Trail Notes: A saunter in the Smokies

Trail Team 11

The Place: Cherokee, N.C./Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Hike: The River Trail near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center

I don’t like either the word [hike] or the thing. People ought tot saunter in the mountains – not ‘hike!’ Do you know the origin of that word saunter? It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the middle ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going they would reply, ‘A la sainte terre’, ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.

John Muir

While John Muir wasn’t writing about our Smokies or Blue Ridge and the origin of the word saunter is more convoluted than he puts it, many of us feel like we’re on a pilgrimage or somewhere sacred when we visit Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Why else would so many of us return year after year for vacations, to see the flora and fauna and to soak in breathtaking views?

I never turn down a reason to go over to GSMNP. When one of my good friends from New Orleans told me she was headed up to camp at Smokemont on the North Carolina side, I told her I’d be there – socially distanced and with a mask, of course.

It’s nice to be able to catch up with friends, especially when you can do it outside. It was a hot day, as they all have been lately, but with a promise of rain if the biting flies were any indication. We relaxed under the trees at “Sister’s” Smokemont campsite for a while before deciding to check out an easy hike at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center.

(FYI, I’m referring to the visitor center as OVC from here on out.)


What’s cool about the OVC is it has a primitive farm right beside it. In fact, to get to the River Trail, you walk right past it. While I didn’t spend a lot of time meandering through it, the temptation was real since the buildings offered some shade, which isn’t something you get on the trek to the river.

But once you get under the canopy of the forest along the Oconaluftee, it is worth it. The shade drops the temperature nicely and even the sound of the rushing water helped cool me off. However, I was envious of those floating down the river tubes; a perfect summer’s day activity.

This trail is easy and relatively flat. Sister and I had to move to the edge of the trail a handful of times for trail runners. Other folks were out looking for the elk that live in that portion of the Smokies. We did spot a bull elk lounging in the trees near the field they’re know to frequent. So did a man who was way too close and using the flash on his camera.

One of my elk photos, which used too much zoom. (B.Stack/WJHL)

(Folks, please remember to stay back from the wildlife, especially if they have claws or horns. They’re probably faster than you – but also won’t usually mess with you unless you get too close.)

As you head toward the town of Cherokee, the trail crosses by the bridge which marks the western terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It was also a very popular spot for people to splash around in shallow areas of the river.

Sister and I debated for a couple minutes what to do from that point. The trail continues on into Cherokee. While it looked like fun, we decided to turn back toward the visitor’s center.

On the way back, we found the man with his camera had moved on. So had the bull elk. As we came out of the woods, we found out why: many of the elk had congregated along the road for some grazing.


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