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Visit the Great Smoky Mountains
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one day's drive from more than two-thirds of the population of the Eastern United States, is a great place to vacation with tons of things to do. It is the most visited national park in the country with more than 9 million visitors in 2010. Part of its appeal lies in the fact that there is no entrance fee as in other national parks. A wide variety of activities await all ages.
Stop by Sugarlands Visitor Center from Gatlinburg or Townsend Information Center on the Tennessee side of the park or the Oconaluftee Visitor Center from Cherokee, North Carolina to gather information on things you may want to do. Park volunteers and rangers there can offer suggestions. My favorites are listed here but here are many, many more - we just haven't gotten around to them yet.
There are many places to picnic in the Smokies, among them eleven designated picnic areas with tables, grills and restrooms. We really enjoy the Metcalf Bottoms Picnic Area between Gatlinburg and Townsend. Situated along the Little River, it's a picturesque spot and a great place to relax.
The Greenbrier section of the park just outside Gatlinburg has hiking trails, historic buildings and river views. We like the tiny picnic area that is frequented by bears.
Hike - There are over 800 miles of maintained hiking trails in the Smoky Mountains, not the least of which is the Appalachian Trail. All trails are rated easy, moderate or strenuous. We've never been brave enough to tackle the strenuous ones and thought we would die on most of the moderate ones. One easy, short hike - a walk, really - that not many people know about is behind the Sugarlands Visitor Center. The trail is less than a half mile round trip and at the end is Cataract Falls. This waterfall is about 25 or so feet high and quite pretty in all seasons.
The Clingmans Dome Trail is not the easiest mile you'll ever walk, but on a clear day, you have a 360 degree view for 100 miles. About half-way between Gatlinburg and Cherokee, just past Newfound Gap, turn onto Clingman's Dome Road. At the end of the 7 miles is a large parking area and the trailhead for the Clingman's Dome Trail. This paved trail is very steep but there are benches on which to rest along the way. The round observation tower at the top provides great photo opportunities. The highest point in the Smokies at 6,643 feet, there is about a 20 degree temperature drop at the top. It's always a good idea to check with one of the visitor centers before hiking to the top to ensure a beautiful view.
History - The 75th anniversary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was celebrated in 2009. There are many books, pamphlets and DVDs about the history of the park and its people in the visitor centers. We like all the old buildings, cemeteries and the Cable Mill area in Cades Cove, Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill at Oconaluftee and the old school and other buildings at Cataloochee.
Auto Tour - Not up for a hike? There are quite a few areas that you can drive through for the excellent scenery and activities offered. We love the Cades Cove 11-mile loop. The road is relatively flat and was re-paved in 2010. Travel on the one-way, one lane road goes quite slowly and can be heavy during the summer and fall but the views are well worth it. There are historic homes, churches and cemeteries along the way with parking areas where you may stop and explore. Wildlife is abundant, with early morning and early evening as the best times to catch a glimpse of a bear, turkey or white-tailed deer.
We also like the 6-mile Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail just outside Gatlinburg. It, too, received much-needed road work in 2010, compliments of government stimulus money. We have seen many bears here over the years. There are historic buildings here to tour, as well. An extra bonus is a small but wide waterfall beside the road called "Place of 1000 Drips." Be sure to look for it near the end of the trail. The Roaring Fork River views are breathtaking.
More in the Smokies
Camping - There is nothing like camping in the Smokies. All of the 8 operating campgrounds are primitive - meaning that there is no hot water or electricity but several restrooms with cold running water are available. Our top three are Cades Cove, Elkmont and Smokemont. All three take reservations up to a year in advance. Cades Cove has159 sites, Elkmont has 220 and Smokemont, 142.
Ranger Programs - During the summer season, park rangers and volunteers lead hikes and give talks on a myriad of topics related to the park. We have enjoyed programs on bears, wildflowers, mountain music, owl prowls, salamandering and making a dinner chime at the blacksmith. Parents can register their children for the Junior Park Ranger program at any of the visitor centers.
Horseback Riding - There are stables at Cades Cove and at Smokemont, as well as others outside the park. The guided trail rides in both places are very entertaining and informative. Our favorite is probably at Smokemont, as we got to cross the Oconaluftee River on horseback, which was a lot of fun.
Wildlife - There is an abundance of wildlife in the park. Bear sighting is very popular and there are "bear jams" blocking traffic along the roads when people see one. Birds, squirrels, chipmunks, skunks, raccoons, elk (at Oconaluftee and Cataloochee), coyotes, wild boar and deer are common. Remember that if you are close enough to a wild creature that it changes its activity, you are too close. Feeding wildlife is against the law.
There is beauty in every season in the Smokies. The snow in winter, budding leaves in spring, the tangle of green everywhere in summer and the brilliant color of fall leaves each draw their own fans. I love it all.
Because of the mountainous terrain, traffic travels slowly in most areas of the park. There are often sharp curves and steep grades. Unpredictable, inclement weather can force the closure of some of the popular roads.
Smoky Mountain Information
- North Carolina Travel - Cherokee
Just on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the small town of Cherokee. A mecca of trinket shops for tourists, there are also wonderful, historic places to visit if you're in...
- Smoky Mountains - Metcalf Bottoms
Most people don't automatically think of - or even know about - the Metcalf Bottoms picnic area in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the 1800s Metcalf Bottoms was a farm west of Elkmont owned by...
- Camping in Cades Cove - What You Need to Know
Make reservations for this popular campground - especially for holidays, all summer and October. The 159 sites fill up very quickly. Online reservations are available at http://www.recreation.gov. ...