Most people associate national parks with the Western part of the country, such as Yosemite, Yellowstone, or the Grand Canyon. However, the most popular of them by a wide margin is right in the midst of Appalachia, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
This park, along the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, brought in over 11 million visitors last year, twice the number of the second place park. There are a number of different reasons. For one, lower numbers of national parks on the East Coast mean that the Great Smoky Mountains get a larger share of interested visitors.
In addition, unlike many other parks, there is no admission fee. Of course, these 521,000 acres have a lot more to offer than just convenience.
The Great Smoky Mountains are among the most incredible national parks in the USA in terms of things to do, meaning that they can be a great vacation destination for family travelers or those looking for a more active vacation.
1. Take In The Scenery
With unique foliage, wildlife, and plenty of scenic vistas, deciding what part of the Great Smoky Mountains to visit can be a bit of a puzzler. Luckily, there are several driving tours and scenic highways to allow you to see wide swaths of the area at your own pace.
Be sure to take advantage of the scenic pullouts along the road to try and catch an animal sighting, a photo, or simply relax and take it all in. The Roaring Fork Motor Trail is a favorite, but some report that this one-way, narrow road can get crowded during peak seasons, so plan wisely.
2. See Cades Cove
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the isolated valley of Cades Cove was home to Appalachian settlers, and now, it is one of the most popular spots in the whole park.
A major reason for this is that it offers some of the best opportunities for wildlife watching. Keep an eye out for deer, black bear, coyote, groundhogs, turkey, raccoon, skunk, and other animals.
If you’re looking for another favorite spot, be sure to try and reach the peak of Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park. At its peak is an observation tower that offers a full 360-degree view of the mountains and surrounding areas.
3. Get Active
Many people visit national parks to get a one of a kind natural experience, and the Great Smoky Mountains are great for some recreational activities. These range from hiking to biking to fishing and even horseback riding, offering something for everyone.
4. Take In Some History
Most people associate national parks more with nature rather than human history, but Appalachia is full of rich tradition and history that many people never get the chance to hear about.
The Great Smoky Mountains offer the rare chance to see this up front, with one of the best collections of log buildings in the Eastern United States.
See over 90 preserved or rehabilitated historic structures, including houses, barns, outbuildings, churches, schools, and grist mills. If you want to learn more about them during your visit, keep an eye out for self-guiding auto tour booklets available at each spot.
The best places to see them are at Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Oconaluftee, and along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
5. Explore The Nearby Towns
Unlike some of the other national parks out there, the Great Smoky Mountains have some surrounding towns that are worth a visit in their own right. One example is nearby Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, only a few miles north.
Pigeon Forge is a great family town with a lot of country and Southern Flair. Some of the top attractions here include the Dollywood amusement park, one of two Titanic Museum Attractions and WonderWorks Indoor Amusement Park, all great places to bring the kids.
Another great thing about Pigeon Forge and the other towns bordering the park is that they can make a great home base for your excursions into the park itself.
However, if you do plan on staying, know that a cozy and authentic alternative to a traditional hotel is staying in a cabin. Several different companies offer great offers on rental cabins in Pigeon Forge, and don’t think that this is just for small groups, as there are different options to match all kinds of vacation needs.