Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Best trails for seeing Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s wonders

Mingus Mill. Photo courtesy of Great Smoky Mountains NPS.
Among the best ways to see Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s top sights is via a day hike. Just five short trails will allow you to enjoy each of the park’s highlights – the third highest point this side of the Mississippi, a historic water mill from the 1800s, the tallest concrete dam east of the Rockies, a rare herd of elk, and a scenic waterfalls.

Clingmans Dome
At 6625 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the national park and anywhere along the 2175-mile Appalachian Trail, as well as the third highest east of the Mississippi River. From its summit on a clear day, hikers can see for more than 100 miles across Tennessee to the north and North Carolina to the south and east. The Clingmans Dome Trail runs 1-mile round trip from the visitor center to the summit, which sports an observation tower on top.

Historic Mingus Mill
Before electricity, people depended upon water wheels to power grist mills. The Mingus Mill, built in 1886, still stands today and can be seen via the Mingus Creek Trail, which heads along its namesake in North Carolina. When done hiking, drive a half-mile south of the trailhead to the Mountain Farm Museum and explore a farmhouse, barn, applehouse, springhouse, and smokehouse also all built in the 19th century.

Fontana Dam
Built only a few decades later than the mill, Fontana Dam rises 480 feet high to impound the Little Tennessee River and ranks as the tallest concrete dam this side of the Rocky Mountains. The Appalachian Trail enters the park near the North Carolina dam. Leave your vehicle in the parking lots for the Fontana Village Resort Marina off of Fontana Dam Road (north of Fontana Road) and walk a segment of the AT north to the dam, for a 3.75-miles round trip.

Elk herd
At one time, elk were common in the southern Appalachian Mountains but were overhunted with the last one killed during the late 1700s. More than two centuries later, 26 elk were transplanted in the national park’s picturesque Cataloochee Valley; today, there are more than 140 in the herd. To see them, bring a binoculars and hike the Big Fork Ridge Trail 1.8 miles (3.6-miles round trip) to its summit, which rises 810 feet above a valley the herd often grazes.

Midnight Hole and Mouse Creek Falls
Among the park’s prettiest stretches of water is a half-mile run of Big Creek in North Carolina. Take the Big Creek Trail on a 4-mile round trip to where the stream spills between two large boulders to form the Midnight Hole, then a half-mile later come to where Mouse Creek empties into Big Creek via a 35-foot waterfalls.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.