Superlative Smoky Mountains
The Smoky Mountains exude a mystical quality and offer spectacular scenery.*
Deliver Natural Beauty and Serenity
By Katy Koontz
The classic Great Smoky Mountains panorama of haze-enshrouded layers of rounded mountain peaks may not be the Himalayas or even the Rockies. But don’t let the Smokies’ humble appearance fool you. This national park (www.nps.gov/grsm) is the most visited in the United States for a host of reasons.
For starters, getting here is easy. Straddling the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina, the park is within 550 miles (or a day’s drive) of one-third of the American population.
Next, it’s teeming with life. At least 10,000 species of plants and animals live in this 800-square-mile wilderness area—and scientists think the actual total is more like 100,000. This is the most biologically diverse national park in the continental United States. It’s even a United Nations International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site.
Case in point: Although the black bear is the animal most people associate with the Smokies, more species of salamander live here than anywhere else in the world. Some species, including the Jordan’s salamander, exist only in these mountains.
And finally, it’s free. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the few such parks without an entrance fee, thanks to agreements made when the park was established in 1934.
Here’s what you should certainly not miss on your next visit:
1. Cades Cove is a 6,800-acre valley accessed by an 11-mile, one-way, single-lane loop road. It’s the best place in the park for seeing wildlife, including the ever-present whitetail deer. In addition to seeing critters, you can also wander through the preserved remains of quite a few pioneer homesteads.
For a more intimate look, you might hike or bike the loop when it’s closed to cars prior to 10 a.m. on Wednesday and Saturday mornings from early May through late September. If you don’t want to bring your own bike, Cades Cove Campground (865-436-1200) will rent you one, including a helmet.
2. Firefly season peaks around mid-June, when many of the park’s fireflies flash in unison like strings of lights on a Christmas tree. The best place for viewing is the Elkmont area, which is now closed to cars at night during the peak. Visitors can board shuttle buses from the Sugarlands Visitors Center and hear rangers talk about these famous “flashers.”
Only one other place in the world has such talented fireflies, and that’s in southeast Asia.
3. Rustic LeConte Lodge (www.leconte-lodge.com) sits atop 6,593-foot Mount Le Conte, the third-highest peak in the park. This is the only lodge in the park, and the only way to get there is to hike. Five trails, ranging from five to eight miles long, lead to the summit.
The lodge can accommodate nearly 50 guests in several balsam log cabins without electricity or running water. But a separate building houses flush toilets, and the dining room serves hearty family-style dinners and breakfasts.
4. The Junior Ranger Program gives children ages 5 to 12 plenty of hands-on learning experiences. The park recently expanded this program and dropped the fee, so it’s now free. You can pick up a program card and schedule at any visitor center during spring, summer or fall.
Kids who complete at least three of the numerous activities receive a junior ranger badge. Activities include making a dinner bell in a 19th-century blacksmith shop, creating a piece of pottery like those of the native Cherokees, or attending a ranger-led naturalist program.
5. At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is not only the highest point in the park, it’s also the highest point in Tennessee. In fact, it’s the third-highest mountain east of the Mississippi.
Getting to the summit to climb the observation tower—which provides 360-degree views of the Smokies—requires only a half-mile walk on a paved trail from a parking lot at the end of Clingmans Dome Road. The walk is a bit steep, but worth the effort on clear days, when you’ll be able to enjoy views of more than 100 miles.
6. Have a picnic at Andrew’s Bald, the most accessible of several grassy mountaintop meadows in the park. The trail is slightly longer than four miles round trip. It’s a fairly level but rocky journey, beginning from the parking lot at the end of Clingmans Dome Road.
No one knows exactly how or why the “balds” were formed, but this is certain: The views from all of them are stunning. (Bonus: In June, the fire azaleas are in full bloom.)
7. Grotto Falls offers hikers the opportunity to walk behind a splendid 25-foot waterfall. Getting there requires an easy hike of about a mile or so along the Trillium Gap Trail. The trailhead is near stop #5 on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, near the Gatlinburg entrance to the park.
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the summer, look out for the llamas that take supplies to LeConte Lodge on this trail.
8. The Townsend Y (or Wye) is a favorite swimming spot for locals and guests alike. This grassy space is at the junction of two forks of the Little River, just inside the Townsend entrance to the park. Have a picnic lunch and then go tubing—floating down the river on an oversized vinyl inner tube with handles.
Park rangers have a new policy against jumping from the adjacent cliffs, which now makes tubing a lot safer. About a dozen places rent tubes in Townsend—just look for the signs along the road.
9. The eight-mile Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community loop is home to the largest group of independent artisans in North America. Established in 1937 and designated a Tennessee Heritage Arts & Crafts Trail, this route is just outside of downtown Gatlinburg along East Parkway.
The community has more than 80 studios, galleries and shops where you can watch artisans at work painting, throwing pots, dipping candles, weaving baskets, sewing quilts, making brooms, fashioning jewelry, creating dolls, carving wood, tooling leather and more. Several cafes and candy shops will keep you fortified as you explore.
10. Smoky Mountain Llama Treks (www.smokymountainllamatreks.com) gives you the chance to hike unburdened. The llamas carry the packs—including the fixings for a gourmet lunch on full-day hikes ($70, or $45 for two-hour hikes without lunch).
Owner and guide Sandy Sgrillo leads the way on easy to moderate trails on Bluff Mountain in the Smokies and in the adjacent Pisgah National Forest. Each hiker gets to lead one of the gentle beasts along the trail. New this spring are overnight hikes ($250), for which Sandy provides tents with queen-size air matresses and linen bedding.
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Katy Koontz, an SATW member, is a freelance travel writer living in Knoxville, TN, who has written for National Geographic Traveler, Family Fun, Travel & Leisure Family, Shape, Body & Soul, Endless Vacation and many other national magazines. Currently, she is updating The Insider's Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains. She specializes in family travel, adventure travel and "soul stretching" vacations and retreats.
*This photo is owned, copyrighted and used with permission from Tennessee Department of Tourist Development. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.