Thursday, June 07, 2007

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

If you are traveling through the southern United States in the mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, you should make sure that you take the time to explore Great Smoky Mountains National Park. There are beautiful views, stunning mountains, hidden valleys, abundant wildlife and traces of the old Appalachian mountain culture – all ready for you to explore them.

The only real downside to this park is how crowded it can get. It is the most visited National Park in the country and during the busier times those crowds can get very thick.

Where do I find the park?

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located along the border between North Carolina and Tennessee, right in the heart of the Smoky Mountains.

The closest highway is Interstate 40 near Pigeon Forge, which provides access to the park from the north through Gatlinburg, Tennessee along Route 441. Route 441 travels through the park and exits through Cherokee, North Carolina where you can eventually join up once again with Interstate 40. The Blue Ridge Parkway also ends in the park and it makes for an excellent ending or beginning for a drive along the Blue Ridge.

There are also other roads that circumvent the park should you wish to drive and explore the other, less accessible areas that you can’t reach from along Route 441.

Where to stay?

Besides campgrounds, the park itself only has as single lodge that is only accessible via hiking trails. For hotels and motels, you will have to stay in Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg or Cherokee. All three have a number of different hotels and motels that should suit any traveler’s tastes. The only warning is to book ahead during busier times, as you may not be able to find an open room unless you have a reservation.

If you don’t mind camping, there are 10 campgrounds in the park. All of the campgrounds are open in the summer months, but only two are open year round if you are visiting in the wintertime.

We stayed in Gatlinburg and since it was mid-March, we had no trouble finding an open room, almost every hotel was open. That said, it was already starting to get busy, so I can only imagine how packed the area gets in the summertime.

Coming into the park

On our trip, we approached the park from the north on I-40 and traveled down through Pigeon Forge and then through Gatlinburg before reaching the park entrance. I have to admit, it’s quite an experience. Pigeon Forge is home to Dollywood and while I had thought I had seen touristy honky-tonk kind of places, nothing compares to Pigeon Forge. It’s an experience in of itself.

Thankfully we were traveling in mid-March and the crowds hadn’t quite formed. My folks traveled through the year before in the middle of the summer and said that the traffic in Pigeon Forge was so bad, it took them a couple of hours to travel from the Highway to Gatlinburg and the park.

Once you are through Pigeon Forge, you travel along a parkway within a portion of the park along the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River before entering Gatlinburg, which while touristy and honky-tonk, is toned down compared to Pigeon Forge.

After Gatlinburg, you enter the park and soon come to the Sugarlands Visitor Center, which is a great place to start your experience in the park. There are exhibits on the park, maps and rangers available to answer any of your questions. There’s also a gift shop with lots of different guide books available (we made sure to pick up a day-hiking guide).

From the south you travel through the Town of Cherokee, North Carolina which is part of the Cherokee Indian Reservation. As you exit the reservation and enter the park, there’s the Oconaluftee Visitor Center (I still can’t pronounce it). This visitor center is smaller than the Sugarlands Visitor Center, but still has plenty of information and is well staffed by knowledgeable rangers who can guide you on your way into the park.

What to do when you get there…

There are a number of different things to do in the park even if you don’t want to get out of your car. For the drivers, there are several different park roads and loop roads that you can take to get a good sampling of the park.

From those roadways there are a number of different trails that lead off to mountains, caves, waterfalls and quiet valleys.

Cades Cove
My favorite trip was a drive from the Sugarlands Visitor Center to Cades Cove, which is a large valley (or cove) to the east of Sugarlands. It’s also the best place to explore the old Appalachian mountain culture, which has been preserved in the Cove. The road travels along the Little River for much of its length with plenty of pull-offs to stop and explore the river, go fishing or go off on a hiking or nature trail. Once you enter the Cove, the road becomes a one way road that loops around the entire Cove and travels through what used to be a small mountain village before the park bought up the land. You can stop at the various buildings, which are generally open to the public and through the interpretive signs and a small guidebook, explore the whole area.

At the back of the Cove is another visitor center specifically for the Cove, which also includes the Cades Mill area where you can see how the mill worked. As you come around the rest of the Cove there are amazing views across the valley floor (which is almost all open grassland) up into the mountains. You can also catch glimpses of wildlife roaming those grasslands.

Newfound Gap
Another must see trip is to take Route 441 from either Cherokee or Gatlinburg up to Newfound Gap at an elevation of 5046 feet. From there in the summer months you can take another roadway to Clingman’s Dome which at 6643 feet is the highest peak in the Smokies. The Appalachian Trail also crosses Route 441 here and you can hike along the trail and get a chance to see the views from along the crests of the mountains in the area.

Blue Ridge Parkway
The Blue Ridge Parkway begins just before you get to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center after traveling through Cherokee. From here it winds its way through the mountains of North Carolina and makes it way along the Blue Ridge mountains all the way to Virginia where it ends and Skyline Drive begins. If you have the time, the drive is well worth it and either ending or beginning in the Smokies is a great part of the ride.

Two relatively short but very rewarding hikes are both off of Route 441 as you approach Newfound Gap from Gatlinburg. The first is the Alum Cave hike where you climb up for about 2 ½ miles (fairly steeply) until you reach Alum Cave, which really isn’t a cave, but is a giant cliff that overhangs significantly so that that at the bottom, you feel as if you are in a cave. The hike takes about 4 hours and you should bring plenty of water. The views along the way are very nice. From the cave, you can continue hiking or go back to your car.

The other hike is The Chimneys, who’s trailhead is just past the trailhead for the Alum Cave trail. This hike is slightly longer and about the same difficult level, but instead of ending up on a cave, you end up on a narrow rock ridge that has a number of rock ‘chimneys’ that make for a spectacular (and harrowing if you are afraid of heights) trip.

There are hundreds of miles of trails – if you are interested in hiking, I’d suggest you get a day-hiking guidebook – it’ll help you plan out your trip in the park.


My partner and I visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park in mid-March and while that’s early spring for us northerners, in the south, my guess is that’s about mid-spring. The only difference in the Smokies though is due to the elevation, it’s still early spring at the highest elevations. The lower reaches of the park though are starting to green and we noticed buds on the trees and the early flowers starting to grow.

While the crowds were much thinner for our visit than they are during the busier months, one problem with our early visit was that many of the parks roads are closed during the winter months and don’t open until the end of March. Thus a lot of the park was closed when we were there.

With that said, there was more than enough for several days worth of exploring, even though we only had two days. In those two days we went on two different hikes, explored Cades Cove, walked along the Appalachian Trail at Newfound Gap and then began traveling north on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Like I said before, my parents have been in the park in the busier peak season and the one thing they stressed to me was how crowded it was. We drove the Cades Cove loop road at our own pace – they said that it was basically bumper to bumper traffic in the summer – you sort of just went with the flow instead of doing your own thing.

Considering their description and the photos in the visitor centers of the traffic, I’m glad we went when we did. If I had to do it over again, I would probably go at the very beginning of April, only because the other park roadways would be open. Otherwise, I was very happy with the visit because it wasn’t that crowded, the weather was warm and when we were outside of the park, and it wasn’t hard to find a hotel room to sleep in.

After we finished in the park, we first traveled into Cherokee to look around and see what was there and then returned to the park to begin our trip up the Blue Ridge Parkway, which I think is the perfect exit for this park – you’re leaving one set of beautiful mountains to travel along the spine of more mountains that are just as amazingly beautiful.

Final Thoughts

I really liked Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I didn’t really know what to expect as we approached the park and when I first went through Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, I was a bit apprehensive, but once we were past the park boundary, this National Park didn’t disappoint.

The scenery, even just from the roads is absolutely stunning, the diversity of plants and wildlife is amazing, the hiking opportunities are almost limitless and you can explore what life was like for mountain settlers in the past.

I have to admit, I was very impressed and my first visit to the Smokies made me definitely want to come back to more fully explore the rest of the park.

Originally posted on

No comments: