Surely these are, if nothing else, the most perfectly named mountains in the world. "Great Smoky Mountains": The words conjure fog drifting off a breathing canopy of trees, mist rising above a waterfall, the soft warmth of southern air. Perhaps, as well, the tang of barbecue chased down with moonshine whiskey. But whoever may have coined that poetic phrase, his identity, or hers, is lost to history. Some say it harks back to the Cherokee word for blue—shaconage—for these ancient summits seem cloaked in the wood-smoke of a thousand vanished council ﬁres.
When its boosters brag about the qualities of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, they mention both its wildness ("the last great virgin forest in the East") and its proximity to civilization ("within a day's drive of more than a third of the U.S. population"). It seems an impossible paradox, especially as you inch your way through Gatlinburg on Highway 441 toward the park's busiest entrance, past an unbroken wall of motels, waffle houses, and T-shirt shops on either side. How could an area like this possibly contain some of the most verdant habitats and sublime mountain vistas in eastern North America?