By Outdoor Afro Leader Beky Branagan
In the early morning hours of Friday, June 6, eight Outdoor Afro North Carolina members began the almost 300 mile trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in order to mark the 2014 African Americans in the National Parks event. The long drive culminated in a scenic, yet somewhat harrowing drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway, just before we finally arrived to our campgrounds in the early afternoon.
While some rested in the warm sun, the rest of us ventured over to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to get maps, find out what was going on in the park and get our National Parks passport books stamped. While there, we visited a farmstead that represented what mountain farms looked like at the beginning of the 19th century. On our way out, we were waylaid by some juvenile elk crossing the farm.
Elk were reintroduced to the Smokys in 2001, after being completely eradicated from the area in the late 1700s due to over hunting and loss of habitat. There are now two elk herds in the Park and they seem to be thriving. It was a real treat to see them.
On our return to the campsite, we made dinner and Park Rangers Will and Amber arrived to take us on our night hike. Admittedly, there was a bit of apprehension among the group about hiking in the woods in the dark in an area known to be bear habitat, but our rangers soon put us at ease. What followed was a wonderful experience of the senses.
Will and Amber provided us with opportunities to explore the world around using our hearing, touch, scent and taste. As darkness set in, we noticed the occasional firefly, but all of the sudden, it became quite obvious why people travel from all over the world to the Park to see synchronous fireflies, found only in the Smokys and in Southeast Asia. One little light would flash, and then hundreds more would flash like the wave at a sporting event across the darkness, and then they would all go out! Again and again, a twinkle followed by a stream of light traveling through the woods, and then darkness. An incredible, spine-tingling, hair-raising sight!
What’s more, on the way back to the campsite, we also saw hundreds of glow worms, under the canopy. Glow worms are a type of fly larvae and they look like little tiny pinpricks of faint green light, decorating the trees like a fairy wonderland. What an amazing way to end the day.
On Saturday, after a leisurely breakfast, we headed out to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the park on the Tennessee side of the border. After a challenging .5 mile hike up to the top of the mountain, we climbed the observation tower and were finally able to see the beautiful mountain views that had been previously obscured by the clouds and the smoky haze that the mountains are known for.
The rest of the afternoon was spent toasting the largest marshmallows ever, (Jumbo S’mores anyone? ) hanging out around the fire, and napping. An after-dinner walk was followed by apple pies, more s’mores and a good night’s sleep!
Sunday, our last day in the park, we broke camp and took our time heading to the Deep Creek Camp, just outside of Bryson City. There we visited three waterfalls hiking the Deep Creek Loop Trail before starting the long drive home.
It was an amazing weekend with an amazing group of people who were genuine, friendly, supportive and truly appreciative of the wonderful bounties that nature has to offer, from scenic vistas, amazing wildlife to leisurely naps in the sun! I can’t wait until our next adventure!