Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Historic Districts

Foggy morning at Cades Cove

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and maintains several historic districts, each with its own story to tell. Cades Cove — Visitors can explore the well-preserved homesteads at Cades Cove. A hotbed of abolitionist activity during the Civil War era, the area was later notorious for producing high-quality moonshine under Prohibition. The latter was vehemently opposed by local Baptists, who factor heavily in the region’s cultural history.

Elkmont Historic District, like many of the notable settlements in the Great Smokies, started out as an Appalachian pioneer community. However, it would find second life as a resort for Knoxville-area nature lovers that escaped to the mountains to hunt and fish. The Appalachian Club was the hub of the resort, which also contained a number of cottages and a hotel, the Wonderland. All of these were all bought up during the 1920s and 1930s as land was acquired to create the park. Although the Wonderland Hotel collapsed in 2005, the Appalachian Clubhouse and some cottages remain, and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Located in the Oconaluftee district, the Mountain Farm Museum is a collection of historic structures transplanted from around the region that is intended to recreate the feel of a typical Appalachian pioneer farm. Since the buildings have been removed from their original locations, they aren’t eligible to be on the register of historic places, but the park maintains them to the same degree.

Scenic Hiking Trails

Mount Le Conte, the third-highest mountain in the park, is a popular destination for hikers, many of whom trek the Alum Cave Trail to summit. An 11-mile round trip that departs from a trailhead on Newfound Gap Road, the trail gains about 500 feet in elevation and includes many scenic overlooks along the way. Chimney Tops, known for its double-humped peaks, is another favorite among visitors because it’s relatively short (only 4 miles round trip) yet offers a bit of a challenge, rising a sharp 900 feet in its last mile. It’s a good workout with a minimal time investment, and the views can be spectacular. Experienced hikers and backpackers will enjoy traversing the more than 70 miles of the Appalachian Trail that run through the park.

Fall color hikes are also popular in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The moderately strenuous 5.4-mile roundtrip loop to Rainbow Falls in the Roaring Fork district provides numerous photo opportunities. The park’s many waterfalls are must-visit sightseeing during any season.

Newfound Gap Rd near Clingman's Dome Rd - Great Smoky Mountains National Park (HDR)

Auto Touring

Hiking is an incredibly popular activity in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but many of its scenic vistas and lookouts can be reached by car as well. With 384 miles of road to explore, the park is incredibly accessible. Visitors can drive the one-way paved road to Roaring Fork, a district of pioneer cabins. Peak season is usually mid-summer and weekends in October, when the park explodes with brilliant fall colors. During these times, the park suggests exploring off-the-beaten-path areas to beat the crowds.

Aside from congestion, the popularity of auto touring in the park has had some negative effects on its environment; In 2004 a National Parks Conservation Association report stated that the park had 150 poor air quality days between 1999 and 2003. Although this averages out to only one day per month for the reporting period, it is the worst air quality record of all national parks. Impact on visitors include limited visibility from some of the park’s famous vistas, including the observation tower at Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the Great Smokies.