A version of this article originally appeared in the National Geographic book 100 Parks, 5000 Ideas.
By the time Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the most visited park in the United States, was established it was almost too late to save it.
It was 1934; about 80 percent of the forest in the park had been decimated by logging. Much of the land belonged to 1,200 small property owners. It took the governments of Tennessee and North Carolina, donations from wealthy conservationists, the U.S. Park Service, and a whole lot of work to buy out the loggers and landowners, and to restore the Great Smoky Mountains to their glory.
As the mountains regrew their 100 native tree species and over 100 native shrub species, the haze that gives the Smokies their name filled the mountain valleys in the early morning. The shaconage, as the Cherokee people call it, or “place of blue smoke,” is caused by moisture and organic compounds emitted by the dense vegetation, especially on still summer days.
The Smokies are known for their incredible biodiversity; it’s said that moving from the lowest to highest elevations within the park is the biological equivalent of traveling from Georgia to Maine. More than 1,500 species of flowering plants, 240 types of birds, and around 50 kinds of fish live there.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park has five visitor centers, ideal starting points for your journey. Here are our favorite points of departure for exploring the park.
Hiking Mount LeConte could be the bucket-list item for the Smokies. LeConte Lodge sits close to the summit of Mount LeConte, at 6,360 feet the third highest peak in the park. There is no driving to the summit; hiking in is the only way to get there. Built on the site of a tent camp erected in around 1926 to house visiting dignitaries, LeConte Lodge hosts day trippers as well as overnight guests. Spectacular sunrises and uninterrupted nature at LeConte Lodge welcome hikers to the only National Park Service lodging in the park.
Wears Valley, just outside the Tennessee side of the park, has pastoral views and its own lesser known park entrance. The other Tennessee park gates, especially the one in Gatlinburg, get congested at peak times of year. But the Wears Valley entrance just south of Townsend is where many locals enter the park.
Synchronous fireflies light up late spring with their annual stupendous display of nature. At least 19 species of fireflies live in Great Smoky Mountains and the males and females of one species synchronize their bioluminescent flashing. Combined with all of the other fireflies that reach adulthood at the end of April/beginning of May, it’s a light display to rival Fourth of July fireworks. But plan ahead: A free lottery determines who gets to ride the shuttle into the park on certain dates to view the night lights.
Quiet cemeteries may not be for everyone, but they’re certainly excellent places to relax. This national park contains more than 150 cemeteries from tiny plots with just a few headstones to hundreds. Not all of the burial places in the park are marked, but keep an eye out for periwinkle. According to local author Gail Palmer, European settlers planted periwinkle on graves to keep away evil spirits.
Enter the park from North Carolina or Tennessee
North Carolina: 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), 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 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. 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.
Tennessee: 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) onto a historic farmstead and the Rainbow Falls Trail (5.4 miles 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 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, eight-mile 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, 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 noteworthy hikes including the Brushy Mountain Trail (9.1 miles) to Mount LeConte.