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107 Park Headquarters Rd, Gatlinburg, TN 37738, United States

GPS: 35.687396778821, -83.536336476079

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World-renowned for the beauty of the ancient Appalachian Mountains, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to an incredible biological diversity. Located straddling the states of North Carolina and Tennessee in the eastern part of the United States, it is one of the most visited protected natural areas in North America.

Founded in 1934 and covering an area of more than 2,100 km², this park aims to protect a highly dense primary forest as well as the bluish-coloured misty massif of the Great Smoky Mountains. This site belongs to the largest mountain range in the Appalachians, the Blue Ridge Mountains (they stretch for hundreds of kilometres from Georgia in the south to Pennsylvania in the north). The wild and mountainous part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the Appalachian Trail, a majestic 3,510-kilometre-long route for the adventurous. The trail is marked with shelters and campsites along the way and crosses a total of 14 states from Mount Springer (Georgia) to Mount Katahdin (Maine). The climb to Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains at 2025 metres, is also the highlight of the route.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has a plethora of plant and animal species. Its temperate and wetlands provide sanctuary for more than 1,800 different plant species, 1,500 black bears, 200 species of birds and the world’s largest variety of salamanders. The Great Smoky Mountains were the ancient home of the Cherokee Indian people before they were forcibly evicted in the first half of the 19th century at the instigation of the 7th President of the United States, Andrew Jackson (through the Indian Removal Act passed by Congress in 1830). The park has the particularity of possessing one of the most beautiful and authentic wooden huts once occupied by the American pioneers. Its virgin forests, which remain intact, predate the arrival of the first Europeans on American soil. They are revealed through a network of 1,300 km of hiking trails.

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  • One of the largest protected and forested areas in the eastern United States (95% of the park area is forested); the morning mist that floods the landscape
  • The exceptional variety of fauna (birds, mammals, fish, reptiles, amphibians…) and flora (deciduous, resinous trees, conifers, plants, flowers…)
  • About fifteen peaks over 1,500 metres in altitude (Clingmans Dome, Mount Le Conte, Mount Guyot, …); crystal-clear streams and rivers full of fish; the varied topography of the park with several types of relief (valleys, plains, hills, mountains…)
  • The view from Newfound Gap (accessible via US Highway 441 also known as Newfound Gap Road); the Appalachian Trail and Forney Ridge Trail connected to this road; the itinerary Cades Cove Loop Road (18 km loop); the drive on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (9 kilometres of forest and historic buildings), the Foothills Parkway (a 22.5-kilometre stretch of roadway dominated by high ridges), and the Rich Mountain Road (an 11-kilometre winding and uncrowded route)
  • The historic sites of Cades Cove (a valley once inhabited by many settlers), Cataloochee (a former Cherokee hunting area), Elkmont (an elitist resort in the early 20th century) and Oconaluftee (a former Cherokee village); the Roaring Fork natural site and the Clingmans Dome observation tower; the open-air Mountain Farm Museum (within walking distance of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center) and the active Mingus Mill (dating from 1886)
  • Waterfalls in their natural setting (Grotto Falls, Laurel Falls, Cataract Falls, Hen Wallow Falls, Rainbow Falls…)
  • Bivouac and picnic areas well distributed in the park; fly-fishing activity
  • Numerous opportunities for hiking, horseback riding and cycling (nearly 1,300 kilometres of walkable trails), including the challenging Chimney Tops Trail (6 kilometres round trip), Alum Cave Bluffs Trail (8 kilometres) and Brushy Mountain Trail (18 kilometres); the mythical Appalachian Trail and its profusion of wild flowers (110 kilometres of marked trails within the park)
  • Visitor Information Center exhibits (Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg in Tennessee and Oconaluftee Visitor Center close to Cherokee in North Carolina); the Cherokee Indian Reservation south of the park (Qualla Boundary); the Museum of the Cherokee Indian and Oconaluftee Indian Village (both located in Cherokee); the discovery of apple orchards and apple houses
  • It is isoprene (an organic compound released by trees into the atmosphere) that gives the park’s Blue Ridge Mountains their characteristic bluish hue.
  • In the 1920s, 80% of the park’s surface was under the control of landowners. The Great Smoky Mountains were under severe threat from logging of primary forests and the conversion of wetlands to monoculture agriculture. The creation of the park was achieved only through public support and generous private donations.
  • Scientists believe that less than 20% of the plants and animals living in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park have been recorded, out of an estimated 100,000 species. There are as many different trees as there are in the whole of Europe (130 natural species).
  • Every year between mid-May and mid-June, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the scene of a strange phenomenon. Under the effect of thousands of fireflies in the middle of a synchronized courtship parade during the breeding season, a bioluminescent ballet illuminates the park’s forest cover. This natural spectacle takes place in the Elkmont sector and an online lottery system is specially organized by the park authorities to select the lucky ones among the participants.
  • According to research, fire ants are spreading more and more in the mountains of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. These invasive species, resistant to cold and high altitudes, are native to South America. They pose a danger to native insects and the park’s forest ecosystem. Living in colonies, this aggressive insect bites all those who are likely to disturb it with the help of its congeners. Fire ants are even capable of attacking and killing small animals (birds or small mammals).
  • The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most densely populated protected natural area in the eastern United States for black bears. This wild animal can be 2 metres long and weigh over 250 kilograms as winter approaches (when it spends most of its time sleeping until spring). It can live for more than 15 years and its diet is mainly based on plant material (nuts and berries), although it also eats insects and animal remains. The bear is a formidable predator as it can swim very well, is agile at climbing trees and can reach the impressive speed of 50 kilometres per hour. In case you encounter a bear while walking in the forest, stay as calm as possible. Slowly walk in the opposite direction to increase your distance from the bear without losing sight of it. If it approaches you or shows signs of aggression, throw objects at it (but not food), shout to intimidate it and don’t play dead. The use of bear spray is a very effective tool to scare him away.
  • As a sign of its strong popularity, the Great Smoky Mountains continue to be the most visited national park in the United States for several years. This natural site attracts more than 12 million persons per year, more than Yellowstone and Yosemite combined. The second park to make the list, the Grand Canyon, attracts half as many visitors as the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
  • Avoid the winter period to visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park due to poor weather conditions (frequent snowstorms and ice storms). Some roads may also be closed at this time of year.
  • October is particularly popular with visitors as it offers a kaleidoscope of autumn colours enveloping the forests of the Great Smoky Mountains.
  • Unlike the national parks in the American West, entry to the Great Smoky Mountains is free. You can access it from the cities of Gatlinburg and Townsend (Tennessee) or Cherokee (North Carolina). Get as far away from the roads as possible to feel alone in the wilderness.
  • To increase your chances of seeing as many animals as possible, it is best to visit the park early in the morning. Horseback riding trips are regularly organised by Cades Cove Riding Stables, Sugarlands Riding Stables, Smoky Mountain Deer Farm and Exotic Petting Zoo and Five Oaks Riding Stables. Some of these riding stables are only open in the high season.
  • Near Gatlinburg, about 100 artisans have joined together in the Great Smoky Arts & Crafts Community to create ceramics, pottery, wood carvings, crafts, souvenirs and art galleries. It is the largest independent organization of artisans in the United States. Parking is free.
  • The Rocky Top Wine Trail route includes free visits to five wineries totalling over 75 different and locally produced wines. A passport will be delivered on your first stop and will give you access to the other wineries (a gift will be offered at the end of the third and then fifth and final stop of your journey on presentation of your stamped passport).
  • Allow about 6 months to complete the entire Appalachian Trail from south to north. Another, shorter route will take you to the park’s highest point (Clingmans Dome) through the Newfound Gap Road for over 50 kilometres.
  • The Blue Ridge Parkway provides access to the other protected natural area in the Blue Ridge Mountains in its northern part, the Shenandoah National Park (755 kilometres of road separates the two entities).
  • The National Park Service has created a special website to experience the Great Smoky Mountains from home. Videos, virtual tours and educational activities are available free of charge.

Where to eat

  • Crockett's Breakfast Camp
    (royal breakfast)
  • The Cork & Bean Bistro
    (healthy and balanced food)
  • Dancing Bear Lodge & Appalach...
    (tempting cuisine)

Where to go out

  • Tuckaleechee Caverns
    (huge fresh cave)
  • Sugarlands Distilling Company
    (spirits tasting)
  • Wheels Through Time Transport...
    (for motorbike enthusiasts)

Where to sleep

  • Balsam Mountain Campground
    (off the beaten track)
  • Tudor Inn Gatlinburg
    (cosy hostel)
  • Eight Gables Inn
    (stay in a quiet area)

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