WHEN you drive down Route 441 to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you can keep the kids busy by having them count billboards (one point each) for the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum, or the Museum of the Unexplained, or any wax museum. After the highway cuts through Pigeon Forge, a town that has turned itself into a giant theme park, you can start giving 10 points for every pink concrete waterfall and turquoise-blue, corkscrew-like water slide.
But brace yourself. Suddenly you'll cross the town line into the park, and -- wham! -- you speed, rejoicing, down lanes of uninterrupted, soothing green foliage.
The Smokies have a homey, rather than an eye-popping, beauty. You drive down perfect country roads and begin to understand why the park rangers become more intense when they talk about their special forest.
Eight-and-a-half million tourists a year find their way here. One reason is that the Smokies are within a two-day drive of two-thirds of the population of the United States.
The park, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1984, has a peculiar history. Back in 1934, the pulp and paper companies that owned most of it had stripped it pretty well bare. Some 6,000 people lived on its one-half million acres, many in log cabins. Some of these are now on display.
Most were hardscrabble farmers, scratching out a difficult living. Even so, they didn't want to leave. ``The people over 60 or 70 will talk about being homesick, even though they live only five miles from where they grew up,'' comments park spokeswoman Stephanie Gibert. ``But at the same time, they're very proud of leaving the park for their great-grandchildren.''
The real specialty of the Smokies is hiking; there are 800 miles of trails. Most visitors, however, don't even step out of their cars, choosing, instead, to let the scenery unroll like a movie before them, says Ms. Gibert. For those who want to walk, however, there are easy hikes and quiet walkways for gentle exposure to the wilderness, as well as many tougher trails for the athletic. There are also several reconstructed villages to show what life here used to be like.
Horseback riding is popular, and there is a lake south of the park, where some water sports can be pursued. A place called Deep Creek offers inner tubes with the acquiescence, if not exactly the blessing, of the National Park Service.
The park is too hilly for cycling, except for the Cades Cove loop trail, where one-speed bikes (with children's seats, if needed) can be rented.
The Roaring Fork Motor Trail is ideal for motorists who have limited time to spend here. It offers some nice views, several log cabins, an old mill, and a ``grotto of 1,000 drips.'' Hikers can also take a very pleasant hour-long jaunt off the trail to Grotto Falls. A lot of roots crisscross the unpaved trail, so wear sturdy shoes.
Accommodations in the park are limited. There are only two hotels: Wonderland, nice but a little run down, and Le Conte, which I didn't see because it takes three hours to hike to it.
There are seven campgrounds, most of them in what were once settlements in the park. I visited Elkmont, which has the advantage of being close to the bright lights of Gatlinburg, and Cades Cove, another popular area. Cosby Campground is said to be quiet and a good place for spotting bears, and Cataloochee is reported to be a smaller and less crowded version of Cades Cove.
At virtually every park entrance, there's a town eager to provide services. Gatlinburg, the oldest and most popular with tourists, has streets lined with hotels, restaurants, and shops that sell crafts, candles, and fudge. There are few places to buy food inside the park, so visitors should be prepared before entering.
The border town I chose to explore was Cherokee, N.C., on the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Its points of interest include the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, the Oconaluftee Indian Village, and an outdoor drama called ``Unto These Hills,'' which depicts the history of the Cherokee, culminating in the infamous Trail of Tears. The rest of the town is highly commercialized.
I asked directions of a handsome bronzed man in a native costume, sitting in the blazing sun behind a small sign that read ``No free photographs of the Indian.'' He directed me to the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, an attractive, weathered gray building with exhibits inside. I enjoyed its small arrowhead collection and the TV sets along the wall where visitors can watch short tapes on aspects of Cherokee history. I chose ``treaties'' and learned that the peaceable and intelligent Cherokee had more treaties with the US government than any other Indian tribe, each taking more of the Cherokee land and purportedly to be the very, very last.
The Qualla Arts and Crafts Center, across the street from the museum, offers traditional crafts made by local people. The baskets, starting at $75, were especially fine.
At the Oconaluftee Indian Village, a young Cherokee guide talks with visitors as they watch baskets being made, arrowheads being shaped, and bead work, finger-weaving, and maskmaking in progress. The village also contains examples of houses used by the Indians, ranging from one built of woven sticks coated with clay to log cabins similar to those of the white settlers.
The most interesting part of the tour is the lecture at the Council House, a traditional seven-sided structure (representing the seven Cherokee tribes, each of which had its own section). Here you can see Cherokee-style feather headdresses, rather like crowns with feathers sticking up over the top. The friendly guide explains that white settlers coveted the Cherokee land, and in the 1830s, thousands of people were forced by the US government to leave their homes. One-third of the men, women, and children who were forced to march in winter with scanty food and little rest did not survive the trip to the reservation in Oklahoma. The Cherokee who live here today are descendants of those who hid in the hills when the soldiers came.
At the Pioneer Village near Cherokee, visitors can examine a collection of wooden buildings with shingled roofs like those in which early settlers lived. Holly Parker, dressed in a blue pioneer-type outfit on the day of my visit, explained that the buildings -- a log cabin, barn, apple house, corncrib, sorghum mill, and blacksmith's shop -- were moved here from other locations in the park.
``Everything they had was really clever,'' she said, pointing out the gate weighted with a stone to make it swing closed, and the door hinges made of old horseshoes. ``They recycled everything because they didn't have a lot of resources.''
If you visit any national park, including the Great Smoky Mountains Park, I recommend taking a ranger-directed tour. It will force you to slow down and will make you realize how much you might miss on your own. The ranger on the tour I took pointed out a number of local trees -- poplars, used for log cabins because of their soft, straight wood, and sourwoods, whose slight curves made them ideal for runners on sleds, which were used for transporting goods here.
If you do some hiking on your own, you're apt to see deer feeding everywhere early in the morning, particularly on side roads. And early in the day, this mountain range lives up to its name by displaying a pure, gray-blue haze. Practical information
The Smokies are known for their wildflowers; the last week in April is the time of the annual wildflower pilgrimage.
Fall foliage is at its colorful peak in mid-October.
September and October are usually dry and clear, but during the rest of the year be prepared for rain.
An ``auto tape tour'' may be rented for $9.95 at several locations within the park.
For information about the park, contact the Superintendent, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg, Tenn. 37738; (615) 436-5615.