Great Smoky Mountains National Park
With more than 9 million guests each year, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is by far the most visited site in the National Park system. It’s not difficult to see why: some of the tallest peaks in the Eastern US, an ecosystem that contains 100,000 different types of plants and animals, 850 miles of hiking trails, brilliant fall color, and 78 historic structures make the Smokies one of America’s ‘must-see’ destinations.
But making these mountains into a National Park was anything but easy. In the 1920’s, the land that makes up the park was owned by several timber companies and hundreds of families, making the effort to purchase the area both expensive and difficult. Add to that the monetary woes that came with the Great Depression, and there were serious doubts that supporters of the park would ever find the means to prevail. But through sheer determination, they did, and on June 15, 1934, Congress passed legislation that established the Great Smoky Mountains National Park ‘for administration, protection, and maintenance.’
Covering 521,085 acres along the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, the park is a destination in and of itself. Whether by car, bicycle, or on foot, whether you’re staying at a campsite or in a nearby hotel, whether you’re looking for a breathless adventure or a breathtaking photo opportunity, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has an experience for every imagination.
The main North Carolina entrance to the Smokies is just outside of Cherokee on US 441N at the Oconaluftee Visitors Center, which is open year-round. This is an ideal place to begin a visit to the Park, with nature exhibits, a bookstore, a re-created mountain farm, and an easy walking trail along the Oconaluftee River.
From here, a world of outdoor opportunity awaits. Take a picnic to any of the eleven picnic areas in the Park. Hike to a waterfall, or take a bike ride along Lakeview Drive or the Cataloochee Valley. Go along on a guided horseback ride, or fish for brook trout in the Park’s 2,115 miles of mountain streams.
While you’re here, you will be part of one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth, with large tracts of virgin timber reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. In fact, the upper elevations of the Smokies receive an average of 85 inches of rain each year, qualifying them as temperate rain forests. Protected in the park are 66 species of mammals, 200 varieties of birds, 50 native fish species, and more than 80 types of reptiles and amphibians. With all this biodiversity in such a small area, the United Nations has designated the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as an International Biosphere Reserve.
But there’s a great deal of human history here too, and the Park is also part of the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area. From the native Cherokee (whose 18th century lives are re-created at the nearby Oconaluftee Indian Village) to the Scots-Irish settlers, visitors can experience the rich history and culture that springs from these ancient mountains. Seventy-eight historic structures preserve Appalachian mountain heritage in the Smokies, including the grist mills, churches, schools, barns, and homes of early settlers.
With its heritage, wildlife, and outdoor opportunities, it’s no surprise that so many people put the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on their traveling ‘wish lists’. In fact, many find themselves coming back to this natural adventure park – time and time again.
The “Locals” Favorite Hikes
Andrews Bald – This is one of the Smokies' finest moderate hikes. The trip passes through an extraordinary spruce-fir forest to the grassy field of Andrews Bald. With stunning views, this is an ideal backdrop for a picnic in the sky. Andrews Bald is one of only two grassy fields in the Smokies that the park service maintains in its "original" state.
Big Creek - This may be the perfect hike for inexperienced or first-time backpackers. It’s an easy walk but long enough to make you feel as though you’ve done something. It provides wonderful scenery, and the campsite is among the finest in the park. But just because the walk to the campsite is easy doesn’t mean this hike is for novices. Several options make it as demanding as you want it to be.
Big Fork Ridge Loop - Big trees are the stars of this moderately strenuous loop, which starts in lovely Cataloochee Valley. Of course, the numerous old growth giants are complemented by other attractive aspects of Smoky Mountain scenery. Add a visit to a pioneer homestead and end up with a great day in this national park. Start on the Rough Fork Trail, tracing a clear mountain stream. Expect to see the elk grazing, especially at dusk. The experimental release of elk into Great Smoky Mountains National Park (one native to the area) began in February 2001 with the importation of 25 elk from land along the Tennessee-Kentucky border.
Not a hiker - There are about 170 miles of paved roads and over 100 miles of gravel roads. The "backroads" on the NC side of the Park offer a chance to escape traffic and enjoy the more remote areas.
For more information about these hikes visit www.trails.com.
Cherokee, NC Entrance To The Park
From the north: From interstate highway I-40, take Exit 27 to US-74 West towards Waynesville. Turn onto US-19 and proceed through Maggie Valley to Cherokee. Turn onto US-441 North at Cherokee and follow the road into the park.
From the south: Follow US-441/US-23 North. At Dillsboro merge on US-74 West/US-441 North. At Exit 74 merge onto US-441. Follow US-441 through Cherokee and into the park.
added: December 9, 2008
updated: April 15, 2013
Ideas & What To Do
With more than 9 million guests each year, the Great Smoky Mountains…
From the highest mountain peaks east of the Mississippi to the tallest…
Charlotte Motor Speedway makes NASCAR history both on and off the…
In this setting, it’s hard to decide what’s on display.At…