What to Do in the Smokies
The park has 384 miles of roads, most but not all paved. Even the unpaved roads in the park are suitable for two-wheel drive vehicles except in severe weather. Primary roads including Newfound Gap Road, Little River Road and the Cades Cove Loop Road are open year round, weather permitting. Some roads, including Clingmans Dome Road, Balsam Mountain Road, Heintooga Ridge Road, Parson Creek Road and Roaring Fork Road are routinely closed in winter, and any road may be closed temporarily due to ice and snow.
Note: Park officials have announced that the main access roads into Cades Cove and Cataloochee will be closed for several months in winter 2019-2010 for road construction projects. The main access road into Cataloochee, Cove Creek Road, is expected to be closed from November 1 through February 29 for roadwork while the N.C. Department of Transportation makes repairs just outside the park.
Laurel Creek Road, the 7-mile access road leading from the Townsend Wye to Cades Cove, will be closed to all motorists, cyclists and pedestrians from January 3 through February 29 to repair Bote Mountain Tunnel. Cades Cove Campground, which is normally open during the winter months, will be closed December 30, 2019, through March 5, 2020.
The main road through the park, and the only road that completely traverses the park from one side to the other, is the paved two-lane U.S. Highway 441, also known as Newfound Gap Road. It runs 33 miles from the eastern entrance at Cherokee to the western side near Gatlinburg. The speed limit on this road is 45 mph, lower in places. It passes a number of the park’s picnic sites and campgrounds, and it has numerous scenic overlooks. The road is closed at times during winter due to ice and snow.
Clingmans Dome Road is a 7-mile paved spur off Newfound Gap Road leading to the trailhead that takes you to the peak of Clingmans Dome. This road is closed to vehicles in winter, from December to March, although it is open to hikers and, when there’s snow, to cross country skiers.
Cove Creek Road to Cataloochee Valley The Cataloochee Valley is one of the most remarkable parts of the Smokies. Here you can see some of the approximately 140 elk reintroduced into the park and a number of late 19th and early 20th century structures that were here before the valley became part of the park. By car you can visit five historic buildings, including two homes, two churches and a school. Several other buildings require a hike. To get to Cataloochee from Asheville, take I-40 West, exit at North Carolina Exit # 20 and go 0.2 miles on N.C. Highway 276. Turn right onto Cove Creek Road and follow the signs 11 miles into the Cataloochee Valley. Most of this road is unpaved, narrow and curvy. It has some blind curves and steep drop offs with no guardrails. Drivers may need to stop or back up their vehicles to allow oncoming motorists to pass. It is definitely not suitable for large RVs or other oversized vehicles. From Asheville, plan for it to take about 75 minutes to get to Cataloochee.
Little River Road is an 18-mile paved road that runs along the Little River from Sugarlands visitor center to the entrance to Cades Cove. In itself it is not particularly scenic, but it passes several popular camping and picnic spots and connects two of the most scenic drives in the park, Newfound Gap Road and Cades Cove Loop Road.
Cades Cove Loop Road is an 11-mile paved, one-lane road that passes the historic houses, churches and schools in the 6,800-acre Cades Cove Valley near Townsend, Tenn. You almost always see deer along this route and often black bears and wild turkeys. From May to September the road is closed to vehicular traffic on Wednesday and Saturday mornings until 10 am, making it ideal for biking or walking. On weekends in the fall this road can be one long traffic jam. Stop near the entrance to the Loop and pick up a copy of the driving tour booklet ($1).
Heintooga Ridge/Balsam Mountain Road, accessible from the Blue Ridge Parkway at Milepost 458.2, is paved for the first 9 miles, then unpaved for the next 14 miles until it connects with Big Cove Road near Cherokee. This scenic road is closed in winter. The unpaved section is not suitable for big RVs.
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, on the Tennessee side near Gatlinburg, is a 6-mile, paved, one-way scenic road that passes a number of historic buildings.
Foothills Parkway is a 71-mile parkway in Tennessee that runs just outside the park on the northern and western edges. The long-awaited opening of the section of the Foothills Parkway between Walland and Wears Valley, Tenn., took place in November 2018. Visitors can now experience the entire 16-mile roadway for the first time since construction began in 1966, including the 1.65-mile section known as the 'Missing Link,' which is now connected by a series of nine bridges.
U.S. 129, known as "Tail of the Dragon" for its 318 curves in 11 miles and popular with motorcycle and sports car enthusiasts, connects with the end of the Foothills Parkway at Chilhowee, Tenn. The speed limit on the Dragon is 30 mph.
Visitors to the park have a choice of 11 developed picnic grounds, ranging in size from 10 to 182 picnic tables. Two of the picnic areas, Collins Creek and Chimneys, are easily accessible from the main road through the park, Newfound Gap Road. Four of them – at Cades Cove, Metcalf Bottoms and Greenbrier in Tennessee and Deep Creek in North Carolina – are open year-round; the rest are closed from late fall to early spring. When open the hours are usually daybreak to sundown.
Our favorite picnic grounds are Heintooga off the Blue Ridge Parkway, located at over a mile high and set in evergreen forest (sadly, may be closed due to government cutbacks); Deep Creek, on a stream near Bryson City where you can go tubing; and Chimneys, a shady (and very popular) picnic area beside the Pigeon River off Newfound Gap Road on the Tennessee side.
However, you’re not limited to picnicking only at designated picnic areas. You can spread out your food and enjoy a gourmet lunch most anywhere you find a pleasant site. Do keep in mind that bears are attracted to the smell of food, so don’t leave your coolers and picnic baskets out, and clean up the picnic site completely after your meal. Feeding bears is illegal and eventually can cause the death of the bear, as well as the potential injury and legal prosecution of humans.
Except for a convenience store at Cades Cove campground, there’s no place to buy picnic supplies in the park. However, there are supermarkets near the park entrances. In North Carolina, Ingles is the dominant supermarket chain, with stores in Asheville, Bryson City, Waynesville, Sylva and Robbinsville, among other places. Bi-Lo, another Southeastern chain, has a location in Waynesville and several in Asheville and elsewhere. There are several independent grocery stores around Cherokee, and Food Lion, a regional supermarket, has a location in Whittier near Cherokee. In Asheville, besides many regular chain groceries including Ingles, Publix, Trader Joes, Harris-Teeter, Food Lion, Whole Foods and Bi-Lo, there also are many tailgate markets and the largest farmers' market in North Carolina.
There are no restaurants in the park, except for a snack bar at Cades Cove campground and a restaurant at the remote Le Conte Lodge. Le Conte Lodge on the Tennessee side offers lunch for day visitors. Overnight guests can get breakfast and dinner at the lodge. However, access to Le Conte is by foot only, and it’s a 11- to 16-mile round trip hike.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has more than 800 miles of hiking trails and around 150 different official trails, ranging from short, paved trails and nature walks accessible to just about everyone to hikes of 20 miles or longer, requiring a high level of fitness and multi-night stays.
Around 71 miles of the 2,179-mile Appalachian Trail are in the park, and North Carolina’s Mountains-to-Sea Trail (only partially completed) begins at Clingmans Dome and travels about 1,000 miles to Jockey’s Ridge on the Outer Banks.
Hiking Safety Tips
Because of elevation gain and the fact that trails may be rough in places, don’t expect to set any speed records. Figure that even if you’re fit you’ll cover only about a mile and a half per hour. Never hike alone. Pace yourself. Recognize your limitations. Use a hiking stick and wear shoes or boots with good ankle support. Take plenty of water, especially when hiking in summer. Water from streams in the Smokies may contain giardia, a parasite that can cause intestinal infection – treat water by boiling at least two minutes or with a 1-micron filter. Take a paper map with you. GPS units can be helpful in the backcountry, but the Park Service warns that navigation systems sometimes provide inaccurate information about the Smokies.
Be aware of possible severe changes in weather that may occur suddenly. Depending on elevation, the Smokies can be hot and humid in summer and bitterly cold and snowy in winter (and in early spring and late fall), so dress in layers. Take a small flashlight and matches and, especially on longer hikes, a first-aid kit. Pack as lightly as possible. Be aware that you may encounter potentially dangerous wildlife including bears, elk and snakes. On overnight hikes, register in advance. Advise friends and family of your hiking plans and your expected return time. When leaving your vehicle at a trailhead, avoid leaving notes or other information that suggest you will be gone for a long time, and don’t leave valuables in your vehicle. Remember, cell phones don’t work in most parts of the Smokies – if you get in trouble you can NOT depend on a cell phone to call 911.
Dogs or other pets are NOT allowed on trails in the Smokies, except for the Oconaluftee River Trail at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and the Gatlinburg Trail at Sugarlands. An exception is working service animals, which are allowed throughout the park. Pet dogs are allowed on trails in the Pisgah and Nantahala national forests.
Because there are so many hiking trails in the Smokies, and nearly every hiker has a favorite, we list just a representative sample of some of the best trails:
Alum Cave Trail is a 4.4-mile roundtrip hike (moderate) that begins at a parking lot on the Tennessee side of Newfound Gap Road about 9 miles from Sugarlands and ends at a large concave bluff. It’s called a cave, but it’s really not one. In the mid-1800s, Epsom Salts were mined here, as was saltpeter used to make gunpowder. Alum Cave is one of the routes to Le Conte Lodge.
Andrews Bald Trail is a moderate 3.5-mile roundtrip hike starting at the parking lot of Clingmans Dome. At the grassy meadow or bald, you’ll enjoy spectacular views of the mountains. It’s also a great area to see rhododendron and flame azalea in bloom in the late spring and early summer.
Deep Creek Loop is a moderate 4.6-mile roundtrip hike near Bryson City. You’ll see waterfalls and, in spring and early summer, a large variety of wildflowers including trilliums, Jack-in-the-pulpit, crest dwarf iris and flame azalea.
Gregory Ridge Trail is a strenuous 11.3-mile hike from Cades Cove with an elevation gain of more than 3,000 feet. Gregory Bald is world-famous for its flame azaleas, usually in bloom here in great variety, color and profusion in mid-June. The 10-acre grassy bald is one of only two balds maintained by the Park Service. From the bald are great views of Cades Cove and Fontana Lake.
Oconaluftee River Trail is an easy 3-mile mostly level walk beginning at the Oconaluftee Visitors Center near Cherokee. It passes the wonderful Mountain Farm Museum and then meanders along the Oconaluftee River. A bonus is that dogs and bicycles are permitted on this trail. About 40 species of wildflowers have been identified along this trail – how many can you spot?
Several excellent guides to hiking in the Smokies and nearby are available from park visitor centers or online from the Great Smoky Mountains Association store at www.shop.smokiesinformation.org. Among these are Day Hikes of the Smokies by Carson Brewer , which covers 34 of the best day hikes, and Hiking Trails of the Smokies, which covers all 150 official trails in the park. Also available are a series of booklets (most 50 cents to $2) on hiking in specific areas of the park. Be sure to buy or download from www.nps.gov/grsm a copy of the park’s trail map and get a copy of the booklet Day Hikes of the Smokies ($1) at visitor centers or from the GSMA online. A commercial website with a lot of information on hiking is www.hikinginthesmokys.com, covering 80 hiking trails in the park and an online store with books and maps.
Unfortunately, there is no regular public transportation to the national park from major cities in the area. On the Tennessee side, the city of Gatlinburg (865-436-4178 or 800-588-1817; www.gatlinburg.com) offers a bus trolley (www.gatlinburgtrolley.org) from Gatlinburg to Sugarlands Visitor Center, Laurel Falls parking area and Elkmont June-October for a fee of $2 round-trip. At times there has been seasonal shuttle and tour service to Cades Cove from Gatlinburg – check locally to see if it is in operation when you are there.
Cherokee Transit (828-554-6300 or 866-388-6071; www.cherokeetransit.com), operated by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians, offers bus service from in the town of Cherokee and the Qualla Boundary.
The Great Smokies park is a paradise for campers. Whether you’re a backcountry backpacker or prefer your camping in a deluxe RV, you’ll be happy in the park.
The park has 10 frontcountry developed campgrounds with a total of 946 tent and RV sites: Balsam Mountain, Big Creek, Cataloochee, Deep Creek and Smokemont on the North Carolina side, and Abrams Creek, Cades Cove, Cosby, Elkmont and Look Rock on the Tennessee side. In addition, there are five horse camps in the park. (See section on horseback riding below.)
Elkmont is the largest campground, with 220 sites, while Big Creek is the smallest, with just 12 sites. All campgrounds have tent sites, and all except Big Creek also have trailer and RV sites, though size limits vary. Tents must be pitched on the pad, if provided. Each RV or tent site is limited to a maximum of six occupants. Pets are allowed at developed campgrounds but must be leashed and are not permitted on trails. Alcohol in the campgrounds is okay if you’re 21 or over.
Fees at campgrounds range from $17.50 to $27 per night per site.
All campgrounds have restrooms with cold running water and flush toilets. Each individual campsite has a fire grate and picnic table. Cades Cove, Smokemont and Elkmont have firewood for sale, as do stores in towns outside the park. Due to the risk of importing tree diseases into the park, beginning March 1, 2015, only heat-treated firewood that is bundled and certified by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) or a state department of agriculture may be brought into the park. Certified heat-treated firewood is packaged and clearly marked with a state or federal seal. (See the park website for details.) You can collect firewood in the park only if it is on the ground and dead.
All food and equipment used to prepare and store food must be kept sealed in a vehicle. Balsam Mountain, Big Creek, Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Cosby, Deep Creek, Elkmont and Smokemont campgrounds have bear-proof storage lockers.
There are no showers or electrical or water hookups in the park, although there are 5 amp electric hookups at a few sites in Cades Cove, Elkmont and Smokemont for those with medical needs. RV dump stations with potable water are available at Cades Cove, Cosby, Deep Creek, Look Rock and Smokemont campgrounds, and at the Sugarlands visitor center. Quiet hours are in effect from 10 pm to 6 am, and generator use is prohibited from 8 pm to 8 am.
Campsites at Abrams Creek, Balsam Mountain, Big Creek, Cades Cove, Cataloochee, Cosby, Elkmont and Smokemont may be reserved online at www.recreation.gov or by phone at 877-444-6777. Advance reservations are required at Abrams Creek, Balsam Mountain, Big Creek and Cataloochee. Remaining park campgrounds are first-come, first-served. Signs at park visitor centers note the campgrounds with available space. Stays are limited to 14 consecutive days at a specific campground. After that, you can move to another campground in the park.
Cades Cove and Smokemont campgrounds are open year-round. The others are open spring through fall; dates vary.
For detailed information on frontcountry campgrounds, including site maps, visit www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/frontcountry-camping.htm.
In addition to campgrounds in the park, there are many commercial campgrounds in communities around the park, including Asheville, Bryson City, Cherokee, Gatlinburg, Townsend and Waynesville.
Hiking and camping in the backcountry is the best way to experience the true beauty of the park. The park has about 100 backcountry campsites, each with from four to 20 tent sites. Also in the park are 15 shelters, each with a capacity of around a dozen campers. Tent camping isn’t allowed at the shelters. All of these campsites and shelters are hike-in, and some require a hike of many miles. Some sites are available to those riding horses.
Camping is permitted ONLY at designated campsites and shelters. You can camp in the backcountry as long as you like, but maximum stay at any campsite is three nights, and one night at a specific shelter. Maximum group size is eight persons, except at a few sites where the maximum is 12. Open fires are prohibited except at designated areas, and you may use only wood that is dead and on the ground or USDA-approved heat-treated wood you have packed in. Food and backpack storage cable systems are at all backcountry sites.
Human feces must be put in a six-inch-deep hole and covered with soil. Do not urinate or defecate within 100 feet of a campsite, water source or trail. All garbage and items such as used tampons must be packed out.
Advance reservations and permits are required at all backcountry campsites and shelters. Get permits online at https://smokiespermits.nps.gov/.
A fee of $4 per person per night (up to a ceiling of $20 for seven days) applies. For more information on backcountry camping, visit www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/backcountry-camping.htm or call the Backcountry office at 865-436-1231.
Le Conte Lodge
(Mailing address: 250 Apple Valley Rd., Sevierville, TN 37862; 865-429-5704; www.lecontelodge.com, ; open late March to late November.) The only accommodations in the park (other than camping) are at Le Conte Lodge, a hike-in lodge at 6,360 feet on the Tennessee side. Le Conte, built in 1926, has seven rustic wood cabins, plus three multi-room lodges. Rooms have no running water or bathrooms. You do your business in shared privies with flush toilets, but there are no showers. Kerosene lamps provide the light. Hot water is available from a spigot near the dining room. Bring your own towel and washcloth. Bed sheets are provided.
The appeal here obviously is not luxury but the extraordinary setting and the views, although be advised that at this elevation clouds and fog some-times obscure the scenery. It can be chilly here, even in summer, and some snow in spring and fall is to be expected. You sleep under wool blankets, and the cabins have propane heaters. The temperature at the lodge has only twice reached 80 degrees F., in the summer heat wave of 2012. Five hiking trails lead to the lodge. They range in length from 5 to 8 miles one-way. The short-est but steepest trail is 5-mile Alum Cave, which a hiker in good condition can do in about four hours. Start early enough to reach the lodge by 6 pm, dinnertime.
Supplies for the lodge are brought up three times a week on the 6.5-mile Trillium Gap Trail by llama pack train. This trail, while longer than some, is considered the easiest hike, as it is less steep.
Rates in the cabins are $151.50 per night per person (children 4-12 $87.50), including a hearty breakfast and dinner, plus staff tips and 9.75% Tennessee tax. There is also a two-bedroom lodge, actually more like a dormitory, for up to 10 ($1,020 a night for 10 persons) and a three-bedroom lodge for up to 13 ($1,326 for 13 persons). Breakfast and dinner meals for those in the lodges is an extra $49.50 per person.
Meals are served family-style, and wine is available (for those 21 and over) for $12 per person per night. Vegetarian meals are offered, with advance notice. A sack lunch, available even if you are not staying at the lodge, costs $12. Breakfast and dinner are provided only for overnight guests.
Demand for accommodations here exceeds supply. Reservations for the following year open October 1, and by Christmas most of the rooms are booked. There is a wait list, and a lottery system applies for heavily request-ed dates.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park arguably is the best place in the East to see the greatest number and variety of wild creatures. Here are some of the wild animals you can see and the best places to see them:
American Black Bear (Ursus americanus): The black bear is the symbol of the Smokies. Many visitors feel slighted if they come to the park and don’t see one. With some 1,600 to 2,000 bears in the park, depending on who is doing the estimating, your chances are pretty good. Bears in the park weigh 250 to 600 pounds when fully mature. They can stand and walk on their hindquarters but usually walk on all fours. Fast runners and excellent tree climbers. If a bear wants to catch you, it can. However, serious incidents between humans and bears are rare. The only known fatal attack by a bear on a human in the park was in 2000 in the Elkmont area. Bears have a shaggy black coat and a long snout, with an excellent sense of smell. They are omnivorous with their diet including insects, nuts, berries, fruit, fish and small mammals. Contrary to popular belief, in the Smokies bears do not fully hibernate in winter, although they become less active and may sleep for long periods. Black bears in the wild normally live 8 to 12 years, though some live 20 years or longer. Probably the best place to see bears from your car is in Cades Cove, although they also frequent campgrounds in search of food; often, due to campers not taking care to protect their food, bears become a nuisance at campgrounds and may have to be relocated. It is illegal – and stupid – to feed bears. Bears also are often seen on the Roaring Fork Motor Trail.
Bear Safety Tips
Black bear attacks are humans are extremely rare, and only one death has ever been reported in the park from a bear attack. Still, bears are wild creatures and can be unpredictable. By the way, it is legal to have bear pepper spray in the park, but if you are smart you should never need to use it (and who knows if it really would work?!)
This is what the National Park Service says about co-existing with bears in the Smokies:
If you see a bear remain watchful. Do not approach it. If your presence causes the bear to change its behavior (stops feeding, changes its travel direction, watches you, etc.) you're too close. Being too close may promote aggressive behavior from the bear such as running toward you, making loud noises or swatting the ground. The bear is demanding more space. Don't run, but slowly back away, watching the bear. Try to increase the distance between you and the bear. The bear will probably do the same. If a bear persistently follows or approaches you, without vocalizing, or paw swatting, try changing your direction. If the bear continues to follow you, stand your ground. If the bear gets closer, talk loudly or shout at it. Act aggressively and try to intimidate the bear. Act together as a group if you have companions. Make yourselves look as large as possible (for example, move to higher ground). Throw non-food objects such as rocks at the bear. Use a deterrent such as a stout stick. Don't run and don't turn away from the bear. Don't leave food for the bear; this encourages further problems.
Most injuries from black bear attacks are minor and result from a bear attempting to get at people's food. If the bear's behavior indicates that it is after your food and you're physically attacked, separate yourself from the food and slowly back away. If the bear shows no interest in your food and you're physically attacked, fight back aggressively with any available object--the bear may consider you as prey! Help protect others, report all bear incidents to a park ranger immediately. Above all, keep your distance from bears!
Bats: The park has 11 species of bats, including the endangered Indiana bat (Myotis sodalist). Seven of the park’s bat species live in the park year-round, while the others migrate south. The bats you are most likely to see in the park are the big brown bat, eastern red bat and the eastern pipistrelle. Bats play a vital role in the park’s ecosystem by eating flying insects by the millions. Note that the white-nose syndrome in bats is now present in the park and is spreading. This fungus disease can be deadly to bats but is not known to have any impact on humans. However, bats with white-nose syndrome may act erratically, such as swooping down toward you. Erratic actions were noticed particularly in the winter of 2012-2013, when bats that normally hibernate came out of their caves. Do not touch or handle bats, as they can carry rabies. To help stem the spread of white-nose syndrome, which has killed millions of bats in the U.S., the Smokies closed all caves to the public in 2009. The U.S. Forest Service in 2012 closed caves and abandoned mines to the public in national forests in 13 Southeastern states for at least a year, including those in Pisgah and Nantahala national forests in Western North Carolina.
Bobcat (Lynx rufus): The bobcat is believed to be the only native wild cat remaining in the Smokies, although mountain lions, or “panthers” as mountain people call them, occasionally are reported. Bobcats are about twice the size of a housecat, have grayish-brown coats, black-tufted ears and a short tail with a spot of black at the tip. They prey primarily on rabbits, along with rodents, birds and squirrels. Solitary and territorial, they occasionally can be spotted at dawn or at twilight. You are most likely to see a bobcat on a backcountry trail rather than along a main road. Bobcats pose no threat to humans.
Coyote (Canis latrans): Coyotes have returned to the Southeast in large numbers and can be found in the park. Reddish-gray with a buff underside, coyotes resemble medium-sized dogs, but their yellow eyes, alert ears and bushy, black-tipped tails give are markers. They run in packs or as loners, roam either day or night and eat nearly anything – freshly killed rabbits, squirrels, birds and other meat, carrion, insects, fruits and vegetables. Coyotes have a varied vocal repertoire filled with barks and wails. If you’re in the backcountry at night their calls, which seem to come from all sides at once, can be chilling. They are more often heard than seen. You may occasionally spot them in open fields at Cades Cove or Cataloochee or on backcountry trails. On rare occasions (but not in the Smokies) coyotes have been known to attack humans.
Elk (Cervus canadensis): The last native elk in the Southern mountains was believed to have died more than 200 years ago. In 2001, in an experimental reintroduction program, the park imported more than 50 elk, and a number have since had calves. Today, there are some 150 elk in the park. At least 14 elk calves were born in the park in 2012. Males reach 700 pounds and at the shoulders stand as tall as a large SUV. Mature males have antlers up to 5 feet wide, which they use when competing with other males during rutting season. Their bugling mating call is common in autumn. The best place to see elk is in the open fields of the Cataloochee valley. It is illegal to get closer than 150 feet to elk. Mating males or females protecting calves have been known to charge humans.
Gray Fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus): Foxes are primarily nocturnal but sometimes can be seen foraging along roadsides or in fields, especially in Cades Cove, during the day. This small fox has grayish-brown fur, sports a white belly and facial markings and has a black stripe on its back and tail. It can climb trees and feeds on small mammals, insects, birds, eggs, nuts and berries. The red fox (Vulpes fulva) also is present in the park.
Northern Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix): This pit viper is, with the timber rattlesnake, one of only two venomous snakes in the park. Copperheads have a pale tan to pinkish tan ground color overlaid with a series of tan or light brown bands. They rarely grow to more than 3 feet in length. Visitors often confuse the northern water snake or other harmless snakes for a copperhead. You’re unlikely to actually see a true copperhead, although they are present throughout the park.
Salamander: The park is known as the “salamander capital of the world.” There are at least 30 species of salamanders in the park. In fact, salamanders outnumber all other vertebrates (that is, backboned animals) in the Smokies. You’ll find them in creeks, streams and wetlands all over the park. Mountain people refer to salamanders as “spring lizards,” although salamanders are not true lizards.
Synchronous Firefly (Photinus carolinus): The Great Smokies park is one of the few places in the world where you can see fireflies blinking in unison. For a few weeks, usually from late May to mid-June, these fireflies put on an amazing light show. Entire hillsides seem to blink in rhythm as if they were covered with Christmas tree lights. In this illuminated mating dance, the male fireflies blink 4 to 8 times in the air, then wait about 6 seconds for the females on the ground to return a double-blink response. Elkmont and Cades Cove are two good places to see them.
Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus homidus): This rattlesnake is variable in color, ranging from yellow and brown to nearly black, with W-shaped lateral markings across its back. The rattles at the end of the tail distinguish it, but individual snakes sometimes lose their rattles. In the park, these rattlesnakes typically reach about 3 feet in length but can be longer. While not commonly seen, they are present in most parts of the park.
White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus): There are at least 6,000 deer in the park. They live throughout the park but are most common in areas with open fields, especially Cataloochee and Cades Cove. Usually, does give birth to their fawns in June; it takes about two years for the young deer to fully mature. Bucks fight for mating rights in the late summer and mate in November, and November is the most likely month of the year for vehicle collisions with deer.
Wild European Boar (Sus scrofa): The wild boars were brought from Europe to a private game preserve in Western North Carolina over 100 years ago. Some of the hogs escaped, interbred with domestic hogs, and eventually, in the 1940s, made their way to the Smokies. Mature males can weigh several hundred pounds. At their peak, in the 1970s, wild hogs in the park numbered several thousand. After years of the Park Service removing them from the park, today only a few hundred boars remain. The wild boars (both female sows and males are called boars) travel in packs, called sounders, of 10 to 20 or more. Though rarely seen anymore in the park, wild boars can be dangerous to humans, especially if they are protecting young piglets.
In addition to the above, in the park are five species of squirrels (gray, red, fox and two types of flying squirrels), two species of skunks, Northern river otters, beavers, muskrats, long-tailed weasels, possums, raccoons, groundhogs and 16 species of rats and mice.
Around 250 species of birds have been identified in the park, but only about 60 are year-round residents. About 120 species breed and nest in the park.
Elevation determines what birds you are likely to see. At the highest elevations, in the spruce-fir forests, you’ll find birds that live in the boreal forests of Canada, such as the Blackburnian and Canada warblers, northern saw-whet owl and common raven. The higher-elevation hardwood forests have a mix of northern and southern birds, while the middle and lower elevations have mostly southern birds such as the Carolina chickadee, eastern screech owl, downy woodpecker and scarlet tanager. The few open fields in the park, such as in Cades Cove and Cataloochee, are home to wild turkeys, bobwhites, eastern bluebirds and barn swallows.
Among the most striking large birds in the park are these:
Common Raven (Corvus corax): The raven resembles a crow but has a bigger bill and wider wingspan. It is found mostly in the higher elevations of the Smokies. You can also recognize the raven by its deep, baritone croak, rather than the caw of a crow.
Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus): The largest owl in North America, the great horned owl can have a wing span of more than 4 feet. The owl's hearing is so acute, it generally locates its prey in the undergrowth by sound alone, hooting to panic mice and rabbits into betraying their position. This nocturnal predator can swivel its head 270 degrees, which gives it wider range of motion to detect prey without moving and giving away its position.
Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus): Males make a drumming sound, like an engine starting. If you happen to walk too close they will suddenly explode out of the leaves and fly away.
Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo): Wild turkeys are common in the park, especially in Cades Cove and Cataloochee. They travel in flocks of up to 60 and roost at night in trees. Smaller than their domesticated counterparts, which are bred for their breast meat, wild turkey males may reach 16 or 18 pounds, while females are somewhat smaller.
The Great Smokies has more flowering plants than any other U.S. national park. You can see wildflowers in bloom virtually year-round, from trillium and columbine in late winter and early spring to red cardinal flowers, orange butterfly weed and black-eyed Susans in summer to Joe-Pye weed, asters and mountain gentian in the fall. The best time to see wildflowers in the park is the spring, especially April and early May. From early to mid-June to mid-July, the hillsides and heath balds are on fire with the orange of flame azaleas, the white and pink of mountain laurel and the purple and white of rhododendron. Note: It is illegal to pick any wildflower, plant or tree in the park.
A nationally known five-day Wildflower Pilgrimage is held annually in late April. Around 200 different hikes, classes and events explore the park's unique fauna, wildflowers and natural ecology. Online registration usually begins in mid-February. Nearly 1,000 people attended the 2019 event. Most programs are conducted on the trails in the park, while indoor classes and events are held in Mills Conference Center and at the Sugarlands Visitor Center in Gatlinburg. Registration is $75 for one day and $100 for two to five days. Students are $30 for the entire event, and children under 12 are $5. For information or registration visit www.springwildflowerpilgrimage.org.
The Disappearing Trees of the Smokies
You’ll see many dead or dying trees in the Smokies. Here are some of them, and why they are dying.
American Chestnut (Castaneda dentata): Until the early 20th century, the American chestnut was the dominant tree in the Smokies and in much of the Eastern U.S. It represented up to one-third of all trees in the Smokies. Its mast provided plentiful food for animals, its insect-resistant wood was widely used for building and its tannic bark was used in tanning leather. Then, in the early 1900s, a fungus was accidentally brought in from Asia. It quickly spread throughout the entire range of the American chestnut. In Asia, this fungus and the local chestnuts had evolved to co-exist with each other, but in the U.S. the American chestnut had no defenses, and the fungus proved devastating. By the late 1940s, virtually every chestnut tree in the Smokies and elsewhere in America had been killed. Some four billion trees died. The virulent pathogen still remains in American forests. Sprouts from wild American chestnut roots still spring up, but when they reach 10 or 20 feet tall, they are killed back by the blight. The American Chestnut Foundation (www.acf.org), based in Asheville, began a breeding process that in 2005 produced the first potentially blight-resistant trees. Now assisted by some 6,000 members and volunteers in 16 state chapters, the organization is undertaking the planting of restoration chestnuts in the Eastern United States.
Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis): Also known as the Canadian hemlock, the stately eastern hemlock commonly stands 100 feet tall. It grows well in shade and likes moist areas near streams. It can live hundreds of years, with the oldest known specimen being over 500 years old. Sadly, most hemlocks in the Smokies and elsewhere in the region are now infested with the hemlock wooly adelgid, which first arrived in the U.S. in 1924 from Asia. Individual trees can be treated against this adelgid, but it is impractical to do so in large wild stands. In recent years, tens of thousands of hemlocks have died. An effort is under way to save the largest and tallest remaining eastern hemlocks in the Great Smokies.
Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri): Named after the 18th century Scottish botanist John Fraser, the Fraser fir is best known as a Christmas tree. In the Smokies, it lives only at the highest elevations, typically above 4,000 ft. It is usually mixed with red spruces. The Fraser firs in the Smokies and elsewhere in the mountains have been hit a double blow: First, acid rain killed many high-elevation trees. Second, a tiny alien from Asia, the balsam wooly adelgid, has killed up to 90% of the trees. The firs regenerate from seedlings, but in a few years the maturing trees also are struck by this destructive adelgid. At the higher elevations of the Smokies, you’ll see thousands of dead firs.
The Smokies have some of the best trout streams in the East. The National Park Service doesn’t stock trout streams. However, through natural reproduction many park waters are at capacity, with 2,000 to 4,000 trout per mile. Many of the more than 2,100 miles of streams in the park are loaded with rainbow, brown and brook trout. The “brookie” (Salvelinus fontinalis) or speckled trout or specks as locals call it, is the only native trout in the streams of the Smokies. It’s not a true trout but a char. Rainbow trout and brown trout, originally brought here from other areas, are more common. Among the best trout streams are Deep Creek, Big Creek, Palmer Creek, Noland Creek, Little Cataloochee and Hazel Creek on the North Carolina side, and Little River, Abrams Creek and Little Pigeon River on the Tennessee side. Often, the best fishing is in higher-elevation streams, in areas that are more difficult to reach. Lower-elevation streams that are easily accessible have greater fishing pressure. Nearly all streams are open to fishing year-round.
On the North Carolina side, persons 16 and over and on the Tennessee side persons 13 and over must have a state fishing license, either from North Carolina or Tennessee. For trout and other fishing in the Great Smokies, your best bet is to buy a North Carolina comprehensive inland fishing license with trout privilege.
You can order a North Carolina inland fishing license online from the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (888-248-6834, www.ncwildlife.org), or you can buy one from fishing shops or from wildlife agents. A 10-day nonresident inland fishing license good in the Smokies and elsewhere in North Carolina is $18, plus a public water trout privilege fee of $13. An annual nonresident inland fishing license is $36, plus a $13 trout privilege fee. Licenses for North Carolina residents cost $7 for a 10-day in-land fishing license, plus $13 for a trout fishing privilege license. An annual resident fishing license is $25 including the trout privilege. If you’re 65 or over and a North Carolina resident, you can get a real bargain – a lifetime comprehensive inland fishing license good for the lifetime of the license holder is available for a one-time fee of $15.
Tennessee fishing licenses are available from Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency offices, most county clerk offices, sporting goods stores, hardware stores, boat docks and online (https://www.tn.gov/twra/license-sales.html). A Tennessee nonresident fishing license including trout, good throughout the Smokies, is $40.50 for a three-day license, $60.50 for a 10-day license and $99 for an annual license. For Tennessee residents, a one-day all-species fishing license is $11.50 and $66 for an annual combined fishing (all types including trout) and hunting li-cense. Handicapped persons and senior citizens get reduced rates. Separate licenses are available for fishing in Gatlinburg-area waters only.
Daily possession limits in the park are five brook, rainbow or brown trout, smallmouth bass, or a combination of these, regardless of whether they are fresh, stored in an ice chest or otherwise preserved. The combined total must not exceed five fish. Twenty rock bass may be kept in addition to the above limit. Size limits: brook, rainbow, and brown trout, 7-inch minimum; smallmouth bass, 7-inch minimum; rockbass, no minimum. Fishing is allowed in the park from a half hour before official sunrise to a half hour after official sunset.
Fishing is permitted only by the use of a hand-held rod. Only artificial flies or lures with a single hook may be used. Use or possession of any form of fish bait (minnow, worm, corn, cheese, bread, etc.) or liquid scent is prohibited. Disturbing and moving rocks to form channels and rock dams is illegal.
To fish in the Cherokee Reservation (Qualla Boundary), those 12 and over need a separate permit, available at many shops on the reservation for $10 for one-day, $17 for a two-day, $27 for a three-day, $47 for a five-day, or an annual license for $250. The season on Cherokee waters is year-round for catch-and-release, and May through late March for other types of fishing. Daily limit in Cherokee water is 10 trout. Some streams in the reservation are for reservation residents only. Note that the Cherokee reservation waters are outside the Smokies, so only the Cherokee permit is needed, not a state license.
There are five historic districts in the Smokies: Cataloochee, Mountain Farm Museum at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center, Cades Cove, Roaring Fork and Elkmont. The park contains about 100 historical buildings and 200 old cemeteries. Cades Cove is the most popular historic site in the park, with the auto traffic to prove it, but our favorite is the remote and haunting Cataloochee.
Cades Cove Historic District: Cades Cove on the Tennessee side of the park near Townsend is the most visited part of the park (other than the main road through the park). An 11-mile, one-way loop road circles Cades Cove. You’ll pass a number of preserved old houses, barns, churches and a working gristmill. Among these are the John Oliver Cabin, the oldest building left in the cove, constructed around 1822-1823 by the cove's first permanent European settlers; the Primitive Baptist Church (1887); the Cades Cove Methodist Church, constructed in 1902; Cades Cove Missionary Baptist Church, (1915-16); the Elijah Oliver Place (1866) and nearby Meyers Barn; the John Cable Grist Mill (1868); the Becky Cable House (1879), adjacent to the Cable Mill; the Henry Whitehead Cabin, (1895-96); the Dan Lawson Place (1840s); the Tipton Place (1880s). The paneling on the house was a later addition. Along with the cabin, the homestead includes a carriage house, a smokehouse, a woodshed and a double-cantilever barn; and the Carter Shields Log Cabin (1880s). Although the loop is relatively short, allow at least two to three hours to tour Cades Cove, longer if you walk some of the area’s trails. Traffic is heavy during the tourist season in summer and fall and on weekends year-round. A visitor center (open daily) and restrooms near the Cable Mill are located about half way around the loop road.
Cataloochee Historic District: In this beautiful valley you’ll see old homesteads, a school, churches and barns that were here when the park opened in the early 1930s. These buildings have been preserved as they were in the early 20th century and thus most have a more “modern” look than the log cabins in some of the other historic districts. Among the structures in Cataloochee are the Hannah Cabin in Little Cataloochee, probably built in the 1850s; the Cook Cabin in Little Cataloochee, also built in the 1850s but dismantled in the 1970s after being vandalized and restored to its original site in 1999; the Palmer House in Big Cataloochee (1869) -- originally as a log cabin -- a framed addition and weatherboarding were added later, and the house now contains a small self-guided museum in what was once a room used as a post office; the Palmer Chapel in Big Cataloochee (1898); the Caldwell House in Big Cataloochee, built 1898-1903 by Hiram Caldwell, with a barn adjacent to the house that dates from 1923; the Steve Woody House in Big Cataloochee (1880) was originally built of logs, with paneling and extra rooms added later; and the Little Cataloochee Baptist Church (1889). Surrounded by 6000-foot peaks, the Cataloochee Valley was one of the largest settlements in what is now the Smokies. Some 1,200 people lived here before the coming of the park. In Cataloochee you also are likely to see elk, deer, wild turkeys and possibly black bears. There is a horse camp and popular developed campground here, along with many good areas to picnic.
Elkmont Historic District: Originally a small logging community, Elkmont, on the Tennessee side of the park, eventually became a summer cottage colony and hunting and fishing club, with its own clubhouse, the Appalachian Club, for wealthy families from Knoxville. There was a passenger and logging railroad from Gatlinburg to Elkmont. A 26-room hotel called Wonderland Club Hotel was built here, in 1911. In poor repair and partly burned in a fire, it finally ceased operation in 1992, and in 2006 it was dismantled by the National Park Service. All that remains now are a rock staircase and part of a fireplace.
With the coming of the national park in the 1930s, the Elkmont community became part of the park, although long-term leases were granted to owners. A 60-acre section of Elkmont was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974. As the leases expired in the late 20th century, a debate within the National Park Service developed as to what would be done with the more than 70 old cottages and other buildings in the historic district – raze them and let the area return to its natural state or restore them as part of the history of the park.
A compromise was reached whereby 17 cottages and the Appalachian Club would be restored and preserved, while the remainder of the buildings would be torn down. The newly restored Appalachian Clubhouse, near Elkmont campground, reopened in 2011. The 3,000 square feet building is avail-able April to mid-November for public rental for group meetings, weddings and family reunions. Several cottages, including the Spence Cabin on Little River, already have been restored, and renovation of others is underway. Restoration is expected to be completed by 2025, subject to funding availability.
Mountain Farm Museum Historic District: Located adjacent to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center at the entrance to the park near Cherokee, the Mountain Farm Museum is a mountain farmstead with nine historic buildings re-assembled and recreated from original buildings in the Smokies. It is the best example of a late 19th/early 20th century mountain farm in the region. Among the buildings are the John Davis Cabin, a chestnut log house that dates from around 1900, the Messer apple house with its rock base, two corncribs, springhouse, hog pen, sorghum mill and the Enloe Barn, a large barn with some 16,000 hand-split roof shingles that was originally built around 1880 just a few hundred yards from where it now stands. You can do a self-guided tour (tour booklet and map $1 at adjacent visitor center), and rangers are available to put on demonstrations and answer questions. The museum is at the start of the Oconaluftee Trail that follows the Oconaluftee River into Cherokee. Nearby is the 1886 Mingus Mill, a turbine-driven gristmill that was restored by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1937 and still operates today.
Roaring Fork Historic District: This historic district, only a short distance from Gatlinburg on the Tennessee side of the park, has several well-preserved log cabins, gristmills and other historic buildings. The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a 6-mile paved one-way scenic road that passes a number of the historic buildings. Among the notable old structures along the trail are Noah "Bud" Ogle Place, with a “saddlebag” cabin (two cabins joined in the middle by a fireplace, along with a barn and tub gristmill; the Jim Bales Place, with the original barn and corn crib dating from the 1860s; the Emphraim Bales Place, with a double or “dog trot” cabin from the early 1900s (a dog trot cabin is two cabins with a few feet of space between them but with the space covered by a roof, and with each of the cabins having a fireplace); the Alfred Reagan Place, with a tub gristmill and sawed-board cabin; and the Alex Cole Cabin that was moved here from the Sugarlands area.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the best places in the East for horseback riding. Park concessionaires at Smokemont near Cherokee on the North Carolina side and at Cades Cove and near Gatlinburg on the Tennessee side offer guided rides. Rides (around $30-$40 for a one-hour ride) are suitable for even inexperienced riders. There are weight limits, typically 225-250 pounds.
You can also bring your own horse. There are five horse camps in the Smokies, three on the North Carolina side and two in Tennessee. Fees are $23 to $27 per site. Advance reservations are required and can be made by calling 877-444-6777 or online at www.recreation.gov. About 550 miles of the park's hiking trails are open to horses.
Although officially frowned on by the National Park Service due to the possibility of accidents, tubing on some streams in the Smokies is popular. Just rent a tube and pop in the water and float down the stream. On the North Carolina side, the best tubing is at Deep Creek near Bryson City. You can rent a tube for around $6-$8 from one of several commercial outfitters near the Bryson City entrance to the park. Little River is the most popular tubing river on the west side of the Smokies. You can tube on the Little River within the park, but several outfitters outside the park in Townsend, Tennessee, rent tubes and life jackets and provide shuttle buses that drop you at an entry point from which you can float a mile or two downriver to the outfitter's store. Expect to pay around $15 per person, which includes a full day's tube and life jacket rental plus unlimited use of the shuttle.
All content copyright © Lan Sluder except selected photographs used by permission and brief quotations or other fair use text, which are owned by the copyright holder.
We have made every effort to confirm the accuracy of information on this website, and in the Amazing Asheville book and ebooks, but travel information is subject to frequent change, and no warranty is made, express or implied. Please notify us of any errors or omissions, and we will attempt to correct them as soon as possible. All opinions expressed are those of the author, Lan Sluder, unless otherwise noted.