The most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is located in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Enormous white pines, fields of yellow poplars, diverse wildlife, carpeted fields of colorful wildflowers that bloom year round, plus the remnants of the Southern Appalachian mountain culture, make this national park truly a unique experience and a top visitor destination. Established by Congress in 1934, the park was named for its patchy early morning fog-draped mountainous landscape that spans 816 square miles with 800 miles of hiking trails, including a section of the Appalachian Trail with panoramic views.
Sweeping rows of beautiful, forested, ancient mountain ridges contain wondrous waterfalls, rivers and streams. Nature simply beckons nature lovers to visit and enjoy. And it is visited by hikers, campers, picnickers, bicyclists, fishermen, zip-liners, rafting thrill seekers, photographers, wildlife adventurers, horseback riders, wildflower enthusiasts, and others.
For many the Park’s many hiking trails, and campgrounds, are the most satisfying and enjoyable ways to experience and get close to this magnificent natural landscape. So many trail choices, so little time, so plan your trip well for this adventure.
Clingmans Dome Observation Tower
The highest peak at 6,644 feet, Clingmans Dome, has the best panoramic view of the Smoky Mountains. The Tower is located at the park’s high point along the Appalachian Trail. To get there requires a half-mile hike from the parking lot to the Tower. Like an eagle in its nest, you’ll be able to see for a 100 miles on a clear day.
Chimney Tops Trail
At two miles long with 1,400 feet gain in elevation, the Chimney Tops Trail is the most popular trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is a bit challenging in spots and crosses a wooden bridge but the reward is an unobstructed view in all directions, which is especially extra beautiful near sunset when the sun reflects off the nearby rocks and illuminates the western sky with super color.
Cades Cove Loop
The one-way 11 mile driving or cycling loop, that circles Cades Cove, is the place to go for terrific wildlife viewing opportunities. Cades Cove is a preserved time capsule of raw natural fields and mountains. Stops along the loop offer wildlife views and walking trails. Animals often seen include coyotes, deer, black bears, turkeys, groundhogs, and birds. Open sunrise to sunset for motor vehicles. The Sunsets are gorgeous.
Fontana Dam and Lake
Almost 500 feet high (50 stories), the Fontana Dam, a hydroelectric power generator, creates the Fontana Lake with over 200 miles of shoreline. This lake is used for fishing and boating.
Cataloochee Valley Elk
In North Carolina’s Haywood County, the Cataloochee valley is known for its beautiful meadows and elk herds. In the early mornings and evenings the elk can likely be spotted grazing, sometimes near the sides of roads.
Appalachian Highland Science Center
Purchase Knob is a new section of the park with great views and access to a great hike on the Cataloochee Divide Trail. It’s also home to Salamander and Meander research where visitors can participate. Most people don’t know that the Great Smoky Mountain National Park is often called the Salamander Capital of the World. The center on the summit of Purchase Knob includes the historic and restored Ferguson Cabin built in the early 1870’s.
Numerous waterfalls get fed from the park’s 85 inches of annual rainfall. The tallest waterfall in the park is 100 feet, Ramsey Cascades. Most waterfalls require a hike but Meigs Falls, Sinks, and Place of a Thousand Drops are all accessible by motor vehicles.
In May and June, the mating season for fireflies, special tours are available when the 19 different species of fireflies synchronously light up the night sky. A thrill for some to be sure.
Elkmont Ghost Town
Appalachian history can be found at the Elkmont campground. The former Elkmont logging town and Appalachian Club vacation community area from over a 100 years ago is now home to a ranger station, large campground, and restored cottages and outbuildings.
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