Appalachian Beauty
April 22, 2009 5:18 AM   Subscribe

In a couple weeks, I am going to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to spend a few days. For those of you with experience there, please recommend the best features of the park.

In particular I am looking for what you would consider the best hiking trails, both for forest walks and scenic vistas. The NPS says there are more than 800 miles of trails. Obviously I can't do them all in a few days. I'm in pretty good shape, so elevation change is not an issue. Please share your best experiences in Great Smoky Mountains. Thank you.
posted by netbros to Travel & Transportation (15 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Tons of great hiking, with many options depending on your level/interest.

The Cades Cove loop is beautiful - even better on bike (available for rent). Some good 1-2 hours hikes off the loop.

Mt. LeConte is the best hike, there are a few routes - I think Alum Cave is the most popular. This would be more of an all-day hike.

Mt. Sterling is a great hike - I think 6 miles each way. Cool old fire tower at the top - you can climb part of it for a great view.

Other good views are Look Rock (Townsend, just outside the park) and Climgman's Dome (spectacular observation tower).

Other good shorter hikes are Laural Falls, Abrams Creek, and the Chimneys (a favorite).

Have fun! Can't go wrong in the Smokies.
posted by smelvis at 5:50 AM on April 22, 2009

Seconding Cades Cove... one of my most favorite places in the world. Go early in the morning or at dusk to see the most varieties of animals, and avoid traffic. I also love Clingman's Dome.
posted by kimdog at 6:15 AM on April 22, 2009

You didn't say where you're staying. I'm a big fan of the Big Creek campground and that end of the park in general. There are no RVs and its generally a more rustic and peaceful environment. There's a great network of trails off of the campground and even more in the surrounding area. It's a Long Drive from Cades Cove to Big Creek though.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:35 AM on April 22, 2009

I have been to Cades Cove at every time of day and in every season, more than once and it has never not been overrun with oggling tourists. If you go at off hours/days, the hikes off the driving loop are nice but I don't remember any especially breathtaking views and...I don't know what it's called, but when you're driving in to the Cades Cove ranger station/historical area, make a left instead of going straight, and you'll have trails and pretty views of the creek all to yourself.

White Rocks/Mt. Cammerer out of Cosby (not recommended as a campground- it's in sad condition these days, just go backcountry if you want to camp near there) has a nice view and there's a fire tower. It's a day hike. Seconding Mt. Sterling- it's my personal favorite hike/summit. If you're going for fire towers, head over to Shuckstack out of Fontana Dam (and see the dam, too!). The "Fontana Hilton," a supposedly famous AT shelter is right there. Shuckstack is another day hike.

Max Patch Gap has some fantastic views.

The Lakeshore Trail (partial misnomer) near Fontana is one of my favorite backpacking trips.

But really, like Smelvis said, you really can't go wrong in the smokies.
posted by thewestinggame at 7:11 AM on April 22, 2009

Cades Cove is one of the most breathtakingly interesting places that I have ever been to. Not only is almost every inch of it calendar beautiful, but it has a deeply interesting history. On my first trip, my wife and I parked our car and walked about 50m off-trail towards the sound of a small waterfall. Not only did we find a small series of cascading falls, but there was a quartz boulder the size of a smart car just lying there, timeless. It was the perfect place to sit and contemplate the infinite.
posted by mrmojoflying at 7:44 AM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Because your trip is taking place in the spring time it's a great opportunity to experience the different stages of flowering and types of vegetation at varying elevations.

I can't remember the names of the hikes I went on (15 yrs ago) but I highly recommend including longer (8-15 miles) hikes that take you through a lot of elevation changes- especially hikes with one or two ridge-hike sections.
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 7:48 AM on April 22, 2009

Also- try to hit as many old-growth forest stands as you can.
posted by hellboundforcheddar at 7:51 AM on April 22, 2009

The Washington Post recently ran an article about the park that you may find interesting, along with a discussion about it (and other topics).
posted by arco at 8:06 AM on April 22, 2009

Will you be there on a holiday weekend, like Memorial Day? If so, avoid Cades Cove and expect lots of clogged roads and slow-moving traffic. GSMNP is within a day's drive of something like half the population of the US, so it's a very popular tourist spot.

Will you be entering from the Tennessee or North Carolina side? The NC side is much quieter. Although Cherokee, NC is at the entrance of the NC side, it's nothing compared to the insanity that is Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge.

Will you be staying in town and taking day trips or actually back-packing?

(I lived for several years very close to the Park.)
posted by bluedaisy at 10:30 AM on April 22, 2009

Also, while the view from Clingman's Dove is lovely, it's not so much a hike as a parking lot with paved access to a lookout tower.

If you enter from the NC side, I recommend stopping by Nantahala Outdoor Center and talking to the staff at the retail shop, many of whom are avid hikers. AT thru-hikers come through there all the time as well.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:32 AM on April 22, 2009

Response by poster: Will you be there on a holiday weekend, like Memorial Day?

No. Will be there sometime between May 5-15, mid-week.

Will you be entering from the Tennessee or North Carolina side?

Entering from the NC side, but not averse to driving the full width. I have plenty of time.

Will you be staying in town and taking day trips or actually back-packing?

Haven't really decided for sure yet. Maybe some of both.
posted by netbros at 10:39 AM on April 22, 2009

If you time a trip to Cade's Cove well, it's certainly worth it. Maybe bring picnic meal.

I've done Mt. Leconte at least three times via the Alum trail. It's not tough to do, but factor the best part of the day. I've seen deer and black beers on that trail, so heads-up. Just short of the top is the Leconte Lodge. Bring some money for a well-deserved (if overpriced) candy bar. A Snickers bar won't ever taste as good. They also sell Tshirts at the Lodge, and change design yearly. Still got mine from a few hikes back.

Also have done Chimneys and Trail of Tears, but Leconte via Alum gets my vote.
posted by fijiwriter at 7:09 PM on April 22, 2009

I really liked the Alum trail up to Mt. Leconte. It's fun to get to the top and realize that there's this lodge that nobody can stay at unless they hike in. It's a nice antidote when you've been surrounded by the swarms of tourists who want to see nature by driving (see: Cades Cove).

If you do go to Cades Cove, there will be signs telling you to expect at least a 3 hour drive, and warning you to make sure you have enough gas. Believe them. When I went through, there was a momma bear and cub out in a field, and not only did the traffic come to a standstill, people parked their cars IN THE ROAD and abandoned them to swarm into the field and bother the poor bear. Even those of us who didn't feel like molesting the wildlife couldn't get past, because everyone had just ditched their cars in the roadway. My trip took closer to 4.5 hours.

That said, the park is super gorgeous, and I'm really glad I went. You might want to check out the section of the Appalachian Trail that goes through there, too, just to say you did. You can catch it near some pass that everyone likes to park at for the views (I forget the name), and I'm confident that the hiking on that trail is as splendiferous as pretty much anywhere else in the park.
posted by vytae at 10:42 AM on April 23, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks very much to everyone for the responses. I will update when I get back from the trip.
posted by netbros at 12:29 PM on May 2, 2009

Response by poster: Well, I very much enjoyed two days in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on May 6-7, although the first day was pretty rainy. Thanks to the recommendations I received here, I feel like I already knew the park when I got there.

On the first day, my brother and I drove from Hendersonville, NC on the Blue Ridge Parkway and entered the national park at the Oconaluftee center near Cherokee. First stop was Clingmans Dome. The clouds were above us and below us so there wasn't much vista viewing, but it made for an interesting sight. We continued on the Newfound Gap hwy to Gatlinburg just to see what it was about. Ten minutes was all it took to realize there was nothing there for us. Great place to have a commercial sign business though.

The rest of the day was spent dodging raindrops as we took a number of short walks through the woods along the Little River Road and the Laurel Creek Road. We arrived at Cades Cove mid-afternoon as the skies provided some partial clearing. Mid-week as it was, the dreaded traffic mess at Cades Cove never materialized, in fact we only encountered maybe a dozen other cars on the 11-mile loop road. Deer and wild turkeys everywhere. I've never seen that many turkeys in one place, and only in Canaan Valley, WV have I seen more deer.

We took an early evening hike on the Middle Prong Trail at the end of the Tremont Road, then headed for our lodging in Townsend, TN. I can highly recommend the Little River Bar-B-Que and the EconoLodge Parkside. Townsend was the antithesis of Gatlinburg, thank goodness.

Early rising on the 2nd day, we were on the Rich Mountain Loop Trail by 8AM. This is an 8.5 mile loop hike with a 1700' elevation change. Because of the previous day's rains (really all week), the trail was quite muddy and even washed out in spots, but the park service maintenance crews were already out repairing the runoff damage and digging channels to the creeks before the large Memorial Day crowds. Except for the one tumble I took doing a creek crossing, it was a delightful day. I got pretty wet in the creek, but just a few bruises... it hurt my pride more than anything else.

The sights, sounds, and smells along the trail were the reasons we were there. There is water everywhere in the park and you will nearly always hear it rushing down the mountains. The wild dogwood were in bloom as were a number of low-lying wildflowers. Still about a month too early for the rhododendron, but there sure was a lot of it for the June visitors to enjoy. We also happened upon a few turkeys in the woods. We completed the loop hike at about 3PM and returned the way we came the previous day. This time the skies were clear, so we were able to enjoy the mountain vistas as we crossed Newfound Gap.

If I may self-link, here are a few of the photos I took during the very pleasant visit to Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I will be back.
posted by netbros at 2:24 PM on May 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

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