-- Cool air, color, no cars: These were the things that struck me
as we hiked up a mountain trail in Great Smoky Mountains National
in the trees offered views of surrounding mountains, but I was
wowed by smaller things: The sun filtering through the leaves,
making everything softly green; each breath seeming fresh, as if
the air had been made from scratch that morning.
We could hear the
faint hiss of vehicles along a nearby road when we started out, but
10 minutes up the trail, the sound had disappeared.
Getting away from
roads and cars is not all that common in the Smokies. Its the most
visited national park in the U.S. Whether its caused by the crowds
or just the general rush of modern life, drive-by tourism is big
here: Hit a couple of overlooks, hit the gift shop, hit the
The Cades Cove Loop, one of the
parks most popular driving routes, is operating in a near gridlock
condition during much of the summer and fall, according to one of
the parks management documents.
The good news is
that theres still plenty of solitude to be enjoyed in the Smokies
-- you just need to do a little legwork. The park has more than 800
miles of trails. A 30-minute stroll along one of them will get you
deep into the mountain forest.
One of the best
ways to discover the parks wild side is on one of the specialized
multiday tours offered by the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at
Tremont, a nonprofit foundation that specializes in educational
for adults last between three and five days. They focus on a
variety of subjects, though the parks ecological riches play a big
part in all of them.
Spring and fall
backpacking trips teach about the parks natural and cultural
history in the process of completing a three-day hike. Special
Elderhostel versions of the hiking program are available for
seniors. Rather than overnight excursions, they combine day hikes
with evening sessions at the institute.
naturalist seminars enable participants to help catalog the parks
plants and animals. On the shorter Naturalist Weekends, students
focus on activities related to a specific subject, such as
wildflowers, waterfalls or nature-sketching. Tremonts popular
photography workshops are taught by nationally recognized nature
difference between Tremonts programs and a do-it-yourself visit to
the Smokies is that participants get the benefit of Tremonts expert
staff. Theyre experienced teachers and naturalists who specialize
in educating participants in the hows and whys of the ecosystem. A
Tremont program is about enjoyable learning rather than just gazing
But scenery wont
be lacking. Our hike crossed a mountain ridge and visited a
delightful, multitiered waterfall. Even more delightful, we were
practically the only people there.
Tremont uses such
settings as its outdoor classrooms. Theres a lot to learn about:
The Smokies is one of the most biologically diverse places in the
Costs range from
$175 to $450 for most of the programs (10-day youth sessions and
some of the professional seminars cost more). The fee includes
dormitory lodging and all meals.
Though cozy, the
dorm is basic and communal (multiple bunks in large rooms). Those
who would prefer to arrange their own accommodations in a nearby
hotel pay a slightly discounted rate to cover food and tuition.
Some area accommodations pay commission.
information, contact Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont,
(865) 448-6709; [email protected]; www.gsmit.org.
the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].