Published: August 2006
Exploring the Great Smoky Mountains
A trail leads behind the veil of a waterfall along a swift stream called Roaring Fork in the heart of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
By Erica Schlaikjer

Called shaconage, or "blue" by the Cherokee Indians, the fog-tinted Great Smoky Mountains are home to America's most-visited national park, which bears the same name. Straddling North Carolina and Tennessee, the park covers more than half a million acres (211,000 hectares) in the southern Appalachians and is comprised of some of the oldest mountains on Earth. Established in 1934, the park's diverse flora and fauna have earned it the designation of an International Biosphere Reserve.

"It's an extreme hotspot for biological diversity," said Jeanie Hilten, director of Discover Life in America, a nonprofit organization working with the U.S. National Park Service to conduct a biodiversity inventory of every living species in the park. "This is a treasure trove of knowledge."

Only about 12 to 14 percent of the estimated 100,000 species in the park have been identified—among them more than 600 organisms completely new to science. The natural richness of the Smokies combines with a deep human history that includes the Cherokees—whose ancestors originated there—and Scotch-Irish pioneers, who began settling there in the late 1700s. Cultural remnants are preserved at various sites throughout the park, contributing to its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Adds Hilten: "It gives people a sense of a special place."

When to Go

The park is open all year, but summer and fall bring the biggest crowds. Weather conditions can affect some park activities and result in road closures.

Getting There

Plane
There are two major airports nearby: McGhee Tyson Airport just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, and Asheville Regional Airport in Fletcher, North Carolina, 60 miles (97 kilometers) east of the park.

Car
The following routes lead to the park's three entrances:

* Gatlinburg, Tennessee: From Interstate 40 take Exit 407 (Sevierville) to Tennessee Route 66 south. Continue to U.S. 441 south. Follow U.S. 441 to the park.
* Townsend, Tennessee: From Interstate 40 in Knoxville take Exit 386B (U.S. 129 south to Alcoa/Maryville). At Maryville proceed on U.S. 321 north through Townsend. Continue straight on Tennessee Route 73 into the park.
* Cherokee, North Carolina: From Interstate 40 take U.S. Route 19 West through Maggie Valley. Proceed to U.S. 441 North at Cherokee into the park.

From Atlanta, Georgia, and points south: Follow U.S. 441 and 23 north. U.S. 441 leads to the park.

For a scenic route that rambles from the north through mountain meadows, old farmsteads, and wildflowers, drive along the 469-mile (755 kilometers) Blue Ridge Parkway that connects Virginia's Shenandoah National Park with the Great Smoky Mountains. Built during the Depression in the 1930s, the parkway has since been dubbed "America's favorite drive" because of its sweeping valley views and abundant wildlife, including such creatures as groundhogs and salamanders and such plant life as evergreen trees and azaleas. In recent years, the majestic hemlock tree—found along the parkway and in neighboring national parks—has been under increased threat from the hemlock woolly adelgid, a non-native insect. Visitors to the parkway will notice the damage this Asian pest is wreaking on the hemlock population.

For information on road conditions and closures, contact the park at 865-436-1200.

Things to Do

Self-guided Driving Tours

The park boasts more than 270 miles (435 kilometers) of road weaving through an uninterrupted blanket of trees—one of the largest stands of deciduous old-growth forest remaining in North America—and mountainous terrain, with elevations ranging from a hilly 876 feet (267 meters) to a soaring 6,643 feet (2,025 meters). To experience some of the area's best views from the comfort of your car, follow these routes:

Cades Cove Loop Road
If you do nothing else when you visit the Smokies, be sure to cruise the one-way Cades Cove Loop. This 11-mile (18 kilometers) paved route is the most heavily visited site at the park. Cades Cove dates back to 1819, when newcomers made a treaty with the Cherokee to settle the land. What remains today is the largest collection of its kind in the United States: 30 structures—from churches to log cabins—that constitute an open-air museum exhibiting early pioneer architecture. During peak periods, nearly 4,000 vehicles can pass through daily. Bicycles are also allowed. For bike rental information, call 865-448-9034.

Newfound Gap Road
This scenic, 33-mile (53 kilometers) route crosses over Newfound Gap, at an elevation of 5,048 feet (1,539 meters) the lowest drivable pass through the Smokies. The sudden changes in altitude make this trip feel more like a journey from Georgia to Canada. Highlights include breathtaking mountain panoramas, access to the Appalachian Trail (known to hardcore hikers as the "A.T."), and the Rockefeller Memorial, a two-tier stone structure built in honor of a $5 million donation from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Clingmans Dome Road
Take this seven-mile (11 kilometers) mountain road to reach Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet (2,025 meters) the highest peak in the park and in all of Tennessee. The road also crosses the highest point along the Appalachian Trail's journey from Georgia to Maine. Park your car and hike up a steep half-mile (one kilometer) trail through the forest to reach the lookout tower at the summit, where sweeping views await.

If you prefer to stray off the beaten path, check out the two main gravel roads: Heintooga-Roundbottom Road, accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway, and Rich Mountain Road, which offers a good last-minute view of Cades Cove before you exit the park.

And if you get tired of rolling on wheels, step outside and explore one of Great Smoky's "Quiet Walkways" on foot. These quarter-mile (0.4 kilometer) paths lead you into what signs describe as a "little bit of the world as it once was," away from the motor-loving crowds.

Hiking
Whether you're an experienced climber or a novice trekker, you'll definitely find somewhere to explore along the more than 150 hiking trails that cover 850 miles (1,368 kilometers) of the park.

Mount LeConte
This 6,593-foot (2,010 meters) mountain is the park's third highest peak. Reach its summit via Alum Cave Bluffs Trail, the shortest—and steepest—climb.

Smoky Mountain Field School
Notable day hikes led by experienced instructors include "Waterfalls of the Smokies," a tour of the cascades that tumble down steep mountain slopes. You can also join the "Cataloochee Ghost Town Hike," which takes hikers to a remote area of the park to view the early settlement and tombstones that chronicle Union and Confederate activity during the Civil War. Nearby you'll see a population of elk that was reintroduced into the park after a 150-year absence. Fees are around $50. Overnight hikes are also available. Register online or by phone at 865-974-0150.

Ranger-led Programs
Join a tour with an experienced park ranger to find out what's killing the fir trees on top of Mount LeConte, how to become a "nature detective," or to simply enjoy an open-air hayride at Cades Cove.

Fishing

The 2,115 miles (3,404 kilometers) of streams found within the park provide plenty of opportunities for fishing. Licenses are required and must be purchased outside the park in North Carolina or Tennessee. Brook trout fishing—prohibited for more than 30 years—has recently been reopened under experimental park regulations. So cast for a brookie, the park's only native trout species.

Smoky Mountains on the Fly

If you've got a case of cabin fever, catch a breath of fresh air—and some fresh fish—with Smoky Mountains on the Fly, a professionally licensed fly-fishing guide service. An overnight fishing excursion into the backcountry costs $950 for two people and includes meals, tents, and fishing equipment. Full- and half-day trips are also available. For more information, call 828-586-4787 or visit online

Camping

Whether you're camping in a group or by yourself, the park has something for everyone. Before setting up your tent, be sure to make a reservation with the National Park Reservation Service at 800-365-2267 or go online/ And don't forget to check with ranger stations for site-specific information. Download a park map.

Frontcountry Camping

These developed campgrounds have restrooms with running water and flush toilets but no hot showers or electrical hookups. Other amenities include a personal fire grate and picnic table at each site. Frontcountry campgrounds can be found at Abrams Creek, Balsam Mountain, Big Creek, Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Cosby, Deep Creek, Elkmont, Look Rock, and Smokemont. The maximum occupancy per campsite is six people. Fees range from $14 to $23.

Backcountry Camping

If you prefer roughing it with a backpack, get a free backcountry permit and head into the wild. But beware of bears! According to a 2004 study, about 1,600 bears live within the park, which translates into about two bears per square mile (2.6 square kilometers). Call for site reservations at 865-436-1231. For general information, call 865-436-1297.

Groups

Some of the frontcountry campgrounds (Big Creek, Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Cosby, Deep Creek, Elkmont, and Smokemont) provide sites for groups of campers that are limited to tents only. Minimum group size is eight people, and the maximum stay is one week. These sites do not include showers and electric hookups. Cost per night ranges from $26 to $65.

Horseback Riding

Rent a horse by the hour at one of the park's stables, open mid-March through late November. Rates average $20 an hour. Call individual stables for operating hours and hourly rates:

* Cades Cove: 865-448-6286 (also offers hayrides and carriage rides)
* Smokemont: 828-497-2373
* Smoky Mountain: 865-436-5634
* Sugarlands: 865-436-3535

Picnicking

Picnic areas are located at Big Creek, Chimney Tops, Cades Cove, Collins Creek, Cosby, Deep Creek, Greenbrier, Heintooga, Look Rock, Metcalf Bottoms, and Twin Creeks. Most are open all year. Reserve a picnic pavilion (about $20 per use) by calling 800-365-2267 or go online at reservations.nps.gov.

Canoeing

Fontana Marina
Rent canoes (from $25) at the marina on Fontana Lake, near Hazel Creek at the park's southwestern edge. Call 800-849-2258.

Other Attractions

Deep Creek
This area north of Bryson City, North Carolina, is known for its three waterfalls—Indian Creek, Juneywhank, and Tom's Branch Falls—as well as its opportunities for camping, fishing, hiking, and picnicking.

Fontana Dam
Rising 480 feet (146 meters) near Fontana Village, North Carolina, Fontana Dam is the tallest concrete dam east of the Rocky Mountains. The dam's reservoir spans 11,700 acres (4,735 hectares), forming a shoreline of about 240 miles (386 kilometers).

Mingus Mill
Built in 1886, Mingus Mill—a half mile (one kilometer) north of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center—is one of two working mills in the park. Visit in the warmer months when you can watch a miller demonstrate how to make cornmeal with a water-run cast-iron turbine.

Mountain Farm Museum
The museum—located next to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center—features a collection of log structures and pioneer-costumed park employees giving demonstrations of traditional farm life.

Where to Stay

LeConte Lodge
The only hotel-style accommodations you'll find within the park are the seven cabins of LeConte Lodge a rustic retreat sitting atop Mount LeConte. Rooms are lit by kerosene lamps and warmed by propane heaters. Don't expect to take a shower; you'll have to settle for sponge baths. And the only way to get there is by hiking for four hours up a steep five-mile (eight kilometers) trail. Upon arrival, you'll be greeted with hot chocolate and family-style meals. Rooms are $89 a person. For reservations—often made one year in advance—call 865-429-5704 or 865-429-5705. You can also email: reservations@leconte-lodge.com. Or go to www.leconte-lodge.com.

For bed and breakfast accommodations outside of the park, visit www.smokymountainbb.com.

And for lodging in the surrounding areas, contact these travel bureaus:

In Tennessee
Cosby/Newport: 423-623-7201
Gatlinburg: 800-267-7088
Pigeon Forge: 800-251-9100
Sevierville: 865-453-6411
Townsend: 800-525-6834

In North Carolina
Bryson City: 800-867-9246
Cherokee: 800-438-1601
Fontana: 800-849-2258
Maggie Valley: 800-624-4431

Web Links

National Park Service
Find detailed maps, nature and weather information, federal park regulations, and other useful travel tips at the official site of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Discover Life in America
Learn about this nonprofit organization's collaboration with the National Park Service to conduct an All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI) in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Friends of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Find out what this fundraising organization is doing to heighten public awareness in support of the park's educational, historic, and scientific programs.

Smoky Mountain Historical Society
Get more information about the cultural, genealogical, and historical studies of the park and its surrounding areas.

Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont
Discover how you can foster a sense of stewardship and appreciation for the Great Smoky Mountains.

Great Smoky Mountains Association
Support the Smokies through retail sales, donations, and volunteer efforts.

Bibliography

Destinations: Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Howells, Robert Earle. "Great Smoky Mountains: Hunker Down in a Hollow." National Geographic Adventure (June/July 2006).

National Parks of North America. National Geographic Society, 1995.

National Geographic Guide to the National Parks: East & Midwest. National Geographic Society, 2005.