Since the early 1920s, the idea for creating a national park in the Smoky Mountains area was frowned upon because there were so many obstacles including financial, cultural and political issues. These issues were overcome to create what is today the most visited national park in the United States. More than 10 million people visit the Great Smoky Mountains each year. Since the dedication of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in 1940, a few areas of the park have become more popular than others. Here’s our favorite parts about our national park; you won’t want to miss these when you plan your vacation!
Favorite Places in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Cades Cove is the most visited part of the park – and for good reason. This valley is surrounded on all sides by the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains. An 11-mile one-way loop road winds around the valley, with stops at preserved pioneer structures. A visitors center with pioneer exhibits, a 5-mile hike to Abrams Falls, abundant wildlife, campgrounds, bike rentals, spectacular foliage in autumn and facilities for horseback riding all make Cades Cove a complete sample of what the national park has to offer. Plan on spending the day to tour the area and pack a picnic lunch to enjoy in the grassy fields while you’re exploring the area.
Before the national park was created, nearly two-thirds of what is now the Great Smoky Mountains was owned by logging companies. For three decades, the Little River Lumber Company cut and hauled away great portions of one of the country’s greatest deciduous forests. A visit to Tremont (enter the Park from Townsend, Tennessee and turn right at the “Y,” then travel approximately 1 mile to the Tremont entrance) and its self-guided tour will give you a good idea of the lumber operation that existed. The road follows the old railroad bed and parallels Little River as it passes through the area that was a company-owned town. The Little River Lumber Company also built two other such “towns” – at Townsend and Elkmont. After a monumental effort, all the land now comprising the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (over 500,000 acres) was purchased from more than 6,000 individual owners, including several lumber companies, and the Park was created in 1934. The last load of timber came out of Little River in 1938, and it’s estimated that more than one billion board feet of lumber was extracted from the forest of the Great Smokies – enough to build 100,000 three-bedroom homes.
Clingmans Dome is the highest peak in the Smokies (6,643 feet). Some days it’s in the clouds, but on clear days it showcases a spectacular 360 degree views of the national park. To get to Clingmans Dome, you want to be on Newfound Gap Road (the only road which completely traverses the park). One-tenth of a mile south from Newfound Gap you will turn onto Clingmans Dome Road. From there, you’ll travel 7 miles, passing several pullouts for views, and end up in a parking area from which you walk a short distance to the top of the mountain. The turnoff to Clingmans is about 25 miles from Cherokee or 22 miles from Gatlinburg. Open from April through December, the road to Clingmans Dome is closed in winter.
Newfound Gap Road
The only road that runs completely through the park, Newfound Gap Road runs the 33 miles between Cherokee NC and Gatlinburg TN. This road has so much to offer in the way of nature walks, hikes, mountain views, and historic structures. There is also a driving tour booklet you can pick up at any national park visitors center for $1, and it tells you about all of the best stopping places along the drive.
One of the park’s finest features – from afar or up close – Mt. LeConte is home to five great hiking trails to the top. One of the most popular hikes to Mt. LeConte is the Alum Cave Bluff Trail. Mt. LeConte also boasts the only lodging within the park: Mt. LeConte Lodge. Accessible only by trail and available only by reservation, the LeConte Lodge is the perfect place to truly experience the Smoky Mountains.
69 of the 2,015 miles that make up the Appalachian Trail cross the crest of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, serving as a border between Tennessee and North Carolina. The Appalachian Trail serves as a backbone to which several major Smokies hiking trails connect.
Cataloochee is the most similar park of the park to Cades Cove, and it’s located on the North Carolina side of the Smoky Mountains. Cataloochee is located off the beaten path, but features historic structures, hiking, campgrounds and beautiful views.
One of the most favorite times to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the fall season to see the beautiful fall colors. Click HERE for all of the details about the fall colors.