Great Smoky in Tennessee is natures classroom

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TOWNSEND, Tenn. -- Cool air, color, no cars: These were the things that struck me as we hiked up a mountain trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Occasional breaks 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 road.

Cades Cove in Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains National Park.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 programs.

Tremonts programs 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.

Five-day 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 photographers.

The biggest 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 at scenery.

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 world.

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.

For more information, contact Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, (865) 448-6709; [email protected]; www.gsmit.org.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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