ATV Camping adventure in Tennessee's Smokey Mountains
by Linda Aksomitis
muddy water spread out over a dip in the trail, daring me
to dive right in and see if I could make it through. Taking
a gulp of crisp mountain air for courage, I hit the trigger
on the ATV. Creeping in would likely get me bogged down,
so the guys could laugh at my “girly” skills on
the throttle. That wasn’t going to happen!
My fingers tightened and the engine roared. The ATV leapt ahead, sending up a spray that splattered over the machine and me. Wishing I’d kept my mouth closed when I hit the throttle I tasted mud on my tongue. A few more splatters hit my glasses, so I peered at a world with holes in it.
There was, I already knew, nothing like an ATV ride on a hot summer day for fun, and I was discovering there was no better place in the world than Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains. With thousands of acres available to explore, I was in for a great time.
The Smoky Mountains get their name from a smoke-like haze surrounding the peaks and filling the valleys, which is caused by water vapor and oily residues exuded by the dense forests. Instead of the acrid smell of smoke, however, I filled my lungs with the clean mountain air and found my energy levels just kept on getting better as my adventure continued.
We rode for a ways over the trail, stopping frequently to just relax and explore. Due to the fertile soil and abundant rain, the Smoky Mountains are home to 1500 flower species, 100 native varieties of trees along with 100 types of native shrubs, 50 mammal species, and 27 different kinds of salamanders.
An incredible July display of rose and pink mountain laurel, violet rhododendrons, and red azalea spread out like a painter’s canvas. This area is also home to three federally listed threatened (T) and endangered (E) plant species: spreading avens (E), Virginia spiraea (T), and rock gnome lichen (E). Over 300 additional species of native vascular plants are considered rare, or are generally found in small populations. With each turn I made there was something new to discover—and even more important, to preserve for future generations to enjoy.
The trail continued, and we carried on too,
taking our time as we wound our way up the mountainside. Before
long we came to a part of the forest overrun with kudzu, the
most amazing vine I’ve ever encountered.
It is, I’m sure, the plant that inspired the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, since it grows as much as a foot per day during the hot humid summer months and 60 feet per year.
Sometimes referred to as the vine that ate the South, the kudzu plant came to the United States in 1876 from Japan—but the problem is that its natural insect enemies didn’t come with it. A beautiful vine, gardeners embraced it until it soon began to overrun areas with its rubber-like vines and large leaves. I was careful to make sure I didn’t accidentally take any parts of it that might grow back to Canada with me!
The one thing that makes an ATV great in the mountains is that I don’t get out of breath as the elevations increase like I do hiking, however, I still worked up quite an appetite. Stopping again, we took out our picnic lunch and got comfortable on a fallen tree near the trailside. The ham on rye I’d made earlier that morning could have been a chef’s specialty for as much as I enjoyed it! While we relaxed and checked our maps, I listened to the throaty songs of several different birds hidden by the thick foliage of the trees.
I started my ATV up again, climbed onto the seat and gasped. The unmistakable shape of a Black Bear rambled through the trees not far from the trail. It was, however, obviously leaving instead of coming, so I relaxed again. The Black Bear is the symbol of the Great Smoky Mountains, and the most famous of the area’s inhabitants. With an average of about two per square mile, it was inevitable that I’d encounter one—I was hoping, however, that this was it and I wouldn’t see any at my campsite.
Pulling out my binoculars to take a closer look I also saw a small cub trailing its parent. Nearby Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a mandate to protect the environment and keep it in a state similar to what it was before humans arrived on the scene. In recent years they have reintroduced the river otter, elk, and Peregrine Falcon. Other endangered park animals include the northern flying squirrel, Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Indiana bat, spruce-fir moss spider, and the Smoky madtom.
Our exploration continued along the trails, coming to several more streams, although no more water to cross on our path. Like a child unable to resist the temptation, I pulled over with the ATV and walked down to a stream.
It was clear enough to see the swish of a fish disappearing from sight as I approached. I’d already learned that there were more than 50 species of fish in the waters, so I didn’t even try to guess what type I’d just seen.
Of course, all trails must end, and we wound our way to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to camp. We had a front country spot, since I was one of those terrible campers who needed her car to blow up her air mattress. Ah, the luxuries of modern life were hard to give up even in such a tranquil place, so far away from the hustle and bustle of daily life.
It hadn’t taken me much practice to become a pro at putting up my tent and setting up the site, so ten minutes later it was ready to crawl into. I was anxious to get settled in our site, so I could hike along Abrams Creek to the falls before dark. This creek was named for Cherokee Chief Abram, who once lived on land now submerged under Lake Chilhowee.
I had lots of energy for the trail after spending the whole day on an ATV instead of using foot power, so I trundled over the footbridge, then strode quickly across the soft ground. A few children splashed in the water, their laughter boosting my spirits even higher. The trail started to climb, but didn’t require a lot of exertion, and I was soon rewarded with the sight of the twenty foot falls gushing into the crystal pool below.
Slipping out of my hiking shoes I waded into the water. It had been a great day—and I knew the next one would be just as exciting in the Great Smoky Mountains!