You’ve probably noticed that a consistent theme in this column about the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is this: avoid the crowds; whatever it takes, avoid the crowds. You can do this by visiting the less-famous sites in the park or going during the off-season, but we all have those inevitable moments when we don’t have much choice in the matter. Our relatives from out of town have one day to burn on their summer vacation, and they’d like you to show them around the park. What to do?
Well, dear reader, that depends on you and your relatives. If they refuse to get out of the car and insist on visiting the most popular spots during the middle of the day in the middle of July, then, yes, you will have problems with the crowds. You’d be better off just lying to them. Tell them the park is closed for repairs. Tell them the admission charge is $1,000 per car. Whatever you have to do, do not – I repeat, do not! – drive through Sevierville and Pigeon Forge during the daylight hours on a summer day, unless you enjoy the taste of carbon monoxide. It’s a trafficatastrophe of Biblical proportions.
However, if they are willing to be flexible, then you can avoid the worst of the crowds. During the peak visitation months of June, July, August (plus most of October, the Christmas-New Year week, and weekends in May), you’ll encounter crowds, especially at the most popular sites. However, there are some ways to limit the madness.
If the typical visitor were going to spend just one day in the park, it would make sense that they’d want to visit the well-known sites. That’s understandable. If I went to Yellowstone, I’d be happy to wander around the backcountry, visiting the untouched wilderness, but I’d also want to see Old Faithful, simply to be able to hold up my end of the conversation. “You mean to tell me you went to Yellowstone and didn’t see Old Faithful? Are you sure you were in Yellowstone, in Wyoming? The national park?” I’d have no defense. If you go to Yellowstone, there are certain things you are expected to see. Ditto the Smokies.
So what is the typical visitor to the Smokies expected to see?
First of all, every visitor has to drive the main road (Newfound Gap Road) from Sugarlands Visitor Center (near Gatlinburg) south over the main ridge crest at Newfound Gap and down into the Cherokee Indian Reservation in North Carolina. The main points worth seeing on this road are Sugarlands Visitor Center, the Chimney Tops (a pair of rocky peaks), Newfound Gap (a large parking lot with good views), Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Farm Museum, Cherokee Indian Reservation, and the numerous roadside views and pullouts. Also, near the midpoint at Newfound Gap, there is a side road that wanders seven miles along the state line to Clingmans Dome, the highest mountain top in the park, with a concrete observation tower at the top.
The other main road in the park also starts at Sugarlands Visitor Center and heads west about twenty miles to Cades Cove. On this road, there are two main sights on the way to Cades Cove: Laurel Falls and Little River. Laurel Falls is a beautiful but crowded spot at the end of a 1.3 mile walk. It’s definitely worth the walk, but it’s almost impossible to find a parking spot on a typical day of the peak season. Like many popular hikes in the Smokies, you have to arrive before 9 am or after 4 pm.
Little River, the wonderful stream that parallels this road for much of its length, is popular with picnickers, tubers, and fishermen. Stop and enjoy this beautiful part of the park while you drive on this road. And, of course, this road’s destination is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Seriously. Cades Cove.
Most visitors see Cades Cove by driving the 11 mile, single-lane, one-way road past deer, turkeys, meadows, cabins, and an occasional bear. If I could do just one thing as a first-time visitor, this loop road would be it.
So that’s it – the three main roads and their best sights: Newfound Gap Road, Clingmans Dome Road, and the road to and in Cades Cove. These are the roads you must travel and the sights you must see. But how? When? Let’s come up with a plan. [To be continued; for information on some Smokies websites, visit www.greghoover.blogspot.com.]
Extra Website Info:
The official, government Smokies website is www.nps.gov/grsm. If you’ll look around here you’ll find a helpful Trip Planner. There are also several digital (pdf) maps you can download, mainly a Park Map and a Trails Map.
The Great Smoky Mountains Association is the educational and publishing arm of the park. It has two websites: www.SmokiesStore.org or www.SmokiesInformation.org.
Another related organization is Friends of the Smokies. Visit their website at http://www.friendsofthesmokies.org/.
Finally, there is a visitor center outside the park, very close to the #407 exit off I-40. From I-40 travel south on Hwy 66 (the highway leading to Sevierville, etc.) for 1.5 miles. The visitor center is on the right – a new building of red brick, white wood, and a green roof. It is mostly a store, selling books, maps, etc. It also has one “exhibit” – a nice 3 D map of the Smokies. The folks who work there are helpful and reasonably knowledgeable about the park. They can answer most questions that the typical visitors ask.