Eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina rise up to greet each other in a mighty panorama of rugged mountain peaks along the southern spine of the Appalachian Mountains. Wave upon wave of mountain ridges are separated by deep valleys. This amazing natural landscape has been preserved for all of us to enjoy. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park within the United States, with almost ten million visitors a year. Its two main entrances are from Cherokee, NC, and from Gatlinburg, TN, next door to Pigeon Forge and Sevierville.
Covering over 520,000 acres, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park ranges from the pastoral meadows of Cades Cove, which measures 840 feet above sea level at its lowest point, up to Clingmans Dome, the park’s highest peak at 6,643 feet. The Great Smoky Mountains have over 36 miles of continuous mountain ranges reaching heights above 5,000 feet, making it the largest stretch of high land in the eastern United States.
The Great Smoky Mountains is one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. Worn down over time, its peaks are now covered with an abundant carpet of trees, pines, shrubs, and plants. Over 100 species of native trees and more than 1,500 flowering plant species can be found in the Smokies. As you drive or hike up the mountains, you’ll pass through five vegetation zones, each with its own set of plants and animals. It’s as if you were traveling from Georgia to Maine. Each season in the Smokies is rich in color and variety, from the myriad of spring wildflowers to the lush foliage of summer. In the fall, the mountainsides are a colorful mosaic bursting with countless shades of yellow, orange, and red, while in the winter the stark green evergreens cast their shadows on the snow.
Birthed during the Great Depression, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was officially established by the U.S. Congress on June 15, 1934, and dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Newfound Gap in 1940. This particular park was carved from the homesteads of families as well as the forced closure of logging businesses. All the land had to be bought and paid for; school children of the time even donated their lunch pennies. A number of historical homes and farms have been preserved to represent the hard-working early settlers of the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is still a people’s park. There is no entrance fee and the park is always open for visitors to come drive the byways, hike the 800 miles of trails, or tour the old homesteads. Get to know the refreshing wonder of being in nature through picnics, camping, fishing, and horseback riding. Hear the soothing rush of water cascading in a creek, stop for a bear jam and watch a mama bear and her cub feed, or feel your heart expand while viewing the grand vistas from the overlooks. It’ll be a welcome break from today’s busy lifestyle and the constant demands of technology.
First stop, the visitor center
You’ve arrived at the doorstep of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Now where do you want to go? With over 800 square miles to explore, you have a lot of options. The answer? Stop in at either of the two main visitor centers: Sugarlands and Oconaluftee. Park Rangers are on hand to answer questions and to offer specific suggestions tailored to your interests and the amount of time you can spend. Furthermore, each visitor center has an official park store with a great selection of guide books, information pamphlets, and maps.
The Sugarlands Visitor Center located at the Gatlinburg entrance offers a 20-minute introductory film that gives an excellent overview of the park. There’s also an interesting nature museum to introduce you to the animals and plants that call the Great Smoky Mountains National Park home.
Just outside Cherokee, the new Oconaluftee Visitor Center’s exhibits tell how human life evolved in the Smokies, from the native American Indians to the early European settlers to the logging of the park and how the park was developed. Also at Oconaluftee is the adjacent Mountain Farm Museum, an outdoor museum featuring authentic log homes and farm structures. You can see firsthand how the early settlers lived.
There are two other staffed visitor centers and official park stores inside the park at Cades Cove and Clingmans Dome. You’ll also find public restrooms at each center.
Outside the park are four information centers: two in Sevierville, on Rte. 66 and at the Smokies Stadium; one in Gatlinburg on the Spur; and the Townsend Visitor Center in Townsend, TN. Stop in on your way to the Smokies and get a head start on planning your visit to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
On the Web
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a treasure trove of possibilities just waiting to be explored and experienced. But where to start? You might want to hike to a waterfall but your neighbor wants to show his kids how the early settlers ground their corn. Or, you may need to know which roads are open or closed.
The best place to start is by visiting the park’s official website: www.nps.gov/grsm. You’ll find a wealth of information to help you plan your trip, download a map of the park, find out seasonal operating hours, and learn about the park’s history, culture, nature, and science. Any park alerts will be posted and there’s a Twitter link.
Another excellent website is www.SmokiesInformation.org. Hosted by the Great Smoky Mountains Association, this website has an incredible amount of information geared to the visitor. From best drives to suggested itineraries, from a calendar of events to a shopping link for the official park store, this website will help you plan your visit and stay informed about activities in the park. You can sign up for an eNewsletter, follow on Facebook and Twitter, and even download a mobile app to your smartphone (go to maps & trip planning). The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is just waiting for you to discover its wonders!
What-to-Do Guide’s National Park Tips
- Have your picture taken in two states at once! Stand next to the elevation sign at Newfound Gap off Rte. 441. You’ll have one foot in Tennessee and one foot in North Carolina at 5,048 feet above sea level.
- Drive to the end of Clingmans Dome Road and then walk the last half mile up a paved trail to the 45-ft.-high spiral observation tower. You’ll be higher than the highest mountain in the Smokies! See seven states on a clear day. (Closed December 1 through March 31.)
- Visit the Nature Museum at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. You’ll find out which animals and plants live in the five life zones. Get a close-up view of a red fox or an opossum. See how the leaves of a fern differ from those of a mountain laurel.
- Visit www.smokiesinformation.org for information about the park and to find out how you can become a member of the Great Smoky Mountains Association. You’ll be helping to preserve the park, and you’ll also qualify for discounts at select area businesses.
- Learn more about the area by visiting the Great Smoky Mountain Heritage Center in Townsend, TN (www.gsmheritagecenter.org), or by attending events such as Pigeon Forge’s Wilderness Wildlife Week in January and Gatlinburg’s Wildflower Pilgrimage in April.