Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee
Rambling from hollow to highland
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If life seems richer in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, thatís because thereís simply more of it: 4,000 types of flora (found in five distinct forest zones) and 450 varieties of fauna, including elk, bear, boar, river otters, and hellbenderssalamanders that can grow to the size of a human toddler.
Hikers can see some of this biodiversity on more than 850 miles [1,368 kilometers] of trailsnearly the mileage of Yellowstone, on a quarter of the acreage. Itís no surprise that Great Smoky is Americaís most popular national parkand not a bad thing that only 6 percent of the parkís visitors head into the backcountry.
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5 Perfect Days
The Ultimate Itinerary
Get a biodiversity breakdown on an all-day, naturalist-led hike with the Smoky Mountain Field School ($45; www.outreach.utk.edu/smoky), then camp at Balsam Mountain, the highest (5,300 feet/1,615 meters) and least crowded of the parkís established campgrounds.
Set out on what guidebook guru Johnny Molloy calls a Grand Botanical Tour: a four-day, 34-mile [55-kilometer] trek beginning at the Lakeshore Trailhead. The hike ultimately gains and loses 4,700 vertical feet [1,433 vertical meters], crossing through all five forest zones.
Tonightís camp is at Huggins, set in a lush valley beside trout-filled Forney Creek.
Some 3,700 feet [1,128 meters] of climbing will take you to the top of Clingmans Dome, the parkís highest point. You wonít be needing the lookout tower, though; the views before you get there, on the short detour to Andrews Bald, are even better. Tonight, sleep at Silers Bald.
Stroll down the Welch Ridge Trail to 5,190-foot [1,582-meter] High Rocks, where you can see spruce-cloaked ridgelines contrasting with the junglelike lushness of Forney Creek in the valley below. Camp tonight at Poplar Flats and take a dip in clear, cold Bear Creek.
Descend through a thick mantle of rhododendron and hemlock to Forney Creek, then backtrack to your vehicle. You should finish early enough to visit the meadows at the end of Cataloochee Road, where elk were reintroduced in 2001, after a 150-year absence from the park.
Permits: Camping is allowed only at designated campgrounds and backcountry sites; permits are available the day of the hike at any ranger station. So-called rationed sites and shelters can be reserved up to 30 days in advance by calling +1 865 436 1231.
Licenses are required for fishing;contact the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (888 814 8972, U.S. and Canada only; https://www.wildlifelicense.com/tn/index.html).
Contact: For a trip planner, contact the parkís backcountry office (+1 865 436 1297).
For the full Great Smoky guide, pick up the May 2002 Adventure.
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