We’ve given a lot of love and shout-outs to our beloved national parks, particularly in light of the National Park Service turning 100 last month.
Let’s face it, The Great Smoky Mountain National Park might be the most popular park in the U.S. In 2015, the park welcomed 11 million visitors – nearly twice as many as its next-in-line competitor the Grand Canyon.
So where to start? While this list from USA Today is in no way definitive, if you are a Smoky Mountains newbie, or it’s been awhile since your last visit, these eight ideas will get you going.
1. Travel Newfound Gap Road
Passing through the Smoky Mountains between Gatlinburg, Tenn. and Cherokee, N.C., Newfound Gap Road spans a mere 32 miles. As you wind your way up and down the twisting, steep road, enjoy diverse sights and terrain. With the Appalachian Trail crossing the gap, you can often find hikers milling about as they take a break. At about a mile high, the temperature is considerably cooler than at lower elevations, and abundant snowfall typically persists into the spring.
2. Catch the Views Atop the Clingmans Dome Observation Tower
From the vantage point of the circular observation tower at Clingmans Dome you’ll be able to see the majestic Smokies in all directions (weather permitting, which it sometimes doesn’t). Climbing the steep half-mile path to get there, however, is a bit of a trial. At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the park, and temperatures are even lower than at Newfound Gap.
3. Walk the Spruce-Fir Nature Trail
Located along the road leading to Clingmans Dome, the 1/4 mile Spruce-Fir Nature Trail gives hikers a fascinating peek into scenery dominated by dead and decaying fir trees with moss-covered bark and toppled fir trees. It’s both strange and eerie, yet mystical and magical with the many chattering, twittering, and rustling animals and flowers that bring life to the area.
4. Go Back in Time at Cades Cove
Cades Cove provides a glimpse of the farming community that once lived in the Smoky Mountains. Settled by Europeans in the early 1800s, many of the cove’s historic buildings remain open to visitors. There are churches, barns, log houses, a smokehouse, blacksmith shop, and other places to explore. Consider bringing or renting bicycles to tour the area during designated days and times when cars are prohibited.
5. Go Off the Beaten Path at Deep Creek
Located between Bryson City and Cherokee at the southern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s about a 30-minute drive from the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to Deep Creek. Old-school paper maps may be in order, since cell reception is sketchy. Smaller waterfalls, like Tom Branch and Indian Creek, make for nice focal points.
6. Check Out a Grist Mill
Corn, especially stone ground cornmeal, has long been associated with the Smoky Mountains. Built in 1886, the historic Mingus Mill allows visitors to see how corn used to be processed. Water flows down a long millrace to power its cast iron turbine. When the mill is open from mid-March to mid-November, you’ll be able to observe cornmeal production in action.
7. Visit a Farm
Behind the park’s Oconaluftee Visitor Center is the Mountain Farm Museum. It includes a collection of authentic, historic structures culled from farms throughout the Smokies. The museum includes a log farmhouse, an apple house, and a sorghum mill and furnace. Rangers maintain the livestock and crop fields to show what farm life was like generations ago.
8. Take an Easy Hike around Fighting Creek
The Fighting Creek Nature Trail is an easy 1.2-mile loop located behind the park’s Sugarlands Visitor Center. Despite its proximity to the busy center and to major roads, walking the trail quickly takes visitors away from the hubbub and into the forest. Markers along the way indicate some of the native trees and other flora. The John Ownby cabin, an open structure built in 1860, is among the trail’s highlights.
We know this doesn’t even crack the surface on how many options The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has to offer, but now you have an agenda for your next visit to White Oak Lodge and Resort!
Have you explored the Smoky Mountains? Tell us what hikes, attractions and sites you like best.