With their striking layers of green, grey and blue peeking through the clouds and foggy haze, the Great Smoky Mountains are most definitely a sight to behold. It's fitting that Cherokee people indigenous to the area call these mountains shaconage or a "place of blue smoke."
It was September when we last visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most of the trees were still clinging to their bright green summer leaves. Occasionally, there would be a tree or two or three beginning to hint at the coming fall with their magical transition to red or gold. It was "layers" weather with cozy sweatshirts being removed by mid-morning to enjoy the rest of the day in short-sleeved shirts and hiking shorts. We kept our rain jackets handy as on and off rain was the name of the game this trip. Sloshy moments throughout the day transitioned to sunshine and stickiness and back to rain again. It was just that sort of trip.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park resides along a portion of the Tennessee/North Carolina border in the southeast United States. The Great Smokies are a part of the larger Appalachian Mountains.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, established in 1934, is large; consisting of nearly 523,000 acres of land. While congress authorized purchase of land for the park in 1926, it took the help of donations to acquire the land; eventually protecting and restoring it from area logging depleting the forest.
There is much to see inside the park's boundaries and one visit won't likely get the job done. Whether you like to camp/fish/hike, want to learn the history of Cherokee people and early European settlers in the Appalachians, or just enjoy a scenic drive, Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a taste for everyone.
"The Peaceful Side of the Smokies"
In previous adventures to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, we visited the bustling towns of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg in Tennessee before entering the park. Those are both fun and very busy places to explore. You definitely won't be lacking for things to do if you choose that route. However, we planned for something a little quieter this time and headed to the community of Townsend, Tennessee for our stop outside the park.
Located southwest of both Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg and along Highway 321, Townsend advertises itself as "The Peaceful Side of the Smokies." Townsend has a population of about 625 people, yet this little place still offers plenty of kick for visitors. You can hike, bike, tube, shop, dine and visit the national park. It's just a quieter vibe and one we liked.
We stayed at Big Meadow Family Campground and it was a terrific choice for us. We were welcomed by friendly and helpful staff. The campground was clean and the amenities were good. Importantly for us, Big Meadow had a freezer full of ice cream when we arrived! We grabbed and paid for a couple of selections after our several hours drive to town. Om nom num! Delicious!
Most things you need traveling on the road can be found in town including a small grocery store for food supplies. During our stay we stopped at a super unique ice creamery that offered some interesting flavors (yeah, I know... more ice cream). I had a scoop with toasted coconut swirled through the creamy layers. Not to disappoint, John went for chocolate, chocolate, and more chocolate. Tasty!
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
For people who appreciate the joys of nature, there are few things that get the heart pumping as much as a drive through the gates of a national park. After indulging in rich ice creams, we needed to work off some calories. This was the perfect place to do so.
Refreshing streams, gorgeous wildflowers, an abundance of critters and stunning vistas are awaiting your visit to this national park. The park has almost 400 miles of roadway, mostly paved, for travelers to cruise. The scenery is beautiful, but drive carefully and courteously. Lots of folks are puttering along these twisty roads and stopping at the pull offs. Take your time, wait your turn and be patient. Above all else, take photos of the breathtaking scenery and then put the camera down to enjoy it with all your senses!
We are lucky to have so many national areas preserved for us to visit. When it comes Great Smoky Mountains National Park, millions of people likely agree. It is said to be the most visited park in the nation with more than 11 million visits each year. As such, parking can become quite an issue.
To better manage visitors, there is no entrance fee, but the park does require parking passes for those wishing to park for more than 15 minutes. If you're planning to visit and know the date you plan to arrive, buy a parking pass online before you go and print it out so it can be placed on your vehicle's dash. You can also purchase a pass at a kiosk near the visitor center. The rate at the time of our visit was $5/day, $15/weekly or $40/annually. More details can be found online or at the visitor centers.
We travel with our pup no matter where we go because she's family. That means we need to check what's allowed and what's not when stopping at the various places we visit. Pets are usually allowed in national parks, but not in the back country for their safety and for the safety of wildlife. And, since we don't leave our pet alone while traveling, we often take turns exploring so one of us is always with the pup. But when we can do things together, it's all the sweeter.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park allows leashed pets in populated areas like campgrounds, picnic areas, outside visitor centers and along the roads and pull-offs for those who want to stop during a drive through the park. What's great about this particular park is that there are two designated pet trails where you can roam and enjoy nature together. That's just doggone excellent in our book!
B.A.R.K. if you love the Smokies! BARK! Alrighty then... it's time for your pet to go for a trail walk and earn their Bark Ranger certificate! In this instance, B.A.R.K. stand for:
B - Bag your pet's waste
A - Always leash your pet
R - Respect wildlife
K - Know where you can go
Gatlinburg Trail (Dog Friendly)
The Gatlinburg Trail is near the Sugarlands Visitor Center and pets are allowed to use this path to burn off some of that "been riding in the car too long" energy. It's a nearly two-mile trail from the visitor center to Gatlinburg. Double it with a walk back to the visitor center and you've burned off some serious ice cream calories.
Oconaluftee Trail (Dog Friendly)
The other dog-friendly trail in the park is the Oconaluftee River Trail that runs about a mile and a half from the visitor center to Cherokee, North Carolina. We walked both trails with our pup and found we enjoyed the Oconaluftee River trail a bit more. It was more inspiring, followed a flowing river with lots of shade trees and felt farther removed from the vroom of traffic.
But before you stomp along the trails with your furry best friend, stop inside one the visitor centers (your pet will have to wait outside) and let them know your pet wants to become a "Bark Ranger." Oh my, yes! It's at that time a ranger will provide you with information about the location of the dog-friendly trails, remind you of the B.A.R.K. code of ethics and give you a "worksheet" to complete along your journey.
The worksheet is a simple little guide that asks you to look for certain aspects along the trail you'll be walking. It also provides easy rules to remember as a human/pet family visiting the park. You and your pet can walk along the trail as much or as little as you would like. Return the worksheet after you've finished exploring and your pet will receive an official "Bark Ranger" certificate signed by a park ranger. If you want to get fancy, you can purchase a Bark Ranger charm for your dog's collar. Does pup really need a charm for her collar? Well, heck yeah!
Some rangers make an awesome show of your pet's accomplishment with an announcement. Others are low key about your pet's new designation. Either way, it's a fun way to spend some time together in the Smokies. There are also recreational areas near the national park that allow more hiking opportunities with your pet if you need additional outdoor thrills.
Yes, there are black bears in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the park service does their best to make you aware of their presence. It's estimated that close to 2,000 black bears live in the park. Adult male black bears can weigh around 250 pounds in the spring and double their size by fall. Females are a bit smaller.
Keep your distance from bears and other wildlife and manage food and trash properly while in the park. The park service offers tips on their website and at visitor centers for keeping safe if you encounter a bear and it's a good idea to review those tips. Park rangers take these matters seriously and so should visitors. Real deal bears aren't as cuddly as Winnie the Pooh. Rather, they might steal your "pic-a-nic" basket like Yogi Bear. Or worse.
Be wise and protect yourself and bears by following park guidelines.
What to See in the Park? Some Ideas
Sugarlands Visitor Center
This visitor center is located on the northern side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and just a couple of miles from the Gatlinburg park entrance. It's here you can watch a short film about the park, view exhibits, visit restrooms, chat with a ranger and check out the merchandise in the park store. There are some short family-friendly trails to explore including the Gatlinburg Trail that pets may also traverse. Be sure to stamp your National Parks Passport book if you participate in that program. And, keep an eye out for warnings like the one I saw for "active" Yellow Jackets. Unfortunately, Yellow Jackets like me... a bit too much! Bzzz! Fortunately, they didn't find me this trip. Phew!
As mentioned, there are a lot of things to see in the park and unless you plan an extended stay, you'll not be able to see everything in one visit. A unique place to explore is Cades Cove. It's an 11-mile, one-way loop road through a mountain-surrounded valley.
It's a super popular area in the park and people often see an abundance of wildlife. We noticed a few little critters, but most were hiding during our drive through the valley. Do not get in a hurry if you plan to visit here. The National Park Service estimates you should plan 2-4 hours to make your way through Cades Cove.
We easily spent about 2.5 hours just making it around the 11-mile loop and only stopping at the visitor center for a short duration. And, my! That restroom line was looong (thank goodness we have our own RV restroom)! Vehicles slowly travel through Cades Cove in single file. If you plan to hike or stop along the route to visit many of the primitive and historic structures including churches, barns, log houses, etc., expect to be in the area for a while. Pull offs along the route here are minimal and it's important to not block the roadway if you choose to stop to check out some of the sights.
Parking is very limited not only along the loop route, but at the visitor center. Vehicles pulling trailers are not allowed. We had no trouble making the loop in our Class B camper van that fits into a regular parking space. We saw several other Class B vans and Class C RVs navigating the area just fine.
Each Wednesday from May through September, Cades Cove is accessible via foot or bike only. Plan accordingly.
Honestly (and sadly), we didn't make it to Clingman's Dome as the park was quite busy during our visit. However, it's worth noting that Clingman's Dome is the highest point (6,643 ft.) in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Visitors can walk to the top of an observation tower for a 360-degree view of the national park. Stunning, I'm sure! The road to Clingman's Dome is open seasonally. Check the National Park website for details.
Oconaluftee Visitor Center
This visitor center is located on the southern side of Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Cherokee, North Carolina. In addition to the exploring the visitor center, take time to follow the Oconaluftee Trail to the Mountain Farm Museum to gain a sense for how area families lived more than a century ago.
While pets can walk along the Oconaluftee Trail, they are not allowed to enter the Mountain Farm Museum along the trail. We each took turns exploring the farm museum, while the other waited patiently with our pet outside the museum boundaries. While visitors can't enter the buildings in the farm museum, each are open to look into or through. I included a photo of John and pup waiting along the trail for me as I peeked through the living area of a mountain cabin via the perfectly aligned front/back doors.
Don't forget to ask about the Junior Ranger program before you start exploring if kiddos are with you. We used to participate with our daughter when she was younger. It's fun and engaging for youngster ages 5-13. And, they earn a badge! Super cool!
Trails, Trails, Trails and Camping
Whether you like family-friendly trails or hiking in the back country, the national park has you covered. There is no limit to the number of miles you can explore in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Trail maps are available online and at the visitor centers. Follow ranger guidelines regarding wildlife and hiking and/or camping tips. More information about the park trails and camping can be found at www.nps.gov. Be sure, too, to check the park website before you go for any trail or road closures.
Blue Ridge Parkway
A trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park wouldn't be complete without a trek along the Blue Ridge Parkway... at least for a short bit.
The parkway extends 469 miles from Great Smoky Mountains National Park through North Carolina and into Virginia just west of Charlottesville in Rockfish Gap. It links Shenandoah National Park and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our particular journey of the scenic roadway took us from Cherokee to Asheville, North Carolina.
Work to construct the Blue Ridge Parkway started in late 1935 in Virginia. The final section, the Linn Cove Viaduct in North Carolina, was completed fifty-two years later. The parkway is visited by as many as 16-million people annually.
We topped off our excursion along the Blue Ridge Parkway with a stop at the Folk Art Center in Asheville, North Carolina. The center was established to conserve the native craftsmanship of the Southern Appalachians. It's a neat place to visit because it includes a variety of locally-made arts and crafts to view and/or purchase. Yes, of course we made a purchase. It was a little honey pot and dipper. Winnie the Pooh would be proud! Interestingly, once we returned home from our excursion, my mother shared fresh honey she had received from a neighbor. Mom had acquired several bottles and thought we might like one. She didn't know we had purchased a new honey pot waiting to be filled with sweet, golden honey. I guess it was one of those things that was just meant to bee! Bzzzz.
More to See
There is much to do in the national park and the surrounding communities. This blog post just hits a small number of highlights. Keep in mind that a visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and neighboring areas is what you make it. Be patient and understand that you won't be able to see everything in just one trip. No worries. Your stay will likely leave you anxious for a return visit.
Thanks for taking the time to read our blog. Visit RubysWindingRoad.com to read about some of our previous adventures. We'll be posting again soon. In the meantime, tap the heart icon at the bottom of the page if you like this post. Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram. Wishing you safe and happy travels in the New Year! Take care.