If it isn’t already, The Great Smoky Mountains National Park should be on your “must visit” list when it comes to national parks. For good reason, its the most visited national park in the country with more than 8 million visitors annually.
Mountain ridges and endless lines of forest straddle the North Carolina and Tennessee borders and no matter the time of year, they offer incredible scenery and colorful skylines. Named by the Cherokee Indians, “the Land of the Blue Smoke” is as rich in history as it is spring wildflowers and fall colors. At 800 square miles, the park can seem overwhelming, but we are here to help you enjoy the most of your trip to the Smokies.
Whether you have just a few days or a couple of weeks, here are some of the highlights to make the most of your visit!
First things first: Stop at a visitors center. This is a MUST DO for us when whenever we get to a national park. The rangers and volunteers are so helpful and they love to share the inside information with any ear that will listen. Since there isn’t an entrance fee here, this is the spot to pick up the park map and newsletter which will have all the ranger programs and park highlights listed.
Depending on the time of year, some roads may be closed and not all programs will be running so make sure to check this information before you head out. It is nice to visit on the “shoulder months” and beat the crowds of the peak season, but you may miss out on some of the ranger-led activities. We visited in mid April and just missed the Salamander Search and the option to bike the Cades Cove loop when they close the road to traffic, but we had lush views of the endless green and sights of the spring wildflowers.
We had a week to spend in the Smokies and the forecast showed rain almost everyday, so we knew we had to make the best of it. We had mapped out what we wanted to see and planned our trip according to the forecast. The weather in the Smokies can be quite volatile, so its best to always be prepared.
The Clingman’s Dome area, which is found at an elevation of 6,500 feet, receives 85 inches of rain per year, which is comparable to rainforest conditions. The temperature can vary greatly in the park as well with the 5,000 feet of elevation change. We noticed more than 20 degrees of difference the day we drove from Sugarlands Visitor Center to Newfound Gap. Dress in layers, you can always ditch a layer to cool off but the risk of hypothermia can be great if you aren’t prepared.
Here are the five highlights of the park that you won’t want to miss, starting with Cades Cove.
The Cades Coves area of GSMNP is a very popular area. It is a 11-mile one-way round trip auto tour that can take as long as two to four hours to complete during peak season. We lucked out visiting during April and the traffic and visitor population wasn’t that high. Starting in May they close the loop on Wednesday and Saturday mornings to vehicles and only bike and foot traffic are allowed. This would have been so cool, but we were a little early in the season to be able to bike.
Some parts are very hilly, so you would want to take extreme caution biking with children. There is a small pamphlet in the gift shops that you can purchase for $1. It is a great description of all the stops along the route and I highly recommend getting this. You can also download a copy for .99 on your electronic device. There is a high chance of seeing wildlife in this lower elevation area of the park and it is filled with history. At many of the 18 stops on the tour, you can go in the homes and workplaces of early settlers. There are three churches along with cemeteries for your viewing pleasure as well.
We did see a Class C motorhome here and there, but I would NOT recommend taking your RV on this tour. There are many pull offs for slower vehicles and wildlife/flower viewing. Multi-spot parking lots are located at most of the stops. One highlight of the tour is the Mill area walking tour. There is a visitor center, bathrooms and a grist mill on its original site. The other buildings include a slacksmith shop, cantilever barn, cable mill and corn crib, all of which were moved here from other locations. The only other bathrooms on the tour are at the first stop in the orientation shelter. www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/cadescove.htm
Clingman’s Dome is located after a seven mile paved drive up from Newfound Gap. This is where you will find the highest point in the park at 6,643 feet tall and the third highest summit east of the Mississippi. If you have any control over your schedule make sure to do this on the clearest and most favorable weather day.
As you will see from our photo, we didn’t have that luxury. It was very foggy the day we were there, but we decided to venture up anyway. The parking lot is very large and there are bathrooms to use. Take advantage of that because these are the only ones you will find in the area.
Just past the parking lot there is an information center and store where you can buy a snack if you’d like. This is also where you will find trail maps for sale and an informational booklet about Clingman’s Dome for $1. I’ll be honest, I completely underestimated the 1/2 hike to the observation tower. The brochure said it was challenging, but how hard can a .5 paved path be? HARD! The large sign warns you not to take strollers or wheelchairs, but we took the stroller anyway, MISTAKE! I think it was actually harder making sure it didn’t roll down away from us on the way down then it was to push it up the path. Please be advised DO NOT TAKE any wheeled assist devices!
The weather can change quickly so make sure to have a jacket, hat and sunscreen. Also bring plenty of water and wear proper footwear. On a clear day you will have a 360-degree view of the Smokies and surrounding areas. This is also where you will find the highest point on the Appalachian Trail, a 2, 174 mile footpath that runs from Georgia to Maine. www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/clingmansdome.htm
Newfound Gap is an area of the park where the Appalachian Trail crosses through. The trail runs along the state lines of Tennessee and North Carolina for 70 miles in the Smokies. We had lunch in North Carolina after hiking in Tennessee, you can’t say that everyday! It is an interesting area to people watch and listen because so many of the thru hikers are coming through the Appalachian Trail.
You may not be up for the challenge of hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, but you can take the trailhead near the restrooms and hike a portion of the trail. There are some breathtaking views in this area, but we were here on an extremely foggy and “smoky” day and we couldn’t see very far.
Newfound Gap is found at just over the 5,000 foot elevation mark, so make sure you are drinking plenty of water and are prepared for the elevation. The parking lot is quite large and there is room for bus and RV parking, but the drive up here isn’t for the faint of heart and we wouldn’t recommend taking anything larger than a small Class C motorhome up here. There are bathrooms, but no drinking water. www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/nfg.htm
The Sugarlands Visitor Center is located just outside Gatlinburg, Tenn. It is park headquarters and a great visitor center. There are restrooms, drinkable water, a gift shop, museum and film that can be viewed there. Cataract Falls is a waterfall you can reach from the nature trail that leaves from behind the visitor center. It is an easy 0.8 mile round trip hike that is hard gravel the majority of the way. You could bring a running stroller, if needed, for most of this hike and leave it toward the end when you have to climb some stairs to get to the falls.
This path is not ADA accessible. The nature trail is an additional one mile round trip loop if you would like to hike a bit more. Keep your eye out for salamanders as they are very common in this area. Much of this nature trail winds back and forth near the river and is very peaceful. This is the perfect beginner hike that leads to a beautiful waterfall. The parking lot is easy to access and there is plenty of bus and RV parking in case you have your rig with you. www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/visitorcenters.htm#CP_JUMP_48430
We almost skipped the drive over to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, but are so glad we didn’t. We finally had a clear, dry day in the park and the drive over the Smokies was just beautiful. This visitor center is just outside the Cherokee Indian Reservation and is rich in the history of the people of the region. The newly renovated visitor center houses a gift shop, sitting places including a wrap around porch with rockers and a hands on museum.
Behind the visitor center is the Mountain Farm Museum, which offers a glimpse of life back in the early 1900s. There are corn cribs, barns, a springhouse and more. They grow the types of crops the original owners of the land would have grown, and it is a real hands-on experience. There is a beautiful trail running along the river that is perfect for a peaceful stroll. Mingus Mill is less than a half-mile by car from this area. It offers a short hike where you can see the mill and how it operated. During summer months you can see the mill actually grinding corn. www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/ovc-green-building.htm
These are just a few of the highlights geared toward beginner hikers and families. There are many long day hikes and overnight backcountry camping adventures. For more information on these I encourage you to visit the parks website at www.nps.gov/grsm.