The most-visited national park in the United States – Great Smoky Mountains National Park, straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border

Katy Koontz

THE MOST-VISITED NATIONAL PARK IN THE UNITED STATES Straddling the Tennessee-North Carolina border, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park comprises the largest wilderness area in the eastern United States, encompassing more than half a million acres. Although more than 9 million visitors a year flock to the Smokies-more than to any other national park in the country–quiet comers still exist among its broadleaf and conifer forests, trout-rich streams, and 6,000-foot peaks. Aside from steeping oneself in such abundant natural beauty, visitors to the Smokies also learn about its Appalachian cultural heritage and the way of life of those people who made the mountains their home until the government established the national park in the 1920s.

Park Gateways The park has four major gateways, each with its own distinct personality. The best-known is Gatlinburg, Tennessee, on the park’s northern edge. Here, numerous Appalachian craft stores elbow countless family attractions, such as the Guinness World Records Museum, Ripley’s Believe It or Not, and the Elvis Hall of Fame. Several major discount shopping malls are just down the road in Pigeon Forge, an amusement mecca and the home of Dollywood-a theme park owned by the noted Tennesseean Dolly Parton, a native of the area. A more peaceful Tennessee gateway is Townsend, just a little farther southwest. It, too, has plenty of motels, restaurants, and craft stores, but except for Tuckaleechee Caverns, none of the commercial amusements. The town is less crowded and more spread out, and the pace is decidedly slower. Those interested in Indian culture may favor Cherokee, North Carolina, a small town on the park’s southeastern edge offering motels, museums of Indian culture, and other amusementpark-style attractions in the midst of the Cherokees’ 56,000 acres. Farther west, Fontana Village is North Carolina’s peaceful, sedate gateway, the most remote of all. A resort village just off the Appalachian Trail, Fontana appeals to recreation enthusiasts with hiking, golf, tennis, biking, swimming, boating, water skiing, camping, and fishing (including a well-known fly-fishing school).

Park Drives Newfound Gap Road: a 32-mile road crossing the park from Gatlinburg to Cherokee. The forests along this route range from southern cove hardwood and pine-oak to northern hardwood, heath bald, and spruce-fir, roughly the climatic equivalent of driving from Georgia to Canada.

Clingmans Dome Road: a seven-mile spur off Newfound Gap Road that follows the crest of the mountains. When the weather is clear, the views are among the best in the park, especially from the observation tower (a steep half-mile walk from the road’s end). At 6,642 feet in elevation, Clingmans Dome is the highest peak in the Smokies.

Little River Road: a twisting, windy ribbon of road that meanders along its namesake as it connects the Townsend entrance with Sugarlands Visitor Center at the Gatlinburg entrance.

Cades Cove Loop Road: nearest to Townsend, an 11 -mile loop with more historic structures than any other area in the park. A self-guiding auto-tour booklet available at the entrance explains the significance of the barns, churches, homesteads, and working mill that visitors are free to explore. Wildlife is especially abundant in this area.

Cherokee Orchard Road and the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail: a short loop from Gatlinburg that passes still more historic structures (also with a self-guiding booklet).

Park Activities

Walks and hikes: Although the Smokies has many formidable hiking trails (such as those climbing Mt. LeConte as well as a section of the Appalachian Trail), the park is also full of short and easy strolls.

Quiet walkways and self-guiding nature trails with educational pamphlets are sprinkled through the park. The longest is five miles round-trip, but most are one mile or less. Some pass the remains of homesteads, while others are mere jaunts into the woods. Benches are often placed along the walkways.

A handful of longer trails lead to scenic waterfalls: the five-mile roundtrip trail to Abrams Falls from Cades Cove and the three-mile trail to Grotto Falls (where you can walk behind the falls for a new perspective) from the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.

Nature programs: Various naturalist-conducted walks lasting from an hour or two to a full day are scheduled throughout the spring, summer, and fall. Special events, such as the annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage, offer a more concentrated schedule of programs and organized hikes.

History/Culture: This was the first national park established from private lands and funds, and more than 70 structures in use when the land was acquired (some dating from 1840) have been preserved and opened for exploring.

In wanner weather, the Appalachian way of life comes alive through demonstrations of the production of molasses and apple cider, traditional mountain music, blacksmithing, basket making, and storytelling.

Other park activities: Fishing, biking best along Cades Cove, closed to cars until 10 on summer Saturday mornings), and horseback riding (from any of five stables) are still other options.

If You Go

By car: The Smokies are ringed by 1-40 to the north, 1-75 to the west, 140 and I-26 to the east, and 1-85 to the south. Cherokee is at the junction of Route 19 and Route 441; Fontana Village is on Route 28; Townsend is on Route 321 (off Route 129); and Gatlinburg is on Route 441.

By air: Fly into Knoxville, Tennessee, or Asheville, North Carolina.

Lodging: Rates range from $40 a night to well over $100 for hotels, motels, and cabins in the gateway areas. Reservations are recommended. Campsites are available both in the park and outside its boundaries. Also inside the park are the rustic Wonderland Hotel and the even more rustic LeConte Lodge (accessible only by trail); reservations well in advance are required.

Food: no food is sold inside the park, but all gateway cities have plenty of reasonably priced restaurants, fastfood outlets, and grocery stores.

Climate: Summers are warm and humid with frequent showers, and winters are moderately cold with occasional snow. Late spring and early fall are prime seasons.

For More Information: * On the park, write Superintendent, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Gatlinburg, TN 37738; or call 615-436-1200. * On Gatlinburg, write the local Chamber of Commerce at P.O. Box 527, Gatlinburg, TN 37738; or call 1800-822-1998. * On Townsend, write the local Chamber of Commerce at P.O. Box 66, Townsend, TN 37882; or call 615448-6651. * On Cherokee, write Cherokee Tribal Travel and Promotion, P.O. Box 460, Cherokee, NC 28719; or call 704-4979195 (out-of-state from April through October, call 1-800-438-1601).

On Fontana Village, write Peppertree Fontana Village, Fontana Dam, NC 28733; or call 1-704-498-2211.

-Katy Koontz

COPYRIGHT 1990 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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