Trailside Talk: The Waters of the Oconaluftee

Trailside Talk: The Waters of the Oconaluftee

Mike Hembree

By Mike Hembree

Attempting to rank rivers in one of the country’s most beloved national parks is a dangerous business.

Even listing a few wonderful streams and rivers in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is like shooting a family photograph and leaving out one of the children. A quick, off-the-top-of-the-head list might include Little River (with the Sinks and other striking cascades), Little Pigeon River, Baskins Creek, Hazel Creek, and the relative isolation of Abrams Creek. Winners all.

For my money, though, the best river in the park is the Oconaluftee, and it’s a prejudiced position that goes all the way back to childhood. My introduction to the Smokies came as a six-year-old, an age when I’m guessing many others saw the park for the first time. My Oconaluftee baptism, so to speak, occurred outside the park, however.

Oconaluftee River
Oconaluftee River. Photo by Timothy Wildey, Flickr

My dad wasn’t the world’s biggest supporter of the vacation/tourism industry. His idea of a vacation was one night—an absolute maximum—out of town and within a few hundred miles of home. Cherokee, Gatlinburg, and the Smokies fit that template, so that’s where we went, year after year.

If my memory, which sometimes is as hazy as the Smokies, is correct, we spent that first overnighter in a small cabin just outside the park, and the town of Cherokee was a sort of home base. I remember my dad parking the old black Chevy near Oconaluftee Island Park near the main business strip, and down to the river we wandered, towels and blankets and picnic basket in hand.

The Smokies park has more than 2,000 miles of streams, rivers, and creeks, from tiny rivulets on the shoulders of huge mountains to the rushing waters of the Little River after a spring rain. But one small section of the Oconaluftee that summer day was all mine, and I quickly decided on a plan of action—one engineered by thousands of other kids across the years. I’d build a dam* and hold back the mighty Oconaluftee. A first try at engineering.

Don't move rocks poster

The river proved to be too wide and too swift and the rocks too small, but my parents gave me an A for effort and, best of all, bought me a cowboy hat in a gift shop.

Later, we drove along the mountain highway past Newfound Gap and into Gatlinburg, past other streams and by overlooks offering views of the Smokies that kept my nose pressed to the Chevy’s rear window. The views were more fun than trying to pronounce Oconaluftee.

The Oconaluftee forms in the streambeds of the Smokies, gaining power as it picks up creekwater along the way. It exits the park at one of the eastern mountains’ grandest locations. Located in the vicinity are the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, the Mountain Farm Museum, Mingus Mill, the Oconaluftee River Trail, and the start of one of my favorite roads, the Blue Ridge Parkway.

It’s a fitting spot for the waters of the Oconaluftee.

The river rolls on, eventually joining the Tuckasegee River near Bryson City. It’s a beautiful, cold river. My toes remember.

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.

*Moving rocks to create dams, channels, or cairns is prohibited in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The movement or removal of these rocks disrupts breeding behavior and can completely destroy the nest and eggs of both salamanders and fish. Find out more in the 2020 spring issue of Smokies Guide.


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