Great Smoky Mountains National Park
|Moss-covered stream in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee/North Carolina (Adam Jones/Photodisc)|
Great Smoky Mountains National Park sits astride the Tennessee-North Carolina border amid the majestic southern climax of the Appalachian Highlands. The most visited of our national parks draws more than nine million adventurers and sightseers each year. And for good reasonthe Smokies are within a day's drive of a third of the U.S. population, and very few places in the East are in their league as an outdoor-recreation destination.
Worm your way into these rugged, convoluted mountains and you'll find over 800 miles of superlative trails, tracts of old-growth forest, views of undulating mountain ridges draped in hazy-blue, "smoky" tendrils of fog, and vivid reminders of the folkways of the Appalachians' early pioneers.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park protects one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, a place that supports more than 4,000 species of plants, approximately 100 species of native trees, 66 mammals, approximately 240 species of birds, and more species of salamanders than are found anywhere else on earth.
Congress established the park in 1934, and its importance is now recognized around the world as an International Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site.
Hike a Smoky Mountain Bald
Above 4,500 feet, Smokies' footpaths leave the hardwoods and tunnel-like rhododendron thickets and climb into fragrant Fraser fir and red spruce forests populated by juncos, boreal chickadees, red squirrels, and other creatures usually associated with the Canadian northwoods. Higher still on some peaks are expansive heath meadows called "balds"; pioneers periodically burned them to create graze for cattle. Famous for their huge views, spectacular wildflower shows, and high-summer berry picking, some of these balds have been kept clear by the park service; among their number are Gregory Bald near Cades Cove and Silers Bald near Clingman's Dome.
Fish for Trout in the Backcountry
For first-timers, the Smoky Mountains fishing experience can be frustrating. Heavy vegetation grows around and over cold streams dotted with slick rocks. Fly fishermen can't find room to back cast. Stream banks are thick with rhododendron. On the flip side, however, fishing in a Smoky Mountain setting is sublime—picture tall yellow birch trees looming over clear water as it flows over mossy boulders into a dark green pool, where a shadowy figure darts up from the deep, attacking your presentation. The best fishing adventures in the Smokies are away from the roads: For rainbows, strike out along Upper Abrams Creek; for browns, try Little River/Fish Camp Prong; for brookies, hike from Clingman's Dome to the headwaters of Hazel Creek.
Walk the Land of the Giants
The Smokies harbor a treasure in the hidden crooks of their crenellated ridges: swaths of old-growth forest so deep in the mountains they've never been logged. To walk a footpath through undisturbed forest is unforgettable, as far from the feel of your neighborhood woods as Notre Dame is to your local church. And where most forests are relatively monotone as far as tree species go, these sheltered valleys are inhabited by amazingly diverse cove forests. There are Carolina silverbells, stately, smooth-barked beech trees, thickly furrowed eastern hemlocks, tulip trees so big around, a large family couldn't hold hands and ring them. Point your boots toward Albright Grove, Buckhorn Gap, or Ramsey Cascade if you want to tread among the big trees.
Explore Pioneer History
You never know what traces of the past you'll find beyond the next thick patch of Smokies mountain laurel. Thousands of pioneers settled this wrinkled, hardscrabble topography in the 19th century. Although these mountain people were displaced when the national park was established, there are reminders everywhere of the lives they eked out in these hills—and not just at beaten-path historic locations like Cades Cove or the Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee. Deep in the backcountry, you may find crumbling chimneys, washtubs, rusty farm implements, and old graveyards—all inspiring wonder at what life must have been like here a century ago.
Find the Wildflowers
The Smokies boast over 1,500 blooming plants, more than any other national park. The blooming season ranges from hepaticas of late winter to goldenrod of late fall, and in between are blooms of purple-and-white-crested dwarf irises, brilliantly red notch-petaled fire pinks, the Fraser magnolia tree's large creamy-white flowers, and blue phlox. Through most of the warmer months, the sheer number of blooming flowers, bushes, and trees boggles the mind, and any tramp through the backcountry will come with a blaze of color.
Backpack along the AT
One of the best ways to enjoy the Smokies is by backpacking. Walking from low to high, overnight hikers can enjoy much the same flora and fauna variation as a backpacker hiking the entire Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. The AT is the master path of the park, offering stone camping shelters, spectacular scenery—and no solitude. Use the AT as a connector path and camp at backcountry sites along the other 800 miles of trails. Among the best circuits are Twentymile Overnight Loop, which takes in everything from flower-filled balds to rich cove forests; the Little River Loop, with ridgeline walks and excellent fishing ops; and Big Creek Overnight Loop, which features a night at 5,800 feet.
Camp off the Beaten Path
There are ten campgrounds spread throughout the Smokies, and a few of them allow for a car-camping experience worlds away from the nightmarish refugee-camp-like experience that all outdoorspeople have had at least once in their life. Abrams Creek, on the far western edge of the park, is set in a streamside forest of hemlock and white pine; small and rustic, it's perfectly situated for fishing, hiking, and swimming in the long, lazy pools of Abrams Creek. Cosby is rarely even half full, meaning solitude is guaranteed; waterfalls, overlooks, a restored wood-and-stone fire tower, and old-growth trees are a hike away. Big Creek is an intimate, walk-in, tent-only campground set streamside in thick forest; its sites are widely separated, and active campers have challenging hiking opportunities, fishing, and swimming.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication