National Park Number: 26 of 59
Great Smoky Mountains is the most-visited national park in the NPS system—by a long shot. In 2016, the park saw 11 million visitors, almost twice as many as the next most-visited, Grand Canyon. Smoky Mountains has held onto this title since 1944, possibly because it’s a quick drive from several urban centers and doesn’t charge an entrance fee.
Whatever the reason for its popularity, Great Smoky Mountains is stunning in its size and diversity—especially for an Eastern park. Its location makes it a unique spot biologically—it contains the northernmost instances of many southern plants, and the southernmost instances of many northern plants. Because of this confluence, the number of species contained in the park is staggering. Of the one million named bugs in existence, 800,000 of them exist in the park. There are more varieties of trees in GSM—130 species—than in the whole of Europe, including several species that are found nowhere else on Earth. The only place in the world that is more biologically diverse is the rainforest.
The park also has incredible scenic drives, loads of historic buildings, and over 800 miles of hiking trails, including a large section of the Appalachian Trail. GSM might be one of the most beautiful spots in the country to enjoy fall foliage, plus there are bears here, and people love the possibility of a bear sighting.
There is so much to do at this park that we felt like we barely skimmed the surface. Although we visited in mid-November, after peak foliage, the park was still plenty busy, especially on the Tennessee side.
We started off our visit in the late afternoon at the Oconaluftee Visitor’s Center to get the lay of the land. The park doesn’t charge admission because the Rockefellers made free entry a condition of their five million dollar donation, the money that was crucial to the park’s establishment. So because they’re missing out on that entry-fee revenue, the park charges for things that other parks give for free, like brochures, trail guides, and Jr. Ranger books. We picked up a few guides and did some studying and planning that night.
The next day, we set off for the Deep Creek area of the park to hike Three Falls Loop, a gorgeous trail that winds along the river and passes—you guessed it—three waterfalls. The hike was divine; a perfect length for us and crunchy with leaves all along the way.
Afterward, we returned to the visitor center to take a look at the historic farm buildings preserved at the site, and to bike the Oconaluftee River Trail. This area was populated for centuries by the Cherokee people, who were driven west during the Trail of Tears. The river trail has lots of interpretive signs about the Cherokee, their traditions and connection to the Smokies, and the trail ends at the Cherokee reservation. It was a great, easy biking trail and we loved learning more about the Native history.
After our bike, we drove up to Clingman’s Dome, the highest point of the Appalachian Trail and famed for its view over the Smokies. We parked and set off up the very steep hill to the observation tower atop the dome (which was closed for construction), then settled in on one of the rocks along the peak to watch the sunset. We got a perfect view of the haze that rises up from the hills, giving the mountains their “smoky” appearance and their name.
The main drive through the park is called the Newfound Gap Road, and we spent the next morning driving it, stopping to check out the views and slowly making our way to Cade’s Cove.
Cade’s Cove is a valley full of human history. It was the site of a thriving community for decades, and many of the old buildings are preserved and open to visitors. The 11-mile loop road through the valley leads past many of these sights and through animal-filled forest (this is one of the prime places in the park for spotting bears and other wildlife.) We decided to bike this road, and set off after lunch for what we thought would be a pretty straightforward jaunt.
We quickly got caught up in bumper-to-bumper traffic, which was easy to pass in some places, and forced us to a stop in others. This was rough mainly because the road was a lot hillier than we’d anticipated, and it seemed like we got caught in traffic at the bottom of every hill, killing our momentum. Still, it was a gorgeous road and a beautiful day to be biking. We didn’t see any bear, but did see loads of deer, and we stopped halfway through at the Cable Mill Historic Area to check out the grist mill and some of the other historic buildings.
That night, we camped in Cade’s Cove, and we took our time driving out the next morning, stopping to dip our toes in the river and see the park’s other main visitor center at Sugarlands.
On the Tennessee side of the park, the road leads you to Gatlinburg and then to Pigeon Forge, both meccas to tourist kitsch. Gatlinburg was a little crowded for us, but Pigeon Forge was totally delightful, chockfull of giant fiberglass constructions—a Mt. Rushmore with Elvis and Marilyn Monroe in place of the presidents, a Titanic, an upside-down Greek temple. Pigeon Forge is also home to Dollywood, a theme park centered around Smokies’ culture. I love theme parks more than just about anything, and since the next day was Margi’s birthday, we decided to stick around and spend two days in the park. It was a Christmas wonderland, and we rode rides, went to shows, and rode a real coal-powered steam engine (the same one that helped build the Al-Can highway!).