Great Smoky Mountains National Park: A Guide for RVers

America’s most visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains is an ideal getaway. Hike, camp, and experience one of America’s oldest mountain ranges.

I love all things nature. I enjoy visiting the National Parks, 22 so far and numerous National Park Service (NPS) sites including National Monuments, National Historic Sites, National Battlefields, National Seashores, and National Recreation Areas.

However, America’s highways and byways offer many unique sites along the way. Like you, we discuss where we want to go and work backward from there. That allows us to research all of those spots in between that fall into the must-see column. Therein is my motivation for this new series of articles: A Guide for RVers.

A Guide for RVers will provide you with not only hints and facts about nature found on your road trip but those often missed stops along the way. For example, if you are heading from Bryce Canyon National Park to Capitol Reef National Park take time to visit Escalante Petrified Forest State Park in Escalante and view the historic grounds of Anasazi State Park in Boulder. 

Perhaps you find yourself on a layover in Mitchell, South Dakota heading to Badlands National Park and the Black Hills. Take time to tour the World’s Only Corn Palace

My new series of articles, A Guide for RVers will run intermittently in the months ahead. It will include links to related articles, interesting nature facts associated with those places, and a shout-out to good eats along the way. I will add a special line called “Wait. What?!” in each column to give you some jaw-dropping facts about the specific topic and nature in general. 

I hope that you will find that A Guide for RVers is interesting, informative, and entertaining as well.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

I’ll begin our adventure with the most visited National Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park with 13.2 million visitors in 2023. That is only slightly less visits than Yellowstone (4.5 million), Grand Canyon (5.2 million), and Zion (4.6 million) combined. Why is that? It is within one day’s drive of one-half the U.S. population. Plus, plenty of side attractions have located just outside its protected borders.

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

Getting there

Using your favorite GPS navigator, U.S. Highway 441 bisects the park from the most popular entrance on the northside to Sugarlands Visitor Center at Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It ends, or begins, depending on your starting point, at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center via the Southside entrance at Cherokee, North Carolina. Known as Newfoundland Gap Road, US-441 curves its way through the park to an elevation of 5,046 feet before dropping back down.  

Once close to Knoxville, head south to any one of the popular towns: Townsend, Pigeon Forge, Gatlinburg, Sevierville, or Cosby. Among these, you will find more than two dozen RV parks and campgrounds.

Coming in from the Southside, you will head toward Cherokee. RV parks are few and the roads to any are winding. The same goes for getting to the Oconaluftee Visitors Center. There is a KOA and a few Good Sam parks along with a plethora of campgrounds.

Staying in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

If you are looking to rough it in your RV, the park offers nine campgrounds. The only one with water/electric hookups (10 sites) is Look Rock plus the means to park RVs up to 48 feet. All others are dry camping only with limited site lengths: Cades Cove and Smokemount—40 feet motorhomes, 35 feet for trailers; Elkmount—35 feet for motorhomes, 32 feet trailers; Cataloochee—31 feet; Balsam Mountain—30 feet; Deep Creek—26 feet; and Cosby—25 feet. Availability goes quickly, so a 6-month advance reservation is recommended. You can only reserve at recreation.gov in all national parks. 

You are there. Now what?

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

Visitor Center

Begin your exploration of the park at a visitor center. Here you can pick up a park map or newspaper, have your questions answered by a ranger, and purchase books and guides to the park. For current ranger-led activities, visit the park’s calendar for details.

Four visitor centers are located within the national park at Sugarlands, Oconaluftee, Cades Cove, and Clingmans Dome.

The park has two historic gristmills, Cable Mill and Mingus Mill that provide demonstrations of corn meal milling. (Mingus Mill is closed until further notice for rehabilitation work.)

Parking permits

Great Smoky Mountains National Park does not charge an entrance fee. However, parking tags are required for all vehicles parking for longer than 15 minutes.

The best method is to purchase online. Otherwise, you can purchase one at a Visitor’s Center or kiosk. 

Three tag durations are available for purchase for all vehicle sizes and types:

  • Daily: $5
  • Weekly: $15
  • Annual: $40
Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving tours

Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses over 800 square miles and is one of the most pristine natural areas in the East. An auto tour of the park offers a variety of experiences including panoramic views, tumbling mountain streams, weathered historic buildings, and mature hardwood forests stretching to the horizon.

Visitors can choose from 384 miles of road in the Smokies. Most are paved and the gravel roads are maintained in suitable condition for standard passenger cars.

Cades Cove

Cades Cove is a scenic valley surrounded on all sides by mountains south of Townsend, Tennessee. A popular 11-mile one-way loop road encircling the valley provides access to hiking trails, opportunities for wildlife viewing, and chances to explore the many historic homesites, cemeteries, and churches. The area also holds a visitor center, campground, picnic area, and riding stable.

Many of the early settlers’ houses and a few primitive churches remain standing. Pull-out parking is available, but limited.

Allow at least two to four hours to tour Cades Cove, longer if you walk some of the area’s trails. Traffic is heavy during the tourist season in summer and fall and on weekends year-round. Trust me when I say, avoid the weekends!

Vehicle-free access along the Cades Cove Loop Road takes place each Wednesday from May through September.

The beginning of the loop is well marked: from Cherokee, 57 miles; from Gatlinburg, 27 miles; and from Townsend, 9 miles. Restrooms are available about halfway at the Cades Cove Visitors Center. From spring through fall one can expect to see wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, and black bears. There are a few easy- to moderate-difficulty hiking trailheads along the route. Again, parking is limited and by permit only (See above).

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Another popular loop of 5.5 miles takes you through an old-growth forest alongside a mountain stream. At about 2.5 miles is the trailhead for the Noah “Bud” Ogle self-guiding nature trail (0.7-mile easy loop). This takes you across two brooks, past his 1880s “saddle-bag” farmhouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and around his “pass-through” barn. Do not miss the “tub mill” used for grinding corn and the only one still existing out of a dozen in the area.

To access Roaring Fork, turn off the main parkway in Gatlinburg at traffic light #8 and follow Historic Nature Trail Road to the Cherokee Orchard entrance to the national park. Just beyond the Rainbow Falls trailhead you have the option of taking the one-way Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (closed in winter). Please note that RVs are not permitted on the motor nature trail.

Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Clingman’s Dome

At an elevation of 6,643 feet, not only is it the highest mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park but it also boasts the highest point in Tennessee and the highest point along the Appalachian Trail. Built in 1959, the observation tower allows visitors a 360-degree panorama of the Smokies. On a clear day you can see more than 100 miles. However, most days are smoky limiting visibility to about 20 miles.

Due to the steepness of the paved ramp up to the tower (1 mile round-trip), wheelchairs, pets, and bicycles are prohibited. Also, remember that at this elevation the ambient temperature is 10 to 20 degrees cooler than Gatlinburg.

Hiking trail to Clingman’s Dome, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking trails

Great Smoky Mountains National Park stands out as a hiker’s heaven with more than 800 miles of trails through an old-growth forest including 71 miles of the Appalachian Trail. No wonder it is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site (1983).

One of the most daunting tasks facing hikers is choosing a trail. Start by deciding on what you would like to see. Waterfalls? Old-growth forests? Endless views? Then decide how far you would like to hike. If you haven’t hiked much recently, be conservative. Five miles roundtrip is a good maximum distance for novices.

Trails range from easy (Spruce Fir Trail, 0.4 miles r/t, 25-feet elevation gain), to moderate (Rainbow Falls, 5.4 miles r/t, 1685-feet elevation gain), to strenuous (Mt. Le Conte via Trillium Gap, 13.9 miles r/t, 3401-feet elevation gain). Remember, always check with the rangers at the Visitors Center for trail conditions, wildlife spotting, and permits, if required.

Some of the most popular destination hikes in the park include:

  • Charlies Bunion (4.0 miles one-way; 1,600 feet elevation change)
  • Alum Cave Bluffs (2.5 miles one-way; 1,200 feet elevation change)
  • Andrews Bald (1.8 miles one-way; 1,200 feet elevation change)
  • Rainbow Falls (2.7 miles one-way; 1,700 feet elevation change)
  • Chimney Tops (3.5 miles roundtrip; 1,400 feet elevation change)
Cable Mill, Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Flora and fauna

Great Smoky Mountains National Park shows more than 1,500 flowering species with spring offering the showiest of wildflowers. Of course, timing is everything. The Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage (75th annual; April 23-26, 2025) offers guided walks and talks.

This is black bear habitat. They crawl from hibernation in the spring and forage all summer. July is mating season with bear cubs abundant shortly after. Follow NPS bear safety instructions should you encounter one. Speaking of safety, there are 23 species of snakes, but only two are venomous: Timber rattlesnake and Northern copperhead. Watch your step.

When hiking you may encounter sightings of coyotes, elk, white-tailed deer, raccoons, squirrels, and chipmunks. Enjoy from afar. Park regulations prohibit feeding any wild critter. 

Synchronous Fireflies (Photinus carolinus)

Of the 19 different species of fireflies that live within the GSMNP, the synchronous fireflies stand out among them all. The flash pattern alerts females that the males are of their species. It begins with a series of 5-8 flashes, a pause of about 8 seconds, and then this repeated pattern. Watching this mating ritual ranks as a truly unique experience.

To stand among the viewers requires one to enter the park lottery. This happens in late April to early May when the lottery for vehicle passes closes. The viewing begins when the adults seek to mate usually in June. To enter one must go to recreation.gov.

Another opportunity awaits in northeast Tennessee at Rocky Fork State Park. Again, admission is by lottery only. 

Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Makin’ merry

Pigeon Forge seems like a carnival that never ends. From Dollywood to the Old Mill Historic District there are plenty of places for excitement. When it comes to eats, you name it, from fast foods to dinner theaters.

Big names like Guy Fieri’s Downtown Flavortown, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, and Paula Deen’s Family Kitchen are located on The Island, another tourist destination. In the mood for fried chicken or catfish, try J.T. Hannah’s Kitchen. Plenty of barbecue available, but Preachers Smokehouse is hard to beat. Get there early as they sell out quickly. Finally, do not forget to taste the moonshine. It will make you merry!

I hope that these few words piqued your curiosity and motivated you to roll on over to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Do not let the crowds put you off. You just have to plan your trip and be smarter than the average visitor. One final remark: Unless you stay for a month, do not try to do it all in one visit. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is HUGE covering 522,427 acres. In visiting, I can say that once is not nearly enough.

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

Wait. What?!  

Bioluminescence, the production of light by living organisms is not limited to fireflies. Several other species light up. These include certain fish, shrimp, plankton, jellyfish, fungus, and gnats.

Want more travel ideas for this area?

Happy Travels!

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

The Complete Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Retrace the steps of the Cherokee on quiet nature trails and witness autumn’s splendor in America’s most popular park

It’s not surprising that the Great Smoky Mountains is the most-visited of the nation’s 63 national parks welcoming more than 12.9 million visitors in 2022. Within driving distance of so many busy hubs in the eastern U.S., the massive natural expanse offers hard-to-match beauty with its unbroken chain of mist-shrouded mountain peaks rising more than 5,000 feet meandering streams, cascading waterfalls, flower-strewn meadows, and miles of old-growth forests.

Nearly evenly split between eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina the park has 62 species of mammals—including iconic black bears, bobcats, coyotes, red wolves and an estimated 200 elk—roaming its 522,427 acres. It’s also home to more than 67 varieties of fish, 234 species of birds, and dozens of species of salamanders (the park has been called the Salamander Capital of the World).

Members of the Cherokee Nation lived in these mystical mountains long before European settlers arrived—their roots here dating back more than 1,000 years. The ever-present fog circling the range prompted the Cherokee to name the mountains shaconage which translates to place of blue smoke. Euro-Americans later dubbed them the Great Smoky Mountains.

Chartered by Congress in 1934 and officially dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers near-endless outdoor fun from hiking (you can find trails for all ability levels) to boating, cycling, fishing, and horseback riding. You can also explore old farmsteads of the Appalachian people who once called these mountains home.

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

Plan your trip

Three major Tennessee cities are within an easy drive from Great Smoky Mountain National Park: Chattanooga is 108 miles southwest, Knoxville is just 32 miles north, and Nashville 194 miles northwest. From North Carolina, Asheville is just 37 miles east and Charlotte is 151 miles southeast. Atlanta is 175 miles southwest.

Located 42 miles southeast of Knoxville, Gatlinburg serves as the gateway to the main entrance on the park’s north (Tennessee) side. At the same time, the town of Cherokee leads visitors into the North Carolina sector on the southeast side. There’s no need to pull out your wallet at the park entrances: Great Smoky Mountains National Park has no entry fee.

Once inside, you’ll find four visitors centers—Cades Cove, Clingmans Dome, Oconaluftee, and Sugarlands—each provide park information and ranger-led programs. It’s a good idea to start your visit at the Sugarlands center just 2 miles from the Gatlinburg entrance for a 20-minute orientation film that provides a good overview.

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

Great Smoky Mountains National Park has 384 miles of well-maintained roads—most are paved but some are gravel. Remember you’re in the mountains so be prepared for many twists and turns plus occasional steep inclines and declines. (Note that some secondary roads have restrictions on large vehicles such as RVs.) The Newfoundland Gap Road winds 31 miles southeast from Gatlinburg to Cherokee connecting the two gateways.

In spring, the resident 1,600-plus black bears emerge from their winter slumber more than 1,500 species of wildflowers begin to bloom blanketing the park in multichromatic splendor and mating fireflies light up the night sky in brilliant synchronicity. Daytime temperatures average a pleasant 65 degrees with nighttime lows of 45 degrees.

Peak season runs from mid-June through mid-August when monthly visitor totals hover around 1.5 million. Temperatures peak, too, with highs often climbing above 80 degrees during the day. Summer afternoons often bring thunderstorms with July being the wettest month. By nightfall, the temperatures drop to a comfortable average of 55 degrees.

The humid summer weather subsides in September and crowds start to thin out. In October, even cooler temperatures arrive usually ranging from 40 to 50 degrees along with a new surge of visitors. When hues of red, gold, and orange spill down from the mountain peaks to the forest floor the park sees its second peak season. To view the autumn splendor without all the traffic, slip into the quieter North Carolina sector for a weekday visit.

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

Winter snow and ice close some of the driving routes including the popular road to Clingmans Dome, the park’s highest mountain (elevation 6,643 feet). But the area remains open for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or a winter walk through the high-altitude spruce-fir forest.

Plan to unplug when visiting the park: There are no cell towers making reception limited or nonexistent except at higher elevations where visitors can sometimes detect signals. Limited Wi-Fi may be available at some locations.

You’ll find restroom facilities at visitor centers, campgrounds, picnic areas, Newfound Gap, and Clingmans Dome. Don’t expect facilities on the trails except for a portable toilet on the Grotto Falls Trail and primitive facilities at the Rainbow Falls trailhead.

Accessible programs span from ranger-led explorations of the intricate forest floor to tours highlighting the park’s human history. You can explore much of the park by car with pull-off parking available to view the surrounding landscapes and short trails for venturing a bit farther.

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

Where to stay and eat

If you want to stay overnight in the park be prepared to give your quads quite the workout. Reaching the only in-park accommodations (besides camping) requires a 5.5-mile hike and physical endurance but you’re rewarded with stellar sunrises and sunsets and star-filled night skies. Designed for those summiting Mount Le Conte, the park’s third-highest mountain (elevation 6,594 feet), the Mount Le Conte Lodge can host up to 60 overnight guests in rustic one-room cabins and multiroom lodges. Day-trippers can break here for lunch as well.

The park also maintains 10 campgrounds for tents and RVs in a range of inviting locales from riversides to forests. All have restrooms, cold running water and flush toilets but no showers or electrical or water hookups. Each site has a fire grate and picnic table. Reservations are required (recreation.gov) from May through October with limited first-come, first-served sites also available from November through April.

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

Just 8 miles from the gateway town of Gatlinburg, Elkmont Campground is the Great Smoky Mountains’s largest and busiest camping destination with 200 campsites, nine of them ADA-compliant (wide concrete driveways, raised fire rings, and wheelchair-accessible picnic tables) alongside the Little River. A quieter alternative is Cosby Campground on the park’s northeast side: It offers 157 campsites nestled under a canopy of hemlock trees and the feel of backcountry camping with frontcountry amenities.

Backpackers can access primitive backcountry sites with a reservation plus five drive-in horse camps with primitive camping facilities and hitch racks provide easy access to backcountry horse trails. For backcountry permits ($4 nightly per person), call 865-436-1297.

You won’t be eating lavishly here. Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s only dining option is the snack bar at the Cades Cove Campground store which serves breakfast items, sandwiches, pizza, soups, wraps, and ice cream. You’ll also find vending machines at visitors’ centers. It’s best to bring your own food and enjoy one of the 12 picnic areas scattered throughout the park in forests and alongside rivers and creeks. They come with charcoal grills and picnic tables.

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

Things to do

From hiking on 150 trails covering 850 miles to cycling, fishing, and horseback riding, Great Smoky Mountains National Park delivers recreational options aplenty for all fitness levels. Or take it easy and sightsee from the comfort of your car on highways and motor trails (one-way scenic loops) that showcase park highlights.

On the Newfound Gap Highway take advantage of numerous pullouts to marvel at the scenic vistas. Along the drive stretch your legs and absorb nature’s soundtrack on short, easy trails marked as Quiet Walkways. The 0.3-mile Balsam Point Quiet Walkway slightly north of the Chimney Tops overlook, serves up views of the Steep Branch Creek, and the west prong of the Little Pigeon River. Take a seat on a bench in the clearing and soak in the scenery.

And consider some must-sees and must-dos in both the Tennessee and North Carolina sides of the park:

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

In Tennessee

You don’t have to go far beyond the main entrance for a leisurely walk in a forest. Just outside the Sugarlands Visitor Center the easy 1.1-mile Fighting Creek Nature Trail gives you an introduction to the park’s wildlife with possible sightings of black bears, elk, whitetail deer, and more.

If you’re up for a longer but still easy hike with plenty to keep you entertained consider the 4.9-mile round-trip Little River Trail in the Elkmont area about 6 miles west of the Sugarlands center. It’s a relatively flat, wide trail that follows the river and along with its natural beauty there’s a lot of human history to discover as you hike. Those include ruins of former resort cabins from the 1920s, remnants of the area’s history as a getaway for the Knoxville elite.

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or try the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail which winds nearly 6 miles through old-growth forests alongside gurgling mountain streams. The trail begins 3 miles into the park from the Cherokee Orchard entrance a little more than a mile east of the Sugarlands center.

One mile before you get to the trail stop at the Noah “Bud” Ogle self-guided 0.7-mile nature trail for a walking tour of an authentic mountain farmstead with one of the park’s last remaining, fully operational tub mills. Then, if you’re up for more physical activity, tackle the 5.4-mile (round-trip), moderately strenuous hike to Rainbow Falls which begins just beyond the farmstead. This rock-strewn path gains about 1,500 feet in elevation en route to the 80-foot-high cascading falls named for the rainbow that often appears in the mist.

Thirty miles west of the Sugarlands center, scenic beauty and abundant wildlife make Cades Cove the park’s most popular area. An 11-mile loop drive winds through the cove and past early 19th-century homesteads, barns, churches, and a fully operational gristmill harkening back to the Appalachian way of life.

Hikers flock to Cades Cove to access popular trailheads including the 5-mile (round-trip) moderate Abrams Falls hike that leads through a gorgeous pine-oak forest alongside Abrams Creek to the namesake 20-foot waterfall that cascades into a long, deep pool.

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

Clingmans Dome near the park’s center straddles the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina. The road to the soaring mountain detours from Newfound Gap Highway about 7 miles south taking you to within a half-mile of the namesake observation tower. If you’re physically able continue on foot for a steep uphill climb with a big payoff: stunning 365-degree views of the surrounding Smokies.

Want to go really gonzo and test your grit? Challenge yourself on Mount Le Conte, north of the Newfound Gap road near the park’s center where several trails lead to the 6,594-foot summit. On the Alum Cave Trail, the shortest and steepest you’ll hike up 5.5 miles passing Mount Le Conte Lodge.

Mountain Farm Museum at Oconaluftee Visitor Center (near Cherokee), Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In North Carolina

Escape the crowds on the busier Tennessee side and relish in the Smokies’ wild beauty in the isolated Cataloochee Valley in the park’s less-visited North Carolina section. Surrounded by mountain peaks the valley once served as hunting grounds for the Cherokee. Later, one of the area’s largest Appalachian settlements prospered here. Preserved late 19th-century and early 20th-century structures—including two churches, a schoolhouse, and several cabins—reveal this history. Pick up a self-guiding tour booklet from a roadside box near the valley’s entrance.

Black bears, deer, elk, and other wildlife roam this peaceful valley. For the best chance of spotting elk arrive about an hour before sunrise or a couple of hours before sunset. For anglers Cataloochee Creek teems with wild trout. Hike all or part of the moderate 7-mile Boogerman Trail loop for a restorative amble through lush old-growth woods and over the rushing waters of Caldwell Fork.

Experience the park’s beauty from a different vantage point on Fontana Lake on Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s southern border which gives you access to the park’s most remote areas and the adjacent Nantahala National Forest. From one of several marinas rent a pontoon boat for exploring on your own or take a hiking tour via boat with Sunny Day Adventure Company. Many trails surrounding the lake are relatively flat which makes them accessible for most visitors.

When the October peak season overruns the roads in other park sections this area is ideal for leaf-peeping and wildlife viewing. Lake traffic dissipates in the fall but that’s actually one of the best times to be on the water. There’s a bonus for taking the road (or lake) less traveled: Black bear sightings are likely as they come down from the treetops to feed on the roe left behind by spawning fish.

Gateway towns

Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gatlinburg, Tennessee

With a fun, Orlando-like theme park vibe—coupled with a country twang—Gatlinburg and the adjoining town of Pigeon Forge flaunt attractions of every variety. Ideal if you have children or grandkids in tow: Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies where a penguin cam keeps an eye on the tuxedo-clad charmers.

Nearby, the Gatlinburg SkyLift Park’s elevator whisks you up to the SkyBridge for some exhilarating (maybe nerve-racking for some) sightseeing at cloud level on this pedestrian bridge stretching 680 feet across a deep gorge at a height of 140 feet.

A Tennessee classic, Dolly Parton’s Dollywood amusement park thrills with all the twists, turns, and spins expected—all served with a heaping side of country music.

Lodging options in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge range from resorts to chain motels. On the high end spoil yourself in a luxury suite at the Margaritaville Resort and Spa on the Pigeon River. For something budget-friendly settle into one of the basic rooms (breakfast included) at the Greystone Lodge on the River, where you can use the town’s trolley to easily access Gatlinburg’s attractions (there’s a stop across the street from the lodge).

Fuel up for a busy day of exploring at the Pancake Pantry, a longtime (since 1960) Gatlinburg favorite that serves a mouthwatering range of sweet offerings such as Banana Pineapple Triumph pancakes topped with powdered sugar and whipped cream.

Pigeon Forge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cherokee, North Carolina

Located on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, the town of Cherokee focuses on the tribal nation. Revisit the 18th century at the Oconaluftee Indian Village amid re-creations of traditional Cherokee dwellings, sacred ritual sites and workshops. Delve deeper into the tribe’s 11,000-year-old history through interactive exhibits and cultural displays at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. For outdoor recreation and an adrenaline rush, go white-water rafting on the Nantahala River in nearby Bryson City.

Splurge on a luxury cabin complete with fireplace, hot tub, and access to a private chef at Cherokee Mountain Cabins. Alternatively, the budget-friendly Cherokee KOA Campground rents both deluxe cabins (with full bathrooms and showers) and basic camping ones (with the use of the campground bathhouse). Roll the dice at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

When hunger strikes, the family-owned Granny’s Kitchen dishes up generous portions of classic Southern cuisine. Fill up on barbecue ribs, pork chops, and black-eyed peas at the lunch and dinner buffet.

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

En route

Traveling from Atlanta to Cherokee on U.S. Highway 23, a 16-mile detour along Georgia Route 384 North leads to Helen, Georgia, a charming mountain town that replicates a Bavarian alpine village (yes, in the Deep South). Stroll along its picturesque cobblestone streets and you’ll find specialty shops showcasing everything from kitschy souvenirs to handmade candles, artfully blown glass, and cuckoo clocks. For dining, sink your teeth into a hearty plate of schnitzel at the Heidelberg.

If you’re coming from Asheville, carve out time to tour the opulent Biltmore Estate before leaving the city. Erected in the late 1800s for George Vanderbilt, grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt, the lavish country home sits on a 125,000-acre tract south of town.

Add a few extra days if you can to explore the scenic Blue Ridge Parkway. The southern end of this 469-mile linear park begins just 0.2 miles outside Great Smoky Mountain National Park’s Oconaluftee Visitor Center and extends into Virginia connecting with Shenandoah National Park.

Great Smoky National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

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

Fact box

Location: Split nearly even between eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina

Size: 522,427 acres

Highest peak: Clingmans Dome at 6,643 feet

Lowest point: Abrams Creek at 876 feet

Miles/number of trails: 850 miles along 150 trails

Main attraction: Cades Cove

Entry fee: Free

Best way to see it: Along its well-maintained roadways

When to go for nice weather and fewer crowds: Before mid-June and in September

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

2024 National Park Free Entrance Days: Top 10 States to Visit

NPS has announced its free entrance days for 2024 so here are the states with the highest number of national parks and the highest concentration of national park sites

The National Park Service (NPS) sites which include national parks, national monuments, national recreation areas, national seashores, national historic sites, and other protected areas are incredible public spaces to enjoy and learn about nature. Some national park sites charge entrance fees but NPS has announced six fee-free entrance days in 2024:

  • January 15: Birthday of Martin Luther King Jr
  • April 20: First day of National Park Week
  • June 19: Juneteenth National Independence Day
  • August 4: Great American Outdoors Act anniversary
  • September 28: National Public Lands Day
  • November 11: Veterans Day

A great way to take full advantage of these free entrance days is to visit multiple national park sites in one day. While that may be difficult or even impossible in many areas there are several states with a high concentration of national park sites.

10 best states for national park sites

The following states are great places to travel to visit national parks at any time of the year whether or not you make it for the free entrance days.

1. Alaska

The Last Frontier has eight national parks and a total of 23 NPS sites including national monuments and other federally preserved areas. While Alaska is the largest state, three of the national parks are fairly close together—you can visit Kenai Fjords, Katmai, and Lake Clark National Parks within one day.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. California

The Golden State has nine national parks, the most of any state. The most popular national park in California is Yosemite but even the park with the smallest number of annual visitors, Pinnacles, is incredible and worth a visit. With a total of 28 national park sites, there is no shortage of beautiful locations to visit.

Here are a few great articles to help you do just that:

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Utah

The Beehive State has five national parks (The Big Five) and they are much closer together than those found in Alaska and California—in fact, it takes about seven hours to drive from Zion to Canyonlands and stop at the three other national parks in between. However, it’s worth it to slow down and spend more time at each park so consider sticking to one park each day.

Here are some articles to help:

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Arizona

Arizona and Colorado, the next state on the list, both have four national parks. However, Arizona has a higher total of NPS sites at 22 making it a great place to take a national parks road trip. Grand Canyon National Park is the best known in Arizona but Saguaro National Park and the lesser known Petrified Forest National Park, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area also offers incredible vistas and outdoor opportunities.

Here are a few great articles to help you do just that:

Mesa Verde National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Colorado

With four national parks and a total of 13 NPS sites, Colorado is another great option for national park enthusiasts. Mesa Verde National Park is remarkable because apart from its national park status it is also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it preserves the rich cultural history of many indigenous tribes.

Here are some articles to help:

6. Hawaii

The Hawaiian Islands have two national parks and a total of eight national park sites which is especially impressive when you remember that’s within an area of 10,392 square miles per the United States Census Bureau. One of the parks, Haleakalā, is located on the island of Maui which was recently devastated by fires so make sure to avoid the areas closed to tourism.

Mount St. Helens National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Washington

The crown of the Pacific Northwest is home to three national parks and a total of 15 NPS sites. Mount Rainier is perhaps the best known of the three but North Cascades and Olympic both protect a huge array of diverse wildlife. Washington is also home to a former plutonium factory that makes up one-third of the Manhattan Project National Historical Park.

Read more:

8. Florida

This state is home to three national parks including Dry Tortugas which can only be reached via plane, ferry, or boat. The other two, Biscayne and Everglades are within about an hour’s distance of each other meaning you can visit both in one day.

Shenandoah National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Virginia

Although Virginia only has one national park, it is home to a total of 22 NPS sites. Given its area of 42,775 square miles that means there is a fairly high concentration of NPS sites within the state making it an excellent area to explore for national park lovers.

Here’s an article to help you do just that: The Ultimate Guide to Shenandoah National Park

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. New Mexico

Set in the Southwest, New Mexico boasts many breathtaking landscapes that are often overlooked by visitors. Besides all its desolate yet dramatic desert scenery, the state is home to the rearing Rocky Mountains, the roaring Rio Grande, and plenty of colorful canyons, cliffs, and caves. New Mexico has two national parks (Carlsbad Caverns, White Sands), three national historical parks (Chaco Culture, Pecos, Manhattan Project), one national heritage area (Northern Rio Grande)m, and 11 national monuments including four administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

That’s why I wrote these seven articles:

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

Bonus: Tennessee

Tennessee is home to part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park which welcomes the most annual visitors of any national park site in the United States. It also has a total of 13 NPS sites meaning there are a plethora of exploration opportunities.

By the way, I have a series of posts on the Great Smokies:

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im

Cherohala Skyway Festival: Celebrating 27 Years of the Mile High Legend

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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cherohala Skyway

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 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Living history

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. 

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Directions

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. 

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Worth Pondering…

Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree.

—Emily Brontë, Fall, Leaves, Fall

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

Chattanooga: A Little City That’s Big on Outdoor Adventure

Chattanooga is a premier outdoor destination

Located at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains along the beautiful Tennessee River, Chattanooga is one of America’s most spectacular cities. The so-called “Scenic City” offers stunning natural landscapes including Ruby Falls, the largest underground waterfall in the US, and Rock City, a mountaintop vista dotted with massive, ancient rock formations and over 400 native plant species.

The city was a major railway hub throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, hence the Chattanooga Choo-Choo which was originally a reference to the Cincinnati Southern Railroad’s passenger service from Cincinnati to Chattanooga and later the title of a 1941 Glen Miller tune. The walkable downtown is a maze of historic stone and brick buildings featuring gourmet kitchens, craft breweries, and distilleries. It’s easy to love the ‘Noog!

Chattanooga and the Tennessee River © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chattanooga is one of the country’s premier outdoor destinations starting with the hiking trails that are just a stone’s throw away from downtown. If you want an urban hike that leads you to unique city views and doesn’t require a walking pole, check out Stringers Ridge, 92-acre park located 2 miles from downtown Chattanooga. Okay fine…you can still bring a walking stick if you really want to. The highlight for hikers is the view from the observation deck.

This particularly postcard worthy ridge-top view can be reached by accessing the Cherokee Trail (a double-track path that used to be an old road traversing the ridge). It’s a great spot to snap a photo, hang out for a while with a book in hand, or catch a sunrise or sunset. Though Sunset Rock at Lookout Mountain might offer a higher vantage point, the view from Stringers easily offers a better view of the actual downtown district and provides an “outside-looking-in” kind of experience where you can see cars driving over the bridges but barely hear their motors’ roar.

Lookout Mountain © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The hike from Lookout Mountain’s historic Cravens House to Sunset Rock is another option when seeking a Chattanooga hiking experience. One of the best things about Cravens House is that it serves as a gateway to a number of Lookout’s greatest trails. From it, hikers and trail runners can string together a route that suits whatever mood they’re feeling on a given day—whether it’s a 4-mile loop with a major climb up the burly Gum Springs Trail, a less strenuous 4.5-mile loop that works its way up to Point Park before zig-zagging down the front of the mountain or even a 10-mile loop that links together seven of Lookout Mountain’s trails to create one of the crown jewel trail running experiences in the city.

>> Related article: The Chattanooga Choo-Choo, More Than a Hotel

The most straightforward route you can choose is the 1.5-mile (3-mile round trip) hike to Sunset Rock offering the best seat in the house to…yep, you guessed it—the sunset.

Lookout Mountain Incline Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winding wooded lanes, dazzling panoramas, and a labyrinth of diverse trails make Signal Mountain a nature lover’s heaven. Just a 20-minute drive from downtown Chattanooga, Signal Mountain offers unlimited outdoor adventures and views that stretch on for miles. While even a drive around the densely forested mountain town is a more-than-satisfying way to spend an afternoon, taking a stroll (long or short) on some of Signal’s beautiful trails is the best way to experience its wide variety of spectacular natural offerings.

If you’re looking for a trail with views that make you stop and ponder the meaning of life, you need to hike the 5.1-mile out and back trail at Signal Point. You can even stop for a swim in Rainbow Lake but don’t expect a lake filled with rainbows. The lake features a dam built in 1916 that creates a short but powerful waterfall and a swinging bridge that spans the creek. You can terminate your hike here or opt to take a two-mile tour around the lake.

Lookout Mountain © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Descend 260 feet by elevator into Lookout Mountain and hike the cavern trail on a guided tour to Ruby Falls, the tallest and deepest cave waterfall open to the public in the United States. Visitors can also opt for an after-hours tour guided by the glow of hand-held lanterns. Outside the cavern, visitors are invited to soar through the treetops on 700 feet of zipline at Ruby Falls’ High Point ZIP Adventure.

Set off on a self-guided tour through Rock City Gardens for a bird’s eye view from high atop Lookout Mountain. Climb the wall at Lover’s Leap where you can “See Seven States.” Kids will enjoy a visit to Fairyland Caverns, natural caves that have been transformed into blacklight dioramas of classic fairy tales. 

Chattanooga Choo-Choo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Chattanooga has long been famous as a transportation hub―this is the city, after all, made famous when Glenn Miller and His Orchestra wrote The Chattanooga Choo Choo about the city’s train station for the 1941 movie musical Sun Valley Serenade

But even though the Choo Choo is now a hotel and hasn’t hosted a locomotive in decades, Chattanooga is still an easy-to-access travel destination thanks to its expanding airport and its location at the crossroads of several state and federal highways. 

Chattanooga Choo-Choo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Indeed, Chattanooga was the headquarters of one of the early auto clubs dedicated to building one of the country’s first Interstates―the historic Dixie Highway which ran from Chicago to Miami. It’s still easy to get around by car but the free electric shuttles that connect Chattanooga’s busiest tourist districts as well as a slowly expanding bus network makes public transit a snap.

Chattanooga is right on the Georgia border, two hours from Atlanta as well as Nashville, Knoxville, and Birmingham―and it’s at the intersection of Interstates 75, 24, and 59 as well as US Route 27, and State Routes 153 and 319 (known locally as DuPont Parkway).

Lookout Mountain Incline Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sitting astride the Tennessee River and wedged within the hilltops of the Cumberland Plateau, Chattanooga is one of the South’s prettiest cities. And thanks to its ultra-fast public internet, the so-called Gig City has become a tech hub supporting a bustling community of startups, software companies, and venture capital firms. Combine that with the down-to-earth charisma of the region’s top rock climbing, cycling, and hiking activities and you have one of the most interesting destinations in the South.

>> Related article: Death Knell of the Confederacy: Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

You don’t have to break the bank, either, to get a little taste of everything Chattanooga has on deck. From public sculpture gardens to city parks, from historic sites to quirky craft markets, there’s a lot you can do in the Scenic City for free.

Sugar’s Ribs BBQ, Chattanooga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nestled in a curve of the wide and winding Tennessee River, Chattanooga lies between the misty Appalachian Mountains and the lushly forested Cumberland Plateau. With such a stunning natural location, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this small city has become a major hot spot for outdoor and adventure-minded visitors.

Worth Pondering…

Chattanooga Choo Choo

Hi there Tex, what you say
Step aside partner, it’s my day
Bend an ear and listen to my version
Of a really solid Tennessee excursion

Pardon me, boy
Is that the Chattanooga choo choo? (yes yes)
Track twenty-nine
Boy, you can gimme a shine
Can you afford To board a Chattanooga choo choo
Then you know that Tennessee is not very far
Shovel all the coal in
Gotta keep it rollin’
Woo, woo, Chattanooga there you are

—Songwriters Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, first recorded 1941 by Glenn Miller

The Ultimate Guide to Cades Cove

Here’s everything you need to know about Cades Cove

Cades Cove is the most visited place in Great Smoky Mountains National Park with millions of visitors annually. But what is it specifically about this place that attracts so many people?

One of the most tranquil and pastoral locations in America is Cades Cove. There is nothing like the stunning views of pastureland, majestic trees, rolling hills, sunsets, and roving animals. The 11-mile loop surrounds this lovely valley with several spots where you can see wildlife and take in the surrounding landscape. To help you get in touch with nature, Cades Cove has a vast network of hiking trails. Continue reading to find out more about Cades Cove.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where is Cades Cove?

Cades Cove is located just south of Gatlinburg. To get to the Loop Road, follow the Parkway through downtown Gatlinburg and enter the national park. You will pass the Sugarlands Visitor Center on the right and then you will make a right turn onto Little River Road. Stay on Little River Road for about 25 miles and you will reach the end where you will find the entrance to the Cades Cove Loop Road.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About Cades Cove

Cades Cove is the most popular tourist destination in the Great Smoky Mountains receiving more than two million people annually. The soft sandstone that previously filled the Cove was eroded over millions of years creating the valley. The result of erosion was a vast, fertile valley perfect for farming and flanked by stunning Smoky Mountains.

Cade’s Cove boasts the greatest diversity of historic structures in the national park due to the early 1800s settlement of European settlers. You can visit historic buildings along the Loop Road including restored churches, former gristmills, and pioneer log homes. Its rich past has left a lasting impression that may still be felt today. A visit to Cades Cove offers the chance to travel back in time and become engrossed in the culture and history of early Appalachia.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What are Cades Cove hours?

The Loop Road is open from sunrise to sunset all year with the weather permitting.

 Cades Cove is open to cyclists and pedestrians on Wednesdays from May to September. No vehicle traffic is permitted on Wednesdays from 8 am to 10 am so people can enjoy the loop by bike or foot.

Related article: Cades Cove: An Open Air Museum

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best time to visit Cades Cove

You want to know the best times to visit given how popular this region of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is. Let’s categorize this based on the time of day, week, and season.

Best time of day to visit

Early morning and late afternoon are the ideal times to visit Cades Cove during the day. During certain periods traffic slows down reducing congestion. Also, it is the best time of the day for wildlife viewing.

Best days of the week to visit

Avoid weekends since you will find the place crowded. Wednesdays and Saturdays are ideal days if you want to go biking.

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

Best seasons to visit

Cades Cove is idyllic all year round. You can always expect to see stunning scenery when you visit. Each season from snow-covered trees in the winter to wildflowers in the spring adds unique beauty to the region.

April to November is Cades Cove’s peak season. People are booking holidays in Cades Cove during the summer break from school when wildflowers and wildlife emerge from slumber in the spring. Due to the vibrant leaves, fall is perhaps the most popular year for tourists visiting Cades Cove. But if you want to avoid traffic the winter slowdown begins in December and continues through March.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife viewing at Cades Cove

Millions of photographers visit Cades Cove each year attracted by the picturesque surroundings and an abundance of wildlife. While driving around the loop you may spot black bears, white-tailed deer, turkeys, squirrels, red foxes, groundhogs, salamanders, birds, bugs, and more.

Visitors are often more enthusiastic about bears since for many it’s their first time seeing a black bear in the wild. They typically are active in the morning, evening, and night. While in Cades Cove you can frequently see black bear mothers with young cubs. But visitors should be careful to maintain a proper distance and avoid feeding them.

Related article: Cades Cove: A Pioneer Paradise

Keep reading to learn more about these creatures.

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

Black bear

Although black bears can be active any time of day, they are more active during early morning and late evening. In the Smoky Mountains bears seem to prefer 6 to 10 am and 3 to 7 pm as these times are cooler and more peaceful during the spring and summer. Black bears have a dense population in the park with about 1,500 living in the area. Being omnivores their diet is primarily plants, berries, nuts, and fish.

Elk

Elk can grow up to 700 pounds making them one of the largest creatures in the national park. They are most active early in the morning and evening.

White-tailed deer

Similar to elk, deer are usually active early in the morning or late in the evening. They are known for grazing in open fields which makes them easier to spot compared to in the woods. Fawns are usually born sometime in June.

Wild Turkey

Since wild turkeys travel in flocks, if you spot one, you’ll most likely spot an entire group. They spend most of their time searching the ground for nuts, berries, and insects. You’ll likely not see them in the evenings as they roost in the trees.

Salamanders

There are more than 30 species of salamanders in the national park which is the most of any place in the world. There are several lungless salamanders in the area. They enjoy dark, moist areas, and many of them live in water.

Cades Cove Methodist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Other animals in the Smokies

There are hundreds of animal species that live in the area. You’ll find fish, turtles, and snakes in and around the water. Small mammals include raccoons, groundhogs, and squirrels. There are hundreds of bird species including owls, eagles, wrens, and finches. Plus, you’ll find all kinds of bugs.

Wildlife Safety

It is important to remember a few safety tips while viewing wildlife. The key element to keeping park guests and wildlife safe is to keep a safe distance. Always use caution when wildlife is in sight because they are wild animals.

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

Things to do in Cades Cove

It might take several days if you plan to enjoy everything Cades Cove has to offer. However, all you need for a pleasant and rewarding trip is one action-packed day. Plan to arrive early in the morning and depart in the late afternoon to get the most out of your visit. Bring a bag of lunch, snacks, and drinks. Choose your favorite activities from the list below to create the ideal fun day.

Drive Through Barn, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What are the must-see things in Cades Cove?

As you drive along the 11-mile loop you will find a variety of historic buildings, scenic views, and sights you’ll want to see. The first stop along the Loop requires you to hike a short distance to the John Oliver Cabin. Then you will come to the three churches with cemeteries which are popular places to stop and stretch your legs. Other major stops include the grist mill, the cantilever barn, and Carter Shields cabin.

Related article: National Park Fees: Great Smoky Mountains Introduces Parking Fees

Gregg-Cable House, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What can I do in Cades Cove?

While driving the loop road is one of the best reasons for visiting Cades Cove it isn’t the only thing you can do. As enter the Loop there is a picnic area with over 80 sites. A creek runs through the area and you can enjoy a lunch or snack before exploring the beautiful valley.

The wide open spaces beckon you to take to the wind and run. Horseback rides in the Cove are fantastic whether you’re an experienced rider or a novice. From places like Cades Cove Riding Stables and Davy Crockett Riding Stables, guides lead horseback excursions.

Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove Riding Stables is near the start of the Cove Loop. To learn more about the nature and wildlife of the Smokies you can go on several guided horseback trail rides. They also provide seasonal hayrides and carriage rides. Children love the fully narrated hay rides which are among the most entertaining activities in Cades Cove.

Several hiking trails start along the Cades Cove Loop. A difficult trail near the beginning of the road is Rich Mountain Loop which is 8.5 miles roundtrip. Spring is a great time to explore this trail because of the wildflowers along the path. A more moderate trail that’s about halfway around the Loop is Abrams Falls, a 5-mile roundtrip hike with a waterfall at the end. If you want to hike a trail that’s short and sweet, stop at the Cades Cove Nature Trail.

Cantilever Barn, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Driving or bicycling the Cades Cove Loop Road

The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road is accessible every day from sunrise to sunset although from early May to late September, Wednesday and Saturday mornings are closed to motorized vehicles until 10 am. These days the route is only open to bicycle and foot traffic up to 10:00 a.m. The good news is that tourists can ride or walk on the road at this time without worrying about sharing it with cars.

To complete the entire loop on a bicycle on these weekdays it is best to start early. Use pullouts when stopping to see wildlife and take in the landscape because traffic is frequently high during the busiest travel season and on weekends all year long. To drive or bike to the loop will take at least two to four hours depending on the number of stops and the flow of traffic.

Related article: The Ultimate Guide to Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Driving the Cades Cove Loop Road alone will provide you with scenic views of the most popular destination of the national park: Cades Cove!

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

Explore Cades Cove Nature Trail

Visitors can enjoy a stroll through some of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s most breathtaking terrain on the Cades Cove Nature Trail. About 7 miles into Loop Road and one mile past the visitor center is where you’ll find the trail. Given that it is only a few miles long and is considered easy, hikers of all ages should be able to complete this hike. The stroll should take visitors an hour or so assuming a fairly moderate pace. The trail and potential sights you might view while hiking is described in brochures that are available at the visitor center.

The Nature Trail generally provides an excellent opportunity to view Cades Cove’s native plant life and there is a good possibility that you may also spot some of the cove’s wildlife. During their hikes along the path, visitors observed everything from raccoons to black bears. The nature walk is rarely busy so it won’t negatively impact your experience.

Cades Cove Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Discover the history of Cades Cove

The Smoky Mountains have a compelling narrative to share. You can explore various historical places including several old cabins, churches, and structures. The Cades Cove Visitor Center is a great resource for learning about Cades Cove’s history.

At the start of the loop, there are materials you may access to learn more about the structures you’ll see in the cove. Following is the list of historical buildings in Cades Cove to explore while driving the Loop Road:

  • Dan Lawson Place
  • John Oliver Cabin
  • Primitive Baptist Church
  • Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church
  • Elijah Oliver Place
  • Tipton Place
  • John Cable Grist Mill
  • Carter Shields Cabin
  • Becky Cable House

Though the list may seem a bit longer these are some historical places one should make some time to visit. Make sure to have your camera ready to capture these incredible historic buildings.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hiking trails

One of the things that attract visitors to Cades Cove is the number of adventurous hiking trails.

One of the most popular is Abram Falls. It descends to the enormous Abrams Creek Gore through areas of mountain laurel and pine forest. The walk will lead you to the impressive Abrams Falls waterfall which has a significant water flow. There is a beach area where you may unwind at the bottom of the fall.

Take Cades Cove Loop Road to get to this trail. You’ll come across an Abrams Falls sign while driving. Drive until you notice a parking lot as you approach this sign. It is a challenging trail. Hike it if you are up for an adventure.

Another favorite is the Crib Gap Trail. The route is ideal for first-timers to hiking.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gregory’s Bald is another trail that leads to a mountain covered in wildflowers. You may take in the picturesque vistas of Cades Cove and the mountains that surround it while climbing this mountain. Additionally, if you visit this location in June you will delight in the picturesque views of the wildflowers that grow on this mountain.

The thunderhead hiking trail and Rocky Top which lead to two mountain peaks and offer stunning views of the Smoky Mountains are another favorite Cades Cove hiking trail. This trek is challenging, though, so you should only go it if you have previous hiking expertise.

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

Camping at Cades Cove

Cades Cove Campground (elevation: 1,713 feet) is open year-round and combines the feel of primitive camping with the modern convenience of flush toilets and drinking water. Both Loop B and C are open from mid-April through the Thanksgiving weekend. During the off-season (December-mid April) only sites C1-12 and C26-61 are open to camping by reservation only. Once B Loop closes for the season generators are allowed in Loop C with restricted hours UNTIL Loop B reopens for camping. Some sites accommodate RVs up to 40 feet in length.

Are There Hidden Gems?

Cades Cove is the most popular area in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and it’s not hard to see why. From gorgeous views to an abundance of wildlife and fascinating historic structures, Cades Cove has it all. There are a ton of cool stops along the scenic loop drive such as the cantilever barn, John Oliver cabin, and Cable grist mill. These stops are right along the road but there are some hidden gems in Cades Cove too.

The Pearl Harbor Tree serves as a reminder of what happened in 1941 and to honor those who died. It was planted on the day of the attack by a man named Golman Myers to mark the mournful moment. He found a small sapling tree the size of a limb and planted it in his family’s front yard. Myers passed in 1945 but his son Bernard returned to Cades Cove in the mid-1970s and chained a metal tag to the tree that reads, “Golman Myers transplanted this tree Dec. 7, 1941.”

To get to the tree, use the parking area about 3.6 miles along the Cades Cove Loop Road. Then, walk west for 0.1 miles until you see a small clearing on the north side of the road. Where the tree line on the western edge of the field meets the road is the hill you climb to get to the tree. You’ll recognize it because of the metal tag and the many American flags visitors have placed on the tree!

Related article: Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

Gourley’s Pond is another hidden gem in Cades Cove. It’s often overlooked by visitors but after significant rainfall, it’s a great sight to see. This pond takes some exploring to get to because it can’t be seen from the loop. To get to Gourley’s Pond, park your car at the LeQuire Cemetery parking area past the south end of Sparks Lane. From there, walk along the loop road for about 200 feet until you see a path on your right. Follow the trail for about 100 feet, then head southwest until you see the pond.

Primitive Baptist Church, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove is home to 14 cemeteries although only 11 of them have been found. If you love learning about Cades Cove’s history and the people who called Cades Cove home then you should take the time to explore one of the cemeteries on your visit. The Cades Cove Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery has the graves of familiar names like John and Lucretia Oliver, the first white settlers of Cades Cove, and William Howell Oliver, the church’s pastor for almost 60 years. While you’re there step inside the Primitive Baptist Church itself and explore.

Millrace, Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a less crowded way to exit Cades Cove, use Rich Mountain Road. It’s a 7-mile journey that winds through the forest and provides an excellent opportunity to see bears and other wildlife. Rich Mountain Road offers a quiet drive and it takes you to Townsend. Along Rich Mountain Road there’s an overlook that provides one of the best views of the Primitive Baptist Church and the valley below. Rich Mountain Road is typically only open from April through mid-November.

Worth Pondering…

Keep close to Nature’s heart…and break clear away once in awhile and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.

—John Muir

Cherohala Skyway National Scenic Byway: An Unforgettable Drive

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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

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. 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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Related article: America’s 10 Best Scenic Byways for your Next Road Trip

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When to visit

Summer

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.

Related article: America’s 10 Best Scenic Byways for a Fall Road Trip

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fall

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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Winter

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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.
Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spring

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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Related article: America’s Fall Foliage: Leafing through America

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details

Designation: National Scenic Byway (1998)

Intrinsic Qualities: Scenic

Location: North Carolina, Tennessee

Length: 41 miles

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Fall Colors

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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Cherohala Skyway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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)

(Courtesy: Monroe (Tennessee) County Tourism)

Read Next: Leafy Scenes: 12 of the Best Road Trips for Viewing Fall Foliage

Worth Pondering…

Every leaf speaks bliss to me, fluttering from the autumn tree.

—Emily Brontë, Fall, Leaves, Fall

Smoky Mountain Day Trips from Gatlinburg

From Clingmans Dome to pioneer history

Gatlinburg, Tennessee is known as the Gateway to the Smokies for a reason. This tiny East Tennessee mountain resort with a population of just 3,754 is nestled against the western edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Smoky Mountains are a wild expanse of rounded ridges, often shrouded by the mists that give the national park its name.

Smoky Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Smokies are part of the vast Appalachian chain among the oldest mountains on the planet. Formed more than 200 million years ago these ancient peaks were once much higher but have been worn down by the eons of time. You can contemplate that remote past while huffing your way up to the top of a 6,000-foot peak overlooking the seemingly endless expanse of undulating ridges that stretch off into the distance. There are mesmerizing viewpoints all across the park as well as one mountaintop lodge that can only be reached by foot.

Along US-321 from Gatlinburg to Townsend © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The sun-dappled forests of the Great Smoky Mountains are a four-season wonderland. Rich blooms of springtime wildflowers come in all colors and sizes while flame azaleas light up the high-elevation meadows in summer. Autumn brings its own fiery rewards with quilted hues of orange, burgundy, and saffron blanketing the mountain slopes. In winter, snow-covered fields and ice-fringed cascades transform the Smokies into a serene, cold-weather retreat.

Newfound Gap Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This mesmerizing backdrop is also a World Heritage Site harboring more biodiversity than any other national park in America.

Related: Springtime in the Smokies

As well as Gatlinburg, other Tennessee towns offering easy access to the national park include Cosby, Pigeon Forge, Sevierville, and Townsend.

Gatlinburg © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because the park is so big—spanning two states, Tennessee and North Carolina—it can be hard to know where to start exploring. This is also the most-visited national park in the United States with more than 14.16 million visitors in 2021 so it can take a little planning to get away from the crowds. Fortunately, Gatlinburg makes it easy for first-timers to get outdoors both inside the national park and at smaller but no less lovely parks inside the city limits.

Whether you’re looking for a family-friendly space to get outside or the best ways to get into the national park, we’ve got you covered. Here are my top picks of Gatlinburg’s green spaces. 

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail

If you’re looking for an easily accessible way to see the Smokies, this 5.5-mile looping driving trail should be your go-to. As you slowly make your way down a winding paved road, you’ll pass gorgeous forest scenery and plenty of spots where you can pull over for woodland hikes or soak up the vistas from scenic overlooks.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The trail is named for Roaring Fork, a fast-moving mountain stream, and its tributaries create several surging cascades along the route including Grotto Falls reached via an easy 2.6-mile round-trip hike and Rainbow Falls at the end of a more challenging 5.4-mile tramp. Near the end of the loop, the Place of a Thousand Drips spills dramatically through the forest but it only performs during wet weather.

Related: Great Smoky Mountains: Most Visited National Park…and We Can See Why

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s history here too. Built in the 1920s by an eccentric lawyer seeking a healthier life in the wilderness, Ely’s Mill is no longer a working mill but stopping here gives a sense of what agricultural life was like in these mountains in the past. Today, there’s a shop with locally-made crafts some rather charming wood cabins where you can spend the night and demonstrations of blacksmithing and other traditional skills.

Roaring Fork Nature Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

To get to Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, turn left at Traffic Light 8 in Gatlinburg and follow the signs to the national park. En route, you’ll pass the worn, wooden facade of Noah ‘Bud’ Ogle Place, a historic 19th-century homestead offering another evocative glance into the region’s past.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove

The 11-mile Cades Cove Loop Road is one of the park’s most popular driving routes starting about 30 miles southwest of Gatlinburg. Between town and Cades Cove you’ll pass Metcalf Bottoms one of the Smokies’ biggest and best picnic areas with a swimming area set on a pretty stretch of the Little River. The scenery along the Loop Road is stunning and there are numerous historic stops including restored churches and pioneer cabins and the old Cable Grist Mill built in 1867 but it can get very busy all along the route. If possible, avoid weekends especially during fall.

Related: Great Smoky Mountains National Park: Land of the Blue Smoke

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Historically, Cherokee and other Native American peoples used Cades Cove as a way to traverse the Smokies on foot (the valley was named for Cherokee leader, Chief Kade). Modern park visitors like to drive through this meadow-like section of the park scanning the verges for wildlife. Cades Cove is famous for black bear activity; you’re likely to see them as well as wild turkeys, rabbits, river otters, elk, and woodchucks.

Cades Cove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While it’s best known as a driving loop, every Wednesday and Saturday morning from May to September, the route is closed to cars so you can walk or cycle (rental bikes are available). The Visitors Center near the midpoint of the driving loop is a solid source of information for deeper explorations.

Sugarlands Visitor Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

More visitors centers can be found in downtown Gatlinburg (520 Parkway) and in Sugarlands (2 miles south of Gatlinburg), Oconaluftee (2 miles from Cherokee, North Carolina), Sevierville (3099 Winfield Dunn Pkwy), and Townsend (7906 E Lamar Alexander Pkwy).

Clingmans Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Clingmans Dome

At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park offering remarkable 360-degree views over a rippling sea of forested hills from the top of its curving, concrete observation tower. You’ll need to walk up a steep, paved half-mile-long footpath to get here (wheelchairs are not recommended because of the slope) but once you get to the top, you’ll have conquered the third-highest peak in the eastern United States.

Clingmans Dome © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The views are spectacular, particularly in fall when the changing foliage repaints the landscape in a palette of reds, browns, and golds.

Related: Now Is the Best Time to Visit the Smokies

To get here, drive about 23 miles south from Gatlinburg along the Parkway; Clingmans Dome is at the end of a 7-mile spur road.

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

Chattanooga: So Much More than the Choo Choo

Glenn Miller gave Chattanooga some extra attention when he performed the big-band swing tune “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in 1941 about its rich railroad history

Nestled in the southeast corner of Tennessee, Chattanooga might not leap to mind as a likely place to visit. A strategic river and railway crossroads during the Civil War and site of brutal military battles, as a result, the town boomed and then busted over the course of the 20th century.

Chattanooga Choo-Choo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From 1909 to 1970, all trains to points south passed through Chattanooga’s famous terminal which was designed by a 24-year-old architectural student from New York. The terminal’s first plans were modified at the behest of the president of the Southern Railway System to emulate the National Park Bank of New York.

Chattanooga Choo-Choo © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Although well-known in the railroad industry, the Chattanooga Choo Choo didn’t become a household name until the Glenn Miller Orchestra created a song of the same name which was featured in the 1941 movie Sun Valley Serenade.

Related: The Chattanooga Choo-Choo, More Than a Hotel

Chattanooga Choo-Choo Hotel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, Terminal Station stands as part of the world-famous Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel located in the heart of Chattanooga. The 24-acre complex boasts two hotel buildings, on-site dining, retail shops, tranquil rose gardens, and much more.

Chattanooga Choo-Choo Hotel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the wake of an ugly EPA report, in 1969 Walter Cronkite declared it the “dirtiest city in America.” But visionary revitalization, coupled with abundant natural beauty, a burgeoning cultural scene, and rich history, now put Chattanooga near the top of the list as a slightly off-the-beaten-track destination.

Chattanooga and the Tennessee River© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With world-class rock climbing, hiking, cycling, and water-sports opportunities, it’s one of the South’s best cities for outdoor recreation. It’s gorgeous, too: just check out those views from the Bluff View Art District. It’s also forward-looking with free electric buses, miles of well-used waterfront trails, and pedestrian bridges crossing the Tennessee River. All this makes it hard to credit its reputation in the 1960s as America’s dirtiest city.

Related: The Ultimate RV Travel Bucket List: 51 Best Places to Visit in North America

Lookout Mountain © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Just ten minutes from downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee, rising along the upper rim of the city, Lookout Mountain is rich in both Civil War history and natural wonders. The miles-long mountain is home to three world-famous attractions: the Incline Railway, the steepest passenger railway in the world; Ruby Falls, the tallest and deepest underground waterfall in the country, and Rock City, a mountaintop ‘city’ of massive, ancient rock formations with a birds-eye, “See the Seven States” panorama.

Incline Railway

Hike miles upon miles of trails where you’ll encounter waterfalls, caves, and blooming wildflowers; cross the famous Swing-A-Long bridge that spans nearly 200 feet; learn more about Civil War history at the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park; or catch a sunset from 1,652 feet above sea level at Lovers Leap. With countless activities on the menu of fun atop this iconic mountain, it’s easy to see why Lookout Mountain is one of Chattanooga’s top-rated tourist attractions. 

Chickamagua and Chatanooga National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though it first appeared on a map in 1795, Lookout Mountain’s name likely comes from the Creek term for “rock rising to a point,” and research suggests the mountain was inhabited by Native Americans for centuries. The mountain was the scene of the 18th-century “Last Battle of the Cherokees,” a battle between American frontiersmen and the Chickamauga Cherokee, a Cherokee band that had long resisted increasing American encroachment into their territory. 

Chickamagua and Chatanooga National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On November 24, 1863, the pivotal Civil War Battle of Lookout Mountain was fought on the slopes which are often covered with dense fog in the wee hours of the morning. The so-called “Battle Above the Clouds” was won by Union forces, enabling them to lift the Confederate siege of Chattanooga. By the 1920s, local entrepreneurs turned the scenic, storied mountain into a tourist destination. 

Related: Death Knell of the Confederacy: Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park

Lookout Mountain © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Complete your visit to Lookout Mountain by climbing the ridge at a 72.7 percent grade along “America’s Most Amazing Mile” aboard the Incline Railway. The one-mile-long single-track railway opened in November 1895 and is both a National Historic Site and Mechanical Engineering Landmark. Explore Point Park, part of the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park located steps from the railway station at the mountaintop, site of the 1863 Battle Above the Clouds. The Battles for Chattanooga Museum features a multimedia, 3-D projection map presentation.

Incline Railway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Incline Railway provides an easy and spectacular commute up and down Lookout Mountain, which looms over Chattanooga with views of the Tennessee River winding through the city below, and the verdant hills and valleys of the Appalachians stretching to the horizon.

Related: Fun Outdoor Getaways You Can Easily Hit from 25 Cities

Lookout Mountain © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nestled in a curve of the wide and winding Tennessee River, Chattanooga lies between the misty Appalachian Mountains and the lushly forested Cumberland Plateau. With such a stunning natural location, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this small city has become a major hot spot for outdoor- and adventure-minded visitors.

Worth Pondering…

Chattanooga Choo Choo

Hi there Tex, what you say
Step aside partner, it’s my day
Bend an ear and listen to my version
Of a really solid Tennessee excursion

Pardon me, boy
Is that the Chattanooga choo choo? (yes yes)
Track twenty-nine
Boy, you can gimme a shine
Can you afford To board a Chattanooga choo choo
I’ve got my fare And just a trifle to spare

You leave the Pennsylvania Station ’bout a quarter to four
Read a magazine and then you’re in Baltimore
Dinner in the diner
Nothing could be finer
Then to have your ham an’ eggs in Carolina

When you hear the whistle blowin’ eight to the bar
Then you know that Tennessee is not very far
Shovel all the coal in
Gotta keep it rollin’
Woo, woo, Chattanooga there you are

—Songwriters Mack Gordon and Harry Warren, first recorded in 1941 by Glenn Miller