Great Smoky Mountains National Park is located in eastern Tennessee (near Gatlinburg and 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. (Sadly, 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: The scenery is both relaxing and striking. 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 to the park, where 75% of visitors congregate. Instead, try some of the less popular access points, though 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 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 late April and early May, wildflowers bloom along the roadside, and pink and purple rhododendrons decorate the area in June and July.
But 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. (Getting out on the trails will increase your chances of finding some solitude.) You'll need a backcountry permit for overnight hikes, and they can be hard to come by in peak season. Reserve in advance, if possible.
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). LeConte Lodge, near the summit, offers one of the park's only overnight accommodations besides camping.
If you'd rather drive to a lofty summit, you can take the road to Clingman's Dome, the highest point in the park and also the highest in Tennessee. 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. Some of the campsites can be reserved in advance.
Many towns near the park are perfect for a brief stint of antique or craft shopping. In Greeneville is the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site, which 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 who fought bears, Indians, politicians (he served three terms in Congress) and, finally, the Mexican Army at the Alamo. He didn't walk away from the last one.
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