The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited national park in our country. In 2019, there were about 12.5 million visitors to the park. It is located in Tennessee and North Carolina. The state line runs down the middle of the park. Part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the park straddles the ridge of the Great Smoky Mountains. The Appalachian Trail runs through the park on the way between Georgia and Maine, with seventy miles of it’s trail inside the park.
The park has over a half million acres of land. The elevation ranges between 875 feet to 6,643 feet at it’s highest point, Clingmans Dome. Sixteen of it’s mountains are over 5,000 feet. The park is 95% forested with 35% old growth forest.
The park was dedicated in 1940 and was the first park paid for with federal funds, along with private donations. The area has a rich history of Native American Cherokee. Pioneers settled the area and logging became important to the local economies. Now, tourism is the top economic driver, and the park is the biggest draw. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983.
The diversity of wildlife is amazing. Many woodland mammals call the park home, including about 1,500 black bear. If you’re visiting, you might see some if you’re lucky. We’ve seen them around Cades Cove. Always keep a safe distance and brush up on how to avoid interactions with them when hiking the trails or camping out. They can be dangerous, especially if a mother has cubs.
In the park, there are many opportunities to camp and hike. There are over 850 miles of unpaved roads and trails in the park where hiking is allowed. If you plan to backpack into the back country, you need a permit at the ranger station or online at the park website. Camping reservations can also be made online at https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/permitsandreservations.htm
Chimney Tops Trail
Our favorite hiking trail is Chimney Tops. It begins off Hwy 441 about 10 miles south of Gatlinburg. There are signs and parking. The trail is 1.75 miles, one way. It is a bit of a strenuous climb uphill, but the views at the top are great.
In 2016, fire ravaged the hillside of the Chimney Tops peaks. Now, trees and under growth are in the process of revitalization and the view is once again beautiful. The parks department took time after the fire to rebuild the trail and shore up some areas. It has been greatly improved, and the trail to be better than ever. They are still restricting access to the peak, but they have built a viewing platform that is lovely for sitting and visiting with fellow hikers and soaking in the beautiful mountain view. You can get a great picture of the peak from the viewing site. One thing to note, the people who you pass hiking are always very friendly and encouraging.
Further south on Hwy 441 about six or seven miles you will come to Newfound Gap. This is the Tennessee and North Carolina state line. There is a sign that is very popular, and we recommend you get the obligatory picture of yourself here. Thousands of pictures are taken here everyday. The parking is plentiful and there is usually a lot of activity and hiking in that area. There is a hiking trail that leads to Clingmans Dome at this location.
Seven more miles south, you will come to Clingmans Dome. It is the highest point in the park. You must walk a half mile to the lookout. It is uphill but is paved. There are benches every hundred yards or so, and sitting and taking a rest are perfectly acceptable. Once again, the people are very friendly. We even had a little girl run up to us and give us a dandelion flower. If you aren’t used to speaking to strangers, this is an awesome place to practice the skill. Once you reach the lookout, you can walk a circular ramp to the top. On a clear day, you can see about 100 miles.
Cherokee, North Carolina
Just south of the park, continuing on Hwy 441, is the town of Cherokee, North Carolina. It is a small town where the Cherokee have their headquarters. The Museum of Cherokee Indian is located here and is a nice place to visit and learn about the Cherokee and their life in the area.
Cades Cove Historic District is a historic site within the park that is listed with the National Register of Historic Places. Many structures are intact, including log cabin homes and the town’s churches. This is the most visited site in the park because of the beautiful valley it sits on and the abundant wildlife, including black bear. You can drive a loop and get out and explore at the different stops. We love old communities with interesting histories, and this one is very special. Because it was isolated from the surrounding areas during it’s formation, it has quite a history of self-sustainability.
Gatlinburg is the nearest town on the northern side of the park and probably the most visited in the area. It has many tourist attractions with the newest being the Gatlinburg SkyBridge. The SkyLift is a chair lift that takes you up the hill. The SkyBridge, at 680 feet, is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the United States. At the center point, 140 feet above the valley, is a glass section where you can walk across the bridge with the view below your feet. It’s a little scary to take the first step, but it’s fun to know you accomplished something fearful. Once at the top, you can linger and take your time viewing the surrounding area.
Gatlinburg has many hotels, and there are many private cabins available to rent in the mountains as well. If you are staying in downtown Gatlinburg, you’ll have easy access to cute shops and great restaurants.
Pigeon Forge is full of fun and dining and has many hotels. Dollywood is located in nearby Pigeon Forge. It has a theme park and a water park. They offer lodging in their DreamMore Resort and Spa, as well as cabin rental. While we’ve heard of children who love this park, we haven’t been there so we don’t know whether retirement travelers would find it a place to stop. The spa part of the resort sounds awesome, though.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park should be on everyone’s list to visit. Be sure you plan time to drive the area and take a picnic. If you are Rving, there are lots of places to stay. If you decide to tent camp or backcountry hike, you’ll have a great time.