Intro to Great Smoky Mountains National Park
For those of you that are connected to us through Twitter or Facebook, you may already know that we spent the last week in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
We’ll be working on getting posts together to cover our week there. We really wore ourselves out on this trip. Since it was our first visit to the Smokies, we didn’t want to miss a thing! Over the week, we completed six hikes and one bike ride – a total of about 55 miles of terrain.
When we first arrived to the area, we were quite overwhelmed with everything there was to do. We tried to do some research ahead of time, but until you arrive it is hard to grasp the opportunities. So, this post will give you a little advice from what we’ve learned and some “must see/do” things on your trip.
The Smokies Are Big and Rugged – We were surprised how different the Smoky Mountains are from the Blue Ridge in Virginia. The mountains are so much taller and steeper. Many hikes lead to large drop-offs. The trees are bigger, there are more firs and pines, and everything is greener, mossier, and wetter. Water flows freely and abundantly throughout the park. The waterfalls and rapids are very impressive.
Entering The Smokies Is Free – Most of the national parks we’ve been to make visitors enter through a fee station and charge $10-$20 for a week’s visit. The Smokies have no fee stations, but there are plenty of donation boxes throughout the park. We put $20 in the box at Newfound Gap. National Parks are something we both treasure and twenty dollars is a small gift to help support a resource we love.
Best Hiking Book – We had purchased Falcon Guide Hiking Great Smoky National Park by Kevin Adams. While the descriptions of the trails were decent, the author seemed pretty negative about the park. His descriptions made us feel that we were going to be constantly overwhelmed by crowds and never have a moment of solitude. While we were there, we picked up two books that we recommend over the Falcon Guide. Day Hikes of the Smokies by Carson Brewer and Friends gave us some great ideas and was broken down by easy, moderate, and strenuous hikes. Also available is Hiking Trails of the Smokies. This book was recommended to us by a park ranger as ‘their Bible’ for the trails in the Smokies. Both can be purchased online through the Great Smoky Mountains Association.
Food Is Scarce In The Park – Besides a few vending machines at visitors centers, food is nowhere to be found in the park. The park does not have restaurants or gas stations. The one exception we found was the snack bar in the Cades Cove campground. They had burgers, hotdogs, BBQ sandwiches, ice cream, chips and sodas.
The Smokies Are Crowded – Millions of people visit GSMNP each year – it’s the most-visited national park in the country. The busiest times are June 15-August 15 and October (especially weekends). While we did see lots of people in late May, I think a good rule of thumb is to get an early start. We typically woke up at 6:00 most mornings, grabbed some breakfast, and headed to the park. We were able to hit most trails before 8:30 a.m. and typically had the views or waterfalls all to ourselves for at least a few minutes before anyone else came along. When we were done with our hikes, the parking lots were always more crowded. If you arrive by 10:00 or later, expect to share vistas and waterfalls with lots of other people.
The Smokies Are Hazy – The views are amazing, but there was usually a thick haze over everything. Due to research the NPS has done, the haze is a result of air pollution and acid rain. We did have one day that was strikingly clear, but the rest of the week had lots of fog, mist and haze.
Best Place To See Wildlife – Cades Cove had the best wildlife viewing. We saw seven bears on our way into or around the Cades Cove loop. While black bears can be seen throughout the park, the heaviest concentration and the better likelihood of spotting them is in this area. You will also see tons of deer and wild turkeys in the fields. If you want to see elk, the largest population is in the Cataloochee Valley area. But there is also a small herd near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. We were lucky enough to get a private ranger-led walk out to spot the Oconaluftee elk.
Don’t Just Stay In One Place – We stayed in Bryson City, NC for the first half of the week and ended our trip with a couple of days in Gatlinburg, TN. We spent one night in the middle of the week at the LeConte Lodge that sits atop the Smokies’ third tallest peak (more about that in a later post). Bryson City is a quaint, peaceful town with a Mayberry-esque feel. The people were friendly and there were some good restaurants in town. On the southern end of the park, more people probably stay in Cherokee, NC, which is about ten miles from Bryson City. It’s located in the middle of the Qualla Cherokee Indian Reservation for the Eastern band of Cherokee Native Americans. The town of Cherokee is definitely more commercial. There is a large Harrah’s casino and lots of shops that seem to be exploiting the Cherokee name and heritage. Without a doubt, Gatlinburg, TN is the most popular park town. It reminded us of a town you would find at a touristy beach. The downtown area had tons of shops selling kitsch (airbrush shirts, old-time photos, plastic trinkets and T-shirts emblazed with neon letters proclaiming ‘I’m Sexy and I Know It’). There are also tons of mini golf courses, Ripley’s Believe It or Not attractions, and even a moonshine distillery. The food in Gatlinburg was fantastic and I’m sure we’ll mention some of our meals in our upcoming posts. We prefer the quiet areas, so we were glad to spend the bulk of our time in Bryson City. The largest benefit we experienced was by staying in different spots, we were able to get to different areas of the park quicker.
Must-See Things That Don’t Involve Hiking
- Visit the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, NC. The exhibits were interesting and give you a good overview of Cherokee history and culture.
- Across the street is the Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, which serves as a co-op and gallery showcasing the traditional work of over 250 Cherokee artists. The items you’ll find here are quality, hand-made arts and crafts, so expect to pay a higher price than you would for the replicas and knock-offs seen in other shops. The baskets, carvings, pottery and jewelery are all very beautiful.
- Visit the Nantahala Outdoor Center located southwest of Bryson City. There are several places to eat, an amazing/knowledgeable outdoor outfitter, and a bridge that carries the Appalachian Trail over the river. They have an even larger outdoor outfitter shop in Gatlinburg. It was nicer than any REI we’ve been to, so if you like hiking, camping, kayaking or backpacking – don’t miss the NOC!
- Drive through Cades Cove. As mentioned above, it is a great place to see wildlife, but there are some interesting homesteads, churches and farms from a bygone era.
- Drive to Newfound Gap and Clingmans Dome. There are gorgeous views from some of the highest areas of the park here!
- Taste some moonshine at Ole Smoky Tennessee Moonshine in the heart of Gatlinburg or try some of their salsas or hot sauces.
A Restaurant Recap – We had lots of good food on our visit!
- In Bryson City, we ate at Jimmy Macs (good burgers/sandwiches and a wide selection of fresh, flown-in seafood), Pasqualino’s (huge portions, cute atmosphere, the best calzone Adam has ever had), River’s End Restaurant at the NOC (good chili, yummy onion rings with a tasty dipping sauce, pizza, burgers) and Soda Pop’s for ice cream.
- In Gatlinburg, we ate at the Smoky Mountain Brewery (great craft beers, amazing burgers – Christine thought the Brewery ‘Ale’ Steak was the best steak she had ever eaten) and Calhoun’s (good pulled pork and tasty entree salads). We also ate at Mellow Mushroom which is a chain, but definitely a good one! They had delicious pizza and a fun environment. For a quick on-the-go breakfast, you must go to the Donut Friar. They have the best donuts we’ve ever eaten – lightly crisp exterior with a soft, airy interior. If you have time for a more leisurely breakfast, don’t miss the Pancake Pantry. They have Gatlinburg’s best pancakes and they make them a million different ways. We both got crepes and they were phenomenal! And lastly, for ice cream and candy – Kilwin’s. They had lots of creative flavors of ice cream and the candy selection was out of this world.
- We recommend packing lunches for your day in the park. The Smokies are big and it’s time-consuming to drive to one of the gateway towns for lunch. We packed a lot of energy bars, candy, trail mix and Lunchables so we wouldn’t have to drive out of the park to get something to eat mid-day.
Trails We Covered in the Smokies
- Cucumber Gap Loop
- Silers Bald
- Alum Cave Bluffs Trail to Mount LeConte
- Kephart Prong
- Deep Creek Area Waterfall Loop