Great Smoky Mountains National Park is in eastern Tennessee (near Gatlinburg, 160 mi/260 km east of Nashville) and is shared with North Carolina.
The Smoky Mountains get their name from the bluish haze that has always clung to them, and they're thought to be among the oldest mountains on Earth, having formed 500 million years ago. (The natural haze has been made thicker by man-made pollution—smog from far-off cities collects on the peaks.)
The Smokies can be a great area to drive through, as the scenery is both relaxing and striking. However, traffic gets heavy in the summer months and during the fall-color season. In fact, this is the most visited national park in the U.S. Crowds are thinner in the spring or early fall. Visitors can avoid congestion by staying away from main entrances to the park, where 75% of visitors congregate, and instead using some of the less popular access points; however, some of them do not have paved roads. The Greenbrier Entrance, 6 mi/10 km east of Gatlinburg, is one.
Because the area receives a lot of rain, a variety of trees and plants thrive in the Smokies. (The vapor emitted by all the greenery is the cause of the natural haze.) In late April and early May, wildflowers bloom along the roadside, and pink and purple rhododendrons decorate the area in June and July. However, the park is at its prettiest in autumn (mid-October), when the fall foliage turns colors. The park is also full of animals (bears, deer, wild turkeys and even moose), waterfalls and several historical sites, including the remains of a frontier settlement at Cades Cove.
There are plenty of hiking opportunities in the park, from brief strolls to multiday backpacking excursions. Backcountry permits are required for overnight hikes, and they can be hard to come by in peak season. Reservations should be made in advance.
One of the park's biggest draws is the hike up Mount LeConte. LeConte Lodge, near the summit, offers one of the park's only overnight accommodations other than camping.
Those who would rather drive to a lofty summit can take the road to Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the park and in Tennessee. An observation tower provides good views if the peak isn't wrapped in fog.
Other activities in the park include interpretive programs, picnicking, fishing and horseback riding. There are several campgrounds, though they fill up in the summer. Some of the campsites can be reserved.
Many towns near the park are perfect for a brief stint of antiques or crafts shopping. The Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greeneville includes a museum and the restored home and tailor shop of the president who succeeded Lincoln. Up the road from Greeneville is the Davy Crockett Birthplace State Historic Area, preserved in memory of the Tennessee frontiersman and politician (he served three terms in Congress) who died fighting the Mexican Army at the Alamo.
The park is open daily 24 hours, and admission is free. Phone 865-436-1200. https://www.nps.gov/grsm.
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