Eight Reasons to Explore the Smokies

Here you’ll find spectacular scenery as awe-inspiring mountain landscapes give way to cascading waterfalls, wildlife, and countless outdoor activities

Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee in the Appalachian Mountain chain, one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world. The park offers visitors spectacular views, recreation, and natural wonders in each season.

Adjoined by three national forests, the 800-square-mile park is the ancestral homeland of the Cherokee. They called the area Shaconage or land of blue smoke for its natural bluish haze—which is caused by organic compounds given off by the mountains’ abundant vegetation.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park holds UNESCO World Heritage status for its natural beauty and world importance. It’s also among the country’s most visited national parks, in part because it is easily accessible from major interstates and highways. In fact, half the population of the United States lives within a day’s drive from the park.

While getting to the Smokies is easy, here are eight other reasons to add this park to your must-see list:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Immense biodiversity

Great Smoky Mountains is the most biologically diverse national park in the United States—no other park matches its number and variety of animals, plants, fungi, and other organisms. That’s because this land became a refuge for species displaced during the last ice age.

Its valleys and peaks range in elevation from about 875 feet to more than 6,600, creating safe habitats throughout the park for plants and animals we might consider common only to northern or southern regions of North America.

Abundant rainfall and high summertime humidity create a temperate climate in which species thrive—including 100 species of native trees, over 1,500 flowering plants, more than 200 types of birds, and over 9,000 species of insects.

About 80 types of reptiles and amphibians live here. The park is known as the Salamander Capital of the World for its 30 identified species—from the 2-inch lungless salamander to foot-long hellbender.

The nonprofit Discover Life in America, an official park partner, is conducting a massive effort to catalog every species living in the Great Smoky Mountains. Since 1998, the group has tallied more than 21,000 species including more than 1,000 that are new to science. Scientists believe there may be as many as 80,000-100,000 living species overall. Citizen science plays an important role in the project, giving the public opportunities to participate in research.

Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Stunning scenery

Geologists believe the Smokies were once as tall as the Rocky Mountains but wind, water, and time have worn them down to the sloping peaks and broad valleys we see today. About two inches of rock erode every thousand years. Forests of hardwoods and evergreens cover these mountains with different tree species growing at different elevations.

At Clingmans Dome, the park’s highest point at 6,643 feet, visitors can take in this stunning scenery from an observation deck. The 360-degree view extends over 100 miles on a clear day but sometimes can be limited to around 20 miles.

Mountain views can also be seen throughout the park whether visitors tour by car or on foot. With 150 official trails in the park, hikers can find vistas at many points along their way. An 11-mile, one-way loop road circles Cades Cove and is open for bicycle and foot traffic only each Wednesday from May through September. A drive over Newfound Gap Road compares to a trip from Georgia to Maine in terms of the varying forest ecosystems to see. Auto tours also can be taken along Foothills Parkway and through Cataloochee Valley.

Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Bears! And plenty of other wildlife

About 1,900 black bears live in the Great Smoky Mountains, one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States where the bears can live in wild, natural surroundings. These Great Smoky icons along with deer, turkeys, groundhogs, and other wildlife can often be seen in the open fields in Cades Cove and Cataloochee Valley during the morning and evening.

Among the spruce and fir forests on the park’s high-elevation ridges, you might spot the endangered Northern flying Squirrel, saw-whet owl, red crossbill, Blackburnian warbler, and other creatures.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In all, about 65 species of mammals and 50 native species of fish reside in the park. Before the park’s establishment in 1934, a number of native animals—such as bison, elk, mountain lion, gray and red wolves, river otter, Peregrine falcon, and several species of fish—were eradicated by hunters and trappers, among other reasons. Today, the National Park Service works to preserve native species in a condition similar to what existed before the presence of modern humans.

Some species have been reintroduced such as elk in 2001 after a 200-year absence as well as river otter and peregrine falcon.

To reduce the likelihood of vehicles colliding with wildlife on Interstate 40 in North Carolina, a series of wildlife-safe passages have been constructed. These overpasses and underpasses help animals move safely between the park and national forests as they search for mates, food, and habitat.

Replica of Cherokee Village, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. The ancestral home of the Cherokee

The Cherokee Nation once inhabited what now makes up the southeastern United States. Members lived in a matriarchal society of small communities. Among their hunting grounds were the mountains and valleys now part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

In the 1700s, settlers encroached on Cherokee territory spreading disease, prompting conflict, and pressuring the Tribe to relinquish their land. Some Cherokee chose to migrate westward before President Andrew Jackson began their forced removal.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From the edge of what’s now the national park, the U.S. government placed the Cherokee in stockades and confiscated their homes and possessions. In 1838, nearly 14,000 Native Americans were forced to move to Oklahoma and Arkansas—a deadly, six-month walk that became known as the Trail of Tears. More than 4,000 Cherokee died en route from cold, hunger, and disease.

A small group, the Oconaluftee Cherokees were allowed to stay. Others hid deep in the mountains to avoid relocation. Together, they formed the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians which has about 15,000 members today. Many of them live in a 57,000-acre reservation known as the Qualla Boundary which borders the park. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian and Oconaluftee Indian Village tell the Cherokee story and are located just outside the park in Cherokee, North Carolina.

The Tribe is currently seeking to rename the park’s Clingmans Dome to Kuwohi which translates to the Mulberry Place.

Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Remains of settler villages

For a century before the establishment of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, European settlers lived on land that had been the home of the Cherokee. Visitors can explore remnants of settler villages in Cades Cove on the western end of the park and Cataloochee Valley on the eastern end.

In Cades Cove, families used the rich and fertile land to grow corn. They built log homes, barns, churches, and schools. As many as 685 people lived here in 1850. Neighbors assisted one another and turned seasonal chores into community events: corn husking, molasses making, and gathering of chestnuts. The National Park Service has restored several cabins and barns so Cades Cove looks as it did in the early settler days.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In Cataloochee Valley, visitors can get a glimpse into mountain life at the turn of the 20th century. About 1,200 people lived here in 1910 and based their economy on farming, commercial apple growing, and an early tourism industry. Historical buildings can be seen from the main road or by hiking a couple of miles: a school, churches, a barn, and a few homes.

This year, the park completed a renovation of the Walker sisters’ two-story cabin. The women refused to leave their farm when the park was created so the government granted them a lifetime lease. The cabin dates to the 1800s and the sisters lived there until 1964.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. The ghost town of Elkmont

In the early 1900s, Elkmont was a logging and railroad town of more than 1,500 people. It was built by the Little River Lumber Company and Railroad which owned almost 80,000 acres of what is now the national park. In addition to laborers, the railroad and town attracted wealthy vacationers and social clubs. Elkmont Campground now occupies part of this area.

The ghost town moniker developed in the 1990s after numerous resort cabins from Elkmont’s heyday were abandoned. When the government established the park residents were given the choice of selling their homes at full value or selling to the Park Service at a reduced price in return for a lifetime lease. Many chose leases, most of which expired in 1992. The Park Service was left with dozens of empty buildings it could not maintain.

The Park Service demolished some buildings preserved others and opened them to the public. Among them is the 3,000-square-foot Appalachian Clubhouse which can be rented for events.

Something else worthwhile to see at Elkmont: fireflies. Elkmont is one of the best places in the world to view these lightning bugs each June.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Lodging at 6,400 feet

No roads lead to LeConte Lodge at the base of Mount LeConte so this backcountry accommodation requires a hike. Reservations must be made well in advance.

Mount LeConte is Great Smoky Mountains’ third-highest peak at 6,593 feet. Five trails—ranging in length from 5 to 9 miles—will get you to LeConte Lodge which is under Park Service jurisdiction. If you take the Trillium Gap Trail you might see the lodge’s pack llamas carrying the latest delivery of provisions.

LeConte Lodge sits at nearly 6,400 feet and is considered the highest guest lodge in the eastern United States. It operates generally from mid-March through mid-November and is the only in-park lodging. Other lodging can be found in the park’s gateway communities.

The lodge predates the park. LeConte Lodge began as a tent camp in 1926 for visiting dignitaries from the nation’s capital when plans began to create Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Sugarlands Visitor Center, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Free entrance

Unlike many national parks, Great Smoky Mountains has no entrance fee. However, a parking tag is required for each vehicle—with prices set at $5 for a day, $15 for a week, and $40 for the whole year. Parking tags are not required for motorists passing through the area or who park for fewer than 15 minutes.

The Park Service added this modest charge in March 2023 because the park has been operating on an inadequate budget for years while experiencing an increasing number of visitors.

Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Parking tags can be purchased online or in person at locations near the park’s three main entrances: Gatlinburg and Townsend, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina.

I hope this article piqued your curiosity and motivated you to pack up the RV and roll on over to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Newfound Gap Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One final remark: Unless you stay for a month, do not try to do it all. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is HUGE covering 522,427 acres. In visiting, I can say that once is not nearly enough.

Wait. What?! I’ve posted other articles on the Smokies:

Worth Pondering…

Each year thousands of backpackers 
Climb the Great Smoky Mountains… 
Nature’s Peace flows into them
as Sunshine flows into Trees;
the Winds blow their freshness into them…
and their Cares drop off like Autumn Leaves.

—Adapted from John Muir

Best Hikes for National Hiking Month

Your boots were made for walking through some of America’s most awe-inspiring scenery

Hiking is great exercise and has been proven to lower the risk of heart disease, boost bone density, and improve your blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

“Research shows that hiking has a positive impact on combating the symptoms of stress and anxiety,” says Gregory A. Miller, Ph.D., president of the American Hiking Society. “Being in nature is ingrained in our DNA and we sometimes forget that.”

Bell Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aside from those health benefits, here’s another reason to go hiking—November is National Hiking Month! Celebrate this month and take a hike. We’ve got some great hikes for you to consider.

Know your limits, pace yourself, and pay attention to how you are feeling. Your safety is your responsibility. Your tomorrow depends on the decisions that you make today.

Related: Best Places to Plan a Hiking Trip

Bell Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bell Rock Pathway, Sedona, Arizona

The Bell Rock Pathway is a 3.6-mile trail. Along this pathway, you’ll enjoy fantastic views of Bell Rock, Courthouse Butte, and other landmarks. Most of the pathway has a wide, hard surface but there are some steep hills too. Some places around Bell Rock are rocky and rough. There is a popular observation area on the west side of Bell Rock not accessible from the highway.

Creole Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Creole Nature Trail, Louisiana

Five federal and state wildlife refuges including Cameron Prairie, Sabine, and Lacassine are an integral part of the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road. Located in Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, the Wetland Walkway is a 1.5-mile handicap-accessible walk over the impounded freshwater marsh. The site includes boardwalks, trails, observation decks, and interpretive signs. This is an excellent site for nature photography. Port-O-lets are available on site along with a handicap-accessible observation tower and five rest shelters along the trail. This is a great place to spot gators and birds of all sorts.

General Sherman Tree © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

General Sherman Tree, Sequoia National Park, California
The Main Parking and Trailhead are just off Wolverton Road which leaves the General’s Highway just north of the Sherman Tree area. From this parking area, the ½-mile trail descends and includes some stairs. Rest on the benches along the trail; don’t overexert yourself at this elevation (7,000 feet) if you are not accustomed to it. For accessible parking and an accessible trail, use the small parking area along the General’s Highway two miles north of the Giant Forest Museum.

St. Marys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

St. Marys History Walk, Georgia

The city of St. Marys was officially founded in 1787. Due to its strategic location, St. Marys has played a prominent role in Georgia’s development over the centuries making it a fascinating destination for history buffs. For some insight into the city’s storied past visit the St. Marys History Walk, a 600-foot walking trail where 24 interpretive panels outline the history of the area. The History Walk highlights a wealth of bygone eras ranging from the development of St. Marys’ shipbuilding industry to its role in the War of 1812. The History Walk is located at the corner of Bartlett Street and West St. Marys Street.

Lackawanna State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania

A series of looping trails limited to foot traffic wander through the campground and day-use areas of the park. Additional multi-use trails explore forests, fields, lakeshore areas, and woodland streams. The multi-use trails can be used by horseback riders. Abington Trail is recommended. Trailheads are at the States Creek Mooring Area and on Rowlands, Wallsville, and Austin Roads. Most trails near the campground are foot traffic only except North Woods Trail which is open to biking and horseback riding.

Blue Mesa Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Blue Mesa Loop, Petrified Forest National Park, Arizona

Do you want to view a landscape that is out of this world? If your answer is yes then the Blue Mesa Loop Trail is sure to please. This mile-long trail takes you into a landscape brushed in blue where you will find cone-shaped hills banded in a variety of colors and intricately eroded into unique patterns. Descending from the mesa this alternately paved and gravel trail loop offers the unique experience of hiking among petrified wood as well as these badland hills. The trail descends 100 feet below the rim and can be a little steep in places.

Related: The 10 Best Hiking Trails in America’s National Parks

Gulf State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gulf State Park, Alabama

Gulf State Park features 28 miles of paved trails or boardwalks including seven trails of the Hugh S. Branyon Backcountry Trail complex that inspire visitors to explore the nine distinct ecosystems within park boundaries. Enjoy the serenity of the Gulf Oak Ridge Trail (3.0 miles) as you stroll underneath Live Oak trees draped in Spanish Moss. Hike (or bike) the Rosemary Dunes (2.1 miles) and be on the lookout for the elusive Bobcat. If you’re hoping to see an alligator, explore the Gopher Tortoise trail (1.5 miles) along the edge of Lake Shelby. Other trails include Beach Mouse Bypass (1.1-mile boardwalk), Cotton Bayou (1.1 miles), and Campground Trail (2.2 miles). The majority of trails are suitable for walking, running, and biking.

Enchanted Rock © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, Texas

Rising above Central Texas, Enchanted Rock has drawn people for thousands of years. The massive pink granite dome rises 425 feet above the base elevation of the park. Its high point is 1,825 feet above sea level and the entire dome covers 640 acres. Climbing the Rock is like climbing the stairs of a 30- or 40-story building. Explore 11 miles of trails, including the iconic Summit Trail (0.8 miles). Other trails of note include Loop Trail (4.6 miles), Turkey Pass Tour (0.7 miles), and Base Trail (0.9 miles).

Clingmans Dome Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee

At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome boasts the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The “Dome” refers to the mountaintop, not the man-made observation tower. The Dome actually lies within both Tennessee and North Carolina and is the highest point in Tennessee. On clear days, visitors may see as far as 100 miles.

Related: Hiking Arizona

Clingman Dome Trail Observation Tower © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The half-mile trail to the summit of Clingmans Dome is paved but steep. During the short hike, you will gain 332 feet which makes the climb gradient almost 13 percent. The trail to Clingmans Dome intersects with several other hiking trails including the Appalachian Trail, the Forney Creek Trail, and the Forney Ridge Trail.

Francis Beidler Forest Boardwalk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Francis Beidler Forest, South Carolina

Frequented by photographers and nature lovers from all over the world, the 18,000-acre bird and wildlife sanctuary in the South Carolina Lowcountry is the world’s largest virgin cypress-tupelo swamp forest—a pristine ecosystem untouched for millennia.

Related: Winter Hiking in Arizona State Parks

Francis Beidler Forest Boardwalk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enjoy thousand-year-old trees, a range of wildlife, and the quiet flow of blackwater, all from the safety of a 1.75-mile boardwalk. A new trail system, the Grassland-Woodland Trail, meanders through Longleaf Pine, grassland, and woodland habitats. The new trails give visitors the opportunity to explore a new section of the sanctuary.

Worth Pondering…

As soon as he saw the Big Boots, Pooh knew that an Adventure was about to happen, and he brushed the honey off his nose with the back of his paw and spruced himself up as well as he could, so as to look Ready for Anything.

—A. A. Milne

Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Land of the Blue Smoke

It’s easy to see why the Great Smoky Mountains are the most visited National Park of them all

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located in a crossroads of sorts through the American southeast. Winding through the heart of it is one of America’s most famed and prized scenic byways, the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rivers in the area draw rafters and kayakers from all over the country to learn, practice, and play in the whitewater. Long distance trekkers cross through 71 miles of mountains in the Great Smokies while journeying the epic Appalachian Trail. The Cherokee Indian reservation on the southeast side of the park tells the story of the area’s Indian heritage. For art, food, and other city-centric activities, Asheville, North Carolina, is just down the road. There are even caves that worm into the karst formations underlying the Smokies’ extreme western portions.

Appalachian Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spend time roaming from the park’s 870-feet-above-sea-level basement to its 6,643-foot-high Clingmans Dome and you will, in essence, have negotiated diverse vegetative topography akin to what you would find hiking the Appalachian Trail’s 2,181 miles from Georgia to Maine. And above all, this park is very beautiful. It is for all of those good reasons and many others that visitors flock to the Great Smoky Mountains.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Great Smoky Mountains got its name from the Cherokee Indians who called the area shaconage (shah-con-ah-jey) meaning “land of the blue smoke,” after the thick, bluish haze that hangs over the mountains peaks and valleys.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This Appalachian wonder that straddles the North Carolina-Tennessee state line holds many stories. There are stories in the log cabins, plank churches, and architectural wonders that farmers built for their crops and livestock in Cades Cove and Cataloochee, stories of ridge runners and moonshiners in the mountains, Native American stories, and stories of nature.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove is a valley surrounded by a one lane, 11-mile loop road that puts visitors among wildlife, historic buildings, and trails from where you can head off on foot to explore deeper. The driving road is closed Saturday morning until 10 am during the spring and summer, allowing access to cyclists and people to wander without traffic. Visiting during the week in the off-season, we had the road mostly to ourselves! 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Venture into this park draped over the ridgeline of the Appalachian Range and you’ll discover five different forest types; both grassy balds and heath balds near the mountains’ summits and an undergrowth that abounds with rhododendrons, magnolia, ferns, holly, and mountain laurel.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Smokies were settled in the 18th century, logged into the 20th century, and have been flourishing almost as wilderness again since 1934 when this landscape was destined to become a national park. Despite the roughly 9 million visitors who traipse through the park each year, it continues to be a wellspring of biological diversity.

Mountain Farm Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You could immerse yourself in Native American and early settler history in Cherokee, North Carolina. Stop in at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and visit the park’s excellent Mountain Farm Museum often the site of hands-on Junior Ranger programs and demonstrations and then walk the 1.5 mile Oconaluftee River Trail to view the wayside exhibits detailing local Cherokee and Native American history.

Clingmans Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The highest peak in any National Park often becomes iconic and Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky is no different. From 6,643 feet, one can see 360-degree views of the National Park and far beyond on a clear day. Or avoid the crowds with a hike to the fire towers atop Mt. Cammer or Mt. Sterling. Both are steep hikes (the 2 miles up to Mt. Sterling are rumored to be the steepest in the park) but the views from the crest of the Smoky Mountains are unparalleled.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s easy to lose an entire day or days exploring by car because there is so much to see just by looking out the window. It is when you head out on foot, though, that you really get a sense of the incredible vastness in the Great Smoky Mountains. It’s an odd feeling being a simple human among millions and billions and trillions of trees. Odd and especially awesome when the blue haze that rests upon the tops of those trees is met by a distinct peacefulness that occurs there during the quiet of off-season. 

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird alert! More than 240 species of birds have been found in the park. Sixty species are year-round residents. Nearly 120 species breed in the park, including 52 species from the neo-tropics. Many other species use the park as an important stopover and foraging area during their semiannual migration.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Every year, synchronous fireflies light up the Smokies for about two weeks during their annual spring mating ritual. They are the only beetles in North America with the ability to flash in sync. 

Worth Pondering…

If you drive to, say, Shenandoah National Park, or the Great Smoky Mountains, you’ll get some appreciation for the scale and beauty of the outdoors. When you walk into it, then you see it in a completely different way. You discover it in a much slower, more majestic sort of way.

—Bill Bryson