|View from trail on way to Chimney Tops. Courtesy of Photoree.|
For many park visitors, the narrow Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail – winding through a dense verdant forest past historic pioneer buildings – is the park. Easy to reach from Gatlinburg, Tenn., on the park’s northcentral side, the one-lane loop offers a variety of outstanding sights, including log cabins, rushing creeks, and wildflowers. Without a doubt, though, the best sight is the national park’s highest waterfall: Rainbow Falls.
In large part because of the strenuous hike, most park visitors eschew Rainbow Falls for one that’s much easier to reach and is quite impressive in its own right: picturesque 80-foot Laurel Falls. It’s unquestionably the national park’s most visited waterfall.
Another of the park’s most scenic drives heads to Cades Cove, an isolated mountain valley that is a popular destination thanks to many well-preserved pioneer buildings. A campground, several historic buildings, and a number of trails heading into the surrounding mountains can be found there. Yet, while incredibly beautiful now, Cades Cove looked quite different to the pioneers who first settled it. That’s because the chestnut – one of the trees that those settlers depended upon – has since largely disappeared. Park visitors can walk through what once a grove of majestic chestnut trees on the Cades Cove Nature Trail.
Newfound Gap Road
The major highway crossing the national park is Newfound Gap Road, which is U.S. Hwy 441, runs nearly 32 miles from south of Gatlinburg to Oconoluftee, N.C. Several waysides allow visitors to hike short distances into the mountain valleys. Among the most impressive sights along the road, however, is the tops of those surrounding peaks. On one of those sights, Chimney Tops, you walk across a rare rock summit and be rewarded with some of the best views around.
The other fantastic mountain top along the Newfound Gap Road is Clingmans Dome, where you can enjoy views of up to a hundred miles atop one of the highest points east of the Mississippi River.
Between Chimney Tops and Clingmans Dome is another outstanding sight along Newfound Gap Road: a pair of cave-like formations with impressive vistas along the way. The 4.4-miles round trip Alum Cave Trail sports an elevation gain of 1120 feet but is well-worth the effort.
Creeks and historic sites
More than 2900 miles of streams and rivers rush down the mountains and across valley floors at the national parks. Because of the streams’ steep grades, they often cut down to erosion-resistant rock, resulting postcard-perfect ribbons of water over riffles. Many drop over ledges to form waterfalls. Among the best ways to enjoy these scenic streams is a combination of the Deep Creek/Indian Creek Falls Trails. Two small waterfalls and a series of small cascades sit in the lark’s south-central section near Bryson City, N.C.
There is no shortage of historic sites to see in the national park. Among the most popular are clusters of them near the Sugarlands Visitor Center southeast of Gatlinburg and those in Cades Cove. One of the less visited but equally impressive sites is the Mingus Historic Grist Mill in the park’s North Carolina section. A 4-miles round trip, the Mingus Creek Trail segment runs past both the historic grist mill and a pioneer cemetery.
Though elk were once a common sight in the southern Appalachian Mountains, over-hunting and habitat destruction doomed them. In fact, North Carolina has not had any native elk since the late 1700s – until reintroduction efforts began in the national park during the early 2000s. Visitors now can see a rare herd of elk on the Big Fork Ridge Trail.
The longest hiking-only footpath in the world – the Appalachian Trail – runs 2158 miles between Maine’s Mount Katahdin and Georgia’s Springer Mountain. In all, seventy miles of the trail heads through Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most of it is deep in the park’s interior. One very accessible section of the trail in the park can be found where it crosses the highest dam east of the Rockies on the way to a lookout tower. The Appalachian Trail’s Fontana Dam to Shuckstack Lookout Tower segment runs 8.2-miles round trip.
Learn about other great trails at this national park in Best Sights to See at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.