Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg, Tenn. Visited: October 26, 2005 NPS Site Visited: 271 of 353 NPS Website
WHAT IS IT? Wonderfully vast and diverse Appalachian mountain park that boasts over 500,000 acres and more plant species than the continent of Europe. This wilderness playground is home to many superlatives including our most visited National Park and our most polluted.
BEAUTY (10/10) Newfound Gap Road, the two-lane highway that bisects the Park, gets our vote for one of the most scenic roads in the United States. Even though Great Smoky Mountains NP has hundreds of thousands of acres which can only be explored by trail, the casual visitor can get an astounding sensory snapshot of what the Park has to offer and hardly has to leave his or her vehicle.
Appalachian cottages are clustered near the north and south entrances of the Park. In between, the Newfound Gap Road travels aside the Oconanluftee River, winds through five distinct forest types and climbs up to meet the highest point of the Appalachian Trail. Changes in elevation guarantee that the landscape, fauna and flora will vary from start to finish. Waterfalls, stone bridges and small animals appear when you least expect them. We found it impossible to drive farther than a few miles at a time without stopping to admire the scenery around us.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (6/10) Great Smoky Mountain NP is designated both as an International Biosphere Reserve and a World Heritage Site, meaning it is recognized as a core area that preserves and protects both biological and cultural resources.
The cultural resources protected by the Park include Appalachian homes, mills and artifacts from the 19th and 20th centuries left behind as the Park was assembled through the acquisition of private lands.
Great Smoky Mountain NP is one of the first National Parks east of the Mississippi as well as one of the first patch-worked together from private lands.
Although not without opposition, activists in the 1930s convinced the states of Tennessee and North Carolina to protect the Smokies from commercial logging, purchase the land and donate it to the federal government. What is amazing is the amount of land the National Park Service has been able to manage and preserve one-half million acres?! To set aside that amount of land on the East Coast and protect it from urban and commercial development unfortunately seems like an unattainable dream today.
CROWDS (4/10) The Great Smoky Mountains NP is perpetually packed, as in no room to walk or even breath packed. In 2005, 9.2 million people visited the Great Smokies. In the same year, 10.5 million combined people visited Grand Canyon NP, Yellowstone NP AND Yosemite NP!
We approached the Park from its southeastern entrance at Cherokee where the crowds were modest but steady. Once we crossed the Blue Ridge and entered Tennessee, there were cars and people everywhere.
The Clingman’s Dome overlook parking lot overflowed while no less than 100 professional photographer types (sturdy tripods, high-end Canons, bulging camera bags, multiple light filters, old press passes hanging from their necks and cigarettes dangling from their mouths) lined the parking lot’s ridge at sundown prepared to get the perfect sunset photo.
The descent towards Gatlinburg means more and more people and constant traffic lines along the Park’s narrow, tortuous two-lane roads. Luckily, there are ample places to pull over and take in the ethereal scenery.
We avoided the Park’s signature drive (we’re blushing in shame) the Cades Cove Loop Road. Evidently, the 11-mile loop takes between 2 and 4 hours to traverse because a) all the cars and b) bear jams. Black bears hang out on the road, people take pictures and traffic stops. Makes sense to us. The Cades Cove Loop is “the most heavily visited destination within the most heavily visited national park in the U.S.”
Despite the swarms of people, the Park feels like a place where, if you wander of the beaten path, you will be rewarded with tremendous scenery and some peace and quiet. Nearly the entire Park is wilderness and inaccessible by car; there cannot be people in these places, can there?
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (5/5) The Park’s only accessibility downsides are the large crowd deterrence and twisty roads. But heck, this is what an appreciated National Park looks like: lots of people and smoggy sunsets.
Unlike Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion and the Grand Canyon, megalithic-sized tourist towns have sprung up around Great Smoky NP. If you cannot find a cheap hotel room here, you are not looking hard enough.
Gatlinburg is a quaint, Swiss-chalet-ish town with narrow streets, kitschy cute shops and a Dukes of Hazzard-tribute restaurant owned by the actor who played Cooter. Pigeon Forge is eight lanes of traffic (Route 441) sided by go-cart tracks, bungee jumping towers, motels and themed restaurants. Route 441 is numbered with mile-markers as if it were a beach town. Pigeon Forge’s most famous denizen is Dolly Parton and her amusement park, Dollywood.
If Dollywood isn’t your speed, the Park is within 40 miles of both Knoxville, Tenn. (to the west) and Asheville, N.C. (to the east). These two quirky, growing college towns both boast prominent literary sons (James Agee and Thomas Wolfe) and desirable downtowns.
If you want to stay in the Park, there are over 1,000 campsites in 10 campgrounds. 500+ of these sites can be reserved ahead of time. Backcountry permits are free and probably the preferable way to get away from it all.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (5/5) On sale are hundreds of books raging in topic from local history to Cherokee heritage to mountain ghost stories. The store is also generous with the stuffed animals; we were partial to the Plush Turkey Vulture. We think those soaring omnivores are super cuddly and endearingly clumsy. The bookstore hands out an eight-page glossy flier called “Smokies Gift Ideas” which can be very helpful amid the overwhelming selection.
COSTS (5/5) The Great Smoky Mountains proudly stands in the pantheon of American National Parks and remarkably charges no entrance fee. Perhaps that is why it is our most crowded and most visited National Park.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (5/5) Great Smoky Mountains NP gets mad props for manning each Visitor Center with a throng of Rangers and volunteers to direct, recommend, and manage its seemingly unmanageable number of guests.
TOURS/CLASSES (7/10) How do you deal with 9.2 million people coming through your Park every year?
A) Offer a high-definition introductory movie in a large theatre playing on what seems like a continuous loop at Sugarlands, the most popular VC; B) Showcase your cultural exhibits outside in historic villages like Cades Cove and living history museums like Mountain Farm; and C) Publish an excellent array of supplemental booklets and brochures that visitors can purchase for a nominal fee at self-serve stations at every VC.
Usually we wince at having to pay extra for trail maps or guides to scenic drives. That was before we peeked inside these wonderful, thick-papered pullouts produced by the Great Smoky Mountain Association. These single-subject supplements to the official park brochure and the park newspaper are filled with detailed information on everything from birding to backpack loops, to favorite long and short hikes. Scenic drives, wildlife, waterfalls and wild flowers also get their own specialized treatment. Priced from 50 cents to a dollar, we found these to be well worth the cost. We emptied our pockets of change and left with several.
It is hard being so well-liked. The Park’s film, newspaper, and pretty much all of its official materials highlight the challenges created by the steady stream of people and cars through the protected lands. More than an explanation or an excuse, the publications invite the public to join in the stewardship of the Park. That gets another thumbs up.
Not officially part of the Park, the newly renovated Museum of the Cherokee Indian just south of the Oconaluftee VC highlights the Trail of Tears and ten thousand years of Cherokee history.
Just before the north entrance of the Park, the Southern Highland Craft Guild operates one of their Craft Shops. As beautiful as any gallery or art museum, the Shop warrants a stop, if only to browse and admire.
FUN (10/10) A road closure on the Blue Mountain Parkway and its mandatory detour gave us a later start in the Park than we had hoped for. We still managed to traverse Newfound Gap Road before dark, stopping frequently to climb down into creek beds, gaze up at foliage, stretch our legs and just stare.
We even took a non-mandatory but highly recommended detour up to Clingman’s Dome. Because of the altitude, we have a feeling this road leads to a winter wonderland almost any time of the year. We happened to drive up it before the road closed for the winter but after an early winter snow storm which left everything in a coat of white sticky snow.
Can you picture how gorgeous this is with the late afternoon sun streaming through the pines? If you can’t hundreds of photographers were there to capture the moment on film.
Because of our late morning start and meandering drive, we experienced the blinding glitter and glam of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge at night. The unending commerce of Pigeon Forge makes the protected peace of Great Smoky Mountains NP all the more appreciated and quite frankly, unbelievable. We found a place to rest our heads and returned to the Park the next day to do it all again.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (10/10) Absolutely, emphatically, yes. There is a reason, in fact many reasons, why 9 million+ people make the pilgrimage here every year.
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