Pros: Large, mostly unspoiled mountain wilderness; Close proximity to most Americans
Cons: Some of the best scenic routes are closed in the winter.
On the border between North Carolina and Tennessee lies the most visited National Park in the USA. This national gem lies in the southern Appalachian Mountains, just a short distance from Knoxville, Tennessee (to the northwest of the park) and Asheville, North Carolina (to the east of the park). Im talking about Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a popular family vacation destination in the eastern United States.
The Great Smoky Mountains received their name due to the blue mist that surrounds the mountain peaks and valleys, giving the appearance of smoke when viewed from afar. The Cherokee name for the region is Shaconage, meaning place of blue smoke. The park is very large- more than 800 square miles (512,000 acres) in total area with entrances on both the Tennessee and North Carolina sides.
Among the gateways to the park, the most popular of these is Gatlinburg, Tennessee, located on the north side of the park itself. This tourist- oriented city includes many resort condos and other places of lodging, along with many specialty shops and places of entertainment. Most visitors start their adventure in Gatlinburg, enjoying the amenities of the city before beginning the ascent into the Great Smoky Mountains.
The park offers much in the way of mountain and forest scenery. Among the mountain peaks, the best- known is Clingmans Dome. At 6,643 feet above sea level, it is the highest point in the state of Tennessee and the second highest point in the continental U.S. east of the Mississippi. There is a walking trail that leads to an observation point at Clingmans Dome where you can enjoy a great view of the Smoky Mountains. Keep in mind that this trail is open only from April 1 through December each year.
The Smokies also offer some scenic waterfalls. If you visit from the Tennessee side (entering at Gatlinburg), the closest waterfall is Laurel Falls, which is close to the Sugarlands Visitors Center. Another waterfall is Ramsay Cascades. Both offer a scenic, cascading drop of water over rocks, but Ramsay is more difficult to get to. It requires a hike of more than 7 miles through the forest. Laurel Falls is closer to the roadway and it can be reached from a paved path. Other waterfalls in the park include Rainbow Falls, Tom Branch Falls, Indian Creek Falls, Hen Wallow Falls, Grotto Falls, Juney Whank Falls, Mouse Creek Falls, Abrams Falls, and the tallest one of all, Mingo Falls, which has a drop of 120 feet. All of the waterfalls require a certain amount of hiking, although some are easier than others.
Black bear, wolves, birds, and other wildlife are found throughout the park. There are a couple of poisonous snakes, too- copperheads and rattlesnakes. Elk, once extinct in this part of the United States, have been reintroduced to this park and are growing in number.
The Appalachian National Trial cuts through the center of the park, following very closely to the Tennessee/North Carolina state border. All together, there are more than 800 miles of hiking trails in the park with varying degrees of difficulty.
Route 441 is the main gateway to the park, and its open all year unless severe weather conditions require it to be closed. Other scenic roads/routes exist in the park, but they are closed during the winter season. Some of these scenic roads include Balsom Mountain, Rich Mountain, Parson Branch, Roaring Fork, and Clingmans Dome. The opening and closing of these roads varies slightly, with some of them opening in mid- March and others opening in April or May. They all close in November.
The crisp mountain air makes the Great Smoky Mountains a popular place to camp and there are plenty of sites for both RVs, tents, and trailers. The campsites in the park include Abrams Creek, Balsam Mountain, Big Creek, Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Cosby, Deep Creek, Elkmont, Lock Rock, and Smokemont. Cades Cove and Smokemont are the only ones open all year. The rest are open only during the warmer months of the year (March to November, approximately).
Elkmont is the largest campground, with about 220 sites. The smallest is Big Creek, with only 12 sites. Elevation of each site ranges between 1,000 and 2,600 feet above sea level for all but one site: Balsam Mountain. This campsite features 46 campsites at an elevation of 5,310 feet above sea level, which has a noticeable impact on the weather conditions. You can expect the temperature to be between 10 and 15 degrees cooler at this campsite when compared to the others, and a little more damp.
Fees/Hours of Operation:
There is no fee charged to enter this park. The only costs are those incurred if you decide to stay in one of the campgrounds. Fees range from $10 to $20 per night, in the campgrounds.
Because of the parks very high visitation level, there are six different Visitors centers: Cades Cove, Oconaluftee, Sugarlands, Gatlinburg, Smoky Mountain, and Townsend. Each center is open year round, from 9am to 5pm. In the peak months of April, May, June, July, and August the hours are extended, sometimes as late as 7:30pm (at Cades Cove). The centers are closed on Christmas Day.
With extensive wildlife, mountain scenery, rivers, waterfalls, hiking, camping, horseback riding, picnicking, and fishing, the Great Smoky Mountains are a nature lovers dream come true! It would be very easy to spend a full week in the park and the surrounding areas. Tourists usually stay in one of the nearby cities (Gatlinburg, Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, etc.) and then visit the park at their leisure. But it would be very easy to spend a full week doing nothing else besides partaking in the park and its outdoor activities.
Because of its eastern location, this park is easily accessible for most people living in the United States. More than half of the U.S. population lies within a single days drive of this park. This fact is one of the reasons why the park is so popular. Families can easily jump in the car and drive here in one day or less, making it a convenient and relatively inexpensive place to visit.
When I have visited the park, it has always been from the Tennessee side, entering through Gatlinburg and then continuing through the park on one of the scenic roads. I have driven across the park to the city of Cherokee, North Carolina on the other side, and I have taken a few side turns on some of the other scenic roads, too. The only experience I havent had here is camping. I have always stayed at a local resort, in a vacation condo, and then driven into the park.
Summer is a popular time to travel here, but the most popular time of all is the Fall season. Visitors flock to this park by the thousands to see the Autumn foliage, and it can get very crowded, with long waits in your car to get through the park entrance. During other times of the year, there can also be a wait and its common to see all the parking spaces taken at some of the scenic overlooks. If you want to avoid some of the crowds, you need to come during the low season, which is from December through March. The only bad thing about coming during the slower season is that some of the roadways will be closed. You can still enjoy a road trip on route 441, but many other routes (like the one leading up to Clingmans Dome) will be closed during the winter season.
The weather is constantly changing when you drive through this park. As the elevations rise, you can feel the temperature drop as your vehicle navigates each curve and hairpin turn. Its often up to 20 degrees cooler in one part of the park compared to another. And the other thing you will notice about the weather is that theres a lot of rainfall! Generally speaking, the higher the elevation, the greater the amount of precipitation. Total annual precipitation ranges from 65 inches in the low- lying areas to 90 inches in the highlands, making the Great Smoky Mountains one of the rainiest places in the United States.
Many young couples visit this area to elope. In the adjacent city of Gatlinburg, there are several wedding chapels where man and woman can tie the knot and then venture into the Great Smoky Mountains for a taste of nature. This is a common choice of destinations for honeymooners who prefer camping and natural scenery to the attractions found at a beachside resort.
Designated as a National Park in 1934, Great Smoky Mountains attracts between 9 and 10 million (!) visitors annually. Its an excellent choice of destinations when you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city. The main roads and the adjacent tourist towns can get crowded. But with a minimal amount of effort, you can get away from it all and enjoy some peace and solitude in this large National Park. Its a fun, scenic family getaway!