Smoky Mountains, TN - Sevierville, Pigeon Forge & Gatlinburg - Vacation Travel Guide

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Smoky Mountains Area Features

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

  By: Jacquelyn Eurice

Welcome to an area that has captivated the hearts of its visitors. One of the most beautiful natural landscapes in the United States can be witnessed here in the Great Smoky Mountains. As the story goes, the region was first described as “smoky” by the Cherokee Indians because of the bluish mist that settles on the tops of the mountains along the skyline. Native Americans called this area that encompasses land from western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee “Shaconage,” meaning “Land of the Blue Smoke.”

The area attracts millions of visitors each year who are seeking a way to get back to nature while also exploring nearby cities and towns filled with stellar entertainment, exquisite dining and outstanding shopping opportunities. Together, the cities and the national park have made this region a beloved destination for people from around the world. And despite the continual popularity of the Smokies, the small town charm of yesteryear is still very much alive. The local residents warmly greet visitors with smiles, kind words and maybe some helpful advice. Take some time to explore all that there is to see and do in this rich part of the country. This What-to-Do guide to the Smoky Mountains will help you navigate through the park and its must-see spots as well as the many local cities including Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Sevierville.

In part, we owe the founding of this amazing park to the auto clubs of America who sought to build scenic roads in this section of the nation. In 1934, the United States Congress voted to purchase and protect the area now covered within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Every year, millions of tourists come to explore this magnificent region that still remains free and open to the public. In fact, the number of people who come to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is double the number that go to the Grand Canyon, making it America’s top visited national park. Numerous hiking trails are available including the famous Appalachian Trail. On the trails, nature lovers can explore over 250,000 acres of this natural mountainous landscape and its enchanting waterfalls, forests, valleys and rivers. Thousands of different animal species make the Smokies their home. From fireflies and elk to the famous black bears, wildlife is abundant and protected throughout the park. Chance encounters can happen at every turn—but for their (and your) protection, please remember the animals are wild and they need (as required by law) their space.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a choice of two main entrances where visitors should start their journey: the Sugarlands Visitor Center just outside of Gatlinburg, TN, or the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, NC. At these locations, you’ll be introduced to the area through displays, and knowledgeable park rangers are on-hand to answer questions. Sugarlands offers a short and informative movie as well as animal exhibits in the Nature Museum, and three nearby hiking trails: Cataract Falls, Fighting Creek Nature Trail, and the dog- and bicycle-friendly Gatlinburg Trail. Oconaluftee Visitor Center has an interesting museum that explores the history and heritage of the Cherokee Indians and also hosts activities such as the Junior Ranger summer program, night hikes, historic tours, and more. An easy, introductory hike in this area can be found on the Oconaluftee River Trail. This and the Gatlinburg Trail near Sugarlands are the only dog- and bicycle-friendly trails in the Smoky Mountains and are recommended for families with strollers or who are traveling with pets.

Newfound Gap is located midway between the two park entrances and along its namesake road. Named literally for the gap that was a newly found path through the mountains, this area lies at the border of Tennessee and North Carolina and is a popular place with ample parking for families to stretch their legs, look around, and take a few pictures. The Appalachian Trail intersects Newfound Gap Road at this point—which is a mile above sea-level but also the lowest place to cross the mountains in the area. This is the location of the Rockefeller memorial. Half of the $10 million to purchase the land for the national park was raised by each state and by private citizens. The other half came from John D. Rockefeller’s memorial fund to his wife, Laura Spelman Rockefeller. A simple monument that remembers the family’s donation was built and it was there that President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the park in 1940 “for the permanent enjoyment of the people."

For the best view of the Smokies, hike to Clingmans Dome, the tallest point in Tennessee and the second highest in North Carolina. From 6,643 feet above sea-level, the views are stunning. At the top of the peak is a concrete observation deck where it is possible to see seven different states on a clear day. Most of the year it is possible to drive within a half-mile of the lookout tower but in the winter when snow and ice makes the area difficult to traverse, the road is closed to vehicles. That’s not to say you can’t get out your snowshoes for an extensive hiking adventure!

One of the most interesting places to visit within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Cades Cove in the western portion of the park. Take the scenic Loop Road—a one-directional, 11-mile stretch that passes through what was once a tiny farming community nestled in a small valley within the Smokies. Architectural relics from the 1800s can be seen and explored along the route including churches, barns, homes, and worksites such as mills and blacksmith shops. Visitors can walk around the properties and imagine themselves working the land, raising a family in log cabins, and making the most of an Appalachian life. Please note that on Wednesdays and Saturdays before 10am, only hikers or bicycles are allowed on the path.

A little mountain stream that swells considerably after a heavy rain contributed to giving the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail its name. Beginning close to Gatlinburg on Cherokee Orchard Road, take time at the start of the trail to explore Noah “Bud” Ogle’s 1920s farmstead where visitors can see his home and the interesting wooden flume plumbing system he handcrafted. Then drive this 5.5-mile trail that follows LeConte Creek to the Rainbow Falls hiking path (the waterfall is a 5-mile, round-trip hike from Cherokee Orchard Road). The road then connects to Roaring Fork Road and takes motorists to beautiful mountain overlooks and close to two other hiking trails that lead to Grotto Falls or Baskins Creek Falls. Both are stunningly different but be prepared for a steep incline to reach Baskins Creek Falls. On the latter half of the loop, motorists stop at cabins along the way to become immersed in the history of the mid-1800s and early 1900s. Here it’s possible to see frontier life and the challenges faced by the settlers. Take a self-guided tour of the brothers Ephraim and Jim Bales’ Places, the Alex Cole Cabin (at the Jim Bales Place) or the Alfred Reagan Place. Before leaving the loop, be sure to see the Thousand Drips Falls from the comfort of your vehicle. It is best observed in the rainy season, when the drips become small falls. It’s a spectacular final scene of the Roaring Fork Motor Trail.

"There are trees here that stood before our forefathers ever came to this continent; there are brooks that still run as clear as on the day the first pioneer cupped his hand and drank from them. In this Park, we shall conserve these trees, the pine, the red-bud, the dogwood, the azalea, the rhododendron, the trout and the thrush for the happiness of the American people."
- President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sept. 2, 1940, at the dedication of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park

Other Sights within the Park

Chimney Tops
The Chimney Tops, a sheer rise of almost 2,000 feet, were known to the Cherokee as “Dukiskwal-guni” (forked antlers). From the overlook on Newfound Gap Road, passersby can see the 30-foot deep “flue” in the right-hand peak which gives the outcropping its name. The Chimneys Picnic Area, located in a ravine on the mountain’s side, is an excellent place to stop for a leisurely lunch.

Mount LeConte
Mount LeConte is the park’s third highest peak at 6,593 feet. Despite runner-up ranking, LeConte serves as the focal point of the park.  The summit offers unforgettable views from two different overlooks, Myrtle Point and Cliff Top. Hikers can choose from five different  trails to the top, ranging from 11 to 16 miles round-trip. 

Charlie’s Bunion
This 1,000-foot sheer drop-off can be found four miles east along the Appalachian Trail. The cliff is named after a bunion that prevented Charlie Conner, an Oconaluftee settler, from traveling through the Gap in 1928. Fellow travelers claimed the bare mountain resembled their friend’s bunion.

Andrews Bald
A picture-perfect picnic spot, Andrews Bald offers glorious views of the towering mountain ranges of North Carolina and Georgia. It’s a 3.6- mile round-trip hike from the Forney Ridge parking area at Clingman’s Dome and is the most accessible bald in the park.

This area was first a pioneer settlement called Bradleytown.  During the 1920s’ logging boom, Smokemont became a busy village, sawmill and railroad terminal to haul lumber down from the forest. Today, it is a popular park campground with a self-guiding nature trail through the reborn forest.

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