We LOVE all of the National Parks in our wonderful USA and we never pass up an opportunity to explore one if in the vicinity. Of all the National Parks that we have visited (nearly half of them) our favorite is The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park, located partially in Tennessee and partially in North Carolina, is the most visited park in the system of 58 parks and is the only park that is FREE to enter. With over 10 million visitors annually, certain times of the year are much more crowded than others. But with careful planning and an early setting of the alarm clock – even the busy summertime can be manageable and enjoyable.
We have visited the park several times over the course of spring, summer and fall (we look forward to a winter visit some day!) and we love that every single visit – no matter the season, is unique. Springtime is an explosion of awakening and new birth with foliage and blossoms bursting forth in fresh color – not yet faded by the harsh sun of summer.
Summertime is a kaleidoscope of green hues with colorful wildflowers dotting the meadows. And the spent leaves of summer turn to crisp golds, yellows and oranges come Autumn, in preparation for a winter’s rest before repeating the cycle just a few months later. But no matter how unique our surroundings or seasons, there are a few of the exact same things that we do on every single visit.
- Roadways and Scenic Drives
- Cades Cove
- Sugarlands Visitor’s Center
- Roaring Forks Motor Nature Trail
- Clingmans Dome
ROADWAYS AND SCENIC DRIVES
We love nothing more than turning off the A/C, rolling down the windows and driving the winding, tree-lined roads of the park while the breeze whips our hair. The speed limit is generally 35 – 45 mph, so your pace is such that you can pull off at a moment’s notice at one of the numerous turnouts. It’s so pleasant to pick a pathway down to one of the many streams, creeks, or rivers that zigzag their way alongside and underneath the interior roadways of the park. All part of the Tennessee River watershed, these waterways scoot along at a pleasant clip, inviting you to dip your toes in, drop a line in to hopefully catch some dinner, or (while not recommended by the NPS but MANY do anyway) plop yourself into an inner tube just to float along with the current for a while.
The curvy roadways wind and spiral their way throughout the park often making their way right through the mountains. The tunnels are the charming sort made of brick & stone and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930’s. They are covered with climbing grasses and hanging vines and invite an echoing toot on your horn as you pass through.
Cades Cove is an 11 mile one-way loop that winds its way through a beautiful section of the park, featuring wooded areas and spacious meadows, while surrounded by the tree-covered Smoky Mountains. This is the most popular section of the National Park and can be rather crowded during the summer and fall. We have driven the loop when we were one of only a few cars and also when it has been bumper to bumper traffic, taking several hours to make the drive.
To fully enjoy the drive in the summer or fall, head out early in the morning – shoot for 8 a.m. Except for Wednesday and Saturday, when the loop is closed until noon so that cyclists can have the road to themselves – nice, right? These early morning hours make the crowds sparse and provide a great opportunity to view wildlife – small critters, lots of deer and BEARS!
Every single time we have visited this area of the USA we have spotted black bears ambling about in the wild. In fact, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park has the densest population of black bears in the eastern U.S. – increasing your chances of a sighting! On our most recent visit we saw bears not only in the park but also every evening on the local news. The exploits of local bears were featured entertaining guests at a Gatlinburg motel and digging through the trash dumpsters at a Pigeon Forge Cracker Barrel. PSA: DO NOT FEED THE BEARS!! This makes them bold and will lead to them being euthanized – you don’t want to be responsible for that.
Besides the wildlife enjoyed here, there are many hiking trails on the loop. Several stops with short walks to old churches, cemeteries, and leftover homesteads are also scattered along the route – great opportunities to stretch your legs and learn about those who lived in the area in the late 1800’s.
If you only have time for one stop on the loop – make it the Cades Cove Visitor’s Center. The only restrooms on the loop are located here, as well as a well-stocked store, ranger-led demonstrations and talks about the flora and fauna of the region.
There are many historical structures at the Visitor’s Center including the Becky Cable homestead, barns, outbuildings and the Cable Mill – a working grist mill where, during the busy seasons, an interpreter grinds corn for the park guests. You can buy bags of the freshly ground corn meal and recipe books too. We purchased the corn meal and it does, indeed, make up some tasty, from-scratch cornbread!
FUN FACT: Do you know why the Smoky Mountains are called the SMOKY Mountains? There is a natural fog that lingers in the mountains, often looking like smoke plumes. This is caused by vegetation breathing out organic compounds (plant burps!) that, from a distance, look like smoke! Now you know!
SUGARLANDS VISITOR CENTER
Located less than 5 miles from downtown Gatlinburg, the Sugarlands Visitor Center provides restrooms, maps & brochures, a gift shop and a film with exhibits about the park. There are also three trail heads that begin here. One is the Fighting Creek Nature Trail, an easy 1.2 mile loop trail with only a few hills to climb. The path passes by the Noah McCarter / John Ownby cabin before looping back to the Visitor’s Center.
If you want to make this hike a bit longer, add on the .8 mile round-trip hike to Cataract Falls. This trail also begins at the Visitor’s Center and is a very easy hike – perfect for those challenged by longer more aggressive hikes. This mostly level, shady hike follows one of the park’s many streams, ducks under the roadway and ultimately finishes at a small cascade of water know as Cataract Falls.
A final trail found at the Visitor’s Center is the Gatlinburg Trail. This 4 mile out and back trail takes you just to the outskirts of the town of Gatlinburg. It is perfect for a bike ride and one of only two trails in the park that allows dogs on leash – the other is located at the Oconoluftee Visitor Center on the North Carolina side of the park. Whichever you choose – these options provide an outdoor experience, no matter your skill level or time constraints – exactly why we love them.
ROARING FORKS MOTOR NATURE TRAIL
This is another fun loop road that takes you into the woods and provides opportunities for hiking, wildlife sightings and the chance to experience more of the many old structures/homesteads throughout the park. Entrance to the Nature Trail is via stoplight #8 in downtown Gatlinburg (they’re all numbered) and then just follow the signs.
My favorite stop along this short six mile loop is at the Noah “Bud” Ogle homestead and nature trail. This historic cabin is another fine example of one of the many that were once part of the Appalachian communities found throughout the park. Follow the trail past the cabin to enjoy the easy self-guided nature walk that leads to Ogle’s stream side watermill and his primitive plumbing system.
Also along the Motor Trail are the trail heads to Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls – both among the most popular trails in the park. Rainbow Falls is a 5 ½ mile out and back hike and rated moderate in its degree of difficulty. Grotto Falls can be found along the Trillium Gap Trail. A hike to Grotto Falls and back is 3 miles round trip – also rated moderate due to a constant, but steady incline. Neither of these trails are what we call “flip flop” trails – meaning you should wear good sturdy footwear when navigating them.
I LOVE Clingmans Dome! This gorgeous peak can be accessed by driving the Newfound Gap Road until you reach the Newfound Gap Overlook. You then turn south to climb another 7 miles to the parking lot of the dome. The sweeping views are incredible – when, that is, you’re not shrouded in clouds!
Yes, Clingman’s Dome is a whopping 6,643 feet high and the highest point in Tennessee. Often a gorgeous day of blue skies and wispy clouds down below in Gatlinburg will find the peak in clouds as thick as pea soup. Persistence pays off, however, when you finally succeed at a visit with clarity and awesome panoramic views.
From the parking lot, the climb to the overlook itself is a grueling half mile hike. Half mile – no sweat, right? Well, not this one. While paved, the ½ mile incline from the parking lot is a 330 foot elevation change and a 12% grade. The views are astounding and there are plenty of chances to enjoy them at the numerous benches and rocks where you can stop to catch your breath. I stopped about six times on my way up and never felt winded but encountered many others huffing and puffing with red faces who appeared to need a break to let their hearts slow down!
Once at the top, the reward is a 360 degree view of the entire area via a concrete overlook. Our last visit we experienced sporadic clouds wafting through that, while diminishing the distance we could see, provided unique and dreamy views of the expansive valleys below. A portion of the Appalachian Trail also passes nearby the summit.
The hike back to the parking lot can be precarious with its steep slope, so while the trip up was slow going, the trip back down must also be approached with care. Be sure to stop at the Visitor’s Center at the base of the trail for information and souvenirs about Clingmans Dome and other parts of the park.
Once you get enough of Mother Nature at the National Park, there are plenty of ways to part with your cash in the nearby towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg too. You’ll find everything from pancake houses, to moonshine distilleries, to go-carts and alpine slides. There are souvenir shops, amusement parks and everything in between. So whether you like your vacations on the natural side or prefer a little commercialism – this part of the country has got you covered. Be sure and spend a day, or an entire week, the next time you pass by this corner of Tennessee!
Want to see a Smoky Mountain National Park scrapbook page from our family scrapbooks? Click HERE!
For more of our adventures exploring and hiking in the woods, click HERE!
We LOVE our National Park System and are financial supporters of this wonderful part of our world. If you care to make a donation to our National Park Service – click HERE!
Have you ever visited The Great Smoky Mountains National Park? Which National Park is your favorite? Let us know in the comments below …