By Bonnie Neely
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the entire United States. With its thick forests of evergreens and many different species of deciduous trees, it is beautiful year-round, especially in the fall when the leaves change color. The understory is home to myriad different plants that bloom at various times of the year, even in deep shade. One of our favorite places to enjoy the Smokies is in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, where several tour companies offer guides who help us to make the most of our mountain exploration.
Our most recent trek was with Jamie Matzko of A Walk in the Woods Nature Guide Service. A native of this area of Tennessee, Matzko has loved the outdoors all her life and is so knowledgeable that she filled our hike with information and fun. We learned about the trees, vines and bushes, birds, and other wildlife around us. She stopped at many plants and told how they could be used medicinally or for food, and she pointed out some that are harmful or poisonous.
She guided us along an unknown path that was not part of the park's developed trails, but it was narrow and clear and a moderate-to-easy hike along a creek with gentle, melodic waterfalls. Birdsongs enhanced our walk, and she could identify even the winged friends that were hidden from view.
This year A Walk in the Woods is celebrating two decades of helping people enjoy the park, and the number of people they have safely served is approaching 100,000. The owners, Vesna and Erik Plakanis, share their expert knowledge and love of all nature, this wondrous park and the thriving undisturbed environment that abounds here in the Gatlinburg area. The company helps individuals or groups enjoy expert interpretive nature walks, guided hikes, and birding and salamander treks. They offer hiker shuttle service in and around the park, Appalachian Trail support and climbing Mount LeConte. They also offer assistance with trip-planning, camping and backpacking equipment rental, guided backpacking trips, classes and seminars.
The guides have advanced special training as naturalists and scientists and in history, environmental studies, and search and rescue. They have had several years and hundreds of miles of experience as hikers, trail guides and in mountaineering. They are also willing to tailor hiking trips for groups with special interests — bears, mushrooms, history, edible plants, geology, protecting the environment and more.
A Google search will turn up many excellent tour companies in this area, but this group has earned several awards for making the Great Smoky Mountains accessible to visitors. My husband and I think they deserve every single one.
WHEN YOU GO
To plan your trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, visit www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/basicinfo.htm
To book a hike with A Walk in the Woods: www.awalkinthewoods.com
Bonnie and Bill Neely are freelance writers. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.