Our first trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park was as a couple. The kids were spending time with their grandparents and we decided to spend a few days camping on our way home. We had the necessary items: a tent, sleeping bags and some basic cooking gear (we had planned to use the campsite as our base, but this time eat out for the most part). On the way there, our van got a flat tire, so we had to stop to replace it. We stopped at a warehouse store and while waiting, we of course decided to shop. One of our purchases was a screened tent with a set of four chairs and a table, all of which conveniently folded into about a 4 x 2 x 1-foot case. This tent quickly proved its worth and has served us well over the years, both in our yard and at multiple campsites.
We arrived at Great Smoky Mountain National Park and checked in at the ranger station. We knew nothing about the campsites, but were told there was plenty of space at the first-come sites, so we could just go pick one out. We generally prefer the more natural sites, and we ended up at Balsam Mountain Campground, which at a mile high, is the tallest campground in the park.
This was a good choice, except for the fact that it was a 45-minute drive down the mountain on twisty roads, so eating out would prove to be inconvenient. (A side note: If you are prone to motion sickness, the ride up to Balsam may cause you some discomfort.) Luckily we had picked up snacks while waiting for the tire, so we managed to put together a dinner of cheese, gourmet jarred vegetables and fruit. The next morning we had our coffee and headed out to explore and get more supplies.
The drive through Pigeon Forge, TN was interesting. The road out to Dollywood is colorful and busy, to put it mildly. Though I recognize that it sometimes has its appeal, touristy kitsch was not what we were looking for on this trip. There was not much of interest to us on the western side of the park, so we then headed east, out to Cherokee, NC and got groceries and stopped at a couple Native American shops to pick up gifts for the kids and the friends who were watching our dog.
When we returned, we were very happy to have purchased the screened tent as it had obviously rained while we were gone. (During the summer months, it rains somewhere in the park pretty much every day.) In the park, we did some hiking and visited Clingman’s Dome, the tallest point in the park, where you can get a 360 degree view of the Smokies. After our climb up the observation tower, we took a short walk on the Appalachian Trail. At this point, the trail straddles the North Carolina and Tennessee borders, so it is possible to walk through two states at once.
Several years later, we made a return trip, this time with the children and the dog. My husband was traveling for work and had arranged to fly into Knoxville, where we picked him up after setting up camp.
We again stayed at Balsam Mountain, and on the second day (when the other residents moved out) we moved our tents to the same campsite we had used years before. (Our hiking was somewhat limited this trip as the park has limitations on where dogs are welcome. Only two trails are dog-friendly; this is the only stretch of the Appalachian Trail that dogs are not permitted.)
This time we spent a little time at Cades Cove, where Europeans settled sometime around 1820 and walking along the Oconaluftee River Trail from the grounds of the Mountain Farm Museum and Mingus Mill. Our neighbors at the campground told us about a great spot to watch the sunset, just a short hike down the road, so we grabbed flashlights and were not disappointed.
The park has several campgrounds as well as LeConte Lodge, which at 6,593 feet is the highest guest lodge in the eastern U.S. The lodge is at the top of the park’s third largest peak, Mount LeConte, and is accessible via a 5-8 mile hike (there are five trails). Advance reservations are necessary to stay at the lodge; those wanting to just spend a day need to watch the sun and conditions to ensure they have time for the return trip before dark.
With an elevation from 875 feet to 6,643 feet, the weather varies throughout the park with temperatures varying up to 10-20 degrees. The rainfall is from 55 to 85 inches per year. For those wanting hotel accommodations, there are many options outside of the park. There is no fee to enter the park, as the state of Tennessee prohibited such fees when transferring ownership to the federal government.
There are 150 official trails in the park and a number of waterfalls. As conditions often change, it is a good idea to check the website for closures before you go. Bicycles are permitted on all paved roads in the park and the 11-mile Cades Cove loop is closed two mornings a week until 10 for the exclusive use of bicycles and pedestrian traffic. Horseback riding and hayrides are available through concessions in the park. The Smokies Trip Planner (which can be downloaded from the NPS website) has more useful information.
This was first published as The Gorgeous Great Smoky Mountains