In this latest installment of “America the Beautiful” – our series celebratingof the National Park Service – “CBS This Morning” takes you to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park at the most beautiful time of the year. CBS News correspondent Jeff Glor traveled to the country’s most visited national park to see the fall foliage and meet with the remarkable man in charge.
The Smokies are a special place, with ancient mountains, a forest that seems to go forever, families who arrive generation after generation, and a rich history. Now, theis run by a man who just made history of his own.
As morning arrives in the Great Smoky Mountains, the trees light up like the colors of the sun, into impossible-to-look-away-from oranges, yellows and reds.
“It’s a whole different scene. People come to the Smokies year-round, but there’s something special about the fall where the leaves change. The smells are different, the sights are different and you really can see a different life of the trail,” said Christine Hoyer, a National Parks ranger.
The park covers over 800 square miles, straddling the border between North Carolina and Tennessee.
The colors of autumn slide their way down the mountains — from colder peaks to warmer valleys — for up to six weeks on 130 different species of trees.
“We are fortunate because our fall peak season starts in September and goes all the way through November, so you have a time frame where people — a lot of people —get a chance to see the fall foliage here,” said Cassius Cash, the park’s superintendent.
“Because the elevation is so extreme — it goes from 500 feet to 6,000,” Glor said.
“Absolutely,” Cash said.
Cash’s path here is just as inspiring as the views. He was raised a city kid in downtown Memphis.
“Where you grew up, did you see any of this?” Glor asked.
“No, I had no relationship with the natural world. My only relation was I used to watch every Sunday, “Wild Kingdom.” You’re probably too young to remember,” Cash joked.
“I remember, I remember,” Glor said.
“And that was the first time that my imagination was tapped. One week I could be in the Serengeti. Next week I could be in the Everglades. And I was just drawn and fascinated from the comfort of my home,” Cash said.
Cash has worked in Oregon, Washington state, Nebraska and even Boston. After Forest Service and Park Service jobs across the country, Cash is now the first African-American superintendent at Great Smoky Mountains.
His focus is on the next generation. “Hike 100” was his brainchild: a plan to get everyone — but kids especially — to hike 100 miles in this centennial year for the National Parks Service. He’s taken youth groups up and down the trails since spring.
“When the Park Service was created in 1916, 50 percent of our country was urban. Now, 80 percent of our country is now urbanized and so the likelihood of the relationship that kids are engaging with the natural world is shrinking,” Cash explained. “So in order to be relevant for the next 100 years, we have to participate in our own rescue.”
“It’s been inspiring for all those kids he’s come into contact with, but also the people who have the honor to walk beside him and work with him,” said Christine Hoyer, who’s in charge of the backcountry here.
It’s not easy, since there are 849 miles of trails — all of which receive near constant rainfall. That means washed-out sections often need to be repaired.
A team of volunteers restore the impassable with the natural materials from the mountains. And they’re still working, as Cash knows, well into fall foliage season.
“It almost feels like a rainforest,” Glor said.
“It is. It’s a temperate rain forest. So the amount of rainfall and biodiversity are equivalent to having a rainforest-type of ecosystems,” Cash said.
“And as we talk, leaves…” Glor began to speak, as leaves suddenly started to fall from the trees.
“Yeah, right on cue. Can’t make this up, man,” Cash said, laughing.
“This is fall foliage,” Glor said.
“Doesn’t get any better than this,” Cash said.
One of the great things about the Smokies — beyond the views, the trails, the leaves and the people — is that it’s still free for all. There is no entrance fee, ever.