North Carolina, Tennessee
An Insider's Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains
- North Carolina
One of the most epic swaths of pure wilderness in the eastern United States straddles the border of the southeastern states of North Carolina and Tennessee.
It consists of mountains and lush forest within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, more than 211,000 hectares of nature explorable by car, foot and bicycle. The park features 16 peaks measuring more than 1,800 meters high. A blue-gray haze that often cloaks them gives the park its name. Dense, old-growth forests carpet the mountains, and the lush peaks and hills appear to roll endlessly into the distance when viewed from pullouts along the park's byways.
How to Get to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park sits 314 kilometers east of Nashville, Tennessee, and 60 kilometers west from Asheville, North Carolina. Travelers can enter the park in Gatlinburg and Townsend, Tennessee, or Cherokee, North Carolina. With up to 10 million annual visitors, Great Smoky is consistently one of the most-visited national parks in the U.S., but it's still possible to find solitude there.
Nature and History Collide in the Great Smoky Mountains
Thanks to a temperate climate and varied topography, the park is one of earth’s most biologically diverse regions. More than 17,000 plant and animal species have been documented within the Smokies, including elk, black bear and deer. A rich history steeped in Appalachian Mountain culture is also woven throughout the park at Cades Cove, the Mountain Farm Museum and other sites.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park features incredible biological diversity, with more than 17,000 documented species of plants and animals.
Hit the (Park) Roads
The park's most well-traveled route, the nearly 18-kilometer Cades Cove Loop Road, winds through the Cades Cove Valley. Surrounded by mountains, this verdant valley is a prime area for wildlife spotting. Many 19th- and early 20th-century buildings lie scattered throughout the valley, including barns, churches and a grist mill.
Ascend more than 900 meters to the crest of the park's mountains while driving the 53-kilometer Newfound Gap Road. Highlights of the route include sweeping valley vistas and glimpses of pine oak and spruce fir forests, all of which can be admired from pullouts alongside the road.
Hiking in the Great Smoky Mountains
Crisp mountain streams and thundering waterfalls slice through the Great Smoky landscape. Hike to many spectacular waterfalls via easy trails accessible from well-marked trailheads along the park's roads. It's a 4-kilometer round-trip walk to 24-meter-high Laurel Falls and a 7-kilometer round-trip hike through hemlock and rhododendron forest to 27-meter-high Hen Wallow Falls. Overall, the park contains 1,290 kilometers of hiking trails, which range from easy to difficult.
Almost 1,300 kilometers of hiking trails are contained with in the park, including many that lead to waterfalls.
Discover Smoky Mountain Heritage
One of the park's quieter nooks is the Cataloochee Valley. Remnants of the region's rich Southern Appalachian cultural heritage remain amid the historic late 19th- and early 20th-century buildings, like a school, barn and homes. To better understand what 19th-century life was like in the Smokies, visit the Mountain Farm Museum, located behind the park's Oconaluftee Visitor Center. The museum consists of several historic log buildings, including a blacksmith shop and a smokehouse. You'll even find reenactors giving living history demonstrations.
The famous U.S. folk song "On Top of Old Smoky" is said to be inspired by Clingman's Dome. Measuring more than 2,000 meters high, it's the park’s tallest peak. Drive along Clingman's Dome Road toward the summit, then climb a steep, 0.8-kilometer trail to reach a viewing platform with 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains and valleys.
Beyond Summer in the Smokies
Though summer months are the most popular time to visit the Smokies, many people flock to the park during autumn to see the brilliant displays of red, orange, gold and brown leaves. Drive Cades Cove Loop Road to experience the fall colors up close before cruising up Newfound Gap Road, where scenic spots like Campbell and Web overlooks show off the rich hues from above.
In the early evening hours of late May to late June, look for the twinkling lights of the park's synchronous fireflies. For two weeks each year, this species of fireflies mates in the park. As part of that mating ritual, the fireflies synchronize the flashing of their lights. The unique phenomenon has grown into a major attraction; the park operates a shuttle to bring visitors closer to the spectacle.
The park is extremely popular in the summer, but don’t miss the spectacle of leaves changing color during autumn.
Where to Stay and Eat
You can embrace the great outdoors in one of the park's 13 campgrounds. Otherwise, the artsy university town of Asheville is the most charming place to base yourself and offers a variety of lodgings. While in town, dine at the Early Girl Eatery for some down-home Southern fare, and take a side trip to tour the 250-room Biltmore Estate, the U.S.’s answer to Versailles.
On the Tennessee side, Gatlinburg features a wide variety of food and lodging options just 1.5 kilometers beyond the park boundaries.