A version of this article originally appeared in the National Geographic book 100 Parks, 5000 Ideas.
Sprawling across more than 800 square miles (2,072 sq km) of the southern Appalachians, Great Smoky Mountains is the nation’s most visited national park, as well as the anchor for scores of other adventure and entertainment activities in Tennessee and North Carolina. While hiking, camping, and horseback riding count among its cornerstone activities, the park also elucidates the lives of the Cherokee Indians and European settlers who once called the Smokies home.
This was the park that almost didn’t happen. By the time Congress got around to declaring Smoky Mountains National Park in 1934 around 80 percent of its forest cover was already decimated and much of the land was in private hands. Through funds provided by the state governments of Tennessee and North Carolina, as well as donations from wealthy conservationists, the Park Service bought out the logging operations and more than 1,200 small landowners and began the arduous task of restoring the mountains to their former glory.
The Smokies take their name from the haze that often fills the mountain valleys in the early morning, caused by thick vegetation that emits large amounts of moisture and organic compounds that form a natural mist that’s especially thick on calm, sunny, humid days. The Cherokee people called it shaconage (“blue like smoke”), a description that seemed apt to the Europeans who began settling the region in the 1790s and adopted a translation of the Native American name as their own.
While some of the highest peaks in the eastern United States are certainly one of the park’s major attractions, what really makes the Smoky Mountains special is the incredible variety of flora and fauna. It’s often been said that moving from the lowest to highest elevations within the park is the biological equivalent of traveling from Georgia to Maine—such is the diversity of life-forms. Overall, the park safeguards more than 1,500 species of flowering plants and 240 types of birds, around 50 kinds of fish, and more than 100 different native trees. In addition, there are five distinct types of forest within the park: pine and oak, northern hardwood, spruce-fir, cove hardwood, and hemlock.
While the vast majority of visitors never stray far from Highway 441 through the heart of the park, the best hiking, camping, and wildlife viewing—and pure communing with nature—unfold in the quiet corners of the Smoky Mountains far away from the paved roads and the touristy towns that flank the park on both sides.
Located just outside Cherokee, the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is the starting point for most visitors entering the park from North Carolina. In addition to a sizable bookstore and information desk, the center offers exhibits on Smoky Mountains history, in particular the Cherokee Indians and the early European settlers and their ancestors. Behind the visitor center, the Mountain Farm Museum gives insight into the lives of the people who once farmed the region, with hands-on exhibits and historic buildings brought from elsewhere in the park. Just up the road, the Mingus Mill is a relic of the days when corn was the region’s main crop and water-driven mills the mechanism for grinding it into flour and cornmeal.
Beyond the mill, Highway 441 starts its forest-flanked climb into the heart of the mountains. The former site of the Smokemont lumber village renders the first opportunity for camping, hiking, and horseback riding through outfits like Smokemont Riding Stables. Trails in the Smokemont area lead to the historic Carver Cemetery and the Oconaluftee Baptist Church (built in 1896).
The road continues its ascent to Newfound Gap on the Tennessee-North Carolina border (elevation 5,046 feet/1,538 m), where a viewpoint looks out over much of the Smokies. A stone monument marks the spot where FDR dedicated the park in 1940. There’s also a chance to hike a short portion of the Appalachian Trail, which leaps across the highway between the parking lot and monument. A side road leads to Clingmans Dome, at 6,643 feet (2,024.79 m) the highest point in the park, third-highest peak in the eastern United States, and the highest place along the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. From the observation tower, it’s sometimes possible to see to a distance of 100 miles (160.9 km). Although closed to motorized traffic in winter, Clingmans Dome Road is open for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or even walking through the ridge-line’s high-altitude spruce-fir forest.
The North Carolina side features several off-the-beaten-track diversions where the quiet side of the Smokies is there for the taking. Once Cataloochee was one of the region’s largest settlements, a legendary apple-growing valley. Among the many 19th-century buildings that remain are two churches, the school, and several private homes. The lush valley also supports a herd of wild elk. Another journey into the past is the drive along Heintooga Ridge Road and the one-way continuation along gravel Balsam Mountain Road that leads into a remote section of the park that few people ever explore and is closed in winter.
Gatlinburg and adjacent Pigeon Forge are the gateway to the park’s Tennessee sector, longtime holiday towns that offer a huge selection of accommodation, dining, and roadside attractions. Visitors can pick up information or find out what’s happening inside Great Smoky Mountains at the National Park Information Center in Gatlinburg or Sugarlands Visitor Center on Highway 441 just inside the park.
The Sugarlands’ main attraction is a popular loop that includes Cherokee Orchard Road and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, a route that offers a microcosm of the park in terms of both natural attractions and what visitors can do. The path leads through old-growth forest to the Noah “Bud” Ogle Nature Trail (0.7 mile/1.13 km) onto a historic farmstead and the Rainbow Falls Trail (5.4 miles/8.7 km round-trip) to a lovely cascade. The Roaring Fork portion is closed in winter.
Little River Road runs east from Sugarlands to the Elkmont historic area and a large valley called Cades Cove that was another densely populated area prior to national park status. Motorists or bikers can pick up a self-guide tour book at the orientation shelter near the drive entrance and follow the 11-mile (17.7-km) loop road to historic structures like the grist mill, three old churches, and bygone homes like Tipton Place. Cades Cove Trading Company rents bikes.
Although most visitors treat Cades Cove as a dead end, intrepid drivers can follow two other routes out of the valley (although both are closed in winter). Rich Mountain Road is a one-way, 8-mile (12.9-km) route over oak-studded terrain to Townsend and eventually back around to Pigeon Forge. Parson Branch Road heads in the other direction, a solitary one-way drive to Highway 129 at the park’s western extreme. From there, motorists can continue to Fontana Lake, which delineates much of the park’s southern boundary. At 480 feet (146.3 m), Fontana Dam is the tallest concrete dam east of the Rockies. The Tennessee Valley Authority maintains a visitor center beside the dam (open May to October), while Fontana Marina offers kayak, paddle-board, and pontoon boat rentals, as well as guided hikes and boat tours.
Another quiet side of the park is the Greenbrier Cove, about a 20-minute drive from Gatlinburg via Highway 321. Porter’s Creek through the valley is well known for trout fishing. And the cove is the jumping-off point for several note-worthy hikes including the Brushy Mountain Trail (9.1 miles/14.65 km) to Mount LeConte.