Smoky Mountains National Park
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The Great Smoky Mountains and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

Smoky Mountain waterfall© Art Today
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has over 500,000 acres of forest with beautiful streams and numerous waterfalls.

The Great Smoky Mountains, part of the Appalachian Mountain Range, stretch over 800 square miles, from the western border of North Carolina to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. They got their name from the Cherokee Indians. They called the mountains, Shaconage, for the blue-gray haze that veils the summits.

One of the largest protected land areas east of the Rocky Mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has over 500,000 acres of forest. It has beautiful streams and numerous waterfalls, virgin forests of red spruce, and hundreds of miles of developed hiking trails. It is also home to more than 50 species of mammals, including black bears, white-tailed deer, foxes and bobcats. The Great Smoky Mountains rise from 800 feet to 6,643 feet, with Mount LeConte being the highest peak.

The most visited park in the USA

The park offers something for everyone and is one of the most visited parks in the U.S. Every year, over 9 million visitors enjoy hiking, picnicking, fishing, horseback riding, bike riding, canoeing, whitewater rafting, river tubing, skiing and snowboarding. Accommodations range from rustic campsites and cozy cottages to private chalets and exclusive resorts.

Open year round, peak travel is mid-March through October, with traffic heaviest in summer and fall. Primary access to the National Park is south of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee on US Hwy Route 441. You can get information at the National Park Information Center or travel a little further south to the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Park Headquarters. There you'll find many exhibits and you can also talk to one of the park rangers.

There are over 650 miles of trails in the park including The Appalachian Trail. The Appalachian Trail runs along the mountain crest and Tennessee-North Carolina border. During fall foliage, one of the best places to enjoy the views is on the two-mile stretch between Newfound and Indian gaps. You can reach this part of the trail near the Newfound Gap parking lot.

Driving through the mountain roads with their tight curves, steep inclines, and narrow drops offs, requires some caution. It's best to drive slowly for safety -- and also to enjoy the views. Be extra cautious during rainfall. The mountains get a lot of rain during the year, about 100 inches, and the roads can become slippery.

Go Card Blue Ridge
Save money on the best attractions in the Great Smokies - including admission to the fabulous Biltmore Estate -- with the Go Blue Ridge Card. Purchase a 2, 3 or 5-day pass and get free admission to over 25 attractions in the area. You'll receive a free guide book plus shopping and dining discounts.

A scenic drive with spectacular views

For a scenic drive with spectacular views, take the historic Newfound Gap Road east from the Sugarlands Visitor Center to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in North Carolina. This road, built in the 1930s, has stone bridges, broad curves, and original stone guardrails. It covers nearly 40 miles and will take about two hours. Along the way you can stop at the Newfound Gap Overlook where Tennessee meets North Carolina.

Another popular driving tour is the Cades Cove Loop off Laurel Creek Road. There are many marked sights you can visit along the way including an 1827 Baptist Church and a rustic farmstead with a smokehouse, springhouse, and corn crib. Midway through the drive is the Cades Cove Visitor Center where you'll see exhibits of 19th century rural life.

Hiking, backpacking, bicycling and camping

Cades Cove near Smokey Mountains in Tennessee© Art Today
Bicycling is very popular on the Cades Cove Loop Road. It's an 11-mile road through open fields surrounded by mountains.

Hikers and backpackers will appreciate the magnificent forests and breathtaking views of the Smoky Mountains backcountry. Campsites, hiking trails, and backpacking shelters are open year round. The park has 10 developed campgrounds, (3 are open year-round) and there are many private campgrounds outside the park. Overnight hiking parties will need a backcountry use permit. Backcountry shelters and rationed campsites require reservations through the Backcountry Reservation Office at 865-436-1297.

Bicycling is very popular on the Cades Cove Loop Road. It's an 11-mile road through open fields surrounded by mountains. Although bicycling is allowed on the other park roads, it can be difficult. The park roads are winding, steep, or narrow, and shared by motorists. Bicycles are not allowed on the trails.

Another popular activity in the park is horseback riding. There are several riding stables in the park. You can hire a horse by the hour for riding on guided trails. You'll find stables near the Cades Cove Visitor Center, at Smokemont near the Cherokee Indian Reservation, or near the Sugarlands Visitor Center.

Pets - on a leash - are permitted in the park, but they are not allowed on the trails or cross-country hikes.

Fishing is allowed in the abundant rivers and streams; however a Tennessee or North Carolina fishing license is required. Rainbow trout and brown trout are plentiful.

Tennessee Wedding Chapels

The area is also very popular for weddings. Tennessee does not have a waiting period and does not require blood tests. Many chapels offer complete packages for newlyweds or those wanting to renew their vows. A marriage license can be obtained at the Sevier County Courthouse.

Winter in the Smoky Mountains is usually moderate, but extreme conditions can occur in the higher elevations. Spring weather is often unpredictable, especially in the higher elevations. Bloom for dogwood and wildflowers is best between mid-March and July. Summer is hot and humid, but more pleasant in the higher elevations. Fall has warm days and cool nights. It's also when rainfall is least likely. In late September, frost will begin to occur. Fall foliage peaks in mid-October. It is best to dress in layers because in the higher elevations, temperatures will be about 10-20 degrees cooler.

Visit the Cherokee Indian Reservation

Cades Cove near Smokey Mountains in Tennessee© Art Today
Campsites, hiking trails, and backpacking shelters are open year round.

Just south of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center on US Highway 441 is the Cherokee Indian Reservation. From May through October you can visit the Oconaluftee Indian Village. Indian guides in native costumes provide tours of the village ($12 for adults and $5 for children) and share their history, culture, and way of life.

If you enjoy arts and crafts, you'll want to drive along the historic Tennessee Heritage Arts and Crafts Trail in Gatlinburg. This historic eight-mile loop was established in 1937, and you can visit shops, studios, and galleries along the way. You'll find local artisans who whittle, paint, sew, weave and carve to create original collectibles like candles, baskets, pottery, stained glass, and lots more.

A trip to the Great Smokies wouldn't be complete without a stop in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. Pigeon Forge is one of the fastest growing tourist areas in the U.S. and gets more than 11 million visitors each year. Located only six miles from Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge is known as the Entertainment Home of the Smokies. It has over 48 major attractions. The most famous is Dolly Parton's Dollywood, a one-of-a kind amusement park and country jamboree. There are also numerous dinner theaters, comedy clubs, museums, craft and specialty stores, and more than 200 outlet stores. Pigeon Forge has attractions for all ages: miniature golf, a petting zoo, go-karts, water parks, golf courses, and a Nascar speedpark.

Pigeon Forge Tennessee is a popular tourist attraction

A popular spot is the Old Mill, a national historic site that's more than 150 years old. It is one of the country's most photographed mills. You can take a free tour of the Old Mill and see how corn meal is made. There's an on-site restaurant and a craft village with over 30 stores. You'll see works by local artisans and you can also buy mill-ground flours and grits at the General Store. They also sell country hams, an assortment of cheeses, and homemade baked goods.

Because Pigeon Forge is such a growing tourist area, you'll be able to find accommodations in all price ranges. You can choose from hotels, motels, chalets, condominiums, B&B inns, or resorts. There are also private cabins to rent.

Western North Carolina

South of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center -- and about 45 minutes west of Asheville,-- is the quaint and historic town of Dillsboro, North Carolina located on US Highway 441. Founded in 1888, the town has retained much of its small-town charm. Original buildings house gift shops, working studios, inns, and restaurants. It's a beautiful town with quiet, tree-lined streets, pristine white homes, and rustic cottages nestled in a valley of the Smoky Mountains. Dillsboro is also home to the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad which offers year-round train trips through the mountains and scenic countryside. Passengers can purchase tickets and board the steam and diesel trains on Front Street.

If you've always wondered what it would be like to pan for gold or gems, you can stop and visit the numerous mines located along US Highway 441 near Franklin, North Carolina, the "Gem Capital of the World." (www.franklin-chamber.com) Open to the public during spring, summer, and fall, many working mines offer tourists the opportunity to pan for gold and rubies, amethysts, emeralds, sapphires, garnets, and topaz.

Franklin has two interesting museums, both with free admission, and open year-round. The old county jail, built in 1850, now houses the Franklin Gem and Mineral Museum. It has many displays and Indian artifacts and is open Monday to Saturday, 9 am to 4 pm. Another museum is Ruby City located on Main Street. Its collection includes the world's largest sapphire which weighs 835 pounds. The museum is open Monday through Saturday, 9 am to 5 pm.

If you enjoy casino action, you'll find Harrah's Casino, on US Highway 441, and located on the Cherokee Reservation. It's open 24 hours. Throughout the reservation are nearly 50 motels, 28 campgrounds, and over 100 cabins available through the Cherokee Visitors Center at 1-800-438-1601.

A scenic drive in Western North Carolina is on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the world's first parkway designed exclusively for leisure travel. It became the model for other parkways in the U.S. and the world. You can access the Parkway from US Highway 441 near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. This stretch of the Parkway will take you through the Cherokee Indian Reservation. The Blue Ridge Parkway stretches over 470 miles through North Carolina and Virginia. It has 26 tunnels (25 in North Carolina) and nine campgrounds along the route. During the spring and summer, you'll see beautiful wildflowers along the highway. Autumn brings stunning fall foliage.

Written by: Cathy Maxwell
Top Photo Credit: © US National Park Service
Photo Description: Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill