HomeBlogs Great Smoky Mountains National Park The fact invariably stated about Great Smoky is this: It is the nation's
busiest park, drawing more than nine million visitors a year, twice the
number of any other national park. Most of the millions see the park
from a mountain-skimming scenic highway that, on a typical weekend day
during the summer, draws 60,000 people, bumper-to-bumper.
there is plenty of park, thinly laced by 384 miles of mountain roads.
You can pull off the road, park the car, and stroll one of Great Smoky's
many Quiet Walkways, quarter-mile paths into what the signs call a
“little bit of the world as it once was.” Eight hundred miles of hiking
trails, from a half-mile to 70 miles long, also give you that world.
Relatively few visitors walk the trails; most prefer to stay in their
The park, which covers 800 square miles of mountainous
terrain, preserves the world's best examples of deciduous forest and a
matchless variety of plants and animals. Because it contains so many
types of eastern forest vegetation—much of it old growth—the park has
been designated an international biosphere reserve.
Mountains are among the oldest on Earth. Ice Age glaciers stopped their
southward journey just short of these mountains, which became a junction
of southern and northern flora. Rhododendron and mountain laurel thrust
from the weathered rocks. Amid the woodland and craggy peaks bloom more
than 1,600 species of flowering plants, some found only here. Shrubs
take over in places, creating tree-free zones called heath balds, laurel
slicks (because of the shiny leaves), or just plain hells (because they
are so hard to get through).
The tangle of brush and trees forms
a close-packed array of air breathing leaves. The water and
hydrocarbons exuded by the leaves produce the filmy “smoke” that gives
the mountains their name. Air pollution in recent years has added
microscopic sulfate particles to the haze, cutting visibility back about
60 percent since the 1950s. The pollution has also affected the park's
red spruce stand—the southern Appalachians' largest. And insects are
destroying the Fraser fir, the spruce's high-altitude companion.
park also preserves the humble churches, cabins, farmhouses, and barns
of the mountain people who began settling here in the late 1700s. Most
people left when the park was founded, but some chose to stay and live
out their lives here.
From Knoxville, Tenn. (about 25 miles away),
take I-40 to Tenn. 66, then US 441 to Gatlinburg entrance. From
Asheville, N.C. (about 40 miles away), take I-40 west to US 19, then US
441, to park's southern entrance near Cherokee, N.C. For a scenic,
low-speed approach, take the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway that connects
Virginia's Shenandoah National Park with Great Smoky. Airports:
Knoxville and Asheville.
Year-round. In summer and in fall (when spectacular
foliage draws huge crowds), time your visit to midweek, and arrive
early. Visitor centers open year-round.
How to Visit
On a one-day
visit, take the Newfound Gap Road to Clingmans Dome and get the best
overview of the park by seeing it from the highest point. The best
second-day activity is the Cades Cove loop road, a chance to drive or
cycle through pioneer history. For a longer stay, focus on the
self-guided nature trails and drives, which get you away from the crowds
and show you the flora and fauna.