Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a must stop when in Tennessee or North Carolina. Hey, could 11 million people be wrong? That’s right in 2016 the Great Smoky Mountains was the most visited national park with over 11 million visitors. This was more than double the number of visitors at the Grand Canyon—the number 2 visited park. Our stay in the Smoky Mountains was full of wildlife, history, and some of the most amazing views we’ve encountered. There is a lot to do whether you are on or off the beaten path at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
A Little History
Before white settlers came to the mountains in the 1790’s the area was inhabited by the Cherokee. They described the mountains as shaconage, meaning “blue, like smoke.” And, boy were they right. The Great Smoky Mountains truly live up to their name. The “smoke” is actually volatile organic compounds. While this may sound like the disease that will someday turn us all into zombies, VOCs are just a byproduct, along with oxygen, that is exhaled by trees and vegetation. In the Smokies the VOCs are captured by the valley and create the famous blue haze.
Like many stories of white settlements in the US, the Cherokee were forced from their land and now reside in a reservation bordering the southeast side of the park. As the years went by threats of commercial logging to the area prompted the national park to be established in 1934. The park is half in Tennessee and half in North Carolina and pretty much divided by the Appalachian trail which follows the state boarder.
On the Beaten Path
First, let’s go over what pretty much all 11 million visitors do (including us) when they go to Great Smoky Mountains NP. On the west side of the park our first destination was Cades Cove Loop. This 11 mile, 1-way vehicle loop is full of rolling green mountains, wildlife, and historic buildings. We’ve mentioned bear jams in previous posts, and you may be lucky (or unlucky) to encounter a few of these on this nature loop. We actually saw 4 bears in an hour here! Bear viewing can bring traffic to a crawl for an hour. Traffic was even halted to capture pics of a very photogenic turkey—I guess this was our first official turkey jam! The visitor center on the loop is within a homestead of some early settlers. It has a working mill that is operated by the park and still sells its cornmeal.
This is a nice drive to take in an afternoon, but don’t let the 11 miles throw you off your planning. With all the stops and an average speed of somewhere between 5 and 0 mph you can expect a 3 to 4 hour round trip. If you can’t control your road rage, this might not be the road for you.
Another area that most visitors don’t miss is Clingman’s Dome. At 6,643 ft, this is the highest point in the park and in Tennessee. From the parking lot the trail begins to the Dome and observation tower. It’s a paved trail and only a half mile, but very steep averaging a 13% grade. Once you’re at the top, the impressive, circular observation tower is accessible by a spiraled concrete ramp. From there you will be rewarded with a 360 degree view of the park. On a clear day this spot boasts visibility up to 100 miles. As we headed down the trail we hoped we didn’t look as exhausted as some of the people did on their way up. Keep going, you’re almost there!
Off the Beaten Path
If you decide to go off the beaten path and you time your trip accordingly (or maybe just get lucky, like we were) the experiences are endless within the Smoky Mountains. We stayed at Elkmont Campground the first 2 nights in the park. We checked for reservations the day before and found a great site. Luck, right? Actually, a camp host told us it’s sometimes easier to find sites this way. She noticed some people who book months in advance end up canceling a few days before their expected stay. We’ll remember that tip for upcoming camping trips!
We picked Elkmont because it’s centrally located and is also the site of the synchronous firefly viewing. That’s right, we didn’t get enough of the bright-butt bugs in Congaree National Park! The Smokies take their firefly viewing very seriously. During the official viewing week, only campers in Elkmont and visitors shuttled from the Sugarlands Visitor Center 10 miles away are allowed in the area. To be allowed on the shuttle you must sign up for a lottery on recreation.gov to obtain a vehicle pass. Only 225 passes per day are given out to protect the firefly habitat. Check out the Smoky Mountain website if you’re traveling to the park during late May and want to see this event. But note, fireflies don’t really know what day it is and they can still be in sync for weeks before and after the viewing. If camping in Elkmont, great viewing areas are within a half-mile walk.
The most strenuous and beautiful day we had is hiking to the Mt. LeConte summit. During this 11 mile in-and-out hike we climbed 2,763 feet to reach the 6,593 foot summit. We walked along streams and through lush forest a few miles to Arch Rock. This natural formation is a cross between a cave and natural bridge. We had to go through the cave and up the carved stone steps to continue our journey. The next marker is the Alum Cave, which is actually a concave bluff about 500 feet long and 80 feet high. This is about half way up, and a stopping point for many.
As we continued up we were met with some unmatched panoramic views of the rolling mountains and narrow cliff ledges that made our hearts beat a bit faster. About a half mile from the summit we stopped for lunch at Mt. LeConte Lodge. This lodge in the clouds was established in 1925 and is accessible to guests only by foot—the shortest route being the trail we just took. The Lodge consists of a dozen small cabins and accommodates around 50 guests. Because of the lack of access to the lodge, supplies must be brought in by helicopter or llama pack trains. Our only regret is that we didn’t book a cabin and stay the night (mostly because we knew we had 5 ½ miles to hike back down that day). After lunch we headed up to the rocky ledge of LeConte’s true summit. The view from the top, in our opinion, was the most amazing view of the Smoky Mountains.
On the east and less busy side of the park we stayed our final 2 nights at Cosby Campground. This campground is rarely full and actually half the price of the more centralized campgrounds in the park. So if you are looking to save some money on camping, this is a great place to stay. It offers the same amenities as all other campgrounds in the park with a quieter atmosphere. From this campsite you can access miles of hiking trails, and at night see even more fireflies.
The Great Smoky Mountains is truly a special place. The diversity of animals and plants is unparalleled in any other temperate climate. In fact, there are more tree species in the park than in all of northern Europe. However, this beauty may not last forever. While it is the most visited National Park, it is also the most polluted. The same valleys that capture VOCs and create the “smoke” of the Smokies, also hold in air pollution. Fumes from industry, agriculture, and transportation damage plants, kill animals, and obstruct the amazing views.
The 2016 wildfires, the largest natural disaster in the history of Tennessee may not have been natural at all. Arson is suspected to be the cause of the fire that claimed 14 lives, injured 134, and burned 16,000 acres of forest (10,000 inside the park). As a result, one of the most spectacular and popular areas, Chimney Tops, was so damaged it is closed indefinitely.
These are some of the impacts we make on nature, and this is in areas protected and preserved by our country. What if this protection was not there? What would happen to our parks and natural lands? The Great Smoky Mountains and other National Parks are not just here for our enjoyment. They’re also our responsibility. When something threatens these gifts, we need to work together and ensure they will stay protected for generations to come.
There has been a lot of talk of defunding the National Park Service. What are your thoughts on this subject? How do you think we can contribute to the continued conservation of our parks?