Ranger Bob Miller
World renowned for its diversity of plant and animal life, the beauty of its ancient mountains, and the quality of its remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most visited national park. With over 800 miles of maintained trails, 1,500 bears and 1,600 flowering plants, Great Smoky Mountains is a nature-lover’s paradise.
NPF talked to Bob Miller, Park Ranger at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in 2012 about how to plan the perfect escape to the park.
Why did you become a park ranger?
Because the work is so interesting. I love to learn about all the resource issues and I love working to resolve emergencies such as lost hikers or forest fires. And what’s more, I enjoy sharing that info with the public.
Can't Miss Activities
Elk in the Fall
In September and October, visitors to Cataloochee will get a great show when the bulls compete for harems of cows. Their bugling echoes across the valley in a weird back-and-forth dialog. Competing bulls also engage in vigorous sparring where they lock antlers and push and tear up the turf to determine who’s the dominant bull. Once they accumulate a few cows in their harems, they patrol the boundaries of their group tirelessly to drive off any unwanted competition, but clusters of frustrated bachelor bulls are never far away hoping to sneak into the harem if the opening presents itself. The cows mostly seem to ignore the whole show despite the drama.
During the second and third weeks of June the flame azaleas, a flowering shrub, put on a terrific color show. Besides the flame orange, some turn yellow, white and a range of colors in between. You can spot them at Andrews and Gregory Bald – open, grassy meadows that lie at high elevation: Andrews Bald is 5860 feet and Gregory Bald is 4948 feet. The Smokies is so densely forested that very few mountain peaks offer any views, but these two meadows provide 360 degree vistas of the surrounding national park and national forest mountain scenery, and views of Lake Fontana.
Cades Cove Loop Road
Try bicycling or walking the Cades Cove Loop Road when it is closed to vehicles. The 11-mile loop road offers excellent up-close viewing of bears, deer, wild turkey, and numerous songbirds. Cades Cove also preserves historic cabins, barns, churches and a working grist mill – a time capsule of late 19th and early 20th century agrarian life.
The downside is that the Loop is notoriously congested with cars. It’s not uncommon to spend 3-4 hours driving the one-way, one-lane loop, where “bear jams” can back up cars for extended periods. From early May through late September on Wednesdays and Saturdays, the gates do not open to cars until 10 am providing the opportunity to cycle it or walk it without the noise, exhaust and congestion of cars. Many people are fine with that experience and the traffic doesn’t bother them, but I avoid it when it’s open to cars – and would never even consider riding it on a bike when it’s open to cars. The Loop is closed from sunset to sunrise, so a growing number of people are going in and riding the Loop at night on the full moon. A word of caution though: the Loop has a number of fairly steep grades where speed can get away from you if you’re not a seasoned cyclist. So we caution people with signs to walk their bikes DOWN some of the hills.
I love the high elevation forests, e.g. Andrews Bald or Charlie’s Bunion. Abrams Creek is my favorite front country campground. I recommend campsite at #17 in the backcountry off Little Bottoms Trail – it’s right along the biggest part of Abrams Creek and it’s not real far to walk in. It’s a good site to take a beginner.
A one-miler could include Clingmans Dome or Cataract Falls which is adjacent to the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
Between 2-4 Miles
The walk from the Little Greenbrier school to the Walker Sisters cabin is a two-mile easy round trip. The one-room log schoolhouse was in use from 1886 through 1936. It still contains its original desks (complete with carved graffiti), benches and a blackboard. There is an adjacent cemetery because the school also served as the First Baptist Church. It’s an easy walk up an old roadbed from the parking area at the school to the Walker Sisters cabin.
The six unmarried Walker sisters lived in this cabin for 30 years after the area was acquired by the national park. The last sister passed away in 1964. The site preserves their two-room cabin, and their corn crib/tool shed, and a spring house. When you walk out of the forest into the modest sunny clearing which surrounds the structures you get the distinct feeling that the sisters just left and might just walk out of the woods. You also get a sense of the peace, self-sufficiency and isolation that held the sisters here in a 19th Century existence for so many years while the world evolved outside the park just a mile or two away. It’s a great hike to do with kids and then enjoy a lunch on the porch and talk about all the things that people had and didn’t have “back in the day.”
Between 4-7 Miles
The hike from Grotto Falls Trailhead to Brushy Mountain is 3.3 miles each way. The hike starts out on Trillium Gap Trail and takes you through a large section of old growth forest with massive hemlocks, beech, carolina silverbell, and bass wood. The trail actually passes behind a small waterfall – a great photo opportunity. A spur trail off Trillium Gap Trail leads up to the summit of Brushy Mountain through a dense growth of chest-high evergreen shrubs, including Catawba rhododendron, mountain laurel, blueberries – but no trees to obscure the view. The result is that the summit has a rare (for the Smokies) un-obscured 360-degee view down into the foothills around Gatlinburg, but also up toward Mt. LeConte and the much higher ridgeline along the Appalachian Trail. The fact that the summit is NOT the highest peak gives you a great perspective of just how massive those surrounding peaks really are. It’s like standing in the middle of an amphitheater.
Besides Elkmont, you can find synchronous fireflies pretty much any place where you have a view of a slope which is pretty open, i.e. free of thick brush. An open meadow at the foot of the slope is also helpful. The key is that the bugs can see one another. Mostly they are seen at elevations below 3,000.
Backcountry Permits and Shelter Reservations
You can find the rules on backcountry permits and shelter reservations on our website. As for encountering folks without permits, there’s not much you can do except negotiate over the space. We don’t have the enforcement capability of responding to individual disputes. If you run into our Ridge Runner Volunteers, you can take it up with them and they can pursue it with the non-compliant parties.
The park doesn't have any special rules about hammock camping, other than don’t damage the trees by cutting limbs or drilling holes for hardware.
Civilian Conservation Corps
Only a few of the park's trails were built from scratch by the CCC, but a large proportion were improved by them. In some cases they converted an old logging railroad grade, in others they took an existing foot path and improved it to a higher standard. Most of the trails where you see extensive stone crib work were a product of CCC workmanship. With people living in every hollow and drainage, the park area was already densely laced with trails where people walked or hauled sleds between one little settlement and another. We are currently maintaining over 800 miles of designated trails, but probably several times that mileage of social trails were already in use by the 1930’s when the CCC boys started work.
The weirdest thing I've seen in the park was a bear turned loose at Newfound Gap, a huge parking lot right on the NC/TN state line. This bear had been hand-reared, de-clawed and acted just like a big dog: licking people’s hands, rubbing against their legs and just plain begging. We couldn’t take a chance on leaving him up there for fear he’d either injure somebody or would himself be a victim of aggression by another bear; without claws he couldn’t climb and was ill-equipped to fight. So after umpteen phone calls we were able to find an accredited wildlife park in Ohio that would accept him.
Cades Cove Transportation Analysis
We have done some studies and analysis of Cades Cove issues in general, including transportation – you can find some of the info here. There are a couple key issues that would have to be resolved to make a shuttle work: 1) Where would you park the 3,000 cars while their owners are on the bus? 2) How would you pay for the equipment and operations? We estimate that you’d need almost 100 modest size shuttles to carry all the auto traffic and although we could charge for the trip, very few mass transit systems are self-supporting; and 3) There is also a pretty strong local resistance to a mandatory shuttle system. And if it weren’t mandatory, the buses would be stuck in the traffic and the bear jams with everybody else.