Smoky Mountain Recommendations (NC side)
April 19, 2021 4:03 PM   Subscribe

Taking a trip to North Carolina near Smoky Mountain National Park + Nantahala National Forest in late May. Those going include a range of physical abilities, so I'm looking for recommendations for all skill-levels, and not necessarily only hiking.

The trip will be me and my partner (30s, in moderate shape), and our parents (60s/70s, more interested in easy trails and non-hiking options). We'll all be fully vaccinated, but would still like to avoid indoor crowds.

We'll all be driving there, so it's possible for people to do different activities (though ideas for a good spot to relax one day where people could either just rest, go on short hikes, etc. would be good). My preference is minimal driving to trailheads, so I'd rather stay more on the NC side of the park (a little into the TN side is fine though). A few questions:

1. Most rewarding trails for the least effort?

2. My partner has a moderate fear of heights- anything that resembles a ledge where one wrong move = death is not in the cards. Is Mt Le Conte possible? Charlies Bunion?

3. If anyone has been recently, which trail heads fill up early?

4. Any non-hiking suggestions?

posted by coffeecat to Travel & Transportation around Gatlinburg, TN (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I was just looking at this area and decided to stay in Gatlinburg because my mom is driving from TN to meet me. Cherokee NC looks like the other place to stay that would be good for parents while being close to trails. The park is huge so the expert trails are everywhere, but from looking at AllTrails it seems like most of the easier trails cluster around one of those 2 cities, and they have other touristy things like proper restaurants. I was looking at the accommodations in the park but they're very rustic.

I'm also curious what other people with more experience know!
posted by JZig at 4:56 PM on April 19, 2021

Response by poster: Oops, realizing putting in "Smoky Mountain National Park" in the location window automatically tagged this as Gatlinburg. But yeah, we're staying a bit outside Cherokee towards Nantahala National Forest.
posted by coffeecat at 5:10 PM on April 19, 2021

My family's from the TN side, so I'm not that familiar with the NC parts. Mingus Mill just north of Cherokee looks interesting, and I'd be curious to visit the cemeteries mentioned, especially the slave cemetery. I have ancestors and relatives buried in cemeteries in the TN side of the Park. I'll ponder and poke around to see what else occurs to me. Dr. indexy's family is from western NC, so I'll see if she has any suggestions.
posted by indexy at 5:28 PM on April 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

I've been to Bryson City twice ( last time for the Solar Eclipse. ) There's the Great Smokey Mountains Railroad if you like that. There's also the Road to Nowhere, which ends a little before a tunnel you can hike through.
posted by 922257033c4a0f3cecdbd819a46d626999d1af4a at 6:10 PM on April 19, 2021

I've been up there a bunch of times in the past, but not in the last decade or so. It's beautiful country.

Your parents might enjoy an excursion on the Great Smokey Mountains Railroad in Bryson City which is just a few miles from the Nantahalah Outdoor Center (one of their rides travels to the NOC and back). Glancing at their website, it looks like they are operational now, but you might want to call for more info. My kids and I have ridden with them several times and enjoyed it. Bryson CIty is a scenic little town.

If any of y'all are into casinos, there's one around there that is managed by the Cherokee Nation (never been personally, though).

You could also drive over to Asheville and visit the Biltmore mansion as a day trip, assuming its open now.

This page looks like a good resource for exploring attractions and things to do in the area.
posted by TwoToneRow at 6:38 PM on April 19, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I lived in this area on the NC side for many years. Head towards Bryson City and the Nantahala Gorge for a beautiful experience that's less touristy and commercial. You can drive up the Nantahala Gorge (it's about 8 miles) and see some great views along the river. Nantahala Outdoor Center is a great place to stop for a meal and enjoy the views over the river (you can sit outside). You can take a raft trip with them down the river, too. It's fun, pretty short (a few hours), and fine for folks of a range of ages as it's not a terribly challenging trip with a guide. You get some really great views along the river, too.

The Appalachian Trail goes right through NOC at the Nantahala River. It's pretty steep in both directions, but you can hike in either direction if you want to, I don't know, say you've hiked part of the trail? Your parents could hang at NOC while you take a short walk up and back down (I'd say head south on the AT from NOC).

A really nice walk/hike that might work for you all: Deep Creek outside of Bryson City (you drive through Bryson City and get back into the Park). The hiking there is a wide road along the creek. It's quite lovely. When it's warm out, lots of people will tube along the creek, but it doesn't take long to get past the tubers (if they're out). It's an easy walk with some elevation gain but nothing too stressful, and there's usually park in the general area.

The train trip that folks recommend above is ... okay. If someone is super into trains, then great. I don't think it's terribly exciting.

Cherokee's Museum of the Cherokee Indian is interesting (or was when I was last there years ago; maybe check recent reviews), but the town itself (like Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge) feel pretty touristy. I'd skip most of those towns and the casino (unless that's your think).

Dillsboro is a somewhat charming town if someone wants to stroll along some streets and poke their head into a store. Waynesville is a bit further away but has a similar walkable area with some shops.

I'd also recommend driving to Catalochee (take Hwy 74, not 19! 74 looks longer but 19 is super windy) to see the elk.

Asheville is a great city, but it's about an hour from where you'll be, so maybe not worth the drive.

The NC side of the Smokies is much quieter. I think it's better to stay on that side. Clingman's Dome will give you some views from a viewing station and a walk that's not too hard if you want to drive into the Park. But the road is narrow and winding, and be prepared for it to be slow because of other tourists.

Are you going Memorial Day weekend? That's the traditional start of the busy season there, just so you know.
posted by bluedaisy at 7:47 PM on April 19, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding Cataloochee Valley. If you're inclined to drive a bit further out in Nanthahala you might check out Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest (a Old Growth hardwood forest, which is very rare for this neck of the woods). The trails are very easy, gentle, and beautiful.

Also down Robbinsville way is Lake Santeetlah, which is one of my favorite lakes in the Southeast. It's full of weird little coves, some with waterfalls, and some stunning mountain views. You can rent boats in and around there (motored or otherwise) if you want something less hike and more water.

Note: Joyce Kilmer and Santeetlah are in Graham County, which is totally dry. So if you're the type to want a post-hike beer you'll need to cross the county line or BYO.
posted by thivaia at 8:01 PM on April 19, 2021 [2 favorites]

4. If you need a sit-down event and don't mind getting a bit muddy, go gem-mining in the Franklin, NC area. The drive from everywhere is beautiful, there are good lunch places, and a variety of mines where you can actually find native rubies and sapphires. We've been to many places and really like Rose Creek and Mason Mountain.
posted by banjonaut at 5:00 PM on April 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Another thing to consider is the Blue Ridge Parkway which ends near Cherokee and has some stunning views and a variety of hikes. The main page I linked to has lots of resources but here's another with different information.
posted by indexy at 6:44 PM on April 20, 2021

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