first time since the fire. The sunshine and warm temperatures gave us that itch to get out and enjoy the ourdoors during a time when cold and snow would otherwise make it a miserable experience. While many are under the impression that the majority of the park is closed, only portions along Newfound Gap Road were damaged within the park itself, and all other areas of the park are open as usual. Driving the ever-popular Newfound Gap Road will give visitors the best overview of the damages inflicted by the fire, as it passes through the burned forests near the Sugarlands Visitor Center. The Carlos C. Campbell overlook provides a sweeping view of the scars and blackened sides of Mount LeConte, one of the most affected areas. Continuing toward Cherokee, the rocky spires of Chimney Tops come into view, now completely black and devoid of any plant life.
There are still plenty of areas and trails to explore in the Sugarlands Valley. If you want an up close look of the effected areas, the Gatlinburg Trail passes through a charred forest. Here the fire raced along the ground, sparing the larger shrubs and trees. No doubt this area will be absolutely beautiful when spring arrives, as the added nutrients the ashes released into the soil will invigorate new plants and wildflowers to grow.
We chose to hike along the Huskey Gap Trail, an often overlooked path which climbes the side of Sugarland Mountain to its namesake along the main crest. Here we were pleasantly surprised to find that the forest here was completely intact, somehow being spared the embers which ravaged so much of the surrounding areas. After seeing so much decimation, it was invigorating to walk through rhododendron tunnels and climb over moss-covered boulders. The two mile trail gently climbed to its destination while weaving in and out of several small stream valleys. Distant views of Gatlinburg and LeConte served to remind us of the recent disaster and how much work it will take for this area to recover.
Gatlinburg and the Smokies have a long road ahead of them to recover. The pain of lives lost will always linger, but with time the physical scars will fade away. The forests will return, more vibrant and lush than before. New homes will be constructed and businesses will reopen bigger and better than before. Frequent and new visitors will continue to visit and discover what makes the Great Smokies such a magical place.
Throughout the coming months and years, the National Park Service will need our help more than ever to help restore the park to its former glory. Recent budget cuts and the new federal hiring freeze come at the worst possible time as the park works to rebuild trails, replant burned areas and fix damaged infrastructure. You can help by donating to Friends of the Smokies or the Great Smoky Mountains Association, both of which contribute to the park by donating time and resources to staffing the visitor center bookstores and helping to rebuild trails. Visit the official NPS website at www.nps.gov/grsm and sign up to be a Volunteer-in-the-Parks. We are participating by adopting a trail within the park to service on a monthly basis. Whether you have time to visit once a week or just a couple of times a year, the Smokies need all of our help. Let’s work together to save our mountains, and together, we will watch the forest rise again.
Photo: Downed limbs and fire damage have forced several trails in the Sugarlands area to remain closed, such as Sugarland Mountain Trail.