February 8, 2013
by Meridith Powell, Board of Directors, Friends of the Smokies
Currently, I am working in California, well really working and playing. Friday, I spoke for a company in San Diego, then took a few days to travel and enjoy my way to Santa Barbara and worked for another client there; then took another day and went hiking in Big Sur, and will finish off with one more speaking engagement in San Francisco before heading back to North Carolina. I have to say, not a bad way to escape a cold February in North Carolina.
It was while hiking in Big Sur, that I was struck with how lucky we are to have the Friends, the members and the volunteers who do so much to support the park. If you have ever been here, Big Sur and Northern California, you know how incredibly beautiful it is. How much just seeing the coastline and the Redwoods makes you want to get outside and enjoy it, commune with nature. Just like you, I heard the calling, so I did my research, found a couple of great hiking trails and set out on the adventure of a lifetime.
As I pulled in the parking lot, the first thing that hit me was the ten dollar charge to park. Yes, ten dollars just to leave my car for two hours while I trekked up the mountain to see the view. Now, not wanting to be a cheap skate, and understanding it was all going for a good cause, I opened my wallet and paid it.
With my car locked, my backpack on, and my hiking poles ready I headed up to the checkout the map. To my surprise, no map and no information about the trail at all, despite the fact that the three little stores I had stopped in on the way to the trailhead ensured me there would be one.
Now thinking to myself, no map and no clear idea of the trail, I headed out. Yes, I can hear the park rangers round the country getting frustrated at what a dumb idea that was, but I did it anyway. Right from the start the hike was incredible, just gorgeous, lush and thick with Redwoods. Unfortunately, the start was all I got. I hadn’t been on trail fifteen minutes when the trail ran out, hindered by three or four trees which had come down in a storm or something.
Slowly realizing we were not going any further, I teamed up with the few other dazed individuals stuck in the same spot, looking for a sign, a marker any other idea of where else we could hike. Frustrated we all turned around and headed back to our cars. Yes, we paid ten dollars to walk fifteen minutes.
Not wanting to be deterred, I headed to the next spot, and as luck would have it, there was a Ranger Station along the way. From what I could tell on my GPS the Ranger Station looked nice, and the GPS said it had good information. Excited, I arrived with questions and anticipation of where they will send me to hike. Well, yes it was beautiful and from what I could see by looking in the windows it had great information, but at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday afternoon it was closed and locked. No maps, no brochures, no nothing left anywhere for those of us looking to find a hike.
As I got back in the car, resigned to go walk around Carmel California (I know, that fact takes a lot of steam out of my story) I started thinking about the Friends of the Smokies, and how this would never happen to me or anyone hiking there.
Why? Because we have an amazing park staff, and amazing volunteers and members of the Friends of the Smokies. First of all Oconaluftee is open all but one or two days a year, and someone is always there to answer your questions and provide amazing information on what to do and where to go. In addition, the trails in the park are marked and the signs are clear, and most importantly, the trails are maintained. And oh yes, I have to mention that none of this costs the hiker a dime, not one red cent to park or to hike.
While not all of it is provided through the support of the Friends, the park does rely heavily on the volunteer hours and member donations that the Friends gives to the park each year.
My experience here in Northern California has taught me one very important lesson, that being a Friend of the Smokies is so important. Being a member makes a huge impact not only on our experience as locals, but on the millions of visitors that come through our region every year. That is good for word-of-mouth advertising, good for the businesses surrounding the park, the beauty of our region and most importantly our economy.
While I loved Big Sur, due to my experience, I would not encourage others to hike there, which means not get your supplies from the stores there or stop for lunch or dinner either side of your hike. So think about that, where else can you make that much of a difference for just thirty-five dollars (or more, we will always accept more). Where else can you invest your money that it will bring that rate of return? I would say nowhere, and while I love Northern California, I have to say there is no where better for hiking than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Note: The photo at the top of the post is (left to right) Mary Bruce Woody, Dr. Rob Powell, Stephen W. Woody and Meridith Powell at the Friends of the Smokies 10th Annual Evergreen Ball.