Glaciers stopped their Ice Age migrations just north of the mountains that today straddle the borders of Tennessee and North Carolina. One of the oldest ranges on the planet, the Great Smoky Mountains, now nurtures both northern and southern flora. From among the crags in jagged rocks spring mountain laurel and rhododendron, and the deciduous forest here is among the world’s most impressive. In the shadow of the looming peaks grow 1,600 species of flowering plants, some of them exclusive to the terrain in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The hydrocarbons and water emitted by all of the breathing leaves create a haze that grants the mountain range its name. Shrubs are so prevalent that they prevent trees from taking hold in places and have created areas known as laurel slicks, heath balds and hells. Visitors to this 521,490-acre park, however, don’t need to bushwhack to experience the fragrant profusion of vegetation that grows here, since 800 miles of hiking trails grant access to travelers willing to kick up some dust.
Yet therein lies the dilemma of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Twice as many people visit this park annually — more than 9 million — than any other National Park, and the vast majority of these travelers “experience” the park’s allures from behind a windshield, while stuck in stagnant traffic on a mountain road. As many as 60,000 people may bumper-to-bumper their way through a summer weekend, which is understandable, since the park sits only about 25 miles from Knoxville, Tennessee, and about 40 miles from Asheville, North Carolina.
Crowds, however, are not inevitable. Visitors willing to arrive early on weekends or who can tour the park on weekdays or in the shoulder seasons will understand entirely why the park is so popular. The trick is to plunge into the wilderness wherever the opportunity presents itself. Along many of the 384 miles of mountain roads that transect the park lie countless Quiet Walkways. Generally only a quarter-mile long, these paths lead walkers into “a little bit of the world as it once was,” according to the signs that define the trailheads. Of course, more ambitious hikers can tackle any of those 800 miles of trails, from quick and easy strolls on half-mile trails to backpacking expeditions of 70 miles.
Visitors unable or unwilling to explore the park’s wilderness that thoroughly, however, should be sure to drive the Newfound Gap Road, an approximately 40-mile excursion that ascends the park’s highest point. Starting at Newfound Gap Road at an elevation of 1,200 feet, the route climbs to 5,048 feet, delivering a stunning array of ecological diversity, connecting the two most significant visitor centers and delivering an overview of the park. If time allows, visitors should next sample a bit of Great Smoky’s pioneer history by driving Cades Cove loop road.
Of course, the best way to explore the park thoroughly is to spend at least one night. The park’s 10 campgrounds, two of which are open year-round, make this possible.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, (865) 436-1200, www.nps.gov/grsm