Roaring Forest

Published: February 17th 2012
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Noah Ogle HomesteadNoah Ogle HomesteadNoah Ogle Homestead

The former house of a pioneer Smokies farmer
Today was another day in the Great Smoky Mountains.

I spent quite a bit of time deciding where.

The park is huge, and much of it is located away from roads.

I eventually chose the Roaring Fork auto tour, because it has a wide variety of experiences in a small area.

The first challenge with Roaring Fork is finding it.

The road first goes to Gatlinburg.

This town is a miniature Pigeon Forge, with a similar range of cheesy entertainment and shopping options.

The big difference with Pigeon Forge is that all of this is wrapped in pseudo-Bavarian architecture.

The town wants to look like a quaint village in the Alps.

The issue for me is that it’s not in the Alps, it’s a tourist trap in eastern Tennessee.

I preferred Pigeon Forge, which at least is totally honest about its reason for existence.

The turnoff for Roaring Fork is located off a side road in Gatlingburg which is not well marked.

I eventually found it.

The transition to the nation park is rather stark.

One moment, I was surrounded by tourist tack; the next moment,
Chestnut tree graveyardChestnut tree graveyardChestnut tree graveyard

This rotting log in the middle distance is all that remains of the chestnut trees that once covered this area.

Noah Ogle Nature Trail

The first site on the road is called the Noah Ogle Nature Trail.

Great Smokey Mountains looks like virgin wilderness, but this is mostly an illusion.

Much of the lower stream valleys were settled by farmers.

The government evicted them when the park was established.

This nature trail goes through the remains of one of these farms.

A picture of the former owner, staring longingly at his homestead, is on the trailhead sign.

The trail first passes through second growth forest and across shallow streams.

Most of the trees here are oak and lilac bushes.

It eventually reaches a collection of enormous old stumps and fallen logs.

This area is a tree graveyard.

Until the late 1920s, this area was a chestnut tree forest.

Chestnut trees were the miracle tree of early settlers.

The nuts were incredibly nutritious, and they made a perfect animal feed.

When someone had a bad harvest, they survived the winter on chestnuts.

When a tree got too old to produce nuts, it was cut down.

Chestnut wood is incredibly rot resistant, and most buildings in
Noah Ogle's GristmillNoah Ogle's GristmillNoah Ogle's Gristmill

The girstmill owned by Noah Ogle. The slanted wooden trougth on the upper left fed the stream water to power the mill. The trough inside sits below the grindstone to hold the flour.
the area were made with it.

Unfortunately, an imported virus then killed nearly all of them.

A few still exist in the Appalachian Mountains, and plant scientists are using them to create a disease resistant hybrid.

These slowly rotting logs are all that remain in the Great Smokey Mountains.

Think about this regarding the dying fir trees further up the slopes.

From here the trail reaches a steep rocky stream.

Streams like this exist all over the area.

Farmers who had the necessary carpentry skills built grist mills along them.

The mill for this farm still exists along the stream.

It’s completely original and unrestored, which is amazing given the condition it’s in.

A long wooden culvert was used to bring water to the mill.

The water poured down onto a wooden wheel with slots cut in it.

The water pushed the slots, turning the wheel and shaft.

The shaft in turn is connected to a grind stone above.

Grain was poured onto the grindstone to be turned into flour.

Most mill owners grinded grain for neighbors as well as themselves, taking a
Noah Ogle gristmill troughNoah Ogle gristmill troughNoah Ogle gristmill trough

State of the art engineering in the 1800s
share of the flour as payment.

Unfortunately, this one no longer runs because the culvert entrance washed out some time ago.

After the mill, the trail climbs through a rocky area to a flatter section covered with very young trees.

This area was the former fields.

The shallow stream seen earlier reappears here, which was used for irrigation.

It’s now covered in lilacs.

Soon afterward, the trail reaches the road and the homestead.

The homestead has two buildings, a barn and a single floor house.

Both are made of wood and mud sealant.

They bear a striking resemblance to the sharecropper shacks from Clarksville (see Ride With the Devil in Cotton Country).

The barn has stalls below for animals, and room above for crops.

The house has four rooms surrounding a central chimney.

The walls are roughly an inch from the chimney, to reduce the fire danger.

The house has two porches, front and back.

Farmers spent what time they could on these porches, socializing.

After the homestead, the road climbs into the ridges above.

It’s very narrow
Roaring Fork road overlookRoaring Fork road overlookRoaring Fork road overlook

A view of the Great Smoky Mountains from Roaring Fork Road, looking west.
and winding.

It passes a series of overlooks as it climbs, with views of surrounding mountains.

A plaque at one of them notes that the view is much smaller than it used to be, thanks to air pollution.

A short trail climbs a nearby hill.

The top of the hill has no view at all (thanks to trees) but it is surrounded by a forest of flowering mountain laurel.

I found it a remarkably peaceful place.

Grotto Falls Trail

Until this point, the road has been passing through oak and beech trees with small trunks.

The forest is clearly second growth.

At one point, this changes.

The forest abruptly switches to very tall pine trees, an old growth hemlock forest.

It’s nearly as impressive as the old growth deciduous forest I saw yesterday.

In the middle of this forest, the road reaches a parking lot with a very large number of cars in it.

This marks the trail head for one of the parks most popular trails, Grotto Falls.

The trail starts in the hemlock forest.

The trees reach far above the ground.
Old growth hemlocksOld growth hemlocksOld growth hemlocks

Old growth hemlocks trees tower over the Grotto Falls Trail.

The trunks are huge.

There is very little undergrowth.

Soon enough, the trail crosses a ravine and starts to climb.

From here, the trail weaves in and out of ridges on the lower levels of Mt. LeConte.

It crosses multiple stream ravines.

The outer part of each ridge provides great views of the surrounding area, which get better as the trail gets higher.

Eventually, more mountain ridges become visible in the distance.

Unfortunately, the forest gets worse.

It becomes a mixture of old growth pine, oak, and beech trees.

The higher elevation hemlock trees are being attacked by the same parasite that is killing the firs further up the mountains.

Many of them are now dead.

Looking straight out, the forest looks impressive.

Look up, and it’s a ghost town.

Mountain laurel and other bushes are slowly taking over the areas of dead pines.

The trail winds its way into yet another ravine.

This one has more water, and more deciduous trees.

It eventually reaches an overlook of an impressive cascade.

The brook slides
Grotto FallsGrotto FallsGrotto Falls

Grotto Falls, seen from the cave behind it.
and falls over a series of rocks.

This cascade is just the warm up.

Visible in the distance through trees is a stream of frothy white.

A quick hike up the trail shows the source of that vision, Grotto Falls.

As the name implies, it’s located in a rocky grotto.

The stream falls off a rocky shelf into the middle.

Like Dry Falls (see The Land of Falling Water) there is enough space in the grotto to walk behind the waterfall.

The waterfall is not as big as Dry Falls, so the experience is not as impressive.

People can’t resist taking the hike anyway.

The trail continues on the other side of the stream.

It will eventually reach the top of Mt. LeConte, a very difficult hike.

Part of the reason people walk behind the waterfall is that the alternative is fording the stream, which is not fun on wet rocks.

I turned around at this point and headed back.

On the way down, I had a sighting of what may be the Great Smoky Mountains rarest animal, the llama train.
LeConte llama train.LeConte llama train.LeConte llama train.

Visitors on the Grotto Trail want to see the waterfall, but this sight is not far behind.

A hiker hostel is located at the top of Mt. LeConte.

Supplies for the hostel are brought in by llama.

They use the Grotto Trail.

On the way down, I encountered ten llamas, each with a full pack, being led by a trainer.

He mentioned it takes an entire day to get supplies to the top of the mountain and trash out.

Roaring Fork

The Grotto Trail head marks the highest elevation of the road.

It drops steeply into a mountain valley.

This valley is the Roaring Fork Stream.

The road follows this stream until the park boundary.

Driving along, the reason for the name is very obvious.

The brook makes lots of noise, which the V shaped valley amplifies.

The trees change abruptly from pines to deciduous.

This makes the upper limit of settlement in the valley.

Heading down, the road passes another settlement cabin, the Ephraim Bales farm.

It’s very similar to the Noah Ogle homestead, so I skipped past it.

It then reaches a more impressive place.

Alfred Reagan was the most successful farmer in the valley.

Roaring Fork cascadeRoaring Fork cascadeRoaring Fork cascade

One of hundreds of cascades on Roaring Fork.
was a highly skilled carpenter, so he built houses and other buildings for everyone in the vicinity.

He ground grain for the entire valley.

He ultimately built and ran a country store.

He also built and donated the valley church (which no longer stands).

His house stands along the road.

Unlike the unfinished wood used elsewhere, his house is made of properly cut wood panels.

It is painted in four separate colors, “every one available in the Sears catalog” as his wife put it.

On the inside, the design is very similar to the previous houses, except for its size.

This house is two stories.

The gristmill is located across the road from his house, along the creek.

The design is identical to the one Noah Ogle used.

The size is larger.

Unlike the other gristmill, here the entrance culvert still works, so it was filled with water.

Unfortunately, the turbine wheel had rotted out, so all that water simply spilled on the floor.

After the house, the valley becomes very narrow.

The road crosses
Alfred Reagan HomesteadAlfred Reagan HomesteadAlfred Reagan Homestead

By the standards of early settlers, this is a mansion. Note the finished walls and doors, and the painted beams.
the creek several times.

Moss covered cliffs now reach above the road and creek.

There are several swimming holes, and a few small waterfalls.

This is one of those mountain roads where an open car is a double edged sword.

One the one hand, it provides a perfect uninterrupted view of all this scenery; on the other hand, the scenery is a huge distraction from driving.

I did it all in low gear to reduce the risk.

After a hard rain, those cliffs provide the last sight along the drive.

The Place of a Thousand Drips is a wide section of cliff that a small stream cascades down.

When the stream level is very high, the mossy rocks are covered with little dripping rivulets.

They were dripping away.

I liked this sight much less than Grotto Falls, because I’m not a big fan of this type of waterfall.

The park brochure warns of an experience at the end of the road it calls The Transition.

One moment visitors are on a narrow road surrounded by forest; a moment later they are on a narrow road
Alfred Reagan House interiorAlfred Reagan House interiorAlfred Reagan House interior

Fine living in the Smokies: finished walls, formal fireplace, and painted shelves. By the standards of the time, this place cost a fortune.
surrounded by houses and condos.

It was fairly jarring, but I was used to it from Highlands a few days earlier.

I had dinner at the Greenbrier Restaurant east of Gatlinburg.

It occupies a historic log building on a hillside.

The building may be haunted!

The food was quite good but also pricy.

The view, unfortunately, was all pine trees.

My server claimed she saw a bear outside at least once, which would scare me witless.

Foothills Parkway

After dinner, I had a pretty long drive into southeastern Tennessee.

I decided to squeeze in one more sight.

When finished, the Foothills Parkway will be a rough equivalent of the Blue Ridge Parkway further north.

For now, only a single section south of the Great Smoky Mountains is open.

It goes up and along a long mountain ridge.

There are overlooks all along the parkway, with long views.

The weather was clear enough that I got the full views from all of them.

One set looks northeast to the Great Smoky Mountains.

The other set looks southwest, to the eastern Tennessee River Valley.

Place of a Thousand DripsPlace of a Thousand DripsPlace of a Thousand Drips

The Place of a Thousand Drips in high water. Normally, the rocks just drip away; here they are a cascade.
is mountainous and the other is pretty flat.

All of them were quite nice.

Additional photos below
Photos: 27, Displayed: 27


Pigeon Forge and Smoky MountainsPigeon Forge and Smoky Mountains
Pigeon Forge and Smoky Mountains

The contrast can't be more extreme

Tennessee's ultimate tourist trap
Smoky MountainsSmoky Mountains
Smoky Mountains

From tourist central to this, in under ten minutes
Noah Ogle former fieldsNoah Ogle former fields
Noah Ogle former fields

Overgrown fields of a frontier settler
Smoky's creekSmoky's creek
Smoky's creek

Power source for Noah Ogle gristmill
Gristmill turbineGristmill turbine
Gristmill turbine

State of the art for its time
Smoky's stream crossingSmoky's stream crossing
Smoky's stream crossing

Its not as rickety as it looks
Old Growth treesOld Growth trees
Old Growth trees

On the way to Grotto falls

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