A Walk in the Great Smokies | RTX Traveler Magazine

As the gateway to the Smokies, the Gatlinburg area is known for its easy access to miles of trails. While simply getting out for a hike on your own or with your family can be invigorating and rewarding with stunning views, consider a guided hike with a company such as A Walk in the Woods. Their knowledgeable guides will teach you more about the history, flora and fauna of the trails than you ever would have figured out on your own.

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A Walk in the Woods has taken over 50,000 people out into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park since 1998. Husband and wife team Erik and Vesna Plakanis who founded the company are both naturalists and between them have over 60 years of experience in hiking the Appalachian Mountains, covering thousands of miles of trails.

All of the guides who work for the company are trained naturalists who will show you plants unique to the area, and will introduce you to tastes and smells that you otherwise may have completely overlooked. The mission of A Walk in the Woods is to raise environmental awareness through direct, fun, positive experiences with nature.

A Walk in the Woods has been featured in publications including Outside Magazine, Backpacker, National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler Magazine, USA Today, Washington Post, Shape Magazine, Women’s Health, Southern Living, AAA’s Magazine Home and Away, and many others.  They have appeared on the Discovery Channel, Travel Channel and NBC Nightly News.

Hikers WebChoose your own path

With your choice of several walks and hikes ranging from one hour to a full day, you’re sure to find a hike that you’ll love. There are hikes geared toward children, history buffs, bird watchers, leaf peepers and waterfall lovers, whether you’re a novice-level hiker or an expert mountain trekker.

The Stroll Back in Time Nature Walk is a two hour hike that is relatively easy with a few moderate places. This walk begins in one of the first areas settled in what is now the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The trail is on an old roadbed, alongside a pristine and gorgeous mountain stream. You explore a small family cemetery, a 19th century barn, spring-house and restored cabin and more while walking through the beauty of the deep forest.

The Porters Creek Trail area was originally a Cherokee Indian settlement, and you can see evidence of that today once your guide points out the meeting rock where Native Americans would meet on their way to their herds, and an oddly angled tree, which was bent to point the way down the trail when it was just a sapling, and continues to hold the peculiar shape today.

In the early 1800s, the Whaley and Ownby families settled there, and by the early 1900s, 26 homes were in the area, mostly belonging to Whaleys or Ownbys. Up to 500 people lived in the area at its peak.  With innovations in the logging industry, sawmills started springing up in the area in the late 1800s and high demand for lumber led to rapid deforestation. Conservationists pushed to protect the land, and the Great Smoky Mountains Park Commission began buying land in 1926 for the national park. This displaced residents, but most relocated just across highway 321 from the park and descendants of these families are still in the area today.

Along the trail, in addition to the history of the area you’ll learn the difference between a striped maple, red maple and sugar maple and also how to identify certain trees by their trunks (sourwood has a leaning trunk, a sycamore’s bark resembles camouflage, and tulip trees have extremely straight trunks). Your guide will point out signs of bears, including the trees where the mother bear sleeps in the winter to have her cubs, and gashes on tree trunks where male bears mark their territory. It’s likely that you’ll see at least a few salamanders, as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known as the Salamander Capital of the World with more than 30 species.

CIMG4509At the peak of the hike, you reach the John Messer Barn, dating back to 1875 and in seemingly good condition after a few restorations. Just beyond the barn, a spring house through which clear water from an underground spring still flows. Just a few feet away, the Smoky Mountain Hiking Club Cabin stands, which was constructed between 1934 and 1936. Logs from three of the Whaley’s family cabins were used to construct the cabin around an existing chimney.

This group of buildings on the site of an old homestead is the perfect place for a break and a snack. Your tour guide may even offer some hemlock tea, made from the evergreen hemlocks that are common in this forest. Not to be confused with the poisonous hemlock plant, evergreen hemlocks are high in vitamin C and have several medicinal purposes that were often used by Native Americans in the area. The tea is refreshing and tastes a bit like Christmas.

CIMG4473Guide profile – Cindy Beal

Cindy Beal is a resident of Townsend, Tenn., and lover of the Great Smoky Mountains. For many years she volunteered for the National Park, working at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. After completing the Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certification Program at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont in 2010, Cindy has been busy on the trails, discovering the many wonders of the country’s most visited national park. Cindy’s specialties include birding, plant identification and showing children the wonders of the natural world.

Cindy has logged more than 1000 hours hiking in the Smoky Mountains and loves seeing smiles on the faces of her guests during and after hikes, especially those who may have been intimidated or unsure about whether they would enjoy or could complete the hike. Cindy’s wealth of knowledge about the history of the woods as well as the plants and animals who live there make for a truly educational experience, and her warm and friendly personality make it that much more enjoyable from the moment she greets you to the farewell at the end of the trail.

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