More than 1,000 black bears make their home in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. // © 2016 Wildland Trekking
Feature image (above): Experts recommend hiking in the park as much as possible. // © 2016 iStock
Founded in 1934, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is composed of more than 500,000 acres of land stretched across Tennessee and North Carolina. Deciduous forests, incredible wildlife, waterfalls and hundreds of miles of hiking trails await within its bounds, making the park something of a wonderland for those looking to commune with nature. With all that it offers, it is little wonder that the site is the most-visited national park in the United States. About 10 million people make their way here every year — almost double the visitors counted at the Grand Canyon, the second-most visited national park.
While this behemoth of a destination can be tackled independently, there are plenty of experienced tour operators ready to help clients traverse the park’s highways and tucked-away trails. One such operator is Wildland Trekking. Established in 2005 by a trio of outdoor enthusiasts, Wildland offers itineraries that are hiking-centric and designed to give guests a real feel for the landscape.
Chris Hoge, who grew up 30 miles from the park, is the program director for Wildland’s Smoky Mountains programming. Last year alone, he led more than 20 backpacking trips there. He spoke with TravelAge West about how to best experience the land he’s been exploring since he was young.
The vast majority of park guests funnel into Cades Cove, an 11-mile, one-way loop road that meanders through large pastures great for wildlife watching. White-tailed deer, black bears and coyotes are among fauna that make their home here. Drivers will also spot historical buildings (including churches, barns and log houses) left over from European settlements dating as far back as 1818. Before that, the area was prime hunting grounds for the Cherokee people.
Another popular destination is Clingmans Dome, a mountain that stands 6,643 feet high and has an observation deck at its peak. It’s the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and those who make the half-mile walk to the top are rewarded with 360-degree views of the region — this makes it a very busy place.
Going Off the Beaten Path
As much as Hoge loves the above picks, he’s happy to point people toward the quieter nooks of the park, too. He recommends heading to Cataloochee Valley, which he says is a smaller version of Cades Cove with just roughly 10 percent of the traffic. Historic buildings from the 19th century are preserved here as well and are open for guests to peruse. In the fields, clients are likely to spy elk, as the animals were reintroduced to this area in 2001. There’s also the option of fishing (with the proper license) in Cataloochee Creek.
If clients are in the park during springtime, Hoge says not to miss Greenbrier, a scenic valley with numerous well-known wildflower walks. Take the Porters Creek Trail — the first mile or so is a dependable stretch for wildlife displays — or the Ramsey Cascades Trail. Rest up afterward in Greenbrier Picnic Area.
Where to Stay
Other than camping, there is one accommodation option in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. LeConte Lodge features less than a dozen rustic cabins that predate the opening of the park itself and rest atop Mount LeConte. The lodge is for the truly adventurous, as its accessible only via a 5-mile hike and offers no electricity or running water. Kerosene lanterns, propane heaters and a wash basin for a sponge bath are among amenities. Comforting meals are included in the overnight price and are served family-style in the communal lodge dining room.
While Hoge’s favorite way to explore the park is via backpacking, he says that noncampers love inn-based trips. If you’re doing this on your own, Townsend, Tenn., is good home base, located on what’s known as the “peaceful side of the Smokies.” In North Carolina, consider staying in Bryson City or Cherokee.
Wildland Trekking takes the guesswork out of this kind of travel with its three- and five-day inn-based tours. The trips are all-inclusive and get clients hiking around the major sights as well as in various corners of the park — and that’s the operator’s ultimate goal.
“There are about 900 miles of trails to hike,” Hoge said, “but I heard a sad statistic recently: that 90 to 95 percent of visitors don’t leave the pavement. We want people on the trails, where they can truly experience the park.”
When to Go
“Really, the park has four seasons,” Hoge said. “The most popular is spring, when the wildflowers bloom, and during fall, with the leaves changes color. If you like water sports, summer is great. If you want some solitude and bigger views, come in winter.”
Final Pro Tip
As is true with so many parks, being among the first to pass through the entrance gates of Great Smoky Mountains National Park has its rewards — namely, incredible peace and quiet.
“Start early,” Hoge said. “If you’re in the park at sunrise, you feel like you have the place to yourself — until about 10 a.m. when the hordes come in.”