Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Park Regions
Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains
Cades Cove, Smokies (courtesy, TDTD)

The Smoky Mountains National Park comprises some 500,000 acres, covering the highest continuous ridgeline and surrounding watersheds in the Southern Appalachians. The mountain chain runs more than 50 miles in an east-west line, and average 15-20 miles wide. Much of the primary high ridge forms the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee. Park acreage is divided roughly in half between these two states and ranges in elevation between 875 and 6,643 feet. Far from a singular entity, the Smokies are rather an agglomeration of several distinct park "neighborhoods." These neighborhoods are Cades Cove, Fontana Lake, Elkmont, Cosby/Greenbrier, and Cataloochee/Smokemont.

Cades Cove
Cades Cove is a vast mountain valley encircled by rugged ridges. This valley was heavily settled in pre-park days and still contains historic structures, from homesteads to churches, that are worth checking out. An 11-mile loop road through Cades Cove is popular with auto tourists and bicyclists alike. Numerous trails emanate from the cove, leading to varied destinations, such as Abrams Falls, a wide fall with a large swimming hole that is a perennial cooling-off locale, or Gregory Bald, a high country meadow with inspiring views. Busy and large Cades Cove campground draws in the families, and bears, too. The much quieter Abrams Creek campground is on the park's western edge. The surrounding lowlands, cloaked in pine-oak woods that contrast with the moister hemlock, fraser magnolia, and river birch woods of the creeks, are popular with horseback riders. Cades Cove can become choked with cars on weekends and anywhere near the roads can be crowded, but the Abrams Falls Trail is the only packed path. The lesser-used one-way Parsons Branch Road offers a quieter auto touring experience, in addition to trout fishing on Parson Branch and Rabbit creeks. The best angling in the area is on upper Abrams Creek where it flows out of Cades Cove.

Fontana Lake
The Fontana Lake area is bounded on the south side by Fontana Lake, an impoundment of the Little Tennessee River. Into these waters flow clear mountain streams that drain the North Carolina backcountry down the high country crest, from Spence Field in the west to the spruce-fir cloaked highlands of Clingmans Dome in the east. A short trail leads to an observation tower atop Clingmans Dome, the high point in the park. The primary campground of this area is Deep Creek, near the mountain town of Bryson City. It is a busy family campground that is popular with tubers, who float Deep Creek. This is just one of the area streams that make this an angler's paradise. Other waterways include Noland Creek, Forney Creek, Hazel Creek, and Eagle Creek. They all feature rainbow and brown trout, with native brook trout in their headwaters. The mouths of the last three streams are accessible by boat via Fontana Lake. Backcountry campsites are scattered on islands of Fontana Lake and up these feeder creeks, making fish camping and paddling adventures very viable. Canoers and sea kayakers enjoy Fontana Lake with its great mountain vistas, and are not overwhelmed by motorboaters.

The Elkmont area drains the high country lands from Spence Field east to Newfound Gap on the Tennessee side of the park. The land drops steeply from the crest of the mountains, where the Appalachian Trail travels, down to the various prongs of the Little River. This is bear country, a land of tall deciduous forests in deep coves. The panoramas from high places, such as Rocky Top and Silers Bald, extend as far as the clarity of the sky allows. Other popular hiking destinations include the Chimney Tops, practically a rite of passage for Smokies enthusiasts, and Laurel Falls, a too-crowded paved path. Elkmont is a popular year-round campground and jumping off point for backcountry hikers, who overnight at the numerous valley and ridgetop campsites in the area.

The people who lived in Cosby and Greenbrier were very much against the inception of the park. However, they were bought out and now the settlements of Greenbrier and upper Cosby are now the domain of park enthusiasts. Today, the bulk of humanity lies in nearby Gatlinburg, which seems a world away. However, settler history is evident nearly everywhere, and accessed by the Old Settlers Trail and Grapeyard Ridge Trail. Not overshadowed are the big trees of Albright Grove, the wildflowers of Porters Creek Valley, and the distinctive Mount LeConte, a mountain with unique flora and fauna and the only lodge in the park. This rustic lodge is accessible only by a minimum five-mile uphill walk. Other hikes head to watery destinations such as Ramsay Cascades, Grotto Falls, Henwallow Falls, and Rainbow Falls. Views can be had from Mount Cammerer, where there is a restored wood and stone tower, atop Brushy Mountain, and occasionally along the Appalachian Trail, which runs the crest of the state line ridge. Cosby Campground is an ideal underused campground where there is nearly always a campsite available. It is an ideal basecamp for exploring this side of the park.

The Cataloochee/Smokemont Area ranges in North Carolina from Smokemont in the west to Big Creek in the east. The Indian culture theme town of Cherokee is much smaller than Gatlinburg, but does draw crowds. The natural draws are the spruce-fir forests and viewing tower of Mount Sterling and the wild mountain streams of Big Creek, Bradley Fork, and Caldwell Fork. Anglers vie for trout these streams and others. Backcountry campsites scattered throughout the area make for memorable backpacking experiences. Car campers have two of the finest campgrounds in the park from which to choose. Big Creek is a rustic area with walk-in tent sites. Cataloochee Campground is an old timey wood-smoke-curling-up-through-the-trees destination that is accessible via dirt road, which cuts down on traffic. The Cataloochee Valley also has preserved pioneer structures and open fields that make the reality of a settled valley come alive.


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