Thursday, November 19, 2020

10 Must Visit Places in Great Smoky Mountains

Explorer Lens

I have always wondered why “Great Smoky Mountains National Park” is the most popular national park of USA. In 2019 it had the highest number of visitors – 12.5 million.

Yosemite is known for its gigantic granite rocks and beautiful waterfalls, Yellowstone is known for its hot springs, gushing geysers and majestic wildlife, Death Valley for its dramatic terrain and Acadia for its scenic coastal areas. So, I was quite excited to see what magic lied in Smoky Mountains, and oh man I was on cloud 9.

One great advantage that I had, I was visiting during the Fall season which is considered as the best time to visit Smoky Mountains. Also, after visiting the national park I understood why the name has Smoky in it. There can be smoke of fog or clouds at any point of the day and it is so mystical and magical.

Visiting Smoky Mountains doesn’t just include visiting the National Park, but also includes a trip to the nearby towns which are quite happening and full of activities for all age groups.
So let’s move forward to the 10 must do things on your trip to “Great Smoky Mountains National Park”.

1. Cades Cove Drive
The top thing to do in Smoky Mountain is the Cades Cove Drive. This 11 miles one-way drive is known for its picturesque mountain views, historic cabins dating back to 1800 and wildlife watching. It is one of the best places in the park to view animals like black bears, deer and wild turkeys. Hiking is also popular here, especially the trails leading to Abrams Falls. Cades Cove can be best explored by a car or bike, but keep in mind that loop road is closed to motor traffic on Saturday and Wednesday mornings until 10 a.m. from early May to late September, and only cyclists are allowed during those times.

Make sure to go early around 9:00 a.m., otherwise you will be stuck in big queues as the cars move quite slowly and traffic increase as the day progresses. Also we saw 2 black bears here, so always keep on looking into the woods.

Cades cove drive can take anywhere from 4-6 hours, so be prepared.

2. Newfound Gap Drive
If you want to enjoy the breathtaking views of the mountains, specially during the fall season, then Newfound Gap Drive is a must. This is 31 miles drives which run from Sugarland Visitor Center and goes still Cherokee, North Carolina. There are numerous overlook points here which provides jaw-dropping views of the mountains and the valley. The whole drive is quite scenic during the fall time when the leaves are painted in colors of yellow, orange and red.

Also, the trailheads of the most popular hikes of Smoky Mountains are located on this drive.
Newfound Gap drive can take anywhere from 2-3 hours.

3. Clingmans Dome Observation Tower
At 6643 feet, Clingmans Dome is considered as the highest point in Smoky Mountains.
The observation tower situated on the summit of Clingmans Dove offers striking 360-degree views of the Smoky Mountains. On a clear day, one can see views expanding till 100 miles.

The hike from parking to the top of the observation tower is half mile one way and is very steep. Also, the temperatures here are cooler than the lowlands and hence it is advised to always carry a jacket, even in summers. You can also do stargazing here.

Spare 1.5-2 hours for the hike and sightseeing here.

4. Hikes
There are lot of amazing hikes here in Smoky Mountains, one of which is also part of the Appalachian trail, but I will list only the top 3-day hikes as per what I have read and known.

- Alum Cave Trail to Mount LeConte
It is considered to be the most popular hike of Smoky Mountains and we understood that when we saw the parking for the trailhead. It is a 11 miles roundtrip and is rated as difficult. As we were short on time, so we decided to skip this and do the Charlies Bunion via Appalachian Trail.

- Chimney Tops Trail
It is one of the shorter hikes of Smoky Mountains with spectacular views.
Rated as strenuous and steep, the hike is of total 4 miles roundtrip.
In spring and summer, you can also see beautiful wildflowers here.
As we had time to do only one hike in our trip, we preferred Charlies Bunion over this.

- Charlies Bunion via Appalachian Trail
Charlies Bunion is a stone outcrop which provides killer views of Mt. LeConte and Mt. Chapman. It is rated as one of the top hikes of Smoky Mountains. The hike is not well marked; hence you need to follow the signs for Appalachian Trail. It is around 8.5 miles round trip and is rated as difficult.

Make sure to carry some protein bars and stuff for energy and also good amount of water.
When you reach Charlies Bunion, there is also a way to get to a higher point which is right above it and the views from there are even more breathtaking.

5. Waterfalls
Some of the popular Waterfalls in the park are :

- Grotto Falls
You can actually walk behind this waterfall, which is an experience in itself. It can be accessible through a 2.6 mile roundtrip hike located in Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

- Rainbow Falls
As the name suggests, this fall produces rainbow mist during sunny afternoons. It is a 5.4 mile roundtrip hike located in Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

- Abrams Falls
Though its just a 20-foot fall, but it boasts a large volume of water into a deep pool lying at the bottom of the fall, which makes it quite picturesque. It is a 5-mile roundtrip hike located in Cades Cove Loop Road.

As we were short of time for a long hike to a waterfall, we choose to see another stunning waterfall which lies at the edge of the park – Mingo Falls. It is just a 0.3-mile hike to the bottom of the waterfall. We need to climb a staircase and then get to a bridge to witness this spectacular 120 feet fall. It looks absolutely stunning during the fall season.

6. Gatlinburg
Located in the valley of Smoky Mountains, this beautiful town has something for each age group. It feels like Gatlinburg is the starting point of Smoky Mountains.
There are variety of attractions and activities on offer for each age group.

Some of the popular activities include :
-  Ober Gatlinburg (Enjoy Mountain Coaster & aerial tramway in summers and snow activities in winter)
-  Gatlinburg Space Needle (Observation Deck at 400 feet gives stunning views of the town and Smoky Mountains)
-  Anakeesta (This theme park is a favorite for both kids and adults and has tons of activities)
-  Helicopter Ride
-  Ziplining
-  Horseback Riding
-  Skylift Park (It is home to one of the longest pedestrian suspension bridges in North America and while walking the bridge you can soak in stunning views of Smoky Mountains).

7. Pigeon Forge
This town is love at first sight, as it is home to some incredible attractions.
It is full of amusement parks, to shows and other attractions.
Some of the popular activities include :
- The Island (Ride the Great Smoky Mountain Wheel and watch the Island Show fountain)
- Dollywood (It is counted among the top 10 amusement parks in USA and has world class activities)
- Titanic Museum (Feels like you are boarding the real ship)
-  Nascar Speed Park (If you want to feel the adrenaline rush)
-  Hollywood Wax Museum
-  Wonderworks

8. Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
Another one-way scenic loop drive in the park is Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It offers stunning views of the forest, rushing streams and historic cabins. During fall season it turns into a magical route which looks absolutely stunning.

There are also few scenic overlooks and popular waterfall (Rainbow and Grotto) trailheads along the course. It is total 5.5 miles and can take anywhere around 2-3 hours to cover it.

9. Wildlife watching
One of the best things to do in Smoky Mountains is to watch wildlife in their natural habitat.
There are around 65 different species of mammals, over 200 varieties of birds and over 80 types of reptiles and amphibians.

The popular wildlife which can be frequently seen in the park are -
Black Bears (densest population in whole USA), Deer, Elks, Salamanders and Coyotes.
Bears can be seen along the Cades Cove and Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Elks are located in the Cataloochee area of the park.

10. Stay in Cabins
Why not wake up to an unobstructed beautiful view of the misty mountains or sipping up a warm cup of coffee while watching the sunrise over the mountains?

Staying in cabins is once in a lifetime experience and should definitely be considered while visiting Smoky Mountains. It is also affordable and feels home like.
Do read the Covid safety measures and instructions before booking a Cabin.

So I hope, I was able to help you plan your trip to Smoky Mountains. All the best for an adventurous and amazing vacation. Have fun and stay safe !!

Explorer Lens / Author & Editor

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