The Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles Tennessee and North Carolina and is the most visited of all America’s national parks with 9 million visitors per year! And it certainly felt very busy when we arrived mid week slap bang in the middle of summer holidays in July. Don’t despair, even though it was busy we still managed to secure a place to set up our tent, spending the first night in the north west section of the park at Elkmont Campground and the second night at Deep Creek Campground in the south. There are ten developed campgrounds – some reservable and some first come-first served as well as plenty of backcountry camping. The many tourist towns surrounding the park also have accommodation options.
The park is a huge 187,000 acres, home to the densest black bear population and many diverse protected eco-systems interwined with numerous hiking trails, including a section of the famous Appalachian Trail. Four visitor centers throughout the park also have fantastic exhibits. There are also well preserved historic buildings, villages and several scenic lookouts. All this at no cost to the visitor! It’s a free national park for everyone to enjoy.
As it is the busiest park, be prepared for seeing a lot of American people from all walks of life and as well as a lot of strange behavior!
Here is what we did!
After driving for hours, just hanging out in this campground was cool. We also managed to score a campsite near the creek as a family had left a day early, so sitting amongst the forest listening to the creek for the afternoon it was. The campsites in the Smoky mountains don’t have showers either, so swimming in the freezing cold creek was refreshing!
The highest mountain in the park affords amazing views from the top of a winding man made steel structure. On a clear day you can see for hundreds of miles. This is a busy attraction and by mid morning the huge car parking area is full.
The walk is easy – granted it is about a kilometer or so on an upwards incline, but it is a wide concrete path, we did it in our thongs! Yet all along the trail people were struggling. Having to take breaks and breathers at the seats dotted along the walkway. Even small children who were carrying a lot more weight then they should were red faced and puffed. It was quite shocking to see.
The views from the car park over the mountains are also a big attraction and you can see why they are called the ‘smokies’. Cloud and fog shroud the mountains and from this height you are above the cloud cover. It’s truely a magical vista, seeped in Native American history and culture.
This is a one way driving loop where you can view many animals as well as historic buildings – homesteads and churches. For us it would have been more enjoyable if we had of seen some animals! We didn’t see any black bears unfortunately! Also it was just a huge traffic jam with people literally hanging out of their car windows as if on safari with binoculars holding up everyone else as they drove 10 kilometers an hour! Needless to say Tom who has Italian blood was on the horn and gesturing animatedly at these drivers as the rules are to use the pull outs to let people pass. We would recommend doing this in the early morning and late afternoon to beat the crowds and have more of a chance of spotting some furry natives.
We did some great hiking here to some waterfalls. The real attraction though is tubing. Hundreds and hundreds of children and an equal number of adults donned colourful tubes ($5 a day to hire) to float down the river all day long! Just gorgeous to watch the multicolored confetti of bodies marching the tubes over their heads to the top of the river and then bobbing along back down. There is only one section of river for tubing, so after a short walk we escaped the colour and noise to find solitude in nature. We ended up hiking the Deep Creek – Indian Creek loop (approx 4.4 miles).
Blue Ridge Parkway
The next day we drove towards Asheville, a cool little town in North Carolina, along the Blue Ridge Parkway. This ‘All American Road’ is spectacular and the longest scenic drive in America at 755km long! We just drove the few hours section from the smokies and along the Blue Ridge Mountain Chain, with numerous spots to pull over and marvel at the views over protected mountains and forests.