Climbing up the last few steps of a worn trail, you are suddenly greeted by breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains. Far below you can make out the cleared areas of the historical settlement you visited this morning, and the thin ribbon of road winding through the forest. Birds sing in the tree canopy around you, just one part of one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth. There's only one place you can be: Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Great Smoky Mountains are but one star (albiet a bright one) in the constellation of the Southern Appalachians, but stand out to many people as particularly unique. In terms of biodiversity this is objectively true, one reason that the Smokies has been christened as a world heritage site (along with Mammoth Cave and the Everglades on the east coast and eight other parks further west). During the last ice age, the spreading cold forced species of Flora and Fauna to migrate south. The ice never reached the Smokies, and that's where many of the species took up living. As the ice retreated, most species thought that the mountains weren't too bad and decided to stay. With more species of trees than on the entire European continent, the Smokies are a World Heritage Site for biodiversity.

The national park straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina state line. (Though the Tennessee side gets far more visitors, the majority of the national park is in North Carolina and some suggest its most scenic bits, but I'm skeptical that any one place in the Smokies has marks over the rest.) Brought into existence in the early 1900s in an effort to preserve what had not been felled by settlers and loggers, the park stands today as the largest east of the Mississippi and most visited in the United States.

Another name for the Smokies is "the Great Iron"; gazing at a topographic map you can see how topographically unified the park is, as opposed to ranges to the south and west. Wherever you go in the Smokies you'll be greeted with the same general aura but with various variations. When I visit Cataloochee after coming from Cosby I know immediately that I'm still in the Smokies, and yet the two areas are distinct in their topography and sublime feel.

Two major highways cut through the park; Little River Road on the western Tennessee side and Newfound Gap Road right over the crest of the mountains in the middle. At the two ends of Newfound Gap Road (highway 441) have developed tourist traps, as they tend for some reason to do near national parks, and from those points stream in millions of visitors a year. The majority of them never leave their vehicles, opting to sample the wilderness from their windshields. Those that do decide to test the soil with their own feet usually stick to popular getting out spots, which are usually quite nice.

However, for a real taste of the Smokies it's good to visit the more off the beaten path areas, since that's what the Smokies has always meant: the place on the periphery of unparalleled beauty hostile to we naive settlers. That's the value in the many historic structures preserved within the boundaries of the park; through the eyes of those frontiers people and their culture we can enjoy a truer glimpse of the Smokies than we can generate ourselves from our polluted all-powerful modern perspective. A road has conquered the highest peak (Clingman's Dome), so it's easy to think that we've mastered the wilderness. If we have, it is only because we have failed to truly engage it.

To do this means to get off on the park's trail system or by some means diving into the less frequented portions of the national park. That's why I think hiking is an important part of the Smokies visitors' experience, or at least some form of exploration, be it a peaceful ambulation through the fields of Cades Cove, a long wade in one of the Smokies' characteristic tumbling mountains streams, or long sit on a bald enjoying a clear breeze and passing clouds.

Along the major highways are several off shoot auto tours and spurs including Cades Cove (very popular and very wonderful), Tremont (logging history), Elkmont, Greenbrier, Roaring Forks, various stops along Newfound Gap Road, Clingman's Dome Road, and Oconaluftee down in North Carolina. But this is only part of the park, an number of spurs from outside highways and towns jut into the eastern half of the park: Greenbrier, Cosby, Big Creek, Cataloochee and Balsam Mountain. These areas are where I've spent the majority of my time. On the map they don't look that interesting, but they have a lot to offer. Then there's the western North Carolina area. That's solid wilderness with few points of access.

The more you learn about this national park the more you realize a single trip will provide only a flash-glimpse as comprehensive an understanding as your knowledge of a new friend from a single short phone conversation. But it's worth something, as long as it is realized that the Smokies are not a place that one visits but a place that one nears one self to by degrees, and only a lifetime can hope to accomplish that end.

To do this means to get off on the park's trail system or by some means diving into the less frequented portions of the national park. That's why hiking for many is an important part of the Smokies visitors' experience, or at least some form of exploration, be it a peaceful ambulation through the fields of Cades Cove, a long wade in one of the Smokies' characteristic tumbling mountains streams, or long sit on a bald enjoying a clear breeze and passing clouds.

Along the major highways are several off shoot auto tours and spurs including Cades Cove (very popular and very wonderful), Tremont (logging history), Elkmont, Greenbrier, Roaring Forks, various stops along Newfound Gap Road, Clingman's Dome Road, and Oconaluftee down in North Carolina. But this is only part of the park, an number of spurs from outside highways and towns jut into the eastern half of the park: Greenbrier, Cosby, Big Creek, Cataloochee and Balsam Mountain. These areas are where I've spent the majority of my time. On the map they don't look that interesting, but they have a lot to offer. Then there's the western North Carolina area. That's solid wilderness with few points of access.

The more you learn about this national park the more you realize a single trip will provide only a flash-glimpse as comprehensive an understanding as your knowledge of a new friend from a single short phone conversation. But it's worth something, as long as it is realized that the Smokies are not a place that one visits but a place that one nears one self to by degrees, and only a lifetime can hope to accomplish that end.