Explored: The Trail of Tears National Historic Trail

After Sioux and I packed up our camping gear at Loft Mountain we hiked Shenandoah’s Blackrock Summit and Spur trails (at mile 84.4 of Skyline Drive). Our sighting of a juvenile black bear on our trail, not once but twice, had us moving at a good clip before we arrived at the summit vista. The view was well worth the scare! The rock formations here were also very different from what we had seen elsewhere along our trip, so it was interesting to discover at the Dickey Visitor Center the day before that the exposed rocks of Blackrock formed the seabed of the Iapetus Ocean, an ancient body of water that predates the Appalachian Mountains. The geological forces that created the mountains changed the seabed into solid quartzite rock. Weatherization continues to shape and move these mountain rocks. We watched several hikers climb the rock formations before we warned them of the bear we had passed as they returned to the trail.

Blackrock Summit view

After the hike, we made our way via the Blue Ridge Skyway to Gatlinburg, TN and then on to the Great Smoky Mountains, all in just over 6 hours. We stayed at Cade’s Cove Campground and made it there just before dusk, with hardly enough light to set our tent up before starting a campfire. We treated ourselves to ice cream at the camp store that night – it was hot! To say we spent time in the Great Smoky Mountains would be an overstatement. We only stayed the one night, just passing through. I wish we had been there longer. Dad would have loved the multiple trout streams we passed!

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, straddling North Carolina and Tennessee, was established just 6 months prior to the Shenandoah National Park, on June 1934, and in the same year Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, declared 1934 National Parks Year. The Smoky Mountains are the nation’s most visited national park, drawing over 10 million visitors every year to its 800 square miles of vistas, campgrounds and trails. From a park environmental standpoint, The Smoky Mountains “preserves some of the world’s best examples of deciduous forest and a matchless variety of plants and animals. Because it contains so many types of eastern forest vegetation – much of it virgin – the park has been designated an International Biosphere Reserve.”[1]  The Great Smoky Mountains are also the eastern boundary of the “round up routes” established by the US Government between the years 1837 – 1839 for the largely forced removal of the Cherokee and other indigenous tribes from their land and homes to Indian Territory (Oklahoma).

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, entrance at Cade’s Cove

From the Great Smoky Mountains, my sister Susan and I traveled over the next two days to the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, in Venore, Tennessee and the Petit Jean and Lake Dardonelle State Parks in Arkansas, all registered sites along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail (TTNHT). The National Park Service established the TTNHT in 1987 to remember and commemorate the survival of the thousands of native Americans forcefully removed from their homelands in several states to live in designated Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. The TTNHT continues to have sites/segments of the routes added to it. We did our best to follow original routes or auto road routes between the sites we visited.

The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, in Vonore, TN was established in 1986 by the Eastern Cherokee to honor the life and contributions of Sequoyah, the creator of the Cherokee syllabary. The Syllabary is made up of 85 symbols that make up the written Cherokee language, which Sequoyah developed and perfected in only twelve years time, a feat that has never been accomplished before or after by anyone. The Sequoyah Birthplace Museum is also intended to promote the understanding and appreciation for the history and culture of the Cherokee Indians in Eastern Tennessee. The 43-acre property itself overlooks Tellico Lake and a 150-yard pathway crosses a field to a grassy mound that serves as a mausoleum for the remains of Cherokees exhumed from the town sites excavated for Tellico Lake. It’s here that I stood a few moments in the hot sun to pay my respects to generations of Cherokees who lived and died in the lower Little Tennessee River Valley.

From the museum we traveled to Petit Jean State Park, visiting Mather Lodge and staying at a nearby cabin for the night. Mather Lodge holds the distinction of being the only lodge built in Arkansas by the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Lodge overlooks the scenic Cedar Creek Canyon, which we were blessed to see at sunset. Mather Lodge gets its name from Stephen Mather, the first Director of the National Park Service, who served in this capacity from 1917 – 1929. Petit Jean State Park is on the historic National Trail of Tears because the Cherokee passed by Petit Jean Mountain in their forced removal 90 years earlier. Although I wasn’t able to discover what the indigenous name for Petit Jean Mountain is or was, I did learn that Rock House Cave, one of the trail locations at the park, was one of the largest bluff shelters for indigenous peoples who lived in the area over 1,000 years ago. On the walls of this bluff shelter are hundreds of pictographs, which certainly had significant meaning to the inhabitants of their time. We were also able to see Cedar Creek Canyon from the Palisades Overlook before we picked up the Bell-Drane Route/Trail of Tears to make our way to Lake Dardanelle State Park in Russellville, AR.

Mather Lodge at Petit Jean State Park, AR named after the 1st National Park Service Director, Stephen Mather. The building was designed by the National Park Service and constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corp, 1935.

There, Sioux and I learned that the Cherokee were newcomers to the Arkansas area, arriving in the late 1700s seeking new hunting lands, as the buffalo were plentiful in the Arkansas Valley at that time. It is sad to note that the very river that brought them new lives then became the route of removal for the Cherokee and many other tribes, including the Choctaws, Chickasaws, Muscogees (Creeks) and Florida Indians (later formed into the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma). With few exceptions, All American Indian tribes subjected to the Indian Removal Act of 1830 came, by land or water, through Arkansas during their forced journey westward. Lake Dardanelle itself wasn’t a lake at the time, but part of the Arkansas River. The lake itself was created in 1965 when a large recreational reservoir and dam system was established. Dardanelle is also home of Dardanelle Rock, a legendary rock formation that rises near the Arkansas River bank. Located in the Arkansas Valley, Dardanelle Rock contains an exposure of Hartshorne sandstone that was folded into a synclinal (concave upward fold) structure when the Ouachita Mountains were formed.  Dardanelle Rock has been a major landmark along the Arkansas River  and was used as a lookout point by Native Americans and later by Confederate soldiers.

Sioux and I stayed as long as we could; Dardanelle State Park has a well organized Visitor Center and a resource room that is dedicated to providing information about Arkansas’s history relative to the Trail of Tears and Native American studies. But time called us (at the visitor center was also overrun by nearly 60 young summer campers visiting on a field trip). It was time to make our way through Indian Territory – Oklahoma, so that we could arrive at Palo Duro Canyon State Park before nightfall. We had a 550 mile/9 hour trip ahead of us.

[1] National Geographic’s Guide to the National Parks of the United States, Book Division, National Geographic Society, Washington DC, p. 52.

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