Great Smoky Mountains National Park

By: Jacquelyn Eurice
sunset in the National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains is a place that has captured our hearts and inspired our minds. Its rustic beauty and vast wilderness has attracted people to the park that stretches from western North Carolina to eastern Tennessee. The Cherokee Indians called it “Land of the Blue Smoke” because the hazy, watery mist often creates a blue-colored fog along the tops of the mountains. Throughout the mountains, streams twist and turn and sometimes become spectacular waterfalls. Hiking trails allow visitors to immerse themselves in the seemingly endless nature. There’s no doubt that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a national treasure.

"In wilderness is the preservation of the world." – Henry David Thoreau, 1862

Beyond the park are a number of more modern cities and towns. In Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville, locals welcome visitors from around the world. These places are filled with stellar entertainment, exquisite dining and outstanding shopping opportunities. And despite the continual popularity of the Smokies, the small-town charm of yesteryear is still very much alive. Take some time to explore all that there is to see and do in this rich part of the country.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

It was actually the automobile that gave rise to the founding of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the early 1900s, the auto clubs of America wanted to build scenic roads through the blue-misted mountains so that the region could be enjoyed by all. Because of their efforts, the United States Congress voted in 1934 to purchase and protect the area now covered within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Today, it is the most visited national park in America and it still remains free and open to the public.

Begin your journey through the park at one of two visitor centers: the Sugarlands Visitor Center just outside of Gatlinburg, TN, or the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, NC. You can find out more information from the park rangers who are on-hand to answer your questions. Sugarlands offers a short and informative movie as well as animal exhibits in the Nature Museum, and three nearby hiking trails: Cataract Falls, Fighting Creek Nature Trail, and the dog- and bicycle-friendly Gatlinburg Trail. Oconaluftee Visitor Center has an interesting museum that explores the history and heritage of the Cherokee Indians and also hosts activities such as night hikes, historic tours, and more. An easy, introductory hike in this area can be found on the Oconaluftee River Trail. This and the Gatlinburg Trail near Sugarlands are the only dog- and bicycle-friendly trails in the Smoky Mountains and are recommended for families with strollers or who are traveling with pets.

While in the Smoky Mountains, you’re sure to see some of the different animal species that make the Smokies their home. From fireflies and elk to the famous black bears, wildlife is abundant and protected by law. Numerous hiking trails—such as the famous Appalachian Trail—are available and can take you within view of these creatures and their habitats. On the trails, nature lovers can explore over 250,000 acres of this natural mountainous landscape and its enchanting waterfalls, forests, valleys and rivers. Stay alert because chance encounters with animals can happen at every turn—but for their (and your) protection, please remember the animals are wild and to give them at least 50 feet of space.

Named literally for the gap that was a newly found path through the mountains, Newfound Gap lies at the border of Tennessee and North Carolina between the two park entrances. It is a popular place with ample parking for families to stretch their legs, look around, and take a few pictures. The Appalachian Trail intersects Newfound Gap Road at this point—which is a mile above sea-level but also the lowest place to cross the mountains in the area. This is the location of the Rockefeller memorial. John D. Rockefeller’s memorial fund to his wife, Laura Spelman Rockefeller, funded half of the $10 million needed to purchase the land for the national park. A simple monument that remembers the family’s donation was built and it was there that President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1940 "for the permanent enjoyment of the people."

Clingmans Dome is the tallest point in Tennessee and the second highest in North Carolina. At the top, you’re 6,643 feet above sea-level and the views are stunning. There, you’ll find an observation deck where it is possible to see seven different states on a clear day. Most of the year you can drive within a half-mile of the lookout tower, but in the winter, the road is closed to vehicles.

Once a tiny farming community nestled in a small valley within the Smokies, Cades Cove is one of the most interesting places to visit within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Homesteads, churches, barns, and worksites such as mills and blacksmith shops from the 1800s can be seen and explored along the route. Visitors can walk around the properties and imagine themselves working the land, raising a family in log cabins, and making the most of an Appalachian life.

A little mountain stream that swells considerably after a heavy rain contributed to giving the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail its name. Beginning close to Gatlinburg on Cherokee Orchard Road, take time at the start of the trail to explore Noah “Bud” Ogle’s 1920s farmstead where visitors can see his home and the wooden flume plumbing system he handcrafted. Then drive this 5.5-mile trail that follows LeConte Creek to the Rainbow Falls hiking path (the waterfall is a 5-mile, round-trip hike from Cherokee Orchard Road). The road then connects to Roaring Fork Road and takes motorists to beautiful mountain overlooks and close to two other hiking trails that lead to Grotto Falls or Baskins Creek Falls. Both are stunningly different but be prepared for a steep incline to reach Baskins Creek Falls. On the latter half of the loop, motorists stop at cabins along the way to become immersed in the history of the mid-1800s and early 1900s. Here it’s possible to see frontier life and the challenges faced by the settlers. Take a self-guided tour of the brothers Ephraim and Jim Bales’ Places, the Alex Cole Cabin (at the Jim Bales Place) or the Alfred Reagan Place. Before leaving the loop, be sure to see the Thousand Drips Falls from the comfort of your vehicle. It is best observed in the rainy season, when the drips become small falls. It’s a spectacular final scene of the Roaring Fork Motor Trail.

“The beauty and charm of the wilderness are his for the asking, for the edges of the wilderness lie close beside the beaten roads of the present travel.” – President Theodore Roosevelt, 1916

Other Sights within the Park:

Chimney Tops
The Chimney Tops, a sheer rise of almost 2,000 feet, were known to the Cherokee as “Dukiskwal-guni” (forked antlers). From the overlook on Newfound Gap Road, passersby can see the 30-foot deep “flue” in the right-hand peak which gives the outcropping its name. The Chimneys Picnic Area, located in a ravine on the mountain’s side, is an excellent place to stop for a leisurely lunch.

Mount LeConte
Mount LeConte is the park’s third highest peak at 6,593 feet. Despite runner-up ranking, LeConte serves as the focal point of the park. The summit offers unforgettable views from two different overlooks, Myrtle Point and Cliff Top. Hikers can choose from five different trails to the top, ranging from 11 to 16 miles round-trip.

Charlie’s Bunion
This 1,000-foot sheer drop-off can be found four miles east along the Appalachian Trail. The cliff is named after a bunion that prevented Charlie Conner, an Oconaluftee settler, from traveling through the Gap in 1928. Fellow travelers claimed the bare mountain resembled their friend’s bunion.

Andrews Bald
A picture-perfect picnic spot, Andrews Bald offers glorious views of the towering mountain ranges of North Carolina and Georgia. It’s a 3.6- mile round-trip hike from the Forney Ridge parking area at Clingman’s Dome and is the most accessible bald in the park.

This area was first a pioneer settlement called Bradleytown. During the 1920s’ logging boom, Smokemont became a busy village, sawmill and railroad terminal to haul lumber down from the forest. Today, it is a popular park campground with a self-guiding nature trail through the reborn forest.