Located in western North Carolina (near Cherokee) and shared with Tennessee, the Smoky Mountains get their name from the bluish haze that has always clung to them. (Sadly, the natural haze has been made thicker by man-made pollution—smog from far-off cities collects on the peaks.) The Appalachians, including this part of the chain, are thought to be among the oldest mountains on Earth, having formed 500 million years ago.
Located 260 mi/420 km southwest of Raleigh, the Smokies can be a great area to drive through: The scenery is both relaxing and striking at the same time. It's hard to relax when you're in the midst of a traffic jam, however, and that's often the case in the summer months and during the fall-color season: It's the most-visited national park in the U.S. If possible, visit in the spring or early fall when the crowds are a bit thinner. We also recommend avoiding the main entrances (Cherokee/Oconalufftee), where 75% of visitors congregate. Instead, try some of the less popular access points near Cataloochee or Big Creek.
Because the region receives a lot of rain, a great variety of trees and plants thrive in the Smokies (the water vapor emitted by all the greenery is the cause of the natural haze). In mid-April and early May, wildflowers bloom along the roadside, and pink and purple rhododendron blossoms decorate the area in June and July. But many think 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, elk, wild turkeys), 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. (Getting out on the trails will increase your chances of finding some solitude.) You'll need a backcountry permit for overnight camping, and they can be hard to come by for some areas in peak season. Reserve in advance, if possible (phone 865-436-1231). One of the park's biggest draws is the hike up Mount LeConte (one of your better chances of seeing a bear—but keep your distance if you do). There's a lodge near the summit for overnight accommodations. If you'd rather drive to a high summit, you can take the road to Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the park. An observation tower provides good views—if the peak isn't wrapped in fog.
Activities in the park include interpretive programs, picnicking, fishing and horseback riding. There are several campgrounds, though they get extremely full in the summer. Campsites can be reserved in advance for the Cades Cove, Elkmont and Smokemont Campgrounds. Phone 800-365-2267.
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