The seventh iteration of the Cherohala Skyway Festival is coming up this weekend.
The Cherohala Skyway Festival is the perfect excuse to get outdoors and experience fall colors all along the Cherohala Skyway, a National Scenic Byway and one of the most beautiful drives in the Appalachian mountain regions.
The Cherohala Skyway was opened and dedicated in 1996. The road has been designated a National Scenic Byway. The road cost over 100 million dollars to construct.
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.
The Cherohala Skyway is located in southeast Tennessee and southwest North Carolina. The Skyway connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee with Robbinsville, North Carolina, and is 42 miles long. The Skyway is a wide, paved 2-lane road maintained by the Tennessee Department of Transportation and the North Carolina Department of Transportation. 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 Festival
The 7th Annual Cherohala Skyway Festival in Tellico Plains is hosted by the Charles Hall Museum and Heritage Center on Saturday, October 28 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Located in Tellico Plains, Tennessee, the Cherohala Skyway Festival is an opportunity to get outdoors for a day of family fun.
There will be booth after booth of juried arts and crafts, lots of living history, and plenty of incredible food and treats.
Test your axe throwing skills at the On The Road Axe Throw trailer, paint a pumpkin, and have your face painted. You’ll find lots of free festival fun including horse-drawn wagon rides, a petting zoo, kids train rides, tractor-pulled hay rides, a huge inflatable Kids Zone, a sawdust dig for cash and treasures, and Mecca Camp’s Resort’s Game Zone.
Live Bluegrass and mountain music will fill the air all day long at the Josh Graves Memorial Music Festival.
Food for everyone
First Baptist will offer a free pancake breakfast from 8:30-10 a.m.
A & A Meat will be grilling thick slices of bologna on grilled Texas toast with grilled onions or grilled cheese sandwiches.
Cristal’s Kitchen will cook pinto beans over an open fire and serve with cornbread and relish.
Slim’s Burger Joint offers burger and cheeseburger baskets with all the southern fixings including French Fries and Mozzarella sticks.
There will be food trucks on site including smoked BBQ and so many other favorite foods.
For dessert, try funnel cakes, kettle corn, popcorn, gourmet caramel apples, cotton candy, sno cones, and a wide variety of baked goods.
All ages can step back in time in the Living History areas. There will be demonstrations and games showing the life of the early settlers and Cherokee in the early 1800s. Learn about the favorite games of the Cherokee, beading, and corn husk doll making. Interact with 18th-century camps and taste dishes cooked over an open fire. A Long Hunters camp will have all the camping equipment used by the early frontiersmen as they crossed the Appalachian Mountains into the American frontier.
Watch how a Native American flute is made and listen to live Native American flute music. Learn more about the Cherokee in the area and their removal through forced treaties and later forced removal through the Hall Museum’s displays in building 1 and the Tennessee Trail of Tears booth.
The festival will be held at the Charles Hall Museum complex (229 Cherohala Skyway) and The Charles Hall Field (122 Bank Street) behind the museum complex.
From I-75, take the exit and travel east on New Highway 68 through Madisonville to Tellico Plains and the junction with Route 165. Turn right onto Highway 165 (Cherohala Skyway) and proceed to one of three parking areas:
Turn immediately to the left onto Bank Street before Volunteer Federal Bank. Enter the field on the right at the marked entrance beside the Fire Truck across from Hardees and before Tellicafe. A parking attendant will direct you. Shuttles are available but it is just a few steps to the festival.
Continue to the Hall Museum. A parking attendant will direct you to either park in the Farmer’s Market area after the Tellico Plains Library and before the Cherohala Skyway Visitor’s Center or at the parking areas at the Hall Museum entrance. There will be easy access parking in this area and an area to drop off handicapped individuals before you park.
DO NOT PARK in Volunteer Federal Bank’s parking lot until after 1 p.m. Easy parking is available in designated lots for $5/vehicle. BRING CASH! Admission to the festival is FREE as well as most activities.
Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
The first motorway in the country designed purely for recreational purposes, the parkway weaves through six different mountain ranges and four massive national forests first following the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains and then snaking through the Black Mountains, the Great Craggy Mountains, the Pisgahs, and the Balsam Mountains before arriving at the edge of Great Smoky Mountains.
Stringing together some of the wildest spaces in the East, the 469-mile motorway also showcases some of the most spectacular fall colors in the country as the richly biodiverse forests of the southern Appalachian Mountains blush with autumn color.
How to catch peak fall color
In terms of flora and fauna, the southern Appalachian Mountains are incredibly rich. More than 100 different species of trees can be found in the forested peaks flanking the parkway meaning the fall colors are guaranteed to be spectacular. The seasonal transition typically begins in October but several factors can delay or extend the autumn display. And with elevations topping out above 6,000 feet along the Blue Ridge Parkway seasonal color varies by location with the transition beginning at higher elevations and spreading downslope.
For road-trippers, the parkway has eight developed campgrounds offering both tent sites and RV sites with fire rings and picnic tables. For campers, amenities include potable water and bathroom facilities at the Julian Price Campground and the Mount Pisgah Campground also offers hot showers. All eight of the parkway’s campgrounds are open seasonally from early May through the end of October. For backpackers, there are also three hike-in backcountry campgrounds scattered along the Blue Ridge Parkway—Rock Castle Gorge, Basin Cove, and Johns River Road.
There are also two year-round lodges situated along the Blue Ridge Parkway. In Virginia, the Peaks of Otter Lodge is situated along the parkway in southwest Virginia (MP 86). Named for the trio of peaks overlooking the town of Bedford all of the lodge’s rooms have views of Abbott Lake and Sharp Top (and dog-friendly rooms are available, too). The lakeside lodge also offers an attached restaurant and bar along with a gift shop stocked with trail snacks, guidebooks, and locally sourced artisanal products.
In North Carolina, the Pisgah Inn (MP 408) is open from the beginning of April through the end of October. Perched on the flanks of Mount Pisgah at an elevation of 5,000 feet the alpine inn presides over the massive Pisgah National Forest. To help guests savor the sweeping vista each room features attached porches complete with lounge-worthy rocking chairs. The inn also offers a formal dining room (open to the public for lunch) and a café with easy-to-grab meals and snacks.
For late fall and winter travelers, the parkway also provides access to a handful of state parks with year-round accommodation options. In Virginia, just west of Buena Vista, Douthat State Park has cabins for rent and a campground open year-round along with more than 40 miles of hiking trails. Further south in North Carolina, the campground at Stone Mountain State Park is open year-round and offers sites for both tents and RVs. And for hardy backpackers, North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain State Park has 13 hike-in backcountry campsites.
For hikers, the Blue Ridge Parkway provides access to more than 360 miles of trails offering everything from leisurely nature walks to lengthy rambles through parcels of roadless wilderness. And for leaf-peepers, there are several superb foliage hikes. In Virginia, the 2,193-mile Appalachian Trail traces the path of the parkway for just over 100 miles beginning at Rockfish Gap (MP 0). In North Carolina, the state’s 1,175-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail also crisscrosses the parkway between the Folk Art Center (MP 382) and Mount Pisgah (MP 408).
At the northern end of the parkway in Virginia, Humpback Rocks (MP 5.8) is among the scenic highlights. Perched at 3,080 feet, the craggy outcrop presides over the northern section of the parkway providing expansive views encompassing the Rockfish and Shenandoah Valleys to the west and the pastoral Virginia Piedmont to the east—although the mile climb to the craggy pinnacle includes 700 feet of elevation gain.
Further south, the three-mile out-and-back hike to the 3,875-foot summit of Sharp Top (MP 85.9) serves up 360-degree views of the Peaks of Otter portion of the parkway with the Shenandoah Valley to the east and the Allegheny Mountains silhouetted against the horizon to the west.
In North Carolina, Mount Pisgah is supremely positioned for fall foliage views. After the 1.3-mile climb to Mount Pisgah’s 5,721-foot summit, hikers are rewarded with an eyeful of the Black Mountains to the north and the rugged Shining Rock Wilderness to the west.
Closer to the parkway’s southern terminus at the eastern edge of the Great Balsam Range, the grassy summit of Black Balsam Knob also treats trekkers to a jaw-dropping panorama. The 6,214-foot peak is a prototypical southern Appalachian bald meaning Black Balsam Knob’s treeless summit dishes up 360-degree views extending to the Great Smoky Mountains.
Fall is also an ideal time to spot wildlife along the parkway. Along the southern portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina resident, elk are particularly active. Once prevalent throughout the Appalachian Mountains elk disappeared from the southeastern United States in the mid-1800s after populations dwindled due to overhunting and loss of habitat.
Elk were reintroduced to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park between 2001 and 2002 and now the brawny ungulates roam the southernmost section of the parkway in Western North Carolina typically gathering in the Cataloochee Valley. And during the fall, the region’s resident elk begin their mating season also called the rut with males bugling, sparring, and strutting ostentatiously to attract females.
Black bears are also active along the parkway during the fall. While the bruins do hunker down for portions of the winter in the Southeast they don’t entirely hibernate and if seasonal temperatures are mild the black bears will remain active year-round. However, fall is a strategic time to spot the opportunistic eaters gorging on calorie-dense nuts and berries along the parkway in preparation for the leaner days of winter.
Autumn is also a spectacular time for birders along the Blue Ridge Parkway. From early September through the end of November the lofty ridgelines of the southern Appalachian Mountains become a superhighway for birds migrating south to warmer climes for the winter especially birds of prey including a diversity of hawks, eagles, kestrels, and falcons.
There are a number of hawk-watching spots scattered along the Blue Ridge Parkway designated by the Hawk Migration Association of America including Rockfish Gap (milepost 0) and Harvey’s Knob (MP 95.3) in Virginia and Grandfather Mountain (MP 305) in North Carolina.
I loved autumn, the one season of the year that God seemed to have put there just for the beauty of it.
Some call it the “best kept secret.” I call it The Cherohala Skyway!
The Skyway offers the cultural heritage of the Cherokees and early settlers in a grand forest environment in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Enjoy mile-high vistas and brilliant fall foliage as well as great hiking opportunities and picnic spots in magnificent and seldom-seen portions of the southern Appalachian National Forests. Popular stops along and near the Skyway include Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, Santeetlah Lake, and many Cherokee sites. This byway in particular is known for its fall colors.
The Cherohala Skyway was completed in the fall of 1996 after planning and construction for some thirty-four years. It was North Carolina’s most expensive scenic highway carrying a price tag of $100,000,000. It winds up and over 5,400-foot mountains for 18 miles in North Carolina and descends another 23 miles into the deeply forested backcountry of Tennessee.
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. The Cherohala Skyway is located in southeast Tennessee and southwest North Carolina. The Skyway connects Tellico Plains, Tennessee with Robbinsville, North Carolina, and is about 40+ miles long.
The Cherohala Skyway is a wide, paved 2-laned road maintained by the Tennessee Department of Transportation and the North Carolina Department of Transportation. The elevations range from 900 feet above sea level at the Tellico River in Tennessee to 5,390 feet above sea level at the Tennessee-North Carolina state line at Haw Knob.
It is a 2-laned road with wide shoulders and 15 scenic overlooks. Along the way, you can expect minimum cell phone coverage and limited toilet facilities. There are picnic sites, trailheads for hiking, and a wide variety of traffic types ranging from motorhomes to bicycles. Some grades are as steep as 9 percent along the skyway. The trip across the skyway takes about two hours. It is approximately 25 miles long in Tennessee and 19 miles long in North Carolina. Food and fuel stations are available in Tellico Plains, Tennessee, and Robbinsville, North Carolina.
The Skyway is becoming well known in motorcycling and sports car circles for its long, sweeping corners, scenic views, and cool summer breezes.
Take your time and stop along the way to enjoy. Temperatures can drop as much as 20 degrees during the first 11 miles of your drive starting on the North Carolina side since the Skyway climbs from 2,660 feet elevation to 5,390 feet. The Skyway follows NC Highway 143 (easier to find on maps) and TN 165 to Tellico Plains, Tennessee.
When you get to the Cherohala Skyway stop in at the Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center located on Highway 165 in Tellico Plains, Tennessee, or the Graham County Visitor Center in Robbinsville, North Carolina to pick up brochures and maps or talk to the friendly people about your time on the Skyway. They can help you plan your trip, find good restaurants, locate a waterfall to enjoy, reserve a campsite, or any other special need you may have. The Cherohala Skyway Visitor Center is open Monday through Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm.
When to visit
Summer is a wonderful season for enjoying the Cherohala Skyway. The mile-high drive is spectacular. The long days and breathtaking sunrises and sunsets are unforgettable. You can escape the hot summer days at higher elevations where it’s usually cooler. Temperatures in the summer are very unpredictable. Hot days and mild nights are normal. Thunderstorms are common and can build quickly and without warning. Daytime temperatures can reach the 90s with nighttime temperatures dropping into the 60s.
Fall is a beautiful time of year on the Cherohala Skyway. Cool-weather arrives and the changing leaves are spectacular. Viewing the fall foliage is a favorite pastime in the eastern United States. The leaves begin changing color as early as late September in the higher elevations and continue through mid-November in lower elevations.
The dogwoods, poplars, and sourwoods are some of the first to transform. The red oaks, hickories, and white oaks change later and often hold their leaves until late fall. Temperatures are generally moderate throughout the season. Highs range from the 70s during the day to the 40s at night. Normally, fall is also a time of low precipitation along the Cherohala Skyway. The pleasant temperatures and low rainfall make it a perfect time for hiking, cycling, camping, and other outdoor activities enjoyed on the Skyway.
Winter is a beautiful time along the Skyway. The leaves have fallen and the views from the overlooks are spectacular. Traffic is at a minimum and it seems as if you have the mountains all to yourself. Ice and snow can be expected throughout the winter months along the Cherohala Skyway. The roadway is generally treated for such hazards keeping it passable for most of the year. CAUTION is the key word for traveling on the Skyway during winter.
A popular activity in winter along the Cherohala Skyway is checking the freshly fallen snow for animal tracks. Deer, turkeys, raccoons, foxes, and other animals (even black bears) native to these mountains cross the Skyway and leave their tracks in the snow.
Temperatures at or below freezing are common and should be prepared for especially at higher elevations. If you hike in the winter take special precautions:
Dress in layers. The cold mornings can lead to warmer afternoons.
Let someone know where you are going to hike. Take a friend.
Take plenty of water. Don’t drink from streams or rivers.
Take a snack, such as energy bars or candy.
Please bring out all garbage that you take in.
Spring along the Cherohala Skyway is the “awakening of the forest after a long winter’s nap”. Wildflowers spring from the ground throughout these months. The annual rites begin early as red maple blooms in red and serviceberry in white. Around mid-spring, the dogwoods and redbuds join the flowering show. Temperatures are usually moderate during this season.
Typical spring weather is windy and warm. Daytime temperatures often climb into the 70s but can cool quickly at night. Spring is a great time to get outdoors. Hiking, camping, fishing, and cycling are all activities to enjoy along the Cherohala Skyway. If you like photographing nature, spring wildflowers and native wildlife are in abundance. Black bears are very active in the spring of the year and should be left alone.
Peak colors typically occur during the last two weeks in October but that is dependent upon fall temperatures and in particular, the first frost date. The color change begins at higher elevations where you see the earliest changes in late September and continue into mid-November at the lower elevations.
The Sourwood and Dogwood trees are the first to turn red early in the season. Next is the Tulip Poplars which turn yellow but then quickly turn brown. Peak leaf season brings in the red, orange, and yellow of the Maples and the bright yellow of the Birches. Oaks and Sweetgums finish up the season with purple, orange, and red.
Fall wildflowers on the Cherohala Skyway provide a beautiful display of colors starting in September up to the first frost in early October.
Take a jacket because temperatures can be 10 degrees colder at 5,000 feet. Remember that sightseeing will bring more traffic and it’s moving slower.
Your road to fall
October 1-10: 5,000+ feet elevation (Best leaf peeping spots on the Cherohala Skyway: Big Junction, Santeetlah, Hooper Bald, Huckleberry, and Spirit Ridge)
October 10-20: 4,000-5,000+ feet elevation (Best leaf peeping spots on the Cherohala Skyway: West Rattlesnake Rock, East Rattlesnake Rock, Unicoi Crest, Stratton Ridge, Mud Gap, Whigg Cove, Haw Knob, and Wright Cove)
October 18-26: 3,000-4,000+ feet elevation (Best leaf peeping spots on the Cherohala Skyway: Lake View, Brushy Ridge, Obadiah, Shute Cove, and Hooper Cove)
October 24-31: 2,000-3,000+ feet elevation (Best leaf peeping spots on the Cherohala Skyway: Bald River Falls, Oosterneck Creek, Indian Boundary, Turkey Creek, and Santeetlah Gap)
Summer is the perfect time to hit the open road: School’s out, the weather’s warm, and the possibilities are endless
Don’t you just love when you are driving and see those welcome signs into states? There’s nothing like a summer road trip to enjoy the outdoors with friends and family. Summer is the best time to hit the road and check some places off that bucket list. It’s your chance to feel that summer breeze, listen to good music, play fun road trip games, and watch road trip films. Sightsee across some of your favorite states both near and far!
In their Summer Travel Survey 2022, The Vacationer determined that 42 percent plan to travel more than last summer with nearly 51 percent flying on a plane and 80 percent on road trips.
Deciding to take a trip is the easy part, though. Picking a destination and affording everything you want to pack into your itinerary is harder. Fuel prices might be one thing to worry about, for example. They’ve been increasing this year with the national gas average hovering around $5 per gallon now ($5.80 for diesel). On top of that, you’ll need to consider accommodations, activities, and dining. All of these certainly contribute to the more than $751 billion we spend on leisure travel each year.
Wallet Hub curated a list of the best and worst states to take a summer road trip this year. Of course, Texas made the list. I’m not surprised! Wallet Hub compared all 50 states and key factors to determine the most fun, scenic, and affordable states to visit on a road trip. After the pandemic and current inflation, road trips are still the best way to still experience an enjoyable vacation with your favorite people. So load up the RV and hit the road! It’s time to see what states fall into the top 15 best states for a summer road trip.
To determine the best road-trip destinations for travel this summer, WalletHub compared the 50 states across three key dimensions: Costs, Safety, and Activities.
They evaluated those dimensions using 32 relevant metrics. Each metric was graded on a 100-point scale with a score of 100 representing the most favorable conditions for summer road trips.
Metrics used to determine Costs include:
Average gas prices
Lowest price of camping
Cost of Living Index
Metrics used to determine Safety include:
Quality of roads
Quality of bridges
Car thefts per 1,000 residents
Violent crimes per 1,000 residents
Metrics used to determine Activities include:
Share of the total area designated as parkland
National parks recreation visitors per capita
Zoos and botanical gardens per capita
Number of attractions
Access to scenic byways
Historic sites per capita
The financial website then determined each state’s weighted average across all metrics to calculate its overall score and used the resulting scores to rank-order their sample.
Taking the average gas prices metric, for example, Georgia came in with the lowest average prices followed by Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Mississippi. At the high end, California and Nevada came in with the highest prices followed by Washington and Oregon.
When the points were tallied, New York came in No. 1 with a score of 58.01 and Minnesota followed with 57.56.
1. New York
Not only is there the city to enjoy but many places outside the Big Apple. Visit Niagara Falls, mountain views, The Catskills, historical spots, and more!
Hit the road to Minnesota. I know, maybe you did not know it would be No. 2! Take a scenic drive and view beautiful byways, waterfalls, and more.
Texas is absolutely it! One of my favorite to explore in an RV! Head to Texas and you could spend days driving through the entire state all you want. Stop in Dallas, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and more. From the beach, to the cities, to the country side you will never run out of things to do and places to eat.
Go to Louisiana and it’s time to have fun! Visit the swamp on a swamp tour, factory tours, historical tours, Cajun Country, and much more.
Now, maybe you would have never guessed it? I surely did not. But head to Maine and experience national parks, cool loop highways, beaches, and more.
Oh, Ohio! Drive up North and visit Cedar Point Amusement Park, Put-In-Bay, Columbus Zoo, hiking trails, and more!
7. North Carolina
You read that right! NC is in the No. 7 spot for best summer road trips. If you’ve toured the Tar Heel State, I am sure you know why. Drive through the mountains, on the beach, through the cities, eat good, hike, shop, relax, this state has it all!
Hit the road in Idaho! Visit hiking trails, national recreation areas, and scenic byways while you’re there.
Hit the road and head to Florida. You might want to drive through the entire state but trust me; it will take you a while so you might as well pit stop while you’re there. Drop into Pensacola, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa area, Miami, Key West, and more!
If you drive to Wyoming for Yellowstone and Grand Teton, take some time to visit the Union Pass Monument, National Museum of Military Vehicles, Wild Horses, and more!
This is a good one, and another personal favorite! Visit the mountains, the lake, amusement parks, amazing shopping centers, state parks, great food, and more all throughout Georgia!
Drive across the country and visit Washington State this summer. You’ll see plenty of sites on the way, but once you are there enjoy views of Rainier National Park, Olympic National Park, Mount St. Helens, the Cascade Loop, San Juan Islands, and more!
One of the best parts of the RV lifestyle is the ability to simply follow warm weather wherever it may lead
While the pandemic increased the appeal of camping and outdoor recreation in the last 18 months, Google Trends data confirms that interest has in fact been growing rapidly for longer than that. Overall search interest in RVing was flat or on a slight decline for most of the 2000s and early 2010s. In more recent years, interest has grown rapidly, reaching an all-time high in 2020. Now, search interest in RVing during the offseason is comparable to peak season search interest from a decade ago.
This interest is also apparent across different demographic groups. The population of older Americans and Canadians—who have long been a major segment of the RV market—is growing as more Baby Boomers reach retirement age. But demand for RVs is also strong among Millennials and Gen Z, 49 percent of whom grew up with RVing and tend to be married, educated, and full-time working parents. Around two in five RV owners are aged 18 to 44, showing that camping and RVing have wide appeal.
While overall interest has increased, camping and outdoor recreational activities still follow seasonal patterns with most campers venturing outdoors during the summer months when temperatures are warmer. However, many states have excellent camping options year-round. Southern states from east to the west offer temperate winter climates, less precipitation, and ample natural attractions and parklands to entice outdoor recreation enthusiasts.
However, there is considerable variance across the Sunbelt states and within each state. For instance in Arizona expect freezing temperatures and snow in Flagstaff and sunny and warm temperatures in Phoenix, Yuma, and Tucson.
While there are many factors to consider when determining the best states for warm winter recreation, I selected average maximum temperature, average minimum temperature, average monthly precipitation, and the total land area allocated to parks and wildlife.
Weather statistics are long-term averages for December–February, sourced from NOAA, and land area statistics are from the USDA. In the event of a tie, the state with the higher average winter maximum temperature was ranked above.
While this model provided useful fodder for further discussion, it yielded both predictable and surprising results. It is no surprise that Florida, Arizona, Texas, and California ranked 1-4, but I had to wonder how North Carolina made the list while South Carolina and Mississippi did not.
As Anne Murray sings in the popular song, “Snowbird”:
“Spread your tiny wings and fly away
And take the snow back with you
Where it came from on that day
So, little snowbird, take me with you when you go
To that land of gentle breezes where the peaceful waters flow…”
One visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park is never enough even when it stretches over a week or two
Some of the wildest terrain the Southern Appalachian region can claim and some of the wildest to be found in the eastern United States can be found in the Smoky Mountains. At their heart is the national park which sprawls across 815 square miles, a swath of land just a little over half the size of Rhode Island.
Great Smoky Mountain National Park has one of the world’s best-preserved deciduous forests, the oldest mountains in the United States, and more annual visitors than any other national park in the country.
The 33-mile long Newfound Gap Road (U.S. 441) bisects the park, stretching from Gatlinburg, Tennessee to Cherokee, North Carolina with incredible views. Clingmans Dome is just past the “gap,” commonly referred to as “pass” in other parts of the country.
With an estimated 900 miles of trails, Great Smoky is a hiker’s haven, one that could occupy you year-round. You could focus on the 70-some miles of the Appalachian Trail that runs along the roof of the park or break Great Smoky into regions and hike them one at a time.
Although there are many national parks that are larger, the Great Smoky Mountains have the greatest diversity of plants anywhere in North America. The Smoky Mountains contain more than 300 rare species of plants with as many as 125 on the protected plant lists of either North Carolina or Tennessee.
The Great Smoky Mountains have an explosion of wildflowers in spring and summer. More than 1,500 flowering plants can be found in the region, including delicate spring beauties, several types of trillium, trout lilies, wild geranium, and orchids; visit from mid-April to mid-May for the best blooms. The park’s showy flame azaleas and rhododendrons also burst to life starting in April in the low elevations and into June up high.
The Smokies are famous for their colorful trees in fall. Drive or hike to the higher elevations for sweeping views over the park’s 100-plus tree species painting the hills in bright oranges, yellows, and reds. Peak leaf season is impossible to predict since it is dependent on rain, temperature, and other factors. Generally, you can target the second half of October for higher-elevation colors, and late October through the first week of November for lower elevations.
Before it became a national park, this landscape was home to many settlers who farmed and milled in its hidden valleys. Today, more than 90 historic buildings remain in the park. In Cades Cove, you’ll find the greatest variety of churches, mills, barns, and cabins dating back to the early 1800s. An 11-mile one-way loop road takes you through a lush valley surrounded by mountains. For a quieter ride, head to the Roaring Forks motor nature trail with views of rushing streams, old log cabins, another mill, and forested wilderness.
Visit Oconaluftee to tour the Mountain Farm Museum, a collection of structures from the late 1800s, or nearby Mingus Mill. Other beautiful drives include the 18-mile Little River Road from the Sugarlands Visitor Center to Townsend and the Blue Ridge Parkway (outside of the park).
While Cades Cove with its rich collection of homesteading cabins, corn cribs, smokehouses, and churches is arguably the most popular area of the park, much the same history can be discovered without the crowds in Cataloochee (Big and Little Cataloochee). A little over a century ago this was one of the region’s most thriving communities with 1,200 residents in 1910. Today, though, it draws no crowds to its historic buildings, rolling orchards, meadows or forests, which do, however, attract elk, wild turkeys, and black bears.
Nestled near the park’s eastern border, you must negotiate a winding 11-mile gravel road found near Dellwood, North Carolina, to reach Cataloochee. This road will carry you back into a 19th- and early-20th century landscape rimmed by 6,000-foot mountains and some of the park’s best examples of historic frame buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s. Still standing is the Palmer House, a vintage “dog trot” construction featuring two separate log cabins (that later were planked over) tied together by a covered porch popular with dogs on long, hot summer days. These days the house doubles as a museum of the valley and offers a video that provides an interesting oral history provided by descendants of the valley’s settlers.
As you can see, Great Smoky holds more wonders and adventures than one visit can embrace.
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.
Check out these leaf-peeping tips for a spectacular fall visit to the Blue Ridge Parkway
Tens of thousands of people visit the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Georgia each year to see the beautiful fall foliage and autumn colors. The Blue Ridge Mountains offer one of the most colorful and longest-running fall leaf seasons in the world.
One of the many reasons for this is the varied elevations which show prime fall colors for more than a month. Fall colors begin at the highest elevations in early October and work their way down to the lower elevations in early November.
When will the Parkway leaves stop producing chlorophyll and change to their wardrobe of fall colors? If you’re wondering when the peak Blue Ridge Parkway Fall leaf season will be this year, you’re not alone. It’s usually in October which is often the busiest month along the Parkway. But there are many factors that influence the timing and intensity of the color including when and how much rain falls, how late in the season the sun shines with intense heat, and how cool the nights are. So your best bet to see peak autumn color is to incorporate as many of these elements into your trip as possible.
Elevation: Travel a longer section of the Parkway to see a variety of elevations. Leaves change color at higher, cooler elevations first. The elevation along the Parkway ranges from over 6,000 feet at Richland Balsam in North Carolina to just under 650 feet at the James River in Virginia. You can also continue into Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks on either end of the Parkway for additional opportunities to view fall color. Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the state high point of Tennessee and Mount Mitchell, located along the Parkway at Milepost 355 is the state high point for North Carolina and either would be a good choice.
Aspect: Which direction a slope face determines its temperature and the type of plants that grow there. Leaves change color first on cooler, wetter north-facing slopes and later on warmer, south-facing slopes. View a variety of aspects to see different plants and different phases of color change.
Distance: Since overlooks with distant views reveal a variety of elevations and aspects you are more likely to see leaf color. Clingmans Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the state high point of Tennessee, and Mount Mitchell, with access at Parkway at Milepost 355, is the state high point for North Carolina; either would provide a long-distance view. But many Parkway overlooks also provide long-range views, so there are lots of options besides the tallest peak in the state.
The bottom line is, don’t expect to pick one spot on one day on the Parkway and see the perfect combination of colors—instead, travel a longer distance and you’re likely to meet all the criteria above and see a variety of stages of color change.
Here, then, is the general progression:
Leaves at the highest elevations (Clingmans Dome, Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell, and Waterrock Knob) change from late September to early October
Mid-October provides good color along most of the Parkway and Great Smoky Mountains National Park including Boone and Blowing Rock in North Carolina and Wytheville and Fancy Gap in Virginia
Next, the lower elevations provide good color (Pisgah National Forest, Linville Gorge, Nantahala Gorge, and Maggie Valley in North Carolina and Roanoke, Lynchburg, Lexington, Waynesboro, and Shenandoah National Park in Virginia)
The lowest elevations (Asheville, Brevard, Waynesville, Cherokee, Gatlinburg, Chimney Rock, and Lake Lure) provide the final color display if the weather has cooperated and there are still leaves on the trees
2021 Fall Color Forecast for the Blue Ridge Parkway, by week
September 27-October 7: At the highest elevations, close to 6,000 feet there is some color but it’s often very spotty and muted. The views from these locations will be mostly green since the areas viewed are lower elevations. Areas that turn early in this date and elevation range include Graveyard Fields (Milepost 418.8) and Rough Ridge Trail (Milepost 302.8).
October 1-10: Peak time for areas above 5,000 feet. This would include Clingmans Dome, Grandfather Mountain, Mount Mitchell, Waterrock Knob (Milepost 451.2), and Graveyard fields (the first location on the Parkway to turn) and higher elevations of The Blue Ridge Parkway (between Asheville and Cherokee) and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
October 10 – 20: Peak time for elevations from 4,000-5,000 feet. This would include almost all Blue Ridge Parkway locations and the majority of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as well. Included in this elevation are the Boone and Blowing Rock areas.
October 18-26: Peak time for lower elevations, from 3,000-4,000 feet. This would include places like Pisgah National Forest which includes Sliding Rock and Looking Glass Falls, Dill Falls, Wildcat Falls, and many other waterfalls. Other areas include Linville Gorge (Milepost 316.4), Nantahala Gorge, Maggie Valley (Milepost 455.5), and Cataloochee Valley.
October 24-31: Peak time for elevations from 2,000 feet-3,000 feet. This would include The cities of Asheville, Brevard, Waynesville, Cherokee, and many others. Places of interest include Dupont State Forest and Biltmore Estate, and Cades Cove.
October 26-November 8: Peak time for remaining elevations including Gatlinburg (Tennessee), Chimney Rock (North Carolina), and remaining lower elevation mountains. This includes Chimney Rock (State Park) as well, a great place to see fall color.
Please note: These timeframes are estimates based on prior years and current weather and soil conditions. Actual peak times may vary some from this forecast.
Information and Trip Planning
The Parkway’s unique features such as limited sight distances, blind curves, and elevation changes offer driving challenges, especially for recreational vehicles. Stay alert and watch for other motorists, wildlife, and bicyclists.
Camping: Be sure to make advance camping reservations. The Parkway’s eight campgrounds were built years ago and do not currently offer RV hookups. Most Parkway campgrounds have at least some sites that will accommodate sizeable recreational vehicles. There are many private campgrounds in communities available just off the Parkway with full RV hookups and amenities.
Tunnels: Know the height of your RV in comparison to the heights of the 26 tunnels along the Parkway. The top of each tunnel is curved with the maximum height above the center line and the minimum height at the road shoulder.
Parkway Detour: From May 2021 to spring 2022, a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway will be closed in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. Expect a closure by Roanoke due to a serious slope failure there. The National Park Service will be completing repairs on the Roanoke River Bridge at Milepost 114 and also repairing a road hazard at Milepost 127.9 that was caused by heavy rains and landslides. As a result, the Blue Ridge Parkway will be closed from Milepost 112.2 (Route 24 near Vinton) to Milepost 136 (Route 221 on Bent Mountain) for through-travelers. You can take US 221 around the closure from Parkway Milepost 135.9 to Milepost 106 (about a 27-mile detour).
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a popular destination for vacationers who RV. Nothing beats a beautiful, wooded drive in your home-away-from-home!
Almost heaven, West Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River Life is old there, older than the trees Younger than the mountains, blowing like a breeze
Country roads, take me home Take me home, country roads.
It’s easy to see why the Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited National Park of them all
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located in a crossroads of sorts through the American southeast straddling the Tennessee and North Carolina state line. Winding through the heart of the Great Smokies is one of America’s most famed and prized scenic byways, the Blue Ridge Parkway. Rivers in the area draw rafters and kayakers from all over the country and world 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 south end of the Park tells the story of the area’s Indian heritage. For art, food, and other city-centric activities, the super-cool hipster community of the south, Asheville, North Carolina, is just down the street. 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.
When it was first officially designated as a national park back in 1940, the Great Smoky Mountains instantly became the premier outdoor playground in the eastern United States. Covering more than 522,000 acres of prime wilderness in North Carolina and Tennessee, the park is home to a stunning array of wildlife, hundreds of miles of trails, and some of the highest peaks east of the Black Hills of South Dakota.
A subset of the Appalachian Mountain Range, the Smokies feature seemingly endless scenic vistas which have helped make them one of the crown jewels of America’s national park system. Its breathtaking beauty has also made the park incredibly popular drawing more than 12 million visitors annually. To put things into perspective, that’s more than twice as many as the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite.
But don’t let those large visitation numbers deter you; there are still plenty of places to escape the crowds and find solitude inside the park. Whether you’re looking to take an amazing hike, set up camp at a remote location, or go on a beautiful drive, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has you covered. This is everything you need to know before you go.
As you would expect in an outdoor setting like the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, there are many things to see and do. Visitors enjoy spotting wildlife, taking photos of the mountain landscapes, exploring historic buildings, and just soaking up the sights and sounds of the Smokies. Wildflower-covered meadows make excellent spots for a picnic lunch while the park’s scenic byways make excellent—if challenging—cycling routes as well.
Other popular activities inside the park include fishing for trout and bass, horseback riding on many of the trails, and camping in one of the designated campsites. If you’re looking to pitch your tent or park you’re RV, the park has numerous places where you can do just that.
Cades Cove is by far the most popular site in the park. You can meander along the 11-mile driving loop through pastoral landscapes to historic log cabins and churches all the while viewing wildlife without ever having to leave the comfort of your car. It’s kind of a driving safari as is the entire park.
Scenic drives such as the Newfound Gap Road provide a welcome mat to countless brooks, waterfalls, overlooks, and trailheads; along winding roads where we can capture those s-curve-through-nature photographs that we love so much. And during the off-season, you can actually capture an unobstructed shot of the road in the most visited U.S. National Park. Unbelievable!
It’s easy to lose an entire day or many days exploring by car because there is so much to see just by looking out the window and surpassing views of wildlife, vistas, valleys, rivers, and roads. It is when you head out on foot, though, that you really get a sense of the incredible vastness in the Great Smoky Mountains—there seem to be millions and billions and trillions of trees. It’s an odd feeling, being a simple human among millions and billions and trillions of trees.
Two popular activities in the park are hiking and backpacking. With more than 850 miles of trail to explore, visitors can spend weeks wandering the backcountry without ever walking on the same path twice. Some routes wander high along the mountain ridges, providing outstanding views as they go. Others meander past open meadows, through thick forests, and around towering waterfalls. Some are short and easy while others are long and difficult but each is unique and satisfying.
Some of the best hikes in the park include the 2.7-mile walk to Rainbow Falls which is short but challenging and rewards travelers with stunning views of an 80-foot waterfall. The 4-mile long Chimney Tops Trail starts steep but provides some of the best views around while the trek to Alum Cave meanders through hardwood forest and under a stone arch on its way to a towering peak.
Size: 522,419 acres
Date Established: June 15, 1934
Location: Eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a subsection of the Appalachian Mountains
Park Elevation: 876 feet-6,643 feet
How the park got its name: 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.
Iconic site in the park: The highest peak in any National Park often becomes iconic and Clingmans Dome in the Great Smokies is no different. From 6,643 feet, one can see 360-degree views of the National Park and far beyond on a clear day.
Tips for Your Visit: The busiest time in the park is between Memorial Day and Labor Day. To avoid large crowds and potential traffic jams, plan your visit for other times of the year. The weather is generally mild and the landscapes are majestic in all four seasons.
Autumn is an especially great time to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Parks especially on weekends and the changing color of the leaves is spectacular.
Entrance into the park is free all year round.
How to Get There: There are three entry points to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park with the main entrance located in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Visitors will take Interstate Highway I-40 to Exit 407, turning south on TN-60. From there, continue to US-441, which heads straight into the park. Alternative entrances can be found in Townsend, Tennessee, and Cherokee, North Carolina.
Did you know?
Approximately 1,500 black bears live in the park.
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.
Every year, synchronous fireflies light up the Smokies for about two weeks during their annual mating ritual. They are the only beetles in North America with the ability to flash in sync.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.