Trailside Talk: Finding the Gap

Trailside Talk: Finding the Gap

Mike Hembree

Newfound Gap is a gathering place for the many publics of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

It was not always this way. A “gap” is just that—an opening between mountains. For much of recorded time, mountain gaps were places of less resistance; in other words, to get from point A to point B it made sense to seek the lower route and avoid the tough shoulders of the mountains. The Cherokees and the first white settlers in the Smokies figured out these pedestrian highways not through engineering or instruments but using common sense.

Thus, a gap in the mountains became a place for transport, a means to an end, not a goal in itself. For decades, Indian Gap, located less than a mile from Newfound Gap, was the opening of choice for area travelers. Then it was discovered that Newfound Gap was lower and thus easier to cross. So this new gap—“new found,” as it were—became the most popular route.

As you might have noticed, it remains popular.

Newfound Gap
Newfound Gap in GSMNP. Photo courtesy of NPS.

On any given day, especially those splashed with sunshine or brightened by the shimmer of fall leaves, Newfound Gap attracts a crowd. Its expansive parking area is jammed with cars, motorcycles, and recreational vehicles, with hundreds of people assembled along the overlook and on the nearby stone terrace that marks the spot where President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1940.

Hang around Newfound Gap for a time, and you’ll find that it’s an American crossroads. License plates from New Jersey, Florida, Texas, and Illinois. RVs boasting those “we’ve been there” national maps that now include North Carolina and Tennessee. Accents ranging from Deep Southern to strong New England. Kids sporting fresh airbrushed T-shirts from Gatlinburg and college boosters wearing Tennessee orange, Ohio State red, and Kentucky blue. Harley riders in solid black, helmets resting on bikes.

Adding to the eclectic mix are hikers, and not just ordinary run-of-the-mill day hikers. Serious hikers. Appalachian Trail thru-hikers. The AT crosses the parking lot—one of the trail’s most obvious “unnatural” features—at Newfound Gap, bringing hundreds of long-distance hikers into the mix of tourists stopping at the Gap. Newfound Gap is near the midpoint of the Smokies’ 71 miles of the AT.

Generally, AT hikers are easily recognizable. Trail beards and battered backpacks are key hints. Some are likely looking for quick lifts into Gatlinburg or Cherokee, where hot showers and real food await.

The Newfound Gap experience isn’t exactly a result of planning. The parking lot and overlook exist primarily because of a decision by J. R. Eakin, the park’s first superintendent. Noting how road construction had scarred the area, Eakin decided the Gap, already damaged, could become a focal point for tourists. And they had to put their cars somewhere.

So the large parking lot became a reality. Adding a touch of irony to a park whose mission included saving a swath of Southeastern mountain wilderness, the Gap parking lot became a feature of colorized postcards promoting the Smokies. A rainbow of sedans filled the rows of parking spaces.

Smokies LIVE

The Gap has changed over the years (as it changes with the seasons), but it remains one of the park’s landmarks, a place to see and to be seen, a gathering place for Smokies travelers, then and now.

Mike Hembree is a veteran journalist and the author of 14 books. He has visited 26 national parks and hopes to add many more to that list.

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