Great Smoky Mountains
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is an area of scenic forests that holds a world record number of 130 tree species.
Fourteen major forest types are distinguished, most notable cove hardwood and spruce-fir. Large parts of the forests are old growth forest with many trees that predate European settlement of the area in the 18th century.
The park covers 209,000 ha and has been a US National Park since 1934. It has diverse fauna including 50 native animals. These include the black bear and the white-tailed deer, and smaller mammals like the red fox, raccoons and squirrels. Its lungless salamanders, more than 200 species of birds and mollusks are also notable.
Map of Great Smoky MountainsLoad map
Great Smoky Mountains National Park deserves a minimum of two days. Gatlinburg is the hub for most visitors (beware weekends in the Summer). I visited the National Park on a Monday and Tuesday. As a general rule in popular National Parks we make sure to get on the trails early, rest in the middle of the day, and head back out to explore around 4pm until dark. Pleasant hikes to waterfalls (such as Laurel or Grotto Falls) are really for all hiking abilities and if you have the time, make sure do to at least one of them (aim for 7am or 8am to avoid crowds).
Gatlinburg SkyLift Park now includes the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in North America, built in 2019. The SkyLift park is touristy and expensive at about $20 a person and is not within the boundary of the world heritage site (though surprisingly close). The views of the National Park can be stunning and it may be worth adding to your itinerary for that reason alone, albeit depending on your tolerance for the kitsch nature of main street Gatlinburg.
Clingman's Dome rests just across the state line in North Carolina and it's one of the better viewpoints within the National Park. However, on particularly "smoky" or cloudy days you will not see much, so check the weather for visibility. There are plenty of overlooks from Clingman's Dome to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, as well some historic sites.
While hiking at Laurel Falls we saw a Black Bear and later on a herd of Elk near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. In two days we got a nice overview of the park, but I felt in the end it deserved much more time. I would like to visit again for another 2-3 days to add another 5-10 more miles of hiking. In my experience the only National Parks in the Eastern United States that even remotely compare to their Western counterparts are Acadia National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and Everglades National Park.
Read more from Kyle Magnuson here.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the first World Heritage Site I visited, part of a family vacation when I was six. I have fond memories of the trip and the blue-grey mist over the mountains, but much time has passed since then, so I decided to revisit the park in the summer of 2016 while on a road trip to Atlanta, Georgia. The park is a wonderful encapsulation of Appalachian culture, with small settlements and mills scattered throughout the forest. There are many other similar state and national parks throughout the Appalachian Mountains, but Great Smoky Mountains (and likely its family-oriented gateway towns) retains a mythos that continues to draw vacationers from all over the East Coast of the United States. During my visit, I toured an old farmstead off the Roaring Fork loop road and hiked up to scenic Grotto Falls, an easy and beautiful trail. I later traversed the park via Newfound Gap, which offered memorable viewpoints of the surrounding mountains. I also drove up to Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the park, to take in the views from the observation tower. The Great Smokies are definitely worth a visit (be sure to allow time for hikes), and, if one has extra time, I'd also recommend visiting some of the other parks in the Appalachian Mountains.
Logistics: An automobile is necessary to travel to the many trailheads in the park, but from there the Great Smokies are a hiker's paradise.
Emilia Bautista King
Our family spent 4 nights in a cabin in Gatlinburg, which is the Tennessee entrance into the park. Because we had little children with us, it was nice having our cabin so close to the town center. We took in Newfound Gap, which has a beautiful overlook and the site of the World Heritage Site plaque. Also worthwhile was Cades Cove. We were fortunate that even though we were there during the first week of June, summer vacation had not yet started for school children so it was not as crowded as it can be later in the season. We were also excited to see bears in the woods as well as in the meadow. The highlight was watching a black bear play with her three cubs. It was especially wonderful to share this moment with our 3-year-old daughter!
I spent two days in the Smoky Mountains, a Monday and Tuesday in April, and was fortunate enough to avoid the notorious crowds. On the first day, I did the Cades Coves loop. This takes you through a secluded valley deep in the park, with bright green pastures and historical wooden buildings. It's also known for its wildlife, but I didn't encounter more than wild turkeys (huge!) and deer.
About halfway on the loop lies the start of a popular walking tour, the Abrams Falls Trail. It's a 5-mile walk. It takes you on a sometimes slippery path through the forest, ending at a waterfall. Not wildly spectacular, but a fine way to stretch your legs. I walked it in about 3 hours in total.
The second morning I took the Newfound Gap Road that leads right through the National Park, from Gatlinburg (Tennessee) to Cherokee (North Carolina). Along the road are a number of overlooks that give good views over the forests and the mountains. The latter indeed with the layers of "smoke" attached from which it takes its name.
In the evening I undertook the last attempt at spotting a bear (or other wildlife). I went back to Cades Cove, where I arrived at 7.15 pm. The setting sun gave the open fields a wonderful golden glare. There were more cars around than during the day, many of those belonging to photographers. But again no bears! Only deer.
The hosts of my B&B told me when I came back that (young) bears when they are hungry even come into Gatlinburg and spook around the house. At this time of the year, they are not often seen. Cades Cove at dusk however still is the best bet.
The Smokies can be a joy or it can be a nightmare.
I've had both experiences in this park. I would not
recommend taking the Cades Cove driving loop tour
in the summer. The traffic is overwhelming and very slow.
I would recommend doing this on a weekday in the spring
or fall. The hiking in the Smokies is extraordinary.
I hiked the remote Cataloochee cove area on a Saturday
in July and didn't see a soul. It was marvelous.
I have also hiked to Alum Cave and Andrews Bald and enjoyed
these hikes very much. Clingmans Dome however is a bit
overrated. And I was so disappointed to see all the
acid rain destruction here.
The Great Smoky Mountains have been designated as “one of the world’s finest examples of temperate hardwood deciduous forest”. For those interested, they also apparently have “possibly the greatest variety of salamanders in the world” and are “a centre of endemism for N American molluscs”!! I am afraid we didn’t look for any examples of these “families” on either of our visits and, I suspect, neither have many of the people who visit the Park each year.
In reality the most amazing aspect of the “Smokies” is that it exists at all in such a relatively pristine state so close to the great cities of the eastern seaboard and southern states. It would be an interesting “trivia speculation” to consider which of the world’s UNESCO heritage sites receives the largest number of visitors (clearly this question can only apply to WHS with “entry rules” not to eg cities!). Apparently the Smokies has over 9 million pa – more than twice as many as the next most popular US park. And you will notice as you drive in/through on the relatively few roads! To pass through the “border towns” of Gatlinburg and Cherokee is to see what could have existed inside the park if there had been no restrictions on development. The nearby “Dollywood” theme park is billed as follows:-
“Unique as its namesake Dolly Parton, Dollywood is a one-of-a-kind Smoky Mountain Family Adventure! Spanning 125 acres and nestled in the lush foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, near Gatlinburg, Dollywood is one of the most popular family vacation destinations”.
And that is the problem with visiting the Smokies - wherever you go it is going to be very crowded. No doubt there are slack days but, in vacation season, it can be hell. The side trip along a loop road to the historic “log cabin” pioneer settlement of Cades Cove (Photo) can take hours to drive (it gets 2 million people a year). But it is a beautiful valley with lush pastures, dark green woods and rushing streams. Clingman’s Dome, at 6643ft the 2nd highest point in the eastern US, has an enormous car park and crowds walking the last half mile to the observation ramp (the Smokies are too far south to have a conventional “tree line” and, although there are some mountains called “Balds” topped by meadows most of the mountains are fully wooded - hence the ramp to get a view). No doubt it is possible to find quiet trails and to escape the crowds out of season but my visits have been in May/June when the area is popular for the Rhododendrons and both were pretty busy. By the way you can actually see the blue “haze” which gives the mountains their name – well I don’t think it was exhaust fumes anyway!
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