63 Parks Traveler started with a simple goal: visit every national park in the United States. Avid backpacker and public lands nerd Emily Pennington saved up, built a little van to travel and live in, and hit the road, practicing the best COVID-19 safety protocols along the way. Parks as we know them change quickly and she wanted to see them before it was too late. Great Smoky Mountains is his 52nd visit to the park.
Great Smoky Mountains looks like a western national park. At 522,427 acres, it’s one of the largest in the eastern United States, making it a haven for flora and fauna – over 20,000 different species have been identified within its boundaries. Yet despite its size, the park’s trails and roads can often feel crowded. in fact, the Smokies regularly breaks the most-visited record, with more than 14 million travelers from around the world overnighting last year, nearly three times the next park on the list. I went there at the end of October to soak up all the scenery I could, and to dodge the summer hordes I had heard so much about.
After driving under a canopy of yellow poplars and eastern hemlocks, swerving my van between endless Appalachian undulations for hours, I pulled into my campsite at Cades Cove and set off on foot. Known for its farmhouses dating back to the mid-1800s, this area is now a historic district with meticulously restored log cabins, barns and churches.
Very quickly, I was no longer alone. A parade of vehicles stopped to my left, spewing exhaust fumes into the dew-covered mountain forest. Exasperated tourists rolled down their windows and craned their necks to better see what was causing the heist. “You there! Did you see anything in front of you?” bellowed a man from a dusty black van. “No,” I replied. “It could just be bear jam. Sorry!”
I turned onto the first car-free gravel road I could find, desperate to be out of the hubbub. Within minutes, I was surrounded by the famous rolling hills of ancient Appalachia, horses strutting across fields of bright green grass. I walked around for two hours, paying homage to John Oliver Place, one of the oldest cabins in the park. In the fresh country air, I felt like I could finally breathe.
A rainstorm pelted my van with large droplets all evening, and when I awoke the Great Smoky Mountains had been covered in an ethereal web of clouds. I left early to hike part of the famous Appalachian Trail – 71 miles that runs straight through the park – and spun my wheels on the road to Newfound Gap, passing a herd of wild turkeys and the fuzzy rumps of two little black bears on the way.
The high trill of tinkling, falling ice from the Fraser firs serenaded me as I stomped my boots over the soggy forest floor. The clouds were so thick, I felt like I was walking through an apparition, and few souls were brave enough to face the cold and damp that morning. There was something purifying and timeless about jumping over tree roots on a lonely path shrouded in fog and electric green moss.
When I finally reached the turning point, four miles to Charlies Bunion, it didn’t matter that there wasn’t a single view to be had. The spirit of the Smokies was far more mysterious than checking out sights and scenic drives on a list. Perhaps it was best to summon her on a gray morning along a strange and unfamiliar path.
63 Parks Traveler Great Smoky Mountains Information
Cut: 522,427 acres
Location: Straddling the border between eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, between Knoxville and Asheville
Created in: 1926 (established by President Coolidge), 1940 (dedicated as an official park by President Franklin D. Roosevelt)
Best for: Fall Colors, Scenic Drives, Hiking, Backpacking, Bird Watching, Wildlife Viewing, Settler History, Fishing
When should we go: Temperatures in the park can vary greatly depending on your elevation. In the spring, when the weather is temperate (34 to 79 degrees), the park hosts an annual wildflower festival. Summer (58 to 88 degrees) brings humidity and crowds. In the fall (33 to 83 degrees), expect a show of fiery foliage. Winter (28 to 54 degrees) is the best season to do a day hike without the usual crowds. Note: Temperatures listed are for Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Where to stay: Based at Cades Cove Campground, I loved being able to walk or bike directly into the historic district from my site. The campground offers plenty of amenities, such as flush toilets, picnic tables, drinking water, and a camping store with bike rentals. Looking to lay down somewhere with a shower? The Black Fox Lodge in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee offers comfortable rooms, epic views, and a restaurant that could satisfy any hiker’s hunger.
Mini adventure: Take a scenic drive to Newfound Gap and hike to Clingmans Dome. Located on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, Newfound Gap offers one of the most typical views of the Smokies, stretching for dozens of miles above the forested hills. The trip to the top of the nearby 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome is one of the most accessible hikes in the park, and, just a mile long round trip, the panoramic views from the top of its observation tower are easily won.
Mega Adventure: Backpacked part of the Appalachian Trail. Be a hiker for a night or a week and enjoy the wooded calm of the Smokies when the myriad of day-trippers are gone. Choose to sleep in one of the 12 wooden shelters along the trail or pitch an old-fashioned tent. Popular sections include Davenport Gap to Max Patch Road, Big Creek Loop, and Deep Creek Loop.