Small and Free: Encountering the Great Smoky Mountains

As my wife can attest, I hurt for adventure. If I go very long without some sort of outdoor encounter, I become restless and my patience with people runs dangerously thin. I need a story to tell, and experience to share. So, we are sure to schedule family time throughout our year that is centered around something exciting in the outdoors.

This year was something new. En-route to a business meeting in western North Carolina, we decided to stop in at one of the most popular National Parks in America. In the more than half a million acres of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we immediately knew there would be plenty of space to shed the feeling of confinement and re-discover what it was to feel small and free again.

A Truly Unique Blessing

While every continent and nation in the world boasts some form of natural wonder, few of them have been reserved for the general public to enjoy. Since the founding of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, outside the US, only 1200 national parks or equivalent reserves in 100 countries exist. The U.S.’ 58 national parks are truly a unique blessing.

Black Bear Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Black Bear Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Taking it All In

Our kids are young, so on this trip, we decided to take it easy when it came to checking off the hiking miles. Thankfully, there are several easy to moderate hikes in the park that equate to 2.5 miles or so.

Most notably, we enjoyed the well-traveled hike to Laurel Falls. Perhaps the most popular waterfall location in the park, we enjoyed the easy walk up the paved trail, interacting with lots of folks along the way, and ultimately being able to take in the beautiful view at the two-tiered wonder.

We also enjoyed Cades Cove, an area located in the park where first European contact was made in the early 1820’s. While I’m typically not a fan of following a car in front of me at an attraction, late May didn’t disappoint when it came to Black Bear encounters. This made staying in line much less tedious. It was good for all of us to explore the homesteads, churches, and other old buildings that were nestled along the cove. The kids especially were able to ask new questions about old living, and my wife and I were able to explain how life was so much different then.

Finally, we were able to enjoy a small location just northeast of Gatlinburg called Roaring Fork Motor Nature Park. The 5.5 mile nature trail actually gave up our best Black Bear encounters of the trip. The narrow one-way road also had some of the most beautiful views of the mountain scenery. Toward the end of the trail, we were able to see more of the historical homes and read up on some of the history of the area.

Tier One of Laurel Falls.

Tier One of Laurel Falls.


It’s Good to Feel Small.

For many of us, this world feels like it is growing ever smaller. We feel as though we have learned and discovered everything there is to know. For those who dare to travel, to actually experience the wild places that remain, we know the value of feeling small again. You can’t feel like a big duck in a small pond when you are on the side of a mountain, helplessly watching a storm overtake you.

John Muir said, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity.” The subject relativity of “civilization” is put in check by the power of creation to subdue it. Finding ourselves in places where this is most vivid will always lead us back to something very important. The idea that we will never be larger than the one who made us, and that apart from His providential care we will be launched into horrifying chaos, puts us exactly where we need to be with regard to our deepest and truest spiritual condition. John Muir was right. The “Wildness” of nature is a necessity for us to be put in our place, to see the truth, and to act accordingly.