The most visited National Park in the United States.
From time to time I will write of what I have found to be great or not so great vacations destinations. As this is the first of my reports I am starting with something both close to home and easy to get to. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the border between Tennessee and North Carolina.
This is the most visited National Park in the United States (I know, you think maybe Yellowstone or Yosemite) and covers just over 816 square miles (2224 square kilometers). It is very close to the eastern terminus of the Blue Ridge Parkway (worthy of another article in itself), has mountains ranging up to 6643 feet elevation (2025 m), trout streams too many to count and the Appalachian Trail goes through the Park.
The two main visitors’ centers inside the park are Sugarlands Visitors’ Center near the Gatlinburg entrance and Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, North Carolina at the eastern entrance to the park.
These ranger stations provide exhibits on wildlife, geology, and the history of the park. They also sell books, maps and souvenirs. Unlike most other national parks, there is no entry fee to the park and I have always found the staff to be friendly, courteous, and willing to help.
The park is home to a numerous variety of flora and fauna including black bear and elk. There are over 850 miles (1,368 km) of hiking trails including seventy miles of the Appalachian Trail. Many of these trails provide beautiful, scenic overlooks and unique natural attractions such as Alum Cave Bluffs and Arch Rock as well as waterfalls and streams.
LeConte Lodge provides cabins and rooms for rent (except during the winter season). Accessible solely by trail, it is the only private lodging available inside the park. The difficulty of the hiking trails ranges from wheel chair accessible to very challenging. While one can backpack and camp in the park, camping is allowed only in designated camping areas and shelters.
There are also a fair number of interesting historical attractions. The most well-preserved of these (and most popular) is Cades Cove, a valley with a number of preserved historic buildings including log cabins, barns, and churches. Self-guided automobile and bicycle tours offer visitors a glimpse into the way of life of old-time southern Appalachia. Other historical areas within the park include Roaring Fork, Cataloochee, Elkmont, and the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill at Oconaluftee.
When you are ready for lodging or attractions outside the park there are surrounding towns within a short drive of the Park. Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Townsend, Tennessee, and Cherokee, Sylva, Maggie Valley, and Bryson City, North Carolina are easily accessible to the Park.
The Park is at its most spectacular during the month of October when the leaves change color. But I personally also look forward to early spring when the leaves first come out and are a startling, bright green for about two weeks.
Whenever you visit the Park remember to include appropriate apparel for the time of year and also rain gear as we get about 85 inches of rain annually.