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

Driving a Road through Beauty

Only the forest, streams, and wildlife occupy this wild country

A Road Through Beauty, the Cherohala Skyway’s 36 miles of scenic mountain views rival any scenic byway in the eastern United States.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mountaintops, waterfalls, and waterways adorn this high country of eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina. The average trip over the Skyway takes 2 1/2-hours, if you just want to drive and view scenery. I would recommend setting aside the best part of the day to enjoy some of the bigger than life features the Cherohala Skyway and Unicoi Mountain Wilderness have to offer.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The elevations range from 900 feet above sea level at the Tellico River in Tennessee to over 5,400 feet above sea level at the Tennessee-North Carolina state line at Haw Knob.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Cherohala Skyway crosses through the Cherokee National Forest in Tennessee and the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina. The name “Cherohala” comes from the names of the two National Forests: “Chero” from the Cherokee and “hala” from the Nantahala.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In October 1996, the Cherohala Skyway was opened to the public at a cost of 100-million dollars offering access to the top of the world for far western North Carolina and far southeastern Tennessee.  For the first time Robbinsville, North Carolina and Tellico Plains, Tennessee became sister cities if you can call them that. Both towns are modest in size yet large in local history, newly connected by a ribbon of asphalt over a vast wilderness.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The official scenic Cherohala Skyway is 36-miles in length, with 15-miles in North Carolina and 21-miles in Tennessee, although actual distance between Robbinsville and Tellico Plains is roughly 50 miles of paved road. The 36-mile scenic byway connects TN 68 with NC 143. There are no services over the actual scenic highway except for public restrooms at three locations along the Cherohala Skyway.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From heights nearing 6,000-feet, are views of the rugged rolling mountaintops of the Unaka Mountains with the Great Smoky Mountains to the northeast and the Tennessee River Valley to the west. What you will find along the route are lots of great mountain overlooks, camping areas, and numerous hiking trails leading off from the scenic byway. 

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The mountain-and-valley scenery along the 36-mile stretch is spectacular. Mountain balds as they are called, crown the Unicoi Crest at the pinnacle of the Cherohala Skyway and are without doubt part of the great mystery of mountain creation itself. The Cherohala Skyway scenic overlooks have rightfully been compared to the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Newfound Gap Road through the Great Smoky Mountains.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 29 trails along the Cherohala Skyway covering 150 miles. These trails offer long and short hikes to special locations of natural beauty and mystery. There are also 8 horseback trails totaling 31 miles for equestrians to explore from the saddle. 

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To reach the eastern gateway to the Cherohala Skyway, take NC 143 west from Robbinsville, for approximately 12-miles, signs will mark the way. At this point where highway NC 143 becomes the Cherohala Skyway, you can access Joyce Kilmer Road. A two-mile drive along this side-road will take you to the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and Slickrock Wilderness Area. The memorial forest is named after the poet and American patriot Joyce Kilmer who wrote the famous poem “Trees,” in 1913. 

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Joyce Kilmer, while serving in France during World War I was killed in action and highly decorated for his heroism by the French government. The memorial forest is an old-growth forest of giant trees, some ranging over 100 feet tall, over 20 feet in circumference, and estimated to be over 400 years old. The memorial forest remains isolated deep within a large mountainous cove, unspoiled and preserved for posterity’s sake.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Due to its remote mountainous location, a logging company’s bankruptcy and just plain good luck, these giants of the mountain forest were saved from destruction, preserving their beauty for our enjoyment as well as the generations to come. 

This 3,800-acre woodland is an awe-inspiring experience that makes the Cherohala Skyway adventure unlike any other. Flowing through the heart of the memorial forest is the Little Santeetlah Creek, which is one of the main watersheds that feed the sky blue waters of Lake Santeetlah. Lake Santeetlah is one of the most beautiful lakes in all the North Carolina Mountains, mostly isolated and pristine.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Isolated in a wilderness land, adventurous souls come to appreciate the mountain country the Cherokee People’s ancestor called, “land of the noon day sun.”

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A journey across the Cherohala Skyway is an experience you’ll want to repeat often.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

—Joyce Kilmer

Blue Ridge Parkway: America’s Favorite Drive

Stretching for 469 miles of pure, breathtaking beauty, the Blue Ridge Parkway winds its way through the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains

A meandering road snaking for 469 miles along the crest of Blue Ridge Mountains from Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, the Blue Ridge Parkway provides access to more than 100 trailheads and over 300 miles of trails. It passes through a range of habitats that support more plant species than any other park in the country: over 4,000 species of plants, 2,000 kinds of fungi, 500 types of mosses and lichens, and the most varieties of salamanders anywhere in the world.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The nation’s first and longest rural parkway began as a 1930s depression-era public works project. Taking over 52 years complete, it was designed to simulate a park-like environment, blending natural surroundings and panoramic views with farms, streams, forests, and local culture.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Blue Ridge Parkway follows the Appalachian Mountain chain, twisting and turning through the beautiful mountains. From Shenandoah National Park, the scenic drive travels along the Blue Ridge Mountains for 355 miles. Then, for the remaining 114 miles, it skirts the southern end of the Black Mountains, weaves through the Craggies, the Pisgahs, and the Balsams before finally ending in the Great Smokies.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Enticing nature lovers, the Blue Ridge Parkway spans more than 70,000 acres of forest and includes 14 vegetation types, 1,600 vascular plant species, and 130 species of trees.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Taking a break along the way, visitors can stop at a visitor center and learn more about the area from the many exhibit and restored historical structures. The drive is long, but there are more than 100 trails along the Parkway for travelers to stretch their legs. In addition to hiking, the parkway also offers bird-watching opportunities, horseback riding, ranger guided walks, and nine campgrounds, on top of ample opportunity to photograph America’s Favorite Drive.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The magnificent views and historic attractions are too numerous to enjoy in just one trip which may be why the region attracts so many repeat visitors. It doesn’t matter whether you start from the north or south or anywhere in between—just don’t be surprised if you wander in and out of the parkway during your explorations.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll need over a week on the Blue Ridge to adequately absorb all that surrounds you. With more than 260 overlooks, each stop provides one dramatic scene after another.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The road is narrow winding in some sections and tunnels have height restrictions, RVs of all sizes have been traveling the parkway for years. Of course, your everyday explorations will be best enjoyed using your dinghy; we based our coach in RV parks along the way, moving several times as we traveled south. The many entrances to the parkway allow you to enter or exit easily.

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Entering the Blue Ridge Parkway at Rockfish Gap (milepost 0), our first stop was the visitor center at Humpback Rocks (milepost 5.8) where we gathered information and talked with the ranger on duty.

You’ll find a visitor center and campground with 24  RV sites at Otter Creek (milepost 60.8).

Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At the Peaks of Otter (milepost 85.6), another visitor center provides more park information. There, we also explored the Johnson Farm, restored to 1920s appearance.

Mabry Mill, Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mabry Mill (milepost 176.1) is one of the parkway’s best-loved attractions. Surrounded by outdoor interpretive displays, a millpond smooth as glass reflects the old mill. The slowly turning waterwheel spills a small cascade of water into the pond while, inside the mill, park interpreters give demonstration on the workings of the gristmill.

Moses H, Cone Memorial Park, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The North Carolina section of the parkway starts at Milepost 216.9, outside of Cumberland Knob.

Moses H. Cone Memorial Park (milepost 294), preserves the country estate of Moses H. Cone, textile magnate, conservationist, and philanthropist of the Gilded Age. Its centerpiece is Flat Top Manor, a gleaming white 20-room, 13,000 square foot mansion built in 1901 in the grand Colonial Revival style. The Manor is now the home of the Parkway Craft Center.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Linn Cove Viaduct (milepost 304) hugs the face of Grandfather Mountain and is recognized internationally as an engineering marvel. This was the last section of the Parkway to be completed and a model of the construction technique highlights a visit to the Linn Cove Visitor Center.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A slight detour at milepost 355.4, via State Route 128, led us to the highest point east of the Mississippi River. At 6,684 feet, Mount Mitchell offers incredible views of color-washed lower elevations.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Blue Ridge Parkway has six exits in the Asheville area. So there’s no excuse not to stop off in that charming city on your summer vacation and tour Biltmore Estate, the country’s largest private home.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The parkway south of Asheville to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is known for its range of elevation. From about 2,500 feet, it gradually rises to 6,047 feet at the parkway’s highest point, Richland Balsam Gap, milepost 431, and then descends to just over 2,000 feet, all through the undeveloped beauty of national forest.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Excuse me…but is this Heaven?

Now Is the Best Time to Visit the Smokies

One of the biggest questions that most travelers to the area ask is, “when is the best time to visit the Smoky Mountains?” Like other big questions, people may ask themselves, the answer to this depends heavily on the person asking the question.

What are your plans for this week or next?

Mowing the lawn, playing golf, or shopping.

You can do any of those things most anytime, any day for the rest of your life. Now is the best time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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

One reason to visit now is that the summer crowds are gone and leaf peeking season is a month away. Stay home during July, August, and October, unless you enjoy bumper to bumper traffic jams. 

Along Highway 321 from Maryville to Townsend © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another reason to visit now is nature. Wildflowers are still blooming, trees are displaying their finest greens, and animals are active. Plan to go between now and late-September, if possible.

Along Highway 321 from Maryville to Townsend © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Following is a plan for you to see the most on a long day trip. If time is available, break your tour into two or three more manageable days.

Get an early start on a weekday and head for Townsend, Tennessee.

Along Highway 321 from Maryville to Townsend © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Forget Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Dollywood. They are great but they’re not woods and waters and flowers and wildlife. They are Disneyland.

Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take Interstate 40 and then Highway 321 through Maryville. This is a one hour, 45-minute drive. In Townsend, turn right at the “Y” and head for Cades Cove. 

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove is a broad, verdant valley surrounded by mountains and is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. An 11-mile one-way loop road circles the Cove, with stopping-off areas at several homesteads, three churches, a working gristmill, and a number of trails and overlooks.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

During the busy months, it can take most of the day to drive the 11 miles. It can be gridlock. You won’t have that traffic problem this time of year if you avoid weekends.

Cades Cove, John Oliver Place © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We had visited twice previously; over 30 years ago and about 12 years ago when we gave up due to gridlock on the loop road. On that day, the traffic was heavy, bumper to bumper. On this visit, we purposely avoided the weekend.

Cades Cove, Methodist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watch for animals such as deer, wild turkey, and bear. There are a couple of side roads to the left, part-way around the loop, called Sparks Lane and Hyatt Lane. Take them about a mile to the end and then back. They provide good possibilities for seeing wildlife.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Visitors Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Halfway through the Loop, make a point to stop at the Visitors Center in the Cable Mill Area. Photo opportunities are ample and restrooms available. Wander the Cable Mill Historic Area, explore the Visitor Center, Blacksmith Shop, LeQuire Cantilever Barn, Millrace and Dam, Cable Mill, Smokehouse, Gregg-Cable House, Corn Crib, Barn, and Sorghum Mill. During our visit we spent considerable time here walking the area, soaking up nature and the history of the area, and talking with docents.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Millrace and Mill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On the Cades Cove loop stop at a couple of the well preserved log cabins and churches and imagine your great grandparents or some pioneers living back then. Continue around the loop and then back down towards Townsend.

Cades Cove, Cable Mill Historic Area, Drive-through Barn © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Back at the “Y” go straight toward Gatlinburg. The 18 miles will take you 45 minutes to drive on the winding, stream-side road. Definitely stop at Sugarlands visitor center to see the displays, view the short movie, and browse the gift shop. It is well worth the stop.

Sugarlands Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After Sugarlands, turn right toward Cherokee, North Carolina. On the way up the mountain to Newfound Gap, there are a couple of great hikes like Chimney Tops (four miles round-trip) or Alum Cave Bluffs (about four-and-a-half miles roundtrip). But if you take time for these hikes, you will have to complete the rest of the tour another day.

Newfound Gap Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

At Newfound Gap there is a giant parking lot, restrooms, the Appalachian Trail crossing and the Tennessee-North Carolina state line.

Parking lot at Clingman’s Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just past Newfound Gap, turn right and go seven miles to Clingman’s Dome. You will find ample parking, a small gift shop, and a one-and-a-half mile roundtrip paved path to the top of the mountain. Everything is really different up here at 6,643 feet in elevation. The trees, the plants, the views, the air, are all just a different, unique, and refreshing environment.

Clingman’s Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From Clingman’s Dome, retrace your route back to the main road through the park (Highway 441) and again head toward Cherokee. Stop at Oconaluftee visitor center. Wander the old time farm that often has folks docents demonstrating soap making ad other pioneer skills. Oconaluftee is also the best place to see elk outside of the Cataloochee Valley, which is a whole other trip.

Oconaluftee Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

I think, being from east Tennessee, you’re kinda born with a little lonesome in your soul, in your blood. You know you’ve got that Appalachian soul.

—Ashley Monroe