This weekend we packed up and headed for the mountains, leaving the stands of Bryant-Denny in Tuscaloosa for the stands of hardwood and evergreen trees in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our hopes of solitude were quickly dashed however, when we encountered the droves of tourists on the slow march through Pigeon Forge, many I'm sure on their way to Dollywood or Splash Mountain, or some other terribly kitchy and over-priced activity promised to guarantee good old-fashioned "family fun". Pigeon Forge is unlike any other town I've been to on the outskirts of a national park. I'm not sure when exactly the town received its neon-light enema, but it seems entrepreneurs wagered well, setting up shop along a heavily traveled thoroughfare, hoping to lure in many a passers-by. At some point, I guess people stopped coming for the park, and went straight for the countrified ritz and glitz. But to be fair, it's not as if Pigeon Forge is the only place sucking up all the tourists, because there's also plenty of them within the park itself. After all, the Great Smoky Mountains is the most heavily trafficked (and thus, most polluted) of all national parks, which might have something to do with the lack of a park entrance fee (the only national park without one!). And just so I don't sound too pretentious and cynical, when I was a kid, I did make visits to both Dollywood and the Smokies, and as I recall enjoyed both of the experiences. Although for the record, I only went to Dollywood once and probably visited the Smokies more than a half a dozen times, and I have much fonder memories of jumping in swimming holes with my Dad, hiking Cades Cove with the family, and trying to catch glimpses of black bears in their natural and not so natural habitats.
Part of the larger Appalachian Mountain chain, the Smokies provide evidence of the ancient suture between the North American and African subcontinents, an event that occurred roughly 200-300 million years ago when the two landmasses collided, folding and faulting rocks, and uplifting the entire range to heights that at one time would have surpassed those boasted by the present-day Rocky Mountains. Our hike led us to the summit of Mt. LeConte, the third highest peak in the Smokies at 6,593 feet in elevation, by way of the Alum Cave Bluffs Trail, a 10 mile trek from start to finish. The trail was lush with vegetation, and offered us a variety of tree species throughout our ascent. We began our walk through towering thickets of rhododendron, which were so tall that they formed a sort of topiary wall between us and the rest of the forest, and continued through huge stands of hardwoods like oak, maple, and American beech. Many of the dramatic vistas we encountered on the trail revealed the brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges of the first few days of the fall season, but also the dying populations of the Eastern Hemlock, which is losing its battle with the woolly adelgid, a tiny non-native insect. At the highest elevations, we enjoyed the aromas of the Fraser fir and red spruce trees (christmas trees!) as we transitioned into a predominately evergreen stand, giving our finish a certain holiday feel. But don't be fooled, I wasn't only looking at the trees! As I hard-rock geologist, I was especially excited to be walking over, around, and beside Late Proterozoic (~600-800 million years old) metamorphic rocks , consisting mainly of slate and localized pockets of phyllite, schist, and quartzite (see below). We were hiking with two other geologists, so it was a lot of rock talk when we got to geologically interesting areas. One such spot was the Alum Cave Bluffs, which as the name might reveal, was once a site of heavy aluminum sulfate (or potash alum) mining. This site also gives evidence of the huge compressional forces that were at work during mountain building--large pods of metamorphosed sandstone bodies have been flattened and stretched during deformation, and tiny faults and folds can be seen throughout the overhang (see below).
When we reached the summit, we had a quick lunch break and tour of the surroundings before beginning our return descent. It was considerably cooler up top, and I celebrated the fact that I was wearing long sleeves for the first time in several months (I want it to be cold now!) Atop of Mt. LeConte, there are a handful of small guest cabins and a restaurant, which is for paying guests only. The modest and simple facilities were constructed in 1926 and are open from March-November. All of their supplies are either helicoptered in, or carried in on llamas. It's quite a place. But, the summit of Mt. LeConte still falls some 600 feet short of our home back in Laramie, Wyoming!
Rashmi posing on the (slaty) cleavage she'll never have.
Alum Cave Bluff, 2.8 miles from the Summit. Check out that huge quartzite pod in the background!
Taking it all in.
The LeConte Lodge, summit 6,593 ft.
A room with a view!
A Frasier fir leans within a hedge of mountain laurel at the summit.
Wish that I was on 'ole Rocky Top... (he he just kidding)
Aw shucks. That's a cute couple, even it they are all blurry.