Black bears and pancake houses. Those are two of the first things that come to my mind when I think of the Smokies. We would go almost every other summer when I was growing up and we would split our time between exploring the park and enjoying the insane, yet fun tackiness of nearby Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. And while I do remember the Ripley’s museum and The Dixie Stampede and Mysterious Mansion (best and cheesiest haunted house I’ve ever been too,) what I remember most is the park. I think about huffing and puffing the whole way up the steep trail to Rainbow Falls, wondering if my parents were trying to kill me, only to forget all about my exhaustion when my cousin and I discovered that salamanders live under the falls and we were going to catch every single one of them. We would drive along the park’s mountain roads, and I would look out my window down, down, down as the trees fell away forever until they began to climb back up in the distance to form giant, green mountains partially obscured with a bluish haze. I remember my six-year-old sister in tears, furious with the rest of us for laughing at a black bear cub that climbed so high up a tree that he couldn’t seem to get down. Every time we went, I remember thinking, “I love this place. This is so great.” I still think that today when I visit with my wife and our kids.
The state line between Tennessee and North Carolina runs roughly through the middle of the park from end to end. Most of the Smoky Mountain range as well as part of the Blue Ridge range are within the park boundaries. These iconic mountains are absolutely covered up with old growth forest. Because of the huge diversity of deciduous trees, the park is almost as popular in the fall as it is in the summer, with loads of people visiting to see the beautiful autumn leaves. The highest elevations of the park are home to spruce-fir trees and are shrouded in clouds most of the time, creating a sort of coniferous rainforest. There are miles and miles of creeks and rivers flowing through the park. Waterfalls and swimming holes are all over the place. If you come to this park during warmer months, don’t forget your swimsuit.
I won’t lie to you. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is busy. As the most visited national park in the U.S., it gets ten million visitors a year. Second place is The Grand Canyon, and it sees just under half that. The close proximity to the surrounding tourist traps and the lack of an entrance fee leads to packed out summer weekends with sometimes bumper-to-bumper traffic. However, a large portion of the people who come see the Smokies hardly leave their cars. There are nearly 400 miles of scenic drives that wind through the park and plenty of folks just drive through, stopping only to snap pictures of mountain views or wildlife that has wandered close to the road. The best way to avoid all the bustle is to visit the popular sites on a weekday or go early in the morning or a few hours before the sun goes down. Or go hike a trail. Even the most popular hikes can be a welcome escape from all the people clogging the visitor centers and roadways.
Clingman’s Dome - The highest point in the park and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi River. On a clear day, the observation tower at the top gives a 360 degree view of the Smokies. On a foggy day, the world below disappears and it feels like you are floating in the clouds. Here’s a tip: Don’t take the half-mile paved trail from the parking lot. It is a steep, boring, sidewalk full of crying kids being dragged uphill by their parents. Instead, take the bypass route. From the parking lot, get on the Forney's Ridge Trail and follow it towards the top. It’s a little longer, but has a gentler incline. It takes you through the cool, wet spruce-fir forest until you hop onto the legendary Appalachian Trail for the final quarter mile to the top. Just don’t turn left on the AT or you’ll walk to Georgia.
Cades Cove - A huge valley ringed with mountains, this is the most popular spot in the park. A road loops 11 miles one-way through the area, passing many 18th and 19th century structures left over from the time before the park. Lots of hiking trails begin in Cades Cove and it is also a great place to spot wildlife. Traffic in the summer can be murder, so go on a weekday if you can. If you are feeling extra adventurous, come early and bring a bike, the road is closed to vehicles on Wednesdays and Saturdays until 10 am.
Chimneys Picnic Area - Not to be confused with the Chimney Tops hiking trail, this is the perfect place to stop for lunch or dinner. The West Prong Little Pigeon River runs right alongside the Chimneys. It’s full of huge boulders and is the perfect place for rock-hopping and splashing in the shallow river. It can get slippery so be careful. This is also a good spot to see bears, just make sure your food is locked in your trunk before go play in the river.
Hiking - There are 800 miles of trails in the park. Here are a few.
Grotto Falls - 2.5 miles round trip. Moderate. This hike through old growth forest leads to the only waterfall in the Smokies that you can walk behind.
Alum Cave - 4.5 miles round trip. Moderate. See several great views, a large natural arch carved into black slate by erosion, and finally Alum Cave, which is actually an 80 foot concave bluff.
Andrew’s Bald - 3.5 miles. Moderate. This trail winds through the misty evergreen trees of Clingman’s Dome and ends on a high elevation grassy meadow with great views of the surrounding mountains.
Laurel Falls - 2.5 miles. Easy/Moderate. One of the most popular hikes in the park. A short, mostly level path leads to an 80 foot multi-level waterfall.
Chimney Tops - 4 miles. Moderate/Hard. Short but steep hike that ends in one of the only bare rock summits in the Smokies. The official trail ends just below the peak and you will have to scramble/climb up the rocks to reach the top. No gear is necessary, just take your time and be careful.
Black Bears - These guys are what the Smokies are known for. Sadly, their popularity has led to a lot of lame-brains feeding them over the years. This has caused bears to become less afraid of people and it is not uncommon for them to roam through picnic areas, campgrounds, or pretty much anywhere in the park, looking for food. They are not tame by any means and should not be approached and for Pete’s sake, don’t feed them or leave your trash out. Enjoy them from a safe distance and use a zoom for your photos. Be especially cautious around cubs. Mama bears don’t mess around. I am not trying to scare you off. We see bears almost every time we go to the Smokies, even on hikes. We’ve never felt threatened or in danger. Black bear attacks are very very rare, but they have happened. Just be smart and respectful.
Salamanders - The park is known as “The Salamander Capital of the World.” Even on the busiest Saturday in July, there are more salamanders in the Smokies than people. There are over 30 species in the park, from the two inch Pygmy Salamander to the Eastern Hellbender which can reach lengths of over two feet! These little guys are hidden everywhere. Under rocks or fallen logs. Sometimes you can see them peeking out of muddy holes on the side of a trail. But the place you will almost definitely find them is around and under waterfalls. If, like my family, you love catching critters, be very gentle and always put them back where you found them.
Fireflies - An amazing thing happens for a period of a few weeks in early summer every year. During the mating season of one particular species of firefly, the insects will actually sync up their flashing pattern. This means that hundreds of fireflies will all flash at the exact same time. The event doesn’t last very long, and some nights they don’t sync up perfectly, but if you’re able to catch it, it’s a pretty spectacular show. Lots of tourists take a shuttle to the Elkmont area of the park, which is supposedly the best place to see the fireflies, but really they can be found all over the park.
Other - White-tailed deer, raccoons, elusive bobcats, owls, turtles, wild turkeys, skunks, copperheads(be aware when swimming,) and many others. Elk were reintroduced to the park about 15 years ago and are thriving. The best place to see them is Cataloochee Valley in the southeastern section of the park.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a great park for families who are "beginners" when it comes to travel and outdoor adventure. Especially for those that live in the Southeast. The park is wild and beautiful, but not isolated from civilization. Mid-summer can have some hot days, but mostly the weather is pleasant from early spring to late fall. In winter, some areas of the park may close due to snow and ice, but the frozen wonderland and complete lack of people can make for a quiet, beautiful visit. There are 10 developed campgrounds scattered around the park and plenty of hotels and mountain cabins in the nearby communities. Many of the trails and activities in the park are kid-friendly, even for young children. With the lush forests, beautiful views, abundant wildlife and tons of waterfalls and trails, this park has everything you need for the most important factor of a vacation: fun.