A third of the country can reach it in a day, yet the undulating ridges, forested valleys, and rollicking streams of Great Smoky Mountains National Park are as wild as Appalachia ever was. The vistas are sweeping. The hollows are deep. And the potential for soul-searching isolation is very, very real. Still, the true beauty of the park lies in one key detail: 80 inches (203 centimeters) of rain a year. The flow feeds primeval hardwood forests and innumerable creeks that tumble down hazy mountainsides.
One-Night Stand: Forgo the melee of larger campgrounds and base yourself at Abrams Creek, in the low, western portion of the park. From there, a 2.6-mile (4-kilometer) hike up a wooded river valley leads to a ravine shrouded in white pine and hemlock. With each step, the curtain of mountain and forest draws tighter, sealing you off from the modern world. Toss a line for brown trout, swim in a pool, or just savor the trademark sound of the Smokies: flowing water.
Three Days or More: Not too many folks consider Great Smoky a paddling destination—and that's precisely the point: Fontana Lake, at the park's southwestern edge, is prime territory for a paddling and hiking foray. Put in your canoe at Fontana Marina and head to campsite 87, aka "Jerry Hollow," on your own private peninsula. The next day, paddle east, then north, into Hazel Creek to a riverbank beside the Hazel Creek Trail. A hundred yards or so into the woods is campsite 86, from which you can poke around the 1928 Calhoun House, a sagging Appalachia-style cabin. On the third day, hike up Hazel Creek (bring a rod to test the best rainbow fishing in the park) to campsite 84. From there a half-mile trail leads to a suitably creepy, old cemetery, the resting place of some of the last true mountain people of the Smokies.
Must-Do Secret: If you've got only one hike in you, choose the 17-mile (almost one kilometer) loop from Big Creek Ranger Station that starts out along the Chestnut Branch and Appalachian Trails. The route takes in a remote section of the AT and one of the park's best views. At Mount Cammerer a 0.6-mile (about one kilometer) spur trail leads to a 1930s-era fire tower that yields a 360-degree view over forest-cloaked hills. Return by way of the Big Creek and Lower Gap Trails, pausing to douse yourself in any of the deep pools or tumbling cascades you find along the way.
Vitals: The hike-in LeConte Lodge ($89; www.leconte-lodge.com) has seven cabins atop 6,593-foot (2,010-kilometer) Mount LeConte. Fontana Marina rents canoes ($50 a day; 800 849 2258). For park info and permits, visit www.nps.gov/grsm.
PLUS: The Top Five
The Thrill Factor
Five unexpected itineraries that scream action
Trips Through the Ages
Five classic adventures that will never go out of style
Five off-the-charts escapes that reach deep into the wild
Moments to Live For
Five of life's most essential experiences, done perfectly in the parks
Pick up the June/July 2006 issue for 50 top adventures in the national parks; how to move to Montana; the best ten-day Brazil vacation; 11 instant weekend escapes; and new watches, cameras, and sunglasses for summer.