There's no mistaking the haze-shrouded, blue mountains called the Smokies, the backdrop to life in parts of east Tennessee. Great Smoky Mountains National Park runs along the southeastern edge of Tennessee where it spills over into North Carolina. Around 10 million visitors enter the gates of the Smokies each year admission-free, making it the most visited National Park in the U.S.
Located within a day's drive of one-third of the U.S. population, a drive through this national park can be congested but well worth the trip. And, if you leave your car for a short walk or hike, you'll leave the crowds who mostly tour by car behind and be able to peacefully discover the wonders of the Smokies.
First inhabited by the Cherokee and later by early settlers, this area was set aside in 1934 through a joint effort by Tennessee and North Carolina to preserve and in some cases reintroduce forest lands and wildlife. The Civilian Conservation Corps was used to build park roads, bridges and campgrounds. The park was officially dedicated in 1940 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) is full of wonders. The park is recognized as an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations because of its importance to the planet. For example: more than 4,000 plant species are sheltered here with 100 natural tree species and five types of forest. GSMNP is also a World Heritage Site due to the Appalachian culture it holds.
About 1,800 American black bears live in the park, one of the few places where this bear lives in the wild. A word to visitors: it's okay to watch the bears from a distance but do not approach. Almost 70 mammal species, more than 200 varieties of birds, 50 native fish species and more than 80 reptile and amphibian species are sheltered in the park.
The park can be entered at three points: Gatlinburg (where the Sugarlands Visitors Center and Park Headquarters are located), Cherokee and Townsend. Newfound Gap Road or Rt. 441 leads through the park and climbs from 1,465 feet to 5,048 feet at its highest point.
Special "Don't Miss" park destinations include Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the park at 6,643 feet, located on the Tennessee/North Carolina state line. A paved path leads visitors to an overlook tower at the top for a spectacular view, if it's not a smoggy day.
Mount LeConte, the third highest mountain in the eastern U.S., has five trails leading to its summit. Mount LeConte Lodge, the only one in the park, has very rustic cabin accommodations (no electricity, hot water or phones) which must be reserved in advance.
Cades Cove, the most popular park destination, presents a pre-park 1821 farm settlement of restored/preserved buildings in a secluded valley. An 11 mile, one-way narrow road leads visitors through the cove with instructional stops along the way. Sites include the Tipton Place cantilevered barn and the still-working Cable Mill. Hikers can follow a trail out of Cades Cove to Abrams Falls and camp for the night.
Outdoor recreation is abundant in GSMNP. Trout season is year round in the park; those who want to fish can cast a line at any stream by the side of the road or head deeper into the woods to find a secluded stream. Horses can be ridden and taken for overnight camping with park permission.
There is no whitewater in the park but there are plenty of leisurely streams to float down. There also is no downhill skiing but cross country skiing is popular in winter. There are numerous campgrounds and hikers can enjoy more than 850 miles of trails in the park ranging from easy to difficult. More than 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail runs along a mountain crest on the Tennessee/North Carolina state line.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located in southeastern Tennessee on the North Carolina border about one hour from Knoxville, TN.