Great Smoky Mountains National Park - An Overview

Posted by Darryl Payne in National Park

Millions and millions of people from all over the world visit East Tennessee and Western North Carolina each year. And there are lots of reasons for that. The communities that occupy these respective regions are a vacationer's paradise, offering virtually anything a family or a couple or even an individual could ask for in a getaway, whether it's just for the weekend or an ambitious week-long trip. This region is home to dozens of attractions and hundreds of shops and restaurants – enough options to fill 100 vacations.

View from Cumberland Gap in the Smoky Mountains
But all of those bells and whistles exist for one main reason – the Great Smoky Mountains and the national park that was created in the 1930s to preserve 800 square miles of this grand corner of the Southern Appalachians. The mountains are what brought the first tourists to the area nearly 100 years ago, and it was that influx of traffic to the region that sparked the development of all the other reasons to keep visitors entertained while they were here. So read on for a brief overview of what – with nearly 12 million visitors each year – is the most visited national park in the United States.

How to get there

There are two main entrances to the park, one is via U.S. Hwy. 441 from the south end of Gatlinburg, which takes you directly to the Sugarlands Visitor Center. The other is through Cherokee, North Carolina, which leads to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. However, there are a number of smaller, less traveled entrances as well, via towns like Townsend, Wears Valley and Cosby, Tennessee.

Note that GSMNP is also one of the few national parks in the country that doesn't charge an admission fee. This provision was stipulated in one of the early land donations during the formation of the park, and it's been honored to this day. Donations are always welcome, of course.

Mountain streams are always relaxing.

Hiking in the Smokies

Hiking is probably the single most popular recreational activity that visitors participate in when visiting the park. Between the Tennessee and North Carolina sides, you'll find nearly 800 miles' worth of hiking trails, ranging from short and easy to long and strenuous. For example, you could take the easy half-mile nature stroll originating at Sugarlands Visitor Center or take one of five different trails to the summit of Mt. LeConte, which rises more than 6,500 feet above sea level. In addition to the maintained trails, hikers can get backcountry permits, which allow them to access and camp at sites that are off the beaten path.

Camping opportunities

Lots of folks aren't content to just make a daytrip to the national park. For that level of outdoors lover, camping is a great way to extend a stay in the heart of nature. Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers 10 different campgrounds, each of which offers restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets. Other amenities include fire grates and picnic tables, but there are no showers or electric or water hookups available. Campers are limited to a stay of 14 days at a time and no more than 60 days in a single year.

Cooking over an open fire.

Picnicking in the national park

When the weather's just right, there's nothing like a picnic in the Smokies, surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in the entire country. There are actually 13 designated picnic areas in the park, many of which are located at campgrounds. You can also improvise a picnic of your own though. The Cades Cove motor loop is a very popular spot for picnickers who simply want to spread a blanket out on a flat piece of ground and enjoy a meal surrounded by stunning mountains and an abundance of wildlife. No matter where you picnic, however, always clean up after yourself.

Auto tours in the Smokies

You can even get a lot out of a visit to the Smokies without leaving your car. There are several auto tours in the national park, the two most notable being the Cades Cove loop and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. The first is a 10-mile, one-way loop that offers beautiful meadows, towering mountains, hiking trails and charming historic structures, reminders of when the cove was a thriving community in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Roaring Fork Trail originates near downtown Gatlinburg and runs 5.5 one-way miles through scenic woodlands and rolling hillsides. It also offers several historic structures and hiking opportunities.

Hungry buck in Cades Cove.

Other recreational options

If none of this suits your fancy, you can ride horses in the park, courtesy of the vendor located at Cades Cove, or maybe take your camera out and try to catch nature in the act of being awesome. Many bicyclists travel to the Smokies to get in a weekend or summertime ride. Favorite destinations are the Cades Cove loop and stretches of the Foothills Parkway. You can also fish in the park's 2,900-plus miles of streams. About 20 percent of the park's streams are big enough to support trout, which is the most popular species located within the system. As such, you see a lot of fly fisherman flock to the Smokies to try their luck. Fishing is allowed year-round, but a current fishing license is required.

When to visit the Smokies

Any time of year is a great time to head to the national park. One of the most popular times of year is October, which coincides with the turning of the foliage. From late September into early November, the greens of summer make their annual transformation into the reds, yellows and oranges of autumn. It's the perfect time of year for a hike to a waterfall or just a drive to a scenic vista. The next most popular time of year is summer, which is peak season in the Smokies. It's when most families take their summer vacations, so naturally visitation is high. Even in winter, the national park offers a different kind of beauty, although many park roads are closed for the off-season, and hiking into the higher elevations can be risky.

Take a drive through the national park.



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