Many cultures encourage learning through traveling and reading. Sometimes people find it is more effective and fun to learn through travel than through the written word. For example there is a traditional Chinese saying, “It is better to travel 10,000 miles than to read 10,000 books.”

In fact, this preference is not only about learning through fun but also about having real experience with the world beyond our borders.

For many years in June, I normally wrote my column about one of my visits to a national museum during my family’s national or international trip. However, this year my family had to change our plans from a trip to Italy to the Smoky Mountains National Park due to the global coronavirus pandemic and following the nationwide stay-at-home and social-distancing order.

On the first day back home I texted my good friend and Rantoul Press Editor Dave Hinton: “Safely back to home and had a really great time during our family vacation at the Smoky Mountain National Park. It was a rare choice for me because I normally preferred social cultural and art events rather than natural.”

Wang family at Smoky Mountain National Park

The Wang family visits the Smoky Mountain National Park.

My friend replied immediately and straightforwardly: “It’s good to be well rounded. Our society has gotten too far away from the earth and nature with concrete, big cities and urban sprawl. Don’t get me started. Glad u had a good time.”

I have to agree with my friend, and I must say that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was a great choice, and we enjoyed every aspect of this great national park in the southeastern United States, with parts in Tennessee and North Carolina.

I must give credit to my wife and daughters for their work in planning our entire trip.  

According to information available online, plus national parks brochures and what we learned from the trip, the park encompasses 522,419 acres (816.28 square miles), making it one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States. The main park entrances are located along U.S. Highway 441 (Newfound Gap Road) in Gatlinburg and Townsend, Tenn., and Cherokee, N.C.

The park straddles the ridgeline of the Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are a division of the larger Appalachian Mountain chain. The park contains some of the highest mountains in eastern North America, including Clingmans Dome, Mount Guyot and Mount Le Conte.

The border between the two states runs northeast to southwest through the center of the park. The Appalachian Trail passes through the center of the park on its route from Maine to Georgia.

The park was chartered by Congress in 1934, and officially dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940. The Great Smoky Mountains was the first national park whose land and other costs were paid for in part with federal funds; previous parks were funded wholly with state money or private funds. The park was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and an International Biosphere Reserve in 1988.

In addition, the park also preserves multiple historical structures that were part of communities occupied by early settlers of the area.

It was the most-visited national park in the United States with 12.5 million visitors in 2019. The park is internationally recognized for its mountains, waterfalls, biodiversity and spruce-fir forests. Major attractions include Dollywood, the second-most visited tourist attraction in Tennessee, Ober Gatlinburg, and Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park anchors a large tourism industry based in Sevier County, Tenn., adjacent to the park. Tourism to the park contributes an estimated $2.5 billion annually into the local economy.

We rented and stayed at the Bear Cabin near the mountains outside the little town of Gatlinburg in North Carolina. Since Smoky Mountains National Park was just partially reopened when we visited it, we had to bring most our food supplies with us. During the day we had all sorts of outdoor activities in the mountains, and during the evening we cooked, chatted and shared photos we took on our cameras and cell phones with the family and our friends through social media.

We had a great time and enjoyed our entire vacation and family gathering. If you asked me, I would say these things stood out as the most memorable during this trip:

I was impressed by the most beautiful and glorious sceneries of the park.

I was amazed by the wildlife such as the bears, horses and turkeys, coming face to face with many of them.          

And I was astonished to learn the earliest settlers lived in these mountains more than 10,000 years ago, which got me to wondering, What happened to them, and where are their descendants now, if any?  

Dr. Ian Wang is the curator of the Spurlock Museum and may be contacted by email at wangyu@illinois.edu