Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the Tennessee-North Carolina border, offers accessible wilderness and wildlife viewing to travelers in the populous eastern part of the US. Because of this fact, it is one of the most visited national parks in the country. Park roads allow access to most of the major sights, but, to truly experience the wilderness, the visitor should sample the many trails. On the roads, similar to the situation encountered in Yellowstone, expect traffic delays when wildlife is spotted, especially bears.
The major areas of the park include Newfound Gap Road, which bisects the park from north to south. This route connects the Oconaluftee Visitor Center with the Sugarlands Visitor Center and travels through Newfound Gap, a major pass through the mountains. The road also allows access to Clingman’s Dome, the highest peak in the Smoky Mountains and the third highest east of the Mississippi. Cades Cove, a beautiful valley in the western part of the park, contains numerous historical buildings and is a fantastic wildlife-viewing area. The road through Cades Cove is a one-way 18 km (11-mile) loop, so traffic jams are common and can be a bit frustrating.
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 750 kilometer (469-mile) scenic highway which connects the Great Smoky Mountains National Park with Shenandoah National Park and makes for a great excursion from either. There are several Visitor Centers which provide information about the history of the road and the neighboring countryside. Because the road follows the ridge line of the mountains, numerous pullouts offer spectacular vistas of the valleys to the east and mountains to the west. Speed limits are strictly enforced and established to encourage leisurely travel, so this is not the route to take when in a hurry.
Another excursion in the Smoky Mountains area is to the Biltmore Estate, in Asheville, North Carolina. The sumptuous, ornate home was built for the grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt in the late 1800’s. It is a French-Renaissance style mansion with 250 rooms and is probably the most-visited venue of its type in the United States. The chateau is tastefully furnished with original furniture (note the intricate woodwork) and period pieces. The artwork on display, alone, is impressive.
The estate also includes 75 acres of gardens, designed by the architect of Central Park in New York City, Frederick Law Olmsted. There is even a winery on the grounds.
While in the vicinity, check out the charming and interesting city of Asheville, which has long been popular as a mountain resort area, and serves as an eastern gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Stroll the historic center, admiring the interesting architecture and perusing the many shops. Also nearby is Mount Mitchell, the highest US peak east of the Mississippi River.
1. Within Smoky Mountains National Park, take the Roaring Brook Motor Nature Trail for an interesting, educational tour. It’s a 10 km (6-mile) one-way trip.
2. The Laurel Falls Trail is a 4 km (2.5 mile) hike along a paved path to one of the Smoky Mountains many waterfalls and well worth the exertion.