If you’re looking for a breathtaking destination filled with endless opportunities for outdoor activities and incredible sights to behold, look no further than the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Established in 1934, this stunning park in the Appalachian Mountains straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border is America’s most visited national park, attracting over 12 million visitors every year. In this guide, I’ll take you through the diverse landscapes, thrilling adventures, and tranquil retreats that this magical place has to offer.
The Great Smoky Mountains boast over 522,000 acres (2,114 sq. km) of untouched beauty, ranging from dense forests and rocky peaks to pristine waterfalls and lush valleys. With over 100 tree species, 1,500 types of flowering plants, and 140 distinctive wildlife species, the park is a dazzling showcase of biodiversity. One of the latest research studies conducted by the National Park Service confirms the park has more species of flora and fauna than any other protected area in the U.S.
- Navigating Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Enjoying the Great Outdoor Activities
- Cherishing the Rich Cultural Heritage
- Camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
- Staying in Tennessee
- Staying in North Carolina
- Answering the Call of the Great Smoky Mountains
Navigating Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a scenic highway running directly through it making it one of the easiest national parks to navigate. Starting from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, you’ll drive south along US-441 through the park towards Cherokee, North Carolina. As you make your way into the heart of the park, the road will start to climb, offering you ever-improving views of the stunning panoramas that define this iconic American landscape.
As you leave Gatlinburg, be sure not to miss Morton Overlook. Perched along the highway’s eastern side, this atmospheric spot affords a scenic vista of distant mountains, rolling hills, and the Little Pigeon River far below. It’s an ideal place to watch the sunset, as the golden hour bathes the surrounding landscape in an unforgettable light.
As you ascend ever higher along the highway, you’ll eventually reach Newfound Gap, the road’s highest point at an elevation of 5,046 feet. This is a must-visit destination for any traveler, offering unmatched panoramic views of both the Tennessee and North Carolina sides of the park. Don’t forget to snap a photo at the state line marker, a popular spot for memory-making among tourists.
Just a short detour from Newfound Gap is Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park at 6,643 feet. A steep half-mile hike from the parking area will bring you to an observation tower, from which you can take in stunning 360-degree views that often include glimpses of up to 100 miles away on clear days.
Oconaluftee Valley Overlook
Continuing north along US-441, make sure to stop at the Oconaluftee Valley Overlook. Providing a bird’s-eye view of the Oconaluftee River and the surrounding valley, this is the ideal spot to pause and capture some pictures of the signature blue haze that gives the Great Smoky Mountains their name.
Mingus Mill Overlook
Just a short drive from the park’s North Carolina entrance, Mingus Mill Overlook provides a fantastic introduction to the rich cultural history of the Cherokee people who have called these mountains home for centuries. The mill itself, a well-preserved example of 19th-century mountain life, is a fascinating destination in its own right. However, the overlook also offers breathtaking views of the lush mountain forest that covers most of the park.
Enjoying the Great Outdoor Activities
The Great Smoky Mountains are an adventurer’s dream come true, offering countless activities for every kind of thrill-seeker. Fishing enthusiasts can spend days angling over 2,900 miles (4,666 km) of streams teeming with trout and other species. Horseback riding is another great way to explore the park’s beauty, with five horse camps and over 550 miles (885 km) of horse trails. And come winter, the park serves as a haven for snow sports, including cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.
Get those hiking boots ready, as this park has more than 800 miles (1,287 km) of trails that cater to all skill levels, from gentle strolls to challenging summits. A few of the most popular trails include:
- For a leisurely and family-friendly experience, the Gatlinburg Trail is perfect. It is one of only two dog-friendly trails in the park, making it a fantastic option for those visiting with their furry friends. The relatively flat trail is also accessible for those with mobility challenges, including wheelchairs. The 3.8-mile round-trip stroll takes you through peaceful forests and along the water’s edge on the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. Historical remains of old homesteads add a touch of history to this beautiful hike.
- An invigorating half-day hike, Chimney Tops is a steep but rewarding 3.8-mile round-trip trek. As you ascend through the lush forests, you’ll be treated to eye-catching bursts of wildflowers during the spring and a kaleidoscope of colors during fall foliage season. Although your journey to the top will be met with some rocky and challenging terrain, the panoramic views from the pinnacles make every step worthwhile.
- The Alum Cave Trail is without a doubt one of the park’s most popular trails, and for good reason! This 4.4-mile round-trip journey leads you through archways, along steep cliffs, and across a picturesque mountain stream. Alum Cave Bluff is the true star of this trail, a massive concave cliff, towering 80 feet overhead.
- If you’re looking to experience the beauty of the park’s waterfalls, Rainbow Falls Trail is the perfect choice. This moderate 5.4-mile round-trip hike takes you along LeConte Creek and culminates at the park’s highest single-drop waterfall, Rainbow Falls. As the sunlight filters through the trees, you might be lucky enough to catch sight of a magical rainbow reflecting in the waterfall’s mist.
- The Appalachian Trail (AT) is the iconic long-distance hike in America. Passing through 14 states, it extends from Georgia to Maine for over 2,190 miles. Within the park, the trail covers over 70 miles, traversing the very backbone of the Smokies. I enjoyed hiking from Newfound Gap to get great views as well as a taste of the AT. You can also hike from there to the highest peak in the park at Clingmans Dome (6,643 feet) although it is a 15-mile hike.
Cherishing the Rich Cultural Heritage
Long before it became a national park, the Great Smoky Mountains were inhabited by Native Americans, particularly the Cherokee people. In fact, the name “Smoky Mountains” is derived from the Cherokee word “Shaconage,” meaning “place of the blue smoke.” However, European settlers eventually displaced the Cherokee people, resulting in the infamous Trail of Tears in the 1830s. Fortunately, remnants of Cherokee culture still remain today in the park, such as the remnants of the sacred Cherokee Indian town of Kituwah.
During the early to mid-19th century, pioneers began to settle in the valleys and coves throughout the Smoky Mountains. One such valley is Cades Cove, an 11-mile loop, which has evolved into an outdoor museum showcasing the history of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Here, visitors can step back in time by exploring numerous historical buildings and sites including:
- John Oliver Cabin: Constructed in the early 1820s, this is one of the oldest structures in Cades Cove. Belonging to one of the earliest settlers in the area, the cabin provides visitors a glimpse into the lives of pioneers.
- Cades Cove Methodist Church: Established in 1820, the church was the center of worship for the early settlers and reflected the importance of faith in their lives.
- Cable Mill Area: This section of Cades Cove includes multiple historic structures, such as a working grist mill, blacksmith shop, and the Becky Cable House. It offers a unique insight into the industriousness of the early settlers.
Vehicle-free access along the Cades Cove Loop Road takes place each Wednesday, from May 3 through September 27, 2023. On these days, the 11-mile loop can be enjoyed on foot or bicycle.
Camping in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
For a truly immersive experience of GSMNP, there’s nothing quite like camping right in the heart of the park. With over ten campgrounds to choose from, you’ll have a range of options for connecting with nature. Some popular campgrounds include:
- Cades Cove: This spacious, panoramic meadow provides visitors with excellent opportunities for wildlife watching and breathtaking views. The campground here offers vehicle access, making it ideal for families.
- Elkmont: Nestled deep within the woods, Elkmont serves as a fantastic base for hiking into the higher elevations of the park. With its proximity to historic sites like Daisy Town and Spence Cabin, history buffs will find plenty to keep them engaged.
Don’t forget to make reservations, as campgrounds can fill up fast, especially during peak seasons.
Staying in Tennessee
If you prefer the amenities of a town, consider booking a stay in one of the several towns on the Tennessee side of GSMNP. These towns offer a fantastic mix of proximity to park entrances, cozy accommodations, and a vibrant local scene.
- Gatlinburg: As a bustling tourist hub, Gatlinburg has a plethora of hotels, cabins, and unique attractions like the famous Sky Lift and the SkyBridge. You’ll also be just minutes away from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, making it a convenient point of entry into the park.
- Pigeon Forge: With family-friendly attractions like Dollywood and more than 73,000 lodging options, Pigeon Forge is the perfect destination for visitors seeking entertainment both inside and outside of the park. We especially loved Camp Margaritaville, which has a campground and hotel offering the best of both worlds.
Staying in North Carolina
One of the best locations to stay on the North Carolina side of the park is Bryson City. Preserving its small-town atmosphere and nestled in the heart of the Great Smoky Mountains, this town is a sweet spot for mountain me-aways. There is an assortment of lodging options catering to various preferences, from hotels and vacation homes to cabin rentals and full-service campgrounds.
Be sure to plan extra time to explore the local area and enjoy the numerous things to do in Bryson City, NC.
Answering the Call of the Great Smoky Mountains
So why wait? It’s time to pack your bags and embark on an unforgettable journey to the Great Smoky Mountains. Experience the thrilling adventures, witness the breathtaking vistas, and immerse yourself in the American wilderness like never before. But before you go, don’t forget to plan your visit well, taking into account the seasons, weather, and safety tips provided by the park’s experts. You can easily access all the necessary information on the National Park Service’s website.
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