Located in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is over 800 square miles of unspoiled Appalachian highlands. The most visited park in the US National Park system, Great Smoky Mountains National Park gets over nine million visitors each year. Over one-third of the US population lives within a one-day drive from this revered park.
Congress created Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934. Its creation was a hard fought battle. The idea of a large park in the eastern United States wasn't popular. Spurred on by the destruction of the forests in the northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, as well as the Great Depression, the park was born and has been a treasure ever since.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most bio-diverse places on the planet. In just 800 square miles you can find over 4,000 different species of plants and flowers, 130 different kinds of trees, over 60 land mammals, including large predatory mammals like black bears, 230 birds species, and the largest collection of salamanders on earth.
An incredibly diverse place, altitude ranges from 800 feet to over 6,400 feet with species representing a number of different biospheres. Hike up any of the countless mountains and you will find yourself moving from eastern hardwoods like sturdy oaks and tangled thickets of colorful rhododendron to red spruce, yellow birch, and Fraser firs. Continue on even higher and the forests give way once again to glades and meadows of wildflowers and berries. These high areas are called balds, and they are cherished for their incredible views afforded by the clear mountaintops. If you are extremely adventurous, you can take a trek into Buckhorn Gap. This ancient valley deep within the park has never had a saw or logging crew step foot in it before. It is mature, healthy, old growth forest and one of the only pockets of it left east of the Mississippi.
Of course if trekking into the backcountry isn't your idea of a goodtime, there are plenty of touring opportunities. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has over 270 miles of road through the park. For the most part the network of gravel roads are suitable for a family car, but during periods of bad weather be sure to check with park officials first.
Newfound Gap Road is a paved highway that cuts through the heart of the park from Cherokee, North Carolina to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. This 33 mile road winds through the mountains on it's way to Newfound Gap, topping out at an elevation just a little over 5,000 feet. Climbing over 3,000 feet and following the Oconaluftee River, Newfound Gap sits on the spine of the park on the North Carolina Tennessee border. A large parking area, exhibits, and scenic viewpoints, as well as access to the world famous Appalachian Trail can be found along this route. While in Cherokee, be sure to visit the Mountain Farming Museum. The road is very heavily traveled, and during peak visitation you can expect a lot of traffic.
Once you reach Gatlinburg, you will be at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and the park headquarters. From there you can take the 18 mile River Road west along the northern edge of the park. The road passes stunning Meigs Falls, the only waterfall visible from a road in the park. The road continues on and brings you out to Cades Cove in the western section of the park - another place where you can find old growth forest hiding in the valleys. While out at Cades Cove you can take a hay wagon ride along the eleven-mile one way road that snakes through fields of flowers and historic 19th century buildings. You can even rent a mountain bike for just $3.25 an hour. Two centuries ago elk, bison, mountain lions and wolves called this area home. Recently river otters and barn owls were reintroduced, but spotting these shy animals will prove difficult. Visitors will have an easy time spotting deer, and may be able to see a black bear or wild turkey. Expect to be around a lot of people, Cades Cove gets over two million visitors each year.
If camping is what you are looking for Great Smoky Mountains National Park has ten different improved campsites, mostly located along the perimeter of the park. Sites located along the popular Newfound Gap Road are always crowded. Smokemont and Elkmont are conveniently located but will be filled to capacity during the peak season. Abrams Creek, located on the far western side of the park, and Cosby, located on the far eastern side of the park are far less crowded. During the peak summer season these campgrounds can be found to be only half full. If walk-in camping is your idea of getting away, Big Creek campground just a short drive from exit 451 on Interstate 40 offers large, widely spaced forested campgrounds.
As you walk through the forested paths and drive the winding mountain roads it is easy to forget that rugged mountain people of the Appalachian were displaced from here when the park was created. Evidence of this can be found throughout the park. Old stone chimneys, basements, root cellars, rusted farm implements, and stonewalls dot the landscape in the maturing forest. Even old graveyards can be found deep in the forest. Remember when exploring these areas to follow leave no trace ethics, it is a criminal offense to remove any historically artifact from a National Park.
With all this hardscrabble mountainous terrain, and a relatively damp environment, some parts of Great Smoky Mountains National Park get over 85 inches of rain a year, cold rivers and spectacular waterfalls can be found almost anywhere within the park. One of the most popular treks is out to Grotto Falls. A 2.4 mile round trip hike through a mature hemlock forest, Grotto Falls is located east of Gatlinburg and is the only waterfall in the park you can walk behind. If you want to see the deepest plunge, you can take the 5.5-mile round trip trek out to Rainbow Falls. Free falling for more than 80 feet, this is a moderate hike with a rewarding view. For a more private experience you can take the 4.5-mile round trip hike out to Henwallow Falls. The trailhead is located at the Cosby Campground and this beautiful fall drops 45 feet. Abrams Falls on the other side of the park is the largest waterfall in the park. The five-mile trek can be taken from Cades Cove.
The park has over 850 miles of hiking trails, including a 70-mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail. Backcountry permits are required at a number of sites throughout the park. There are also a number of AT shelters located along the Appalachian Trail. Be aware of bear activity and never hike alone. Great Smoky Mountain can be an unpredictable place, so be sure to hike within your ability when selecting a trail to take.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the crown jewels of the National Park system. Whether you are looking for hiking, camping, backpacking, history, scenic views, auto touring, flora, fauna, or just a quiet retreat to escape to, you won't find a finer location east of the Mississippi River that offers so much diversity.
Just The Facts
Name: Great Smoky Mountains National Park (also referred to as Smoky Mountains National Park and Smokey Mountains National Park
Location: Eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, Knoxville, Tennessee
Nearest Major Air Service: Atlanta, Georgia, Knoxville, Tennessee, Charlotte, North Carolina
Fees & Permits:Free access. Backcountry permits are required. A range of fees is charged at the ten improved campgrounds within the park. Fishing license required within the park. If hiking across border be sure to hold both a Tennessee and North Carolina fishing permit.
Why Visit: Incredible east coast bio-diversity. More waterfalls than you can count. Spectacular mountain vistas dotted with the history of life in early Appalachia. Mature old growth forests, great fishing, wide range of activity to meet the needs and interests of almost anyone.
When To Visit: Year round, best from May to October, extremely crowded in July and August
Essential Gear: Depends on activity, insect repellant, sunscreen, bathing suit, sturdy hiking shoes, trekking pole, hat, camera, binoculars (other equipment strongly recommended)
You Should Know:Park can be very crowded, especially during the summer months. Although the weather in the park is tepid, temperatures can be as much as 25 degrees cooler along the mountaintops. Expect rain at almost anytime and be ware of lightening safety during thunderstorms. Some areas of the park can get as much as 90 inches of rain a year. Extreme recent drought has made area bears very aggressive. Do not hike alone under any circumstances, do not confront bears.
More Information: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, Tennessee 37738