Highs and Lows of the Great Smoky Mountains
Discover miles and miles of old-growth forest, waterfalls, scenic overlooks and elevation changes in Tennessee and North Carolina’s world-renowned national park
With more than 9 million visitors annually, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park can still boast of being the most-visited national park in the system. Its proximity to the highest concentration of the U.S. population and the absence of an entrance fee certainly adds to its appeal, but the main reasons for the high attendance are the natural beauty, its activities and the attractions of the gateway cities, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Sevierville and Townsend on the Tennessee side and Cherokee on the North Carolina side. Living close to the Smokies, I’ve discovered some wonderful places to explore, both inside and outside, and up high and way down low.
On the Outside
There are a host of outdoor activities in the national park. Hiking on any of the 800 miles of trails is probably the most enjoyed and participated in outdoor recreation. Some of the favorite destinations for hikers are the many waterfalls in the Smokies, like Abrams Falls in the Cades Cove Loop, Grotto and Rainbow falls accessible via a moderately short hike from the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Laurel Falls along the Little River Road, and Indian Creek and Toms Branch Falls in the Deep Creek area. Even though the water may look inviting, swimming is not recommended in the park due to numerous hazards.
Scenic overlooks and mountain peaks are also favored points of interest for hikers. Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap provide great vistas from which to admire the scenic beauty of the Smokies. Picnic areas — like the Chimneys, Cades Cove and Greenbrier — offer a splendid setting to enjoy a family meal at the same time as taking in another spot’s uniqueness.
Horseback riding and auto touring are also favored ways of getting to the park’s sights. For cars, there are 384 miles of road to choose from in the Smokies. Most connect important or historical points of interest or provide convenient routes through the park. During the autumn color season, visitors will crowd these routes to admire the magnificent spectacle of nature’s changing seasons. The major routes through the Smokies are Newfound Gap Road and Little River Road. Newfound Gap Road crosses the park connecting Gatlinburg on the Tennessee side with Cherokee in North Carolina. At an elevation of 5,046 feet, Newfound Gap is the lowest drivable pass through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The elevation change driving from Gatlinburg to Cherokee, or vice versa, is 3,000 feet. From the Newfound Gap area, a road leads to Clingmans Dome, which at 6,643 feet, is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and in Tennessee.
Little River Road connects the Sugarlands Visitor Center to Cades Cove by following the Little River through the park. The Sugarlands Visitor Center is the most-visited center in this most-visited park. Travelers can acquire information on the sights, attractions and camping in the park, along with checking on trail and road conditions. During the winter months, some of the roads may be closed, especially Newfound Gap Road. At Sugarlands there is a short educational hike to one of the park’s waterfalls — Cataract Falls. The short ranger-led hike is easy and less than a mile round trip.
If you’re a recreational fisherman, the waters are populated with trout and bass in more than 700 miles of fishable streams in the park. If viewing wildlife is on your to-do list, Cades Cove, Roaring Fork and Cataloochee are places where black bears and whitetail deer frequent and are seen on a regular basis.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known as the “wildflower national park.” There will be a variety of plants blooming at any time of the year, but spring and summer are the peak seasons for spectacular displays of wildflowers along roads and trails.
Of course, no visit to Pigeon Forge and the Smokies would be complete without visiting the award-winning theme park, Dollywood. There are amusement park rides — including several roller coasters — restaurants, and music in the country, bluegrass, classic rock ‘n’ roll and Southern gospel varieties.
On the Inside
When the weather gets too cold or too rainy, or during the evening hours, there will almost always be an attraction going on inside. In Pigeon Forge, there are many theaters that have Branson-like shows taking place. Some are dinner shows with performances while visitors are enjoying a great meal. One of the most popular takes place at the Dixie Stampede, which is a production of Dollywood, the company and theme park originated by Dolly Parton, a product of the nearby East Tennessee town of Sevierville. The shows at the Dixie Stampede always involve horses and horsemanship and finger-licking-good meals. Other dinner shows are the Hatfield and McCoy Dinner Show, the Lumberjack Feud and the Smith Family Dinner Theater.
Some of the newer attractions in Pigeon Forge are the Titanic Museum Attraction and the Hollywood Wax Museum. The Titanic Museum Attraction contains artifacts from the incredible disaster of 1912. The Hollywood Wax Museum features celebrity likenesses preserved in wax.
The Tennessee Museum of Aviation is located in Sevierville and opened in December 2001. The 50,000-square-foot facility is located beside the runway of the Gatlinburg-Pigeon Forge Airport and houses some of the fighter planes, or Warbirds, of World War II and of the Vietnam era. It traces aviation history from before the Wright Brothers and includes the timelines of military aviation and Tennessee aviation history.
Gatlinburg has a number of inside attractions for the entire family. One of the most visited of those is the Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies. A website claim is that “there are more fish in the aquarium than there are people living in the entire town of Gatlinburg” (www.ripleyaquariums.com/gatlinburg). A unique feature of the aquarium is its Shark Lagoon, which is a moving 340-foot-long beltway that takes visitors through an underwater tunnel (believe it or not!). It provides a close-up view of many large fish and other ocean-dwelling creatures, including sharks.
Pull off the main roads of the park and you’ll see spectacular vistas from many high places, such as Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap. There’s Morton’s Overlook just across the Tennessee border into North Carolina. Or hike up to Mount LeConte for a spectacular panoramic view.
In Gatlinburg, visitors can hop on the Sky Lift that makes the 500-foot ascent to the top of Crockett Mountain. From the peak visitors get another panoramic look at the city of Gatlinburg and its surrounding mountains. Within the city of Gatlinburg the Space Needle is a 400-foot observation tower that provides a 360-degree view of the Great Smoky Mountains and the city. It is all about the view.
Another option is Ober Gatlinburg, an aerial tramway carrying visitors to a mountaintop playland. It’s described as “a mountain of fun for the whole family,” offering activities like an Alpine slide, wildlife encounter, indoor ice skating rink, a carousel, Blue Cyclone Rapids, mini golf and arcade, and other entertainment. In the winter, snow skiing, snowboarding and snow tubing draws in lots of people. There are also games, shops and a restaurant inside the complex.
Townsend, the gateway city on the “quiet side of the Smokies,” is less commercialized, yet provides all necessary amenities and access to the northwestern edge of the Smokies. It contains previously mentioned Cades Cove, a community of historic buildings set in a highland valley. An 11-mile one-way driving loop winds through the settlement of Cades Cove, which allowed us to stop at the various cabins and churches.
While in the Townsend area, we couldn’t pass up a visit to the Tuckaleechee Caverns to get the low-down on the Smokies. Tours are available at $12 per person. We got a historical perspective of the cave from its discovery and development, and heard a few tales about its past residents and visitors. After descending 87 steps, we saw the formations of stalactites and stalagmites. The most impressive features of Tuckaleechee are its two very large rooms and the 200-foot Silver Falls.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers plenty of opportunity for outdoor recreation, abundant wildlife viewing, spectacular scenery, inside attractions, shopping and restaurants, and camping facilities.
For More Information
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Tennessee Museum of Aviation
866-286-8738 | www.tnairmuseum.com
Titanic Museum Attraction
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
800-381-7670 | www.titanicpigeonforge.com
Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies
888-240-1358 | www.gatlinburg.ripleyaquariums.com
865-448-2274 | http://tuckaleecheecaverns.com
For the 2013 camping season, nine campgrounds within Smoky Mountain National Park offer sites to accommodate RVs but none have water or electric hookups. Campgrounds have restrooms with flush toilets, and each site has a fire grate and picnic table.
You’ll need to stay at campgrounds outside the park if you want RV hookups.